Wednesday, January 30, 2008

On Sock Yarn

All this sock knitting (and teaching of sock knitting) of late has caused me to bring out all my handknitted socks.

And I've noticed something.

Something I've always sorta suspected, but I've been trying to ignore the evidence for some months now. The filthy truth about all these small-producer, hand-dyed, 100% merino sock yarns we drool over.

Oh yes, they're lovely. Great colourways, cool names, nice feel to work with. All very alluring and fun.

But they just don't wear as well as old-school, commercial 75% wool/25% nylon sock yarn.

Oh, I'm not happy about it, trust me.

But look... the evidence is there for us all to see.

These socks are about 2 years old, made of Fleece Artist 100% merino:

These socks are more than 10 years old, made of good old nylon blend sock yarn -- Regia, I believe:

Compare the pilling:

(It's not extreme in either case, but it's definitely there. Click to embiggen the pictures. And given the relative ages of the two socks, the Fleece Artist pair are aging faster.)

Now, even more worrying, look at this... the inside of a heel of socks in Collinette Jitterbug. These socks aren't even a year old.

They're FELTING.

This is what 100% animal fibres gets you. The damn stuff is behaving like good wool -- it's pilling and felting and generally wearing out.

But I don't want my socks to wear out. I spend a lot of time and money on a pair of hand-knit socks. I want to wear them forever.

I've experienced a bit of a rapprochement with old-school sock yarn of late -- I tend to recommend it for my beginner sock classes, because it's less expensive. And I've been using it myself for samples. And you know, I like it.

Oh, I agree, it's not as soft as 100% merino products, no question. But, seriously, how delicate are most people's feet? (Diabetics are an exception, absolutely.) Sure, it feels nicer to wear 100% merino, but are the blended yarns really uncomfortable? (The wool-sensitive are excluded from this discussion.)

But it wears like steel. Look at those stripey black socks above. They're more than 10 years old, worn year-round, in boots in the winter, and look at them. A few pills on the heel, but otherwise perfect.

Yes, yes, I know, there are natural-fibre purists out there that shun any thought of a man-made fibre. I do, too, for the vast majority of applications. Life is too short to knit with acrylic. However, this ain't 100% acrylic, people. The man-made fibre is always in the minority in a sock yarn, rarely more than 25%... think of it as helper thread.

I will admit that the machine-made products aren't always as interesting. Yes, absolutely, you can get great solid colours and tweeds, and stripes. And sure, if the faux fair-isle thing is to your taste...

you can't go wrong.

But they're always a bit too... engineered. A bit too perfect. I dearly love the slightly irregular, perhaps even ramshackle nature of the colouring in hand-dyed yarns. And somehow, the hand-dyed colourways (even the really wacky ones) are still
more tasteful than many of the "commercial" ones

Now, there are exceptions to this rule -- Lorna's Laces' Shepherd Sock is a terrific hand-dyed, fun sock yarn that comes in excellent colourways and has nylon in the blend. I've been very happy with this, no complaints.

And I've noticed that some other smaller producers are starting to put nylon in their mixes, which is terrific. Thank you! I look forward to more of them doing it.

Socks that Rock blends, PLEEEEEASE???? I want to be able to wear these socks forever.

And now, my heart soars at the prospect of Noro Kureyon sock yarn. Fabulous colourways, great striping effects, and it's got nylon in it. My hopes are high.

I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

It's Still Ugly

But it is a hat.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Forest and Trees; On Leftover Sock Yarn

I talk about this in my classes, particularly in sock classes... when you're knitting, you tend to focus on your immediate problem --- your next stitch.

And it's possible that your stitches are all correct, but your larger knitting has gone sideways. It's fairly common in a group of 6 or 8 learning to knit in the round for the first time that at least one will turn the sock inside out at some point. This is a classic example a knitter getting so focused on the short game that the long game is forgotten.

Sometimes, you need to step back and think more broadly about what you're doing.

And sometimes, I need to pay attention to my own lessons...

I've been bitching and moaning about that Clown sock yarn for a while now. I finally finished the sample, and didn't even bother taking a photograph. I took it to where it needed to be, and I'm done with it.

But I still had the yarn on my desk.

M. came over last night for takeout and a movie. She brought a knitting book she'd found in a bargain bin somewhere.... She had a baby to knit for, and wanted my advice on a particular design and suggestions for which yarn to use.

I leafed through it -- there are some very cute patterns, easy to knit and attractive. It's called "Quick to Knit(TM)" Knitting for Babies, by PIL Publications. (No author listed, and it's clearly a "Quick to Publish", too.)

And right there, on page 46, I find it!

The obvious honourable solution to the horror of the Clown sock yarn. A baby's hat knitted in a sock yarn.

And because we were watching a movie, and M. had not brought any knitting with her, I immediately handed her the yarn and needles.

What might look horrible on my feet is going to look pretty damn fabulous on the head of a baby, no?

And just before I drift off to sleep last night, it occurs to me...

How many socks have I knitted in my life?

And how many partial balls and skeins of sock yarn have passed through my life? Some have been passed onto other knitters, some have disappeared into the mists of time, yet others remain in my cupboard, with the loose idea that one day I might make multicoloured socks. And yet never have I once thought about doing something else with the leftovers.

Sure, I'd read about making sweaters with sock yarn, but a) that's insane and b) it's not a project for leftovers. And I've seen really wonderful blanket projects using sock yarn. And sure, great for leftovers, but you'd need a heck of a lot, and it's a big big project. Plus I have Lizard Ridge, and I don't think I'll need another blanket ever again.

But for some reason, despite the baby hat knitting classes I've taught, the hat designs I've written, the hats I've made for myself (even with small gauge yarn), it never occurred to me to make a hat with the sock yarn.

A forest of hats, maybe?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Three Small Words

You know when someone casually says something that changes your world forever?...

A simple statement that changes the way you look at life and everything around you?

Three words. Three simple words.

The words I have been waiting to hear for many, many years.

Noro sock yarn.

I may never knit anything else again.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Progress with the Scurvy Shawl, More Socks, Other Applications of the Lifeline

With all this frantic sock knitting going on...

(I've hit a new personal high. Or low, depending on how you look at it. I've got three sock projects on the go. I've got one each of a pair in orange and the red & black tweedy yarn, and half of a first clown sock. Although the clown sock will probably remain an orphan. It's a sample for display. If I had more than two sets of sock needles, the second red & black tweedy one would be on the needles, but having only two pairs is keeping me focused on getting the ugly one done.)

... there hasn't been much work on the scurvy shawl...

Although I did use it as a cautionary tale and a demonstration of the value of a lifeline in lace knitting in a class on Sunday.

On the topic of lifelines....

I've been working with E. on sock knitting. She was having trouble with picking up stitches for the gusset. The heel turn is without problem for her (yay for E.!), but picking up stitches has proven to be challenging. She's needed to pull back a few times while working the gusset.

While talking her through this on the phone. (Yes, the phone. This is not the first time I have talked someone through a sock over the phone.) I had a brainwave... I had her thread a lifeline, before the gusset stitches are picked up -- so through the heel after the turn, and the held instep sts. That way, E. can pick up and pull out the gusset stitches as many times as she wants, and the sock is all safe.

Friday, January 18, 2008

A Clown May Have Died

Ok, this wasn't what I was expecting either, but this time not in a good way...

Yes, that's beige and yellow and light blue and orangey-red and purple. All together.

I mean, ok, I like strong colour combinations as much as the next sock knitter, but this one fails spectactularly, IMHO, because the colours aren't bright enough to compete with each other. It's a mess of mid-range colours that are neither bright or muted.


Thursday, January 17, 2008


Yet another sock underway.

This is stash yarn -- the ball band long gone. It's sock yarn, I know that much. Old school, 75%wool/25% nylon sock yarn. Old reliable.

I think I picked it because it was manly, I had a certain recipient in mind for a pair of gift socks.

This week I needed to started a pair of plain st st socks to use as a sample for a class, and dug this out. I figured this might be a faux fair isle or something.

(I don't like wasting a yarn that's calibrated for a faux fair isle on a ribbed pattern. You lose the effect. My basic ribbed sock pattern is best for yarn that's splotchy (a la Jitterbug) or stripes or even -- gasp -- plain. A faux fair isle should be worked plain to show it off.)

So I cast on for my plain & simple sock, all st st, and this is what results.

Nice, eh?

Much nicer than I was expecting. The twist in the yarn always deceives me. I know, intellectually, that the strong contrasting lines you see in the twist of the yarn won't show up as strong lines in the knitted fabric, it just forms a nice tweed. But even so, when I see a yarn in a ball, I can't help but think that it's going to be all stripey, somehow.

Of course, this is another excellent argument for swatching...

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

I Can Smell the Formaldehyde...

Uncomfortable memories of science class, in yarn...

And to think I made my science teacher brother a hat for Christmas...

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Zen and the Art of the Heel Turn

I've told this story before... It's family lore that my grandmother, the Wise Hilda after whom this blog is named, used to earn a penny turning the heel of socks knitted by women in her neighbourhood.

I've become a bit of an expert in sock knitting, given the articles I've written, and the book contributions I've made...

and I do dearly love it.

I've always got a sock project on the go. At the moment, I have two. The plain grey self-patterned pair that I started to take to a movie, and an orangey pair in my standard ribbed sock pattern. No specific requirement drove those, just a fancy for the yarn.

I've finished up all my pending design and sample projects, and the only other current thing I have on the go is the Scurvy Shawl, which is fiendishly complex and attention-needy.

So the two socks are growing fast, between conference calls and a trip to the theatre. (Twelve Angry Men is not a comedy, BTW.)

By chance, I found myself turning two heels yesterday.... one on a grey sock, one on an orange sock. Halfway through the second, working entirely on autopilot, it hit me: turning the heel of a sock is the most natural thing in the world for me.

Wise Hilda would be proud.

But also she'd probably be a little disappointed that I'm not charging for it...

Wednesday, January 09, 2008


So when you thread a lifeline, you really do need to make sure that the row you're threading it through is correct....

Having just moved a lifeline up from a correct row to an incorrect row, am now forced to pull back 6 rows, stitch by stitch.


Scurvy Shawl: Some Progress

It's slow going, but I'm enjoying it. The yarn is truly lovely to work with.

And yes, I know I said I didn't like triangular shawls, so why on earth would I like a semi-circular shawl any more? Do we have to have the talk about being a process knitter rather than a product knitter? Have we discussed this already?

This project isn't about wearing the damn thing. Seriously, do you think I'd be able to come up with an appropriate outfit and occasion for wearing a shawl coloured like a grove of citrus fruits shaped like a slice of lime? Could anyone?

The segments are coming out nicely...

Note dental floss lifeline. Although I should probably have used unwaxed...

Sunday, January 06, 2008

A Sock, and a Monkey

The Monkey's name is Trinidad Huggins. He was a birthday present from Norman, and the name comes from a spam email I received recently. The sender was "Trinidad Huggins" and the subject line said, simply, "Make Her Grin". He does... therefore, it seemed like the perfect name.

(Later that day I got a spam email from a Mr. "Sylvester Cotton", which also seems like a good Sock Monkey name... but that will have to wait for the next one.)

The sock is using some old school sock yarn from the stash, Regia 4 Color Jacquard. It's nice and simple. I don't often use these types of sock yarns anymore, and I do still enjoy the surprise of how the patterning works out. This is a nice combo of faux fair isle in grey and white, with stripes of shades of grey. It's remarkably effective, I couldn't tell there was so much complexity in the shading when I looked at the ball. (Click to embiggen the picture and see it more clearly.)

This sock was started because I went to a movie. The project I was working on at the time was too complex for working in the dark, I needed something I could do entirely on autopilot. The leg of a plain sock is perfect for that. I cast on and worked the ribbing before I left, and happily worked on the stocking stitch leg in the theatre, much to the amusement of my seat-mate.

The pattern is my standard sock recipe, as outlined in Knitty.

Because I'm just that sort of person, when I picked up the stitches for the gusset to reestablish the round after turning the heel, I made the stripes line up so that the patterning was unbroken on the instep. It continues to amuse and amaze me how much trouble I'll go to make something that's going to be stuffed into my winter boots look nice... particularly since without my glasses I can barely make my feet out, let alone notice a slight break in the stripes...

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Fruity Goodness

I was flipping through my library yesterday looking for ideas and stitch patterns, and I found the PERFECT design.

Perfect. The Cocoon Stitch Half Circle Shawl in Martha Waterman's excellent book, Traditional Knitted Lace Shawls.

Garter edging and rays, and the segments are worked in the cocoon stitch, which remarkably like the structure of citrus flesh.

All written out for me and everything! A nice gift!

Well, ok, nearly perfect.

I am making some tweaks to the pattern, not least of which because it's written out... all 124 rows of it. A typical row looks like this...

Row 46: *K3, yo, k1, p1 [k1 p1 k1 p5] twice, [k1 p1] twice, k1, yo; repeat from *, end k3.

And that's not the rows with the key pattern repeat of... [p1, yo, (k1, p1, k1) in next st, yo, p1, p5tog] that occurs several times in each segment, every 6th row.

It takes four pages of the book for the writeup. Surely, surely the designer could have come up with a better way of representing it. Surely.

I am stopping the knitting to work on an improved, condensed, easier-to-read pattern writeup, probably with charts. If only so that I can take it travelling with me, without having to carry the whole damn book.

Also, I disagree very strongly with how she has treated the rays around the increases... I have made a modification to the design, just every few rows.

Oh yes, and another small modification to the basic pattern stitch.

The designer's version of cocoon stitch calls for a p5tog decrease. I hate it. It's hard to work, but more to the point, it's ugly. I'm using the more complex but more elegant "slip 3 stitches together knitwise, knit next 2 stitches together, and pass slipped stitches over" decrease. This provides a nice centered decrease that looks organic to the stitch pattern. Much better.

Oh yes, and I've also decided that I find the wrong side more attractive than the right side.

But otherwise, it's perfect.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Fresh Fruit

Note to self: don't go Boxing Day shopping at Lettuce after a few drinks at Embassy. Yes, you get a great deal on a terrific colourway of Socks that Rock.

But then you also end up with 940 yards of Malabrigio Laceweight in what can only be described as a "Vitamin C" colourway...

It's been sitting around, looking at me, for almost a week. I've been walking past it, casting the odd glance at it, feeling somewhat ridiculous. Then yesterday, I had a brainwave. This is screaming out to be a semi-circular segmented shawl. You know, like a slice of orange.

This may turn out to be a horrendously bad idea, but aren't you curious to watch?