Friday, April 28, 2006

Exciting ....

Black Bunny Fibers now has an official logo:

Where did I find such a perfect representation of my vision for the shop?

Why, Franklin, of course. (Please don't ask the details of what I had to do to get such beautiful, custom work -- I don't want to be staring at a restraining order or divorce papers -- but let's just say he is as delightful to work with as his blog suggests.)

I've been playing around with some fun stuff for the shop: some Wensleydale wool (one batch already sold, one batch will be listed later today) and some Blue-Faced Leicester wool, so that the nonspinners among you won't be left out on the breed-specific fun, and some farm yarns (as I think of them), off-the-beaten-track yarns from small farms and suppliers. I'm still trying out various suppliers and types of wool, so your feedback is appreciated!

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The rest of the substitution tome

When we left off, you, dear reader, had just finished making a list of qualities that you wanted to find in your substitute yarn. Now comes the fun part: yarn shopping.

Step 4: Shopping around

Before you skip joyfully down to your friendly neighborhood yarn shop, or begin clicking madly with your mouse, remind yourself of the parameters for your yarn search. Start by taking a look at the gauge notation(s) you made at the top of your lists. Remember how we talked about the recommended gauge for the specified yarn, and the gauge the designer used? If they are the same, skip to the next paragraph. If they are not the same, I hope that by now you've figured out why they differ, and you understand why you need to find a substitute yarn that knits at about the same gauge as the recommended gauge for the specified yarn.

The starting point for your yarn search is that gauge notation. It will be expressed in a number of stitches to an inch.* This number allows you to make an apples-to-apples comparison while shopping (or as close you you can reasonably get, given how idiosyncratic yarns can be). When looking at yarns, you want to begin by narrowing down your choices to include only yarns that knit at this many stitches to the inch.

For example, suppose the pattern calls for Plymouth Galway wool. The recommended gauge for this yarn is about 5 sts to the inch, a straightforward worsted weight gauge. You must consider only yarns that knit comfortably at 5 sts per inch.

Go to wherever it is that you like to yarn shop; hopefully, this will involve a cool bricks-and-mortar shop like my beloved Rosie's, but I understand that sometimes it isn't possible due to geography or other reasons. Wherever you begin your search, limit yourself to only yarns that knit comfortably at 5 sts per inch. You can ask a salesperson to show you the yarns or tell you which fit that criterion, or if you're internet shopping, you'll usually be able to search yarns by gauge.

To get back to my mythical example, if I were trying to find a substitute yarn for Plymouth Galway, I'd go into Rosie's and start looking at all the worsted weight yarns for sale. Here's a list of yarns you would find that knit comfortably at 5 sts per inch:

Cascade 220
Cascade 220 Superwash
Rowan Kid Classic
Berroco Suede
Classic Elite Bam Boo
Creative Focus Cotton
Classic Elite Premiere
Katia Jamaica
Plymouth Encore
Cascade Pima/Tencel
Classic Elite Classic Silk
Reynolds Odyssey

There might be some more, but that's enough to get you started. You know that each of these yarns on the list can perform well at a 5 stitches to an inch gauge; now you need to work your way down, paying attention to the list of druthers you made. Must be machine washable? Then Cascade 220 Superwash, Plymouth Encore, Creative Focus Cotton are good choices. Allergic to wool? Then consider Bam Boo, Creative Focus Cotton, Classic Elite Premiere or Classic Silk, Cascade Pima/Tencel. Do you want a solid yarn? Rule out Odyssey (plies change color), Jamaica (self-striping) and Diarufuran (self-striping). Need good stitch definition? Consider Cascade 220, Classic Elite Premiere, Creative Focus Cotton, Plymouth Encore. Want something with a little bit of textural interest? Classic Silk has some nubbiness, Berroco Suede is sort of suede-y, Kid Classic has a slight halo from the mohair. Looking for drape? Premiere is probably your best bet, but the Bamboo and the Pima/Tencel might work. And so on.

You can see from my examples that all kinds of variables, including ones I didn't mention, like color choice, and cost (does anyone remember Cost Per Yard?) play into this, which is why it's a good idea to give yourself plenty of time at ye olde yarne shoppy -- leave the kids at home, and don't expect the non-knitting impatient significant other to be happy sitting around twiddling his/her thumbs while you debate which complements your coloring more: Wedgewood Blue or more of a teal? Once you've figured out some good possibilities, you will need to proceed to Step 4 and a half, below.

To continue my Plymouth Galway example, let's say I am going to make an aran-style sweater for my husband. I know right off the bat that I want wool or a wool blend; partly because I'm a purist and partly because I don't think I'd want to do a lot of stitch manipulation for cables unless I'm using a fiber with elasticity, like wool or a wool blend. That narrows me down to

Cascade 220
Cascade 220 Superwash
Rowan Kid Classic
Plymouth Encore
Reynolds Odyssey

Because arans feature complex stitchwork and cabling, I'm going to nix the yarns that aren't solid colors. Bye-bye to Diarufuran and Odyssey (both of which I love, but just aren't right for this example). I'm going to exclude Encore merely because my husband hates acrylic. That leaves me with Cascade 220, Cascade 220 Superwash and Kid Classic. My first instinct is to eliminate Kid Classic because the mohair in it will create a sort of halo of fuzziness, and for all the work I'm going to be doing, knitting a man-size sweater with lots of patterning, I want the stitches and cables to pop. So I'm left with either Cascade 220 or Cascade 220 Superwash. From there, I'd balance out the convenience of superwash with the lower price of non-superwash. I'd probably also get my husband to take a look at the color card to see whether he particularly liked a color of either. And as a veteran yarn shop clerk, I can tell you that Cascade 220 -- whether superwash or not -- would be an excellent substitute for Galway in most situations. Certainly it would be one of my first recommendations as a substitute for Plymouth Galway.

Step 4 and a half: Buy one ball to swatch with

Yeah, yeah, I know, you don't wanna. Well, you should. If you're really looking for a good yarn substitution experience, especially if you're new to all this, you really ought to buy one ball of the proposed substitute and swatch it before you commit to it wholeheartedly. It can be hard to envision a stitch pattern in a different yarn and/or color, and some yarns that ought to work just plain don't. Sometimes yarns that are marked with a particular gauge don't end up working best at that gauge and need to be taken up or down a stitch per inch. Yarns -- like people -- have all kinds of quirks, and better to find out one ball in, then after you've bought a bunch of nonreturnable sales stuff from some Ebay seller.

Another advantage of doing a preliminary swatch is to give yourself a chance to go back and research the substitute yarn. Looking at a site like Wiseneedle, which publishes unbiased reviews from knitters, can be tremendously valuable. Another place to check is Knitter's Review; Clara reviews yarns, even subjecting them to wash and wear tests, and if you're lucky enough to find your proposed substitute reviewed there, you'll get some good information about it. Message boards (like the forums of Knitter's Review or Knitty's Coffeeshop) are other places where you can find out about knitters' real world experiences with particular yarns. Look for the appropriate thread or folder, and do a search first, to see if someone's already asked. If not, you can post a query and it's very likely knitters will respond to tell you their experiences. And one last, but potentially very valuable source for information, is your old friend Google: try Googling the name and manufacturer of the yarn to see what you get. If you scroll through your search results, you may get lucky and find that some crazy-ass blogger like myself has written a copious blog post about his or her experiences with this very yarn.

Meira Voirdire (if that's your real name), and Dorothy both have raised the question of why certain yarns that supposedly knit at the same gauge can vary substantially in the amount of yardage you get. For example, Yarn A allegedly knits at 5 sts per inch, and you get 100 yds. per 50-gram ball, and yarn B also allegedly knits at 5 sts per inch but you get 189 yds. per 50-gram ball. This would seem to not make sense, since there's a relationship between the amount of wool you get (weight) and yardage -- the more yardage in a ball, the thinner the yarn ought to be and therefore the tighter the stitches ought to be.

Meira and Dorothy, this is exactly why you need to prowl around a little on the Internet looking for yarn reviews. One explanation for the discrepancy -- raised by Queer Joe in a comment some weeks back (see, Joe; I do read your comments) -- is loft, or the amount of air that is wrapped up in a strand of yarn. Some yarns just have more loft: they are made in such a way that the fiber traps air within and plumps out the strand, making each stitch bigger than it would be relative to the amount of wool in it. These methods of construction can affect the weight to yardage ratio and mean that a ball of yarn goes farther because you're knitting more air into each stitch.

Sometimes it's as simple as the manufacturer screwing up and mislabeling the yarn. I saw a yarn advertised at an on-line seller whose name rhymes with Snit-Licks that claimed to knit at 7 sts per inch, but instead of getting 200 or so yards in 50g, you got 137; turns out there was a snafu of some sort and the label was wrong. It actually was more of a sport or DK weight. (They subsequently changed the website to reflect this.) Or maybe whoever tested the yarn for the manufacturer was having an off-day and miscalculated, or is a really loose or tight knitter.

I have to tell you that I've never before heard anyone say that manufacturers purposely mislabel their yarns, or that there's any kind of standard deviation, i.e., that you should always assume a yarn knits tighter or looser than the maker says it does. For whatever it's worth. (I, in fact, began as kind of a loose knitter, and originally had to compensate by going down two needles sizes from the recommended needle size. Since that time, I've tightened my gauge and now am spot-on with the recommended gauge about 97% of the time. But the other three percent of the time is a bitch, believe me.)

Whatever the cause, the only way to really know if a proposed substitute yarn is going to work well is to give it a whirl and swatch it. (And here is the biggest disadvantage to buying yarns on-line: you can't stop by and pick up one ball, swatch it, then stop by another day to buy more. You either have to put together a separate order along with your single ball, pay shipping for just a single ball or go out on a limb and buy a whole sweater's worth without having touched or felt or swatched the yarn.)

Step 5: Figuring out equivalents

Without getting too carried away by this subtopic, once you've decided on a substitute yarn, you need to figure out how to purchase enough of it. And here comes a rule of thumb that will always stand you in good stead: BUY MORE THAN YOU THINK YOU NEED. There is nothing worse than running out of yarn before the end of the project, unless it's the creeping, sinking sensation you get as you are knitting along and begin to suspect that you will run out of yarn for a project, and keep trying to rationalize "hey, maybe I won't," but all along you know you really will, because you've used up 5 of the 10 balls just knitting the back, and it's a cardigan, so you know you'll need more to finish the front....

To figure out yardage, all you need is a calculator. Figure out how many balls of the specified yarn the pattern calls for (in my example, let's say 7 balls of Plymouth Galway) and how many yards are in each ball (Plymouth Galway runs about 210 yds. per ball), and you multiply them (1470 yds.). That's about how many yards you'll need to purchase.

Next, figure out how many yards are in a ball of the substitute yarn. Let's say Cascade 220, which, as the name suggests, has 220 yds. per ball. Divide the total number of yards you need (1470) by the number of yards in your substitute ball (220) and if the number doesn't divide evenly (hey, what are the chances of that happening?) round UP. In my example, 1470 divided by 220 is around 6.6 so I round up to 7. I need 7 hanks of Cascade 220. Being paranoid, I'd buy 8 and plan on returning the 8th if I don't use it. (Or more likely, I'd buy the 8th and not return it, using it for Ship's Project hats or make mittens for my kids or something.) In my example, the original yarn and the substitute yarn ended up being close in yardage, so the number of skeins I had to buy ended up the same. If, for example, you chose to use, say, Reynolds Odyssey, the number would end up much different. Odyssey is put up in 104-yard skeins, so 1470 divided by 104 is something like 11.1, rounding up to 12; so I'd have to buy 11 or 12 balls of that to get the same yardage. Because the number of yards in a skein can differ so drastically from yarn to yarn, and because some yarns are sold in 50g balls while others are sold in 100g hanks, you can't assume that the number of skeins called for in the original yarn will work with the substitute. Check the math first.

I know some of you are going to say "Why are patterns often so off when it comes to yarn requirements?" I think every knitter's had an experience where s/he either ran tremendously short of yarn on a project, even though s/he bought exactly as much, or even a little more, than the pattern calls for; or the reverse, having 1 or 2 or more skeins leftover after a project is done. Here's another dirty little knitting secret: when designers write up a pattern, they usually only make 1 size of the pattern for a model, and they draft the rest of the sizes without actually knitting them. If you've made a size 36 sweater, you know how many skeins you used; but you've never made the size 42, and so you guess how many more skeins you think a knitter would need. Being a designer, your guess is an educated one, and the more you draft patterns, the better you get at it, but nevertheless, it is only a guess, and everybody guesses wrong sometimes.

If you're about to get all indignant and insist that designers knit every size of every pattern, well, I think you need to reality check. Designers don't get paid much for their work, especially considering all that goes into it, and often they have to supply yarn themselves for the model. Imagine how long it would take to make 4 or 5 sweaters instead of 1. Imagine how much it would cost to hire test knitters to knit 4 or 5 sweaters instead of 1. Imagine if you were only getting paid $100 for all that work. Just not realistic, I'm afraid.

But it's another good reason that it pays to round up. And if you purchase from a reputable bricks-and-mortar shop like Rosie's, you will be able to return unused, pristine hanks for your money or after a longer time period, store credit, so save those receipts.

One last note

Without sounding like a total bitch, I don't plan on becoming the Dear Abby of yarn substitution. The whole point of this exercise is for you to figure out how to do substitutions yourself. So please don't send me emails asking me if Yarn A is a good substitute for a pattern that calls for Yarn B. I won't answer such questions, telling you instead to "Wake up and smell the coffee!" or "Seek professional counseling immediately!"

*Readers using the Metric system, forgive my Americanocentrism. You, dear friends, can consider gauge over 10 cm (which is the same as Amurrican gauge over 4 inches).

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

And more happy birthday greetings....

to knitting's original Curmudgeon, Marilyn!

Today she published on her blog a very moving essay called "April 25" that you should read. (link above or at sidebar)

Have a wonderful day, Mar!

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Catching Up

5 6 things I learned this week

1. Honey-Nut Cheerios violate the anti-nut policy of my kids' preschool because they have chopped almonds in them.
2. Rupert Holmes, author of the "Pina Colada Song," also wrote the awful cannibalism song "Timothy."
3. Only 35% of coffee drinkers drink their coffee black.
4. Contrary to my expectation, I can get even more sick of and repulsed by Tom Cruise.*
5. Kenny Rogers, 67, has two-year-old twins.
6. Rev. Sun Yung Moon is the principal in a company that supplies the majority of sushi to American restaurants, thereby ensuring that the California roll you eat indirectly supports his controversial church.

* I was highly amused to hear, however, that "Suri," the name of TomKat's new daughter, also means "scram" in Hebrew, "pointy nose" in some Indian dialects, and "pickpocket" in Japanese.

Yarn News

It may seem strange to be anticipating autumn when spring is barely upon us, but yarn reps are now traveling across their territories, taking orders for fall yarns. Fall ordering is bittersweet for us yarn diehards; for every exciting new yarn that is going to be released (how about a wool/soy silk blend from Rowan?) there are good yarns being discontinued. Rowan, for example, is discontinuing the entire Yorkshire line, all weights, and this makes me sad; I guess they are going to push the Scottish Tweed in its place. I haven't seen much of the Scottish Tweed in real life, so I can't really compare the two. Chunky Print is also being discontinued; I usually use thick yarns like Chunky Print only for quick accessories like hats and scarves, so I probably won't miss it much, but it did have some fun color combinations. Noro is discontinuing Big Kureyon, but since they have so many similar yarns at the chunkier end, again, this one probably won't be cause for too much gloom. I did like it, though, and have a great cap I made with it that I wear in the winter.

Black Bunny update

I want to thank the people who've written to me to give me feedback about Black Bunny yarns. This morning I skeined up some lovely, lovely hanks. These are sock yarns:

The grey one on the left is already up on Etsy (great for men); the purple-blue one on the right is a special order for Dee, and if it isn't exactly what she was looking for, I'll put it up on Etsy; the blue one in the middle kills me to sell, since I love that combination of colors,

but I'm sure (sniff) it'll find itself a good home once I list it later today. Geez, it's a good thing I don't breed kittens or fluffy bunnies or anything, since I already get weepy sending my creations out into the world.

This is some worsted weight I'm playing around with which may appeal to you green fans.

It's not superwash, and probably could be felted (although that pains me a little to think about for some silly reason; I mean, why should it matter whether it gets knit or knit/felted?), and I'm going to dye a few different colorways of this to see what people think of it. There's over 425 yds. in this hank, so you could easily get a hat & mittens, or a little sweater, or a scarf out of it, or whatever else you can think of.

I'm also working on a web site for Black Bunny. It's still very early, and my knowledge of web-building is minimal, as is my budget, so I've used a web hosting service that provides preformatted pages. I'll let you know when it's up and running; it'll take at least a few weeks. I'm going to continue selling through Etsy for the foreseeable future even after the site is up, but I'm hoping to have information about the kinds of yarns and fibers I use, photographs of projects and swatches that people have made with them (so if you've purchased something and have any photos you'd be willing to have me put on the website, feel free to send them! even photos of swatches or yarn on a bobbin would be terrific), maybe even some really simple free patterns after things get more established.

Mail Surprise

I received a package last week from my dear friend Molly, who sometimes comments here (but not nearly enough). In it was:

a pack of "National Embarrassmints" (heh) and

a Vincent Van Gogh doll. The best part about the doll, you see, is the detachable ear. God, I have great friends! Thanks, Mol!

Silent Auction

The preschool silent auction is, ahem, Saturday, and so far I've got two foofy scarves and a doggie jacket. I also have an adult cap on the needles, which I should be able to finish today or tomorrow. Photos once they're all ready to go. I've never donated to a fundraiser like this, but I figure I should tag them saying what they are and what kind of fiber and what size.

Coming this week: the rest of the Yarn Substitution Tome, and some book reviews...

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Furby Syndrome

Today I got an e-mail from a used bookstore that has a great feature for finding a rare or out-of-print book. You give them your e-mail address and the name of the book, and they e-mail you when they find a copy of it. The notification I got was for a copy of Andean Folk Knitting, by Cynthia Gravelle LaCount. This is a cool book on, well, yeah, folk knitting in the Andes, and it's been out-of-print for a while. The price for the book? An astonishing $785.03. (I'd like to know exactly how that number was calculated, particularly the last three cents.)

Andean Folk Knitting is a fine book, and I happen to have stumbled over a copy for a very reasonable price in my travels since I first submitted that search request (which, p.s. was several years ago; apparently, this on-line bookseller has an excellent memory). I am very interested in ethnic and folk knitting, and there aren't tons of books out on this subject, although more have been forthcoming in recent years. But I couldn't help but wonder, after reading that email: is Andean Folk Knitting worth nearly eight hundred dollars to own?

I can't answer this question. I suppose it depends on a lot of things, beginning with your income and knitting budget. $800 is a hell of a lot of yarn and other supplies, and I certainly couldn't dream -- wouldn't dream -- of spending that much money on a single book. Even a very interesting and rare one. (It is at this point that I think of my mom, who always puts away for best her nicest Christmas presents. "Oh, it's too fancy for me to use every day," she says, tucking away the leather purse or pair of earrings. I can't help but think that even if I did have $800 to spend on a book, I'd feel the same way about it.)

Consider the apocryphal Principles of Knitting, by June Hiatt. This tome -- for it is one big-ass book -- has achieved a sort of mystique among certain knitters as The Knitting Reference Book To End All Reference Books. I do not own a copy (before publishing this blog entry, I checked prices and the cheapest copy I saw was over two hundred dollars. No Andean Folk Knitting, but still...) although I have examined copies owned by friends. It does indeed look like an exhaustive knitting reference book, but I simply didn't get it. I could not perceive exactly what it was about the book, other than perhaps its size, that I didn't already have, in one form or another, in my own knitting library. (Which, admittedly, is rather extensive, but you know what I mean.) Again, there was no way I could justify spending several hundred dollars for it, even if I had it lying around, which I don't. Nor did I have any real desire to acquire it, just for the sake of having it.

And then I got to thinking about Alice Starmore pattern books. A quick Ebay search of completed items (which reflects items actually sold, since so many Ebayers now snipe) revealed Pacific Coast Highway, sold for $241.58; In the Hebrides, sold for $246.95; and Aran Knitting, with an unmet reserve of $230. Certainly, pattern books with such exquisite stranded knitting designs are rare, and it's highly unfortunate that they've gone out of print (I know what you're thinking and please don't go there.) and Ms. Starmore's design and color talent are beyond peradventure (as judges like to say), but again, several hundred dollars for a book seems rather high.

Then I remembered the crazy run on certain colorways of Opal sock yarn, Opal Tiger and Opal Bumblebee come to mind, when a (what was then) $14 ball of sock yarn was selling for $100 just because it made a little pattern like tiger or bumblebee stripes. And a more recent fad involving pink Chibi cases, or maybe it was green Chibi cases? and how somehow one color on the case of your darning needles was "more desirable" or prestigious than others. And I wanted to hurl.

Yes, knitting is a passion, and yes, for some, it's a business, and yes, there are knitters (like any other group of people) with too much time and too much disposable income on their hands, but isn't this getting a bit silly? Have we lost all perspective when someone is willing to pay for the color of a plastic needle case? Has name-brand-ism and perceived prestige and keeping up with the (knitting) Joneses so infiltrated even a seemingly wholesome hobby like knitting?

I realize the irony of wondering aloud about this, given the extraordinary amount of yarn that is tucked away, stacked in some cases, in my own home. I have more yarn than I can knit in a lifetime. I give yarn away. I now make yarn and sell it, increasing exponentially the amount of wool that passes through my split-level slice of heaven. But I bought each and every skein of that yarn because I thought, even if it was just for a deluded moment, that I would use it someday. That I would make something with it, enjoy it, create with it. Some of it is "fancy" or "luxury" yarn, like Koigu, and some of it is down-to-earth yarn, like Paton's Wool, and some of it is from little producers and farmers and dyers that I may never encounter again, but every yard of it is something that I plan or planned to use, a garment that I optimistically thought I might someday make.

My friend Lisa thinks that consumerism and acquisitiveness lie behind a lot of people's attitude toward yarn and their stashes. That's a post for another day, I think, although I've touched on some of these issues. But when I see a particular kind of sock yarn that becomes "must-have," when I hear about items selling for absurd prices on Ebay, when I get an e-mail telling me a knitting book is selling for $800 if I step right up and click in the right place, well, I have to confess to wanting to shout out loud "LET'S STOP THE MADNESS!!"

New post is coming, but for now, attention all teachers

I'm working on a new post but my poor husband, who's been drafting some kind of monstrous 60-page contract, has been hogging the computer at night. So my uninterrupted-by-kids time online has been minimal. Since I can't give you guys anything but high-quality, top-form Go Knit In Your Hat (was that a snort I just heard?), hang in there. Especially you, Evelyn. I'm trying to finish a post for tonight.

In the meantime, here's a strange yet sincere offer for any of you who are teachers or happen to be related to a teacher. My father, who is now retired, used to have a small business making educational filmstrips. He is liquidating the odds and ends that remain. If anybody wants free 35mm filmstrips, email me (link at right). They are very high quality and are mainly science, both grade school and junior high. If you send me $5 for shipping, I'll mail 'em out to you just because they're sitting around and someone might get some use out of them. My dad says that even though filmstrips are technologically very old-hat, kids enjoy the novelty of them and younger children, especially, like the fact that the pictures are not moving. It's easier for them to absorb the narration. Plus all the brown-nosers in your class will duke it out for the honor of advancing the frames. Beep.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Substituting yarns, part one (you didn't think I could do this in one post, did you?)

"All hope abandon ye who enter here."
-- Dante

One of the most helpful skills to know in knitting, yet seemingly one of the most mystifying and terrifying: substituting yarns in a commercial pattern. Allow me to be your guide into the hellish circles of gauge, fiber characteristics, yardage calculations and other abominations too appalling to mention here, lest you be scared away. Quick, throw a silver coin at Charon and climb in the Go Knit In Your Hat boat.

Step 1: Preliminary Research

We begin in a slightly counterintuitive place: we are going to study the yarn that is specified in the pattern, i.e., the yarn you do not want to use. Don't be put off by the sense that you are lingering in no-man's-land, like the poor souls in limbo; before you can pick a yarn that's even better, you must first know everything you can about the yarn you are rejecting (sounds kind of like dating, eh?).

Get a piece of paper. At the top, write down the gauge (sometimes called "tension") that the pattern uses. It will probably be listed over four inches (e.g., 18 sts over 4 in/10 cm), so divide by four and write this down, too (e.g. 4.5 sts per inch). This is the gauge that the pattern uses, and therefore the gauge that you must get, too.

Next jot down the name of the yarn used in the pattern and its manufacturer (I'm going to refer to this as the "specified yarn"). Write down, as well, the number of balls the pattern requires for the size you want to make. If the pattern uses more than one yarn, write them all down; if the pattern uses more than one color of yarn, write all of them down too, including color name and number if they are given.

Now, my dear friends, you must hop on over to Google, the internet user's best friend, and type in the name of the specified yarn, gently clicking on "Google Search" when you have finished. Find out as much as you can about this yarn. Yarn review websites like Wise Needle can be especially helpful here; also, many yarn manufacturers have their own websites which list their current yarns and give some basic information about them. You want to find out at least the following:

* recommended gauge (very important. Hear me? VERY IMPORTANT.)
* recommended needle size
* fiber content (cotton? wool? modal? recycled kitchen sponges?)
* percentage of fibers (75% wool/25% nylon? 100% cotton?)
* how many yards or meters in a skein, and what the skein weighs (grams or ounces)
* whether the yarn is shiny or matte, or has different plies of each
* whether the yarn is textured at all (boucle? tweed with nubbies? novelty yarn with eyelashes? thick and thin?)
* whether the yarn is a single color or not (tweed flecks? marled like a barber pole? plies that change color like some Noros? self-striping? self-patterning like sock yarn? variegated? gradual color changes in large blocks like Odyssey?)
any other special characteristics about the yarn (homespun texture? tight twist? cable construction?)
* any special washing considerations (machine wash? dry clean only? if water touches it, it will distintegrate?)

Hoo-boy, that's a lot of stuff.

Step 2: Examining Your Motivation

Now that you've gotten a pretty comprehensive description of the yarn specified in the pattern, I want you to think about why you've decided to substitute yarns. You must have some idea about why you're rejecting the specified yarn and what you might be looking for in a substitute. The answer might be as simple as cost: a sweater that requires, say, 10 skeins of Colinette Enigma at $26 a skein, may be a prime candidate for substitution with a less expensive yarn. Other reasons:

* the specified yarn doesn't come in a color or colors that you like
* you are allergic or sensitive to one of the fibers in the specified yarn
* you can't readily get the specified yarn
* you aren't familiar with the specified yarn and don't want to invest in sweater quantity of an unknown yarn
* the specified yarn has been discontinued
* the fiber is inappropriate for your needs (e.g. cashmere when you live in Hawaii)
* you don't like something about the look of the fiber but you like the pattern
* you've had a bad experience with the specified yarn or its manufacturer
* you want machine washability
* you don't think it's soft enough
* you hate the color combination shown

I could go on and on, but this list is, all by itself, a compelling argument for why you ought to learn how to substitute yarns well: it allows you to use a pattern you like while tweaking it to better suit your needs or aesthetic sensibilities.

Step 3: Guiding characteristics

Now it's time to flip that piece of paper over and start a list of what you are going to be looking for in your new yarn.

At the top of that list is the gauge measurement for your pattern. Yep, the same one that you wrote at the top of the other side of the paper. Now take a quick look at the recommended gauge for the pattern's specified yarn. Are they the same? If so, good. If not, write down the recommended gauge, too. I'm going to talk about these in greater detail later, since they're probably the single most important factor in guiding your choices.

Under your gauge notes, make a list of the characteristics you know you want the new yarn to have. Step 2 should have jogged your memory about what's important to you. Some of these are going to be easy to determine: you'll know if machine washability is a must or if you can live with hand-washing. You probably will have a clear sense of what your budget is for this particular project. You'll know if you want a particular color or fiber, or, just as important, if you don't want a particular color or fiber. Even if you haven't committed to a specific fiber or blend, you'll at least know whether this is supposed to be a winter sweater for a cold climate or a lighter sweater for summer, or a trans-seasonal kind of thing, and you'll know if you hate working with a particular fiber (e.g., cotton can kill some people's hands) or if you are allergic or sensitive to something (some people find even the nicest mohair too itchy).

At this point, revisit your pattern and take a hard, analytical look at the way the designer uses the fibers. Think about the specific characteristics of particular fibers and how they are used in the design. A pattern with a lot of texture and cabling may be knit in a yarn that shows good stitch definition; write this down. A soft jacket with lots of flow and loose tailoring is going to use a yarn that has good draping qualities. Write down "drape."

Don't forget to take a moment to second-guess the designer on the yarn choice. Let me share a dirty little secret with you: you can't assume that the designer picked the specific yarn shown in the magazine because (s)he loved it and it was an integral part of the design. It is quite possible, nay, even probable, that the designer swatched some completely different yarn or fiber, maybe something really, really different (like fuzzy bulky acrylic instead of fingering-weight silk tape) and -- brace yourselves -- the magazine's editorial staff asked her to change the yarn to the one shown because that yarn manufacturer (gulp) advertises a lot in the magazine. Or that Yarn Manufacturer A was providing free yarn for the book and so unless the designer wanted to buy the yarn herself out of pocket, she pretty much had to go with something Yarn Manufacturer A made. Or that the original yarn she did the swatch in was perfect -- but, alas, was discontinued before the pattern went to press.

Indeed, one of the reasons you may want to substitute in a particular pattern is because the fiber or yarn shown is impractical or unsuitable, and was chosen for some other, non-knitting related reason. I'm thinking of a sleeveless, hooded top with a cable pattern I recently critiqued in this very blog, knit in chunky-weight alpaca; for me, the yarn choice was a nonstarter, since a bulky alpaca, made even thicker by cables, with a heavy and warm hood, but no sleeves, just didn't seem sensible to me. If you wear it alone, the back of your neck (where the hood lies) sweats, while your arms have goose-bumps; if you want to layer it under a jacket, you look like a quarterback and have great difficulty moving your arms.

When doing a reality test with the pattern, think about the inherent characteristics of the fibers or yarns used. Alpaca and silk are notorious for their lack of elasticity. All-cotton yarns often sag out after wearing and a full-sized adult sweater can quickly start to feel awfully heavy; add a highly textured pattern or oodles of cables and the garment may feel like a suit of chain mail when you wear it. Cashmere socks are luxuriously soft, yes, but they will wear, pill, felt so very quickly.1

This is also the time to make sure the designer isn't using the yarn(s) in an atypical way. And this is why I've asked you to double-check the gauge stated in the pattern with the recommended gauge for the specified yarn. Every once in a while, a designer will purposely knit a yarn at a gauge that is much heavier or much lighter than is typical for that yarn; to get the same effect, you'll need to compensate for this. Think about a lacey shawl knit in a worsted weight yarn. Worsted weight yarns usually knit at around 5 sts per inch. But the gauge stated for worsted weight yarn for this particular pattern is 3.5 sts per inch. If you were looking just at gauge, you'd see 3.5 sts per inch and think "I need a chunky yarn." No, you need a worsted weight yarn; you just need to knit it at a looser gauge, i.e., on larger needles than is typical for that yarn in order to get the loose, lacey, drapey shawl shown in the photo. To give another example of this important consideration, think about socks. Often sock patterns knit the specified yarn at a tighter gauge than usual to make them wear longer. For instance, a yarn that ordinarily knits at 5.5 sts to the inch may be knit at 7 sts to an inch to increase its sturdiness. That means that if you are making this pattern, you'll want to substitute a DK yarn (i.e. one that typically knits at 5.5 sts to an inch) and not a fingering weight yarn (i.e. one that typically knits at 7 sts to an inch) to get the same look and wear.

This is why it's so important to compare the manufacturer's recommendation for typical gauge, with what the designer intends in this particular pattern, and note any discrepancies. When there are differences, you'll likely want to go with a yarn that knits at a similar recommended gauge. You'll adjust needle size in order to tweak the gauge.

The same principle is going to apply in cases where the designer specifies holding two strands of yarn together. You'll want to consider each strand of yarn separately to make sure you match gauge and style if you want to match the effect the designer achieves. Again, go back to the information you found in Step 1 and figure out what each individual yarn is like; then figure out how to substitute for each.

Finally, remember that different stitch patterns are going to add or subtract from your gauge. The gold standard for substituting is stockinette stitch, but if the pattern you want to make isn't in stockinette stitch, your gauge may be affected. Ribs draw in (think of the top of a sock); you'll have more stitches crowded in per inch than if you knit in stockinette. Yarn-overs make holes and therefore expand your fabric; you'll end up with fewer stitches per inch in a pattern that uses lots of yarn-overs. A good knitting reference book can help you with this, but for purposes of substitution, you'll be safer considering the recommended stockinette gauge for the yarns in question.

Another quirky thing to look for are adjustments for shrinkage: Denim yarns, like Rowan's, shrink appreciably in the first wash and patterns for denim are, accordingly, written about 20% longer than the finished garment will be. If you try to substitute a yarn that doesn't shrink like that, you'll have a sweater that's 20% too long. Other yarns, like linen and hemp, are very stiff and rough in the knitting, but soften appreciably with each wash. You'll want to think about whether the garment shown in the photo shoot is one that some poor editorial assistant had to wash fifty times to get soft and broken in, the way it looks in the magazine. Some yarns fade with washing, again, Rowan Denim comes to mind. Consider whether a stonewashed look is going to work for you, or if you'll feel cheated if your sweater turns out fading in some spots as time goes by.

Next: Finding a good substitute, part deux

1) This is probably a good time to recommend to you Candace Eisner Strick's Beyond Wool. This book has some excellent information about fibers -- you guessed it -- other than wool, and their characteristics: which ones stretch, which ones drape, which are really warm, and so on. If you analyze her designs, you can see how she tries to compensate or highlight the relative disadvantages or merits of each fiber. It's a very educational book, and worth a read if you don't know that much about specific fibers.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

A man and his bunny

Behold the man and his bun-bun. Charcoal's new endearing habit is to snuggle up to Tom when he comes home from work; should Tom stop petting him, he licks Tom's hand until Tom starts petting again.

Inventory update: two skeins of gorgeous laceweight, one in celadon greens, one in pale purple/mauve.

The beauty of which far exceed my minimal photographic abilities. Also a gorgeous skein of sock yarn in deeper purples, and a lemon/lime combination... Just to whet your appetite a little.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Ply me a river

The Girl from Auntie makes some excellent points in her post on the Craft Yarn Council numbers chart. (By the way, hers was one of the first quality knitting-related blogs I discovered way back when I first got an internet connection. So I still get a little frisson of excitement when I realize Jenna reads my blog. I'm such a starfucker.) In fact, Jenna's not sure we (meaning knitter-consumers) even need such a chart. As usual, insightful and intelligent analysis. And segues nicely into the yarn substitution tome I am now in the midst of writing...

In my rant on plies, I want to clarify that I am not suggesting that yarns Down Under aren't consistently labeled using the "ply" designation; merely that considering the actual number of plies a yarn has won't help you figure out its weight or category in most cases. This reminded me of an anecdote I forgot to tell you about a customer I helped about two years ago. She was carrying a tattered, photocopied (yes, I know. I couldn't tell if hers was a working copy or if she'd copied it out of a library book or a friend's leaflet or what. I was afraid if I touched it, it would disintegrate into pieces, it was this old.) pattern that she told me she had made many, many times over the years. For someone who said she'd been knitting for upwards of thirty years, she was remarkably clueless or apathetic about gauge and yarn size -- she had no idea what the gauge on the pattern was, even though she'd made it a bunch of times, and she had no idea what kind of yarn to look for, repeating the description of the yarn from the pattern "4-ply wool," like a mantra. "4-ply wool, 4-ply wool," sure that if she repeated it enough times she would find knitting enlightenment. It was an easy gauge to fit -- 4.5 or 5 sts to the inch, I forget which -- and since cost was a factor, we looked at the Encore. I explained the notion of ply to her over and over again, yet when she thought I wasn't looking, I saw her pulling apart the end of a strand from a ball, trying to count the plies. When she couldn't be certain of the exact number of plies, she decided I was a liar and said she didn't want it, as "every time I've bought yarn at this shop the sweater doesn't fit right." [Of course, her poorly-fitting sweaters have everything to do with our yarn, and nothing to do with her failure to understand gauge, right?]

I sent her to a big-box craft store, wishing I could see her (a) trying to find help that was as knowledgeable there; and (b) pulling apart a strand of Red Heart to count the plies.


Friday, April 07, 2006

Why I hate the new "standard" yarn chart

Earlier this week, I talked about yarn classification, the big picture of how yarns are organized, looking at thickness, gauge and weight. I forgot to mention one of the best ways to get a feel for this: browsing through the Patternworks catalogue. Apart from being decent yarn porn (although it used to be, believe it or not, much much better before the sale to Craft-o-Conglomerate), it's very nicely organized from biggest yarns to smallest. You'll get a feel for which of your favorite yarns fit where in the grand scheme of things.

Traditionally, certain shorthand names have been given to the categories of yarns. I've made a little chart to show you most of the ones I've seen or heard, and to demonstrate how I think of yarn classification in my head.

Like any set of guidelines, there are always exceptions, so consider this a way for you to conceptualize things. I've also added some anachronistic and international terms, which you may see when using a vintage or non-US pattern. If you should need to substitute a yarn, the starting point is this chart. Due to popular demand (I love it when you beg me), I'm going to talk about yarn substitution at length (or do I mean "ad nauseum"?) in another post, but finding where the specified yarn falls on this chart is the starting point to finding a good substitute.

Within the past few years, the Craft Yarn Council, or whatever the hell it's called, prepared its own "Standard Yarn Weight System." Their website grandly states:

The publishers, fiber, needle and hook manufacturers and yarn members of the Craft Yarn Council of America have worked together to set up a series of guidelines to bring uniformity to yarn, needle and hook labeling and to patterns, whether they appear in books, magazines, leaflets or on yarn labels. Our goal is to make it easier for consumers to select the right materials for a project and complete it successfully.

Here's what their chart looks like:

Now I will be the first to say that there is some valuable information in the chart. It lists number of knit stitches in stockinette stitch (over four inches); recommended needle size; number of crocheted stitches in single crochet; and recommended crochet hook size. But I still hate it. It's really counter-intuitive to me and for that reason, I'm unlikely to use it on a day-to-day basis.

First of all, there are some glaring omissions from the chart. Lumping all yarns that knit at seven stitches per inch or finer together into one category really isn't accurate. There are fingering weight yarns, then there are lace weight yarns which are much lighter, and there are even cobweb weight yarns which are, like the name suggests, very much like knitting with spider webs. To suggest that all of these are interchangeable, simply because they are really skinny, does these yarns a disservice and has the potential to be highly confusing. (You could make the same argument about the heaviest class of yarns; there are yarns that knit at 2 sts per inch and yarns that knit at 3 sts per inch, and if you were to make a sweater treating those yarns as interchangeable, you'd end up with two completely different-sized sweaters).

I also find the use of gauge over four inches (as opposed to stitches per one inch) to be user-unfriendly. I understand that you will get a more accurate gauge count if you measure over a larger swatch, but I always end up dividing the number by 4 to get a stitches per one inch number. That's how I think of them in my head: "5 sts per inch," not "20 sts over 4 inches." This particular gripe may be peculiar to me; if you're accustomed to thinking about gauge over 4 inches, you'll be just fine.

But my biggest complaint is how they have taken the interesting, quirky names for classes of yarns and substituted numbers. Numbers that don't have any identifying characteristics about them. Is Category 3 worsted weight? sport weight? who knows? who can remember? Is Category 1 the really fine yarns, because they are thin and one is the lowest number; or are they the really thick yarns, because the number of stitches per inch is so few that they put them at the low numbers? Is Category 5 worsted weight, since worsteds knit at 5 stitches per inch? Is Category 6 fingering weight, since "finger" has six letters in it?


I'd much rather talk about "DK" or "doubleknitting" yarns, knowing that this is a wartime term that meant the yarn could knit comfortably at either 5 or 5.5 sts per inch (double = 2 = 2 gauges, get it?). I'd much rather see a reference to a baby yarn, knowing that it refers to something thin and fine enough to put on a baby, visualizing Dale of Norway baby patterns that knit up at an ungodly 7 to 8 stitches per inch. I'd rather hear about a polar weight yarn, immediately getting the image of how thick and bulky a yarn would have to be in order to be useful in the Arctic regions.

Maybe I'm a traditionalist, or maybe it's just that you get so accustomed to a particular set of measurements or standards that your old brain just can't cope with translating everything into the new ones.

Don't get me started on "ply"

You'll notice some references to "ply" in my yarn chart. I've put them in mainly because some older patterns and some from other countries refer to yarns by their ply. Allow me to state, unequivocally and without hesitation, that ply has nothing to do with yarn weight or gauge. Do you hear me? Nothing. NOTHING, I TELL YOU.

Let's get basic. A ply is nothing more than a strand of fiber that is twisted around one or more other strands to make up a piece of yarn. I never really appreciated this distinction much until I started to spin, but if you pay attention, you can see that certain yarns, like Manos del Uruguay, are "singles" or single ply: the yarn consists of only one strand. When you start to spin, people will talk about your "singles," meaning the strands of yarn you produce and use by themselves, singly. Other yarns consist of multiple, very thin strands that are twisted around each other. At the cut end of your yarn, you can sometimes see the plies untwisting from around each other. If you think of something like Reynolds Odyssey, or some Noro yarns, in which the plies are different colors, you can see the plies twist around each other. One of the easiest ways to improve the look of a newbie's handspun yarn is to ply it: twist two strands of it around each other, and watch how magically the thin parts in one strand balance out the thick parts in the other, and vice versa.

If you think about it, there is some logic to the idea that the more plies, the more strands of yarn twisted around each other, the thicker the yarn you'll end up with. And there may have been a time, perhaps, when you could reliably tell a yarn's size and how many stitches per inch it would knit with based on the number of plies it had. That's why you'll see the term "4-ply" as an old synonym for fingering weight yarn, or the term "8-ply" for sportweight.

However, in the wonderful yarn world in which we live today, there is no longer any correlation between ply and yarn thickness or gauge. Technology is such that very thick yarns, like Manos, can be single ply, while infinitesimally thin multiple plies can make up a lightweight sock yarn. I've included the "ply" terminology in my chart because you might run into a pattern that uses these terms in describing a yarn, but rest assured that other than using them as a clue to the yarn's size (and if you've got a gauge measurement, that's a much more reliable indicator) you shouldn't worry your pretty little heads about them one bit.

Now it's off to kiss three little munchkins goodnight, and then maybe, just maybe, a few rows of knitting before I go comatose.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Another special birthday...

To QueerJoe, the man indirectly responsible for this blog by giving me a taste as his guest blogger...

Run on over there and give him a virtual kiss. Mwah!


Latest additions to the Etsy shop: 100% merino superwash sock yarn. I've been having trouble with Etsy this morning and was only able to load one skein, but I'll keep trying and load the others when I can (I've got two skeins of each colorway). Also, some nearly-solids coming as soon as they dry...

Monday, April 03, 2006

Yarn Classification

When I first returned to knitting, yarn classification baffled me. I heard all of these exotic sounding appellations ("fingering weight" -- which always sounded a little dirty to my pervy mind, "DK," "chunky" [hey, who you calling chunky?!]) and didn't understand what they meant, or how they fit in relation to each other. Eventually, I figured it out, and was kind of pissed that it had taken me so long to decipher the code.

One of the most common questions that customers ask at the shop is how to substitute one yarn for another when purchasing supplies to make up a pattern. You really have to understand the big picture of how yarns are classified in order to do that well. I can talk about yarn substitution if you want -- you can tell me if it's something you'd like me to discuss, or if it's old hat to you and I should skip it-- but today I'm going to blather on about general ways to categorize yarns, or ways that you can think about different yarns in your head in order to get a more intuitive understanding of how yarn classification works.

Here are a couple of strands of yarn from my voluminous stash.

Some sort of bulky weight yarn is on the left, then an unidentified worsted weight, and then a strand of Regia sock yarn. We can think about classifying them in three different ways, each of which gives you the same end result, more or less.

First of all, and most intuitively, we can think of them in terms of thickness. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the yarn on the left is biggest and fattest. The sock yarn on the right-hand side is skinniest and the worsted weight, in the middle, is about medium ("Just right!" if you're Goldilocks). One way to look at yarn classification is by thickness, and it's the most simplistic; it makes a lot of sense intuitively but doesn't get you all the way to where you need to go.

This translates pretty well into the standard yarn classification chart. Looking at yarns in order of thickness, going from fattest to skinniest, you have Bulky Weight; Chunky Weight; Aran Weight; Worsted Weight; DK or Doubleknitting Weight; Sport Weight; Fingering Weight; and Lace Weight. I'll talk more about the specific categories later, so don't get your panties in a wad yet.

A second way to look at yarn classification, and one that will be more helpful to you in a practical sense, is by gauge. When you knit with thick yarns, you get fewer stitches per inch of knitting. When you knit with very thin yarns, you get more stitches per inch of knitting. Again, common sense: think of books sitting on a library shelf. Fat tomes like the Oxford English Dictionary take up lots of space; you might fit only three of them in a foot of library shelf. Thin volumes, like The Collected Wisdom of George W. Bush, with very few pages, take up much less space on the shelf. You probably could fit, oh hell, ten or twelve of them in that same foot-wide section of shelf. So it is with stitches: you can only fit about two stitches of the blue yarn in an inch of knitting, but maybe 7 or 8 stitches of the brown sock yarn in that same inch of knitting, and maybe 4 1/2 or 5 of the pink yarn in an inch of knitting.

That means that you can look at a yarn classification chart in terms of how many stitches per inch the yarns knit at. Starting with bigger yarns/fewer stitches and going to finer yarns/more stitches, you get: Bulky Weight (3 or fewer stitches per inch); Chunky Weight (3.5 to 4 sts per inch); Aran Weight (4 to 4.5 sts per inch); Worsted Weight (4.5 to 5 sts per inch); DK or Doubleknitting Weight (5.5 sts per inch); Sport Weight (6 sts per inch); Fingering Weight (7 sts per inch); and Lace Weight (8 or more sts per inch).

Finally, you can also think about how weight plays into yarn categories. Harken back to my discussion of how fine yarns are more economical and heavier yarns cost more; remember how I said that thicker yarns are more expensive than finer ones because they have more wool in them? That means thicker yarns also weigh more. (Again, common sense.) Now, one way that people can buy yarn without going crazy is because yarn companies tend to sell yarns by a standard weight per ball, say, 50-gram balls. (Wouldn't it be unbelievably irritating if your pattern was written for, say, twelve 35.76g balls and your yarn shop had only 21.38g balls? That kind of math gives me hairballs.) The heavier and thicker the yarn, the fewer the number of yards in a ball. A bulky weight yarn may have only 45 yards in a 50-g ball, a worsted may have about 110 yards in a 50-g ball, and a sock yarn may have as much as 200 yards in a 50-g ball.

This is good to know when you're presented with a mystery yarn. Every once in a while you may stumble across a ball of yarn that doesn't have any information about where it fits on the classification chart -- no appellation like "worsted weight," not even a notation that it knits at 4 to 5 sts per inch. But if you know that it's a 50-gram ball and it's got 109 yards in it, you can be pretty sure it's going to knit at around worsted weight, four to five sts per inch. You'll still want to check the gauge by knitting a gauge swatch (what - you thought I was going to tell you to skip that vital step? Hah!), but you'll at least have a sense of what kind of needles to start with.

Tomorrow: about the names given to specific weights of yarns, and why I hate the new Craft Yarn Council classification chart.

Exciting news

Because Franklin is my idol and role model, I submitted a short essay to Cast-On, and was very excited to hear that it's been accepted for Podcasting. Fear not, dear readers; I am not going to impose my dreadful Philadelphia accent on you. I've opted for a stunt-voice. I'll keep you posted when I learn more details. In the meantime, because Franklin is my idol and role model, I present to you this little cartoon. Whaddya think?

Last but never least

Happy birthday to my beloved husband, Tom!

Saturday, April 01, 2006

A Bookworm's Progress: March

Is it time for a book recap already? Geez. Slow month for me, although the last one's a lo-o-ong one. Lots of dyeing, not so much reading going on here.

1. Inamorata, by Joseph Gangemi. I'm a sucker for a book set in Philadelphia. This one's not a bad read, the story of a psychology grad student trying to determine if a doctor's wife truly is a medium or if her psychic gifts are a fraud.

2. Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell. You can see how this one evolved out of the John Wilkes Booth book I read last month; this is a very offbeat look at three presidential assassinations (Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley) against the backdrop of several road trips (almost pilgrimages) to various historical sites associated with them. Clever and funny. I almost didn't notice how much history I was learning. I'm going to have to check out her other books.

3. The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty, by Caroline Alexander. This one's a tome, and I'm only a little ways into it, but it's a historical look at the mutiny that forms the basis of the movie (of course, my first exposure to the Bounty was when Bugs Bunny spoofed it...).