Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Harriet's Jacket KAL Day 1: Preliminaries

Hello from my front doorstep. I'm here because the light is reasonably good for closeups. Here's what I can see.
Young woman in 1840s dress accompanying the "In the Steps of Sir John A." tour (for my non-Canadian readers, Sir John A. Macdonald was Canada's first prime minister).

The house across the street seen from my arched front doorway.
Purple fountain grass in the pot beside me on the steps.
Really, I'd love to have a front porch, but our house is designated as a heritage property because of its architectural significance, so we're not allowed to mess with it (right down to the original windows). Still, the steps are not a bad place to sit and knit.
Today's post is mostly about stuff to do before you start knitting, and only a little bit about actually knitting.

Yarn selection
Start by reading my post about yarn options for this project. There are a couple of important things to consider that will impact how you proceed. First, is your yarn superwash? Second, have you chosen a hand- or kettle-dyed yarn as opposed to a solid colour one? With regard to the first issue, I hope you've chosen a non-superwash yarn because not only will your jacket be warmer, but also your end result is more likely to end up being the intended size. Many, but not all, superwash yarns grow tremendously when wet, which forces you to throw them in the dryer for a bit to bring them back to size before they finish drying flat on a towel. The end result can be unpredictable, the final fabric is often limp and without body (OK for a shawl, not OK for a jacket), and it's hard to shape corners and edges as nicely as you can with a non-superwash yarn. The only superwash yarn I've had good results with is Lanett Babyull; for some reason it doesn't behave like most other superwash wools I've tried. If you've fallen in love with some superwash, do yourself a favour and knit a largish swatch, wet it thoroughly, then squeeze it out, and dry it flat before you start the main project. If this is your first time knitting a sweater, do yourself an even bigger favour and go with a non-superwash wool. You will have removed a major risk factor from the entire endeavour.
If you've chosen a yarn with colour variation, such as the Briar Rose Sonoma that I'm using, you'll need to plan ahead for using more than one skein at a time to avoid colour pooling and demarcation lines between skeins. More about that below.

Winding skeins
If your wool is in balls (like the Elann Peruvian Highland Chunky I used for the pattern photos), then all you need do is find the yarn end in the centre of the ball and start knitting. If your wool is in skeins, then you need to make your own centre-pull balls. Why centre-pull? The answer, of course, is so that your ball won't go rolling all over the place while you're working from it. I'm always surprised at the number of knitters who work outside-in rather than inside-out. Give it a try, if you've never experienced the difference.
How do you wind a centre-pull ball? You can do it quickly with a wool winder, or you can do it by hand. Here's how:

Start by opening the hank and, if you don't have a swift or a friendly family member, spread it around the back of a chair. Begin by winding it around your fingers, with 4 to 6 inches dangling at the bottom (see above). After a while, switch to winding the wool horizontally around the strands in your hand, inserting your thumb while doing so (to keep things loose) and leaving the end dangling down through your palm. Never wind tightly. Leave the wool in its naturally elastic state.

Continue to wind around and around, angling the strands as you rotate the growing ball. The end is still hanging down at the bottom of the photo.

Soon you'll have a ball like this.

The original handful, with its loose end is now sticking out of the top. Just pull on the end and away you go. No yarn bowl necessary! The other advantage of a centre-pull ball becomes obvious; when wound this way, you can easily see where the colour changes are headed.

As stated in the pattern, I simply used the first few inches of the sleeve as a swatch. Since you'll be knitting much of the jacket in the round, this makes a lot of sense. Turns out, I was wrong in my intial guess at needle size. I thought I'd need to use a US #8 / 5 mm to get the correct gauge with Sonoma. I ended up frogging my cuff and starting over with the next size up. If this happens to you, don't be put off by having to re-start. It's worth it!

Casting on
My patterns always specify which type of cast on to use. The one used here, and the most useful to know, is the longtail cast on. It's tidy, but flexible. If you don't know how to do it, go here.

Knots are naughty; learn how to start without one.
Cast on the required number of stitches with one dpn,

then divide the stitches onto three dpns. Note how I stick the end of the first needle into the skein of wool to anchor it while I get ready to transfer stitches to the second needle.

Join into a round, without twisting. This is the finicky part. To make garter stitch in the round, you will purl one round, then knit one round, over and over. A lot of knitters find it awkward to start working in purl on a dpn. Here's what I do. I like to hold my dpns underhand, as you would hold a pencil. Check out the position of my right hand. There are many ways to hold your needles, and no one method is correct; I'm just showing you what works for me.

I start by inserting the working needle in my right hand ABOVE the previously worked needle. I hope you can see how I'm doing this. This allows me to snug the last stitch on the old right-hand needle up to the first stitch on the new right-hand needle. 

For the joining round, I work the first purl stitch with both the working strand and the strand from the casting on. After I complete that first stitch, I take the cast-on end behind the needle and down through the centre of the triangle of needles. I give it a little tug to make the join firm, then I continue on with my purling with the working end of yarn. When I get to this "double" stitch on the second round, I make sure to knit it as one stitch, not two.

Considerations for hand-dyed yarns
You will need a plan to avoid colour pooling and demarcations between skeins. I started with three HUGE skeins of Sonoma. I want to work the first three rounds (purl, knit, purl) from the first skein, then switch to knitting one round and purling one round from a second skein. Remember, it takes two rounds to make one garter stitch ridge. I'll alternate, switching from the first skein to the second every two rounds for the entire sleeve. When it comes time to increase for the bodice, I'll probably use skeins number two and three. To make all of this easier, I've wound my three skeins into 6 less bulky balls, and labelled them 1A, 1B, etc.

I used my kitchen scale to help in sizing the balls evenly. (OK, it's really my wool room scale; I hardly ever weigh anything in the kitchen).

I start to work the cuff, changing skeins as planned, and always bringing the new yarn up from underneath the old at the changes. It makes a little line up the inside of the cuff like this.

And if all of this seems overwhelming...
There's an easier way. If you don't feel up to working the cuff in the round, then by all means work it flat--just be sure to slip the first stitch KNITWISE on every row AND leave an end about 24" long to do the "seaming". You'll end up with a neat little line of bumps at each edge. Before you start the first row of the sleeve above the cuff on dpns, thread that long yarn end onto a blunt needle and go through those bumps from bottom to top, alternating from one side of the cuff to the other. The bumps will magically interlock. I hesitate to call it sewing, it is so effortless.


  1. I am definitely going to knit the Harriet jacket. It's the perfect weight of yarn and it looks like something is going on all the time which I love. I'm excited.

    1. Deb,
      I'm sure you'll dream up some interesting variation!