Thursday, 31 March 2011

My Knitting Nemesis: The Tank Top Of Doom

Once in a while you come across a pattern that will defeat you. If you're a new knitter this happens relatively often, and you think that the problem lies just with you. When you're more experienced it STILL happens, although you're quicker to blame the pattern or the yarn! Sometimes it's knitter error. Sometimes you just can't put your finger on why that pattern does not work for you at that time. However, most people don't talk about it, which leads beginner knitters to believe that they're the only ones with pattern compatibility issues.

The Robot Tank Top was my nemesis. It looks pretty simple at first glance - stockinette, a few colour changes and a bit of slightly trickier intarsia. However, to be fair, even the intarsia is in blocks so it's not going to be too complicated, surely?

This was the pattern I chose to complete on my train journey - one that I expected to be quick, satisfying and pretty easy. Ha!

Let me remind you how it was supposed to look:


I was to knit it for my almost 6 year old, Charlie. I used Paton's Smoothie DK, in red and grey, and Debbie Bliss Cashmerino in slate.

First off, the yarn was truely, dreadfully awful. I thought 100% acrylic would be nice and practical for an active boy, and I knew the tank top would need regular machine washing. Smoothie has got a nice feel on the ball (oo-er), not like nasty scratchy acrylic. However, once you start knitting with it, the cabled ply soon becomes a problem and it's very easy to split the ply and make a mess. I did this lots of times and kept having to go back to correct my mistakes.

The tank is made in two separate pieces which are to be joined. The neck and armhole finishes are to be picked up and knit after the garment has been made up. I carefully checked my gauge, which was spot on. I don't very often do this.

The back of the piece was made with pretty much no fuss at all; no problems so far. It took me maybe a couple of days. The front however, was a nightmare. Firstly, because of the way the pattern was laid out, I failed to notice that you needed to knit 3 inches of stockinette before starting the instarsia pattern. I noticed after half completing the colour work. Fail. That was several hours work to rip back. Irritated but undeterred, I started again following the chart. This time I finished. THEN I noticed that you needed to start shaping the armholes half way through the pattern. Arrrgh! Again, it had to be mostly ripped back and started once more. It's arguable whether this is pattern fail or knitter fail. The information was there, but it wasn't clear enough for me to process. I think that the point at which one starts shaping the armholes could have been marked on the chart with a dot, but still.

Finally, I completed the item. Fabulous. Except it didn't look right at all. It was the right length, but way, way too wide:


I got the tape measure out, and I got my gauge swatch out. Swatch was fine. By some conspiracy of fate, the tank top was 3.5 inches WIDER than it should have been. Arse. Was this the yarn, or the knitter? Or possibly a fault in the pattern?

At this point, I threw the darned thing on the floor, swore at it quite a lot and then studiously ignored it for a few hours. There was no way Charlie could wear it without looking ridiculous. I didn't want to give up because that would be letting the sodding, stinking robot win. What to do, what to do?

At first I considered steeking. Steeking is the process of CUTTING knit fabric to make it smaller. However, any idiot knows that knitted fabric unravels. Therefore, the magic and mystery of steeking is some cunningly placed stitches to form a barrier against unravelling.

I pinned the Tank Top Of Doom out and looked at it for a long time. Steeking might work, but I needed to lose so much that would lose my armhole shaping. That would make for a pretty crappy looking tank top. Eventually had a better plan - I would cut off the ribbing, pick up stitches all around the garment on a large circular needle and then start to knit downwards (from top to bottom, rather than the bottom to top working of the original pieces). That would add length to the body. Charlie would have to grown into the darned thing.


However, that did pose one problem. If you look really closely at the last row of red and the first row of grey, you'll see that the new stitches are knitted half a stitch to the left of the new ones:


There really is no way around this; it's a fact of knitting. The key is to do something to disguise it: a lace pattern or colour change will do. Thankfully the back of the garment had red and grey stripes, so it was pretty easy to disguise the new join.


At this point, given that I had been staring that this darned bit of fluff for many, many hours, I started to accept an uncomfortable truth about my knitting,

I was taught to knit as a child by my mother. To this day my mother says she can't knit "properly."It's hard to explain, I may well upload a video, but her version involves letting go of the needle to wrap the yarn with your right hand. My grandmother, a proper English knitter, taught me to knit "properly" in order to make up for my mother's dodgy technique. I clearly remember being able to do both, but choosing my mother's technique because it was more familiar to me. How frustrating!

Fast forward about 15 years and I spot a garter stich cushion in an interiors magazine that I decide I can make. It's 2002 and I haven't even picked up any needles in all that time. I bought the necessary knitting accoutrements and set about reminding myself how to knit. It was before the days of online knitting, my mother lived 100 miles away and my grandmother had died. So I sort of taught myself.

Last year I decided that this "wrong" way was something that could be corrected and set about teaching myself how to improve using You Tube tutorials. I found that Continental knitting felt the most comfortable and was soon on my way with this new skill. I found the knit stitch took longer than before, but gradually got used to the new pace.

A couple of times recently I've wondered why I can see the backing structure of the knitting. It was whilst knitting this Tank Top of Doom that I realised my stitches weren't really sitting straight. They were slightly raised on the right:


As you can see, it's not unpleasant, it just looks like a more textured version of knitting.

I decided to investigate and - lo! I am twisting my stitches. Marvellous. The problem apparently is in my purl stitch, which I was doing the easy way rather than the proper way. Wise Hilda has a good explanation here. With a bit of research, I realise that the answer I need is Combination knitting. It's kind of the best of both worlds. If you wish to find out more, the doyenne of Combination (or Combined) knitting is Annie Modesitt. Anyway, to cut a long story short, it appears that my original knitting style was right all along! Who knew?!

You can see the different styles when comparing the plain red background to the stripey bottom of TTTOD. You can see it best on the back of the garment. The bottom is smooth, drapey and more professional looking. It's also faster and more satisfying to knit.


So there you have it! As well as *everything* going wrong with TTTOD, I learned a new technique and was able to reflect on my own skills. Thankfully it was a project for my son, I would not have sent out a project like this to anyone else. All that remained was to do some embroidery and sew on a few buttons. Oh and weave in the ends - a new technique learned with a crochet hook thanks to You Tube. So here it is:





I've not blocked it yet because I wanted to show you the difference in stitches. It will shapen up a bit more then.

It's still WAY too big for Charlie, but he'll grow into it:


Having had a quick Google, it looks like it's aged 9 -10. Hey ho, at least I have a finished product! Until recently, I would just have frogged the blooming thing, but it's nice to know that you can make a knitting pattern behave and show it who's boss.

Tank Top of Doom = 0. Determined Mother = 1. Yay!

Monday, 28 March 2011

Part One: The Journey and Taa-Daa: Carrot Bag

A couple of weeks ago, on the 15th March (which incidentally was my birthday), I had a work meeting in Essex. Given that I live near Hull this was a pretty long way to travel for a one hour meeting, especially for someone whose independence can be hindered by ME. That said, I was determined to make the effort, and I was determined to do it without crutches. All nine trains of it and 14 hours of it.

As the day approached I was filled with nervous excitement - the meeting was very exciting - but the journey also phased me. I realised, stood at Hull Paragon station with newly crocheted bag in one hand and a coffee in the other, that I hadn't actually left the house without a chaperone in two years. TWO YEARS. I felt wonderfully, wonderfully free. And a bit anxious. And I wondered exactly what had happened to me that I had gone from independent professional, to nervous recluse. The reality smacked me hard between the eyes: I have effectively lost two years of my life. How on earth can I make that up?

A few things really appealed about taking the trip. Firstly was the challenge of it. Secondly, all that peace and quiet and time to myself - bliss. And thirdly? Time to read, and to knit. It's not like I don't have a lot of time for reading and knitting but, to be fair, I thought it was a good sign to still be excited about my work thing enough to want to do it as a hobby thing too.

The night before the trip, having made myself a bag and a necklace (because I wanted to stand out, in a good way), I scrabbled through my stash trying to think of a new project to knit. I wanted something personal - for me. For so long everything I knit has been determined by my customers. I really enjoy this, but also once in a while it's nice to have complete creative control. I checked out my Ravelry list and eventually found a fabulous tank top that I could make for Charlie. It should look like this (and please excuse the rubbish picture):

What drew me to this tank top was the colour, and the quirky retro feel of the robot. I knew it was something Charlie would love. I'm also creatively very interested in clothes that allow children to role play but are proper clothes rather than dress up, and this fits the bill nicely. I could just imagine Charlie running around pretending that he is Robbie The Robot, as depicted on his jumper.

What I am going to tell you now will be of no surprise: I did not knit a stitch on that train journey. I only just managed a couple of chapters too. It all went swimmingly well - the meeting and the journey, and I spent most of my time gazing out of the window at the wonderful English countryside - lamb spotting, I'll admit it, or people watching. Both were very entertaining too.I listened to paper merchants and people talking hurridly in foreign languages on their phones. I watched a young man leave his iPhone and wallet open and unattended on his seat, so he could chat up the pretty girl a few seats down (Christ, I sound like my mother). I saw two rows of cheery toddlers in triple buggies watching the trains and hoping that someone would wave at them. It was brilliant. SO worth it. I absolutely recommend a trip somewhere new on the train, even if it's just to blow the cobwebs away.

But the knitting reclined languorously at the bottom of that newly crocheted bag, gathering bits.

I will come back to that robot tank top as, unfortunately, it's been somewhat challenging. However, I have also learned a lot about technique and tried out lots of new things, but they're unrelated to The Trip, really.I shall tell you about them tomorrow. However, in the spirit of The Trip, what is more relevant is this:

Taa - Daa! The Carrot Bag


The carrot bag was conceived in front of CSI. I LOVE crocheting these bags - (UK) DC round and round for the base until it seems large enough, then TC up and up until the bag is deep enough. I ran out of cream yarn before the end of the project, so used increasingly lighter cream tones until it faded to white. This worked amazingly well. I fancied a new edging as I often use shell edging on my bags and, after a quick mooch about, found this curlicue edging. I decided on green simply because I wanted it to co-ordinate with the bottom of the bag. It was only after I started that I realised it reminded me of pea shoots. Which is where the idea for the carrots came from....

The fabric inside is, actually, a bag in itself. As such this bag took quite a long time to make. For Christmas I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Lisa Lam's book The Bag Making Bible:

Bag making bible

I LOVE this book, it is one of the best self-help books I own. I constantly pick it up when I am making bags because the techniques are second to none. The projects are great too, but I don't always want to make someone else's ideas up. I love the fact the techniques are including separately from the projects, but the projects link to the technique being taught. Does that make sense? It makes it easier to use the book as a tool to help you make your own things.

Anyway, inspired by Lisa Lam, I made a lined bag with inner zip pockets for my phone and purse. It was perfectly big enough for the things I wanted to carry (magazines and book) but not so deep I lose my knitting. It's an absolute bloody revelation to be able to make a bag that suits your needs perfectly. If you're any good at sewing, then I urge you to try it. You will feel like the cleverest thing in the world.

The carrot bag was satisfying to make and certainly eye catching. It's very practical too and I can see me using it a lot. Many people commented on it, even strangers. Some clearly did not like it much, but boo ya sucks to them. The only thing I'd change if I repeated the project would be to use a better quality yarn for the carrots. I only had mega cheap acrylic in my stash in orange, and I think it shows. I am tempted to buy some orange cotton - possibly Debbie Bliss's Eco Baby in DK - and see whether I can do a better job of it.

Anyway - love to you all, and back with the knitting techniques post very soon

Claire x

Friday, 11 March 2011

Taa-Daa: Memory Quilt

At last! I'm sorry it's taken me such a long time to reveal my surprise project - it's proved a rather tricky thing to photograph. Either there has been too much sun casting big shadows all over the quilt's ripples, or not enough. I've been ill and had paid work and, even though I managed to complete the thing well enough for Dom's birthday deadline, it was somewhat held together with bondaweb. It took me a good 10 ten days afterwards to finish off all the hand stitching. Note to self: In future estimate the amount of time something will take, then double it.

However, voila, here it is. I give you - <trumpets> THE MEMORY QUILT! </trumpets>


Let me start by staying that my husband is resolutely difficult to buy for. He likes his bees, making home brew and hot women, given half a chance. However, since the last one has been out of the question since marrying me (sorry, Dom!) that leaves the other two, both of which have been well catered for at every other birthday, Christmas etc. My parents tend to give Dom some money as a gift, or buy him gardening tools / vouchers. He is very happy with this arrangement. His family normally give him money, which he likes too - and normally spends on beekeeping equipment.

I tried - I really did - to save enough money to take him to Rome for his 40th. However, no matter where I put the money, Dom found it and moved it back to be used for more important things. I even told him what I was doing, in sheer desperation, and all he could say was "but I don't want anything for my birthday." Yeah, right. This was his 40th, and I was not stupid enough to fall for that one, even if it would have served him right.


So I took a long, cold look at myself. My husband, the man I love, was turning 40 and I wanted to mark the occasion. What could I do? I don't have much spare money, that's for sure. Besides which, he'd decided that he wanted a lathe and everyone in the family was chipping in. That was all very practical, but what could I do? To coin a very cheesy management phrase, how could I add value?


I could bake a cake, but I had done that every year since we'd met. It wasn't special enough. We couldn't really afford to go away for the weekend, especially as we'd commited to going away with friends for a night a couple of weeks afterwards - this had been arranged since Christmas. Eventually I took a long look at my studio full of fabric and yarn, and decided it needed to be something hand made.


The problem with my husband though, gorgeous as he is, is that he's not in the least bit sentimental. And he's already had a Little Picasso cushion, and various other things I sell on Folksy: such is the lot of a spouse whose partner needs to refine her ideas. He actively cringes at most soppy things. What could I make that was sentimental, but not overly so, resource cheap, but could be time heavy?


At the same time, we were having a completely different conversation. Charlie had finally grown out of his cot bed, and he went into a big, single bed. It was a very exciting time for him, but a little sad for me. It was with great sadness that I packed away his cot, not likely to be used by us again, and all his cot bedding.

Then - TA DAAA! - there it was, in the middle of the night! I would use Charlie's recently discarded baby quilt to make a new quilt for Dominic. Dom would love that - he really does love his boys. It's sentimental enough without being sickly so - perfect. So, I gathered together Charlie's old duvet and bedding, and some old clothes of his and started to put together some ideas.


I'll be honest, there were times when I wondered whether this was an appropriate gift idea for a 40 year old man. But as the germ of the idea grew in my mind, I also started to realise that I wanted it to mark his life so far, and, to a certain extent, his dreams. It would be MORE than a quilt. An act of love, maybe? A rite of passage? That sounds a bit wanky, sorry. But you know what I mean.


So what I did was this. I got enough fabric together to work out a colour scheme (orange, red and blue), and then bought a couple of fabulous packs of co-ordinated fabric from the brilliant Seam Star. This isn't how I'd usually make a quilt - I'd enjoy spending time finding co-ordinating fabrics individually. But this takes time, which was something I didn't have. I would, however, buy the co-ordinated bundles again, it took a lot of hard work out of the process. And it included some fabrics I wouldn't have considered, but ended up looking great.

The next thing I did was to find some lovely family photos. It was important to me to have some photos of Dom throughout his life - something I knew he wouldn't be keen on! I tried to pick the nicest photos (I hope I did a good job.) There are some of his babyhood:



Some memories of his childhood:


(Dom could finish his Rubix cube - I could only do it by peeling the stickers off and putting them back in the right order! He often ribs me about this)



(we were both computer montitors at different schools, 200 miles apart. We both rave about the BBC Model B)


Some pictures of his adolescence (I think he's dead handsome on this one, aged 13ish, the same age as Jonny now):


His very first car - which he admits was a dog, but he loved.


Some pictures of the love of his life (I hope! lol)


and of his wife and children (I'm assuming they're one and the same!):


Some facts about the year he was born, 1971:


A dream of his:


He's a pianist (you have to be careful how you say that aloud!) He really wants a baby grand, but it's utterly and completely out of our league at the moment. This one was apparently a house warming gift for someone from Elton John. Dom loves playing EJ's music; Something About The Way You Look Tonight was our first dance song at our wedding. One day I'll be rich enough to buy him one. Until then, here is the promise.

And finally, a tribute to the lovely man that I love so much, who is a wonderful husband and father. And beekeeper:


On the back of the quilt, to recognise the birthday-ness of the tribute, I asked his family to write some messages on pieces of fabric in fabric pen.



(if you look carefully you'll notice an axe and a gravestone in a rather worrying tribute from Charlie depicting him "doing jobs" with his Daddy)


(I nearly cried at this one. Jonny never says the words "love you" anymore, being, of course, too cool for school now)





(this brought tears to everyone's eyes. Dom's Grandma died ten years ago, about 12 weeks before we got together)


(this seemed appropriate at the time. Now each time I look at it, it makes me sing Wild Thing in my head. Oopa)

So there you have it. A tribute, in textiles, to a lovely man. A way to show the warmth of our love both literally and metaphorically. We love you, Dominic. Happy Birthday, darling.

<passes sick bucket to blog readers. Normal service will resume soon>


PS I never did get to bake that cake.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Poll: Madame Cat Bag

Poll: Madame Cat Bag

Here is Madame Cat Bag - do you like her?!

Remember the original Cat Bag? (picture here) Cat bag is one of the more popular items I sell. I originally made her for a pass-the-parcel present for Charlie's birthday and she was won by a lovely little girl whose mum really appreciates handmade things (hoorah! I find not everyone 'gets' handmade in real life)

I decided to give cat bag a makeover, and here she is, a ballet dancer. Do you like her?! Something's not quite working for me, but I can't quite put my finger on what. Maybe it's her stuffing, or her face? Or colour? Or maybe she is cool after all and I'm too used to seeing Boy Things.

Anyway, if you'd be so good as to let me know what you think, I'd appreciate it.


Claire x

PS Am photographing The Secret Project later today. I've been busy doing some freelance writing work the last few days.