All posts by madaboutmenwhoknit

Fingerless Mitts – a contradiction in terms?

The jury inside my head is in turmoil.

It can see the point of leaving those sensitive fingertips available for fine movements like buttoning your coat, unzipping your fly, stirring sugar into your coffee (yuk).  But current thinking is that the most valuable aspect of fingerless mitts is the ability to raise two pink fingers at certain prominent people in world politics. But aren’t those the exact bits that get cold fastest, that need most protection from the ravages of the winter months? The extremities.

I don’t really know because we rarely get ravaged in the UK – not by winter anyway,  and it is rarely cold enough for an overcoat, let alone a pair of gloves. I realise that the above mentioned politicians doubt the existence of global warming, but the evidence appears to be right there in front of me. I wear gloves when cycling to the gym, which happens about 3 times a year in the winter months, and only when I want to drop into the pub on the way home. Otherwise I get into my car and drive. I know I’m a bad person.

This week I have worn my black leather gloves because there has been real frost on the ground. Yes – Leather. I’m vegetarian. It makes no sense. Except that I think the poor cows have been slaughtered and minced for food anyway so I might as well make use of their skins. I doubt the driving force for slaughter is leather gloves.

Anyway, woolly ones are slippy on the handlebars, and then it might me my skin they are using for gloves.

Last weekend I was at a gathering of friends. Residential. Not a reunion as such but an opportunity to reconnect with some important people. It was lovely. It was at a
“spiritual centre”, so obviously there was a line of hand-knitted gloves for sale, also lovely, alongside the muesli.

Someone there told me that he could never find any gloves to fit him as he had weird hands. Really? How so? “Well, I have quite long palms and very short fingers, so nothing ever works.” I checked, and he was right. Not weird exactly, but certainly unusual.

So, as I do, I offered to make him some. “Could I have some fingerless mitts? Some LONG ones?” Well, yes you could, and I would be delighted because knitting those wretched fingers is a pain whether you use DPN’s or Magic Loop, or whatever. Just not enough stitches to make it worthwhile turning the whole thing around multiple times.

There must be millions of patterns out there for fingerless mitts but those of you who know me will also know that I could not possibly resort to someone else’s idea of what they should look like, so I set about my own design.

First I decided to use DK weight yarn which of course involved finding a yarn store (in Cornwall – that’s a whole other story) because I have little else but sock weight in my stash.

And yes, I knitted a swatch, but still the first glove attempt had to be scrapped because it was simply too tight around the wrist. And because I was intent on doing some stranded colour work the swatch is only approximate because….well, I think fair isle knitting has a mind of its own.

Anyway, I was calm. I was sat in my home while the rest of humanity rushed about doing whatever it is they need to do to “make Christmas work”, and I was enjoying not knitting a sock for the first time in a while. I was loving the colour work. I was even loving the rapid growth of the garment on the larger needles with the heavier yarn. And then I did the thumb and worked up the hand and finished it off and realised that it would probably reach this man’s elbow, if not his armpit.

This is quite a small man. I tried very hard to hate him for his lack of middle-aged spread but the truth is he is too nice to hate and he just is rather slight. My mother would say, “Oooh, there’s nothing on him”.

Now, here’s the thing about making up your own stuff. You make mistakes. You get things wrong and you learn from them, the way people have learned about fingerless mitts for generations, but when you do it yourself you learn properly and remember.

So this attempt is wrong in many ways. I pride myself on being able to take a quick look at a person and think, “42 inch chest, 32 inch waist”. Or even “36 C bust with a slightly narrow back”. Almost always I am wrong. Not by much but, crucially, wrong.

My dear friend sent me some photos of his hand with a tape measure draped over it so I could see the exact dimensions I was aiming for.

Why, I wonder, when I was sitting at that table in the kitchen of the brown-rice-retreat-centre did I not think of grabbing his hand and measuring it? Because I looked, measured it against my own and thought, “Oh yes, I know what I have to do”.

No I didn’t. I was wrong again.

So, this one is too long in the arm department, too long in the palm, the thumb is too small, and it is altogether too lumpy. Just look at the hem around the wrist. I referred back to Elizabeth Zimmermann and realised that of course – OF COURSE – the facing has to be slightly smaller than the outside because otherwise the physics doesn’t work. So I re-made the hand hem 3 times on smaller needles and with fewer stitches until it became vaguely acceptable, but of course I can’t really do anything about the wrist (elbow/shoulder) hem because that’s where I started.

It was clear that the only course was to begin again, hoping that I have enough yarn to make 2 more mitts without pulling out the original one, which I hope to put in the LEARNING DRAWER.

So here’s the result:

I quite like them, but am I convinced?

The jury is still out, but there are more and more reasons for those 2 pink fingers.

Don’t fix what isn’t broken

This is my first blogpost for over 3 years.  There are reasons, but I won’t bore you.

I have lived with my partner for 17+ years, the majority of which time has been harmonious.  We don’t shout, we muddle along through thick and thin and we have grown accustomed to the other’s little eccentricities, of which I undoubtedly possess more than he.

One of the things he can’t help but point out to me is that I find it difficult to follow a new recipe in the kitchen without changing it.  Decades of catering for a moderately large family and an interest in many creative arts including culinary ones have given me a certain amount of knowledge and insight which I like to think I can put to good use.  And so when I try a new recipe I will sometimes….often…ok, usually if not always…..make alterations as I go along because something sounds as if it would be better if….

“Why don’t you just follow the recipe once, the first time, and then change it if you need to?”  He has a point.  Why don’t I?  Because, clearly, I think I know better.  The adult children never stop delighting in reminding me of the disaster of 1990 now known as “Cardboard Pie”.  I may simply be conceited, or it may be that I do know better, but we will never know because if I don’t change the recipe as I go along I start to twitch.

I don’t like being told what to do.  I recently knitted a pair of socks using Regia’s “Pairfect “ sock yarn.  This, for those who have yet to come across it, is a 100g ball of yarn that has a leader at the beginning and half way through the ball to tell you when you should start the second sock so as to achieve a matching pair.

I bought this yarn for one reason though – it produced 1.5cm-ish stripes in 2 colours and satisfied my desire for simple geometry.  I didn’t need the leaders.  The first thing I did was ignore the advice to cut off the leader and decided to use it as a design feature.  You will notice that the yellow leaders are not the same length in both socks, a thing I have decided to ignore since the ribbing will be somewhere up inside a man’s trouser leg and invisible to all but the most intimate of friends.

I certainly didn’t need, nor predict, that the stripe pattern would change when the ball of yarn decided it was time for me to turn the heel.  This I did not like, because I knit my socks quite long in the leg.  I just do.  I have a thing about ankle socks that are too short.  I like a good length of 2×2 rib around the cuff – about 8 cm – and then I like to turn the heel when the need grabs me, or the colours in the yarn dictate.

Anyway, I finished this pair of socks successfully, and actually I like them even though the leg is slightly shorter than I would prefer.  Good result.  But it made me a little bad tempered.

It’s a control thing.

Which brings me, finally, to the point of this blogpost.  Many moons ago – certainly more than 5 years – I attended the Knitting and Stitching Show in Harrogate, UK, and while I was there purchased some yarn that excited me at the time.  It was Noro Sock Silk Garden, and I bought enough of it in 2 different colour ways to make 2 sleeveless cardigans for myself.  Yup.  Not socks at all, because I knew better.

And the point of THAT is that I am one of those irritating men who gets very hot all the time.  Put me in a sweater made of wool with sleeves and you risk me stripping naked to cool down after 10 short minutes.  Not a pretty sight at my age, I can tell you.

So this yarn seemed perfect.  Interesting colours, a percentage of silk to replace the sweat-inducing wool, self-striping for added interest without effort.

It was a major error.  MAJOR.  I made the first jacket 3 times before giving up and putting it in the “useless” drawer.  I didn’t like the look of it before I put it on my back, but once there it added at least 20 years to my true age.  Which meant I should really be on the other side.

See what I mean?

I tried the second colour way:

Perhaps worse;  certainly no better.  Reminds me of a sad camel.  Into the drawer it went and there it has stayed for 2 house-moves.  I couldn’t bring myself to unravel it because I simply couldn’t think what to do with any of it.  And it wasn’t cheap.

Until yesterday.  It’s nearly Christmas and when I looked in my finished-object drawer full of socks I discovered to my horror that not one of them would fit my father, who has very small feet.  Actually smaller than they were 20 years ago.  Hmmm.  Note to self.

I have 3 (rather busy) days to find a gift for a man who needs nothing, wants nothing, but is repeatedly delighted with a pair of hand knitted socks from his middle son, even if said son is a bit camp.  My partner, bless him, suggested that I made my father a pair of socks slightly thicker than usual.  This is what Winnie-the-Pooh would call a VERY GOOD IDEA.  They would grow faster, the chances are my father, lacking a certain amount of vision and manual dexterity, would be able to get them on better and his feet would be warmer.  He used to get hot too.

Off to my stash.  Not a single ball of sock yarn heavier than…..well, sock weight.  Nowhere.  10,000 balls of yarn and not a single one.

But then, in the middle of the night I thought of the useless drawer.  There were many balls of useless Noro yarn, knitted up and un-knitted, that would be perfect.  Out came the 3.25mm needles.  On went 48 stitches instead of the usual 60-64, and within 24 hours a sock was almost born.

And the best/worst/most horrible realisation about all of this is…….I like it.  I absolutely like the sock that has been made from the Noro yarn intended for socks.  I like the way the colours merge, I like the density of the fabric, I like the feeling of the silk in the yarn;  still not sure about the uneven texture produced by the spin, but even that I can forgive.  I’ve never been one for the rustic feel.

And the lessons learned today?  two of them:

  1. I must write my blog.  I enjoy it, even if nobody reads it
  2. Don’t try to fix something before you know it doesn’t work.

Now, I have a drawer full of Noro Silk Garden Sock yarn – I suspect a lot of people are getting socks for Christmas.

A Suit That Fits

My green sweater is proving to be a challenge. Actually that’s not quite accurate on two counts. It’s not mine; it’s for my partner, so not exactly mine. Also not really green. Not grey either….somewhere between the two. My mother and I have always disagreed on whether something is green or not. It doesn’t matter of course and yet it seems to matter to her. Whatever, it’s a challenge. I am determined to knit this garment in the round, no seams, and equally determined that it should have a saddle shoulder. And fit properly. As is so often the case my determination gets the better of me and it would have been easier to knit all the pieces separately and sew them together, especially as I am no stranger to difficult sewing projects. In fact it would have been easier to cycle round the world whilst singing the soundtrack of Mamma Mia in Swahili. Anyway, saddle shouldered and seamless it must be and so I am now on my third go, from the underarms upwards, the first two attempts falling too short of a good fit. Encouragingly the second attempt was better than the first.

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No, I don’t want to follow a pattern. I need to do this myself.

And yes, I took measurements, knitted swatches, checked my tension, but of course measurements alone are not enough. My partner is not necessarily the same 3-dimensional shape as another man with the same measurements. He is – how shall I put this? – deep. If we were both Weetabix he would lie in the bowl flat side down with a little milk on top and I would be standing on one edge, quite dry. It’s not about weight or too much of it – it’s simply about shape.

Which brings me to my son. He came home this week for a visit. He lives overseas – in the USA to be precise – and has come over for the first time in a year. He needs a suit. Children, no matter how old they become, need something, always. Thankfully. My parents are still kicking and I’m quite sure they feel the same way about me. So we went shopping and OMG how difficult is it if you don’t fit the current fashion trend? My son is an athlete; sure he’s a big man – well over 6 feet and lots of muscle, no body fat at all, but I had no idea how difficult it could be. He is now returning to his new home feeling like a freak. We went up to a size 46 jacket and the problem is actually the same as the green sweater. The measurements are ok but the cut is hopeless. The armholes are just too small. The back is too narrow. He barely squeezes his arms into the sleeves and once there he’s stuck. He wouldn’t even be able to lift his right arm, pint in hand, to his mouth, and believe me that’s a good test. And of course once you go to a size 46 he could fit a reasonably sized sheep inside the jacket at waist level, not to mention the size 40 waist trousers that match the jacket. And when the 10th retail assistant told us that “we have a seamstress who can alter the trousers” I was ready to slap someone. Right, so you’re going take out 6 inches from the back seam and expect him to wear this outfit to an important interview with the outside seams dragging somewhere across his buttocks??? Please. Interestingly, as we were preparing to leave the final port of call, having decided that the case was hopeless, go to the pub instead, and that he might fare better across the pond where, dare I say, people CAN be larger and men CAN tend to dress more conservatively, a man the same size as my son but a little older came in and began trying on the same jackets… I was very tempted to set up a support group there and then as he desperately tried to move his upper limbs. My son dragged me out, fearing embarrassment. Quite right.

So I began looking at people walking down the street and assessing the fit of their jackets. I even stopped at cafes and bars so I could look. More than once I had to rapidly avert my gaze in case someone thought I was perving. Really not. And it’s true – everyone’s suit fits…..badly. When did we get to a point where tailored garments are supposed to behave like t-shirts? I’m working myself up into a frenzy so I’d better get back to the green/grey sweater.

There HAS to be a way of knitting this garment to fit, and I will (probably) go to my deathbed working it out if I have to. Unfortunately knitting takes a while to produce and therefore when one has to pull it all out and start again it’s rather different from undoing a fabric seam and re-sewing it. No matter. There’s more wine in the bottle, or the supermarket, and I have gone back to my tailoring roots to come up with a solution. The key, clearly, is to think 3-dimensionally. I’ll keep you posted.

If only my son was here for a couple more weeks I could have made him a suit that fits. Oh well.

I steek; therefore I am.

Although I consider myself quite a seasoned knitter, I have never steeked.  (Steeken?  Stoke?  Stoken?)  Think I’ll stick to Steeked.  Encouraged by the words of the late and great Elizabeth Zimmermann who in my mind remains, even posthumously, the fountain of all sensible knitting knowledge, I thought I would have a go.

Not wishing to teach Grandma to suck eggs, Steeking is the process of cutting through your knitted fabric in order to place a sleeve, or a cardigan front….or whatever you want to insert, the point being that you can happily knit round and round on a circular needle without having to purl very much at all or turn your work at the end of every row.  So you knit a tube and cut it to shape at the end.

It occurs to me now that it mightn’t be proper to use the “grandma sucking eggs” phrase.  I no longer know.  Is it politically abusive to Grandmas, eggs, or chickens?  If it is, I despair.  No, I mean I’m sorry.

There are many things I no longer understand.  Like fashion.  I’m old, but not so old as to want the younger generations to behave as I did, or indeed dress as I did, or do.  God forbid.  But I do wonder when fashion stopped being elegant.  In the early days of Dior and Chanel, Balenciaga and Hermes wasn’t the point to present the woman (usually the woman;  men’s fashion seemed slow to develop in the 20th century, presumably in part due to 2 World Wars and uniforms and such) in the best possible light, accentuating her good bits and making her attractive all round?

I suppose I refer to the current trend in men’s trousers (or pants as they are known across the pond and in fashion circles outside of Savile Row).  There’s the waistline of course, with which we have been living for some years now, and which should really be renamed “the groinline”; I am not the first to point out that when there is an acre of underwear on view from behind with the belt tucked nicely underneath the buttocks, the only thing holding the whole thing up is…..well, the bulge in front, if you have one.  It can’t be comfortable, which I realise fashion has not been for centuries of corsetry and starched collars.  And clearly isn’t, as witnessed by the number of times said people hitch up their trousers, only to find them settling in the same spot seconds later, requiring more hitching.  It must be like having a fly buzzing around your head.

But then there’s the whole appearance.  Can anyone find it attractive to see even a young man wearing what appears to be a bag around his nether regions with two skinny little drainpipes hanging down to the floor.  It’s hardly Physique Pictorial, is it?  And how do they get them on and off?  I guess pulling them on is ok but do they need a helper to take off their trousers at the end of the day, to peel them down so that they turn inside out?  In which case, when they turn them the right side out again don’t their arms get stuck?

And as for older men in drainpipe trousers….don’t get me started.  And by older I really mean anyone over 18.

Truly, I’m not complaining or ranting.  I’m just confused.  People can and will wear what they like but I would like to understand it better.  There are so many mysteries in life.  Perhaps this is why I repeatedly turn to my knitting for solace,  trying out techniques that are new to me in the knowledge that there is a long history of success somewhere in the background.

In one of her books Mrs Zimmermann suggested that after you had cut down the middle of your knitting for the first time you might feel the need to lie down in a darkened room for a little while.  I thought this was quite amusing until today when I discovered that she was right again.  I did indeed have to lie down.

I am a seasoned sewer as well as a knitter and so there are few mysteries of the sewing machine left to discover, but even so I worked up quite a sweat knowing that if something were to go wrong there was little hope of ever unpicking several lines of tiny machine stitches in a piece of knitted fabric.  I modified the instructions which were to use a small machine stitch, two rows of on each side of the midline.  My sewing machine, even though it must be getting on for 20 years old, comes with a triple-line stretch stitch that I thought would be perfect for the job and which I imagine was probably not available to Mrs. Z. . I also used a walking foot so as to minimise the knitted fabric stretching as it was sewn, and did 2 rows each side.

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But actually taking the scissors to it really made me sweat.  It felt very destructive, even though I sort of knew what I was doing.

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As it turns out, like so many things it was all a big drama about nothing.  I have sewn, cut, picked up armhole stitches and am knitting again.  I can’t imagine ever knitting an armhole in two pieces again.  No doubt next week I’ll be saying to someone, “Oh, if I were you I would just steek it”.

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Now, perhaps I’ll take a trip to Gap and find some drainpipe stretch jeans.

Let’s begin

I have been playing around with the idea of writing a blog for far too long. My resistance has taken many forms – denial, refusal, inadequacy, defeatism, IT confusion; but in the end the idea won’t go away and so here it is. My first blog on my very own website.

I am a letter-writer, in the old-fashioned sense. I love nothing better than to fill my fountain pen with ink, changing the colour frequently, find some lovely stationery, and compose a letter to someone I love. I even like sealing the envelope (especially if you have to lick it to make it stick), placing a stamp in the exact spot in the top right hand corner – although sadly stamps no longer have to be licked – and taking it to the lovely red post boxes still in existence throughout the UK. Are they still red in Scotland and Wales? Now I have doubts. Apologies to those concerned if they are necessary. Anyway, the point is made. Neat little packages all meant for one special person.

I realise that I am rather odd. The longer this life goes on the odder I seem to be becoming. While in the USA recently for an extended period I tried very hard to find paper to write letters on. Virtually impossible, especially if you want LARGE sheets. Clearly I am destined to become an extremely eccentric older person, should I live that long. Years ago some of my children did a USA West Coast music tour with their school band and I made sure there was a letter waiting for them at each port of call, thinking……actually not thinking about it at all, just doing it because it’s what came naturally. The kids and their friends still mention it occasionally and there’s a part of me that thinks it strange that other parents didn’t do the same.

So, having used every avoidance tactic known to man – I’m still doing it….so far today I’ve cut the lawn, been to the supermarket, even defrosted the freezer for God’s sake….I am finally, FINALLY writing my first post. And the bottom line of the resistance? What have I possibly got to say that would be of any interest to anyone else? And to take that thought further, what makes me so conceited as to think I should publish anything on the internet? And yet here I am doing it – and for this I blame a very lovely friend from, alas, the other side of the pond who writes one of the most entertaining blogs I have read. Queer Joe’s Knitting Blog. He says somewhere – and these are my words taken from his general thought – that he writes his blog because he wants to write it and if anyone at all reads it that’s a bonus. Such elegant simplicity of thought makes me want to spit. So thank you Joe for your unwitting encouragement..

Joe has, for the last few years, orchestrated a Men’s Knitting Retreat in upstate New York which I have had the pleasure of attending on two occasions….or is it 3? I can’t remember how old I am so numbers escape me. Whatever. This event enabled me to “come out” as a male knitter. This may be hard for people to understand but believe me when I say that being a man and enjoying knitting is a guilty secret of the highest order. When I first walked into a room filled with men quietly knitting I thought, “This is weird”. Closely followed by, “WTF am I doing here?” By the time the first sweat of anxiety had subsided – about 7 minutes – I was part of the family and the guilty secret was out, gone, forgotten. Now I knit everywhere. On the Tyne and Wear Metro. On planes and buses and in coffee shops. Any time and anywhere I have a few minutes to wait, I knit. I was sat outside a coffee shop in town just the other day and a woman at the next table said, “It’s not often you see a man knitting.” I was unsure how to respond. I think I said, “Oh, we’re everywhere,” which she clearly didn’t understand or believe. Now of course I have composed any number of replies ranging in tone from polite acceptance to downright abrasive. The truth is – and this has been documented over and over again – there is rarely a negative response. Occasionally there is a condescending one, but even this is usually well-meant. Most people simply let you get on with it. I have already rehearsed my response to a negative comment which, in my fantasy, comes from a younger male yet to come to terms with his sexuality……but it is, and I think this comes from a story told about the late British actress Irene Handl, “I think you’re mistaking me for someone who gives a F…” Sorry if that offends – am I allowed to use rude words on a blog? Joe does.

So there I am knitting all over the place, perhaps hoping in a tiny way that perhaps one little person might see me and think, “that’s cool – I think I’ll do that”. It helps that I knit socks. Not exclusively, but frequently. They are portable and fit nicely into a man bag. (I got over the guilty secret of wanting a man bag decades ago). They’re quick and small and you don’t HAVE to knit the second one straight away. Any tendency towards adult ADD is helped by the ability to have 10 pairs on the go at any one time. By the time you get around to the second sock in a pair you’ve forgotten all about the first one and so the colours and the textures are new all over again. And sock yarn comes in lovely colours that change all by themselves as you knit!

And the joy of turning a good heel!! Those little stitches just do exactly what you want them to and the engineering is such a wonder every time I do it. The tube turns a corner and the lines of decreases mirror one another in the most satisfying way. And then you’re on the home stretch aiming for the toe which finishes in the most glorious manner with a little row of Kitchener stitch that just vanishes into your knitting like a puff of fairy dust.

OK. Breathe. See how the passion takes over?

I rarely get to keep my socks. Someone along the way expresses an enthusiasm that I cannot ignore and so they all go to good homes, but the ones I have managed to sequester into my sock drawer are quite the most comfortable socks I have owned. Sometimes I purposely begin a pair in pink because, being my favourite colour (I told you I was a bit odd, but actually I think many men look good in pink if only they can get over the feminine thing), I find it easier to resist giving them away. My need overshadows that of anyone else is what I’m really saying.

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Also on the go is a sweater that needs to be partly unpicked and re-sized, being my first realistic attempt at designing a garment from scratch:

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a new foray into fair isle attempting two-handed colour knitting….that is with one colour “thrown” from the right hand and the other held in the left hand, continental style:

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not quite on the needles but on the computer grid is an attempt at a “comedy Christmas Sweater”….more on that in another post; and also not on the needles but very much in my head, more projects than you can poke a stick at.

Oh, and I’ve just ordered another 4 books on various knitting-related things. I think I need a new bookshelf now.