A Walk Down Knittory Lane

I got into knitting almost 10 years ago when I was playing the title role in a musical called Chasing Nicolette at the Prince Music Theatre in Philly. Some time before I was cast in the show, I had been gifted a hardcover knitting book called Weekend Knitting, and I was immediately drawn to the gorgeous photos inside. There were close-up shots of textured, furry wools and shiny wooden needles with loops of squishy yarn lined all the way down to the tips. The models in the photos were beautiful and diverse, and they just looked so happy, like the only thing they wanted in the whole wide world at that moment was to be wearing a meticulously knitted garment while smiling at a camera. There was a really sweet (albeit completely unrealistic) shot of a woman soaking in a huge clawfoot tub while working on a long thin scarf that piled up on the floor next to her (I know this activity is unrealistic because I tried it, and steam from a hot bath makes woolen fibers feel sticky on moist fingers, especially with the added effect of fine condensation that collects on the needles; for me, tub knitting was totally weird/gross/unweildy, but the photograph was inspiring enough for me to give it a try). When packing for my nearly three month long stint at the Prince, I decided on a whim to bring the book with me, even though I didn’t know how to knit. I figured that once we were done with rehearsals and were in full performances, I would have time to learn (I ended up buying a copy of Stitch N’Bitch to aid me in the process) and time to make one of the seemingly simple and beautiful patterns from the book. I wanted to wear my own knitted things that would turn out looking just as exquisite as the projects in Weekend Knitting, and I would be so very happy, smiley, and proud of myself, and I would also be, of course, very warm, which was important when I was living in the northeast.

It was quite the rude awakening to realize, after successfully teaching myself  how to knit and purl on two straight bamboo needles, that jumping from garter stitch straight into a fingerless mitt pattern was going to be very, very difficult. I worked on my project for weeks, taking the stitches out and starting over so many times that my merlot-colored yarn became garbled and knotted and stringy. I threw my glove and needles across the room. I insisted that something was wrong with the pattern, that it was full of mistakes since it made absolutely no sense to me. I am pretty sure I shed some frustrated tears at least once. I flipped through my Stitch N’Bitch book over and over again, re-reading the same passages and trying to apply the clear steps in the pictures to the confusing instructions in the pattern.
But I didn’t give up.
I took breaks, and I got angry with myself, but I didn’t give up.
Eventually I finished my first glove. I was simultaneously elated by my success and devastated that I had to start the whole process over again to make a second one. But I did it. The glove on one hand was smooth and pretty because it was the second one I made, and the glove for the other hand was twisted and warped and imperfect, but I didn’t mind. I could see my learning curve spelled out across my palms, and it was proof that my patience with myself, however stilted, was worthwhile.

It didn’t take long for my knits and purls to become very uniform and consistent, but I was pretty stumped at figuring out how to read patterns so I just stuck to making the same 6 foot long scarves over and over. Years passed before my next attempt at trying another pattern, and interestingly enough, the impetus to dive in again came in the familiar form of a gifted book. This time, our friend Rahul had opened up an amazon package that sat unclaimed in his building’s foyer for months, and he gave it to me, his crafty-ist friend, thinking that I would make good use out of it. It was Stefanie Japel’s Fitted Knits, and, like before, I was immediately entranced by the photos in the book. I chose what looked like the simplest pattern in the book to tackle, a top down V-neck sweater in the round in stockinette stitch with knit2 purl2 ribbing at the edges. I bought my first pair of circular needles and a bright blue soft wool with a bit of shine that didn’t itch my skin. And I just dove in.
And I threw it across the room at a wall several times.
And I know I cried more than once.
And I convinced myself yet again that the pattern directions had major flaws in them, since they didn’t make sense to me.
And I wondered furiously why pattern writers insisted on using so many abbreviations. WHAT WAS WRONG WITH FULL SENTENCES?!?! And I stuffed the project in a bag deep into our closet a couple of times, waiting weeks before my fury had dissipated enough to trick me into picking it up again. But I did pick it up again. And my time away from the project worked. And at some point during this off-time, I had my first aha! moment, where suddenly the pattern instructions were understandable, and I knew how to get past the place where I had been stuck (increasing at the yoke to make room for the shoulders and sleeves had me so stumped my first time through), and I kept knitting and kept knitting, and I actually (finally!) successfully finished knitting my first sweater! I couldn’t believe it! I was so, so proud of myself! Once it was finished, I wore it all the time, with all it’s dropped stitches and wonky uneven seaming at the sleeves, and tension that zig-zagged all throughout the garment, depending on the level of frustration I was experiencing at the time of knitting. But honestly, no one could see how many flaws it had, and my friends were impressed that I had seen the project through to the end. But nobody was more impressed than me. And maybe Claire, who stifled her laughter at my rage and instead offered consolatory hugs and affirming pats on the back after each battle I lost with the sweater.

first knitted sweater, and a baby face

first knitted sweater, and a baby face

At the time, I had no friends who knit and there weren’t as many tutorials online as there are these days, so figuring out how to read a knitting pattern was a solitary, aggravating job. But it wasn’t impossible. It took hunkering down and fierce-dedication-bordering-on-obsession to figure it out, and more than a little patience with myself, and trust that not every single pattern was completely wrong and full of typos and miscounts. But it was absolutely achievable. After the success of the V-neck sweater, I made another one for Claire, to get the kinks out and right all the wrongs I had made in my own sweater, and it came out GORGEOUS, and is a sweater she still wears seven years later. Next I started going through all the patterns in Stefanie Japel’s book, choosing more ambitious projects each time, learning new techniques and challenging my burgeoning skills. And then I had another aha! moment; not all knitting patterns are created equal. This seams so obvious now that I have been knitting for so many years, but after making 6 sweaters in a row that were knitted fairly well, yet still came out kind of weird and ill-fitting, I understood that fit was just as important an element in sweater making as learning how to read the patterns. So was yarn choice. So was making swatches. Just because a sweater looked beautiful in a photograph didn’t mean that it would look beautiful on me in the yarn I bought in the size I made with my particular stitching personality. So the learning curve continued. After some online research, I realized that the talented knitwear designer was quite a bit more buxom than I was, and therefore her patterns, with the exception of the V-Neck sweater which had a tighter fit, left way too much room in the chest area on me. I wasn’t adept enough yet to know how to adapt patterns to my own measurements, so I decided to branch out and discover patterns by different knitwear designers, and then a fateful conversation with a knitting makeup artist from the first season of Fringe led me to ravelry.com, and the rest is history (I am HYMagic on ravelry in case anyone wants to follow).

I thought it would be fun to walk down knittory lane (that is so corny and I am sorry) and take a look at some of my earliest sweater knitting projects. I would never call them failures because it’s only a fail if you learn absolutely nothing from it, and that has never been the case with anything I have knitted…although it has definitely taken me several attempts at the exact same mistake to finally learn the things I am supposed to learn.

Here, we have the Puff-Sleeved Cardigan, a really cute sweater that made me look kind of like a marshmallow when I put it on. It’s too baggy in the chest and under the arms, the silhouette is frumpy, and the peplum is too short and lays down funny. My buttons were so bomb, though. I should have used smaller needles to get a tigher fit, and perhaps a different kind of yarn, because I wanted the look to be fuzzier and look more like fabric rather than a garment where you can see the distinct stitch definition.

Puff-Sleeved Cardigan

Puff-Sleeved Cardigan (I realize that this picture/angle doesn’t look all that terrible, but I never ever wore this sweater after spending months on it, so just trust me that I didn’t feel confident in it AT ALL.

This Back-to-School U-Neck Vest was another one that fit poorly- again, much to loose in the chest area and the arms, and also just kind of baggy all around. I loved the color of this yarn, and the details within the pattern were really cool, but it needed to be much smaller. I usually knit the smallest sizes available for a pattern, and it was around the time of making this sweater that I started to learn (it took many more projects to fully comprehend this lesson) that my personal tension, though very even, is pretty loose. By going down one or two needle sizes, I get the correct gauge.

Back to School U Neck, baggy-style

Back to School U Neck, baggy-style

From Stefanie Japel’s other book, Glam Knits, I fell in love with this BoHo Blouse, knitted it up quickly in a chunky wool, and was immediately disappointed. Too big. Again. Frumpy. Again. I wasn’t sold on this yarn choice either, but in my early knitting days, I found it difficult to envision what a garment would look like in different colors and yarn choices, so I tried to stay within the ballpark of what the photograph showed, in this choice using a heathered wool with different flecks of color in it. Look at how it sags so much in the back and drapes down in the shoulder area. For a better fit I should have gone down in needle size, but in general, I have learned that flowy blouses are just not my thing, and a sweater that conceals my shape on top doesn’t really suit my style. This sweater, like the first one, was never worn and was gifted to my sister-in-law.

ugh.

ugh.

blergh.

blergh.

Okay, I think this sweater is the very first one I made that wasn’t a Stefanie Japel pattern (and for the record, I don’t want this post to seem like I am Stefanie bashing- I LOVE her vintage inspired designs; she is clearly VERY talented, and without her book, I would never have been inspired to try and tackle knitting my own sweaters! One of the sad truths about making your own clothing is that not every pattern is meant for every figure unless you are willing to put in the work to adapt the patterns, and Stefanie Japel’s work was how I learned to pay attention to my personal needs and preferences regarding knitwear designs). The Minimalist Cardigan was the first sweater I made that wasn’t knit in one piece, and although it is a very straight forward and simple pattern to make in all-over moss stitch with the lapel bands in stockinette, there was STILL room for learning. I am so embarrassed to admit this, but once the whole thing was knitted up and blocked and I was supposed to sew all the pieces together, I went to the store, bought matching green thread, and I USED MY SEWING MACHINE…

greensweater_web

greencardi_web…TO SEW THE PIECES TOGETHER!!!! I didn’t realize my mistake until I tried the garment on and stood in the mirror with a puzzled look on my face. Why were the shoulders so bulky?? Why didn’t the seams lay flat like they did in the photos for the pattern? I don’t know how or why I figured it out, but as some point I realized that I was supposed to hand sew the pieces together with yarn and a thick sewing needle made for knitwear. DUH. So embarrassing. Let me tell you, ripping sewing thread out of a knitted garment is painstaking. But once I figured out the right way to do it, the garment fit beautifully, and it is currently my oldest sweater that I have made (I threw out my first blue sweater once I got better at knitting and knew that I didn’t have to wear with holes and knots in them, and all the other garments I made in between were eventually gifted to friends/family).

Almost all the sweaters/knitted items I made after this one are wearable and still in rotation. I still had a lot to learn about my personal relationship to knitted garments and what kind of things I liked knitting the most, but I finally found my knitting groove. I learned to either go down in needle size or make swatches before every new project. I learned that I prefer neutral colored, unfussy wools to bright, funky colors and wild textures. I learned that I like simple stitches with minimal details, and laces only knitted up in flat hues. I learned that I am not crazy about tweed yarn. I learned that I don’t like sweaters with bust and waist shaping, and that I really love working with cables. I hate fuzzy yarn. Knitting socks is my worst nightmare. I prefer the Magic Loop Method to DPNs. And so on and so on.

This has been a ridiculously long post that took days for me to put together, but I get a lot of questions on tumblr about my history with knitting, so now I have a post to link people to should they have any specific questions about how I got into the craft. Oh, and the sweater in the picture used at the head of this post? It’s one of my favorite sweaters that I have ever made, even though I never really wore it much cause it has some fitting issues. I wish I had used a thinner yarn, and had made the sweater longer, and decreased the neckline stitches even more so that the neckline wasn’t quite so wide. This was the first lace repeat I ever used in a pattern, and it took me a long time to get the hang of it, but the result was stunning. I hardly ever wear this garment because it doesn’t work well with a regular bra and is a little too wide in the body, but another thing I have learned over my years of knitting is that sometimes a garment is worth fighting for; I am learning to ignore imperfections and focus on the beautiful qualities of my work more often, like the soft texture and the warm shade of the wool, and how delicate the lace pattern is coupled with the solid look of the neckline ribbing . This sweater works best with a belt and a strapless bra, and it looks really cute over skinny jeans or a pencil skirt, so I am dedicating myself to wearing it more often, despite the changes I wish I had made to it. I forgot how satisfying it is to wear my learning curve, spelled out across my shoulders.

©Robin Roemer

©Robin Roemer

2 replies
  1. Darkemeralds
    Darkemeralds says:

    Thank you for this, Jasika. You’ve inspired me to try, try again. After many, MANY years of knitting badly, frustratedly turning out hopeful but unsuccessful sweaters, I had pretty well given up, making only things where fit isn’t important. Scarves, basically. Your curious, persistent, open minded approach reminds me of all the places where I went wrong–mainly, giving up too easily. Now I feel like I can tackle sweaters again. Yay!

    Reply
  2. Lilly Handmade
    Lilly Handmade says:

    This is a lovely post. I’ve been knitting since I was 4 years old, and can see my progression in the simple lace dresses I knit for teddy bears and dolls, to the first lace shawls, to the self-designed socks. Unlike you, I don’t love knitting sweaters – I like socks on DPNs! There’s nothing like handmade socks for fit and cosy factor.

    Reply

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