For an introduction to what goes on in this column, click here.
All of us who make things are prone to funny little peeves and preferences.
One of mine–one that I have in fact shared with students who bring up the question of inspiration–is an aversion to pieces of needlework in which one technique tries to ape another. Knitting pretending to be crochet. Crochet pretending to be knitting. Knitted or crocheted versions of things usually (and for good reason) sewn with woven fabrics. I don’t care for it.
There’s no rhyme or reason to this aversion of mine. It’s purely personal. Instinctive.
So imagine my surprise when I was leafing through a much-loved copy of Weldon’s Practical Needlework (a late Victorian publication from England, available in facsimile reprints) and stopped at this, one of my favorite illustrations…
…and found myself thinking, It would be fun to knit a crazy quilt.
I’m not supposed to think that. If you want to make a crazy quilt, I said to myself, then get out the rag bag and sew one.
My naughty brain would not leave the idea alone. It had been some time since I’d indulged myself in intarsia–a technique too maligned, too often considered unwieldy. This would be a golden opportunity to play with it.
Crazy quilting, if you are not familiar with it, became something of a Craft Madness in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
Unlike the workaday cotton or wool pieced quilts meant as bedcovers, crazy quilts most often recycled odds and ends of luxury fabrics like silk and velvet. But any fabric could be used. The combinations found in extant pieces are astonishing. This example from the Metropolitan Museum of Art is representative.
Aletta Whitehouse Davis (1830?–1925), Crazy Quilt (c. 1885). Made in New England from silk, silk velvet, cotton, and chenille. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of Reverend and Mrs. Karl Nielsen, 1962.
The scraps could be any shape. Colors, textures, and fibers were mixed at the pleasure of the maker.
The result–sometimes called an “art quilt”–was often used as a stylish throw for the parlor sofa, or might be draped over the furniture in a fashionable “Turkish corner” filled with artsy exotica.
And because a crazy quilt isn’t only about the joining of colorful bits with odd shapes, I’d get to decorate the piece with embellishments. Embellishments were fundamental to crazy quilting–the place for the needlewoman to really flaunt her creativity.
The Davis quilt is covered with embroidery and appliqué in cheerful profusion.
Embellishment meant I could look forward not merely to intarsia, but to intarsia with stuff on it. And, as you will have noticed if you tune in regularly, I am in love with projects that allow me to combine techniques.
When I realized that after two months of daydreaming I still wanted to try this, I gave in and asked Makers’ Mercantile for a mess of HiKoo Sueño Worsted in a jumble of pretty colors.
The pot basket from Big Blue Moma (you can get one from Makers’ Mercantile) is so cute I want to carry it everywhere.
This is a favorite workhorse worsted of mine. It’s warm. It’s soft, but tough. The color range is wide enough to allow craziness. It makes a handsome finished fabric.
I chose colors that I remembered seeing in old crazy quilts, especially my favorite 1880s-1890s examples.
The late Victorian crazy quilters were the most exuberant and profuse in their decorating, even including things like appliquéd paper scraps and photographs, beads and buttons, tassels and fringes, and even paint.
I didn’t know if I’d go that far, but I figured my experimental base ought to at least admit the possibility.
Crazy Knitting Without Going Crazy
Now, intarsia (if we set aside extreme examples) is not the frenetic waltz with an octopus that it is often imagined to be.
Yes, it can get kinda stringy with multiple ends hanging off the work-in-progress. But a little advance planning keeps them nicely managed.
Me, I love intarsia; but I choose my projects carefully. The technique is wonderful for bold patterns constructed from large areas of flat color. It is less wonderful (from the standpoint of the knitter) for fussy patterns constructed from fifty billion wee bits of color.
My crazy square,* therefore, was laid out with enough shapes and colors to evoke patchwork. But the shapes were mostly on the large side, and almost no row in my chart ever had more than four strands of color in play.
Here’s my chart. There was no plan to it. I just filled in shapes until it looked like I thought it ought to.
The collision of the star symbol and the dot symbol is unfortunate, but I was in a hurry. After I printed out a working copy to take on the road, I shaded the star squares lightly with a pencil to make them easier to read.
I also decided to work this experiment as intarsia in garter stitch. For those of you who are new to the party (welcome!) that means that in my flat-knit fabric, all stitches would be knit stitches. No purling (until the final row, but more on that later).
My reasons for this were as follows:
• The gauge of garter stitch is roughly square–the number of stitches per inch is usually about the same as the number of rows per inch.
So I could lay out my chart on a plain ol’ square grid and not worry about differences between stitch gauge and row gauge. Yes, I have access to “knitter’s graph paper” with a non-square grid; but this was easier. And it was right at hand. And as you know, if you read this column regularly, I am LAZY.
• The primary visual feature of garter stitch is the ridge formed by two consecutive rows of knitting: once across the right side, once across the wrong side.
Working my chart in garter stitch meant that the order of the colors in any wrong side row would be identical to the order of the colors in the preceding right side row. So on all wrong side rows, I could ignore the chart and just work the colors as they presented themselves. If the next stitch on the left needle was blue, I would knit into it with the same blue. Ditto for all the colors. No need to look at the chart. Simple. Easy. See, “I am LAZY,” above.
• Garter stitch lies flat.
• Garter stitch looks pretty.
• I like garter stitch.
Using garter stitch meant numbering my chart rows appropriately, like so:
Right side rows are odd numbers, worked right to left. Wrong side rows are even numbers, worked left to right. Each row of squares in the chart is worked twice: once right to left, then once left to right.
Yes, every row of squares in the chart is knit twice. Once across for the right side, once across for the wrong side.
Now, as to the stringy bit.
Intarsia requires a separate strand of working yarn for every block of color in a given row. If you’re not familiar with intarsia at all, you might like to check out this installment of an earlier Fridays with Franklin adventure for a decent introduction.
To keep dangling ends to a minimum, one of the things I like to do is estimate how much yarn a given block of color will require, then reel off that much of it. I don’t wind these strands onto intarsia bobbins, or wrap them into butterflies. I just let them hang.
How do I estimate the amount of yarn I need for a block of color? It’s pretty simple. Takes a bit of time and counting, but it’s worth it to me in terms of time saved (in the end) and annoyance avoided.
Estimating Yarn for One Block of Intarsia
Step One. Take the yarn you’ll be using, and wrap it gently but firmly ten times around the needle you’ll be using.
Wrap that needle.
Step Two. Remove the yarn from the needle and measure how much you used for those ten wraps. That’s how much you need for ten stitches. (Let’s say, for demonstration purposes, you got a result of 6 inches.)
Measure the yarn you wrapped.
Step Three. Count up the number of stitches in that block of your intarsia design. (Let’s say, for demonstration purposes, you have 108 stitches in the block.)
Step Four. The math bit.
If you’re working in stockinette stitch (each row in the chart is worked one time), do this:
Divide the number of stitches in the block by 10. (We get 10, with a remainder of 8.)
Multiply the resulting whole number (ignore the remainder for the moment) by the number of inches you needed for 10 wraps. (We multiply 10 by 6, and get 60).
To this number, add additional length for the remainder. (Since eight is pretty near 10, I’ll add in the full six inches needed for 10 wraps. Our total is now 70.)
Add in an additional 12 inches for tails at the beginning and end.
So our hypothetical strand would be measured out to 78 inches.
If you are working in garter stitch, do as above; but multiply your total by 2 before you add in the 12 inches for your tails. (We do this because every square in our chart represents two knit stitches, not one.)
This is a loosey-goosey way to estimate, yet I’ll be darned if it doesn’t get me the right length almost every time.
The Naked Square
Once I had done up a chart, and counted the squares in each block, the knitting clicked along with refreshing ease.
I cast on using the long tail method, following the color order given in row 1.
Since the long tail cast on not only casts on, but also works your first row of knit stitches, I followed it by knitting row 2 of the chart. In the photo above, I’ve just finished row six. I think it’s row six. I’m pretty sure it’s row six. Where are my glasses?
From there, it was shockingly quick work to finish the entire chart. I ended by binding off in purl, following the order of the colors, on the right side after completing wrong side row 80.
It’s not perfectly square, but it’s close enough that it could be easily blocked to square; or I could adjust the chart to make it knit up square. All part of the experimentation process.
Also, please admire my tidy backside.
If this side is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.
Just for fun, I put a photo of the finished square into Photoshop and multiplied it. I do this a lot, by the way, to see how a small sample of a repeating motif will look across a larger field.
It’s encouraging. This is the same square repeated, of course; but if you used the same chart, and knitted it in different colors each time; then rotated the squares as you put them together; you could achieve a finished knitted quilt with something of the non-repeating verve the original quilts offer.
I kinda hoped that would be the case.
The greatest surprise was finding that my colors were strongly evocative of the “paint spatter” Trapper Keeper I carried to school in the 1980s. This was not, I admit to you, an entirely pleasant surprise.
But now comes the embellishment, and we’ll see if we can temper the Valley Girl vibe with that. Fer shure.
See you in two weeks.
*Note that the Davis crazy quilt, like many from the time, is formed from small squares later joined into a single large square. This kept the work as portable as possible for as long as possible, and allowed for flexibility and adjustment in laying out the final design. A sensible method indeed.
Tools and Materials Appearing in This Issue
HiKoo Sueño Worsted (80% Merino Wool, 20% Viscose. 182 yards per 100 gram hank.)
Woven Pot Basket from Big Blue Moma
Designer, teacher, author and illustrator Franklin Habit is the author of It Itches: A Stash of Knitting Cartoons (Interweave Press, 2008). His newest book, I Dream of Yarn: A Knit and Crochet Coloring Book was brought out by Soho Publishing in May 2016 and is in its second printing.
He travels constantly to teach knitters at shops and guilds across the country and internationally; and has been a popular member of the faculties of such festivals as Vogue Knitting Live!, STITCHES Events, the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, Squam Arts Workshops, the Taos Wool Festival, Sock Summit, and the Madrona Fiber Arts Winter Retreat. He will lead his own knitting cruise to Bermuda in September, 2018.
Franklin’s varied experience in the fiber world includes contributions of writing and design to Vogue Knitting, Yarn Market News, Interweave Knits, Interweave Crochet, PieceWork, Twist Collective; and a regular columns and cartoons for Mason-Dixon Knitting, PLY Magazine, Lion Brand Yarns, and Skacel Collection/Makers’ Mercantile. Many of his independently published designs are available via Ravelry.com.
He is the longtime proprietor of The Panopticon, one of the most popular knitting blogs on the Internet (presently on hiatus).
Franklin lives in Chicago, Illinois, cohabiting shamelessly with 15,000 books, a Schacht spinning wheel, four looms, and a colony of yarn that multiplies whenever his back is turned.
Follow Franklin online via Twitter (@franklinhabit), Instagram (@franklin.habit), his Web site (franklinhabit.com) or his Facebook page.