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Sheepless knitting guidelines

Alternatives  |  CalculationsCreativity  |  Pioneers  |  Sweater  Enjoy!

Yarns are all different!

Therefore you should make adjustments if you want to follow a knitting pattern which is actually written for a different yarn.  Of course your yarn must be the same 'weight' - double knitting, chunky etc - and then you should knit a little square to check the tension (gauge) so that you can use the appropriate size needles for the tension of the pattern. 

But having said that, every yarn behaves slightly differently and for absolutely perfect results you should really follow a knitting pattern designed for the specific yarn, or make up your own pattern.  This is because the finished project may have a different 'feel' and may 'hang' differently from the one pictured on the pattern, or it may not be as warm, even if you have chosen the appropriate size needles for your yarn and your style of knitting. Personally I don't worry too much about perfection and I've found that with a bit of common sense things usually work out satisfactorily.

Alternatives to wool
(and to alpaca - and cashmere (goat) - and angora (rabbit) - and silk (caterpillars) - and camel)

On the whole, non-wool garments are more shrink-resistant than wool (so you can't use them to make felt!).  Non-wool yarns are often spun from a mixture of fibres.

James Brett Cotton OnCotton
can be a bit harsh to knit with if it's tightly spun dish-cloth quality, but there are many other varieties now and new cottons and acrylic mixes are being developed which are softer. Cotton is a crisp sort of a yarn and gives a good definition to knitted stitches so it is a good yarn to use to show off fancy patterns like cables.
It is very good at absorbing water and so it's perfect for  dishcloths and washcloths. Also, a cotton garment will not usually 'pill' and is very hardwearing. If you want to knit 100% cotton, choose a good quality yarn, otherwise the garment might droop after washing. Cotton which is not mercerized (treated chemically and mechanically) is without a 'sheen' and is great for holding natural dyes but a bit rough to knit with.

Pictured right is Cotton On by James Brett, a good value mix of cotton and acrylic which is very nice to knit with and has the better qualities of both fibres.  The synthetic fibres allow the knitting to stretch and bounce back, make it lighter, and help it to dry more quickly.

will make a garment which will not lose its shape in washing and it is nice to knit with.  The garment will not 'pill'. It will hang beautifully but will crease with folding. It is not particularly smooth to handle but makes a hard wearing breathable garment that improves with washing.

Bamboo has similar qualities to linen, is beautifully smooth to knit with and is great for socks, being smooth and lightweight.  Like the other plant fibres it holds its shape very well, which makes it a good choice for bags and cushion covers.

Hemp is not smooth to knit with but the finished product has lots of character.  It is very strong and suitable for bags and homewares.

Rayon and nylon (polyamide)
n blended yarns are nice and smooth to knit with and give stretch to the finished garment.

Polyester is another synthetic and it can nowadays be spun from recycled plastic (PET). It is light, smooth and durable and often used in a yarn mix to give those qualities.

Stylecraft Special chunky Acrylic and other synthetics each behave differently and some are more flexible and bouncy than others.  Cheap acrylics will often 'pill' and won't look good after a few washes.  Usually, don't iron acrylics except very lightly with just a warm iron. Acrylics and blends are generally the yarn of choice for everyday knitting, but don't buy very cheap acrylics to knit garments for adults.  Stylecraft Special is an affordable acrylic with a good range of colours and good reviews.  Hayfield Bonus is another reliable acrylic. One or the other of these is often available in local shops.


For warmth

... choose a chunky yarn, preferably a mix of fibres or good quality acrylic, and a pattern with a depth such as a cable, garter stitch or ribbing.  You could also knit to a closer gauge than recommended on the label, and find a pattern to match. Fuzzy yarns will also give warmth.

Always follow the manufacturer's washing instructions and if you can't be bothered with hand washing, don't buy the yarn that says you should.

Have a look for online reviews such as on Amazon, to learn more about a particular yarn you want to use .


Having chosen a yarn of similar gauge to the one in the pattern you are going to knit,  you may not need the amount of yarn stated in the pattern because naturally some yarns are heavier than others.  Wool and cotton are quite heavy yarns and the synthetics are comparatively light.  If moving from wool to acrylic, you will usually need less yarn by weight (but  not by total length) and you probably won't go far wrong if you buy the same amount of yarn recommended in the pattern - you can then add any leftovers to your stash.  So you may wish to ignore the next paragraph!

To calculate how much  yarn you need to buy when working from a pattern not designed for that yarn, the strictly correct way would be to look at the number of balls required by the pattern when using the correct yarn.  You then look at the label on that 'correct' yarn (in the shop or online) to find out the actual length of yarn there is in the ball.  Then you multiply the number of balls needed in the pattern by the length of yarn in the ball, so that you then know the length of yarn needed for  your pattern (calculator needed!).  Then you divide the length needed for your pattern by the length of yarn given on the label of your own yarn, and there you should have an approximation of the number of balls you will need.  In a good wool shop, the owner or assistant should be able to do this for you.  In fact you will nearly always have a good chunk of yarn left over (that's why expensive yarn usually comes in smaller balls).

Or you could just guess.  If the worst came to the worst and you and the shop ran out, you are almost certain to find another supplier online.  The dye lot might be different but with mass produced yarns nowadays I believe you would be hard pressed to tell the difference in the finished garment.

Being creative

I think a bit of ingenuity, and often guesswork, is a good thing in knitting (as in baking and cooking sometimes)  Generations of women have slavishly followed knitting patterns and many of them I suspect haven't ever thought of dreaming up their own projects except for the simplest things like scarves and dishcloths-  which are excellent beginner's projects and fun to knit and to use, especially when you've made them unique to yourself.

I do know the pleasure of following a pattern and seeing the work grow, spurred on by the glorious vision of the photo on the front page. And I often enjoy the feelings of comfort and reassurance that can come with it, because knitting should be relaxing, after all.

Fifty years ago it was mainly men who designed the patterns and women who knitted them up. How times have changed!  There are now zillions of professional  women knitting designers, and I'm sure lots of non-professional women design their own garments from scratch and make things like toys and accessories that they have dreamed up themselves. 

Modern pioneers

For showing us how to knit garments, Elizabeth Zimmerman was a pioneer in getting us to undersand the principles of the garment design, rather than blindly following a pattern without quite realising what's going on. She mostly knits sweaters on one large circular needle, which is an eye opener if you haven't done that before. Her books are still being reprinted so have a look online for reviews. And for understanding socks, Ann Budd's Getting Started Knitting Socks is literally the only source I have come across for describing the process properly, rather than just telling you what to do (there are some tables you can find elsewhere and on the internet that tell you how many stitches needed for each size foot, but they don't usually tell you how to work out the right number of stitches for yourself). There are lots of wonderful books on knitting out there, but Ann Budd's socks book is one I would certainly recommend if you fancy knitting socks - bearing in mind that socks are not for the absolute beginner.  Oh and if you want them, Ann Budd's book does give exact patterns for socks of all sizes,  so if you wish you can start off being told what to do before going it alone.

   Sock book                 Zimmerman

I love looking at knitting patterns, but partly on principle I rarely follow them exactly.  For the sort of quick and easy knitting that I like (the sort you can do whilst watching a film or listening to the radio) a fairly plain pattern is desirable.  Also, once the skill of knitting is familiar, the way is open for designing your own patterns. 
Frugal sweater
To design an item from some yarn you already have, look at the label to find out what tension (gauge) is best for this yarn, and what size needles are recommended.  Have a go at knitting a small sample with the recommended needles, just in case your knitting is unusually loose or tight, in which case you should change needles to a smaller size if you tend to knit loosely and to a larger size if you are a tight knitter.  Then, you decide how large you want the item to be and from that you work out how many stitches you need on the needle in order to achieve the right size. You can see how this works by designing a simple scarf or bag to the exact size you want. 

Before you start to make anything more ambitious you will need to know how to knit, purl, cast on and cast off, and you should be able to make fairly neat stocking stitch and rib stitch.  For most sweaters you will also need to know how to pick up and knit stitches from a finished section of the work, for instance for the neckline of a sweater.  If you are a new knitter it's probably best to get hold of a simple pattern to follow for the first time you knit a sweater, so that you can see how it all works.

A very simple sweater

It's a good idea to draw out on paper the item you want to make - if you are a beginner and you are designing a sweater, make it with a basic 2
rectangles for back and front and two rectangles for the sleeves.  Mark on  your drawing the number of stitches and the length for each section and then work from your diagram rather than from row by row instructions. 
sampleJust to give you an idea, the photo on the left shows a pattern I sketched for a child's simple sweater that's been in my box for more than 20 years. I checked my gauge and made it according to the exact size of the child in question, of course!
I worked with the same principle for the multicolour sweater in the photo above. The back is simply a rectangle drawn in slightly at the bottom edge by starting with a few rows of rib. Leave stitches on a stitch holder or spare needle for the centre back neck. For the front (unless you want a slash top which I don't find comfortable) stop when you've knitted almost the whole length of the front to the shoulders and work out where you need to cast off stitches for the neckline at centre top front. At this point you knit each side separately, leaving the stitches of one side on a holder and decreasing stitches on the neck edge until you reach a line drawn down from the outside edge of the neck. You complete that side of the front with just a few rows which will take you to the same length as the back. Later you will sew together just one shoulder seam at first, then pick up stitches around the neck to make the edge you want (a few rows of plain rib or curled up stocking stitch are easy and nice). 

You will most likely want the sleeves to start off fairly narrow and increase as you work towards the top (but then you may want floppy sleeves...) Start off the sleeves and body sections with smaller needles and an inch or two of rib to give some structure.  That's the way to make a basic sweater with 'drop' sleeves.  That's the way I made the 'frugal' multicoloured sweater on the knitting page.  But rather than studying this paragraph you may prefer to look closely at a similar knitted garment and work out what needs to be done!

There are various ways of setting in sleeves, but actually I prefer the look of 'raglan' sleeves, and they also take up less yarn (which also means less time)  Rather than going to the bother of working out the raglan decreases from scratch I have got into the habit of using a couple of basic patterns I already have.  I have one for double knitting and one for chunky yarn, and off I go, making my own adaptations, which you will be able to read about on the knitting pages. You can see that neither of my patterns is quite state of the art...  I'm actually adapting the ancient cardigan pattern at the moment for a light green summer cardigan I'm knitting for myself, which has been on the needles since last summer but which was overtaken by more Urgent Knitting.


Knitting Madonna
Knitting has been practised since ancient times and you can tell by the expression on the face of the Knitting Madonna that it can be an enjoyable activity and one that can sometimes be done
at the same time as an activity that doesn't need all of our attention (but not usually whilst looking after an active child!)

As well as having masses of different yarns to choose from these days, we now have an abundant choice of needles too (bamboo, wood, steel, plastic, and probably others). If you are looking for someone to knit for, or if you  just want to make something small, there are many charities you can knit for (see links). You may even want to sell your work online, on ebay or etsy or via your own website.

If you want to join a knitting community, there may be a knitting / craft group near you, and online there are lots of knitters' forums - and of course there's always the world of blogland where there are some very nice people.

(painting by
Meister Bertram von Minden c1345-c1415)

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