Monday, December 19, 2016

Knotty and Nice

I'm sitting in my living room, practically shivering, imagining a world in which the entire first floor of my house will be equally heated (and entirely warm). Admittedly, I just drank some almond milk straight from the fridge and I'm not wearing a double layer - unless a large scarf and shearling slippers count. But man, I can almost feel excited by the prospect of the reno when the temp drops to minus 8. I'm really hoping (understatement) that stable indoor temps will help keep pain (which doesn't like cold or wet) in check during the winter months.

But this post is not about that. This post is about knitting - and unknitting - a subset of the craft that every knitter should get with to some extent, IMO, if perhaps not to this extent:

The Jan Sweater by Susan Crawford
This sweater, the second thing I ever knit, was suboptimal from the start. It's how I learned yarn-overs (a lacework stitch), something I've really never loved, even if I've grudgingly accepted them. The fit was all wrong - too big everywhere, too wide in the boat-neck (I actually had to seam it up after the fact), too see-through (given colour, yarn-weight and the holes). I didn't enjoy the pattern. Susan Crawford patterns, I have learned, are not to my liking. The instructions are weak (and slim, in keeping with the vintage thing) but more than slim they're weak.

Destined to be something much better than the sweater ever was~
I used Excelana, also by Susan Crawford, yarn which I wouldn't recommend. Firstly, I believe you have to buy it online - and it's just not that exciting. Secondly, there were SO many knots (like, regular knots) holding every skein of this yarn together, that those myriad balls you see above are as much because I had to snip the yarn every 50 yards, as because I didn't snip my side seams cleanly. There are only a few comments on this yarn in Ravelry and one of them indicates that this hasn't  happened only to me. I can forgive a few knots (like 2) in my artisanal yarn, but don't make my life a misery. Also, what does it say when you can't keep your yarn in one piece as you spin it?? Finally, it's not expensive (though it's not cheap for those who have to ship it and pay the exchange), and it doesn't feel high-end. It's got a somewhat generic feel - even as I imagine it is EXACTLY like what affordable yarn in wartime England would have been like.

I've been thinking more and more about this whole "rip back a sweater" thing and I've put my money where my mouth is. To wit, in the last year I frogged a sweater 3/4-finished. I ripped back 3/4 of this to improve the bust fit (so it's still not done) and now, I've gone whole hog and undone a whole finished garment.

Not only am I reminded of my newbie-knitting parents sheer horror at the thought of losing a stitch of work (till you get what's happening, it can be so awful not knowing how to fix things), but it's a pretty awesome metaphor. I mean, it's hard to deconstruct something back to its component parts, even if you're very laissez-faire. When you mess up a cooking project, you get to throw it out and start again. Like, with new material. There's something so in-your-face about the way yarn comes undone. About how it teaches you the value of your work, which is to say, it's only as good as what you've learned and what you'll do next. People, there is liberty in this activity. But man, it's hard.

It's messy, it's scary (What if you snip the yarn accidentally? Note: You probably will.), It's a reminder of the sometimes endless-seeming journey you've traveled (you remember all the stand-out bits, bad or good). It's a perfect visual representation of disintegration. It's a mega recontribution to your stash which, let's just say, may be adequately robust already.

By ripping back a sweater (perhaps a nice cashmere one from a thrift shop) you get to see your work in reverse - which is actually illuminating. Doing this will make you a better knitter. And I don't mean in a spiritual way. It'll provide an opp to see how things come apart so that you can be better at putting them back together. It'll also teach you about how much you've learned since last you touched that garment you're, ahem, yarn-retrieving.  (Let's give it a euphemism, shall we?)

I've decided, in future, if I'm at all on the fence about a garment, I will rip it back after blocking (or sooner). It will not torment me in my closet. Hopefully I like the yarn (so that I'll want to knit with it again) but, if not, I'll give away the yarn. I also intend to some of reclaim some of my other already-closet-hogging, hand knit sweaters. Gotta admit, if I never want to work with a particular yarn again, chances are that I'm not going to rip that one back soon - cuz it's a lot of work. Like a couple of hours to do it well (and depending on the amount of yarn to rewind).

I always thought the hardest part about the unknitting process would be contextualizing the loss of time - and feeling inundated by yarn I've already experienced. Now I realize that the yarn is different every time I use it. It molds (literally) to the thing I am creating. And, inasmuch as I am its machinery, it is as prone to nuance as I.

Knitting brings it all up, as every knitter knows. It's as much an act of meditation - of grace - as prayer or therapy. I struggle with the ends of my yarn because, in order to use every yard, I must find a way to use every freakin' yard. Yes, this is an affect of my OCD, but it tells me about myself. I don't like to rip back finished work (or do I?) because it's like loss or waste. I can't bear reknitting with the yarn because it denies the satisfaction of acquisition.

But here's what I didn't know and what has made all the difference: Unknitting is its own kind of craft! Have a glass of wine. Watch a movie. Do a good job of it (I did not, particularly, so I lost about 30 g of yarn due to short lengths). Start with a garment made up in a yarn you care little about. Do NOT snip your main fabric when you go after the seams. Wind the yarn in to your fave kind of ball. Be considered. Note: I don't intend to soak the kinks out of my yarn, at least not at this point. I'll do what a Ravelry friend suggested: swatch and block that swatch for a long time before leaving it to dry.

Unknitting is just as miraculous as knitting and its made from the same component parts. You get to touch yarn. And you get to start again. Maybe that next thing you make will be everything that the last thing was not. How sad would it be not to have a go at that experience?

Honestly, if you can bring yourself to do it, take some unloved knitted thing apart this week - and tell me about it. It will be nothing like you expect, I promise.


  1. I have done this a few times and know the satisfaction of turning something that was a disappointment into a more satisfactory outcome. I once met someone who unravelled everything she knit. I think she liked the activity of knitting and had no interest in creating a finished project. Ever. So she just knit until she came to the end of the yarn, ripped it all out, and started again. I wonder sometimes how long she could go with the same yarn . . . but it gave me a new perspective on the whole activity.

  2. I am AMAZED by those people. I have read about a few... One part of me feels that it's masochistic. The other part thinks it's really evolved (and cost-effective) :-) I do think the yarn must give out after a while...

    1. Masochistic, evolved, AND cost-effective. That's winning the trifecta!

  3. I am definitely a product crocheter, and barely a knitter at all (I picked up needles again for the first time in 15 years last week). But I do have my first pair of crocheted socks, ends woven in, that I need to rip back to redo the heel... I've been dreading it and making excuses to avoid it, but you've inspired me to give it a try before 2016 ends.

    1. Oooh - how fun that you just picked up your needles again last week! And really, don't worry about ripping back (even if the ends are woven in). It's NOT as bad as you think and you will be so glad you fixed the socks. Just think - they're little! How long can it take :-)

  4. I have mostly been knitting socks, hats and dishcloths lately...none requiring ripping out. My "19 year" sweater is somewhat dated in design, but I am positive it will come back any day now...and after spending 19 years knitting it, cables and all, I won't be ripping it out anytime soon. I have been doing lots of sewing, and rip it, rip it when necessary....

    1. I love the story of your unfinished sweater! I agree - do not rip that back. It's like a family member :-)

  5. I have long been a big fan of recycling yarn from sweaters that don't quite hit the mark, but I'll admit it's a task I loathe. I'm lucky that my Ma thinks its a very relaxing way to spend a couple of hours and is happy to take on the task.

    For me that's the best of both worlds.

    I'm also blessed by a very good friend who is exceptionally frugal, so if I decide the yarn isn't quite for me, then she'll happily take it off my hands and knit it up for friends and family.

    It does mean that all yarn is used (she gets my ends of balls as well for mitts and blankets) so its a very good system we've got going on here! ;-)

  6. I am starting to see where your mother is coming from - though I'm sure she is much more sanguine than I am! And how awesome to have a friend who wants your yarn ends and the stash that doesn't quite work out! That is truly amazing. Now you need to find a friend who likes to gift you her gorgeous stash when you want some new yarn without cost or bother. :-)