Practice makes better: Lord of the Rings knitting re-visited

Both girls came home for the holiday, and Leah brought home a hand-knitted piece for me to wash.  (Yes, Leah does her own laundry – she lives 4700 miles away!  But this is a special piece and she wanted to consult with the expert.  The expert took it to the dry cleaners.) Long-term readers may remember that I knitted her a Tolkien-themed pillow for her 19th birthday.  She brought home the case (minus the pillow), after five years of wear and tear, and it still looks pretty fantastic, if I do say so myself:

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Knitted into the pillow using stranded knitting is the inscription from the One Ring, written in the Black Speech of Mordor using Tengwar, the transcription system developed by Tolkien for the languages of Middle Earth. (Yes, this is a super-geeky thing to do.)  I blogged about this project extensively at the time and you can see all of the posts, in reverse order, with this tag link.  These posts include information on the conception, knitting, steeking, fretting (first steek!), learning, sewing, and fun that went into the project.  They also include great photos, like this one which shows me holding the pillow while wearing a pair of mitts I knit with the same yarn in the reverse colours (purple on yellow instead of yellow on purple):

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Don’t you just love the transposition of the Batman-esque mitts and the Tolkien medieval-esque pillow? I have to say that I love this project.  It was such a great experience to knit and I think it looks pretty freaking fantastic as well.  Even if you’ve never heard of the One Ring to Rule Them All, it’s pretty cool.

Here is another photo from one of the earlier posts, which shows the project immediately pre-steek:

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This last photo leads me into the reflection behind this post.  Despite the glorious final project, I was pretty crap at stranded knitting then.  (It was only my second stranded project, with the Peerie Flooers hat being the first.)  The difference between the stranded portions of the knitting and the stockinette portion in between the two lines of script is dramatic.  The background (purple) bits are smooth for the stockinette and very uneven and puckered for the stranded portions.

Of course the above picture is before blocking, which fixed a lot of the issues you can see, but blocking cannot fix everything. (Gasp!  Yes, blocking is essentially a miracle technique for fixing almost everything.  Note the use of “almost”.)  In this close-up photo, taken just a few weeks ago, you can see that, even after blocking, the different tensions are obvious:

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Despite the fact that I didn’t continue to work on the technique again until just recently, I have gotten significantly better at stranded knitting, particularly with respect to tensioning. My two recent attempts at stranded knitting, the Bousta Beanie hat and especially the Cascade hat, demonstrate that, despite some remaining problems, I have managed to fix the tensioning issues with two-handed stranding.  I am still slow.

I’m working on a bit of stranded knitting this weekend, having finally reached the yoke of the Tensho pullover.  I hope your knitting weekend is a good one!

Rite of passage – the steek

In the end, after all my worries, steeking turned out to be rather anticlimactic. For those who haven’t been following, I have been knitting a birthday project for my daughter, Leah, which is a panel with the transcription from the One Ring (from The Lord of the Rings) knitted into it:5-20131219_102204I am knitting it in the round using two-handed stranded knitting with transcription charts provided for free on Ravelry by Diana Stafford.  In the above photo, taken a few weeks ago, the fabric on the left is intended to be used as a backing for the pillow (more on that below).

I used the method provided by Kate Davies in her wonderful steeking tutorial, which involves using a crochet reinforcement.  First, I crocheted up one side of the cut line (using a brown yarn for the reinforcing):

01-20131226134628Then, I turned the piece around and crocheted back up the other side of the cut line.

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Here is the piece with the reinforcing done, just before cutting:

03-20131226155810I must confess here to a few minutes of panic at this point.  I wavered between the part of me who had faith in Kate’s directions and in the thousands of knitters calmly steeking garments for centuries, and the part of me convinced that the reinforcements wouldn’t hold and that the whole thing would unravel.  Emma, while in the midst of a terrible flu, provided both photographic services and calm advice (“Just cut the damn thing already, so that I can go to bed!”)

The two rows of crochet lean away from each other and when pulled slightly apart, reveal a line of ladders which are the bits actually cut.  OK, here goes nothing:

05-2013122616134506-2013122616141707-20131226162014It was fairly dark and rainy in Vancouver that day so the photos are not so great, but perhaps you can tell how intensely I was concentrating on the task:

08-20131226162058And, voila, steek done!  And not a hint of unravelling:

09-20131226162148I then popped this baby into a sink and gave it a good soak, pressed it between layers of towels and stomped on it, stretched it out, pinned it and let it dry, and still not a hint of unravelling.  Ain’t steeking grand!

And, behold, the blocked piece:

12-20131228_134013Isn’t it just fabulous?  I really love this.

It is worth every bit of trouble it took to knit.  (Mostly, just that it demands you pay attention to what you are doing.  It is not a TV knit.)  Here is a small portion of one page of the chart:

04-20131226160717There are 6 full-size pages.  You can see that I annotated all of the background areas by counting out the number of stitches in advance.  It still took lots of concentration to knit.

Unfortunately, it was at this point that problems set in.  My initial plan was to use the fabric to both make the pillow slightly wider (by sewing long strips above and below the knitted piece) and then to back it.  The blocked knitted piece measures about 13″x41″ (which makes it pretty long for a pillow; definitely not a standard size).  I had planned on aiming for a completed pillow size of about 25″x40″.  I am not a seamstress and have little sewing experience.  I was on holiday in Vancouver, and my sewing machine back home in England, so I had hoped to borrow both a sewing machine and some sewing expertise.  I talked to a number of people who had more knowledge of sewing than I do, and each of them thought that sewing the knitted fabric to the silk fabric would not be an easy task, and that the different tensions between them would lead to problems with pulling and stretching.  Each of them had the same advice:  knit the pillow back.  As Teresa put it: “You know how to knit.  You feel comfortable knitting.  Sewing this makes you uncomfortable. Stick with what you are good at.”

I have lots of extra yarn, plenty to knit the pillow back (of course, the extra yarn was at home in England).  In the end, I decided to stew on the matter for a bit.  This means that Leah did not get her birthday present.   I brought it back home with me, and am now busily debating how I should finish it.  Should I risk sewing these two fabrics together?  Should I consult a seamstress and pay to have a professional do it?  Should I admit that the different tensions will likely lead to the knitted side stretching over time even if I can solve the sewing problem?  Or should I just knit the back?  And if I do that, how should I do it?  Should I still knit panels to make it wider? (13″x40″ is too long and narrow.)  Should I knit a border panel?  And how to fasten it?  Zipper, buttons, envelope closing?  Too many questions, lots of indecision on my part.  (I would welcome advice.)

In the meantime, back here in the UK, it is stormy and rainy and flooding all over the place.  I have b-school this weekend, so very little knitting is likely to occur over the next week (or blogging for that matter).  I hope that all of my UK readers stay dry, and all in North America keep warm this week.

PS – I asked Doug for advice on what to name this post.  This is what he came up with:

  • Steek with me, baby!
  • Steeky fingers
  • It’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp steek
  • Jose Jalapeno with a steek  (with apologies to Jeff Dunham)
  • Steek figures
  • Steek to your guns
  • Steek it to the man!
  • How to steek to a New Year’s Resolution
  • Just cut the damn thing already, so that I can go to bed!

Why do I bother to ask?

Steek-aphobia

This is just a drive-by post to say that I am very busy knitting at the moment.  What I am knitting is top secret and thus the unhappy lack of progress photos.  I may or may not be knitting a birthday present and the recipient may or may not be reading this blog.

Two small hints: First, I am doing stranded knitting in the round, using the two handed method (one strand in the left hand and one in the right).  I have very little experience with this technique and it does not flow off the needles well.  I still have to concentrate very hard to get any kind of consistency in tension.  This is only my third project attempting this; the first was my Peerie Flooers hat (a Kate Davies design):

IMG_0679_medium2and the second, a sweater of my own design that I made for Leah and called Medieval Gems:

IMG_5714_medium2Given that I made the first in November-December 2011 and the second in November-December 2012, and am now knitting the third in …wait for it….November-December 2013, I seem to be developing a pattern here.  I can tell you that one small project once a year does not promote finger memory for two-handed stranded knitting.  Alas!

The other small hint about my new project: It will involve a steek!  (Steeking is a technique which allows you to knit in the round and then cut your knitting so that you end up with a flat piece; it is often used for colourwork cardigans.)   Yes, dear readers, I am planning to cut my knitting!  Be still my heart!  Who is afraid of a little steek?  I am.

I have been steeling myself, however, by reading (for the umpteenth time) Kate Davies’ fabulous series of tutorials about steeks.  If you are ever planning on surmounting the steek summit this is a must-read.  (For many knitters, the steek represents the “peak” of knitting skill – that is, until they’ve done it, and then they invariably say “Oh, that was no big deal!”  In this sense, I think it is one of the major rites of passage for knitters.)   Kate’s tutorial is so clear, and beautifully illustrated, and just makes so much sense, that even the most steek-aphobic among us will find herself thinking “I could do that!”   The series has four parts, An Introduction to Steeks, Reinforcing and cutting, the Sandwich, and Your questions answered.  The sandwich technique is, I believe, an innovation of Kate’s and is so utterly brilliant it deserves a moment of quiet contemplation.

Now, if you have managed to read though Kate’s lovely and informative steek tutorials, and you are still suffering from steek-aphobia, then I direct you here.  This is, without a doubt, the BEST, most freaking adorable, unbelievably scary post about steeks that I have ever read!  And if she can do it, then so can I!!!