Sunday, April 13, 2014

On Learning and Beginner-Friendly Projects: A few thoughts

I taught a class this past weekend on Fixing Mistakes in Lace. It's a very rewarding class to teach, as I'm helping knitters build very useful skills.

And it's a class full of "aha" moments. The first big one is when the students realize that they don't have to rip back to put in a missed yarnover. And the next is the discovery of the lifeline and its value in saving lives.... Well, ok, saving hours of knitting and ripping time, at the very least.

Two students were attending the class because they were participating in an online knit-along for a first lace project. One of them brought her swatch to show me. Now, if you've ever met me, you'll likely know that I have a lousy poker face... I'm really not good at disguising my feelings about something.

I was shocked when I saw the swatch - and I expressed that shock.

The knitter in question, B., seemed initially surprised (and probably a bit upset) at my shock. I think she thought I was shocked at the quality of her work.

Precisely the opposite: her work was great... I was shocked at the project. It was a pretty complex lace pattern - looked like a 20+ stitch, 20+ row repeat, worked in slightly fuzzy, 2-ply laceweight. I asked a few questions. Yes, this was advertised as a "beginner" lace project. Yes, this was the yarn recommended.

In my mind, that ain't no "beginner" lace project. No matter how good the online support, that's a challenging project.

My first couple of lace projects were fairly disastrous. There was so much ripping and reworking and cursing and perhaps even a few tears. And I'm so glad about that! I'm glad about that because I believe that experience makes me a better teacher. I remember that working with a fine and delicate laceweight yarn was intimidating and difficult. I did much better when I changed to a sturdier and smoother sock yarn. I remember that I did a lot better at first with a smaller lace repeat. I remember that being taught about a lifeline was critical to my enjoyment and success with the project.

Now, I don't wish to impugn the designer who is leading the knit-along. This person has made the choices of yarn and pattern for specific reasons, I'm sure. But this raises an interesting question: how does an experienced knitter decide what's 'easy'? What makes a good beginner-friendly project?

As a life-long knitter, what I find easy isn't at all what a newer knitter finds easy. I strongly believe that the best teachers are the ones who stay in touch with the learning process - the ones who stay in touch with how students learn. I love teaching in-store classes, and I don't think I'll ever give this up. These classes keep me engaged with newer knitters and they challenges they experience. I learn so much from the questions I get asked.

As an experienced knitter, there are so many things I just don't think about, so many things I take for granted... for example, I never questioned what a pattern meant when it said to "work even". It never occurred to me that this needed explaining. But I get asked about it at least once a week - this is a good reminder! It's important to listen to knitters read through instructions and ask questions about them.

And taking an example from this weekend's class, I find it easy and obvious to pick up a missed yarnover - I've done it thousands of times. But it's important to watch a knitter do this for the first time, and struggle with figuring out which way round to work into the yarnover. Watching reminds me why it's not obvious and not easy this first few times.

I'm grateful for my own awful knitting experiences. I'm grateful for newer knitters. I'm grateful for the "silly" questions. They make me a better teacher.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

More questions on sock fit

Loving the questions...

Through Twitter, a knitter asked about the number of gusset stitches:
How many should there be, how to pick them up, and how does this affect fit?
If you want to be scientific about it, it goes like this... figure out what circumference you need around the arch of your foot. Take the measurement, subtract off about 10-15% and then multiply that by your stitch gauge.
Let's use my numbers as an example. My foot is 8 inches around the ball of the foot, but 9 1/2 inches around the arch.  At 8 stitches an inch, I calculated the following stitch count for my sock: 8 inches - 10% is about 7 inches, and 7 x 8 = 56.

For my gusset circumference, 9 1/2 inches less about 10% is 8 1/2 inches. 8.5 x 8 = 68 stitches.

Let's consider a top-down flapped heel first. Your instep is usually half the total number of stitches - for me, that's 28. Check the pattern to see how many stitches are leftover from the heel turn - for my favourite band heel turn, I have 12 left over. So I've got 40 stitches after the heel turn. And I need to make up the remaining 28 stitches with the gusset pickup - that's 14 each side.  (And when I'm working a top down sock on 56 stitches, I aim to pick up 14 or 15, so that's just about right!)

Now: for many sock patterns, the instructions are simply to pick up one stitch for every slipped stitch on the side of the heel flap - that is, one stitch for every two rows. I submit to you that that number is too few. No matter how many rows you work. I like to pick up one stitch for every slipped slipped stitch at the side of the heel flap, plus two more. Yes, really. Two.

Aha, you say! But if I pick up more stitches, I'm going to get holes. Nope! Done properly, picking up extra stitches actually eliminates the risk of holes.

Avoid that tempting strand that runs between the stitches. If you pick up there, you're absolutely 100% going to create a huge hole. It's going to be loose, as that strand tends to stretch out when you're working the heel flap. And if you pick that up, you're effectively creating a yarnover - think about it, you're picking up a strand between the stitches. And even if you're "clever" about it, and work that yarnover through the back loop to twist it, you're still going to get a gap as you're still working an increase, and therefore forcing apart the instep and the heel stitches, creating a bit of a separation.  The trick is to pick up those two extra stitches in the straight line, continuing up from the slipped stitches. You're very deliberately picking up a stitch or two above the separation point between heel flap and instep - this hides that stretched-out strand of yarn in the break between the flap and the instep. To pick up the last couple, you're no longer putting the needle under the edge stitch, but poking it through from the RS of the fabric to the inside of the sock. (BTW, you are putting the needle under both strands of the edge stitch to do the pickup, aren't you? You should be.) (More on this in this blog post.)

For a toe-up heel, if I'm working on 56, I need to work gusset increases until I get to 68 stitches - the different is 12, so that's 6 on each side. That having been said, for most toe-up flap-and-gusset constructions, the number of rows in the heel flap is set by the number of gusset stitches, so I tend to consider this as a minimum number of gusset stitches. A 12-row heel flap sits too low on the heel for my liking, so I usually use the following formula: gusset stitches per side should be about 20% of the total sock stitches, so for a 56-stitch sock, I'd do 11 or 12 gusset stitches per side. Some knitters use 25% as their usual number, but I personally find this too many - I get bagginess around the front of the heel.

And Jenn asked in a comment:
Any hints on compensating for high insteps?
My widest point comes when putting the sock on - getting it over my heel/instep. If I knit the 'right' width for my calf I need to stretch the sock to the point I'm afraid of snapping something to get it over my heel. I've played with a few things (different heel flaps/stitch counts etc) but it seems if I want to actually get them on, they are baggy on the legs
There's a few possible elements at play here. First of all, I'd always recommend a sock with a flap and gusset construction, as that allows you to add extra circumference around the arch/instep. If working top-down, work an extra long heel flap, and then pick up "enough" gusset stitches - as above.  As to how long the heel flap should be, measure the vertical distance from the top of your instep to the ground. Aim for that length.

For toe-up, you'll need to reverse engineer this a bit. Measure that length, and then calculate how many rows that is.  (Flap length x round gauge in inches.) If you're working a "typical" toe-up sock where the heel flap is created by decreasing away a gusset stitch every row, your total number of gusset stitches - both sides added together - needs to be the number of rows you need. So at 10 rows/rounds an inch. if you need a 3 inch heel flap, that's 30 rows. And so you need 15 gusset stitches per side.

I hope that helps my readers! Anything else?

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Sock Fit Part 3: Reader Questions

In a comment, May asks:
What would you suggest for someone who has "athletic" calves but skinny ankles?
Easy! Identify the size and stitch count you need for the foot/ankle, and also for the calf. (Use the negative ease rule in both cases - find the circumference that is about 10-15% smaller than your actual circumference.

At the simplest level, the process is this: If you're working top-down, cast on for larger size and work decreases as you work down the leg to ensure that you hit the smaller size by the time you're at the ankle. You can then finish the sock following the instructions for the smaller size. And if you're working toe-up, work the toe, foot and heel turn for the smaller size. Once you're back in the round and working the leg, work increases to get to the larger stitch count, and finish the leg.

How you actually do the shaping depends on your own leg. If the shape change is gradual from ankle to calf, change the stitch count over that distance. If your legs change shape quickly, change the stitch count quickly, too!

For example, let's say that your leg needs 72 stitches, and your foot needs 60 stitches. If working top-down, you will cast on 72, and need to have decreased to 60 by the ankle. If working toe-up, you will work the foot and heel on 60 stitches, and you'll need to increase to 72 for the leg.

That's 12 stitches of shaping.

If shaping gradually: Assuming your leg is at least 6 inches long, increase/decrease 2 stitches every inch or so on the leg. You can eyeball this, no need to be super-precise about it. After all, knitting stretches!

If shaping "quickly": work the shaping in one round in the bottom round of  the leg.

I'm doing a lot of writing on this topic right now - stay tuned for news about that being published...

Monday, April 07, 2014

More on sock fit - how about a class?!

Interested in exploring the topic of sock fit further? Questions about how to customize the fit of a sock to meet your particular foot shape?

Well, you're in luck! I'm teaching a class on Custom Fit Socks at the upcoming Interweave Knitting Lab in New Hampshire. I'm teaching a full slate of classes over the weekend, and the sock class runs Sunday May 18th, 9am to noon. There are a few spaces available!

More info here.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

On Ease and Sock Fit; Questions from Test Knitters

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you have a question, the best way to get an answer is to get in touch through email, or thorugh the website If you leave a comment here, a quirk in blogger means that I don't always know how to get in touch with you directly.
These socks are too big... no slouch allowed!
I've been working on some new sock designs. Some of the more complex ones I've sent out for a test knit, and as always, I've had fantastic feedback come back.

It's good to have knitters of all levels test a pattern, both experienced and newer - they see very different things.  It's often the 'simplest' questions that are the smartest, the ones that get to the key issues. Sometimes the experienced knitters are 'too smart' in that they make assumptions, and fix things without even thinking about it. Newer sock knitters don't have much experience to rely on, so they look at the instructions more closely - they ask excellent questions.

Recently, I've had a bunch of related question come back to me, and they all start like this: the sock doesn't fit.

I always reply in the same way: How big is your foot? What size did you make? And why did you choose that size?

The answers have all been very revealing, and I've learned a lot. I think the key thing I've realized is that sock sizing isn't as well understood as I thought it was.

So, without further ado, a quick primer on sock fit and sizing.

Key fact #1: Size Matters One size fits all just doesn't. There's about a 25% difference in foot length and circumference between the average "smallest" and "largest" women's feet. That is, a a woman's US shoe size 11/UK women's size 9.5/EUR size 44 foot is going to be about 25% bigger than a woman's US shoe size 5/UK women's size 3.5/EUR size 36 foot. The idea that the same size sock will fit that foot equally well is just plain false. (The same is true for the "average" range of men's feet.)

Key fact #2: Socks should be worn with negative ease That is, they should be smaller than the foot (and leg) they are to go on. You want the sock to stretch to fit. A sock that stretches to fit will stay up on your leg, and stay in place on your foot. A common problem cited with hand-knit socks is that the legs don’t stay up: in many cases, this is simply because the sock is made too big. (The sock in the picture above suffers from that problem; look at the left one. It's wrinkly and baggy.)

A hand-knit sock (especially those made out of wool or other animal fibers) will stretch out over the day, and you don’t want it to be so floppy that it falls off. And a sock that stretches to fit will stay put on your foot; socks that move around in your shoes wear out faster, and be much less comfortable, due to the friction.

For an adult foot, the finished sock should be about 10% (practically speaking, about an inch/2.5cm) smaller than the leg and foot in circumference, and about half an inch/1cm shorter in length. For a child’s foot, you want the sock to be about 10% smaller in circumference (e.g. half an inch/1cm for a foot with a 5 inch/12cm circumference), and about a quarter to half an inch/.5-1cm shorter in length.

Key fact #2: When choosing a sock pattern, choose the size you're going to knit by finished sock circumference (This is sometimes listed as "actual".) Measure yourself around the ball of your foot, and choose a size that will result in a sock that's about an inch or so smaller than that.
Related point a) When we say "size" in a pattern, it's identifying the person who should be wearing the piece - e.g. small/medium/large; it's "Finished" or "Actual" that identifies the size of the item in question. With a garment, we typically expect positive ease - that is, that the finished sweater will be a bit bigger than the person, so that for a 40 inch chest, you might make a garment with a 44 inch finished chest circumference.
Related point b) The term "ease" here means the difference between the size of the person wearing the thing, and the size of the thing. If the thing is smaller, then we say it's worn with negative ease. If the thing is bigger, it's worn with positive ease. If the thing is the same size, it's worn with zero ease.)
Now, what happens if the sock doesn't give you finished/actual circumferences? Not to be a total curmudgeon, but I'd suggest those patterns should be avoided. How do you know what's going to fit you if it won't tell you what size you're making?

(That having been said, you can sometimes work it out... if you've got the gauge of the pattern stitch used for the foot/leg, and you know the stitch counts, then divide the number of stitches in the foot/leg by stitches per inch, and that's your finished size.)

What if it's sized by foot length? 
I'll be honest: I don't like this one bit. For conventional sock constructions, setting the foot length of a sock is simply a matter of "work until it's the required length". The key measurement for sock fit is foot circumference, as that sets the number of stitches for the leg and the foot. There are short wide feet and there are long narrow feet. You can't really draw conclusions about foot circumference based on foot length - that's just not safe or reasonable.

If the sock sizes are given as "to fit", or by shoe size only, without finished measurements (and you can't calculate it easily), then it's going to be a bit of a guessing game... you can hope that the designer has done his/her homework on how to fit.  Tread carefully.

If the sock sizes as given as "small", "medium", "large", or "child", "woman", "man" - again, tread carefully. If there's no finished measurements (or you can't work them out), avoid. (And again, I don't believe in one-size-fits-all, even if its "just" for a gender. As above, there's still a massive difference between a woman's small foot and a woman's large foot.)

And if there's only one size? If you can find/calculate finished size info, and it's the right measurement for you, to fit your foot, congratulations! Otherwise, move along. That pattern won't work for you.
Related point C) You'll notice that all of my published sock designs come in multiple sizes. You can see why.
Remember, knitting socks is a fair bit of work - what's the point in spending all that time if they don't fit?

Questions? Issues? Concerns? I'm actually writing more on this topic now. If I can help clarify anything, let me know!

An excellent question: is negative ease "built in" to the pattern? Ooh... yeah... this is interesting. I think there's a lot of misunderstanding even with designers about how to express sizes. It's actually very simple: you MUST GIVE Finished Measurements - the measurements of the item when knitting. It's best when a pattern that has both "to fit" and "finished" so that I know how the designer expects me to wear an item; either that, or "finished measurements" and a statement about how to wear it, e.g. "sock should be worn with about an inch of negative ease". You can't "build" ease into a measurement. Measurements are absolute. Either they are the finished item, or they are the size of the person you expect to wear them. If I see something that states that "ease is built into" the measurements, I'm both confused and nervous about it...

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

As the winter comes to a close...

It's been a long winter. In winter in which I've been very grateful to be a knitter. Being a knitter means that I have an excellent supply of warming gear: hats, mittens, scarves, cowls, legwarmers... And being a knitter means that as the winter gets longer, I can cheer myself up by changing out the accessories. I may be tired of my coat, but I can liven things up by changing from the black alpaca hat to the orange mohair one; I can change from the dark scarves to the bright ones. It's a small thing, but a nice thing.

But as the winter comes to a close, before I can put everything away, there's a vitally important step: a bath!

Moths - the dreaded wool-eaters - are a danger in the summer. Moths are attracted to dark spaces - the backs of closets where we have stuffed our winter gear. Moths are attracted to the nicest fibers - if wool is good, cashmere is positively delicious. And moths are attracted to items that are dirty - that have the oils from your hair and skin on them. This means that before you can put your woolies away, they need to be washed.

If they're items like hats and mitts and scarves, non-lacy stuff that doesn't need stretching or pinning, it's easy.

I fill up my bathtub with lukewarm water and Eucalan eucalyptus scent. (Eucalyptus is a natural moth-repellent.) I throw the items in, and wander away from a good half an hour. Drain the tub, while marvelling at how dirty the water is. (Snow is kinda filthy, it turns out.)

I have a front-loading washing machine, so I run the items through the spin cycle. The higher speed the spin, the more gentle it is... items are flung against the side of the tub and stay motionless throughout the spin. No fear of felting!

Then I lie them on a laundry rack to let them dry.

And then I put them away and dance the dance of joy and spring!

If you want more info on the horror that is Tineola bisselliella, a couple of great resources for you here: Wikipedia and University of Kentucky Entomology department.