Sunday, June 6, 2010

Could it be a happy ending to my LONGEST knitting story?!! Meet the Candlelight Kimono...

4:28 PM PST, April 12, 1991. Nineteen years ago. I know the precise date and time because, miraculously enough, I actually still have the receipt. George H. W. Bush was U.S. President, and Operation Desert Storm had ended not long ago, short of Baghdad. I was a second-year graduate student at UC Berkeley, who had recently fulfilled the requirements for a Masters Degree in Classics and was poised to move on to the PhD program in the fall. I was also a fairly experienced knitter by that point and a self-avowed yarn-snob, notwithstanding the genteel poverty of the grad student lifestyle. The late and much lamented Straw Into Gold was still in the retail business on the corner of Ashby and San Pablo, and their spring yarn sale happened to be in progress. So I went there that afternoon and decided to splurge a little, as a pat on the back to myself for having completed the MA.

The inventory at Straw Into Gold always blew my mind. It was the largest high-end yarn store that I had ever seen, with so many glorious offerings. On the day in question, for instance, I remember admiring the rich jewel tones and yummy texture of Manos del Uruguay, a singular indulgence that I have coveted ever since and may yet acquire one of these days.

But there is no place for heavy wool sweaters in the Berkeley climate, as I had already been forced to admit, die-hard native New Englander though I am, after trying in vain to wear them sometimes since my arrival. There's a familiar schtick where the newcomer to the Bay Area complains that "this place has no weather," and the longtime resident replies, "oh, there's weather alright. It's just *subtle*..." After two years' worth of what passes for seasons in that part of the world, I was finally coming to terms with reality, albeit somewhat begrudgingly. So I let the Manos go by and spent my money instead ($78.52, to be exact) on ~1100 yards of luxurious sport-weight 100% silk yarn, Italian spun, in a pale lavender-blue ("dilly dilly...") that positively gleamed in the California sunshine, seeming to defy the ambient heat with its icy placidity. Here are the original yarn labels, though noticeably yellowed by now, with the Crystal Palace name and all the pertinent info still legible (weight, yardage, dye lot, etc.). Feel free to click on the image (left) for a closer look.

I was proud and a little in awe of my purchase and soon set out to make a scoop-neck sweater with dainty little cables, deep k2p2 ribbing at the bottom, and cap sleeves, based loosely on a Kim Hargreaves design from Rowan No.3, (oddly enough not a perfume, but a stylish book of knitting patterns). I used small-gauge needles of some kind, no larger than 3.25 mm (US size 3), although detailed memory eludes me. Working on and off over the next year or two, I eventually got about 85% of the sweater finished — that is to say the back, the front, one whole sleeve, and part of the other — before reaching the grim yet inescapable realization that I simply did not have enough yarn to complete the entire garment as planned.

I cannot fully account for what happened next. But oddly enough, it was not a moment of panic. Very calmly and composedly, I gathered up all the pieces, folded them neatly and placed them, along with the remaining few small balls of unused yarn, into a clean plastic bag that I carefully tucked into the bottom of my knitting basket. I felt intuitively that I must not hasten to make an irrevocable decision that I might live to regret. This garment needed to be something classy and timeless that I could wear and treasure for many years, because the yarn not only stood for a memorable moment in my personal history but had marked a financial investment as well. So I held onto that bag and guarded it carefully, promising myself that I would eventually find, or create, just the right pattern.

I never forgot about my unfinished silk sweater, but I never did anything about it either. Over time, the bundle made its way intact from my knitting basket into deep storage at the back of a closet, and thereafter, perfectly preserved and safe in its enveloping plastic, it followed my peripatetic career from Berkeley to Washington D.C., Toronto, Champaign, IL, and finally here to Hanover, IN. In the interim nearly *TWO DECADES* went by...

Then at last this past February came the 2010 Ravelympics, with the special "Aerial Unwind" event encouraging knitters to "frog" their failed projects (i.e. "rip it, rip it, rip it...") and reclaim the yarn for new and better use. I don't know what made me suddenly think of the silk after it had lain dormant and undisturbed for so many years, but at a pivotal moment before the Olympic Games I went and dug it out with a clear sense of purpose and determination. Strangely, I knew right where it was and did not have to hunt for it at all amid the jumble. So maybe there had already been some unconscious awareness that the time had arrived to act decisively. Or something.

I suppose that there should have been poignant feelings, violins, and perhaps even tears to accompany the process of ripping out my old handiwork, winding the yarn into hanks, rinsing it, and hanging it to dry on hooks inside the bathroom door. But in truth it was all terribly methodical and matter-of-fact. What I felt more than anything else was *relief* and *anticipation*. The original sweater idea with its tiny cables was by now a thing of the distant past. I had not chosen a new pattern yet, but with the entire Ravelry database at my disposal, and the advice of wise and trusted knitting friends to rely upon as well, I knew that I was finally ready to resolve the issue once and for all and give this story the happy ending it deserved.

Here are some pictures of the reclamation process, including the impressive mound of expensive (and inedible) "ramen-noodles" fresh from frogging, the hanks of yarn neatly hanging to dry side-by-side, and the cakes of silk newly rewound, ready for their next adventure. As always, click on any of these images for a closer look.

The yarn had soaked up a great deal of water and took some considerable time to dry. Musing over patterns meanwhile, I came to the conclusion that a lacy cardigan with short sleeves would probably do the trick. The design had to be both classy and wearable, remember, and above all I could not afford to run out of yarn again. That prospect just did not bear thinking about!! Lace would help to make the yardage go further, of course, and I expected to knit at a somewhat looser gauge this time too.

Now enter my friend Anita and the Candlelight Kimono. Last summer I watched her knit this magnificent sweater of hers from a 100% bamboo yarn in a lovely spring green, and I have seen her wear it several times since. Two things about it caught my eye and eventually convinced me that this was indeed the answer for my silk: the elegant drape of the fabric and the meticulous custom fit.

The choice was not without its ironies, however, for UK designer Amy Pickard originally conceived of and published the pattern for the Ample Knitters Yahoo Group, where it is still exclusively available. Suffice to say that I am NOT an ample knitter, being of average height (5 ft. 4 inches) and a build that is medium verging on petite. The smallest size on the pattern is meant to fit a 42" bust, and I am a 34" or a 36".

The whole raison d'ĂȘtre of Ample Knitters from its inception in 1998 was to address "issues of concern to knitters in all sizes of large," because such issues are all-too-often ignored by the designers and publishers of knitting patterns. People come in a wide range shapes and sizes, after all, and with different proportions. To ensure the proper fit for a plus-sized person, it is not always advisable or even possible just to scale up an existing pattern as written for a smaller size. The individual may need more room in the bust and/or hips but not at the shoulder, for instance, or in the length of the sleeves. Frustrating!! So the Ample Knitters group is a place where one can go to draw on the collective wisdom of some very smart and resourceful people who have wrestled with these challenges, practiced techniques such as short-row shaping and so on, done the math, and come up with attractive, workable solutions.

Thus it was that the shoe found itself firmly wedged on the other foot, as I set about adapting the Ample Knitters pattern for my own more modest frame. I actually joined the Ample Knitters Yahoo Group for ~5 minutes, just long enough to sign in and download the pattern. I have to say that it is not the clearest example of the genre that I have ever seen, or the easiest to follow. All the instructions are there, but not necessarily organized in an intuitive sequence or even labeled very well. It was apparently the designer's first attempt, though, which would help to explain the awkwardness of the presentation. And the results really are quite lovely, once you get going.

As a first step, I made two swatches (left), one in plain stockinette and the other in the candlelight lace pattern. The pattern calls for 4.0 mm (US size 6) and 4.5 mm (US size 7) needles, but with my yarn I could not imagine knitting with anything larger than a 3.5 mm (US size 5), so I used that instead, fully expecting that the final stitch-counts would have to take my smaller gauge into account as well as my diminutive body-size. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when both swatches came out to precisely the specified measurements. Generally speaking, I seem to knit with about average tension, not much tighter or looser than most people. So the designer must grip her yarn with a very firm hand indeed, to get her gauge with a needle two sizes larger!!

Be that as it may, not having to worry about altering the gauge simplified matters quite a bit when I sat down with Anita and another knitting friend a few days later to come up with a detailed plan for my sweater. We took measurements and ran the numbers to ensure a good fit, preserving the figure-flattering waist indent from the original, but downsizing it. We kept the armhole shaping too, of course, but opted against short-rows for the bust, since the finished garment will be worn loosely enough to make that unnecessary. We sketched out the back and both fronts, but not the sleeves just yet, because I wanted to wait and see how the yarn supply will hold up, so that I can adjust both their length and width if need be.

A week ago today, then, armed with the original printed pattern and a graph paper diagram that showed all our the measurements and careful calculations, I cast on 93 stitches for the back, worked the band of moss stitch for the bottom, and *whooosh*!! The lace panel and armhole shaping went astonishingly fast. In fact, the back is nearly done already. See the photo on the bottom right (below)? I can hardly believe it, but honest to goodness, I am nearing the point where I will do the short-row shaping for the shoulders and then bind off and start the fronts. Feel free to click on any of these pictures to see an enlargement.

This design holds great promise. It may well turn out to be the fulfillment of my aspirations for the lavender-blue silk, aspirations thwarted long ago that have been held in abeyance all these years...

So the blog inches closer to the enviable point where everything will have been brought up to date, with no new, undocumented projects waiting in the wings. In fact, there are only three more to go, and I expect to mention all of them in an upcoming post that will have a rather unusual format for the start of the summer knitting season. :-)

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