I used to be pretty active on ravelry.com, taking photos of all my knitted projects and jotting down notes to include in my overview of the patterns and yarns I used, but now that I have my own blog and an instagram account, the effort seems tedious and unnecessary. Unfortunately, the result is that instead of transferring project notes to this blog about my knitting, I end up opting out of writing anything about my projects at all, which seems sad. Knitting is technically where I got my first taste of blogging about making things, and since this blog is about all things try and curious -not just sewing- knitting should have a place here, too! (Along with furniture-making, shoe-making, baking, etc…but those projects also seem to get left off the blog more times than not- I gotta do better!)
Anyways, now that I am in LA I don’t knit as much as I did when I lived in NYC or Vancouver, but contrary to popular belief, this city has great sweater-weather! Not just for the mild winters when all you need is a good cardigan (no coat necessary), but also for the evenings, which cool down considerably for the majority of the year, and when visiting the west side of the city near the beach, when the breeze off the ocean makes the daytime much chillier than on the east side and in the valley. Still, I have accumulated more handmade sweaters in the past 9 years than Los Angeles knows what to do with and because most of my older pieces are bulky and thick in order to handle northern climates, I sadly don’t get as much use out of them here. This did not, however, stop me from making the Embrace Octopus Sweater when I stumbled across it on raverly a few years ago. It’s easy to see why- just look at it!
I had been searching for a cool pattern to knit up for Claire for her birthday, upholding the tradition of making her a new sweater each year as a gift. Claire had recently gotten her cephalopod tattoo so I entered “octopus” and “squid” into the search terms on ravelry to see what I could find and lo and behold, this beauty popped right up. I was impressed by how beautiful the pattern was, but I honestly don’t recall being too scared of it. I had knitted several projects with both intarsia and Fair Isle before, so I was familiar with stranded knitting, and nothing about the actual dimensions or fit of the sweater seemed too out-of-my-depth; it was pretty boxy and only required shaping at the shoulders and neck like any raglan sleeved sweater. All that was required of this project was patience, and I’ve got that in spades. So I gave it a whirl, and about a month later (I was on a tight schedule because I wanted it to be finished in time for Claire’s birthday), it was complete, and I mean COMPLETE! Ends woven in, blocked AND dried!
Since I made the first version of this sweater so long ago I won’t bother with trying to recall the details of my experience with it, so instead I will focus on the most recent versions I made, starting in October of 2016. At the time I was working in Savannah and had just completed my first pair of knitted socks, thanks to Sonja’s (gingertakesphotos) inspiration. They were super fun to work on and got me back in my knitting groove after a several months’ long hiatus, so when they were finished I was ready to tackle something big again. After I had made Claire’s octopus sweater a few years prior, I promised myself that I would make one for myself, too, but I knew it would require a lot of modifications since the sweater came in only one size and it was larger than I wanted.
With all the extra time I had in Savannah, it seemed as good a time as any to get through the tricky bits, so I hunted down the pattern in my files on ravelry and downloaded them (I don’t have a fancy knitting app for cataloguing my PDF patterns, I just store them all in Notability). I was surprised to see that there was a newer version of the pattern than the one I made a few years ago, and this one came in two sizes, but guess what- FOR SOME REASON I DIDN’T USE THE NEW VERSION. Don’t ask me why; sometimes there is no explanation for our ill-advised behaviors, right? I think my reasoning was that I was already familiar with the first version of the pattern and how it fit so it seemed smarter to work with what I knew. But hindsight is 20/20. I should have worked from the newer version of the pattern because it had some adjustments in fit that would have benefited my project. But the truth is that nothing would have completely saved my second sweater from the knitting fail it became. Let me explain.
I wanted my sweater to be smaller than the version I made for Claire. But since the octopus sweater is based off of a chart that has to be followed precisely in order to get the octopus to look like, well, an octopus, you can’t adjust the size by knitting more or less stitches like you can with other projects. For any non-knitters reading this, most knit projects have their sizes differentiated by the number of stitches knitted with all subsequent sizes following, so your pattern would start out like this:
for sizes S (M, L, XL), cast on 110 (122, 138, 146) stitches, join in the round, then knit 6 (7, 8, 10) rows in stockinette.
The only way to make a larger or smaller sweater for this project is to alter your gauge and/or your yarn: using smaller needles will result in a tighter knit and therefore a smaller sweater, and bigger needles do the opposite. By changing the weight of your yarn you get a similar result- a thinner yarn will yield a smaller sweater than a thicker yarn will. By combining changes in both the needle size and the yarn, you can get tremendously different results without having to adjust any of the specific knitting details of the sweater. It is important to see what your gauge is when making these kinds of changes by swatching the yarn with the needles you intend to use and comparing it to the gauge the pattern calls for. I went down a few needles sizes (which is a mod I make with almost all knitted garments- I have a very consistent but loose knit) and used a much thinner yarn than the bulky kind suggested for this pattern, then I swatched it. It was about an inch, give or take, smaller in width than the suggested gauge of the pattern, which seemed about right, I guess? Honestly it was just a guessing game but I was happy to play along! Unfortunately I lost, big time. I knitted several inches of the bottom of the sweater and it was looking pretty small to me, so I would try it on and discover that it just barely skimmed my abdomen. It was fitted, but it definitely didn’t seem too small and I had plenty of breathing room. “Keep going!” I would tell myself, “it’s fine! You’re being paranoid!”
Famous last words.
Turns out I was NOT being paranoid at all. When I finally cast off the collar of the sweater a couple months later and ran to the mirror to try it on, I could barely get the damn thing over my head! I got stuck at one point trying to pull the sweater over my bust (which isn’t even big!) and had to take a few deep breaths to get the sweater the rest of the way down. To my horror, you could barely tell the sweater had an octopus on it! It fit around my abdomen just fine, but as soon as the sweater got to my rib cage, the stitches started to distort from being stretched out so much and the eye of the octopus was warped and frightening looking. The raglan seams were so spread apart that you could see my skin peeking through the stitches and the actual sleeves were so tight that I was hulking out of it at the biceps. And finally, the whole thing wanted to ride up my belly with each inhale I took. It was a disaster 🙁
Somehow I convinced myself that it would stretch out a lot after I blocked it and magically fit me like a dream as soon as it was dry, but I knew deep down that there was no saving it, at least not for myself. Once my fears were confirmed and it was THE EXACT SAME SIZE after blocking (which by the way has NEVER happened to me- everything I knit stretches out after I have blocked it! lol) I decided wasn’t interested in trying to manipulate it further. People were writing on my instagram page about turning it into a cardigan, cutting it up the sides or middle and adding extra stitches to it, etc, but I was adamant about leaving it alone. I had coveted this sweater for myself for years at this point, and it just didn’t seem worth it to settle for anything less than a garment that was exactly what I wanted. That’s the beauty of making things for ourselves, though- we fine tune, adjust, and rework it until it’s as close to what we want as we are capable of making. And the old adage held true for me- if it’s not worth doing right, then it’s not worth doing at all. To be clear, I am no perfectionist- over the years I have settled for garments that were a little more off than on, a little more wrong than right. But my wonky knitting gauge and miscalculations with this sweater didn’t make it imperfect- in fact, the sweater was very beautiful when it was completed, it just didn’t fit me.
I won’t lie, I was heartbroken when the reality hit me that I had just spent months making what was essentially a knitted muslin. But I also realized that this was a chance to make the sweater EVEN BETTER than it would have been if it DID fit me. Once it was complete, I saw that it wasn’t just the fit that was off- I needed to have chosen different yarn colors as well.
The pattern is written so that the main color is dark and the contrast color (which is used for the octopus body) is a lighter color. I followed this guide for the first version of this sweater, but for my second I thought it would be cool to switch them around and have a dark octopus on a lighter background. This probably would have worked just fine if I hadn’t dramatically changed the yarn I used from a bulky (as suggested in the pattern) to a lighter worsted weight yarn, but because I did, the dark contrast color had to be stranded behind rows and rows of light pink stitches. The result is that the dark blue yarn ended up peaking through the light pink yarn. A bulky weight yarn creates much fluffier, thicker stitches so there isn’t much room for the yarn you are stranding to show through the holes of the knits. Again, HINDSIGHT! Another tricky thing about using the opposite colors as suggested in the pattern is that it makes the chart REALLY hard to read sometimes. The chart is color coded so that dark squares represent the main color and white ones represent the contrast color. Switching your own yarn colors means that you end up reading the chart backwards, though, so you have to re-interpret the white square as dark yarn and visa versa; as you can imagine this can really mess with your brain when you aren’t paying close attention, and I almost always watch TV when I knit. It wasn’t a huge issue, it just tacked on even more knitting time to have to go back and redo stitches that I ended up knitting the wrong way.
Okay, so now I had decided I was going to re-knit my sweater with the proper yarn weight, gauge, color suggestion and using the newer version of the pattern which included two sizes (M and L) instead of just one. I did go down a few needle sizes as per usual but I felt confident that it wouldn’t throw off my sizing too much. I chose a Malabrigo bulky knit for my main color in a deep gray-ish purple that had flecks of light in it and for the contrast color I chose a light pearl gray color that looked exactly like the lighter flecks of my main yarn- I figured they would look good together and tone down any peeking-through of my light colored stranded yarn (I was right!). My contrast color yarn is actually a DK weight, so it’s slightly thinner yarn than my bulky yarn, but I didn’t think it would affect the over-all look of the sweater, and again I was right.
I made just a few more mods on this version but nothing dramatic- I added more length to the ribbing and bottom of the sweater right before the stranded knitting begins because I think that this sweater as written is pretty short and I wanted mine to cover half of my butt. I also think that the sleeves have a weird shape- they start out pretty tight at the wrist and then grow as you keep knitting, but I wanted sleeves that had a little more wiggle room at the wrist before shaping began, so I just added a few more stitches to what I cast on and knit them straight up until the number of stitches on my needles matched the chart count (all this was done before the stranded knitting begins so it doesn’t affect the octopus at all).
The sweater is knit in 4 parts- you start at the bottom of the body and work in the round, following the chart, all the way up to the underarms, then you hold the body on waste yarn. Next you knit each sleeve in the round from the wrist up. It should be noted that one sleeve has almost no stranded knitting except in the top corner where the head is, and the other sleeve has an octopus tentacle wrapped all the way around it. If your stranded knitting is not very consistent and you knit too tight or too loose when stranding, one of your sleeves might fit differently than the other one. I only know about this from obsessing over the notes that other people made on ravelry when making this sweater. Thankfully I have a pretty consistent hand when knitting (stranded or otherwise), so I didn’t have that issue on either or my sweaters, but it’s something to keep in mind. One trick I learned is to knit with the right side of the knitting facing you so that your stranded yarn has more slack (traveling on the outside of the garment with more room as opposed to the inside with a little less room). But in general you have to remember to give your stranded yarn just the right amount of ease- if you pull it too tight your knitting will pucker and gather and fit very tightly, but if it’s too loose you will have loops on the inside that will gape and snag on things (like jewelry and fingers) and it can also create holes in your knitting. It’s not hard to figure out the right tension for stranded knitting but it might take a little practice to feel confident with it.
When going through parts of the chart that had lots of stitches of one color and not the other, I would strand the unused yarn through every 4 or 5 knits of my other color, catching it in a stitch and giving it a bit of slack before it was either used in the chart again or stranded through. Another trick I learned is to take a break from the chart knitting every six inches or so to weave in the ends. On my first version of this sweater I waited til the very end to weave them in and it took me DAYS to finish- there were probably hundreds of them! I don’t strand through the entire sweater- as you can see in the photos there are places in the chart where there are inches and inches of main color only, and since my tension doesn’t change when stranding or regular knitting, I just cut my contrast yarn off and knit in the main color until the chart shows that the contrast color comes in again. This makes knitting go quicker but it also means you have more little yarn ends to sew in at the end. Weaving them in throughout the process gives your eyes a bit of a break from following the chart and balances out the tediousness of focusing on just one part of the sweater for too long.
After you knit your sleeves, you add them onto your needles with the body of the sweater on it and begin working in the round again and decreasing at the beginning and end of each sleeve. Every time I make this sweater my knits are off at the octopus head- no idea if it’s a pattern mistake or something I am consistently doing wrong, but I always just fudge the rows right there until the chart matches up again (this area of the head is just a big block of contrast color so it was pretty easy for me to make it work without sacrificing the image of the octopus).
After following the chart for the yoke of the sweater in a spiral going inwards, you do some short row shaping at the neck which requires a lot of attention but for some reason is just SUPER fun to do IMO, and then you do a couple inches of ribbing at the neck band and then bind off. The pattern gives you the option to omit the short row shaping and just knit in the round until the charted knits are complete, but doing this gives the neck a very rectangular and wide opening and I don’t think it’s flattering- I followed these instructions on my second version but liked the short row versions of my first and third sweaters the best.
After weaving in all the last few ends of yarn, I tried the sweater on and was pleased to find how much I loved the fit! I had always thought I wanted a less boxy and a snugger fitting sweater than how it was drafted, but it actually felt cozier with so much ease in it, and it doesn’t look huge on me as I had feared- it definitely fits well and I could not be happier with all the choices I made the second go-round, from sizing to color to mods.
The best part of this story is that I found the perfect person to send my tiny pink version to, a very fashionable friend of mine named Alice who adores the colors of this sweater and who obviously fits into it SO well- it’s almost like it was made for her!
As for me, I could not even tell you in words how thrilled I am to be done with all things octopi! I learned so much about this particular sweater pattern in the past 4 months, but I also learned a lot about myself, my determination and what I am capable of. As I always say, I wasn’t bestowed with any specific gifts or talents for making, I have just cultivated the ability to be patient with and kind to myself, to allow myself space to mess up without judgement, and to give myself as many chances as I need to try, try again. Fundamentally, creating art isn’t really about how much talent you have- it’s about showing yourself some grace, and that is some self care that I think we could all use much more of.
Happy making, y’all!