Wednesday, January 25, 2006

UFOs - A Meditation on the Abandoned Challenge

I'm currently finishing up a sweater for an acquaintance. It's a paid gig -- "whatever it costs", she said.

It's a straighforward 5x2 ribbed v-neck sweater for her young son, in an acrylic-blend chunky yarn.

The project was handed to me in a nice bag, zipped up tight in a way that suggested that it was never going to be opened again without some help. The story goes that she bought it up at the cottage one rainy weekend and made a lot of progress in the initial week or two of knitting. The back was complete and perfect when delivered to me, and the sleeves were half-finished, both being worked at the same time. The front was cast off, but something had gone wrong in the working of the v-neck. The knitter knew enough to know it was wrong, but didn't have the confidence (or patience, maybe) to fix it.

Fixing the neckline was simple, no more than an hour's worth of knitting in front of the TV Sunday night. I called her to let her know I'd fixed it. She asked me to finish it up for her -- "whatever it costs". She just wants it to be done and off her conscience, I think. I know that feeling very well, I think every knitter does.

We've all done it. All knitters have a few UFOs in the back of the cupboard; some have more than others. I hate an unfinished project; I obssess about them. I *need* to finish them. I will, most often, just finish the damn thing, but I'd still rather rip something out than leave it half-completed.

My two worst UFO experiences were both sock-related...

There's the Turkish sock variation. I started the Turkish socks from The Spin-Off Socks Special Edition sometime around 1998. I got the first one done but then discovered that the damn thing didn't fit. It's got an odd heel shaping, and I was knitting far too tightly (first stranded fair isle project) so I couldn't actually get it on.

So I ripped it back to above the heel, adapted the pattern for a standard heel, and completed it. I cast on for the second, worked about 2 cm, and then abandoned it. The completed one was a great sock -- I would look at it sometimes in my knitting box and admire it -- and I did want to do the second. I was being discouraged by a simple thing... the finished sock looked much tighter than the 2cm of the second sock. I figured I was doing something different somehow, and that the pair would never match. It bugged me, though. I liked the sock, and I'd enjoyed the knitting.

I started taking the finished one to my sock knitting workshops to show as an example of fair isle colourwork in socks. Every time I pulled it out of my bag, I felt of pang of want, of sadness, of disappointment that I'd never made its mate. So this summer I sat down, dusted off the original pattern and my insufficient notes, and finished the second. It took a while to figure out how to match the tension (I'm a better fair isle knitter now than I was back then), and what modifications I'd made, but I did it. And they're a seriously great pair of socks.

The second sock UFO is the Vogue Knitting Christmas socks to which I alluded earlier. I should have known, really. Knitted flat, intarsia holly leaves and vines in 4 or 5 different colours (two shades of green), of course I was going to hate it. And I did. I started it around the same time as the Turkish sock, and I got part of one done before I zipped the project up tight in a bag.

About 18 months ago, I sought expert help from Abby, who suggested that I cut back on the intarsia and do the holly leaves in duplicate stitch after the fact, but even the simplified variant was a tough slog. I managed to get the first one mostly completed, but my attempt to seam the damn thing pointed out what seems to me like a failure in the design -- no selvedge for the seam so I'd have to eat into the ribbing to create one, breaking the rhythm and look of the cables. So back they went into a plastic bag at the back of the cupboard.

They were UFOs for different reasons. With the Turkish sock I was being stopped by what was really a minor problem of gauge. I knew that once I could deal with that, the knitting was going to be enjoyable for me.

The Christmas sock is a different story. It was unpleasant to work on. Yes, I liked the result but hated the process.

Hence a UFO, and a dilemma. I'd either have to suffer through the pain of knitting the second one -- with all the intarsia and duplicate stitch and seaming I hate-- or abandoning the project entirely.

Just last week I bit the bullet and ripped out that disastrous Christmas sock, and sketched out a design to keep the elements I liked best and use up the yarn. It will be an all-over cabled sock, with a couple of cm red at the top, and red heels and toes. I may even go wild and bend one of my own rules and knit the foot portion flat so the sole can use up the darker green and the instep can be in the lighter green. But if I do, I'll ensure there's a selvedge to seam up neatly. And I know I'll be able to get the damn things done and enjoy the process the same time.

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