Friday, February 26, 2021

Design Your Own Aran, Part Four: Get Swatching


You know that old saying, "Measure twice, cut once"? It reminds us to take time in the prep stage of work to save time later on. When it comes to aran designs, this adage couldn't be more true. But before you can swatch, you need to choose some cable stitch patterns to try out together.

Choose a main cable stitch. Focus first on finding a main cable stitch to go on either side of the front button bands. It will be the widest of your cable stitches and will be the one to attract the eye first. It will establish the overall feel or mood of the sweater. However, since this is a cardigan and we're designing in quadrants, don't let this pattern be too wide or you won't have room for anything else (unless that's the effect you want). In my cardigan, with a finished bust size of 36", my main cable has 20 sts, not counting any purl stitches added at the sides for definition (for more on those, see below). I chose it from Melissa Leapman's "Knit Stitch Pattern Handbook", p112, called the Inishmore Cable.

Choose some possible accompanying smaller, simpler cable stitches. These need to play well with the main cable stitch. I like to choose ones that are easy to memorize. That way I can focus my attention on reading a chart for my main cable, then work the smaller ones on autopilot. If your main cable is airy and lacy, then you won't want something heavy to accompany it. If your feature cable utilizes seed stitch to fill in motifs, then you may want to use smaller cable stitches with some seed stitch elements. But sometimes contrast works well. You could have a main cable with big, curvy lines and a smaller, angular one. To really know how cable "siblings" get along, you'll have to swatch them together.

Pay attention to row repeats. It's important to select accompanying cables with row repeats that are factors of the row repeat of the main cable. For instance, my main cable has a 16-row repeat. Therefore, I ruled out any smaller cables that didn't have repeats of 2, 4, or 8. Of course, you can do what you want, but sticking to this arithmetic will simplify your knitting. You'll have enough going on without having to keep track of non-syncing stitch patterns.

Does symmetry matter to you? Some cable patterns are symmetrical or almost-symmetrical, and some are not. Look at the classic celtic cable in the centre of Hedgewood.

If you were to draw a line down the centre, each side would be a mirror image of the other. Same goes for the OXO cable. The braid cable is what I like to label "almost-symmetrical". It's not perfectly symmetrical, but it's close enough that when you see it on either side of the sweater front, you don't notice that the one on the left isn't the mirror image of the one on the right.

In a cardigan, the main cable pattern will appear on either side of the button band. It will be literally in your face, so to me it begs to be either symmetrical or mirror-imaged. You can see that the Inishmore Cable I've chosen (on the right below) is NOT symmetrical. It weaves and bobs. For my taste, it screams out for mirror-imaging.

Here you can see the mirror image charting of the same cable.

In fact, I also chose to mirror-image the smallest rope cable too. If you don't want to cope with that, try to choose cable patterns that have symmetry. Or, you could be a free spirit who doesn't care. That's OK too. This is YOUR cardigan.

Vertical Reversibility Here I'm referring to whether a cable stitch looks the same when worked bottom up or top down. In this relatively simple shape with modified drop shoulders, the body will be worked bottom up before the sleeves will be worked top down. Going back to Hedgewood, the OXO cable in that sweater is a good example of a cable that works in both directions. Not so the braid. In that pullover this was a non-issue because the whole thing was a bottom-up raglan. But in this design project we will have to keep in mind that whichever cable(s) are intended for use in the sleeves need to have the characteristic of up and down reversibility.

Decide how you want to separate the cable stitches. Cables stand out because they exist on a background of purl stitches. Elizabeth Zimmermann was right when she asserted that aran patterns are nothing more than fancy ribbing. It's quite common simply to separate cables with a couple of purl stitches. My favourite method is to insert a 3-st divider: p1, KB, p1. I only knit in back on the RS rows. The result is a pleasant twisted stitch that firms up the fabric and frames the cables. Sometimes you see a 4-stitch divider: p1, 2-stitch twisted rib, p1. Look at lots of aran sweaters and see what appeals.

Chart your cables on graph paper. If you're lucky, your stitch pattern library will have charts. If not, you'll have to do the charting yourself. I like to use paper and pencil. Then I cut out the various stitches and play around with them before taping them together for a swatch "audition".

Time to get swatching. Choose a needle size that suits your wool. I used a 5 mm 24" circular needle for my swatches. Be sure to add several inches worth of whatever your filler stitch is at one side. To keep things easy, I chose stocking stitch as my filler stitch. I also generally add one plain knit stitch at the other side as a selvedge. The goal is to be able to get an accurate measurement of the entire cable panel, as well as a gauge per inch of your filler stitch. My entire panel measures 7 1/4" and I am getting 4 stitches per inch in stocking stitch. Armed with that, I can plan the rest of the cardigan. 

Blocking your swatches. I made four swatches before I was satisfied with the end result of my cable combos. As I completed each one, I soaked it in warm water and Eucalan for about 20 minutes (enough time for the fibres to fully absorb the water), than squeezed it and patted it out until it looked nice. I did not try to achieve any particular dimension. I pinned down the edges and let it dry atop our radiators.

Don't worry about ribbing yet. How ribbing plays into cabling, and whether you even need ribbing at the lower edge of an aran cardigan is worthy of an entire blog post. Next time... Part 5 is here.

P.S. You might find the following charts and key from Hedgewood useful as a guide to common charting symbols.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Design Your Own Aran, Part Three: Calculating the Field of Play

Before you start swatching aran stitch patterns, you need to calculate your "field of play", that is, the amount of space you have to fill with patterns of your choice. The first step to figuring this out is to decide on the desired finished circumference of your cardigan. For simplicity of design, I'm focusing on a hip-length, boxy shape. My bust is 32" and I'm aiming for a finished bust of 36". That will allow for 4" of ease, and the width just happens to correspond to my hip measurement to create a straight silhouette. If you feel at sea in deciding on a finished size, I always recommend that you measure a favourite sweater and use that as a guide. You don't need to decide on any length measurements at this stage. Indeed, you'll find that a lot of the fun in sweater design is your ability to make decisions as you go. It's very freeing.

Step two involves what I refer to as the "quadrant approach". Divide your total circumference into four. In my case that works out to 9 x 4 = 36". Each quadrant will take up 9". A diagram is a useful tool.

Here the front of the cardigan is shown at the bottom. I want a front border of 1 1/2" in width. That is enough to allow the fronts to overlap comfortably and at the same time support some nice buttons. With the total band width at 1 1/2", each front will lose 3/4" off its 9" total. That means a "field of play" of 8 1/4". I need to choose stitch patterns that when swatched together come out to something LESS THAN that measurement. Why less?

It is customary (certainly not mandatory!) that there are "filler" spaces between aran panels. These make it easier to design cable panels since you don't have to aim for a precise measurement; the filler spaces will get you to your desired total. These are often in simple stitches such as double moss, seed stitch, or even plain stocking stitch. You can see this in my Hedgewood at the sides of the body and sleeves.

When doing the actual knitting, these spaces feel like "relief" spots, where you can catch your breath before moving on to the next bit of cabling. Look back at the right hand side of the diagram and see that I've allowed for small filler spaces at the sides and centre back. (I've planned for them in each quadrant, but I'm only illustrating them in two.)

Since I'm working a little ahead of my blog posting, I've already completed my swatching and I know that my cable panel (which contains three different cables) measures 7 1/4". That means that my filler space at the sides in each quadrant will measure 1" to get to the 8 1/4" total. When the back and front sides come together they will result in a side filler space of 1 + 1 = 2". The centre back will be a filler space of 1 1/2"; it is the mirror of the space occupied on the front by the button band. 

So, go ahead and do your calculations. Of course, at this stage you won't know the actual width of your cable panel(s), but the point of this post is to help you focus on the size of the space you will have to fill. My next post will be all about how to choose cable stitches and how to put them together. 

Part 4 is here.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Design Your Own Aran Project, Part Two: Resources

I'm assuming that anyone undertaking this project is not a novice knitter. To design your own aran sweater you really need to have already knitted an aran project and a few sweaters of any type. You need to be familiar with reading charts because you're going to have to create your own. Let's focus on resources first. I'm not including knitting stuff like ring markers and tapestry needles that you are likely to already have on hand.

1. Stitch pattern libraries  Over the years, I've collected a lot of stitch pattern books. These are so handy to have on hand, even if you don't intend to design sweaters. You can use them to locate simple stitch patterns to incorporate into socks or baby blankets or dish cloths. There are tons of pattern libraries available, so many that I'm not going to offer a list, other than to say that if I could have only one it would be the first volume of Barbara Walker's treasuries. It's an older publication in black and white, without charts, yet it remains a "desert island" book for most knit designers. Potter Craft's 400 knitting stitches is another nice book with charts (a little small and faintly printed) that I think is quite useful. I also like Wendy Bernard's stitch libraries, such as her Up, Down, All-Around stitch dictionary, which could be especially helpful for those unsure of how to represent stitch patterns in chart form. There are specialty books of cable patterns by the likes of Norah Gaughan and Alice Starmore (I took some aran classes with her back in the 90s), but let's follow the KISS principle for now. KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID.

2. Graph paper, lots of it  These days I simply have a free printable template bookmarked on my laptop for printing graph paper as I need it. And to go with the graph paper, pencils, an eraser, scissors and tape or glue.

3. A rigid measuring tool. Tape measures are good at measuring around your body, but mostly you're going to want to measure straight lines in your (blocked) swatches. I use one of those standard lock and hold metal measuring tools that you find at the hardware store -- you know, the ones that threaten to sever your fingers if you allow them to snap back too quickly. Like this:

You could use a yard/metre stick instead, but it's not as convenient. A ruler simply isn't long enough.

4. Some means to mark your place in a chart. This could be as simple as sticky notes (what I usually use) or as elaborate as a knitter's magnetic board (I have one but seldom use it). The latter are available from numerous sources. The point is that you'll need something more than just a ruler laid flat to mark your row. It only takes a flick of an elbow for you to lose your place. It's true that it's pretty easy to find where you were from examining your work, but it's better not to have to bother.

For now, that's it. If I think of anything else, I'll revisit this post and add it on.  

P.S. For anyone looking for a deep dive into Aran Design, I recommend Janet Szabo's Aran Sweater Design

Part 3 is here.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Design Your Own Aran Project, Part One: Getting Started

Have you thought about designing your very own unique aran cardigan, but didn't know where or how to start? Now's your chance! Over the next weeks (maybe months?) I'm going to walk you through the process as I design and knit an aran cardigan. Why a cardigan? Well, I already have Hedgewood, a pullover, and I want something that's easy to take off, put on, or button up or not, depending on how much warmth I feel I need. 

Need some aran cardigan inspiration? Here are a few of my favourites.

1. Vale by Norah Gaughan from Knitty, Issue 38

Love the punchy colour (check out how it's echoed in the porch ceiling), the short length and of course the Norah Gaughan cables.

2. Must Have Cardigan by Patons

Again, I love the hip-grazing length and the way this cardigan feels as though it's something you could just throw on and head out the door for your Saturday shopping (assuming we casually enter a shop ever again).

3. Hallet's Ledge by Elinor Brown

From the same issue of Twist Collective, Fall 2010, as my own Sandridge (see sidebar for link). The simplicity and femininity of this design captured my attention from the moment I saw it.

I recommend starting off your design process with a basic sketch of the general shape you want to wear. You don't have to be an artist to do this. I'm not one, but even I can come up with a useful sketch for design purposes.

Notice the boxy shape, the modified drop shoulder, the crew neckline, and the 2x2 ribbing. An advantage of this shoulder type is that it allows you to carry the aran panels all the way up to the shoulder (although apparently I erased that area a little too enthusiastically on one side of my sketch). Another benefit is that it allows you to knit the sleeves from the top down, enabling a perfect fit. You can see how a knitted-in modified drop shoulder works in my Wakefield, below.

It's easy to do and absolves you of the need to deal with lots of shaping in cable patterns.

Now let's think about wool choices. I'm going with Topsy Farm's worsted. As I have mentioned in a previous post, it's neither "worsted spun" nor classic "worsted weight". What it is is a beautiful woolen spun, ethically grown aran weight pure wool. I'll need about 6 skeins to make a cardigan for my size and still have enough to play around with some swatches. I really hope you'll opt for Topsy. FYI, the yarn which Topsy sells as "aran" is what I would call "chunky". Also, remember that dark colours won't show off your cable stitches, not to mention that it's more difficult to see what you're doing. My advice is to go bright or light. Whichever wool you decide to use, make sure you have more than you think you'll need. When designing your own garment, you want to have enough to play around with swatching. Trust me, you'll find uses for any leftovers (hats, mitts?). Go ahead now and, if necessary, order enough for your own aran adventure.

In my next post I'll talk about choosing stitch patterns, how to arrange them, and especially how to swatch them.

P.S. It seems that Topsy has sold out of a lot of worsted weight colours. However, you can still find stock in quite a few yarn shops, including Unraveled in Perth, ON. 

Part 2 is here.

Friday, February 12, 2021


It's February, and it's cold -- minus 13C (8F) with a minus 20C (minus 4F) wind chill. And that's at almost 2 p.m. with the sun shining, the warmest point in the day. It could be a lot worse, but still, I've no desire to venture outside apart from taking out the garbage. It's indoor exercise for me. Thank goodness so many great online exercise classes have sprouted up during the pandemic.

Yesterday I received an order of natural grey Topsy Farm worsted (the stuff on the left in the pic below).

Topsy is close enough that in normal times, I'd just hop in the car and take the short ferry ride over to Amherst Island. Instead, I had to resort to mail order, but how nice that they also sent this postcard to thank me for my purchase.

Incidentally, Topsey's latest project is ReWild! and involves the rewilding of their fence lines with hedgerows planted with native species. You can sponsor a metre for $100. Also, did you know that Topsy is involved in Prince Charles' global Campaign for Wool?

After a lot of easy knitting, I'm in the mood for something less boring more intricate. Like an aran cardigan. I have some favourites, including Hallett's Ledge and the good old Patons' Must Have Cardigan. When I was teaching at KnitEast 2019, the Yarn Harlot was working on the latter during her off hours. 

This is a swatch of some cables I'm auditioning, knitted in a remnant of Topsy's dark grey "worsted". In fact, it is not "worsted spun", but woollen spun and more aran weight than "worsted weight", but gorgeous stuff nonetheless and reasonably priced to boot. The big cable on the right pleases me with its slight wonkiness. See how the outer ropes loop farther out than where you would expect? I also like the slip-stitched gull stitch cable on the left. The honeycomb in the middle has to go though. It's too much like the main cable. I might sub a small zigzag in its place, or better, move the gull stitch over and place the zigzag on the far left. Too bad that Topsy was sold out of the dark grey, but at least the cables will pop more in the lighter colour.

More swatching. This is Sandnes Garn's beautiful merino fingering weight "Sunday" and features the "Eddystone" gansey stitch. Not sure if this is going anywhere, but you never lose with swatching.

You may like to know that Isabel made it back to Kingston after her rather epic journey from San Francisco via Vancouver and Toronto, and completed her quarantine at midnight yesterday. We are actually going to see each other this weekend for the first time in more than a year. Leaving groceries outside her apartment door and picking up her garbage bags doesn't count. COVID numbers are extremely low here in Kingston, but I share the view expressed in today's Globe and Mail that Canada may well be sleep walking into a third wave. At least all our family is in the same place.

Our world has shrunk to views of our winter garden

and glimpses of the lake at the bottom of our street (still open last week when I took this, but frozen over now).

 Stay warm, and make something yummy and chocolatey for Valentine's Day.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Willingdon Socks

This is an updated version of the old Cataraqui Socks, shown here in Knitpicks Stroll (Rainstorm Heather, because someone will ask). The heel is now my preferred garter stitch short row heel, worked over 60% of the stitches for a good fit over the instep. We are getting side swiped by the same storm hitting the east coast, so this morning I rushed out before breakfast to try to get a good photo. As soon as I clicked my phone, the first flakes began to fall, so good timing for once!

At the moment, both patterns are showing up on my Ravelry designer page, although the new pattern is uploaded to both. I have a "merge" request in to Mary Heather, so hope things will get sorted out asap. Meanwhile, you can download the pattern here.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Looking Back to Move Forward

Like most designers, I keep notebooks full of ideas for designs. Most end up in a sort of limbo while I deal with more pressing demands. However, the pandemic is slowing down life so that I'm having time to go back and examine earlier ideas -- like this one.

It's based on the Eddystone gansey stitch pattern. You can read more about my original exploration of the stitch here. Note that the links in the post no longer work (this frequently is the case as time passes). In any event I won't be doing this in authentic 5-ply gansey wool. It's more likely that I'll go with either a worsted or DK weight. Time to play...