Fast And Loose (or) How I Escaped The Inferno By Free-Skeining

Back in early March I decided to give Brooklyn Tweed Jared Flood's Bridgewater Shawl (from the pamphlet Classic Elite #9108, Made in Brooklyn) a go. The biggest obstacle to my committing to this project was the laceweight yarn -- not because I don't like it or don't like knitting it but because skeining that much fine yarn into a center-pull ball is the quickest way to what surely must have appeared in Dante's in early drafts of The Inferno as the tenth circle of hell.

Visions of a center-pull ball collapsing in upon itself over time and my gorgeous, vintage Jaggerspun Seafoam Zephyr 50/50 wool/silk (2/18) turning into a hopeless, #%*@&!-ish pile of knots, never to be saved from the tangled abyss, all but paralyzed me.

But desperate times call for desperate measures. I turned to free-skeining. Before you accuse me of having gone over the edge with this one, it's not a drug-induced state! It's this:

I'm more than 3/4 done with my Bridgewater, so that  gorgeous round of fiber draped over the arm of the chair doesn't look nearly as daunting as it used to. What you see is about 350 wraps of yarn wound on my 1-1/2 yard niddy noddy. Back when I started, the hank consisted of 921 wraps  (1,387 yards)!

To prepare the fiber, I segmented the skein into 9 sections of 100 wraps each and 1 section of 21 wraps. Ties were placed at each of the compass points, and then a larger tie bundled all the segments together at each of the compass points. Here's what it looks like with the few segments remaining:

That unbound bit at the top of the image is the segment I'm currently knitting from.

So how does it work in practice? I drape the ring over the arm of a chair or just put my arm through it and wear it draped over my elbow if there aren't any good arms on my seat. I untie the segment I'm currently knitting from, allowing the yarn to flow off the ring as I work. (Some people advocate wearing the yarn across the body like a pageant sash, but that just didn't do it for me.) If I'm knitting while mostly reclined -- like sitting up in bed or laying on the couch -- I'll bend my right leg and pop the ring over my knee.

I discovered an inexpensive little tool to keep it all straight: a pipe cleaner!

The pipe cleaner lets me easily see my beginning of ring area, wrap up the segments not currently in use, and partition off the segment in use for easy release.  Here it's wrapped for storage:

Here it's unwrapped for knitting:

The pipe cleaner is also a good anchor for winding the ring back into a neatly twisted hank at the end of the day. I just hold the pipe cleaner end in one hand, twist into a hank, and insert the other end back through the pipe cleaner end. (Sorry there's no picture of that, but I bet you can figure it out just fine.)

Free-skeining has worked brilliantly for me. Consider me your free-skeining pusher for projects when center-pull balls just won't cut it. I would totally do this again and can't think of anything I'd do to improve upon my system. If you're considering this technique, just know that the careful and methodical tie-up really is key to its success -- and to keeping you from panicking yourself into wearing a funky fiber pageant sash just to be doubly certain you avoid catastrophe.

In fast, after having worked on my free-skeining project this long, I've become so comfortable and casual about it all that on occasion I don't do due diligence in twisting my yarn back up at the end of the night and leave it looking like a spaghetti jumble on the side table!

I have absolute faith that all is well -- and I haven't been wrong yet.

The shawl is coming along nicely, too! I completed the garter square center and am halfway through the horseshoe lace. I'm gunning to finish in the next five days.


meredithp said...

Really a great idea! As usual, I would never have thought of the "multiple bundles" on the swift, but it makes perfect sense. If I ever graduate to something that would make a "cake" undesireable, I'll have this idea to use. Thanks!

cindy said...

I love the color you chose. I've finished the garter square and I've picked up the sts all around. Do you think it would be alright to knit around once before I start the lace to make sure the st count on each side is correct. Did you have trouble with the pick up?

Zhenya said...

Hi there, Cindy!

At first I was going to recommend that if you knit one round before starting the lace pattern, you would want to include increases at the corners to make sure the piece doesn't end up with a little pucker. It's fine for the lace section to ripple, but you don't want the garter section to be constrained so that it doesn't block flat!

On second thought, though, the problem with that is you will end up with more stitches per side than the lace pattern requires you to start with. When I picked up the stitches around the garter square, I went side by side and counted (and recounted... and recounted) until I was confident I had the correct number of stitches. Two of the sides gave me no problem at all. But those other two sides were a bear! I can't even explain why, but for some reason I could not get the stitch count right -- or even close enough to fudge it in the last few inches -- when I was just eyeballing the pick-ups as I went. Even though, theoretically, you're picking up one stitch for each row of garter, your eyes start to go batty looking at that sea of fine lace stitching. It can get fouled up more easily than anyone would like to admit!

Since you've already picked up all the stitches, I'd count the sides to see how you did. If you're only off by a handful of stitches on a side, you can adjust by staggering some increases within the first round of lace rather than by knitting a straight round first. (Or you could knit a straight round and stagger the increases within to get the correct number -- the fabric "should" be forgiving in the blocking.) But if you're off by a lot (like a percentage of 10 or more on a side), I'd personally be inclined to rip out the pick-ups and start over again... Hard as that is to think about, you'll only lose an evening or so of work and you'll be confident in the results.

For anyone who hasn't started picking up stitches yet, I recommend taking a few steps before starting to make the process go more smoothly and, at least, to give you a heads-up of a problem before you've gone too far: Get a handful of safety pins. Fold each side in half and put a pin at the half-way point. Then into quarters, with pins at the creases. Then into eights if you're really opposed to ripping much out. Once you've done this to all the sides, just divide the total number of stitches to be picked up per side by the number of segments you've created on each side. You'll have a much more manageable number to eyeball, you'll know exactly how you're doing at more regular intervals, you'll definitely have a balanced pick-up round even if you do end up fudging a little within a section or two, you won't be counting and recounting long expanses like a maniac, and you'll avoid the heartache of ripping out a sea of pick-ups.

Good luck with it!

And thanks for the compliment on the color I used. I'm so happy I went with this seafoam green rather than the light grey I had originally selected!