Friday, April 18, 2014

So you want to be a knitter...

Lately, I've been getting lots of requests from people who see all the fun I'm having with knitting (and knitting-related things), and want to know how to join in. So you've decided you want to learn to knit - how do you get started? I thought I'd put together a blog post, so I can point people to the same place and keep it updated. Here it is!

First Things First

Why do you want to learn how to knit?

This is an important question.

Like many learned skills, knitting can be easy, relaxing, and stress-relieving - once you know what you're doing. It is a wonderful creative outlet, which also has an air of practicality to it: I'm cold, and a store-bought wool sweater is quite expensive - if I knit it, it could be cheaper, will serve as hours of enjoyment, and produce wearable warmth with which I can clothe myself and my family.

Recent neuroscience research has studied how repetitive crafts like knitting can help individuals recover from trauma. It can reduce stress and improve recovery from eating disorders, improve cognitive function in elderly adults, and calm mothers of hospitalized children (summary here). It may produce a runner's high, and there's even a world record for running a marathon while knitting.

It can be as artful, practical, fast, slow, expensive, money-saving, public & communal, or private & reflective as you wish. However, like any learned skill, depending on your background and natural inclinations it may be more or less difficult to learn.

So, why do you want to learn? I won't go into my reasons; you need your own. Hold on to those reasons, and remember that this is supposed to be fun. Nobody's first knitted thing is perfect, so give it a go and see if you want to continue. If you try it and hate it, then don't fret. In the words of Elizabeth Zimmerman:

        "If you hate to knit, why, bless you, don't; follow your secret heart and take up something else." -- Knitting Without Tears

Learning styles are vital to understand here. I've arranged resources below by type. If you already know, for example, that you like learning from books, go straight to that section and skip the others. If you're not sure or you want a more balanced approach, give a bit in each section a try.

Knitting Books

"Knitting Without Tears", by Elizabeth Zimmerman
If you love a good line drawing (as I do), a hearty dose of sarcasm and wit, do not find old BBC shows dull, and have no patience for modern marketing, this is the book for you. This is very no-nonsense and has everything you need in it to get started. Originally published in 1973, it is no more out-of-date than Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." 

"Knitting for Dummies", by Pam Allen et al; latest edition updated in 2013
For a modern take on clear, no-nonsense instruction, the "For Dummies" series is a good place to start. Includes online resources. I used a previous version of this book that was quite good, and the authors on the latest edition are veritable giants in the industry today. 

"Stich 'n' B****", by Debbie Stoller. 
Published in 2004, this book launched a bit of a revitalization in knitting among young people. (Don't let current news articles sway you - the "knitting revolution" already happened.) It is quite rude and snarky and the use of profanity bothers me, but underneath all of that is actually a very good learning reference. It covers the basics of material & tool selection, hand positions, step-by-step stitch instructions, and works from a beginner's first scarf up to a knitted bikini and a hat with kitten ears or devil horns (your preference). 

Knitting Magazines

People tell me this is extremely odd, but I learned to crochet (which then lead to knitting) primarily through the instructional section at the back of craft magazines. Your nearest bookstore likely carries several of the titles below. Each will have a section at the back that goes through the basics of casting on and forming various stitches. For some, this may be enough instruction to get you started, and the patterns and articles in the main portion of the magazine are excellent for inspiration. 

KnitScene - my favorite of the bunch; fairly trendy. Great for beginners and seasoned knitters alike.

knit.wear - modern, minimalist knits designed to be worn today. I adore this magazine but it is probably geared towards more advanced knitters. Also one of the most expensive of the bunch.

Interweave Knits - classic & timeless patterns. 

Knit Simple - this is a great beginner's magazine.

Creative Knitting - also a good beginner's magazine.

Love of Knitting - feels out-dated to me usually, but check it out and see for yourself. 

You'll also see Vogue Knitting, but I can't recommend that publication. The patterns are usually fairly avant-garde, and (similar to their sewing pattern line) they publish very technically difficult patterns which can be hard to follow. 

Online Video Courses

Craftsy is a really neat platform. For each class, you get a "home-room" front page where you can track your progress. There are high-definition videos for each lesson, which you can reply and add notes to at any time. Video notes can be added at particular timestamps so you can bookmark pieces you want to review later. The homeroom also includes forums, where you and your class-mates can interact with the instructor directly. I've taken several Craftsy classes before and they were all fantastic. This one goes from basic how-to-knit all the way up to advanced stitch patterns and lace. 

Rather than a full class, here you can enroll in individual mini-lessons. Each individual class is $9.99, or you can buy a 'class pass' for a month of access to as many classes as you wish. NewStitchADay has a lot of free online resources as well, and hosts live "knit night" Google Hangouts. I have used a lot of their free materials, but have not purchased any classes. From the free materials I'd say the classes are likely of very high quality - if you try them, please let me know what you think!

Online Resources

There are tons of other resources to check out; so as to be not overwhelming I will highlight just a few things.

The Simple Collection by tincanknits
Tincanknits has put together an excellent (free!) compilation of tutorials, short videos, and highly annotated patterns that can walk you through a simple first pattern all the way up to a custom-fitted adult sweater. I made the Rye Socks from this collection (blogged here) and found it to be an excellently written pattern. Pattern PDF's contain links to instructional videos and tutorials related to the section at hand. I highly recommend this as a way to get started.

Begun in 2002, Knitty is a free online knitting magazine. They publish 4 seasonal issues each year, along with mini-issues here and there. Issues contain editorial articles and free patterns, ranging from beginner-friendly to highly advanced. They've also recently begun covering spinning. 

Begun in 2008, Twist Collective is a stunning online magazine that can be read for free. Patterns can be purchased individually. Issues are published quarterly and feature many excellent articles and inspiring photographs of beautiful knitwear. Patterns are usually advanced, but if you'd like to be inspired to further your craft definitely check it out. 

Local Yarn Shops (LYS)

Search Google maps for "Yarn shops near me" and you will likely find several in your area. These specialty shops are the place to go if you want hands-on instruction but don't know any local knitters (yet). Your LYS will offer regular classes and project nights, where fellow knitters gather to knit and socialize. 

These shops are an excellent resource for knitters, but as a new knitter I will offer two caveats:
  1. It is an unfortunate truth that small-shop owners may have poor attitudes towards new knitters, or anyone who asks for help. Popular media has tried to turn knitting into a fad, and seasoned knitters who "knit before it was cool" may look down on those trying to enter the craft for the first time. It's unwarranted and frankly, bad for business, so I don't know why this continues. Sadly, it does. Read online reviews, and engage the shop owner first thing when you walk in. Say hello, tell them you're new and would like to learn, and if they sneer at you try another LYS. 
  2. "Big-Box" chain stores such as Michaels, Jo-Anns, Hancock Fabrics, etc carry a very different selection of materials than an LYS. Items available at an LYS will be more expensive, which is assumed to be higher quality. This is not always the case, but you may encounter an attitude of "yarn snobbery" and be encouraged to spend more than you'd like. Understand that this is a very material-dependent craft. Working with poor materials can certainly degrade your experience as a learner, but that doesn't mean you have to learn to drive in a Rolls-Royce. Be firm about your budget. 
A quick note on materials
You will need two things to begin knitting: a pair of needles and a ball of yarn. 

Needles can be made of many materials, ranging from cheap to more expensive: metal, plastic, and bamboo are the most common. Go to a store and feel them in your hands. Needle material is a very personal preference and may change as you advance, but the key thing is that they feel comfortable when you pick them up. I suggest US size 6 or 8 needles for learning. If you have small hands, smaller-diameter needles may be more comfortable. 

The cheapest yarn is made of acrylic (basically, plastic). Big-Box stores carry a lot of these. It may be appealing to choose the cheapest material possible to learn, but (as you may have experienced in ready-to-wear clothing) synthetic materials behave very differently from natural ones. If you do not have a wool allergy, please begin your knitting journey with wool. Patons Classic Wool is available most everywhere, and is quite reasonably priced. Acrylic yarn does not stretch or breathe and can be uncomfortable to work with. Wool stretches and bounces back, making for a much better, more comfortable knitting experience. 


Last but certainly not least, is the social network for knitters, crocheters, spinners, and other fiber-crafters alike. They recently celebrated 4 million active users. You'll need to sign up for an account, but once you do so a whole world of wonder awaits. Ravelry hosts groups and forums, for connecting with other crafters; an extensive, searchable pattern database, cross-linking patterns with the knitters who have made them and the yarns they've used; searchable yarn database, including reviews and pattern recommendations; extensive documentation options for tracking your own work; and news. My username is AmandaLynA and I will happily connect with you if you'd like. When you join, a member of the Ravelry Welcome Squad will friend you right away and offer to help introduce you to the site. Check out their tutorials and explanations of what you can do on the site here

I hope this set of resources is helpful. If it is, I'd love to hear about it! If you have other resources to recommend please let me know and I can update this list. Best of luck to you as you begin your knitting journey!


Saturday, April 12, 2014

Cotton Candy Fractals

I mentioned on Instagram that I've been going through Felicia Lo's (of SweetGeorgia fame) "Spinning with Dyed Fibers" Craftsy class.

It's a wonderful class, and terribly inspiring. So inspiring, in fact, that I took out my new drop spindle and began a second spinning project.

Ages ago I produced this roving in a kitchen dyeing experiment. I split the 4oz fiber in 2 rough halves and braided them together in a 4-stranded braid. I then coiled the braid in a pie plate and started applying dye and squishing everything around. I was going for a sunset-y colorway, using Wilton's icing gels in Burgundy, Brown, Copper, and Golden Yellow. I tried to keep the red/pink concentrated towards the center, with the brown, orange, and yellow on the outside. Once it was fully saturated, I covered the pie plate with cling-wrap and microwaved it to set the color.

The end result looked a bit like a sick giraffe. I was not smitten.

1/2 of the braid; showing the patterns produced by dyeing while braided
It's been sitting in my fiber box for months, as I've been a bit apprehensive about how it would turn out. But it's been a long, grey winter and I was tired of spinning white fiber on my other spindle, so I broke this out and started spinning the first half. I split it vertically once, and did a fair amount of pre-drafting and spreading width-wise as the dying process had severely matted the fiber (my inexperience, not a fault of the method I used).

After beginning to spin, I was very pleasantly surprised!

It looks like cotton candy. No sick giraffes in sight. Phew! The mottled fiber doesn't look like it would produce very different stripes of yarn, but there is definitely a pronounced pink section and a peachy/mottly/brownish section.

After watching Felicia's class, I decided to try a fractal spin on this braid. We can think of the fiber itself as being dyed like this:

Splitting the fiber lengthwise and re-combining produces shorter striping sections. I started by splitting it in two, to make a 2-ply final yarn. Both of those two sections looked like the color repeat shown above. For the first ply, I further split it in half once more and spun one batch after the other, to produce the color repeat shown below:

To produce a fractal yarn, I split the second portion into 8 equal pieces, by splitting in half lengthwise 3 times (1 into 2 into 4 into 8). This repeat is shown in the top portion of the image below. Lining it up with the first ply in the bottom half of the image, we get this result:

The idea of fractal spinning is that these color combinations produce interesting effects in the plied result. As you can see, there will be portions where the pink and coral ply together, making a barber-pole effect, and other places where pink & pink will line up and coral & coral will line up. Felicia showed some stunning examples in her class. Her examples were on a much more pronounced color shift (from lime green to dark purple). This dye-job is more subtle, but my hope is that it knits up in a pleasing way where both colors are apparent but not competing with each other.

Here's the splitting process on the wool itself. First, I spread out the matted fiber down the length of the roving.

It looks a bit more like a batt rather than roving now. But that's OK; it means it will split quite nicely.

In half and in half and in half again...

After I finished the last split, I pre-drafted each section just a bit so that it was smooth, before rolling into tidy little balls for storage.

Wound up and ready to spin!

To spin these, I'll simply start with one ball and join another when I reach the end.

I'll be sure to show you guys the finished product once it's complete. For in-progress shots, you can follow me on Instagram.

Happy crafting!


P.S. - all of the photos for this post were taken with an iPhone camera, in my living room, at night, with various (yellow) artificial lighting. I am constantly amazed at how capable that little device is, even if the colors are a bit off. I promise to take real photos when the spinning is complete ;-)

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Introducing: Fyberspates Cumulus!

I have a treat to share with you today!

Fyberspates, a lovely hand-dye luxury yarn studio based in the UK, has a new yarn to announce, and I get to be part of the party. So excited!

It all started out a few months ago with a tweet...

Seriously, this is why I got a Twitter account in the first place. I happened to be online at just the right time, clicked through, found the Ravelry thread, and signed up in a jiffy. And what do you know, I was selected to be in the first batch of testers!

The Yarn

When my package arrived, I was shocked at how light it was. "Cumulus" is a perfect name for this new base - it really is as light as a cloud.

Ready for my close-up!

From Jeni:

Cumulus is made up of 74% Baby Suri Alpaca and 26% Silk blend that comes in 25g balls of 150 metres [164 yards]. This Light Fingering/ Heavy Lace weight yarn is a wonderful alternative to Mohair with its’ fine ethereal halo.

As you can see in the close-up above, Cumulus has a strong, solid silk core (which is un-dyed) that wraps around fluffy bits of loose alpaca fibers. This gives a very interesting textured appearance. With more rustic fibers, such a marl could could very casual and rustic; but with these luxury fibers the resulting yarn knits up into a shimmering, multi-dimensional work of art. As a newbie spinner I found this fascinating. Is this possible to do by hand? If you spin, please let me know! The yarn is indeed very strong - after knitting, ripping back, and yanking the yarn through beads that were a bit too tight, I was very impressed with Cumulus's strength and durability. It bounces right back after all of that and looks as good as new.

My goodness, this yarn is soft. It's absolutely delightful. I've been showing it to my friends and family as I've been knitting away and without fail everyone is stunned when they feel it. My teenage brother, who has unusually good taste in yarn for being a non-knitter (and a teenage boy, to boot), almost wouldn't give it back and said that if he had a whole sweater made in it, he would "probably die of comfortableness". He also requested that he be buried in it when the time comes. Melodramatic, but it was a hilarious scene trying to get it out of his hands.

Knitting with Cumulus

Now, I have to confess, I have not yet knitted with Kidsilk Haze or any of the other mohair/silk yarns, so I can't make comparisons to those. I do love alpacas and was quite excited to see their lovely fiber being used in the same way. Be aware that this is Baby Alpaca, so even if you've experienced "prickle factor" with other alpaca yarns, this may be an exception. I'd encourage you to try it out.

Knitting with Cumulus is a bit surreal. I've worked with other lace yarns before, but not with a haloed yarn like this. I could barely feel it passing through my fingers as I knit. This makes tension interesting - I knit continental, and found that I did not have to apply much pressure to keep it from flying away. The halo provided enough friction against my fingers that I didn't need to 'squeeze' the yarn to keep it taut enough to work with. Speedy, easy-on-the-hands knitting ensued.

This photo really shows off the impressive amount of halo. If you tease it just a bit, it will stay puffed up like this until you move it. My only caution for knitting with this kind of yarn is that tinking back (un-knitting) can be difficult. Since it is so grippy, I found it much easier to pull out the needles entirely and tug the yarn gently to unravel stitches as needed. They stayed perfectly formed and were ready to pick up again without any trouble.


Jeni quite generously sent 3 skeins, as well as coordinating beads to make Karie Westermann's Florence scarf, which has been reworked and re-launched to feature exactly 1 skein of Cumulus.

You can modify the length of the scarf to be longer (use more yarn) or wider (add extra repeats), so you can really customize the pattern to suit your preferences and amount of yarn. I knit it exactly as written, and only had a few yards left (shown above in the halo picture).

Florence's lace pattern is simple and easy-to-memorize, so it would be suitable for a beginner lace knitter. Despite the halo, Cumulus has excellent stitch definition, so it's easy to see where you are in the pattern and know what comes next. Directions are given in charted and written form. Beads are added as you knit, by threading a live stitch through a bead and then knitting it to secure. Knitters often use a small crochet hook for this, but I didn't have one small enough so I used a dental floss threader. Odd, but it worked just fine :-)

I've been teasing with closeups on Instagram, but now it's time for Florence to make her full debut.

Here she is!

Viewed backlit, you can see straight through the material. It's quite ethereal! I love the addition of beads - it grounds the airy fabric just enough to give it a bit of heft. It will stay on your neck, but it will still flutter in the breeze.

Cumulus takes blocking most excellently. Even several days later, after lugging around in my bag for photos, the points at the edges are perfectly crisp and the width hasn't changed at all.

Before and during blocking, via Instagram

Perfect points
Beethoven is lookin' stylish.

Since Beethoven has a bit of a large head, I thought you should see Florence on a real person as well, to get a sense of scale.

I love this outfit. However, it is not to be - the yarn arrived a day before my mother's birthday, and shamefully this daughter had neglected to consider a present. Terrible! But the yarn arrived, and I showed my mother, and she loved it. I showed her the pattern I was to make and it just so happens that this is exactly the kind of accessory she likes - beautiful, simple, elegant, and not overpowering. Happy Birthday, Mom!

For myself, I think the other two skeins are destined to multiply and become a lovely soft pullover, such as Tule. A couple folks have told me that the skeins look like Tribbles, and I *so* wish that were the case. I would not mind at all if they hid in a corner and multiplied on their own. There are two other gorgeous shades of grey in the Cumulus collection, so I'm debating purchasing more of this gray (Slate) or pairing it with one or both of the other grays (Water and Silver) to make a subtle stripe. Please weigh in in the comments if you have any suggestions!

If you'd like to make a Florence of your own, you can check out the pattern page here, as well as Karie's other designs.

Be sure to check out Cumulus, and all of Jeni's fabulous yarns, on the Fyberspates home page.

Raveled here.

Jeni, thanks again for the opportunity to test-drive your newest yarn. It is simply stunning and I will certainly be back for more!