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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Raina Shawl

The story of a shawl that embodies my yarney commitments.

I’ve already determined that I am a shawl convert; once a disbeliever, Iam now a committed member of the handknitting shawl society. The Raina Shawl by Andrea Mowry from Making no. 4/Lines is an incredible shawl. I had high hopes of making this squishy piece when the magazine was first published – and finally found the perfect yarn match this fall.

I love the two yarns in this shawl. One is a breed-specific farm yarn: Round Barn Fiber Mill Esme – a pure Jacob yarn from a single sheep (named Esme) whose fleece produces this lofty, soft, and delightful natural brown yarn. I paired Esme with a white Shetland yarn that I reclaimed from a thrifted sweater. This reclaimed yarn is a little more robust than Esme, which is why the Shetland took the first color place and Esme plays a supporting role in the background of the brioche. The chance to hold a recycled yarn along with a breed-specific yarn is my ideal knitting project! I care so much about using yarn from these two sources: small farms and rescued sources – and the fact that I could use them together in one project where they work so well together was truly satisfying.

This project also brought a new technique: two-color brioche. I’ve done brioche before – usually one-color, with a lot of mistakes and confusion. I have heard from other knitters that two-color brioche can be frustrating and time consuming as it involves sliding a finished row of stitches to the beginning of a needle and following with the second color – so it takes two rows to finish one row. I had no interest in sliding my stitches to the beginning of the needle. So, before I started this project, I sat down with the Sockmatician one-pass brioche tutorial and focused. I learned the one-pass method in one night and cast on my shawl the next day. I will admit, the last time I had to focus like this in a knitting project was when I was learning to knit back in 2011… There was a lot of focus going on.

With one-pass brioche, my Raina Shawl was a very smooth and satisfying knit. I love the finished shawl and the way the two yarns play together. I finished this shawl the night before my second PhD qualifying exam. I wore it during my exam as a protective wooly layer to remind me that: yes – I am amazing! I can knit this shawl and I can pass this exam. I did pass, and I think the focus and clarity I found from knitting Raina helped immensely.

Raina was a delight to knit. Worth every bit of intense focus.

Portage Cardigan: Take Two

I did it, I finally re-made the Portage Cardigan by Melissa Sachschwary after my first failed attempt (seen here).

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I am so happy with this cardigan. This pattern was one of the first I truly fell in love with, right when I started knitting. I tried to make it in the worst yarn possible (black, tweedy, and no memory) and the first version failed. I decided to try again in the interest of using patterns I have and love – this time in the right kind of yarn.

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I found the perfect yarn at the Kentucky Sheep and Fiber Festival back in May 2018. After strolling through the fairgrounds filled with yarn booths, I happened across Madeline from Ballyhoo Fiber Emporium. Madeline had a delightful selection of yarns – and I almost bought some of her fingering weight Shetland, until I saw this Hampshire DK.

This 100% Hampshire is an undyed (she called it Naked Ewe for Naked You) two ply. There were a couple of spots in every skein where the yarn was “thick and thin” but overall the yarn was quite consistent. I was a little nervous at first that 100% Hampshire would be too rough for my skin – I’ve yet to see a Hampshire yarn marketed to the knitting masses. I decided to take the chance to knit a full sweater in this yarn, hoping that my the wool would soften with a wash and my body could adjust. I was also very excited to try out some wool exploration after catching up on some KnitBritish podcasts.

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Equally as enticing is the story behind this yarn. Madeline told me that this yarn comes from an eccentric art collector who lives in the hills of Kentucky. After visiting the U.K. he, apparently, was so captivated by the sheep grazing on the British hillsides, that he had to have the exact breed for his own land. So that’s how a flock of Hampshire’s ended up in Kentucky.

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Knitting this cardigan was relatively easy. I added a few modifications in the way of cables. I was inspired by Fee Donovan’s Portage – she continued the side cables through the hem of the cardigan. I followed her lead, and decided to add an underarm cable as well. This sleeve cable is my favorite thing about this cardigan – it’s shy but sassy  – like me.

I also eliminated the pockets – which I feel quite sad about. I tried very hard to make the pockets work, but somehow with my gauge and in this yarn, the pockets refused to lay flat against the body of the sweater. I had a huge gaping problem. Maybe one day I’ll add afterthought pockets, but for now it’s just fine.

I am so inspired to make another shawl collar cardigan – I think this cardigan style will get a substantial amount of wear in my academic wardrobe. They’re easy to layer, and I love the way they look. But, for now, I’ll relish in my newly completed Portage cardigan.

Marettimo – an exercise in beauty

I am delighted that I have a beautiful knit top to add to my collection. The Marettimo Sweater is a perfect addition to my fall/winter/spring wardrobe. When Caitlin Hunter released this pattern during the summer, I fell in love with the bold lace stripes. I wasn’t necessarily planning to cast on another short sleeve top so soon after my Tegna, but after a wild summer I decided that a little deviation from my knitting plans would qualify as self-care rather than self-destruction.

I cast on Marretimo to celebrate my birthday in August and to eliminate any extra stressors, I used only yarn from my stash. The yarn – zen yarn garden in serenity silk + – was good enough for this project. While the fiber content was perfect, I did notice that the speckles in the yarn had greater contrast the the original design. The greater contrast in the main color meant that this sweater could easily become busier than I intended. So to mitigate that, I chose to work the lace and boarder in the same color (an idea first recommended by Kyle). This simplified the sweater and made the lace section truly pop, while also allowing the speckles their time in the spotlight.

Do I love speckled yarn? no, not really, and the more I knit with it the more I think, this looks so lovely in the skein and wound in a ball but when it’s knit up, it looks a lot like those printer ink test pages… maybe it’s just this particular yarn with the contrasting speckles. I’m not totally opposed to using speckled yarn again, but it seems less likely since lately I’ve been consumed by breed-specific yarns and local fibers.

Using stash yarn always comes with challenges – my contrast color is leftover from my Zweig sweater. I assumed I would have just enough to finish the sweater – and I cut it so close. Too close, really. My sleeve lace section is lacking in a coordinating bind-off. This is the only part of the sweater I’m questionable about – do I really like the contrasting hem? should it be longer? Should I try to find a similar blue singles yarn for the hem? For now, it’s okay – and since I rarely go back and fix my knitting, it will probably be okay for the rest of time.

I made quite a few modifications – first my gauge was tighter than the pattern. So I did some calculations and cast on for the medium size. After knitting the body, I realized that the neckline was far too open for my preference, and the sweater was much longer than I intended – so I ripped back and reknit from the armholes up – resulting in a more cropped sweater. From the separation for the arm holes – I knit the size small. I also raised the front neckline by binding off more stitches for my first bind off row and eliminating two short rows on both shoulders. This neckline is perfect for me! I felt so empowered to make an adjustment that was previously too complicated for me to complete. I think modifications might be my favorite thing about knitting at the moment.

I thought a lot about this project – why I wanted to knit it – and how it might affect me. I intended this project to be an exercise in beauty, where I would forgo my typical practical intentions and knit something I did not need. In the end, after thinking about beauty, realizing that maybe this yarn wasn’t my ideal of beauty, and reworking the shaping of the neckline, I’ve come to understand my own commitments to “the beautiful” in a new way. Somehow, I had come to associate “beautiful” with something I could not have. Maybe it was because I assumed beauty came with a heavy price tag, though I’m not ready to commit to this explanation. However, choosing to make a project that was primarily valuable for its appearance (secondarily for its function) placed the creation of beauty in my hands. No longer is beauty something outside me, now I know I can make something beautiful. And the way I can accomplish this is by thoughtfully planning out a project that is both visually enticing and environmentally considerate. The ethical deeply impacts the aesthetic – I can’t separate these two. Something cannot be beautiful unless it tells the story of concern for the environment and my neighbors well-being. When I look at my handmade wardrobe, pieced together from secondhand fabrics, unravelled yarns, and local or breed-specific fibers, I can see that these qualities contribute as much to beauty as the color, weight, or design.

My exercise in knitting a beautiful project was certainly thought-provoking (and it produced a new garment!). I might try this kind of experiment again, with a different virtue rather than beauty, maybe courage or honesty. But, for now, I’m still working out how beauty impacts my creativity and my craft. I have a lot to think about.

Summer Long Socks

It took me one summer to finish these socks. They’re basic bitch 64 stitch socks with a short row heel and a 2×1 ribbed cuff.

I found this yarn at Scrap It Up, Cincinnati’s secondhand craft store. There was no label but it looks similar to a patons sock yarn (washable wool + nylon). I haven’t knit with yarn like this before – I found it unbelievably splitty.

I cast on these toe-up socks so I could have some easy knitting while I watched the latest Star Wars movie in a dark theater. Turns out the theater was far too dark and as I tried to knit I split at least three stitches…

These sizing of these socks was a bit of an enigma. I measured and counted rows, but one sock was an inch longer in the foot than the other. When I re-knit to make them both the same length, they only matched up with the previously too short sock was 10 rows longer than it’s counterpart. No idea what happened there or why simple arithmetic couldn’t capture these socks, but now they’re the same length, so that’s good.

I love having a pair of slow moving socks on the needles. It seems like it takes me a full three months to finish a pair of socks (they’re never a first priority). I have two more balls of unknown sock yarn and I’m hoping to cast on some ribbed socks to branch out from my stockinette sock rut.

Finished Object: Tegna

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My Tegna certainly had a rough start (and middle) but now she’s here and beautiful.

The popular Tegna pattern by Caitlin Hunter has been in my sight since it was first published. I fell in love with the delicate lace, the simple body, and the dropped shoulders. It was the perfect pattern to cast on early in the summer. I’m glad it’s finished so I can enjoy wearing it while the sun blazes and my skin fries – except I’ll be wearing sunscreen and a hat so this hopefully won’t happen.

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While all my newly finished projects feel special, my Tegna has a little more oomph. The yarn I chose to work with was unraveled from a cotton/silk blend J Crew cardigan. When I found the cardigan at the thrift store, it was originally cream, but that next weekend I went to another amazing dye session at Alpaca’s of Troy, an alpaca farm outside of St. Louis, MO, and dropped the sweater, pre-unravelled, into the indigo bath. Then, I left it for eight months.

When I pulled out the cream-machine-knit-now-indigo sweater and unraveled the pieces – I was delighted with the results. I imagined that dying a sweater in its knit form wouldn’t affect the dye process – and the dyed sweater looked thoroughly soaked. However, while unraveling I noticed that each knit stitch created a unique resistance technique. The resistance of the knit stitches created a speckled like appearance on the yarn. This was aided by the fact that the cotton/silk blend was unplied and shifted during the unraveling process.

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I ended up with a beautiful teal speckled yarn that blew all my previous expectations of the effects natural dyes can give. That said, maybe if I had ever knit from a sock blank I might have figured this out sooner. Hand-dyed sock blanks seem to have the same closely speckled effect.

I adjusted the pattern to fit my tighter gauge. In my original gauge swatch, my yarn in the pattern recommended gauge (22 sts and 26 rows) appeared loose and unorganized. So I swatched on smaller needles and landed on a gauge of 27 stitches and 36 rows per 4 inches. I’ve noticed that I prefer tighter gauges in my recent projects – like my Featherweight – which have all used non-wooly yarns. Clearly, when knitting garments, slippery, non-fluffy silks, linens, and cottons benefit from a tighter gauge than their fluffier yarn counterparts. If I followed the pattern for size M (43.75″ bust) then my Tegna would come out around a size S (38″). Gauge math is by far one of my favorite knitting techniques I have ever learned. Nothing has made me happier than adjusting the pattern to fit my gauge so I can have the pattern I want in the fabric I want.

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I made one other tiny mod: I only knit my Tegna body to 12 inches instead of the 14 recommended in the pattern. I always like to shorten patterns a tad because I’m 5’3″ and I wanted my Tegna to be cropped (more than slightly cropped as intended in the pattern). The result is a little stomach-bearing, but I’m cool with that.

I had some hiccups in the knitting process – all of my skeins were noticeably different shades of teal-indigo. I tried to blend the yarn by alternating skeins, but the striping effect was quite apparent – and something I wanted to avoid. So I chose to apply the “fade” technique and slowly transition from one skein to another when my current skein was nearing it’s end. Overall, I think this blended the different shades of blue in a much more palatable way and one that I’m happy with.

It was difficult to decide to unravel my almost completed Tegna to correct the striping effect. I put up a poll on Instagram stories to crowd source some advice – and I found the votes were split evenly: 50% knit again and 50% leave it as is. But, to be honest, I didn’t even wait for the results of the poll to unravel it – I determined that the striping would prevent me from feeling proud about my color management in this sweater – something which I’ve been learning about and working on with a surprising amount of effort since I began to knit. I feel like I’ve finally hit some sort of stride with color management and I don’t want to settle for something that doesn’t feel right to me. So, in a double effort not to cut corners and to trust my gut, I unravelled half of my little baby Tegna and started again.

The extra work always pays off. I have said this in previous blog posts, but every time I decide to unravel something and try again, I always feel like it’s worth the effort. I think I’ve built up enough rapport with myself to trust my opinion regarding the knitting process, what looks good, and the artistic qualities of my pieces. Basically, I’m feeling like a knitting bad-ass that can’t be stopped.

My Tegna is going to serve me well this summer, and for summers to come.

Happy Making

Jaime

Thrifting Tips and Tricks: Sweaters

It’s no secret, the majority of my materials come from thrifted items. The low prices and wide variety of materials make it possible for me to stock my obsessive craft hobby on a tight budget. I’ve spent a lot of time at thrift stores searching for sweaters: so here are my favorite tips and tricks for how to find quality thrifted sweaters.

  1. Season Matters (mostly). I’ve noticed that more thrift stores I encounter rotate clothes on a seasonal basis. Especially larger chain stores, like Goodwill and St Vincent de Paul, seem to only stock seasonally relevant clothes. I rarely find quality sweaters during the summer months. So I stick to cooler weather months for my sweater thrifting. However, I have found that smaller towns or locally owned thrift stores rarely have the staff to be selective about seasonal clothing – so if you are on the hunt for sweaters in the summertime, I recommend searching in a smaller/locally owned shop.
  2. Check the Tags. Very obvious tip, but checking tags for fiber content is the best way to determine if a sweater is worth it. I try to avoid those acrylic sweaters, but sometimes I’m desperate for a specific color so I’ll compromise by purchasing a fiber with some acrylic or nylon content. While that 100% wool sweater might be the prize find, don’t discount other natural fibers or blends. Some of my favorite projects are made from thrifted cotton and finding a silk or silk blend yarn always feels like finding a secret treasure. I like to keep track of the brands I find with quality materials. That way, if I’m drawn to a sweater and notice the brand is one I’ve unravelled before, its likely to be another quality sweater. This also goes the other way, I keep track of the brands whose sweaters are almost always acrylic and avoid them like the plague. Some of my most unravelled brands are LOFT (and Ann Taylor), J. Jill, and J Crew. I also jump on any Eileen Fisher sweater I can find. The one’s I avoid are typical fast fashion brands like Forever21, H&M, and Old Navy (unless I really want cotton).
  3. Explore your area. You might find that the thrift store closest to home rarely carries quality sweaters, so branch out – check out some shops in different areas. Check the next town over, the suburbs, the city center, the outskirts of town. If I’m on the hunt for a specific project, I like to devote a weekend morning or afternoon to my quest and hit up the various thrift stores in a certain area of the city. If you do take this approach I recommend bringing snacks – it can be a big day. It might be a good idea to keep a running list of shops that tend to carry quality sweaters. Keep a list on your phone or in a notebook, that way if you’re in need for a good sweater and don’t have hours of time, your list can guide you.
  4. Stick to your budget. While I’ve had the occasional failed thrift store run, more often than not I can find numerous sweaters with fibers that would love to knit with. But, even thrift stores sweaters can add up in price and could quickly get out of control. Before you even leave your house, acknowledge what you can spend on materials that day. Setting those limits will prevent you from experiencing sweater regret.

I hope these tips help you on your thrifted sweater adventures. Let me know if you have any favorite tips and tricks when you search for thrifted sweaters in the comments below. And thanks to Mia for suggesting this topic as a blog post. I hope this helps, Mia!

Happy Thrifting!