Friday, July 7, 2017

K1P1 Ribbing Quest: The Big Knit Stitch Question

My quest continues! If you are just joining me, this post is number three in a series about k1p1 ribbing-- the investigation started with a comparison of attractive (and elusive) k1p1 ribbing and ugly k1p1 ribbing (which seems to be the only kind I can produce). In my second post I looked closely at the characteristics of knitted fabric and how it behaves, and I left off with this picture:

And a question: why are the knit stitches in k1p1 ribbing so much bigger and more untidy than those in stockinette, keeping yarn, knitting technique, and needle size the same? When the knits and purls alternate with each row, or when they alternate both vertically and horizontally as in seed stitch, the stitches remain neat and orderly. But line the knits up vertically between two columns of purl stitches and all hell breaks loose. Why?

My first thought looking at the two swatches side by side is that surely there must me more yarn in those bigger stitches-- seems logical, right? This is easy to test. I knit each swatch with the same number of stitches and rows, I even carefully clipped the yarn tails to equal lengths, so if one swatch used more yarn, it should weigh more. Well I threw each one on my digital scale and they weigh exactly the same. Meaning that there is the SAME amount of yarn in each swatch! So much for that idea.

If there isn't more yarn in those bigger stitches, what accounts for the size difference? What's going on in the fabric? While I was thinking about this I held each swatch up in a sunny window so that I could better see the spaces in and around the stitches. I immediately observed something very striking-- take a look at each swatch in silhouette:

Notice the difference? The spaces between and inside the stitches of the ribbed fabric are much bigger than those in the stockinette fabric. Not only that but the yarn plies in the ribbing stitches look looser and airier-- the ribbed swatch is overall less opaque. The same effect happens in stockinette when I use a MUCH larger needle-- I have been using a size US 5/3.75mm, here's the same yarn knit on a size US 10/6.0mm:

So much more air space! And see how the plies look more open in the bigger stitches? The same thing is happening in the knit stitches of the ribbing sample-- there is more space for the yarn to expand and for the plies to separate in the stitches. There isn't more yarn in those big stitches-- there's more air! But why?

I have sort of a hypothesis-- otherwise I probably wouldn't be wasting my time and yours with this business! Stockinette fabric has less air because the stitches hold each other together better. It has more structural integrity. Each stitch supports the others next to it, the plies of the yarn are held together more firmly and the stitches sit closer to their neighbors. Stockinette can be made to look airier and looser when knit on very large needles, but when knit at a normal gauge it is much denser than ribbing. Garter stitch and seed stitch are also denser, so there can be some alternation of knits and purls without compromising the integrity of the fabric-- it is only when the knits and purls are lined up vertically into columns that the fabric starts to become unstable. Ribbed fabric has more elasticity, but it lacks the structure and cohesiveness to hold the stitches tightly, so the stitches appear larger and looser though they have same amount of yarn per stitch as stockinette.

What causes this instability? Bear with me here because it's about to get even nerdier. This problem of enlarged stitches happens in other ribbed fabrics-- many knitters find that the left knit column in any type of ribbing turns out loose and uneven. You can see it here in k2p2 ribbing:

It is the same on both sides of the fabric-- so both the second knit stitch and the first purl stitch in a k2p2 sequence are loose. Here's what's going on between the stitches:

There are two columns of large holes and two columns of small ones-- the first knit and the second purl in the k2p2 sequence behave just like stitches in stockinette fabric! These stitches are held tightly while the others are loose and airy. It doesn't seem to matter if a stitch is knitted or purled but the transition between them does. The enlarged stitches are on either side of a knit-to-purl transition. The stitches on either side of the purl-to-knit transition are "normal." Why?

While I was pondering this I thought about mirror knitting, where a knitter moves stitches from the right needle to the left as they works across the row-- many left-handed knitters find it more natural to work this way than the more common left-to-right stitching direction. Thus mirror knitters approach the knit-to-purl transition in k2p2 ribbing from the right, rather than the left. If it is in fact the knit-to-purl transition that is destabilizing the fabric in ribbing, mirror knitters might have a different problem-- enlarged right knit columns. I had a friend who knit this way, and I wish she was still around to ask-- in the spirit of dauntless scientific inquiry (which I think she would appreciate) I resorted to stalking the project pages of other mirror knitters on Ravelry, looking for k2p2 ribbing (creepy, right?). Sure enough, some of these knitters have enlarged right knit columns in their k2p2 ribbing!

To bring it all back home: the transition from knit to purl-- no matter which direction you are working-- seems to lead to enlarged stitches on either side of it. And in k1p1 this transition is happening every other stitch! Why does this transition alter the stability of the fabric? And can anything be done about it? At this point in the inquiry I'm not sure but I will take a stab at it in my next post!

I hope if you are reading and enjoying this series you will leave me a comment-- What do you think about my hypothesis so far? Have you tried to improve your ribbing? What has worked for you?

Monday, June 26, 2017

New content coming soon!

I'm just popping my head up to say that I am alive and well and still planning to write more posts! I have been distracted lately by: 1) a sample knitting job, 2) my fifteen year college reunion, and 3) a full blown obsession with curly hair care.

I'm not remotely joking when I say that #3 is threatening to suck up all of my free time. For many years I tamed my thick, heavy, wavy/curly hair with a pixie cut, which was adorable and very low maintenance. But then I started longing for hair again and after a lengthy awkward growing-out phase, I got my wish-- and the natural texture is reasserting its control over my life. Fortunately (for my hair and self-esteem, not my knitting or blog productivity) there is a wealth of information and advice available now that I SO wish I'd had access to as a frizzy-haired teen and twenty-something.

Anyway. This blog is a fulfilling but not compulsory activity and it tends to get neglected when other things catch my interest-- but new content is on its way! I also finally took the time to update my second K1P1 quest post with new and much improved pictures, which I hope provide better illustration to my talking points! More soon!

Saturday, May 6, 2017

The Goldilocks Sweater

I finally finished my green Bartlett sweater a few weeks ago. It's perfect. Before I talk more about it, I have a confession to make. I have been putting off this post because I wanted to get some pictures of ME... wearing the sweater. And I hate taking pictures of myself, even for the purposes of showing off something awesome that I made and love wearing. Maybe I am vain and hate seeing pictures of myself-- maybe I just hate trying to be a model-- maybe I'm just shy. It's probably a bit of all three and who knows what else. I have always hated having my picture taken! I know I'm not alone in this. I should try to get over it. But I couldn't wait to talk about this sweater long enough for me to get over it!

So here it is:

I started knitting this in September 2016! It took me so long but it is perfect-- exactly what I wanted without knowing exactly how I was going to get there. From analyzing my sweater failures I knew I wanted a basic raglan pullover with long sleeves and a crew neck. Also I knew what I wanted in the finishes and details: a fold-over k1p1 ribbed collar, wide borders, tubular edges. I wanted to use the same style of increases I used on my improvised orange raglan sweater of long ago:

And I wanted it to fit perfectly: comfortable but not sloppy, with a silhouette somewhere between boyish and boyfriend-ish. But I didn't know what this meant in terms of measurements!

Fit is a tricky thing-- I spent a couple of years answering email questions for a knitting designer, and the most frequent question was "Which size should I make?" I always told knitters to measure a sweater they already owned-- and loved-- to help them decide. The trouble for me is that I don't own a lot of clothes that I really like! I didn't have a model to follow!

So from the beginning I decided to think of this sweater as an experiment and that was tremendously freeing. I wasn't knitting a sweater-- I was knitting a prototype! I gave myself permission to start over as many times as I wanted to and to figure out what I liked-- and I gave myself no deadlines. Surely I would have blown them all.

I started my experiment with the back-neck and yoke depth measurements of a factory-knit raglan I owned, guessing that those would work pretty well for the sweater I wanted-- I decided what bust and upper arm circumference I was going to aim for, how many stitches I needed to end up with, and then reverse calculated how many stitches I needed to cast on. And of course how to space the increases. Whew!

Since I had enough yarn and no deadline, I ended up starting a new version when my first try seemed like it might fit closer than I wanted. Then I started a third version when I realized the second version's neckline was smaller than the first. I found all this knitting quite enjoyable and (mostly) didn't get impatient with myself to make a decision between the closer and the roomier version. I just waited-- and I reknit the collar about a hundred times trying to perfect my k1p1 ribbing.  Eventually the qualities of the yarn helped decide it. Bartlett is thick, sheepy, and rustic and I felt that the thickness of the fabric demanded a bit more ease in the fit. I ended up going with version 3, which has about two inches of positive ease at my full bust. The fit is slouchy-- I love how the extra material drapes in the back-- but not oversized. It fits neatly at my neck and shoulders and around my arms. I can layer under it and over it without any uncomfortable bunching. It has the perfect amount of detail and texture-- not too little, not too much. Just right, as Goldilocks would say.

I love it. It's still pretty damn cold here in Maine-- funny I was saying the same thing just about a year ago-- and I have worn it about a dozen times so far. I may actually wear it out before I stop loving it, and then I will mend it! Sweater success at last.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Mending by the sea

The weather has been sunny and a bit blustery and I spent part of yesterday outdoors by the sea, doing a bit of mending:

That is the sweater I knit for my husband shortly after we got married in 2009. He has worn it 100+ times per year since then and it has taken some serious abuse-- this is the fourth or fifth time I've repaired it! I recently re-knit the collar, which was looking very bedraggled, and I noticed then that the sleeve near one of the cuffs had worn very thin, almost translucent, probably from dragging across his desk as he uses his mouse at work. I warned him not to wear it until I had a chance to reinforce the area, but he didn't listen, hence the hole. I'm now duplicate-stitching-- also known as Swiss darning-- over the entire area and I have built a small scaffolding of cotton twine to support the stitches I will make over the hole. This is slow, methodical work and I'm quite pleased by the results so far!

I'm also doing a bit of repair work to my last post-- I was not entirely pleased with my swatch photos and I did a re-shoot today with the help of my afore-mentioned husband! The things we do for love. This was also slow and methodical work, and I managed to learn a lot in the process in spite of my best efforts to ignore my husband's instruction. Anyway, I think these new photos will more clearly illustrate the differences between swatches as I make further progress in my Great K1P1 Quest-- more on that front soon!

P.S. Here's a great tutorial on different methods for mending knits!

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The what and why of ribbing

Back in January I promised more posts on k1p1 ribbing and I'm finally getting around to it! Yay! This started as a side quest/distraction from my green sweater odyssey-- to recap: I became obsessed with getting the folded neckband of my sweater to look just right, and after about eight attempts I decided there must be something special/diabolical about k1p1 ribbing. So the side quest became a kind of exorcism! 😈  I have been knitting many swatches and learning a ton and finding new little threads of inquiry to follow all the time. I'm not sure it's possible to tie this all "research" together into a neat package, but I want to share what I have so far!

The first question I want to tackle: what is ribbing and why is it... what it is? I really never thought about this until I started trying to make my k1p1 ribbing LOOK better-- when I learned to knit, I just made stitches, and then began following patterns. Knitted fabric wasn't really a mystery to me until I started asking questions about it!

Down to basics: all knitted fabric starts with knit and purl stitches, of course, and when you look closely you see that knits and purls are just different faces of the same stitch! (Do you remember the moment when you first realized this? Mind blowing.) I am enthralled by the variety that arises from just this one stitch, by a loop pulled through another loop. The fundamental knitting choice is the direction the loop is pulled from-- back to front for a knit, front to back for a purl-- and from there we build an almost infinite number of stitch patterns with different characteristics and behavior!

Take, for example these four swatches:

They all have the same number of stitches, and three out of the four were made with the same number of knits and purls. But they all act very differently!

So what makes ribbing ribbing?

It is composed of knits and purls alternating horizontally but stratified vertically. I'm mainly interested in k1p1 fabric, but ribbing can have any multiple of knits and purls in these vertical columns as long as they are strictly separated-- k2p2, k3p2, k1p3 and so on... Any intrusion of knits into the purl columns or vice versa changes the fabric's nature, which is elastic-- like any knitted fabric in can stretch, but ribbing can grip and cling and gather. This is because it actually contracts in the horizontal dimension when it is relaxed. You can see that it is much narrower than the stockinette swatch with the same number of stitches:

But what makes ribbing elastic? Different knitted fabrics behave in characteristic ways, but why? When you stretch a piece of ribbed fabric horizontally, it will snap back when released (how readily it does this varies depending on other factors, but that is another thread of inquiry!) There seems to be energy in the fabric-- maybe from the twist in the fibers making up the yarn? maybe from the path the yarn takes as it moves through the stitches across the row? maybe both?-- and the placement of the knits and purls in relation to each other determines how this energy will make the fabric look and act.

If you align all the knits on one side of the fabric and all the purls on the other side, you get stockinette fabric, which (famously, maddeningly) curls vertically toward the purl side and horizontally toward the knit side:

The energy in the fabric is unbalanced somehow, hence the curling. Other fabrics lay flat-- think of garter stitch, which is generally made by knitting all the stitches back and forth.

When viewed from one face of the fabric garter stitch alternates one row of knit stitches with one row of purl stitches-- this can be hard to see until you stretch the fabric vertically:

The same number of rows of stockinette stitch makes a much longer fabric:

Yet garter stitch is wider-- I wonder why?

Garter stitch lays flat but contracts vertically-- the purl bumps come forward and the knits recede. This also happens when you make a single row of purl across the knit face of a stockinette fabric-- the fabric makes a kind of horizontal fold at the line of the purl stitches. But the opposite of happens when you make a vertical column of purl stitches in stockinette-- the purls recede into the fabric rather than coming forward. Weird!

In seed stitch and its variations (moss stitch, double moss stitch, etc), the knits and purls alternate both horizontally and vertically, and the fabric is both flat and relatively expansive-- it has more rows per inch than stockinette, but fewer than garter stitch.

These stitch patterns are more efficient in terms of fabric dimension than garter stitch or ribbing and more balanced than stockinette-- but they don't have as much elasticity as ribbing or garter stitch.

In ribbing, the knits and purls line up in columns. Ribbed fabric lies flat but contracts horizontally. Just as garter stitch forms horizontal folds where the purl bumps come forward, k1p1 ribbing forms vertical folds where the purl columns recede between the knit columns, like the bellows of an accordion. And just as garter stitch can be stretched vertically to reveal the knit stitches, ribbing can be stretched horizontally to reveal the purls, and the energy of the fabric causes it to return to its contracted state. Elasticity!

We take advantage of this property of ribbing to make our garments more fitted and resilient at their borders-- but something becomes very obvious about ribbing when it is right next to stockinette stitch:

The knit stitches in the k1p1 ribbing are MUCH bigger than the knit stitches in stockinette-- both of these swatches were made on the same size needle. The knits also look very different-- loose but also flattened and squarish:

Why is that? Are these two phenomena-- the larger stitch size and the unsightly, ladder-y stitch appearance-- related? More on this and other questions soon!

Friday, March 31, 2017

I heart mattress stitch

March is going out with a bang, aka another winter storm bearing down on Southern Maine. As luck would have it, I'm prepared to spend some quality time indoors with one of my favorite things: several feet of mattress stitch 😍

That's right! I am just about finished with my green sweater! I have been anticipating this glorious moment for a LONG time, and I intend to savor it.  I don't know why I love seaming so much-- it is supposed to be such terrible drudgery, to be avoided at all costs. It just pleases me to bring two pieces of knitting together so neatly and discreetly.

It helps to build in selvedge stitches-- for me this almost always means one column of plain stockinette at each edge-- and to place shaping at least two stitches away from edges. Planning ahead in this way makes for more enjoyable joinery!

This time I also built in faux seams-- one column of purl stitches, seen here from the wrong side-- at each side of the body of my sweater. I will stitch over these as well. This is meant to add more structure to sweaters knit in the round... but it is also a excellent way to sneak in more mattress stitch. 😊

I am also working away on the Great K1P1 Ribbing Quest-- I have a few more swatches to knit and I should have the next installment finished sometime next week!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Nearly done!

When I last checked in, I was on my third version of the green sweater, splitting hairs over neckline fit. Well I'm pleased to announce that a front-runner (sweater #3!) emerged (somehow!) from the pack, and I am now nearing the finish line:

It has sleeves! Given all the other waffling and indecisiveness that has characterized this project, I was amazed by how quickly I settled on sleeve shaping. The sleeves are knitted flat from the top down, per Karen's suggestion and my own intuition that this would be much easier to knit. I also happen to enjoy mattress stitch!

I am still playing with the body length. I originally planned for a high-hip end point, but now I want to see if I like it better a bit longer-- I think this will have more wardrobe versatility. It has come down to my last bit of un-knitted yarn and I broke out my scale to see exactly how many more rows I can afford to add before I need to start unravelling sweaters #1 & #2.

I'm happy I took the time to work out my technical/aesthetic issues with k1p1 ribbing-- the cuffs and body ribbing are looking mighty fine. Which reminds me that I need to start in on that series I promised! I opted for a grafted bind-off on the cuffs to complement the folded neckband. The knitting appears to wrap around the edge and disappear-- kinda spooky.

It's time-consuming to work and difficult to undo, though. I think I will do a more conventional bind-off on the body stitches, at least until I have worn the sweater a few times and feel confident about the length.

I'm really looking forward to wearing this! I wet-blocked it when I had the body and one sleeve finished and the fabric is everything I could wish for. Pre-blocking it was a bit stiff and crunchy-- now it still has a hearty texture but is much softer and more yielding. I love the surface density of woolen-spun yarns as well as their surprising lightness, and the way the resulting garment envelopes one in a pocket of warmth without weight. I think this may be the beginning of a long-term relationship with Bartlett!

Like much of the North East, we are experiencing (what I hope is) the last blast of winter-- sure wish this was finished. I can envision wearing it cool spring days and maybe cool summer nights, but it would be ever so cozy right now.