The First Time Having Socks

I’m knitting a pair of socks right now.  Pattern?  Heh.  I don’t really use one.

What I do (for you knitters out there), is a figure-8 cast-on toe-up sock knit in a stockingette with short row heels and a 2X2 rib for the cuff.  It’s the way I made the first pair of socks I ever made, and I like the basic idea.

I don’t even know if I do the short-rows “right”, mind.  But since the shape works, I don’t really care.

Hand-knit socks are funny.  If you’ve never worn them, the idea of getting socks as a gift seems a bit lame.  I get that. But I’ll tell you what, the look on a person’s face when they first try on a well-knit pair of hand-knit wool socks is funny as can be.   They look apprehensive at first, trying them on.  They don’t want to offend, but really, it’s a sock. How exciting can a sock be?  Besides, a hand-knits sock made to the specs of a specific person’s foot can look weirdly-shaped — not at all like commercial socks.

So here the person in, trying on… socks.  How silly.   They poke in the toe, and slide it over the foot gingerly.  After all, this is something hand-knit, and the maker is right there.  What if they <gasp> tear the sock that the knitter is clearly so proud of? How are they supposed to react?  Then, as the sock slides over the foot and nestles over the heel, the wearer gets this goofy look of bliss on their face, holds out the foot and wiggles the toes.  There is this dawning look of delight, rotating the foot and grinning.

You knitters know what I’m talking about.  I just wish I’d the sense to get pictures of people trying on hand-knit socks for the first time.

Dear Wool, Can We Have Another Chance?

Dear 100% Wool,

I’m so sorry I abandoned you.  I loved you so much for your warmth in chilly, damp Northern New England. I didn’t like what a pain it was to wash you, but I’m so sorry, I didn’t know there were ways around that.

Can we try again?

All my love,


I’d been knitting with a wool/acrylic blend for the last year or two. I idly mentioned to the lady who owns my LYS1 the reason I was choosing the yarn I did, but that I liked wool’s insulating properties a googleplex times better.  It’s just that I only own five or six sweaters, so they do need to be washed several times a winter.

My LYS guru looked at me strangely, and mentioned a method she uses to wash wool sweaters.   You fill a washing machine with warm (not hot) water and a little gentle soap.  Then you turn it off, but leave the basin full.  Add the sweaters and drop a towel in if the load needs balancing.  Walk away from it for a half hour or so.  Then turn the water to the spin cycle.  This will get the water out without agitating the sweater too much.  then you take the sweaters out, fill again and repeat without soap for the rinse.

The spin cycle does remove the water far, far better than the roll it in a towel method.  This means that if I wash a load of sweaters, I don’t have the damn things on every large flat surface for more than a day.

I’m back to knitting with wool, my preferred fiber for sweaters.  They make a better, longer-lasting sweater.  I realize that there are people who are allergic to wool, but I’m not, so that’s what I’m making for me.

1Local Yarn Store

Wonderful wool

I was complimented three times today on the sweater I’m wearing.  It’s the one I call my Thursday Sweater because of the red and purple joke with the Mjollnir pattern.  I was even asked where one could buy such a sweater.  I commented that I’d made it and the woman sighed, “Of course.  You can’t find a good wool sweater in a store any more.  They’re all cotton.”

That may not seem like much, depending on where you live.  But cotton is awful for cold or clammy weather — be it for socks or sweaters.   Cotton or cotton blend socks are certainly easier to care for.  But they don’t wick moisture well.  If your feet sweat, you get clammy.   I was never the world’s biggest wool fan until I started knitting up here in New England.  Wool socks are a thing of joy, let me tell you!   Wool wicks moisture, and is wonderfully warm.  In damp weather, wool doesn’t get clammy and lose its ability to insulate well.  Oh no.  It retains heat beautifully even in a drizzle, or if you step in a puddle.

Sure, wool is a pain in the butt to care for.   But warm?  Oh dear lord…

Knitting Around

I suppose anyone who reads this blog has ascertained that I’m a pretty enthusiastic knitter.

I didn’t get into knitting until about 2005 or so.  I was going through an insane amount of stress, I had some friends who knitted and it looked cool and I like having something to do with my hands while watching a movie and things like that.  I made some scarves and a hat or two, and it was fun, but I didn’t really groove on knitting until I learned to knit in the round making toe-up socks with short row heels.  In fact, I don’t know how to make a traditional heel to this day.  My favorite socks are the ones I knit myself.  They’re warmer than the cotton jobs you buy in department stores, being wool and all.   The hand-washing, though, is a bit of a pain.

I made a sweater after I’d been knitting about six months.  A friend kindly sent me The Knitter’s Handy Book of Patterns after a complaint about the fact that I knew how to use a sloper in sewing, so why didn’t knitting have something like that?  I don’t much like trying to create to a specific pattern, you see.  But there are garment templates to work and create from.  I learned a lot from this book, still use it for making mittens and hat and think it’s a good book for any knitter who likes to create her own work, but needs a good canvas to start from.

That sweater I made?  It proved three things:  The Sweater Curse is real,  I hate sewing up a sweater, and I prefer knitting in the round to knitting flat when it comes to garments.  It wasn’t a very good sweater, mind.  I did my best, but I wasn’t skilled enough yet.

Some time later, I got a copy of Knitting Without Tears.  Now, I’d always wanted to be able to knit sweaters and had a feeling that if I just didn’t have to seam the darned things, I’d have something nice that I’d be content to wear or to give to someone else.  I live in Northern New England.  You’d be hard put to find a more practical application of knitting than making sweaters. It’s no wonder that some of the most gorgeous and inventive garments in the knitting tradition are local to Northern Europe.   Once I’d learned stranded knitting using a two fisted technique (yes, I can knit with my right or left hand — useful when you’re carrying two colors of yarn), you bet I was going to start knitting sweaters in the Nordic and Icelandic traditions.

It is the inherent practicality of it that I love, though.  Knitting is like banked time.  Think of how much waiting we do in our lives — waiting in line at the bank, waiting at the airport, riding in the car to get somewhere, waiting at the doctor’s office.  You’d be amazed how many of the socks I wear are knitted on airplanes or trains.  There are socks  I have that remind me of trips I’ve taken because they were created while travelling.  When you knit, that time becomes productive time.  At the end of it, you have a real sweater you can wear for years, or socks that keep your feet toasty warm.

Writing and Knitting

I had a really nice morning this morning.

I’d been drying up, writer-wise.  When that happens, a change of scene is often a good idea for me, so I took my netbook (have I mentioned I love it?) to the coffee shop, got a big ole plain cup of coffee and wrote for several hours on Screw Skinny, Get Fit.  God, that felt good.

I notice I get a lot more writing done when there’s no wireless (the place is a t-mobile hotspot but I didn’t want to pay for that).  I may disable wireless during writing hours and draw more serious boundaries between research time and writing time.

I also did some necessary shopping before I came home and found a cheap winter coat,  which I desperately needed.

Shopping was a funny experience today because I wore a sweater I’d made a couple of years ago for the first time this year.  It’s a gray sweater with dark purple ljus (those dots you see on Nordic sweaters), and a modified We Call Them Pirates pattern around the yoke.  It’s one of those subtle things where you don’t realize the pattern is skulls and crossbones at first.   It has become a fairly popular design among the hip knitter set.  (Usually the only thing hip about me is the ampleness of my slacks…)

Why would this sweater make shopping a funny experience?  Well, the internet-connected knitters come out of the woodwork to comment on it.  First in the coffee shop, I was asked if I made the sweater, as the pattern looked familiar.  I said that yes, I’d shamelessly stolen the chart from Hello Yarn.   Then, when I went into a department store next to the coffee shop, two twenty-something sales people and three older ladies all commented on the sweater, the pattern and asked if I’d used Elizabeth Zimmerman’s Seamless Yoke Sweater as the template for the actual sweater design (I had).  One of the older ladies expressed delight that “youngsters had taken up knitting”  (at 40, I’m not sure I count as a youngster, but anyway…) and that she liked seeing people knit unique creations.

Knitting with a Plan

There are times when I am very glad I learned to knit.

This week has been fantastic from a professional point of view, but teaching a week’s worth of all-day classes is exhausting.  I don’t know how full time teachers pull it off and not burn out.  That’s some high-energy stuff if you want to keep your students involved and engaged, and do a good job.

A seamless yoke sweater


So, the knitting.  Knitting is how I relax when I’m too brain-fried even to write a blog entry. It’s soothing with enough repetitive motion to calm me down while I watch Torchwood.

Last summer I sewed a series of garments in a plan called a SWAP. (Sewing with a Plan).  Basically the idea is that everything is supposed to mix and match well with everything else.   I had garments in black, burgundy and a floral/Japanese print.  This winter I added a capsule to it in dark forest green.  So, I have this great, basic interchangable wardrobe.

In cotton.

For the most part that’s fine. Between the fact I made shells and jackets, this means it carries me through a lot of seasons.  What it doesn’t help a lot with is those cold months of a New England winter.   Luckily,  I knit.  Getting good sweaters is no more difficult than following the Seamless Yoke pattern that Elizabeth Zimmerman explained in Knitting Without Tears and adding whatever colorway and yoke design takes my fancy.  I’ve done pirates, Heathen symbols, abstract symbols and Autobots in the yoke and turned out some warm, unique garments.

What I don’t have (yet), are several sweaters in my SWAP color palette.  Oh, I’ve got a gray, purple and burgundy one that goes okay with my black and burgundy pants and skirts.  I have a gray and purple one that goes okay with the black, but nothing else.  This sweater I just made will go with all the skirts and pants I’ve sewn quite well.   I need to sit down and plan two or three more over the course of the winter.

The thing is, these babies are warm, warm, warm.  Stranded knitting (that’s how you get the colorwork — strands of yarn carried behind the main fabric) of various sorts is definitely popular in the colder countries for a reason.  You basically have two layers of yarn for a much warmer garment.  Nordic sweaters look the way they do at least in part for practicality.  If you’re lucky enough to own a real one, you know what I mean.  So, they’re not something I wear year-round, but only when it gets really cold.

Knitting and Taking Control

Someone once commented that spikes in knitting come with stressful times.  I’d buy that.   I knit and sew more during stressful times than otherwise.  There are a lot of theories on why this might be so in general.  Part of it, I am sure, is the soothing nature of a repetitive physical motion (rocking a baby, anyone?).  But I think it’s more than that.  Sewing has a similar effect on me, and that’s not quite as repetitive as knitting.

Most crisis intervention therapies have routines to promote a sense of competence and mastery to the patients.  Basically, if you can’t feel in control of something or accomplished about something, you run out of cope real, real fast.  That’s a very normal human reaction.   While you can’t necessarily plot a curve from one point, I know the kick I get out of sewing my own wardrobe or knitting a garment for someone.  It’s a sense of accomplishment.   It’s a way to restore a sense of competence.  Knitting and sewing are relatively simple skills to learn.  Elizabeth Zimmerman, the Ur-geek of knitting, put it this way:

Really, all you need to become a good knitter are wool, needles, hands, and slightly below-average intelligence. Of course, superior intelligence, such as yours and mine, is an advantage.

You can learn to knit a garter stitch scarf relatively quickly. And at the end of the project, you have something physical, tangible, and dare I say  useful as well.  That kind of thing can do a lot to restore a sense of competence.

If it seems goofy to say, “I can’t control the economy, but by God, I can make this sweater!” don’t be too quick to sneer.  That sense of competence can and does fuel intelligent action in other areas.  Anyone who engages in a repetitive but ultimately useful and creative thing like knitting1 will tell you that in the process of creation, your mind relaxes.  You enter a meditative state and often that relaxation of the mind engages the creative centers that allows you to come up with the creative solutions you need in other areas of life.

It also has to do with how the brain works and how it encodes stressful experiences.

Psychological theory suggests that when we’re exposed to a horrifying situation, we take it in through two channels. One is the basic, primal sensory channel: the sights, sounds, sensations, and smells of the situation. The other is an intellectual channel: our brains trying to make sense of what’s going on, and putting it into words and a context that we can talk about.

The experimenters wondered what would happen if you specifically blocked one of these channels while the traumatic event is going on. And they found that if you were pre-occupied with a “visual-spatial task,” like typing a pattern on a computer, you didn’t encode the images and sounds of the traumatic experience as strongly. As a result, subjects who kept their hands busy had fewer flashbacks.


Does make for an interesting take on the old saying, “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop.”

1Or woodworking (ever sanded a bookcase?), or cooking, or even scrubbing a floor (see Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett for an interesting discussion of the principle). It needs to be physical, but not too mentally demanding.

The Knit Kit

Sometimes you find a gadget that is so well-designed and thoughtfully engineered for its purpose that you have to stare in jaw-dropping awe.  Thanks to ame_chaname_chan for this!

Now, this blog is not meant to promote products, but I’m gonna show off one:  The Knit Kit.  It’s coming out in March.  This is smart and useful design.  It contains ‘most every little accessory tool you’d need when you’re out and about knitting, and goodness knows there are many of us who knit while we travel — whether it’s commuting or if it’s a longer trip on an airplane. I’m going to be going to Florida the week after next and I wish the product were already available.  Of course I’m planning my Plane Project.  Most likely socks.  I like knitting socks on planes because it’s small and easily portable in my laptop bag.  You can often tell how much I’ve flown in a year by how many socks I’ve made!  The only redundancy I see is that there are scissors as well as a thread cutter here.  The only thing I usually need scissors for is cutting yarn anyway.

I’m working on a We Call Them Pirates hat in black and red for myself.   I have one in black and white, but it was my first attempt at stranded knitting and I really did make it too tight.  It looks okay, but it’s just too small for my bus head.  If you have a child who’d like the hat, lemme know1.  On a whim, I went through my stash and realized I had enough wool to make myself another one, so I am.  ‘Cause, well… PIRATES!  What I really need to do is make the matching mittens.

I’m also going through my stash to see what I can knit up without buying anything.  One of the great joys of the fact that I use a template and just come up with goofy stuff for a lot of my projects is that I can use up yarn when I overbuy.  I have a lot of gray, some burgundy, some black and some gold.  I could probably come up with something reasonably entertaining with that if I gave it some thought.

My son is pushing for another gold sweater.  I’m going to have to buckle down and get the nerve to try the Seamless Saddle Shouldered Sweater from Knitting Without Tears.  The design is a bit more classic than the 70s looking yoke sweaters, so translates well across the years.

1Obviously, this’ll go to the first person who asks for it.

Geek Knitting

I’m in the home stretch for a sweater for my son.   I ruined a couple of 100% wool sweaters I’d made for him and he was a bit vexed.  You see, we live in Northern New England.  Hand knit sweaters tend to be pretty warm.  So, I learned my lesson and I don’t care what the fiber geeks say, I knit using Wool-ease.  You can wash it in the washing machine.

So, this is a Seamless Yoke Sweater such as you will find in Knitting Without Tears by Elizabeth Zimmerman.  I adore knitting in the round, and making sweaters in the round is insanely easy.   The yoke will have the Autobots logo on it.

Knitting is an inherently geeky craft.  There’s a lot of math in it, as well as pattern repetition.  If you’ve any creative bent at all, it’s also an endless opportunity for creation and invention.  It’s a technology as well as an art.  You know me, I like the intersection of technology, creativity and usefulness.  That’s why my favorite knitting projects are sweaters and socks.  You always need good, warm socks and where I live, you always need comfortable, warm sweaters.

The cool bit about the way I make sweaters is that there is a basic algorithm that will work for anyone, and it’s still custom.  Check out Knit by Numbers: a simple way to make your own patterns.   It explains the concept really well.  It really works and you get a sweater that fits you properly.