Sunday, December 29, 2013

In Praise of Swatches

It seems that among knitters “I never swatch” is some sort of badge of honor.  Admittedly, I also rarely knitted a swatch when I was younger – I was impatient to get my project started.  However, I often ended up having to rip out what I had started – which lowered the probability I would ever finish – or live with the results or give my hard work away.

Quilting made me realize that you need to try things out and practice a bit before committing expensive materials and hard won free time to a project.  I almost always make a practice block, especially if it is a pattern I have not done before.  Sometimes I discover easier, more accurate ways to make the block or realize I don’t like it (and therefore will not waste my time with it) or I discover where I have to be careful, if it is to come out right.

I always first quilt a sandwiched practice block or larger practice quilt sandwich. I check the thread tension, audition threads, practice the pattern I think I want to use and get warmed up.  Way less frustrating than ripping out threads!

So when I started to knit again, I realized that swatches were very important.  You practice the pattern (maybe it’s too big of a pain or doesn’t look like you thought it would), you determine the correct needles to make gauge or realize you’ll have to change the pattern a bit, you see if you like how the yarn knits and if it will look good for your project.  Since knitted swatches need to be washed and blocked, you also get an idea of the kind of care the finished project will need.

When I swatch, I tag the little block and write down everything I think is pertinent as well as staple the skein sleeve to the tag.  I feel comfortable not swatching, if I make a similar project with the same yarn (albeit, a different color) and needles.  So I use my building collection of swatches as a sort of reference library.  In the long run, this will save time and money.

Swatch from commercial yarn

Since I started spinning (more about this soon), swatching has become even more important.  In this case, I first spin and ply about 12 to 15 meters of yarn (about 6 to 10 grams of unspun fiber).  I save samples of the singles, the yarn after plying, several meters of untouched yarn and knit a swatch. Normally I cast on 24 to 30 stitches and go from there. I determine the needle size to use by doubling the yarn and seeing which hole in my needle gauge is just covered.  Afterwards I know if I will probably need to go smaller (usually) or larger for a project.  I record the length of yarn used for the swatch, the squares inches of swatch and weigh it.  From this I can determine about how many meters I will need to spin and how much roving I will need to start with.  I build in about 10% slop to ensure I have and make enough.  This swatch also tells me how the yarn will look knitted and whether I want to make changes.    I record all the info, including which spindle I used, on a tag.  This should help me stay consistent throughout the production of the yarn as well as serve as a library for future work.  What doesn’t work is as important to know and record as what does.

Swatch from a project I have just started.

Especially when I am blending colors, this swatch tells me if this is what I want. 

Another current spinning project using 3 different colors blended by carding.

If you have avoided swatching in the past, I would recommend you give it a try – you will find it worth the effort!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Blocking Socks

I started this topic last time, but want to follow up with my final results.  I made 2 large sock blockers from foam board that I already had.  It is cheap, easily available and sturdy enough for the task.  The paper layer seems to be water resistant.  I made blockers for medium and for small socks.  I have used the medium size to block several sets of  my socks and the blockers show no detrimental effects of the damp.  One sheet (18 by 24) will easily make blockers in the three adult sizes with enough left over for a child’s size.  

In making the blockers, a few things to keep in mind:

  • You are not trying to stretch the sock to size, so the blocker should be ever so slightly smaller than the final size.
  • If you extend the top of the pattern out (see previous blog entry for pattern link), the cuff will get wider, which you don’t want it to do – make sure the cuff part of the blocker maintains an even width.
  • Once you cut out the first blocker, use it to trace the second on, so that the 2 are alike.
  •  There’s a lot of leeway in this – so the blockers don’t have to be perfect.
  •  Use a knitting needle to poke a hole through the middle of the top.

I didn’t like the yarn and hook arrangement to hang them and so came up with a single hanger, shown below.  It takes about 10” to 12”of heavy gauge wire (like 18 or 16).  It is bent in the center and then out – that part fits over my clothesline – and then 2 hooks facing inwards to hold the blockers.  I made the arms of my hangers rounded – more of an artifact of the wire having been on a roll – but that’s not necessary. It hangs like a mobile.  The middle loop could be modified to hang over a dowel or hook or shower curtain rod, depending where you need to hand them up. Or you could fashion a separate hook that fits over larger rods and then hang the hanger from it.  The hanger would work well with commercial blockers.  


Hangers with loaded blockers attached.
The blocking process is simple:  soak the socks in tepid water with a few drops of good wool soap.  Squish the water through the socks, but do not agitate.  Then squish out the excess water, rinse, squish them out again.  Lay them on a bath towel and roll this up like a jelly roll.  Place on the floor and stomp on it.  Turn the roll 90 degrees and stomp on it again.  The socks will be just barely damp.  Now pull the socks gently over the blocker and adjust.  Don’t try to stretch the sock out – you are just trying to even up the stitches and give the sock and nice flat shape.

I looked at the foam sheets that were recommended at another site.  Most of it is too flimsy and the stuff that was thicker only came in 9” by 12”sheets, which are too small.  

 I also tried to make a wire frame blocker from plastic coated wire I had.  The 18 gauge was too weak – I had to make cross braces and then tape all the connections and wire ends – while it worked, it was hard to pull the socks on and off without snagging.  However, the socks dried quicker.  I will look for heavier wire and try again.  It does have to be coated, because you don’t want the metal to rust or tarnish and discolor the sock.

Bottom line – the socks come out looking great and adds that extra professional looking touch to them.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Knitting Refound

I cannot believe it has been over 2 months since I last posted.  I have been super busy as well as not home much.  Visit my ipernity site for pictures of my recent travels.

Knitting was a strong tradition in my mother’s family: I have beautiful pieces knitted by my ancestors at least 3 if not 4 generations back.  In her spare time my mother always had some kind of needle in her hand:  sewing, embroidery, crocheting or knitting.  However, I think knitting was her passion.    I love knitted wool garments and pretty much only wear hand knitted socks.  Although my mom passed away in 2005, she left me almost 12 pairs of socks she had knit for me.

My mother knitting something on dp's in summer 1936. She would have been 11 years old and clearly have been knitting for some time to be doing this.
So it was assumed I would share that passion and some extent I did. I started 
'knitting" when I was about 6 or 7. I was given one of the mushrooms with 4 pegs to get the basic idea and build some of the fine motor skills needed to knit.  To a tomboy keener on catching snakes and building dams in the creek, this was mind numbingly boring.  But I did finish a couple of pieces. 
My first knitting device.  It's about 55 years old....
 I then learned to crochet – I liked that better – but I also learned to knit properly and by the time I was 13, was knitting scarves and hats and the like.  I eventually knitted a few sweaters, but liked knitting socks, mittens and other small projects best.  Since my mother was so prolific and kept my whole family – especially our daughter – in all the wool garments we would want, I had little motivation to knit.  As my career in forestry and in teaching developed, I pretty much knit on the very rare occasion.

There was also the problem of technique.  Since I am first generation in the US from Germany, I learned to knit continental, aka German style.  However, my mother actually had a limited palette of techniques and stitches.  I never saw her do but very limited color stranded work or cables.  She loved brioche and seed stitch.  She never knitted in the round, except for socks.  She never used circular needles. She only knew one way to cast on - I am now a fan of German twisted (aka, old Norwegian).  She did not use Kitchener stitch - which I find very useful and not all that hard.  Look up the free course on Craftsy on grafting.

Last year a friend, who knits and who knew I had once knitted, gave me two beautiful skeins of wool.  I looked on line for patterns and was overwhelmed at how much info there is on the web, that there is a site called Ravelry, that there are so many great video tutorials and Craftsy courses about various techniques, etc., etc. Paradise Fibers, a huge yarn shop, is within walking distance and I was amazed to see the selection of wools, needles and other accessories.  So much had changed.  It was like opening a treasure chest! 

I changed how I knit from continental to combined.  Don’t believe all the nay sayers who insist that because the stitch mount changes while purling, that you can’t do some things.  Bull.  You just change which leg of the stitch you use when the mount is reversed.  I used to hate purling – now it is a breeze and my knitting is much more even, mainly because the eastern purl stitch is a true mirror of the continental knit stitch and uses the same amount of yarn.  That is not the case in pure continental or in pure eastern.  Since I started life as a left hander but was forced to use my right, this way of purling synchs with my brain better.  

I used to only use sets of 5 double points to knit socks and mittens.  Now that I have discovered magic loop, I doubt I will use them much.  In fact, I doubt I will use any of my straight needles, as circulars seem to do it all.

I LOVE color stranded knitting and am now working on a vest using Fair Isle patterns and techniques via a course on Craftsy.  I discovered that using two hands to hold the yarn better for me.  That meant I had to learn English style knitting.  It wasn’t easy at first and I still have trouble with holding the yarn at the tension I like, but it is coming along. 

 I also found that even with my right hand, my purl is eastern style. Why am I purling with my right hand?  I am making a mitten cuff in corrugated rib, which means the knit stitches are in the main or background color and the purl stitches are in the pattern color.  Because of yarn dominance, you usually hold the pattern color in your left hand and the main in your right, so that the pattern color stands out.  (If you are holding both strands in one hand, the pattern yarn must always come from underneath the main color.) However, when doing corrugated ribbing, you need to reverse that so that the purling recedes and the knitting stands out.  I did it both ways on this first cuff, and upon close inspection; there is indeed a difference!
My first attempt at corrugated ribbing.  You can see the line where I switched which yarn is in the right hand (or comes from underneath).  The top looks better.

I am also learning about blocking.  I never blocked socks except to lay them out on a towel. Then I read this post by Liat Gat  and realized I needed to do this.  I looked at the commercial sock blocking frames and was amazed at the price.  I am making a pair of socks for my brother-in-law, who has big feet.  I doubt I will make too many of this size, so I really did not want to buy anything.  So I made my own.

First you need a pattern – found here.

I happened to have some foam core poster board.  I wet a piece of the board and was reassured that the paper covering is water resistant.  If in doubt, you can apply packing tape over it.  After all, the sock will only be slightly damp, not wet. I traced and cut out the large sock outline and extended the cuff. To promote drying, I cut out the center, leaving a little more than 1 inch of foam board around the edge.  It is still stiff enough.  I made 2, attached a piece of yarn to each and then fashioned a small hanger out of wire, so I can hang them from my clothesline.  The ends are bent away from each other so the socks hang apart which allows more air flow around them.  One sock is being blocked now.  If I like the results and performance, I’ll make a set in the size I knit most (fits me and most of my friends, including my husband).

Sock block set I made from foam core poster board for size 10.5 socks!
 So the learning goes on.  I have found a passion for knitting I did not have before – I also believe I have a lot more patience and since I am retired, I certainly now have the time.  It’s a good counterpoint to quilting and much more portable – I even take a small kit backpacking so I can work on a sock in camp!  I will be writing more about knitting as well as about quilting in the future.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Better Ironing and Work Station

Every once in a while I get a good idea.  That happened a few days ago as I was -again -  replacing the light canvas cover on my ironing board.  It is a 2 foot by 4 foot piece of 1/2 inch plywood, covered with insulbright batting (I used what I had - any other batting should work) and then covered with light canvas that is stretched and folded to the back of the board and stapled into place.  It creates a large, stable and firm working and ironing surface. However, after enough use, the canvas eventually gets gross and scorched.  I can rotate the board once - most of the staining is in the corner closest to the iron.  Then I have to replace it.

So the other day I was at that point.  I had a previous piece that I had washed.  While it was still stained on one side, it was fine on the other, so I stapled this new cover into place after removing and discarding the old one. 

Then I thought: what if I made a removable cover to lay on top of this one?  I could rotate and flip it four times, wash it, or replace it, without having to remove the main cover and staple.  So I took a half width of another piece of canvas and zig-zagged the edges.  I sized it to lay on the work top edge to edge.  These edges are held down with those clips you can use for patio tablecloths.  Works great and I think I will save time and money in the long run.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Snowy Meadow

I just realized that it has been over 2 months since I posted last.  Not intended, but I have been busy and not inclined to write.

I have been taking an assortment of courses in quilting and in knitting on Craftsy.  I really like this approach – the courses are not more than 40$, often on sale and some great ones are free.  They are available forever and you can ask questions.

One course that I have gotten a LOT out of is Annette Kennedy’s Painting Pictorial Quilts.  I had been painting fabric ala Mickey Lawler Skydyes, but I wanted to do more with paint.  Granted, there are some quilters out there like Pat Durbin and Susan Brubaker Knapp who paint wholecloth and then embellish with thread, etc.  I don’t quite want to go that far, but I definitely can see using paint for shadows and highlights to create more depth and details that thread might not do as well or the way I want it to.

Probably the biggest thing I got out of the course is understanding acrylic paints and how to use them on fabric.   Fabric paint is formulated to bond to fabric threads.  Normally you thin them with water which allows them to spread and mix.  However, that’s the last thing you want to happen when using it to enhance details, etc.  You need to be able to control where it goes as well as its strength.  For that you use floating medium.  It’s a gel that allows you to control where the paint goes.  It increases drying time as well.  Afterwards you heat set it like any other fabric paint.  The nice thing, even if you aren’t using transparent paints, you can make opaques semi-transparent through the use of floating medium.  

Ann’s basic approach to mixing is to first mix the basic hue full strength in one of the divots of a mixing plate.  Then put a small glob of medium in another divot and quite a bit more into another and even more in a third.  Use a palette knife to add small amounts of the full strength paint to the three.  That way you get dark, medium and light tints of the same “mother color”.  Try them out on a scrap piece of fabric until you have what you want.  You may need more medium or more paint. You need to see these dry, so a hair dryer makes this happen quicker.  You never use white to lighten – just the medium.  If you need a shade or a tone, then you have to add black or gray up front before adding the medium.

You don’t have to use acrylics specifically designed for fabric.  Textile medium works like floating medium but additionally makes any acrylic bond to fabric.  I used to do Bauernmalerei (tole painting) and have a large collection of acrylics, which I can now also use on my quilts with textile medium.  Both floating medium and textile medium can be found at craft and art stores.

There are water soluble oil crayons. Some, like Neocolor, are really expensive, but Crayola makes  great ones in their Portfolio series that work equally well and are far cheaper and more widely available.  Your options are to draw on the area and then spread it out with float or textile medium or to add the color onto the palette plate and then mix in the medium.

All this information came at an opportune time, because I had started another project based on an article written by Martha Ginn for American Quilter magazine about Ghost Quilting.  Unfortunately, I decided to use a dark background (her examples are all light background) and nothing was working for me.  With the acrylic paints and textile medium I was able to finish Water Iris.  I fused a small piece of fabric not quite centered onto the dark background fabric.  Then I painted in the flowers beyond this margin.  I also outlined quilted other elements as well.

Water Iris 18 by 24 inches

I completed the two projects in Ann's Craftsy course: Calla Lily and Desert Trail.  

 The original desert trail design had a paved road, but I opted to convert that into a trail or jeep track and add Joshua trees.

Next, I signed up for Gloria Loughman’s Linear Landscape Quilts at Craftsy.  The use of a background fabric over which is fused the main color to create the contour lines attracted me.  Rather than doing the provided project, I thought the photo taken by my friend Kyle Funke was sufficiently similar and let me do my own work.  I learn more that way.

When I had finished the basic assembly, which uses very little quilting, I decided I wanted to do more with this quilt.  I added a tree to the foreground and created and enhanced bushes, fine branches and the like with thread sketching.  Then I decided to try using paint to add more detail and depth.  This really worked well and I am very pleased with the results.

Snowy Meadow - 22 by 16.5 inches
I am particularly happy that I could combine what I have been learning in several courses (including ones not on Craftsy like Ellen Lindner).  

Then I was approached by Craftsy to be featured in their blog.  Wow, that’s a huge ego-hug, if ever.  I am so touched by the very positive response this quilt has generated – thank you, all!  At this point, it’s going into a quilt show this week – wish me luck!

I think I am finally finding the collection of techniques and tools I need to create the type of art quilt I want to make.  I now plan on refining my skills with a series of smaller quilts based on flowers.  I am going through my pictures to pick out the first ones to try.  I’ll keep you posted.

Monday, April 8, 2013

A New Sewing Table

A former work colleague and friend named Tom loves woodworking the way I love quilting.  The challenge of creating a useful piece of furniture, the joy of working the wood, the precision and craftsmanship involved – these are parallels that can be found in  quilting.  Tom has made several pieces for me and one for my daughter.  He made a beautiful cherry wood quilt rack as my retirement gift. 

Cherry Wood Quilt Rack
  One of the first pieces he built for me is an ironing table made to my specs.  It is kitchen counter height, so I can comfortably stand and do my block layouts, pinning and ironing.  It has drawers and shelves for all my supplies.
Ironing Table
 I was getting frustrated with my sewing machine setup for quilting.  I had to reach up, even after I put a large pillow on the chair.  I had no real room for my elbows.  Shoulder cramps were the norm.  So I asked him to build me a custom sewing table.  My Janome 6600 fits snugly onto a sunken platform with its sewing bed flush with the table top.  Tom finished the heck out of the table surface so that I will barely need my Supreme Slider. The top has a flip up extension to support larger quilts.  There are 2 drawers for my quilting threads and the shelf that the machine actually sits on is extended to hold three long trays for quilting tools.  It arrived yesterday, so I am going to test it this morning – but I can already tell how much better this set up is going to be just by sitting at it.  It was dimensioned to fit against a white formica topped kitchen table.  It can extend as well.

My new sewing table extended (the ironing table is in the background).

Side view of the new sewing table showing all the nice storage!
The really cool thing is he made it from his wood stash (yes, just like us sewing from our fabric stashes) and it is so sturdy and pretty.

On another note: I ended up dropping out of the Year of Lovely Finishes group.  One of the main benefits of retirement in my mind is the lack of deadlines and schedules.  So I felt it silly of me to impose one.  However, I have been finishing projects at a fair clip.  I knitted a bunch of baby clothes as well as a 2 pairs of socks and a sweater for me (see them on my Ravelry page ) 

 I finished the quilt I was talking about on my last blog entry – it even was done for the shower.  
Born To Ride - completed.
 Yesterday I finished a kaleidoscope quilt a la Ricky Tims.  I have one finished top that I am going to work on next.  All in all, it’s been a productive several months, which is why the blogging rate has suffered.
Springburst - 45"by 45"
Springburst Quilting Detail