The Saffran Cardigan: A story in ethical decision-making

My friend Ben asked me to knit a baby cardigan to surprise his wife (and presumably his 6-month old Phoebe, if she can be surprised) for Christmas. I have the special privilege of watching Phoebe one day every two weeks – which brings me so much joy! When he asked me to knit this surprise cardigan I was immediately on board. I’ve had a lot of people request hand knit objects before the holidays – usually they come at the beginning of December and involve large projects… but Ben was smart. He asked me to knit this sweater in September, he offered to pay for materials, and he let me pick the pattern. This is how you ask a friend for a handknitted object!

I was very excited to peruse the large selection of baby cardigans on Ravelry – there are so many and they are SO CUTE! I finally landed on the Saffran Cardigan by Docksjo, an adorable raglan with snowflake/star/flower motifs allover in stranded colorwork. This was an easy decision – I love colorwork and the motif fit the request for a Christmas sweater (though this figgy pudding one was a very close second).

The Yarn

The more difficult decision – the ethical one – was all about yarn choice. I care about where my yarn comes from and what it’s full life cycle will look like. I want my yarn sources to be sustainable, support the wool industry in my region, and be free from non-compostable materials (like nylon). I have my own yarn-buying hierarchy. It begins with thrifting for usable yarns. Most of my large projects come from this option – and it’s my favorite method as it fits my budget and allows me to save materials from the landfill. It’s not a perfect method… but it works well for now. Second, I try to buy directly from farmers and mills. This is option is very far outside of my budget… so I only get the chance to do this once or twice every year. If options one or two aren’t available, I try to buy 100% American wool (bonus if it was also milled and dyed in the U.S.) As a resident of the United States who was raised in a rural area, I want to support my farming neighbors as best I can, so when I can’t buy directly from them, I buy from sources that buy their fleeces. These three steps (thrifted, farm, american wool) make up my initial decision-making schema.

However, deciding which yarn to buy is always complicated by extra factors. The size of the project (and therefore the cost of the materials) will skew me towards one source or the other. If I’m knitting a blanket, I’ll lean towards thrifted yarns, but a pair of mittens will skew me towards farm yarn. When gift knitting, I always consider the lifestyle of the recipient – specifically their laundry habits. If they’re used to hand washing, and I believe they have sufficient yarn wherabouts to keep something out of the laundry machine, they get the prized 100% wool option (my mom is the only person who fits this category for me at the moment…). If they are likely to toss it in the laundry basket with their t-shirts and jeans, I’ll bend my no-superwash preference for them. Usually, I avoid superwash yarns as the ones available in the U.S. are treated with harmful chemicals that can end up in our waterways (leaks always happen). The reason I bend this rule when gift-knitting is because I value the longevity of the final product, that will hopefully become an heirloom piece. By knitting something out of superwash yarn, it stands the chance that it will last that much longer, even after accidental washes (but no dryer! Please no dryer!)

For my Saffran Cardigan, I chose to use Shepherds Wool from Stonehedge Fiber Mill. This is an affordable yarn that supports the American wool industry (milled in the US, from sheep in the US!) I wanted to keep the cost of this project relatively low while still knitting a quality piece from a yarn source on my ethical hierarchy. This merino wool is ultra-soft. It’s guaranteed to surprise any recipient with it’s handle. I’m not the biggest fan of ultra-soft yarns. I’m a bit too rough and tumble and need sturdy yarns myself, but I know that soft is all the rage, so soft yarns for gifts makes sense. With my soft yarn in hand, I set out to knit the cutest cardigan I ever did see.

The Pattern

Overall I enjoyed knitting the Saffran cardigan. The biggest “challenge” of this cardigan was the steek. I use the term challenge lightly. I wouldn’t say I’m afraid of steeking, I just never found the need to cut open my knitting and prevent it from ever being unraveled in a usable way. But, as I was giving this sweater away, the chance it will need to be unraveled isn’t large, so I embraced the opportunity to steek and set out guns scissors a-blazing. The part I found to me mildly challenging was the section at the top of the cardigan where I was instructed to knit flat in colorwork. This was new for me and my tension was noticeably different in this section. I had to focus on this part. But I managed just fine and made no errors. I will most likely be making this sweater again – especially for all those babies that my friends are having at the moment!

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A Monster for Baby Francis

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My wonderful friend from my PhD program is having a baby! So to celebrate, I knit her this sweet monster baby toy. This is Gort from the Big Book of Knitted Monsters by Rebecca Danger.

Toys like these monsters are my favorite way to use scraps of yarn. I use larger leftovers for the body and those small offcuts for the stuffing. Unravelling thrifted sweaters produces a surprising amount of yarn scraps – some of the scraps used to stuff Gort were from 2015.

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Speaking of stuffing toys with scraps, I once heard an experienced toy knitter say that the only reliable way to stuff plush and full toys was to use poly-fil (or some sort of polyester batting) specifically for toy use. I’ve never used polyester filling for my toys. I’ve stuffed with lambs fleece, roving, and mostly scraps of yarn and fabric. I have never had a toy collapse or grow lumpy. I prefer to use scraps as it saves them from the landfill and serves a wonderful purpose.

The body is stripped with worsted weight yarn – the dark blue hails from my mother-in-law’s stash while the light blue marl was from a wedding blanket I knit in 2015.

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I decided to embroider the facial features on this monster to make it baby safe. The embroidery process was a bit nerve-wracking, but I pulled myself together and tried my best to plan it out. I think this little toy has a friendly face, perfect for small ones. Though, I did have a bit of a crisis immediately after finishing the face as I feared it could come across as terrifying. Thankfully, everyone who saw the monster disagreed and thought it was adorable and said it was overreacting.

This little monster is going off to meet it’s new family this afternoon! I’m hoping it will fit right in and be a loved for many years.

2017 Gifting: Zoey the Cat Ornament

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The last hand made gift for 2017 is Zoey the Cat (ornament). This little sweetie is modeled after the cat who, this fall, won my heart and brought me to two amazing roommates. Zoey the ornament cat is the perfect reminder of this surprising season of cat cuddles and roommate laughs.

Ornament Zoey is made from used materials found at Perennial. She has a black felt body with an embroidered face. I used hand stitching (rather than machine) during the construction process. She’s stuffed with leftover sweater scraps from my Open Waters shawl. Her dress is made from linen duvet scraps and her shawl comes from a scrap of a slightly felted sweater. To add a little holiday spirit, she’s carrying a jingle bell (ironic because the real Zoey hates bells and noise of any kind).

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I used the “Fern the Cat” ornament pattern in Making no. 4. I didn’t change much, except the color of the felt cat body, and I eliminated the bag. I’m still pretty new at embroidery (visible in the unique size of each eye), but I found this pattern easy to follow, helpful, and manageable. My favorite part was hand stitching the body together. Like most people who sew, I also avoid hand sewing whenever possible. However, the author of this pattern recommends hand stitching as a deliberate slow and peaceful practice. I took her up on this offer and found that it was exactly as she described. I narrowed my focus on tiny stitches and many of my concerns disappeared for an afternoon.

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I think the real Zoey is proud of her miniature, and her real parents are delighted. I have enough black felt left over to make another mini Zoey, and I’m thinking I might need one of these myself.

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2017 Gifting: The (Sock) Hat

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I really wanted to knit Kyle a pair of socks. I have been on such a sock knitting binge starting with this pair here, and I thought I could wow Kyle with a pair of his own hand knit socks for Christmas. I bought yarn, making sure it would be soft and easy for him to care for, and I cast on. The yarn is Araucania Huasco Sock in the Toco Tucan colorway. I couldn’t find much about this yarn online. The Araucania website says they’re handdyed by artisans and inspired by Ancient South American Crafts – but I couldn’t find any information on who actually dyes the yarn, where the artisans live, what kind of dyes they use (though my guess is some sort of acid dye process), or where the wool comes from. The yarn is a 75% merino/25% nylon blend. I wouldn’t call this an ethical yarn option, but I chose it because it was the only color option in the yarn store I knew Kyle would like and soft enough for him to enjoy wearing. Would I use this yarn again? Most likely not. As I’ve been learning more about superwash wools and nylon, I want to avoid them more . I’m considering the natural alternatives to petroleum derived synthetic fibers like wool, cotton, and linen. I also want to avoid chemically intensive production processes which rules out materials like bamboo or any superwash wool. I’m quite new to this conversation, and I’ve been learning quite a lot from Mrs. M’s Curiosity Cabinet – one of my favorite knitting podcasts as well as this episode of the Fruity Knitting Podcast.

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Let’s get back to the project.

This sock story doesn’t have a happy ending. It was never even made. I forgot to factor in how specific Kyle is about his socks – very tight, very thin, never falls down. Kyle’s sock preference is the opposite of a hand knit sock. There’s nothing wrong with this, I’m not trying to convince him to prefer hand knit socks over store bought socks – I just wanted to make him something he would actually wear and be proud of. I made Kyle plenty of terrible things when I was learning how to knit, and he accepted them graciously and now doesn’t wear them (neither would I). It’s high time he had something that was actually good.

So we sat down together to find something that would be worn and fit his style. We came across Mawson by Jarod Flood, a trendy and simple hat that has two gauge options. I wanted to use the original sock yarn (we both agreed the colors were perfect), and holding this yarn double I could make the DK weight gauge requirement. After I barely swatched two inches of fabric I decided it was good enough and was off on the knitting race that I arbitrarily set for myself.

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The best part about this pattern is the crown. The decreases are so clever – reversible!!! And the decreases create the loveliest crown design. I love the simplicity and versatility of this pattern, but it’s very clear that this hat (though simple) has been well designed. I will probably knit this hat for everyone who is knitworthy in my life sometime in the near future.

Kyle knew he would only wear this hat watchcap style, so he requested I sew the brim to keep the look permanent. I just used a running stitch with the same yarn to invisibly secure the brim to the hat. It’s still stretchy, the seam is invisible, and it’s exactly what he wanted.

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2017 Gifting: Open Waters Shawl

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Boy oh boy, what a project.

Back in September, during a phone chat with my lovely mom, I confessed that I was already thinking about Christmas gifts – making them, that is. I really wanted to get ahead of the last minute make-a-thon that usually takes over my festive spirit. Apparently, she was already thinking about gifts too – she knew exactly what she wanted. It went something like this,

I want a wrap for church when it gets cold that matches my kitchen backsplash.

After digging a little deeper, it came to light that she was talking about a shawl (not necessarily a rectangular wrap) and her backsplash was slate blue (very specific, thanks mom). So I set out to knit her a warm, slate blue shawl for Christmas.

I have never, ever, knit a shawl. Every time I think, “maybe I would like to have a shawl,” I always imagine how I could use that same amount of yarn to knit a sweater… and then knit that sweater. So this gift knit was necessary for me to break into the shawl knitting universe that I know so little about – and for that I’m grateful to my mom for her slightly weird request of a Christmas present.

I sent her a few patterns of shawl’s I liked, and ultimately we settled on the Open Waters Shawl my Melanie Berg in Making no. 2. I was drawn to the unique stitch pattern. It looks so inviting and creative. I also liked that most of the body of the shawl is in garter stitch and a smaller section in a more complex stitch pattern – enough complexity to stay interested but enough basic stitches to chill. The dream combo. This pattern is for an asymmetrical shawl, which includes increasing on one side (to create the wingspan/hypotenuse of the triangle). I know shawls come in a variety of shapes (words like crescent and half pie that make me think of baked goods, not knitting), and some folks have strong feelings about which shapes they prefer. My feelings toward shawl shapes are distinctly underdeveloped; I just don’t know which one is best.

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Finding the yarn for this sweater was a minor effort. I traveled out of my usual thrift shop boundaries to a suburban thrift store. After circling the sweater racks for 30 minutes searching for a slate blue fingering weight sweater with good fiber content to unravel, I finally settled for a less preferable option: multiple lace weight sweaters. The first sweater was a cornflower blue 100% cashmere sweater from Ann Taylor LOFT (I always find this brand has fantastic quality sweaters). The second was a graphite grey linen/silk/rayon blend from J.Jill (also good quality sweaters from the brand in general). Both of these sweaters were machine knit with very fine yarn (cobweb/laceweight). I knew unraveling was going to be a *t a s k* but I decided the right color (literally blue/grey) in quality yarn was worth the challenge.

And it sure was a challenge. The cashmere sweater was quite weak, snapped often, and produced a lot of fuzz. This is to be expected of a short fiber like cashmere, but still I was struggling to remain positive through this sweater harvest. The grey sweater was a whole other bag of worms – I didn’t notice that this sweater was machine knit with two separate strands of yarn, which unraveled at different tensions. So one yarn was always a little saggier than the other.

I’ve done most of my unraveling without a yarn swift, but halfway through endless winding of laceweight yarn, I gave in – I needed a yarn swift as soon as possible to finish this project. After maybe about 20 minutes of research one weekday morning I decided to buy an amish style swift. By that evening, I walked out of my LYS with the ChiaoGoo Amish Style swift at a price that just fit within my monthly craft budget (no extra yarn for me).

The yarn swift is a game changer.

I sped through the rest of my unraveling, washed the yarn, stretched it gently to remove any knitting kinks, and was ready to start knitting.

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The pattern calls for a US size 2.5 needle, which I do not have… so I decided a US size 3 metal circular needle would have to do – and my swatch turned out okay, but again, my first ever shawl, so I really didn’t know what to expect.

This shawl was strange to knit. My yarn combo did not want to knit nicely, it was both slippery and stiff. The main part of the stitch pattern is small sections of bound off stitches – this was really difficult to do with my yarn + needle combo. The knitting process felt like it took ages! I’m used to garment projects with their different sections, sleeves, button bands, and the like. This shawl was one large piece of repeating patterns – a new style for me. Once I finished the last pattern repeat I rejoiced at the thought of binding off. But I knew binding off wasn’t the last step of this project. It would need a serious session of blocking to help the stitch pattern shine. I was generally intimidated by this step so I put off blocking for two weeks to try to build up the courage to stretch my knitting.

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I’m pretty unsure about the finished look of this shawl. Generally in the middle. After blocking, the fabric turned into something light and airy. I don’t know if it will actually keep my mom warm, which was a crucial part of her request. I do know that it hits slate blue straight on the head. However, I do worry that I stretched the fabric out too much and that I should have added one more strand of yarn to add a little bulk to the shawl. But, alas, these are all lessons learned for next time. I do think I’ll knit a shawl again, and probably one of Melanie Berg’s designs. For a first ever shawl, I think this turned out just fine.

2017 Gifting: The Simple Handkerchief

I love making gifts for my family every holiday. I remember the first year I learned to knit I decided to make my sister a scarf, and I’ve made a lot of gifts since then. My skills have considerably improved since 2012, and so has my gifting philosophy. Each year someone in my family will receive a larger gift, usually knit, that takes time to make. The others will receive something smaller, but equally personal and beautiful.

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Starting off small, my dad will soon be the proud owner of this embroidered handkerchief (Last year he received this massive scarf, so it’s his turn for something small). It’s the perfect gift because he has now officially entered old man club and uses handkerchiefs 24/7 (which I love about him). It also declares his love for his favorites state (mine too). So, where winters are long and runny noses are common – the embroidered handkerchief is a practical statement to the kind of love only a Minnesotan could have.

Though this looks simple, the making process had some dramatic moments. First, the only embroidery hoop I could find was much much larger than the handkerchief. I decided to baste it to a larger piece of fabric and embroider through both layers. I planned to cut away the excess fabric after embroidering. Of course, the removal did not go as smoothly as I expected – I cut two holes in the actual handkerchief… I was almost devastated, but I decided to try out some mending skills. So with my white thread and a knowledge only gained from a few instagram posts – I set out on my mending journey. I think it turned out just fine! My dad’s definitely not going to notice. Would I do this again? Probably not – the removal process was far too risky and the handkerchief was so thin and vulnerable. Embroidery hoops are useful tools and I should probably invest in a range of sizes.

 

Besides the little snafoos, the overall process of embroidering this handkerchief was a breeze (I did most of it at 5 AM when I couldn’t sleep). I used backstitch for the Minnesota outline and the lettering and a chain stitch for the heart (plus one tiny stitch for shaping).

Merry Christmas Dad.

 

 

Knitworthy: Anniversary Cables

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Kate and Mike, our amazing upstairs neighbors, celebrated their first wedding anniversary in June. They are two of my favorite people. They are not only the best neighbors anyone could ever hope for, but they are both genuine and good humans. We not only share a front porch, we share meals, bonfires, climbing trips, yoga, gardens, and a hefty compost bin.

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For their honeymoon, Mike and Kate went to to dreamiest of all destinations, Ireland. They returned with beautiful photos, and a special gift: two skeins of Studio Donegal’s Soft Donegal in an amazing tweedy green color. Its a 100% merino wool, aran weight, and all around beautiful.

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These two skeins have been sitting in my stash for a year, waiting for the perfect project. I had no idea what to do with them at first, but then it came to me… two skeins would make two hats… Mike and Kate are two people who need hats. So I set out search the internet for suitable patterns. I was looking for something that represents both of them, as well as the yarn and their trip to Ireland. So… Cables were the only answer. Then I found the most perfect free pattern: father cables by  Veronika Jobe. It’s been a while since I cabled, and this was the perfect re-introduction.

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I surprised them with their hats only a month after their anniversary! (usually I’m about 6 months late on these kinds of things). Keeping this project hidden was a task, I’m always knitting around them, so I had to be extra vigilant to hide my yarn so they didn’t suspect anything. Plus, I so awkwardly asked them to describe the size of their heads and what kind of hats they like over a text… I totally thought they would catch on to my plan, but I somehow evaded them.

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I’m very happy with this pattern, It’s complex and interesting. Even thought my yarn was technically an aran weight, and the pattern calls for worsted, I think the hats turned out just fine. Though, perhaps the fabric is a bit stiffer than a worsted would produce.

The yarn was a pleasure. Soft and tweedy. I never know how tweed and cables will get along before diving into the knitting, I think they hide the cables a bit, but in the future I want to experiment more to see if it’s possible to make cables pop with a tweed yarn.

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