Sunday, July 30, 2006

(Not Much) Knitting on the Road

Sorry so silent--we took the kids on vacation last week, and connectivity wasn't what one might have hoped. But I'm back now. Official travel-knitting scorecard:

--Icarus: Maybe 10 more rows, but it actually feels like negative progress, because I'd thought I was about to finish the last boring repeat before the edge patterns begin--but I was wrong, and had another repeat to go.

--Pomatomus: Got these underway just before we left, thanks to a skein of Black Bunny sock yarn called "Fearless Leader." Did about an inch and a half of the leg.

--Highland Triangle: Didn't touch it. I may have made negative progress here, too, as the last few stitches of the row fell off the needle at some point while I was packing or unpacking, and I just don't understand the pattern all that well; I may have to frog the row.

I hope to get some pictures up soon. Meanwhile, I'm glad people have been finding the posts on hand-dyed yarns useful. They're not over yet, by the way, but there's still some swatching to be done before the next installment.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Hand-dyed Studio, pt. V

Remember this?

It's a scarf in a simple diamond-lace pattern, made of Schaefer Yarn Co. "Andrea," in the color called Elena Piscopia. The considerations that got me to this fabric were as follows:

1. The yarn has a lot of contrast, so complicated patterns are out of the question.

2. Like all of Cheryl Schaefer's yarns, this skein was painted cross-wise, and will take every opportunity to stack or zigzag or argyle; because the colors are so strong and so disparate, whatever they do will dominate.

3. The yarn is 100% silk and tightly spun; it has no surface fuzz and won't fluff up or "bloom" at all during blocking. Ergo, any pattern has to be knit densely enough to show a clear difference between the ground and the pattern, even before blocking; knit too loosely, the fabric will look stringy. (I was wrong here, as we'll see shortly, but that was my reasoning.)

4. I could make a short-rowed shawl, which would move the colors around and fight pooling, but there might not be enough yarn: 1,093 yards sounds like a lot of yarn, but it's really not, if you're working at 8 or 10 sts per inch. Besides, I'm trying to knit a sample to show off the yarn, not get into something that's going to take 6 months to knit.

5. So, it's back to a scarf, but with some simple, clear, almost graphic pattern to help obscure whatever color-repeat tricks the skein decides to play on me.

And that worked. But then, weeks later, I saw Jenny B's Field of Flowers shawl knit at a gauge of about 4 sts per inch over garter after blocking, on about a US#6 needle, and I was blown away. Sadly, I seem to have been so blown away that I didn't take a picture; here's the picture from the official Fiber Trends site:

Yes, the pattern is very simple; and yes, Jenny's skein was Greenjeans, which is a much more subdued colorway than Elena Piscopia. But it wasn't a close call, there was no doubt about it: the yarn works in garter stitch knit very loosely.

This immediately put me in mind of the Highland Triangle shawl from Folk Shawls:

I knew it wouldn't work in Elena Piscopia, but along came a couple skeins of the color called Harriet Tubman, and I was ready to go:

Just to show what a difference contrast makes, I swatched the same thing in Elena:

These two swatches tell us what we already knew--that the amount of contrast (hue or value) determines whether a pattern will read or not. You can even see why: it's not that the Harriet swatch doesn't form pools of color like the distracting, un-beautiful one along the (viewer's) upper right-hand edge of the Elena swatch; it does. (You can see diagonal drifts of color in this photo, especially a darker blue near the bottom echoed by a green shade just above.) It's just that they matter so much less when the colors are so close.

The comparison also tells us something we knew but haven't mentioned yet: that some dyers may have characteristic dye patterns or color ranges (no one does gold like Alchemy; skeins from Great Adirondack will always show the color repeat clearly), but a successful dyer can do more than one kind of color well. Therefore, the strategies you've used to knit with one colorway from a particular dyer won't necessarily work with all the others.

Now, let's have another look at the scarf-in-progress, so we can compare the same skein knit densely vs. loosely:

Note that both patterns offer about the same degree of simplicity; both are allover, small-repeat, highly regular eyelet designs. Density and garter-vs.-stockinette are the only material differences. But while reasonable minds may differ about whether the scarf is successful--some people would probably feel that the stitch and the colors are fighting one another, to the detriment of both--I don't know anyone who'd want to see the Highland Triangle done this way.

The knitting gods have sent us another example:

The top two are Wendy's Pi Shawl, in total and in detail (Wendy's getting a lot of exposure in these posts, chiefly because she knits with so much hand-dyed yarn--and actually finishes things, unlike me.) The bottom is a sock Sherry is making, out of the exact same color, from the exact same dye lot. I'd like to get both items in the same photo, so that you can see them in scale together, and also so that the camera's color distortion will apply equally to both. But you already get the idea: knit loosely, in a texture that involves elongated stitches and clustering stitches, the colors blur together; knit tightly, in a stockinette-based fabric, the colors are much more distinct. Also, the sock is obviously worked on a much smaller number of stitches, which plays up a striped effect that's absent in the shawl.

I'd like to pause at the end of today's lesson to point out that this is a lot of stuff to consider. If you've ever had a project with hand-dyed yarn disappoint you, or do something you didn't expect, it should be a comfort to know that it's a very tricky thing you're doing!

Monday, July 17, 2006

Hand-dyed Studio, pt. IV

Are we there yet, Mom?

Well, no, but we're getting closer. We've considered the effects of color variation and color distribution on knitted fabric. The next question is, what kind of knitted fabric?

This lesson will deal only with single-colored fabrics--that is, things knit from one yarn, in one colorway. Combining multicolored yarns is a chapter unto itself.

It probably won't surprise anyone that complex stitches are harder to see than simple ones. It's true with solid-colored yarns; it's only going to be truer with multicolored ones.

And yes, as you might guess, the more attention the yarn demands, the less attention the pattern will get.

So a "busy" yarn--one with lots of variation in hue, in value, in saturation, or any combination thereof--requires simpler stitches than a subtler one.

But it's all on a continuum, and there's no way to quantify it. When people ask me if a specific skein will "work" for a specific pattern, sometimes I can give a simple "yes" or "no," but sometimes it's a matter of opinion--I might be satisfied with a pattern that's a little less distinct, but someone else might find the effect disappointing. One part of letting the yarn drive is learning to stay flexible: until you swatch, you won't know for sure whether you're going to like it; you have to buy the skein knowing that you may be forced to reconsider what you're going to do with it.

When I talk about stitch "complexity," here's what I mean: at one end of the range are stockinette and reverse-stockinette, flat surfaces with completely consistent texture. At the other end are patterns that repeat over a large number of stitches and/or rows--pictures of unicorns worked out in lace; cables that roam everywhere like vines.

The rule of inverse proportion--the more complicated the pattern is, the plainer the yarn should be, and vice versa--would tell us that the lace unicorn should be done in a solid color. Maybe even a commercially-dyed solid. But the most elaborate patterns often look even better when worked in a hand-dyed solid: the minute variations in tone seem to give the pattern added depth.

Similarly, at the opposite end of the spectrum, highly active yarns may seem to demand dead-plain stockinette. But we often find that they're shown to even better advantage with a very-simple-but-not-quite-plain texture: seed stitch, for instance, or something with an allover pattern of eyelets.

By way of example, let's apply all the lessons so far to a specific skein and a specific project.

Here's a skein of Nassau (50% cotton, 50% silk) from Great Adirondack Yarn Co., in the color called Painted Desert:

From the skein at the top, what can you tell? Not all that much--it's got green, and pink, and some other stuff; and I like it. If you think a bit more, you can say that the colors seem overall to be of medium-light value (somewhere in the middle of the gray scale, but toward the lighter end), but there are too many things you can't see when the skein's twisted up to draw any real conclusions.

Once you untwist the skein, as in the middle of the picture, you can see all the colors clearly. Now you know that the skein has more green than anything else, but it's also got lots of other colors: blue, lavendar, mauve, apricot, and a butter yellow. But, while the colors are clear rather than muddy, they're not all that bright. And they're extremely consistent: the yellow is a bit lighter (but it's the color that there's least of), but all the rest are very evenly matched. If you were to xerox the whole skein, you'd expect it nearly to disappear.

The open skein also reveals that the colors have been applied in narrow bands across both sides of the skein-loop. In other words, this skein can be made to "stack" if you want it to. And the skein itself has a circumference of about 45", so that's the total repeat of the colors.

Is there, by the way, any way to predict what number of stitches will cause a skein to stack or pool? In this example, can we tell how many stitches will use up 45" of Nassau? My first guess would be: about 50. That number comes from an old benchmark I was taught: for traditional worsted-weight yarn (say, 4.5 sts per inch), 1 stitch uses about 1" of yarn. Smaller yarns on smaller needles obviously use less; larger yarns at larger gauges, more. [Note: this is a matter of needle circumference, first and foremost: if you knit a fine yarn on large needles, the yardage requirement will be the same as it would for the bulky yarn that typically belongs on those needles.]

Does this mean that Wendy's yarn had a repeat of 160", or 13'? (I'm making a wild guess about the number of stitches and the yarn weight.) Not likely. But if it had a repeat of 53", which is plausible, she'd get the same effect--the colors would just repeat three times in the course of one knitted round, and still line up above one another on the next.

Next, a swatch of Nassau in plain stockinette:

It looks pretty good: the colors blend harmoniously, nothing disappears, nothing dominates. I wouldn't want to try some Tree of Life gansey pattern in it, but that's not what I had in mind, anyway.

Now try it with the stockinette punctuated by a row of eyelets (that is, [yo, k2tog] all the way across the row) every 6th row:

Is it me, or does it look even better this way? In retrospect, the plain swatch looks flat to me; here, the colors seem almost liquid, as if they're flowing around the fabric.

The finished product once again, just to complete the skein's biography:

Size 8 needle, about 4 sts per inch, 2 skeins total, about 34" at deepest point by 70" across the top.

Next time: a few more comparative examples of fabric and texture.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Hand-dyed Studio, pt. III

Wow! That was some day, yesterday! When I closed my eyes last night, I began to dream of skeins and colors before I was even asleep.

For those of you who missed it: yes, there's yarn left; and no, we're not sending it back where it came from. We won't be serving wine, but there's still plenty to see.

Those of you who have new yarn now need to know more about it. You've got some color theory and color vocabulary. Let's move on to the matter of dye "pattern" or color distribution.

There are two questions to ask here:

Are the lengths of each color long or short? With thanks to my colleague Carol, here are examples of short, medium, and long color lengths:

Note that there's no rule saying that all the colors in a skein have to appear in equal lengths. In fact, they seldom do. The white in the top skein would tend to dominate if it had as much area as any of the other colors, but as a shorter segment, it provides a pleasing accent "zap."

What effect does color length have on the knitted fabric? By and large, the shorter the average color segment, the more the colors will tend to blur together when knitted:

Longer segments produce more stitches of each color, and are therefore more likely to produce distinct areas of color:

Question 2: What is the length of the yarn's "repeat"? That is, how many inches or yards of yarn go by before you return to the beginning of the color sequence?
(First, a sidenote: must all hand-dyed yarn have a repeating sequence? In theory, no; the dyer could work along the length of the strand, applying colors one at a time in random lengths and sequence. In practice, however, almost all yarn is dyed in skeins. Because the yarn is wound in a series of virtually identical-sized loops, dye applied to one area of the skein produces color at regular intervals along the knitted strand.)

Mostly, the length of the color repeat is the circumference of the skein--but that's the dye-skein, which isn't necessarily the same as the skein in which the yarn is sold. (The form in which yarn reaches the retail customer is known as its "put-up": a 50-gram pull-skein, for instance, for Nashua Creative Focus Cotton; a 100-gram skein of approximately 42" circumference for Schaefer Yarns Andrea.)

When a skein is sold without being re-wound, it's pretty easy to determine the repeat, as with any of the skeins above. But when the skein has been wound into a ball, or re-wound into a different-sized skein, it's tougher.

Fortunately, this yarn's repeat length isn't lost forever. To figure it out, though, you'll need to open the skein. (As opposed to color-segment length, which you can usually see at a glance, or by laying the skein out flat and running your finger under one strand for a foot or two.)

On a large, flat surface, start drawing out a strand, and lay it in a doubled line:

Continue to enlarge the loop, always holding the part that's newly emerging from the skein next to the cut end. Eventually, one of two things should happen: either the sequence of colors on the emerging strand will start to duplicate the sequence from the beginning of the skein, or it will start to mirror it. If the strand repeats, the skein was originally painted like the short-repeat skein above. If it mirrors, it was originally painted like the long-repeat skein above.

Should you care which? That depends on what you want to do with the yarn. The chief difference is that only the mirroring skein works for the semi-famous "Pooling Colors Scarf":

This design works by engineering a single knitted row to use exactly half a skein-loop of yarn. When you turn your work at the end of the row, you're at the "fold" at one end of the skein. As you work the second row, each color lines up over the same color in the previous row--the same way the top of the skein lines up over the bottom in this photo.

If your skein repeats but doesn't mirror, you can't make the colors "stack" in any fabric that's knitted flat (i.e. by turning the work over at the end of each row). But you can make them stack if you knit a tube in which one knitted round uses up exactly one skein-loop (that is, one repeat) of yarn. Why would you want to? Well, you could make a bag, or a pillow.

Sometimes, the colors zigzag across the face of the fabric in surprisingly regular ways. Here's Jen's scarf made out of Anne, producing argyle all by itself:

Most of the time, though, this kind of stacking is what people want to avoid:

This is the medium-repeat yarn from the skeins at the top of the post. The break just above the center occurred when Carol broke off the yarn and rejoined it half a cycle later, just to see what would happen. Strangely, it shows signs of returning to the original pattern--white blotch in center of row--at the very top.

Commercially-dyed yarns, especially older ones (and that haircut tells you something about how old this one is), are also vulnerable to pooling.

(This picture courtesy of Wendy). It's not that the pools themselves are so unattractive; it's just that they never seem to land anyplace good. In this case, the problem is weirdly inherent in the garment's shaping: it was knit from the top down, increasing from neckline through shoulders, then dividing for sleeves and rejoining for the body; then the body tapered from bust to waist and increased again from waist to hips. But by a strange coincidence, the bust and hip measurements were the stitch-counts that used almost exactly one repeat of the yarn. Presto: stacking.

Perhaps the simplest way to avoid this kind of accidental patterning is to use two skeins at the same time, alternating a row/round or two of one with a round of the other. This also helps to blend any differences between the skeins--and with hand-painted yarns, there are almost always differences between the skeins. For larger projects that require several skeins, some people cut the skeins into smaller balls while they're winding them, and jumble the balls as they knit, to blend the colors as thoroughly as possible. This is a fairly extreme strategy; it should only be necessary when the skeins are visibly, significantly different from one another.

But my advice is: don't make plain stockinette-stitch sweaters from hand-dyed multicolor yarns. There are exceptions:

Why does this design work? First, the yarns have very short color lengths which tend to blur together. Second, the design uses multiple colorways; the greatest contrast is between colorways, so the eye concentrates on that rather than on variations within one color. Third, the colors change fairly frequently, so no single color appears over a large enough area to develop problematic blotches. Finally, while some colorways of KPPPM have a color sequence repeat, some do not.

Another strategy to avoid unpleasant side-effects of the color repeat is to combine yarns by double-stranding them. You can choose two multi-colors (their similarities will tend to reinforce each other, but their differences will be dampened; the overall effect will be busier but more muted than either one used individually)
[forgive me, temporary inability to find illustration. Hope to remedy later.]
or a multi and a solid:

Or you can blend many colors by changing one at a time:
[same problem again]

Finally, you can change the row length. If the knitting features rows of inconstant lengths, or proceeds in different directions, the yarn won't have an opportunity to fall into its natural repeat. Many shawls work this way: the Landscape Shawl,

triangular shawls that start at the center top edge:

(Faroese shawls are the same case, though knit from bottom to top).
Anything with short-rows, like the Perfect Pi shawl from Weekend Knitting:

Also, anything modular--things made of diamonds or log-cabin squares or mitered squares, like the Rambling Rows:

In all of this, you have to look for the changing row length. Just because the Clapotis is knit on the bias doesn't mean its rows are any less consistent than an ordinary rectangle; it's as likely to stripe or stack as anything else:

And entrelac, though it moves the stripes in different directions, is made up of thousands upon thousands of rows of identical length. The Half-Pi Shawl is mostly a miracle of blocking: at first, the stitch count (and therefore the row length) changes often; but when the increase rows get further and further apart, remember, every row from Row 90 to Row 184 has the same number of stitches--plenty of opportunity for patterns to develop.

This raises another concern about row length: the law of diminishing returns. At the small start of a triangular shawl, adding 4 stitches every two rows makes a more significant difference than it does in the long rows at the end. When the rows are long enough, the effect of the increases can be almost nil--or at least not enough to prevent color pooling.

In our next episode: stitch patterns, especially lace.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Hand-dyed Studio, pt. II

It's here!

Now back to our seminar on what to do with the stuff.

So, you've fallen in love with a skein of hand-dyed yarn. My first advice?

Let the yarn drive.

No matter how soft or subtle the color, these are strong yarns. Don't fight them.

Ask the yarn what it wants to be. I know, you really want to make Icarus. And someday, you will. But the more you ask, "Will this yarn work for ___?" rather than "What does this yarn want to be?", the less satisfied you'll be with the results.

How do you know what the yarn wants to be? First, here are a few topics we'll cover little, or not at all: gauge; fiber content; appropriateness of yarn structure to project. That's all stuff that you have to consider with any yarn. We're going to concentrate on issues that are specific to hand-dyed yarns. Which means . . . COLOR.

Chapter 1: Contrast

Let's be sure we speak a common language here. Color is commonly described as having three characteristics: hue, value, and saturation.

Hue is what we first understand by "color": is the yarn blue, pink, or yellow?

Value describes a color's position on the "gray scale" from white to black; it's what we usually mean when we describe a color as "light" or "dark." If you're having trouble identifying a color's value, imagine xeroxing it on a black-and-white machine: would it come out as a light gray or a dark one?

Saturation is the subtlest aspect of a color. It's sometimes described as how much gray or black a color contains, but I've never found that very helpful. Saturation describes a color's vividness. One way to think about it is from a dye perspective: does it look like there was lots and lots of pigment in the vat with the yarn, or just a little? How muddy is the color, or how clear?

Now, the most important thing I can teach you about color: visual perception is a matter of contrast, and contrast in value trumps anything else.

In other words: the eye sees light-dark contrast first.

Don't take my word for it. Do a simple experiment: get two strands of yarn, one a dark gray and one black. Put them on a piece of black fabric or paper, and you'll see the difference between the strands clearly. Then put the same strands on a white paper, and see how much alike the two strands look. From even a short distance away, they may look just the same.

Get it? When the strands are seen against a background of similar color and value, the difference between the strands is visible. But when they're against a much lighter background, the eye can't help but focus on the greater contrast--between dark strands and light paper--to the exclusion of the smaller contrast (that between the two strands).

Try one more: this time, find two dark colors--maybe eggplant and forest green. On the black background, you can see the difference between the colors much more easily than on the light--contrast of value trumps contrast of hue.

What does this teach us about yarn?

If a yarn has very light and very dark shades in it, the contrast between them will dominate the knitted fabric.

So: when you look at the skein, you may love the multiple shades of green at one end, and the variety of golds at the other. But when it's knit up, you're going to see yellowstripe-greenstripe-yellowstripe: the shadings within each will fade away.

And: even if 85% of the skein is a symphony of royal blues and plums and purples, it's the occasional shot of sky-blue turquoise that's going to jump out at you when it's knit.

And: even if the only color in the yarn is pink, if it varies from cotton-candy to fuchsia, it will obscure all but the simplest lace pattern. (What kind of contrast is stitch pattern? I think of it as a matter of value--knit/purl combinations "read" because of the shadows cast by raised or recessed stitches; openwork uses the shadow cast by the fabric itself--the eyelet holes appear darker than the knit surface.)

And: if you want to combine two yarns, and one or both of them is multicolor, the strongest contrast should be between the two yarns--even fire-engine red is likely to disappear against a "background" yarn with a wide value range.

SO: the first thing I consider about a skein is its range of values. How much difference is there between the lightest shade and the darkest? And does the whole range appear in even distribution, or is there a dominant value punctuated by brief shots of high contrast?

I'm reluctant to provide too many photo illustrations, because cameras tend to flatten color ranges for exactly the reasons I've been discussing: the camera focuses on the greatest contrast in the skein, and subtler areas lose definition. But here are some examples:

These two skeins use exclusively (in the case of the Claudia Mohair, on your left) or predominantly (in the case of the Koigu, on your right) light values. Note how different they look on the two backgrounds: the darkest tones in the yarns--lavendar for the mohair, medium green for the Koigu--disappear against the black background, but become much more prominent against the light one.

These two yarns both have wide ranges of color values: on the left, Great Adirondack Silk Noir in "Chagall"; on the right, Handmaiden Silk Maiden in something wonderful and nameless. Raw silks (like Silk Noir) yield colors that are dustier and less saturated than shiny silks do, but you can tell that "Chagall" is going to be a very active colorway in any fiber. The Silk Maiden, on the other hand, varies only from medium to very light--but that's still enough to overwhelm most stitch patterns. (The Silk Maiden has lots of rose in it that's unfortunately invisible here. You really ought to see it for yourself.)

Three skeins that are composed entirely of medium values (or almost entirely, in the case of the middle skein--Silk Maiden again--where the yellow is really a light). There's plenty of variation in all of these, but it's variation of hue, not of value.

An example of the problem of photography (at least in my amateur hands): in person, these skeins are examples of predominantly dark values, with medium accents (top photo) or light accents (bottom); on my monitor, all the highlights look lighter than they really are.

Now, on to the matter of saturation. Both of these skeins of Black Bunny Superwash DK are entirely medium-value. But Rocket Pop there on the left is very bright--that is, very saturated--while Plum Jam is very muted. (No matter what it looks like here, I swear to you, it's very muted.)

Two skeins of Andrea, both with entirely medium values, both with fairly low saturation. All that varies is the hue. Want to knit a complex lace pattern with a hand-dyed yarn? These are the sort to look for.

A few very saturated skeins, one with dark values and two with medium. No matter what you knit with any of these, color will be the first thing you see.

What's going on here? These skeins are more complex than the others because they've got variation of every kind: hue (at least three separate colors in each skein, plus shadings and mixes where they overlap), value (though note that none of the three has any really dark tones), and saturation (some colors are very vivid, some are washed out or muddy). Once they're knit up, the stronger colors will tend to jump out, and the muted will recede.

In our next lesson: color patterns, repeats, sequences--and the dreaded pooling.