Fixing my knitting: the cowl strikes back

My first attempt at knitting a cowl went horribly wrong.  It was a lumpen monster unworthy of the alpaca that had supplied it.  I felt bad about this and bound to make amends. 

Now I have fixed it but what gave me particular satisfaction was finding a way to make its oddities part of the design concept. I had failed to follow (even a simple) pattern and had been forced to correct an inadvertent expansion to 104 stitches in width. I decreased too steeply and ended up with some gently undulating rows. Some of these remained in the section I salvaged but I found that they provided a frill that hides the seam, making the cowl reversible and adding texture (and extra warmth). Unorthodox perhaps but its mine and I rather like it.

The greatest relief to me is that it works as a garment – it hugs my neck and is beautifully warm and soft. It has gone from zero to hero and I appreciate it even more for that reason.

Best of all, it leaves me with a reclaimed ball of angora wool and the scope for another, matching project.  A pair of wrist-warmers perhaps?

What I learned from failing with my first knitting project

It is painful to write this post but I feel I must.  Part confessional; part advisory, this is what I got horribly wrong in my first knitting project. I bare all and there are pictures too.  Health warning over, here’s the deal.

My first project was a cowl: 55 stitches wide and 60cm long.  It called for alternate rows of knitted and purled stitches. Simple stuff but for the beginner, wrought with hazard. I produced a monster that is over a metre long and varies in width from 55 to 104 stitches, including holes and lumps at variable points.  It is horrible but it taught me a lot so this is why I swallow my pride and share this horror.

Here are the pitfalls that I tumbled into, some of them technical and some of them emotional or circumstantial.  At any rate, I hope they prove useful to other beginners.

1.  Twisting the yarn – I did this again and again: you forget whether you are knitting or purling and you twist the yarn the wrong way over the needle.  It results in a tight twisted knot of a stitch that you don’t always notice until you come back to it a row later.  Solution: concentrate and think about what you are doing and which stitch you are on. If you think you’ve gone wrong unravel the stitch and do it again.

2.  Yarn over – classic newbie problem – so angst-ridden about dropping a stitch, if you forget where you are mid-row you might try to knit an extra stitch between two by looping the yarn back and knitting through it.  I did this many times and it resulted in holes and extra stitches that inadvertently ‘increased’ the piece.  In fact I managed to double the width of my cowl by doing this.  Solution: focus on each stitch, notice how it completes and relax about dropping stitches.  If you find a loop that is not a stitch in a subsequent row, don’t try to make it into a stitch, just loop it onto the right needle and carry on.

3. Dropped stitch – horror of horrors: you DID IT. Breathe. Solution: Can you get the loop back onto the needle? If not, use a crochet hook or a stitch fixer to pull it back up in the next row. Correct this one as soon as you can because the more rows that you knit before fixing it, the harder it gets.

4. Knotting – only one vowel’s difference but a world away in concept.  Do not be tempted to tie up holes or use knots to fix things: THEY WILL COME UNDONE.  Solution: for dropped stitches see above; for finishing things off, leave a long tail of yarn and weave it back through the previous stitches.  That will be much more secure and (almost) invisible.

5. Casting off with blithe abandon – I failed to cast off the first time I tried so I had to add another row to try again, meaning less yarn for the final sewing together. Solution: allow more left over yarn than you think you need.

6. Leaving your brain somewhere else – knitting can be relaxing but sometimes it needs concentration and if it does, your brain needs to be present.  My worst mistakes happened when I was preoccupied with other things, too stressed, had had a glass (or two) of wine or was simply in the wrong frame of mind.  Solution: approach your project ready to focus and think about what you are doing so you get the best out of it, both for the project and your own mental and emotional benefit.

7. Complacency – early on (at least after 30cm or so) I realised things were not going well: I’d increased width from 55 to 104 stitches, incorporated holes, lumps and at least one knot.  I should have called time and unravelled the lot and started again but I carried on.  Mistake: it won’t get any better.  Solution: Just step away from the disaster zone and start again.  Good yarn deserves better. 

There, I’ve done it and shared my shame.  Cowl Mk I bites the dust but cowl Mk II will be better and it will deserve that anonymous alpaca’s turquoise locks if its the last thing I do.

The coat off his back: why I love Wool Week

It is Wool Week and it seems an appropriate moment to celebrate the artisans and the animals that give us beautiful natural yarn for knitting and weaving.  The fact is, this is the thing above all that enticed me to try knitting: seeing how the animal’s fleece goes from farm to garment and beauty of the natural processes involved in that transformation.  One of the many attractions of knitting is the direct connection between making and wearing a garment.  I certainly feel a sense of pride in wearing anything I’ve made that far outweighs the (secret) knowledge I have of the imperfections in it.  Imagine, though, the pride you might feel in mastering the whole production process yourself. 

This summer, on holiday on Dartmoor, I was lucky enough to witness our neighbouring farmer penning her angora goats for shearing. The little flock of goats live a charmed life on Dartmoor, farmed solely for their mohair. As you would expect, their hair is rather special – their ivory corkscrew curls are super-soft and produce a beautifully soft yarn that Susan, their owner dyes and spins herself.

I was fascinated to see that she uses a traditional spindle – the kind that I remember from fairytale books – and even more delighted to be given the opportunity to try spinning myself.

It is harder than it looks and requires a level of physical co-ordination that you might expect from drumming: each arm and one leg all employed in different motions. The right hand feeds the fleece through thumb and forefinger into the left hand that holds spun yarn taught, while the right foot pedals at a constant speed to keep the spinning wheel in regular motion. As the yarn is produced, it winds onto a bobbin.

The way it works is that the spinning wheel creates energy that is transmitted to the yarn.  Whichever direction the wheel spins will determine the natural lean of the yarn, so in order to avoid that translating into a wonky garment, you can combine yarns with opposite ‘leans’ to give a single straight strand which then becomes a ply yarn. 

The real skill though lies in creating colour combinations in the yarn itself.  Susan showed me how she builds different colours into the yarn, using lighter colours or metallics to lift the darker ones.  It was clear to see her enthusiasm for this and her joy in the colour combinations. 

The final stage is creating the product – a woven rug, a knitted cushion cover or hat.  These products are very special: a unique and  hand-made product that has been created from inception to completion by a single artisan.  From caring for the lush fleece of her goats to creating the hat that will protect your own locks from winter weather, Susan has the process covered.

 I couldn’t resist buying one of her beautiful hats, especially having met the ladies and gents who had generously donated their luscious locks, and I wove the thread that I had spun myself through it as a reminder of a really fascinating and eye-opening afternoon.

You can find out more and commission work from Susan at and if you live near Dartmoor you may see her at local markets or National Trust events, though perhaps not with her caprine suppliers…..   

Failing that, you can check out Wool Week online at including their super-cute gallery of sheep photos which is nearly as good as seeing the real thing.

Yarn Therapy II

Four weeks and four classes after my initiation to knitting at Tribe Yarns in Richmond I have completed my first finished garment.  It is a simple woolly hat but I feel immensely proud of it.  I know it intimately, as only the maker can.  I know the stitch where I encountered a fluff ball of unspun yarn, the moss stitch that was actually supposed to be ribbing, the concealed thread that finished the top and bottom, even the moment when Amazon rang the doorbell and my stitch-marker fell out.

I knitted it in the course of a week while listening to an audiobook version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Originally chosen as a suitably seasonal entertainment and a book I’d always meant to read, as the chapters progressed it got me thinking about the relationship between creator and their creation.  Though Frankenstein is ultimately consumed by his obsession, he can never escape his fundamental connection to it, nor his subliminal pride and sympathy with it. My hat is highly unlikely to inflict a similar fate on me but I did experience a powerful attachment and driving force to make the necessary progress over the week, then a boost of elation and pride in seeing my creation come into existence.

Like Frankenstein’s creation it is somewhat primitive and rough round the edges but like the creature too, it has the right instincts.

So this is my Frankenstein hat but, unlike Frankenstein, I suspect I shall be making another.