1 Fridays with Franklin: Adventure in the Shadows, Part Two

For the first part of this adventure, click here.

You know what I did first, don’t you? You know you do, you just don’t want to hear me say it.

I swatched.

Confession time: I love swatching.

If that makes you bristle, let me reassure you that I understand. I wasn’t always like this. I used to hate swatching. Swatching was vile. Swatching was the pile of green beans my mother used to force-feed me before I was allowed to have a cookie.  I hated green beans.*

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Why did I change? Experience. People say swatches lie, and swatches do. But the most deceitful swatch still tells you more that no swatch at all.

Swatching isn’t just about checking your gauge to make sure you end up with something of the correct size. It’s also about testing the fabric. Does it look good? Does it have the right amount of drape? Frankly, it doesn’t matter if you “get” gauge but the yarn you’ve chosen to get it gives you a fabric stiff as cardboard and you’re looking to make a shawl.

With shadow knitting, my favorite way to swatch is just to pick one color or the other and start knitting a piece of garter stitch. Here’s the kind of garter stitch I look for:

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See how nice and snug those ridges are? That’s good. Here’s what I avoid:

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If you get snug garter stitch, the gauge of your shadow fabric will generally give you a bold, legible hidden pattern.

This was also a good test flight for the Schoppel Gradient. As I mentioned in the last installment, I was concerned that the slightly irregular nature of the yarn might render it unsuitable for shadow knitting. But when I saw these nice, plump garter ridges

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I knew I was good to go.

That’s what a swatch is supposed to do for you, you know–let you set forth without anxiety. Or at least with less anxiety.

What pattern to knit, though? I wanted, on this test flight, to try out the shifting colors and see how they’d play against one another. That meant keeping it simple. A square would have grown monotonous very quickly, so I charted up a circle.

As I’d hoped, what grew was a series of bold explosions on a moody background. The nature of shadow knitting is to stretch out motifs, so they were more oblong than circular. I liked that.

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I also liked the way the simultaneous changes in the background and foreground led to the unexpected.

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All the while, one thought kept nagging me. These looked like something I’d seen. What was it? Paints in a paintbox? Not quite. Candies on a tray? Definitely not.

I was talking with a knitter friend when it hit me.

“They look like the sun rising through clouds. In the morning, when they’re storm clouds full of city pollution, and I’m at the airport, and it’s really early, and my eyes are kind of bleary, and I have hours of horrible flying before I’ll get any kind of rest.”

“That’s cheery,” he said.

“Angry sunrises,” I said. “Eleven angry sunrises.”

“Some people are inspired by pretty flowers,” he said.

“That’s what I’m going to call this,” I said. “Eleven Angry Sunrises.”

“You can’t call a knitting pattern ‘Eleven Angry Sunrises.’”

“Why not?”

“Because it sounds angry. Knitting is supposed to make you think happy thoughts.”

“Well, I’m not calling it Eleven Happy Sunrises.”

“Why not?”

“Because it sounds like the name of a cult.”

“And what is knitting?”

I have to admit he had a point.

Your Own Adventure: Recipe for Eleven Happy (or Angry) Sunrises

Procure two skeins of Schoppel Gradient in different colorways. The more difference between your colorways, the bolder your surprises will be.

You will also need two stitch markers, and the shadow circle chart above. And of course, scissors and a tapestry needle. (Do I really have to tell you that? Patterns always tell you that, but do they really have to?)

As described above, knit a good-sized garter stitch swatch (about four inches by four inches will do it) to make sure you have a firm but not tight fabric. If the fabric could stand up in the corner by itself, it’s too firm. If it looks like fishnet, it’s too loose.

Don’t bind off the swatch; rip it out so you can use the yarn.

With your first color, cast on 27 stitches.

You’re going to put garter stitch borders around the sunrises just for pretty. So knit two rows with Color One, then join Color Two and knit two rows with that. From this point on, you will always alternate two rows of Color One, then two rows of Color Two.

Enough border. Time for pattern.

With Color One, knit three stitches. That’s your right-hand garter stitch border. Place a stitch marker. Knit the first row of the chart. You’ll have three stitches left; place a marker, then knit them. Those are your left-hand border.

Now, follow the chart when you’re inside the markers. Outside the markers, knit all stitches. Don’t cut the yarns at the end of each stripe, just carry them up the right-hand selvedge as you work.

When you have had quite enough, knit two more garter stripes–one in each color–and bind off using the color of the final stripe.

Block, if you like. Weave in ends. Admire.

Our next adventure begins in two weeks…click here.

*I still hate green beans.

Tools and Materials Appearing in This Issue

Schoppel Gradient: 100% Virgin Wool, 260m/100g per ball; colors: 1873 (red-orange) and 1508 (black-white).

1 Fridays with Franklin – Adventure in the Shadows, Part One

With this issue, Franklin’s adventures begin in earnest. For an introduction to this ongoing project, click here. 

Blame it on a childhood spent as the oddball and the outsider–I often find myself irresistibly drawn to knitting techniques that can’t get a seat with the cool kids.

Shadow knitting (sometimes called illusion knitting) is one such. I remember with perfect clarity the first time I saw it. I was a fledgling, making my maiden visit to a fiber festival. As I toddled through the vendor market with a clutch of far more experienced knitters, I came to a dead stop in front of a striped sweater with a geometric pattern that appeared out of nowhere, then disappeared. Then appeared. Then disappeared. Then–

You get the idea.

“How does it do that?” I asked.

The leader of our group winced. Her chief lieutenant came to my defense–sort of. “He’s new,” she said. “He doesn’t know any better.”

It was explained to me, as I was gently but firmly pointed towards the more respectable Fair Isle sweaters in the next booth, that shadow knitting was not quite comme il faut. “It’s cute for kid stuff,” the lieutenant said. “You can hide secret messages in it…if you like that sort of thing.”

I like that sort of thing.

Shadow knitting has become a fascination for me in the past year, and not coincidentally the topic of one of my most frequently requested classes.

Here’s a nutshell tour of how it works.

The fabric of shadow knitting is based on two-row stripes, in two colors. You knit two rows of color A, then two rows of color B.

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These two stripes don’t only differ in color; they differ in texture as well. One is always stockinette; other is always garter stitch.

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The second row of each stripe is where the magic happens. Any place you want the pattern to appear, you throw in purl stitches (in a garter stripe) or knit stitches (in a stockinette stripe). The pattern stitches of the second stripe always echo, or shadow (aha! see?) the pattern stitches of the stripe before it.

When you look at this stuff from the top, you see the stripes.

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When you look at it from an oblique angle, the hidden pattern pops up.

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That’s it. That’s all there is to it–or so I was told.

The fabric is straightforward, but so what? There’s not a whole lot to the structure of stranded color work, either; yet nobody suggests the residents of Fair Isle have been wasting their time exploring it. Why should shadow knitting be considered a one-trick pony?

I can’t help but be intrigued by a technique that’s neither color knitting nor texture knitting: it’s both. It has to be both. Remove either the texture or the color and it falls apart.

Students in my classes have been treated (?) to the fruits of my ongoing fascination, including experiments with motifs large and small, deliberate obscurity, changes in grain, and alternative charting methods.  But you are getting the first look at the latest adventure.

Though shadow knitting requires that the stockinette and garter stripes be different colors, the color of either may be changed at will–provided you take care to change in the first row of the stripe. I’ve used that to fun effect in some of my projects.

That set me to pondering what might happen if I relaxed my iron grip on the finished product and let the yarns decide what colors would end up in each stripe.

I’d tried unsuccessfully to combine two heavily variegated yarns in a shadow swatch, hoping the flashing and pooling would for once work to my benefit. No dice. All I got was an incomprehensible mush of colors. It turns out that for this to work, you need a yarn whose color changes are long and gradual.

Enter Schoppel Gradient.

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Gradient had pretty much everything I was looking for in this experiment. It’s pure wool, it’s worsted weight, and the clear colors shift from one to the next at a nearly imperceptible rate.

The only thing I wasn’t quite sure about was the shape of the strand. In my classes, I’m accustomed to telling to students to look out for yarns that are smooth, regular, and round.  By round, I mean that if you cut the yarn into cross sections like a salami, this is roughly what you’d see.

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Round yarns are usually made of multiple strands (called singles) twisted together. When you twist the singles together they become “plies”; and three or more plies tend to yield the round profile that makes shadow patterns stand out.

Gradient isn’t built like that. It’s a “singles” yarn–in effect, one thick strand.  It has a very slight irregularity in profile, too.

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That can make even plain stockinette look enchanting–but I feared might goof up the shadow patterning.

However, in knitting as in all of life, you never know if it’s going to work unless you try it.  I shudder to think how many beautiful things are not brought into the world because the maker talks him- or herself out of the making.

Part Two will appear in two weeks.

Tools and Materials Appearing in This Issue

Schoppel Gradient: 100% Virgin Wool, 260m/100g per ball; colors: 1873 (red-orange) and 1508 (black-white)

55 Fridays with Franklin – It’s Play Time

It’s Play Time

Ten years ago, had you asked any of my coworkers to describe me they’d all have said the same thing: “He’s the weirdo who knits in meetings.” It’s true. I am a weirdo, and I did knit furiously through every meeting that didn’t require me to check my needles at the door.

I am sorry to say it was not a very nice place to work. Some days, the soothing influence of knitting was all that kept me on the side of perfect propriety. It is not easy to slap someone when both your hands are otherwise engaged.

Stuff I was knitting began to draw notice in the burgeoning online fiber arts community. I was asked to write articles. I was asked to write a book. I was asked to teach knitting classes. I was asked to design patterns. I said yes. Also yes, yes, yes, and yes.

Suddenly knitting was no longer the thing I did to survive meetings. Knitting was the reason I had meetings. Knitting became my work. Alice, having popped through the looking-glass and into an alternate reality, was not more startled at her new digs than I.

Like Alice, I was by turns delighted and frustrated. Knitting is all fun and games when it’s all fun and games. When it becomes work, the games are postponed indefinitely. Deadlines don’t leave much room for rambling. You have to pick a topic and stick to it.

That is a pity.

In my experience the best sort of creativity is the messiest. I have been asked a few times about the creative process, and all my answers have been lies.

To talk about creative process in an interview, you have to make up a story about it. You cannot speak plain truth. You are not, for example, allowed to say that you have no creative process, unless by “process” you mean lying on the couch watching cat videos and crying until the thing is due in forty-eight hours and, fueled entirely by Mallomars and Diet Coke, you squeeze out a new mitten pattern in much the same way one forces the last squirt of toothpaste from the tube.

Instead, you have to shake the Mallomar crumbs out of your beard, smile brightly and present a narrative something like this:

I had an Idea.

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Then I did some stuff. (This is the “creative arc.” In movies, it’s always a montage during which the artist maniacally paints/dances/types while the Pointer Sisters sing “I’m So Excited.”)

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And then I had made my Idea into a Thing.

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The end.

And to be honest, sometimes it does work like that. The tight deadlines of a competitive business can force you to lock your focus on Point Z and scoot towards it with little to no deviation.

But that, too, is a pity.

Because I find the best work comes often from a creative path that looks a little more like this.

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Start here…

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…but then…

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…and then…

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…whereupon…

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…and then suddenly…

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Those loops and switchbacks and zigzags–those are the moments when you mess around. Those are the times you let go of Point Z and just play. Me, I find my very best work happens when I never make it to Z at all, and when my final product is wildly different from my original idea.

That’s what this project with Makers’ Mercantile will be all about: playing. All sorts of playing, too. Knitting, yes–but also crochet, weaving, felting, embroidery, rug making, and anything else we can dream up. We are going to let go, move forward, and see where we end up.

We are going to have adventures.

And here is what I promise you:

I will show you the good stuff that we find.

I will show you how we got to the good stuff.

I will never pretend to be perfect.

When we run off the road and into a ditch, I will show you that, too.

Are you ready?

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I am. Let’s go.

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