Saturday, June 5, 2010

Evenstar Mystery KAL I: Preliminaries

And so we come at length to the Evenstar shawl. It is still a work-in-progress at this point, but nearing the end after several months of intermittent activity, and it feels good to be posting something about it here finally, since that means the blog has truly almost caught up with my knitting. The pattern is the creation of my fellow Hoosier Susan Pandorf of Sunflower Designs, whose talent for lace in particular has previously brought us such notable beauties as Magic Carpet Ride (which I finished last November), Mehndi (which I have only just started recently and expect to write about soon), Dragonfly, Icicle, and Protopopov (all three of which are in my Ravelry queue).

The Evenstar story demands a bit of background. For Susan's imagination has been captivated lately by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. In fact, she has launched an ambitious Lord of the Rings Series that will eventually consist of at least two dozen different lace, aran, and colorwork patterns, all inspired by characters from the books and/or scenes from Peter Jackson's LOTR movies. The patterns are grouped according to the volumes of the trilogy. One can either subscribe to the whole series in three parts or purchase individual patterns separately as they become available. Each sub-grouping will include a mystery shawl KAL: beginning with Evenstar for the Fellowship of the Ring, continuing with Elessar for The Two Towers, and of course culminating in The One Ring for The Return of the King.

So in other words Evenstar was and is only the first installment in what promises to be a Grand Adventure for knitters all around the world. And I am not kidding about the global reach. Susan has created quite a buzz!! For there is obviously considerable overlap between Ravelry knitters and the Tolkien fan-base: over 1,000 people joined the Evenstar KAL, and many of them have pledged to continue through the whole series.

As a lifelong Tolkien devotee and an admirer of Susan's work, I signed up for the Evenstar KAL practically within nano-seconds of learning about it, but I have so many other projects lined up already for the coming months, with more and more continually added to the list, that I opted to pick and choose from the available offerings rather than saddling myself with a costly subscription. That said, though, I will definitely take on the other two mystery shawls when they happen, and I have purchased one other pattern from the Fellowship series so far, namely the elegant Rivendell smoke-ring that I expect to make several times in different yarns and colorways.

But getting back to the Evenstar... This project marked several firsts for me personally: my first pi-shawl and indeed first circular shawl of any kind, my first official KAL (knit-along), and my first mystery design, where the clues are sent out one by one at a fixed interval, slowly revealing the pattern. I think the simplest way to write about it will be to recount the knitting process by stages, roughly corresponding to the incremental clues whose appearance became such a notable feature of the past few months. Knitters who are not overly worried about spoilers often do separate blog entries for each clue of a mystery KAL as it goes along, so I guess this post after-the-fact will have to serve the same function for me, albeit in a more encapsulated format. It will be fun to reflect on my experience, although I doubt I can recreate the wild anticipation of those bi-weekly emails from Susan. People always started perceptibly twitching on the Ravelry forum a day or two in advance.

Phase I: Swatching and Waiting for the Postman
The KAL was announced well ahead of time, but for some reason I did not find out about it until February 11th, i.e. the day before the first clue was scheduled for release. So I got off to a somewhat breathless start. There was a special pattern for the swatch (pictured right), featuring the striking Evenstar motif that was designed to evoke Arwen's pendant from the LOTR movies (read a fascinating interview with the jewelry designer here). The knitted version involves working 7 stitches into the same 3 loops, a somewhat tricky maneuver that I had never encountered before but later learned to associate with Estonian lace and would soon see again with the Echo Flowers design, as described in my previous post.

There was a fair bit of Sturm und Drang on the Ravelry forum as various people found themselves locked in a wrestling match with their knitting over the 7-into-3 stitch. Alternate techniques were proposed — kfb (= knit into the front and back of the loops), k1p1 (= alternate between knit and purl stitches) and k1yo (= alternate between knit stitches and yarn-over loops) — and their relative merits weighed at length over the extended course of the KAL. I made my mind up right away that I liked the look of the k1p1 best, because of the way the 7 new stitches spread themselves out evenly around the little ring created by the trio of loops into which they were all worked. So I did the same thing throughout, each time the motif appeared, starting with the swatch as shown above.

Susan made the original shawl using Blue Moon Fiber Arts Silk Thread II in a shiny silver colorway called "Winter Solstice" that perfectly captures the Elven mystique of Arwen Undomiel. Quite a few KAL participants followed her lead with pastel shades especially of gray, blue, and lavender, but with my Unst Stole in mithril-like "Platinum" Gossamer CashSilk still on the needles (and awaiting the return of my attention), I wanted something bolder and darker. I also knew almost immediately, especially because it was such a sudden move to join the KAL, that I would turn to KnitPicks Shimmer as a relatively low-budget yarn alternative that would still preserve the high-end look and feel that the pattern clearly called for. Sure enough, later that same day I ordered 4 skeins in the "Blue Glass" colorway and knitted the swatch with a remnant of the "Sherry" colorway that I had on hand, left over from a previous project.

I had been craving something to knit from the cerulean end of the spectrum lately and quietly eying the "Blue Glass" Shimmer for a long time, so when the Evenstar KAL opportunity arose, it was an easy choice. I knew that the mixture of capri blue, cobalt, and navy would not disappoint, although I must admit that I lingered somewhat over the "Sherry" too, when I saw how the swatch had turned out, because the deep reds brought to mind Arwen's dress from the poignant scene in the movie where the book falls from her hand. Maybe someday, if/when I decide to do it all over again...

Yet although I managed not to agonize over the yarn for this impromptu project, it still quickly became a case of "hurry up and wait," because my KnitPicks package arrived several days later than expected, due to the President's Day holiday and some nasty winter weather. C'est la vie, hein?

Phase II: Going in Circles
As far as the gauge went, the pattern calls for 3.25 mm (US size 3) needles, so that is what I used for the swatch. This was an experiment, because in the past I had used 2.0 mm (US size 0) needles with the same yarn, so I was not surprised when the knitting felt loose in my hands. The swatch came out only slightly too big, though, so I went down to 3.0 mm (US size 2) needles at the start.

Truth be told, I actually moved up to the 3.25 mm (US size 3) after the third clue out of 7, and up again to 3.5 mm (US size 4) for the edging, as a way to help the fabric stretch. A friend of mine who is a VERY experienced knitter routinely does this with all her circular and other shawls knitted outward from the center, and I think it makes good sense, especially for a pi-shawl where you have such long intervals of plain knitting that are supposed to expand and fill in the segments between increase rounds. Of course we'll see for certain at blocking time, but I think I am going to end up feeling extremely glad that I took the precaution.

Now, as I mentioned earlier, I had never tried to knit a circular shawl before, and no one had ever warned me either about just how wild & woolly those first several rounds generally are. Yikes. After reading up and experimenting with different methods for an appropriate cast-on, I eventually chose Fleegle's version, which I carefully translated from right-handed to left-handed use. So that was OK, but then it definitely took a bunch of tries before I could persuade the double-pointed needles to cooperate and sit still long enough for me to make my way around a few times. "Taming the hedgehog" took on a whole new meaning there for a while, between the twisting and the slipping and the other bad things that can happen all too easily at that stage. Yet though the outset was perilous in the extreme, everything calmed down significantly, once I got three or four rounds into it and the stitches found their places and started lining up neatly all by themselves.

But soon another problem arose, as the colors started pooling alarmingly. After the 3rd increase round, my gauge managed to align itself just right (or rather, just WRONG) with the phase-shifts in the yarn, so that one half of the circle got all the pale shades and the other half all the deep, dark ones. It reminded me of the light and dark sides of the moon. *Ugh*. So I began again and devised a scheme of "snipping and skipping" (as it were) to disrupt the pooling by artificially elongating some color segments and foreshortening others. It seemed to work reasonably well. The photo on the left shows my first attempt, which probably would have lasted, except that then the yarn broke and I had to start over yet again. What a litany of woes!! So the picture on the right is the actual working center of the shawl, which was made by the same method as the trial version on the left.

Honestly, it took a while to reassure myself that the variegated yarn was going to work out with the lace pattern. I could not be entirely convinced that the pesky pooling problem would not recur, since the whole pi-shawl arrangement is based on multiples of the same number stitches all the way along. And even without worrying about that, the colors just looked awkward somehow until the diameter grew enough to distribute them and balance everything out. I kept telling myself that it would probably all sort itself out eventually, but there was a persistent voice in my head suggesting that none of these concerns would have arisen to plague me with a solid-colored yarn. I went so far as to devise a backup plan for the unpleasant prospect of having to give up on the "Blue Glass" entirely, but I also kept listening to the *other* persistent voice in my head that took its cue from Dory in "Finding Nemo": "Just keep knitting, just keep knitting..." Fortunately, the happy “tipping point” came somewhere in the course of clue #2, and I soon felt my confidence growing about the prospects for an auspicious end result with my chosen colorway.

We were told that the edging of the shawl would be clue #7 and would have the option of including ~3000 8/0 beads. So as soon as I had assuaged my doubts about the variegated colorway, I went ahead and ordered three containers of 8/0 beads from Earthfaire in cobalt -lined sapphire AB. I wanted something emphatically *BLUE* that would stand out but still sing in harmony alongside the various shades in the yarn, and the rainbow highlights of the AB coating definitely bring a welcome frisson of Elven magic into the mix.

And that sounds like a good stopping place. For this post is now sufficiently long that I will break off here. Coming up next: progress and patterning...


  1. wow - what a comprehensive post - your memory is WAY better than mine!

  2. Aw, shucks. Don't sell yourself short! I had been keeping fairly detailed notes on my Ravelry project page, and building up a laundry list of Stuff To Say if/when I finally got around to blogging about it. Besides, there were a lot of decisions to be made in the early stages. Once I got past all that, the whole thing became much more business-as-usual. The next post (which I am typing up now) will be a good bit heavier on the photos and lighter on the narrative detail. But I love love L-O-V-E the design!! ;-)