Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Finished Mittens, and a New Hat

I finished the blue top-down mittens I've been working on for about a week. As usual, there are imponderables: why is the thumb on one mitten bigger than on the other mitten? Why did I forget to start the thumb hole until I was a couple of rows past the right point? Oh well. With mittens, fit is not crucial, and they "work" pretty much regardless.

I am still not entirely satisfied with the way the thumbs look, though. I think for my next top-down mitten I'm going to follow the directions for a change. Anna Zilboorg does not use the after-thought thumb or "thumb trick" thumb. She stops working on the mitten when she gets to the place where the thumb should be inserted; she goes and gets other dpns and makes a thumb from the top down; and finally, she grafts it onto the palm and then continues knitting the mitten. Maybe there's a reason for this. Maybe I should follow the directions.

I did follow the directions for the hat I made yesterday.  This is a pattern called "Who?" that I downloaded from the Ravelry site. I made the yarn for it while I was in TN in early fall: it is a wool/angora blend that I spun very fine and plied six strands of it together!  This is the first time I've ever plied more than three ends together. I had to make a homemade lazy kate with a shoebox and a coat hanger in order to hold six bobbins in place for the plying. But it worked fine. Plying six strands together makes for a very even yarn, as it averages out all the nubs and slubs. I was going for a worsted weight yarn, and I got one. This hat knit up very quickly as a consequence, on size 4.5 mm needles, at about 4 stitches per inch.

If you look closely, you can see owls. See them? I am going to sew some buttons on for eyes, so it will be more obvious that they are owls.

To make the owls, you make some traveling stitches by cabling across four stitches, four different times. I learned to cable without a cable needle last winter, and I had to review the Youtube video to do it again. This great video shows very clearly how to cable without a needle, and I recommend it. Using a cable needle for me slows things down and makes it so awkward that it's not any fun.

Here's a close-up of one of the owls:

I'm glad that I plied so many strands together to make this yarn. It looks almost "buyed," as my son used to say. More importantly, the cables show up because the yarn is smooth and uniform. The other times I have tried knit/purl or cable patterns with handspun,  you couldn't see the structure of the knitting very well because the yarn itself had so much texture. But here, all the plies smooth things out and make it possible to see the owls.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Mittens from the Top Down

I've been knitting this new series of mittens from the top down, based on the method outlined in Anna Zilboorg's book, Magnificent Mittens and Socks.  It's a little tricky at first to understand how the tip of the mitten is constructed, so I made a little video that shows the very beginning of the mitten. The first thing you do is you knit a tiny rectangle. This rectangle has four live stitches on two of its sides, attached to two of  your dpns. Once you've made it, then you use your other dpns to pick up three stitches on each of the other two sides. These three stitches grow to become the palm and back of the mitten.  (Next week I'll show how you cast on and knit the little starter rectangle.)

Here is the tip of the mitten with all the increases done.

You can see that as I increased the number of stitches on the palm and on the back, I started knitting the color pattern of the mitten from a chart in the book. It's a little fiddly, handling several colors in this little space, but it can be done, and it's great the way the pattern fits perfectly and symmetrically into the top of the mitten.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Mittens and Thumbs

I've been making mittens from an inspiring book called Magnificent Mittens and Socks by Anna Zilboorg. She makes really colorful mittens, a lot of which have long gauntlet-like, flared cuffs. The purpose of these cuffs is to make the mittens big and colorful enough that they won't get lost as easily, and also, in my view, to keep snow from going up the sleeves of your jacket when you plunge your hands into the powder to make a snowball to throw at your friend.

But the flared cuffs, although traditional in parts of Scandinavia, look pretty girlie to me, and I'm making mittens for guys right now. So I just make a regular ribbed cuff, or sometimes I just narrow the wrist area by switching to smaller needles.

Anna Zilboorg also uses what she calls "the invisible thumb." This is a thumb that sort of blends into the pattern of the palm. It's not exactly invisible, but it does merge nicely with the palm pattern, as you can see in my mitten below:

Anna Zilboorg's strategy for making this thumb is to stop knitting the mitten when you get to the point where you want to insert the thumb. You put the main mitten aside, and knit a thumb from the top down, and then you graft it onto the main mitten at the thumb place by knitting the back-of-the-thumb stitches together with some of the palm stitches.

But this is not how I do it. I do it the way I learned from Elizabeth Zimmerman: the thumb trick, as she calls it. Some call it the afterthought thumb. The truly "afterthought" way to  do the afterthought thumb (or afterthought pocket, or afterthought heel) is as follows:  you snip a few stitches in the middle of where you want to put the thumb, pocket, or heel; you carefully unravel the stitches for as wide a section as you need to insert the afterthought thing; you pick up stitches on either side of this gap; and then you start knitting the thumb or whatever. (Darn the ravelled ends in later.)

The great thing about this method is that you can knit "blanks," that is, tubes of some length which can then become a sock or a mitten or whatever is needed at the time. You don't have to know when you're knitting the tube whom it will be for; you can decide that later, and at that point you will know how much space to allow between the end of the hand or foot and the thumb or heel. I imagine that many knitters in the past just knitted blanks, kept them in a drawer, and when somebody needed a sock or mitten, they pulled out a blank, snipped a thread, and in a few minutes a new sock or mitten was had.

Since I know who I am knitting these mittens for, though, I knit the afterthought thumb with some forethought:  I insert a thread at the point where the thumb should go (the EZ thumb trick). When I come to that point, I knit the stitches off onto a different colored thread. Usually for a thumb this might be about two inches worth of stitches. Then I slip those stitches back onto the left needle and continue knitting around, as if nothing had happened.  Here's how it looks:

Later, when the hand of the mitten is finished, I pull out this contrasting thread (in this case the blue thread) and pick up the stitches above and below it. Then I knit the thumb from the bottom up.

Here you can see the thumb stitches on their needles ready to be knit up:

I usually start on these two needles and then add two more, as it's easier to knit circularly on three or four needles. I pick up a stitch in the two gaps at either end of the mitten opening, to avoid a hole there.

Another thing that's distinctive about Anna Zilboorg's mitten method is that she knits them from the top down. To do this, you use a figure-8 cast-on (scroll down).  I found this cast-on frustrating at first, but later I came to love it, and to see the advantage of knitting the mitten from the fingertips down, rather than beginning at the cuff. The advantage is that you can try on the mitten as you knit and make sure that it will fit. You can keep increasing at the tip until it's wide enough to fit the recipient's hand comfortably.

The other thing I like is that this cast-on allows you to have a seamless band that runs up the sides of the mitten, over the top, and down the other side, graphically separating the back of the mitten from the palm graphically. This band can be solid or striped. (You can see it on the green and red mitten at the top.) This is how stockings and socks are knitted in Eastern Europe: a similar band separates the sole from the instep and the front from the back of the sock. Anna Zilboorg has written extensively about socks from that part of the world, and presumably their design influenced her mitten designs.

AZ dyes her own yarn for her mittens, and I did the same. I had a big cone of sport weight yarn in white, and I dyed with my new stash of Greener Shades dyes, which are acid dyes with no heavy metals in them. I used a crock pot out on the porch, and it was very easy and satisfactory.