Monday, June 8, 2009

Things the Princess Shawl Taught Me

A week or so after blocking the Princess shawl and watching its stunning transformation into a finished object, I typed up a reflective piece and posted it on the Heirloom Knitting Yahoo Group. This sort of thing really ought to go in a blog, of course, but at the time I had not yet begun one. So now, having rectified that inadequacy, I would like to reproduce my thoughts here, ever so slightly edited and retouched for broader consumption.

I have often said that one of the things I love most about knitting is that it not only gives my “fidget energy” something productive to do, but also helps me think. The Princess shawl was a big enough project to offer *ample* opportunity along those lines. It taught me what I see as a number of important lessons too. I have been meaning for a while to write down some of my thoughts, partly to give others the benefit of them (such as it may be), and also in order to make them stop swirling around in my head. Some of the points I want to make are highly technical in nature, while others are more speculative and philosophical. Some I am expressing here for the first time, but others have been alluded to elsewhere and to my mind bear repeating.

At any rate, please take these pronouncements for what they are worth, and no more. They certainly reflect my current attitudes about lace knitting, but they may or may not apply to other people, or even to me later on, when I have more experience under my belt.

1. Changing the width of a border panel (i.e. the # of horizontal pattern repeats) on a shawl without also adjusting its depth (i.e. the # of vertical rows it contains) inevitably means that the center pattern must become proportionally a larger part of the finished shawl.

If you compare my Princess to the one pictured on the HK website, you will see how much more of mine is taken up by the center triangle. I knew this from the moment when I made the decision to add the two extra border feathers, and was continually reminded of it all along the way. The center took me *9 months* to complete, including most of the summer and the whole winter break, when I was not teaching and had lots of extra time to knit. That is a long time, and it felt like even more because each row was also steadily wider than the last. It was like the fable of Achilles and the tortoise: I knew I had to be making progress, but instead of getting closer and closer the target kept retreating into the distance.

2. Gauge is vital, because lace needs room to breathe – especially with an extremely fine yarn like the CashSilk.

When working a lace-hole pattern, such as on the Princess edging, one is often expected to knit and purl into a single yo. With the CashSilk, I always wrap the yarn around the needle twice when making the yo in those cases, so that there is enough give in the fabric to accommodate the knit-and-purl.

3. When picking up stitches along the inner side of a lace edging (or any other knitted edge), pull the yarn through only a single strand between ridges.

This seems entirely self-evident to me now, and if you read Sharon’s instructions in the HK book closely, you’ll see that she spells it out in no uncertain terms. But back when I finished the initial edging strip for the Princess and turned to pick up the stitches for the border, I unthinkingly reverted to a technique appropriate to heavy wool sweaters rather than lace, and pulled each stitch through two loops instead of one. Relying on only one gossamer strand would have made me feel insecure! So I ended up with a visibly chunky band at the transition from edging to border, which tended to pull the fabric together horizontally along the seam. By the time I noticed this, however, I was already well into the ornate border pattern and could not bring myself to go back and fix it.

Fortunately, this particular sob-story has a happy ending, since the process of blocking the shawl did a great deal to mitigate the effect along the lower edge. Those edging points stand out perfectly well now with no visible bunching. And of course on the upper portions I had learned my lesson and was able to follow the proper single-strand technique. So if I had it to do all over again, I would adopt a different technique, but it did not turn out to be a fatal mistake.

4. Embrace the wisdom of taking things in stride. Accidents happen, and people make mistakes. But every mishap is a learning opportunity when seen correctly. Never be afraid to take a few steps backward now and then along the path. It’s all part of the journey. But – and this is the crucial thing – learn to fine-tune your responses to the nature of the difficulty.

(a) Experience has taught me unimagined skills at on-the-spot repairs. The trick is to remain calm and yet react quickly, in order to minimize the damage. When I first started making lace, dropped stitches almost always sent me straight into the “frog pond” (as the saying goes), but by now I have learned to catch most of them right away and prevent them from cascading.

(b) Taking lace off the needles should be the very last resort. I would never do it unless I had a lifeline in place and literally no other choice, because picking up all those little loops in the violated fabric is a sure way to madness. Tinking can become as much of a finely honed skill as knitting, and can teach you a great deal about how patterns are constructed. Un-making is a natural part of the creative process. I have placidly tinked as many as 14 or 16 rows of >1,000 stitches each. Over the span of months or even years that it takes to complete one of these huge lace projects, a few days of retrograde motion here or there really doesn’t amount to very much, and there is immense satisfaction in wiping away all the traces of a mishap and seeing them replaced with the pristine pattern. It means that God is in His heaven and all is right with the world.

(c) But sometimes the damage is just too great. When all else fails – as it inevitably will on occasion – it is the better part of valor to go back to the drawing board and start over again from scratch. Even this dreaded eventuality should be welcomed as a second chance, like having a whole new and unexpected lease on life.

(d) Know your own limits and learn to take things in stride as they come. When the world goes unexpectedly sideways or a project "turns pear-shaped" on you, despite all your best efforts and intentions, quite often the best thing to do is take a deep breath and move on. Sharon Miller has often commented on the remarkable willingness displayed by the antique Shetland lace knitters to make adjustments to their patterns on the fly, e.g. by inserting extra decreases or increases here or there.

There was a time when I would probably have balked at this idea as an excuse for shoddy workmanship, but it is all a matter of proportion. For instance, the Laurel Leaf pattern at the top of the Princess border is supposed to reduce the number of stitches on the needle by exactly 25%. I had carefully done the math so that I knew precisely how many stitches to expect. Yet although there was no visible flaw in the pattern, the number of stitches that I actually got was slightly off (776 instead of 765). The Laurel Leaf is a tricky affair. It would have been a major headache to try and undo it. So I left it in place exactly as is, and simply recalculated the stitch-count for the center triangle. No harm done. Perfectionism can be over-rated, and life is short.

5. Let’s face it: lace-knitting is a specialized hobby. But community makes ALL the difference.

Some of my happiest hours alone have been spent knitting, but it is historically and fundamentally a social activity. Think of all those old photos of women in groups, doing their needlework together. We learn from each other and draw strength, encouragement, and inspiration from sharing the journey.

I could probably have completed the Princess shawl in splendid isolation, relying on nothing but Sharon’s instructions and my own ingenuity, but the process would have taken much longer, turned out far worse, and not have meant anywhere near as much as it did with the support and encouragement of this group behind me. Most of the people I live and work with – even the knitters among them – tend to regard my lace-knitting as an eccentricity to be greeted with a mixture of awe and disbelief. Even if they don’t express their feelings aloud, you can see them thinking, “Who would want to do a thing like that?”

That's why I value the Internet community so much. The people I have gotten to know via the HK Yahoo Group, and more recently on Ravelry, not to mention out here in the blogosphere, have made all the difference in the world. How magnificent and precious and reassuring it is to find fellow enthusiasts, who understand what this whole craft is all about and who have so much wisdom and understanding among them.

I’ll never forget how one such person came heroically to the rescue when I was struggling with calculations for the bottom edging of the Princess. I had gone off in quite the wrong direction altogether with various wild and confused ideas swirling around in my head, but she calmly ran the numbers and came up with a simple scheme that made perfect sense and yielded terrific results.

That’s what friends are for.

Thank you, thank you, thank you all — and that goes out to my new blog readers as well as all the old Yahoo Group acquaintances. I feel as if my own adventures in lace-knitting have only just begun. Ever onward!! As the poet Horace said: “life is short, but art is LONG.”

1 comment:

  1. Love all your remarks on Princess...I'm looking for a new shawl project, with the stipulation that it be huge, preferably circular, and complex. Preparation is key, so I appreciate all your reflections!