Posted in Knitting
June 7, 2008

Knit So Fine blog tour stop

Hello and welcome to the sixth stop on the Knit So Fine blog tour! Andrea, the Rosie’s blog, Faina, Kat and Lynn have hosted the tour so far…today we welcome co-author Lisa Myers, owner of Rosie’s Yarn Cellar in Philadelphia (a most excellent yarn store — Kim and I stopped there on our own book tour a while back) to knitgrrl.com for a chat about designing with skinny yarns, in particular, RYC Bamboo Soft.

Shannon, knitgrrl.com: One thing I’d like to touch on, because we ran into this with a bamboo hooded jacket-style cardigan in How to Knit in the Woods is bamboo and weight. Bamboo’s quite heavy, all things considered, and the sleeves, etc grow almost like alpaca. Does knitting bamboo in a very, very fine gauge counteract that? What else did you find when you were knitting it?

Lisa Myers: Ah, right to the heart of the matter: as a customer of mine said last week (about an entirely different bamboo yarn), “I wore this for the first time yesterday, and it fit when I put it on, but by the end of the day, it was longer than my jacket.” Yes, bamboo “grows.” It feels even heavier to me than alpaca does; I think it will grow further and faster. I suspect that the solution is the same as for alpaca: a smaller needle, and a tighter gauge than you think you want.

With alpaca, that often seems to bother people — it somehow seems like you’re going to lose the lovely softness and drape if you make a denser fabric. (Whereas I’m sure you’ve discovered that it’s basically impossible to knit alpaca tight enough to make a stiff fabric). The bamboos I’ve seen have had so little loft that I don’t worry much about compaction.

Note from Shannon: Yes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen alpaca knit tight enough to make it actually stiff! If any of you have, I’d be curious to know what yarn, and what size needles!

What I did for the kimono in the book [seen at left] was to use a stitch pattern with floats: the “butterfly stitch” has lots of 5-stitch floats that are tacked down every few rows. It’s not like linen stitch or any of those other super-dense slip-stitch patterns, but I think the floats/tacking are less elastic than the stockinette fabric, and help to keep it in line.

But I also hedged my bets with the garment shape: it’s meant to fit loosely, so if it grows a bit, no big deal; it’s worn over another top, so if the neckline gets lower, nothing will be exposed; the sleeves are 3/4-length, so no one’s fingers should disappear if the sleeves stretch out.

This makes it sound like I was working against the yarn almost as much as I was working with it, so let me just say that I love the yarn. I really, really wanted all of its silk-like qualities for this project: the shine, the softness, the incredibly supple hand. (Again, I don’t think it’s possible to knit Bamboo Soft tightly enough to make a really stiff fabric).

What did you think of the yarn, and what would you make with it?

Shannon: For my purposes, as someone who generally doesn’t knit with ultrafine yarn, but who loves the way it looks once it’s finished, I’d have to say that this bamboo yarn meets almost all of my needs design-wise for a lighter weight garment. The heft and drape mean that the eventual piece is going to stay put when it’s on and not float away, which is sometimes my fear with lighter-weight shawls and such. I don’t have time to keep making sure it’s staying on — and I lost my favorite shawl pin in the NYC subway some time ago! This bamboo is a good transitional yarn, season-wise, because it’s deceptively warm, yet light and “wick-y” enough to wear when it starts to warm up. The softness of this bamboo yarn in particular was really amazing.

In my book Alt Fiber, which is coming out this fall, we used linen stitch in two different patterns to give a plant fiber knitted piece additional weight and structure. I like your 5-stitch float solution to beef up what might not have worked as well in stockinette! I don’t think the role of stitch patterns in determining garment drape and other fabric factors get as much due as they might need.

Garment-shaping wise, I’d definitely do what you did. I think one of the most important things to know about yarn is what’s going to happen when it comes off the needles. Even wool is prone to doing some funky things, if you ask me. For example, I was knitting a sweater in Noro (which is fairly thin, as wool yarns go), and it practically grew two sizes as soon as it came off the controlled environment of the circular needles.

So, thinking about this yarn in particular, I think the first garment I would want to try would be a half-cowl necked pullover. I’m working on a design right now in wool where the cowl doesn’t go all the way around the neck, and I’m deliberately knitting the cowl tighter so it will stand up, almost like a floral shape. But with the bamboo, my attraction is to its drape… so something akin to the Stitch Diva “Goddess” pattern with sleeves would show off the drape beautifully so long as you considered the modesty factor you mentioned about the neckline on yours.

I also believe in “aging” swatches. Put ’em in your pocket and walk around for the day. Wash them and throw them in the dryer, even if you’d never do that to the finished piece. Do you think this is particularly advisable with these kinds of fine yarns? Do you do anything like that to see what your fabric does after some time off the needles?

Personally, I think the heft of the yarn brings a lot of good things to any design — if you knit it denser than you might generally, it’s not going to be super-see-through like many fine yarns can be. And speaking of — how do you counteract that as a designer? Do you acknowledge it, address it, what? I think everyone out there has a fine-gauge sweater or two in their closet that leaves nothing to the imagination, right down to your bra label. Is a slip or camisole the only solution?

Lisa: I think testing a swatch for more than hot-off-the-needles measurement is a great idea, though I admit I seldom have the patience for it. And I find that the holy grail of absolute confidence is always receding toward the horizon: as a new knitter, first I learned that I had to swatch every yarn for every project; then came an adventure where I learned that I should block my swatch (or risk being surprised after I assembled the garment); now comes the news that I’d better hang some weight on that swatch and/or give it a little abuse in order to predict how it’s going to age. But I’ve learned that there are some things that no swatch can tell you: Laura, Carol, and I each had experiences in the course of the work for the book where a perfectly respectable swatch — I’m talking 8×8″, blocked and weighted and everything — failed to predict how the garment would function.

Your cowl neckline reminded me, because I’ve seen adventures like that several times with cowl necks. Because there are several garment pieces coming together, and often seams, and the shape is cylindrical rather than flat — I feel like the one thing I know about cowls is that you never know what the fabric is going to do until you have a whole neck on a whole garment.

So now my attitude is, well, the 4×4″ swatch usually tells me about 75% of what I want to know, and the next 20% would take three times as long to find out, and probably the last 5% is stuff I won’t know until I actually knit the thing. So depending on how much time I have, or how much of a time investment the whole project is, I’ll stop at the small swatch or I’ll go further.

As for the “peekaboo” feature, I think that may be a function of people’s unfamiliarity with thin yarns. Because the right yarn at the right gauge for a sweater at, say, 7 sts per inch shouldn’t be any more see-through than the right yarn for a sweater at 3.5 sts per inch. If it’s transparent, it’s being knit too loosely — or at least, looser than you want for that project. But people who are intensely aware of the difference between a light-worsted-weight yarn and a DK-weight yarn, like Rowan Cashsoft DK vs. Tahki Stacy Charles Zara, sometimes assume that everything finer than sport-weight is all the same. But Jamieson’s Shetland Spindrift, at 115 yards per 25 g, is much thinner than Dale Baby Ull at 180 yds per 50 g. Both are considered “fingering” weight, and you can knit them both at 8 sts per inch, but you can’t expect the fabric to look the same.

I also think people maybe get a little lazy about skinny yarns. I see knitters in the shop saying, “Do I have to knit this yarn on a size 2? Can’t I knit it on a 3?” Even when they’re still going to make the same size, cast on the same number of stitches. There’s just some psychological effect that it’s going to go faster or be easier on a larger needle. But it’s not — it’s just going to feel a little limp and look a little sheer.

Sock knitters totally know this. It’s so fundamental for them that denser fabric equals durability that they’re always dropping the needle size down further, so the ballband may say “US #3” and they’re saying “Can I knit this on a 0? I always do my socks on 0s.” Very few of us want our sweaters to be the same texture as our socks, but we can still apply the lesson. That’s one of the things I loved about the dress Laura made out of sock yarn for the book: we all know that sock yarns are so sturdy, they have so much body; but Laura took the gauge up just a little, and, hello, that yarn’s got drape!

It’s interesting to me that, for all the talk about how overlooked and underappreciated thin yarns are, there are two applications for which there’s already huge support (and abundant pattern support): socks and lace. And those are the two poles of the fabric-density spectrum, and also pretty far apart on the finished-project-size spectrum. But there is (or was, lots of people besides us are getting on this now) a big gap in the middle.

Shannon: Thank you, Lisa! I think we’ve all learned a lot about these amazing — and you’re right, underappreciated — yarns! Check out Knit So Fine for the purple Bamboo Soft kimono and many other fantastic patterns.

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1 comment

  • andi

    love the five-stitch butterfly float idea! Thank you so much for that! What a simply wonderful solution to the only drawback I’ve found with bamboo!

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge and expertise!

    Reply to andi

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