Lessons from 30 Years of Knitting Clothing

Reader Contribution by Jo Devries
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Sweater before changing waistband and before washing. Photos by Jo deVries

This months’ blog post is a follow-up to last November’s Knitting with Natural Fibres. Most autumns, I start planning at least one knitting project. Knitting makes my long winters in Ontario, Canada, pass more pleasurably. It also produces a warm garment that keeps me cozy and happy while knitting it.

I usually start by looking through my inventory, to see if anything catches my interest. My yarn collection was severely depleted three years ago when I went on a knitting spree. I tackled all my unfinished projects that had accumulated, and knit up of bunch of odds and ends for gifts. What a great feeling to complete that task! The result: three sweaters, a headband, two pairs of bed socks, and at least six sets of wrist warmers.

This time, I was looking for a yarn to make a fairly thick outdoor sweater for myself; something that would knit-up relatively quickly. Most of the yarns left in my stash were high quality, thin cottons — that take ages to knit-up. I prefer to use those types of yarns for baby and children’s sweaters. Cottons are comfortable, durable, and machine washable; great for kids. So, I decided to save those yarns for the future children of friends and relatives. After sorting through everything and not finding what I wanted, I went to my mom’s wool shop, “Wool-Tyme” in Ottawa, probably Canada’s largest yarn store. I was like a kid in a candy store. And my mom owned it all.

Finding the Right Yarn

The choice was overwhelming; good thing I had lots of time to look. Hundreds of yarns to choose from, and the colours — absolutely dreamy! Finally, I found something spectacular! It was a beautiful wool and silk blend; a superb mix of many jewel tones, and super comfy to squish in one’s hands. The raw silk squeaked like fresh cheese curds.

Unfortunately, there were only four 100-gram balls left (discontinued yarn), and I guessed I needed about seven or eight for a large sweater. I can only a wear a wool garment if it’s really loose fitting and not the least bit picky, so, I was planning on knitting a sweater with at least a 44-inch chest.

I decided to add four skeins of another yarn, and just use each of the yarns, on alternate rows. This would make the yarn I loved, go twice as far. The second yarn was a wool and acrylic blend. I shuddered a bit, at the 60% synthetic content (true yarn snob) but convinced myself that the acrylic would probably help the sweater keep its shape. If I found out that the sweater wasn’t comfortable enough to wear, my son Jordan would gladly inherit it.

I knew the yarns would be fantastic to knit with, even if I couldn’t wear the finished garment. This second yarn was also a bit thinner than the first yarn, so I decided to knit an extremely thin 100% wool along with it. It’s truly amazing that wool can be spun as thin as thread, and wrapped in those complex skeins without complete mayhem.

Knowing that at least two of these yarns would relax after washing — meaning they would lose much of their elasticity, stretch and change in texture — I decided to knit a 42-inch sweater.  After washing, I guessed it would stretch to about 46 inches at the chest. Perfect.

Knitting is a Labour of Love

The yarn I had picked was considered a chunky weight yarn which meant that it wouldn’t take forever to knit up. Most people have no idea how many hours it takes to knit a sweater. A thick (bulky), small adult sweater could take as few as 20 hours, while a thin knit garment in a large size, with a detailed pattern could easily take 125 hours. Then, there’s the extra hours…

The first step in knitting any garment is to make a tension swatch. This will determine whether or not your knitting produces the same result as the person who wrote the knitting pattern. I need to use at least one size smaller needle than what is required by the yarn manufacturer if I want to achieve the proper result.

I’ve been designing knitwear for 30 years, so I don’t usually follow a pattern, but I still have to make a tension swatch to determine how many stitches I’ll need, and what size of needle I’m going to use. Although the knitted tension piece needs only be a fairly small square, a complex pattern knit in a fine yarn could mean at least an extra hour of work. If one is not completely happy with the sample result, it means ripping-out one’s work and knitting another sample on a different size needle.

Sometimes, three or four samples are required before I’m satisfied with the fabric texture I’m looking for. That’s a lot of extra hours, but luckily, I love knitting. Once that’s done, I’m ready to work out the math required to design a garment, then I’m ready to start knitting my sweater. Or almost…

Tools to Make Your Knitting Project Easier

Many yarns are sold, wound in skeins. In the old movies and photographs, grandpa is sitting with both arms out in front of him, with a skein of wool wrapped around them. Grandma would wind the skeins into balls, to avoid a big tangled mess. The whole procedure could take an entire evening, just to rewind the wool required for one sweater. Sometimes grandpa bailed, and the back of a chair was used instead.

Today we have gadgets (of course we do) to make the job quicker and easier. Luckily, only two of the yarns I was using were in skeins. With the aid of a ball winder and a skein winder, I had all my yarns ready to go in about an hour.

Ball winder and wkein winder (sample yarn)

Knitting Needles

My knitting needle collection consists of circular needles and sets of sock needles (called sets of four, although some companies sell five in a pack). I’m very clumsy with straight needles, and I prefer to avoid sewing-up seams, so I usually knit in the round; which requires circulars and sets. Because I have arthritis in my fingers, I usually use bamboo, wooden or plastic needles. The steel ones are too cold to hold, for hours on end.

Straight pairs, circular, and sets of sock needles        

The Finished Product

Sometimes, I’ll design an item while knitting it (usually because I’m too lazy to spend the time on the math), but that means taking a big chance of messing up, and having to rip-out hours of work to re-work a section. Being Dutch (wooden shoes, wooden head, wouldn’t listen…), that is my usual course. Still, I love knitting.  Although I had to knit the yoke twice, and re-work the waist-band design a couple of times, the sweater was finished in about 60 hours. I wore it once. My son has been living in it ever since. This makes us both very happy.

Jo deVries(Jo of the Woods) designed and helped build her off-grid Ontario home, where she and her son have enjoyed a pioneer-type life-style without electricity. She is the author ofDoes Your House Know Where South Is?and generously shares what she has learned during her on-going journey of turning a piece of bush land in to a self-sufficient homestead. Connect withJo of the Woodsand read all of Jo’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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