Thursday, November 22, 2007

Playing with Fire

Some weeks ago I described my "Big Knitting Problem", basically that I like to knit Fair Isle projects and like to buy multi-colored yarn. Playing with Fire is a sweater design I created as an attempt to merge these two opposing inclinations. The project has turned out to be such fun that I decided its story deserved to be told.

The inspiration was a finished knit displayed in a wonderful yarn shop in NYC called String. This gorgeous sweater set was knit from a single shaded Koigu color, but two skeins were slip-stitched together so that the second skein produced a subtle pattern of dots across the fabric. I drooled a puddle on the store floor.

As I tried to mentally prepare for my stem cell transplant this past May one distraction was to set up a cheerful, easy project that I could work on in the hospital. I expected to have two weeks to knit til my fingers bled. I quickly decided that I wanted to experiment with a Fair Isle design that combined a multi with itself. With hardly any conscious manipulation my mouse clicked me over to the Blue Moon Fiber Arts website. Really, does anyone else have such an amazing selection of colors? I agonized over which multi I would go with, but in the end it was no contest. I was drawn to the vibrant colors of Fire on the Mountain. I ordered a huge pile, (10 skeins), in Heavyweight.

Then the tragedy. The yarn wasn't in stock, at least not in the truckload quantity that I'd ordered. It would have to be dyed. There was no way to get it in time for my hospital stay. I was disappointed, but picked up the next project on my list, the Comings & Goings Cardigan. That was a nice big gage and had some Fair Isle. I was content to wait. Sometimes it's just nice to be looking forward to getting a package.

It all worked out in the end. I was not up to knitting during my hospital stay anyways. I had the yarn delivered to my parents' house, where I was to spend a week recuperating before resuming a life filled with endlessly grueling homeowner tasks. It was a fun change of pace to share the dramatic box opening, releasing a rainbow of color into my parents' living room.

I swatched, (yes, really I swatched!), the dot pattern from String, one skein as a background, the other skein jumping in for a single stitch every third stitch on each fourth row. What was subtle and exciting in the shaded reds of Strings' sample garment completely disappeared in the mad colors of Fire on the Mountain. It wasn't going to work. I was in uncharted territory.

How could I best combine two busy skeins so that the viewer would see right away that there were two overlaid color motifs? The frantic color changes would only support larger areas so that each skein could exert its identity even while shifting shades. I decided on vertical stripes, but felt some sadness for the simplicity of the idea. That's how the stripes ended up with varying widths.

Originally my stripes alternated descending and ascending number sequences like this: 5 1 4 2 3 3 2 4 1 5, but the 2 3 3 2 area got very murky with the skeins each losing their identity. The winning swatch ended up being 5 1 4 2 3 2 4 1 5 1, presenting distinct pattern areas of wide stripes separated by a one stitch boundary, plus a 2 3 2 stripe that acts as its own unified design element. This arrangement had the added benefit that one skein would be used faster than the other, guarantying that the two skeins would shift colors at different rates across the fabric.

I was finally ready to forge ahead. The project even had a name now. All of my swatching led me to call it "Playing with Fire". (Note to self: Take pictures of failed swatches and project approaches... So much more interesting than describing them!) Here's the winning combination:

The sweater construction was selected for simplicity, a drop shoulder design whose boxy outline would allow the vertical stripes maximum free roam. I don't mind purling in Fair Isle so even though I briefly considered steeks, that idea was quickly rejected. (Steeks terrify me.) I measured my favorite bulky sweaters and chose dimensions to result in a slightly oversize fit without going as far as a complete frump out.
You can see from the picture that Playing with Fire is still a work in process. This is the first project that I've ever actually dreaded finishing. It's so much fun to work on! I realize that sometimes while I'm knitting I have this manic smile on my face as I watch the insane colors combine and recombine themselves. The wool is soft to the hand, but no-nonsense as far as workability. It even supports several cycles of ripping without fluffing out. I'm hoping that the ripples in the 2 3 2 stripes will block out, but like the effect enough to happily accept it if they don't.

For those interested in the technical details, I'm knitting on a single US#7 long circular for the whole thing, magic looping the sleeves. Gage is around 6 sts per inch, and that's giving me a fabric that's a little on the tight side. I'm using the Knitpicks Options needles. Here's Susan's favorite view... the inside!
I am very close to finishing the C & G Cardigan, but I think Playing with Fire's going to breeze past it. There's no doubt in my mind that I'll be able to wear it to the Rocking Sock Club Camp this coming April and collect all of the compliments that I expect on my lunatic creation, (per the theory presented in my previous post). I suspect that if I'd chosen a more restrained color the completed sweater would have more dignity, but I like this design specifically because regardless of color selection, it will always proudly announce itself as a hand knit.

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