Toil and trouble

Do you know those knitting bloggers who make you terribly envious?  The ones who can whip out a complicated project at the drop of a hat, and every picture looks perfect, and every project appears to emerge from the needles without toil or trouble?  If you are looking for a post like that, please dear reader, look away!  Warning! Toil and trouble ahead!

And for which project did this struggle occur?  Something fabulous and intricate?  Something never before attempted?  Truth be told – it’s a hat.  A very lovely hat, indeed.  But it’s a hat that – as of today – has 1994 projects on Ravelry.  (I don’t know how many that means there are in the wild, but if we assume that half of them make it on to Ravelry, and awful lot of people have made this hat.)  It is the Bousta Beanie, designed by Gudrun Johnston, originally for the Shetland Wool Week 2017, but now available as well on Ravelry.  Here is mine:


But, you may say: “Hey, it turned out OK.!” Yes, it did.  The toil and trouble is not reflected in the output (thankfully!).  I picked this project to try to learn the skill of two-handed fair isle knitting.  I have actually done a few colourwork projects before, and have attempted to do two-handed knitting (one yarn held in the left hand and knitted continental style and one yarn held in the right hand and knitted English style) before.  I have always cheated quite a bit however, and have usually resorted to a not-very-efficient style of holding a yarn in the right hand, knitting with it, and dropping it and picking up the other yarn in the right hand and knitting with it.  This is slow and often leads to my tangling the yarns and getting the yarn dominance mixed up.

Before going any further, let me say that I do not approve of knitting police!  The right way to knit is the way which works for you.  Period!  However, I have wished for a very long time to be able to add this skill to my knitting repertoire, and I have decided that this is the year!  (Of course, it is now approaching the end of the year, but I am not being literal here.)  I wanted to start by knitting a fair isle vest for Doug, and even joined a Vest KAL on Ravelry to help motivate me.  I soon realised, however, that I needed to start with a much more basic project; thus, the Bousta Beanie.  The Bousta is often described as a perfect first Fair Isle project.  It has a four stitch repeat.  It is easy to memorise.  It is pleasing to the eye and lovely to wear.  The emerging pattern is far more intricate and flowing than the simple pattern would suggest.

I had a bunch of 4-ply yarn in my stash from The Little Grey Sheep – mini skeins in a number of colours, and I picked three which I thought would be pretty together.  (I used 2 mini-skeins for the purple, and one for each of the contrasting colours.)  I cast on and started to knit.  After I had finished the ribbing and had very laboriously added a few rows of pattern, I decided the hat would be too small.  I ripped it off the needles, and then in a very fortuitous act decided to try it on over my head before frogging.  It fit!  I put it back on the needles and kept knitting.

If I were to list the important elements in knitting this, I would say that there are four:

  1.  The knitting itself – getting my head around the two-handed technique
  2.  The pattern – staying in pattern while you knit
  3.  The crown – managing the decreases while also knitting on DPNs
  4.  Managing the yarns – carrying up the unused colour and avoiding twisting

I managed to screw up every one of these!

1 – The knitting itself.  I find it close to impossible to knit with the yarn in my left hand.  Hundreds of thousands (millions?) of Continental knitters have the hang of this but I really struggle with it.  And I am left-handed!  It is hard to describe why I find it so difficult.  The first issue I have is with tensioning the yarn.  The way I normally knit, where I hold the yarn in my right hand and literally carry it around the needle, doesn’t involve any tensioning at all.  I have never had to wind the yarn around fingers and control the speed at which it slips through.   I looked at dozens of videos of how to do this.  I tried many different ways of tensioning the yarn.  I ended up having the yarn wrapped twice around my left index finger, something which I am unhappy with but really seemed to be the only working solution.

The second problem is the actual mechanics of inserting the right needle into the knit stitch and then looping it around this yarn which is mysteriously held wrapped around the left index finger.  I was so incredibly slow, knitting stitch by stitch in total concentration.  I kept telling myself that Continental is the fast knitting style, but my brain and fingers were not cooperating and laughed at my attempts at self-motivation.  The third problem I had was in advancing the stitches towards the tip of the left needle. This seems easy and intuitive when I am knitting normally but not so here.  When you are holding the yarn in the left, desperately trying to keep the tension even, how do you advance the stitches with that hand at the same time?  Truly, knitting this way is hard.  Maybe my brain is too old to learn new tricks.  I am determined to persevere, however!

2 – Staying in pattern.  This should be easy; the Bousta Beanie has an incredibly simple, intuitive pattern that should be a snap to follow.  In fact, hundreds of knitters make exactly that comment on their project pages.  Nevertheless, after some very slow knitting, this is what happened:


On the top, you see one side of the hat, looking rather nice.  On the bottom, you see the other side of the hat, where I have totally messed up the pattern in the second orange section.  I debated trying some sort of tricky fix with a crochet hook to fix these stitches, but decided that I was having enough trouble with knitting fair isle to try anything fancy.  So, I ripped it out (down to where the pattern started going wonky). Note to self: ripping out fair isle takes longer than normal ripping.

I then started knitting again, reminding myself that the hat was meant to be practice for two-handed knitting and the act of frogging and re-knitting meant more practice.  How convenient to have to knit it twice!  After a while, I caught up and then did the same mistake again, this time on the third orange pattern sequence:


At least I caught the mistake much sooner.  It may be hard to see but in the orange bit on the top I have made exactly the same pattern error that I made the first time.  Once again, I ripped (just a row or two this time).  This leads me to ponder: if I can’t manage to keep an easy pattern like this straight, how will I manage an intricate pattern?

3 – The crown.  The pattern calls for 3.5 repeats before starting the crown decreases.  I realised that this would make the hat longer than I preferred.  I tend more towards the beanie hat style than the slouchy ones.  So, I determined to take out one half of a pattern repeat and start the crown decreases early.  The problem with this is that the pattern is moving in the opposite direction at that point so the crown shapings have to be reversed.  Many knitters seem to have taken this approach.  Jen, of JenACKnitwear, comments on her Bousta Beanie project page: “I took out half a pattern repeat and then worked the crown shaping chart backwards.”  Well, that sounds easy; it’s only 10 rows of shaping on a short repeat pattern.  I spent part of two evenings trying to figure it out.

Before you really shake your heads at this, I will point out that I have been especailly stressed at work lately.  This stress seems to have bled out into my knitting.  I have also this week given up caffeine, and that is having an effect on my brain, not to mention my mood, my sleep patterns, and my hand-eye coordination.  Those are my excuses and I will stick with them.  Being an idiot didn’t factor into this; not at all!

Finally, in an act of desperation, I went onto Ravelry, in a forum on Jen’s group, and asked for some help.  Jen replied in minutes (yes, in minutes; how great is that!) with an intriguing suggestion:  “…you need to mirror image the chart.  Could you hold it up to a mirror and take a photo of it?”  Genius!  After a slight problem (who knew that my phone would automatically adjust the image so that it would not be mirrored?), I was able to get a photo of the mirrored crown shaping pattern and start knitting.  I still had trouble with the leaning decreases – I couldn’t figure out how to make left-leaning decreases while knitting fair isle, so settled on k2tog which put the colours in the right places but ended up leaning the wrong way.  I don’t think anyone will notice.

The last problem with the crown was trying to knit with my very bad two-handed techniques while using DPNs; this took a bit of juggling to get used to.


4 – Managing the yarns.  Here you see the inside of the hat:


The top photo shows how nicely the inside looks – it is all very neat and orderly.  The bottom photo shows the terrible job I made of carrying the extra thread up the inside.  For a while there, near the beginning, I managed to get it right and the yarn is carried up almost invisibly, but then I somehow screwed it all up.  I know you can’t see it and it doesn’t affect the finished project, but it offends my sense of beauty.  I want the inside to look great, too.  Even more, I want to know how to twist the yarn while carrying it up so that it feels organic; it never felt right.

I also wonder, looking at the finished photos, whether I should have reversed the dominance and made the purple the dominant colour.  One of the things I like about the pattern is the way the main colour forms ripples up and down the hat.  I could see these while I was knitting, but in the washed and blocked hat they don’t stand out.  I’m not sure how that happened but I suspect that dominance might be the answer.

Given all of the troubles I had knitting this, I think it is a pretty cool hat and I am pleased with the final product.  The pattern is really lovely and the yarn is soft, light, but very warm.


This hat is the first installment in Project Fair Isle!  I plan to work my way up to some fancy stitchwork.   Stay tuned for more adventures in fair isle knitting.

But first, back to some of my WIPs…..

25 thoughts on “Toil and trouble

  1. Thank you for such a detailed analysis of what I could call the “challenges” of your Bousta Beanie. When this hat first came out I was going to knit it too, but haven’t tried it yet. I learned Fair Isle knitting in Sweden when I was there for a year as a teenager. However, it’s only recently that I’ve heard about dominance. I’d love for you to explain that when next you take up Fair Isle knitting.

  2. well done! i am completely sympathetic with the difficulty – i want to do color work but dread the learning curve! i think you chose your colors brilliantly and like the purple exactly where it all is.

    • Thanks, Janet. I choose the colours because they were stash, but they have grown on me. They have a very autumnal feel to them. As far as colourwork, dive right in! Pick a small project and get started. The best thing about knitting is that everything is re-doable. Besides, research shows that learning new tasks is good for your brain!

  3. It’s lovely, I am sorry it was so difficult!! I have this pattern, and hope to make it someday. I’ll brace myself!

    PS good for you reducing caffeine!

    • I don’t think you will need to brace yourself; this was just me trying to kickstart a new technique. The pattern was not the problem. I am now on my 7th day without caffeine! I don’t intend to stop drinking coffee altogether but I am happy to cut way back and drink it for an occasional treat.

  4. I learned Continental knitting about 5 years ago and the only way I really (mostly) got it was to use bulky yarn, straight needles and a basket weave pattern. The needles and yarn are things I rarely use and the basket weave stitch required frequent knit-purl changes. I did a whole scarf this way and though the beginning looked as though I had never knitted before, by the end it looked rather good. This was the only way I could think of to commit continental to my muscle memory. I still prefer to purl the english way, but knitting in the round is so much faster now. And I finished knitting the Lerwick sweater from Marie Wallin doing two handed Fair Isle. Good luck!

    • Thanks for the advice. I know a big, boring project – a long scarf in the round, perhaps – would help to ingrain the muscle memory. I am going to keep trying. Wow, the Lerwick is a work of art! I am so impressed. That will be an heirloom. You are inspiring me.

  5. What a great idea to practice the new techniques on a smaller project! New stuff is always hard, but you wound up with a great hat and some valuable experience. I can’t wait to see what you make next!

  6. Nice beanie! I find Continental knitting very difficult too, and also very painful for my left hand. Have you tried one-handed Shetland weaving? I use this technique for all my colour work because it’s very fast and neat and completely does away with floats. It was easy to learn and whilst I had to slow down while I got used to it, it took no time to get back to my normal knitting speed. It is a little slower on the purl side (if you are knitting on the flat) but obviously that’s not an issue if you are knitting in the round. I highly recommend it to anyone contemplating colourwork. Look forward to seeing your next project – always very inspired by your blog.

    • Hi Andrea, I have not tried it. I am going to go and look it up. Thanks for the suggestion. I am all about learning new techniques now. Your comment about pain in the left hand made me pause – despite the fact that I am left-handed, I had a botched surgery for De Quervaine’s tenosynovitis in my left wrist about 25 years ago. I wonder if that has somehow reduced my range of motion a bit and that is part of the problem. Hmm…I will have to think about this.

  7. First of all: there is no knitting police! You find out the way that works for you by trial and error, and kudos for not giving up and managing to whip up a very nice hat. I did the same thing when trying out Fair Isle, I started with a hat and went at it slowly, practicing the two hand thing. It is not easy, especially if you’ve been knitting for years with the right hand only. It will get better with practice, that’s for sure. And when you’re stressed and tired, even the easiest pattern can seem daunting.
    The one thing I love about knitting, is no matter how frustrated you can be or wrong something is turning out, you can just frog it all and start over. I think I would be a mess if I had to give up caffeine at this point, been meaning to try but not in this season. I love my hot cup of java in the morning. Take care.

    • I’m with you on the frogging. It’s so great to be able to pull something out and start over. So many meetings I wish I could do that to! And you are right about the stress – I knit this while being under a lot of pressure. I am hoping that things will ease up a bit now.

  8. Don’t be too hard on yourself! I think the Bousta Beanie pattern may be easier for some knitters than others. I’m not a super experienced Fair Isle knitter, but I have knitted five Fair Isle sweaters, and several hats, and I found the pattern VERY tricky. In fact, I had chosen it to teach to one of my knitting students, but tried it myself first and I am very glad I did, because we switched to a different hat pattern. I guess some people find the color pattern intuitive and easy to follow, but I didn’t. At all. So it really took a ton of work and concentration to get my hat right. Just saying. Considering that you’re new to Fair Isle and don’t knit Continental it sounds like you did a fantastic job!

    • Thanks for the supportive words. I think I was aiming for comic irony in this post – I managed to do it ALL wrong – rather than for despair. After all, it’s only knitting; it can be re-done. And I’m happy with the end product, so all is well.

  9. It is always good to push ourselves to learn new techniques. I found it relatively easy to work with yarn in both hands, I think perhaps because I am used to controlling yarn tension in my left hand for crochet. But I have yet to master the fine art of colour dominance. Your hat looks great though – I’m sure it will give you many years of joy and happiness!

  10. I am also left handed and forced myself to learn 2 stranded 2 handed knitting. It feels very awkward for about 3 projects but eventually it clicks. As a senior, I’m trying to switch hands for projects as they say it’s a good brain exercise to reverse dominance from time to time. Hey…whatever works to keep the old brain healthy….
    I haven’t given up caffeine though…
    Hang in there it DOES improve with time and definitely speeds up colourwork.
    The hat is beautiful!

  11. Hi, I think you’ve done a great job with the beanie, but wonder if some of tour technical difficulties were due to small circumference and using dons. When I decided to learn two-handed knitting, I made an allover patterned cardigan. (Steeks! I had the knitting finished for nearly a YEAR before I had the nerve to cut the front.) Thinking about it, though, it may have been a help to have lots of stitches all swooshed together on a 24-inch circular. With the stitches close to the left needle tip it wasn’t too hard to feed them along with my left thumb. Like you, I don’t have to tension the yarn in my right hand at all, and only slightly on the left (yarn runs over the top of the pinky, under the palm, and over the forefinger.) also I sort of scoop the continental stitches by moving the right needle tip. We may have similar knitting styles, so this might be helpful–not affiliated with the knitting police! Anyway, keep at it because Fair Isle is loads of fun and it will get easier with practice for sure.

  12. A great hat! You did a fantastic job and if you hadn’t mentioned the trials and traumas of making it we would be none the wiser! I am a great believer in ‘practice makes perfect’ – which is funny because I have a whole stack of WIPs where I’ve gone wrong and decided I will pick them back up when I am ‘ready’ to tackle them calmly once again!

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