Friday, September 18, 2015

The Sweater from Hell

I've been calling it the Sweater from Hell because that's certainly what it felt like more than a few times over the past 33 months or so. That frustration is fading with time, though, and I expect to end up liking this sweater as much as any other I've made for myself. I first saw the book, Knit Swirl, at the 2011 Fall Fiber Festival. A woman was looking for mink yarn (yes, this really exists, though no minks are killed in the making of it) with which to make one of the sweaters in the book. Intrigued, by the sweaters not the minks, I put it on my Christmas list. The husband came through with it and I read through it with excitement followed by sadness. The instructions might have made sense if I was a more expert knitter, but I shelved the book thinking there was no way I would ever make what has come to be called "a swirl."

The book has a companion website that might help you understand why these seem so complicated. The sweaters are essentially cardigans in that they have an open front. They are knit in one piece ending with one seam to sew to produce the sweater. They can be made as circles or ovals, with the neck opening either centered or off-centered.

Fast forward 11 months or so from Christmas 2011, and the Needle Lady, one of our local yarn shops announced a Knit Swirl class to be held one weekend in January 2013. We would pick out yarn and check our knitting gauges on Friday night, then knit all day Saturday and Sunday. The Sunday class was held at a local country club and included their Sunday buffet. Once I learned that I knew why the class was a bit more pricey than I thought it should be. One of the instructors has a yarn-dyeing business, and we were somewhat steered toward her yarns as the best for our swirls (many of the sample ones had been made from her yarns), making the cost a bit more pricey. Nonetheless, I was all in because I was finally going to get the help I needed to understand the instructions.

The sweater I picked to make was called Depth of Field, a centered circle. I chose to make it using two different yarns held together for a nice mix of colors. People who knit will understand what it means when I say the the first step was to cast on over 500 stitches onto a very long circular needle. After knitting three or so rows, I connected the oh-so-long strip into a circle. I was very careful to make sure that I did not twist it (knitters will understand). I counted the stitches several times, each time orienting the stitches to all face in the same direction. There were a couple of women in the class who weren't as compulsive as I; they discovered after knitting about six inches that there was a turn in their work. I felt for them as they realized they would be un-knitting and re-knitting many thousands of stitches.

The sweater is knitted in welts--five rows of stockinette stitch, four rows of reverse stockinette stitch, repeat. The sweater from hell ended up having fifty welts. I think I may have finished about ten welts by the end of the class on Sunday, and that didn't even begin any of the "fun" part separating the circle to work in sleeves of the correct length. I can't remember if we were told in class to check the tutorials on the website or if I discovered that myself. There were various formulas for figuring out the number of stitches to add or drop to shape the sleeves, get the torso a certain length, etc. I extend my thanks to all my math teachers, even the one who kicked me out of his class.

But first, the rest of the story. I made good progress on knitting the giant circle, regularly decreasing the right number of stitches in the right places and possibly even starting the sleeves until February 17, 2013, the start of an adventure I can't believe I did not blog about at the time. The quick and dirty, highlight version is that younger son was driving back from Seattle to start a new job in Northern Virginia. On February 17, he got stopped for speeding just outside Rawlins, Wyoming. Running younger son's license showed that it had been suspended by Virginia in December, a paperwork glitch that did eventually get resolved a month or two later. In the meantime, I had to quickly fly to Denver, where younger son's college roommate picked me up at the airport and drove me the four hours it took to get to Rawlins, Wyoming. Roommate got his gas tank filled courtesy of younger son and headed back to Denver. I got into what was once my dad's car, a Pontiac Firebird with various markings removed and new ones added so that it looked like a Ferrari. This was also a car that my dad never let a woman drive. Drive, I did, to Denver, and then eastward right into what the Weather Channel named Winter Storm Q. Along the way I managed to spin out on the interstate, ending up facing the proper direction but in the shallow ditch along the side of the road. Fortunately, I was able to drive back up onto the road. We made it just into Kansas the first day before playing it safe and stopping at the last town for 100 miles. The next day, we made it those 100 miles in four or five hours only to encounter "Interstate Closed" signs. We did finally make it back, but by that time I was behind on work and other things, and the sweater from Hell got pushed aside.

I eventually did pick it up again, but it took some reacquainting myself with the specifics of sleeves, increases, decreases, special knitting on the arm cuffs, and so on. Life intervened in not too short a time, and I put it away yet again. I picked it up again maybe about a year ago; I've repressed even the approximate when. I made progress until ... I should know better than to knit at night without several Ott lights (one was not enough) ... I dropped some stitches. I took a deep breath and tried to pick them up. I dropped more stitches. To make this all the more difficult, I was at that point knitting two separate sides of the sweater, each using two strands of yarn. I dislike both of those types of knitting, which may be why the dropping of additional stitches resulted in my sobbing hysterically, carefully putting the sweater and all the accessories and pattern book into a cardboard box that I shut and put out of sight.

Not too many days later, I emailed a friend who at one point had working in a knitting store. She said she would rescue me. Several attempts at setting up a time fell through; she was working through some family difficulties. At one point, I got an email newsletter from the Needle Lady owner. What the heck! I replied explaining about the sweater and could someone at the shop help me. She replied immediately saying to bring it in right then and there. I replied truthfully that that day was not a good one and could she suggest another time in the coming week. Never heard from her.

While working the polls last November, the sweater came up in conversation with the other assistant precinct chief who, it turns out, is an expert knitter. She said to give her a call, she'd be glad to help me. After the election, one thing and then another got in the way and I never called her. By then, I was feeling more than a little sheepish. I kept thinking that I should start another knitting project but every attempt to pick something out fell flat. I finally decided that I had a mental block against starting another project before I had finished this one.

As it turned out, my friend picked up the extra stitches and got me back on track in less than thirty minutes. When I came home and gathered my wits, I was embarrassed to realize that I only had about ten or twelve rows to knit to finish the knitting. After working all the loose yarn ends in, I had to tackle blocking the sweater. More experienced knitters will shake their heads when they hear me say that I had only ever blocked one sweater before, and that was a special case of needing to put a zipper in where I had cut a steek. The shape of the sweater from Hell was going to make blocking a bitch, so I sought more help from my friend the expert knitter. She loaned me something called blocking wires and explained how to use them.

To show you some of the frustration of the knitting, blocking, and seam-sewing to come, here is what the sweater looked like after knitting and right before I blocked it.

The two parts folded over in the center are the sleeves. I had to pin each side if the shape to be the same length and line up various points. All that was easy compared with the next step, figuring out where to put the seam. I read what the book said. I read the tutorial from the website. After much profanity and some tears, I said, "Screw this I am just going to start pinning and be done with it!" And pin I did which was okay until I realized the next day--as I was about to start on the sewing-- that what I had pinned was not one continuous seam. It was two short ones off each end of a long one. Fortunately, it was easy to see what I had done wrong, so re-pin I did and commenced sewing. I normally hate sewing knitted things together (one reason I absolutely love Icelandic knitting), but I really wanted to see the end of the sweater from Hell. And here it is...

It came out a bit smaller than I thought it would, possibly due to a gauge issue I shall discuss with my friend the expert knitter. I still like it, though, and will wear it when the weather turns cold. I just need to find a nice shawl pin to hold the two sides of the front together.

I was adamant while finishing this that I would never make another. Now that it's done, and I can see what it looks like, I think I may make another one. That one would be done with one strand of yarn only, and I might try an oval to get a longer back. That will be in a while, though. I'm meeting with my friend the expert knitter next week about a multiple cable sweater I've been wanting to make for longer than the sweater from Hell took me. 


Anonymous said...

Pretty sure I'd have given up completely at about a dozen points through that journey. Congrats on your dedication and persistence, Lady! So glad you feel it was worth it! I most definitely agree that the result was worth it, but of course that's easy for me to say since I'm not the one who went through hell.

Va said...

I saw you wearing it and as usual was impressed by your talent, your determination, and your ability to create whatever you want however you opt to! It also was a very flattering design which I trust was one of the inspirations! These facts I know after 35 years of friendship!