That’s the back of a full-sized couch with my shawl spread over it.
Just in time for it to stop being shawl and sweater season, I finally finished the knit shawl I have been working on since January. It’s only my second/third (second to start, third to finish) serious knitting project ever, so there were some hitches along the way, but I am all kinds of happy with the result. Despite being unable to wear it for more than ten minutes at a time because it is too warm out.
The design is supposed to look like a red-wing blackbird’s wing, with a vivid red bar set in black. What can I say, I was feeling nostalgic for the marshy woods that I rambled through as a child, and all the lovely critters therein. If I could knit a bard owl’s hoot or a mourning dove’s song you better believe I would. Anyway, I chose to use a dark gray instead of glossy black for the bulk of it and omit the smaller yellow bar because what am I going to do with the leftover yellow yarn? I also wanted to do lace and wanted to play with way oversized needles in sock yarn; I don’t remember why but I regret nothing.
I wrote up a PDF pattern for Ravelry, so I’ll post that here as well: blackbird shawl. More than the pattern itself, though, I want to document the drafting process here, along with what I learned.
The pattern started with a design inspiration in my head, rather than with yarns in front of me, so hitch #1: I went to the yarn store and I found myself some dark-grey (well, more on that later) sock yarn, but I could not find a single skein of bright red yarn in the shop. That may be a lie, there may have been some cheap acrylic stuff in bright red, but nothing of remotely the right weight or in decent fibers. Fortunately I had a fall-back plan: red wool-blend something or other left over from crochet scarf experiments I made in the tenth grade. Unfortunately it wasn’t the same weight as my beloved serenity sock weight yarn, so: hitch #1. I decided to roll with it, see how it went, and resign myself to maybe frogging the thing after a few rows and trying something else.
Hitch #2: when I got home and started entering the project on Ravelry, I noticed that the colorway of the dark-gray yarn, instead of being “charcoal” as I had assumed (having worked with the charcoal colorway of the same yarn before), it was “navy”. To me, there was not a trace of blue in the yarn, but when I went to show this ridiculous colorway name to a friend, he guessed right away it was navy and insisted it was a slightly grayish blue. I’ve shown it to a couple more people, and some of them agree with me, and some of them agree with him. Depending on lighting conditions, too, some photos appear more blue than the yarn does in life, but some appear perfectly gray. I am torn between thinking the friend is silly and wondering if there is some strange dye in the yarn that hits different people’s eyes differently. Anyway, it’s a hitch in that it’s not going to look anything like a blackbird to the people who see blue in it, but the friend likes how it looks anyway, so only a minor hitch.
Hitches aside, I set to gauge-swatching and drafting. I settled on size 10 needles, which gave me 21 st and 22 rows to 4″ in stockinette. Measuring around my shoulders gave a desired length of 40″, and from shoulder past my elbow gave a desired width of 15″. I decided to work the shawl sideways so I could change the length on the fly, and this pattern (ravelry) inspired me to work in trapezoidal repeats, making the bottom edge of the shawl twice as long as the top edge. The 15″ width gave me 79 stitches as a starting number for my cast-on. The trapezoidal pattern, though, and my plan to work in lace because stockinette would bore me to death, puts some restrictions on the cast-on.
Gauge swatch, materials and my thinkin’ notebook.
First, I was thinking about lace. I’ve found that basically all lace in knitting comes down to yarn overs, which make a hole, and decreases of various sorts, which make up for the fact that yarn overs are increases. One of the simplest lace patterns you can do is yarn-over, knit-2-together, slip-slip-knit, yarn over, separated from each other by some number of knit stitches. It’s symmetrical, it’s easy once you get the hang of the ssk, and it looks good just by itself. After making a couple of different swatches, I settled on separating the lace motifs by 6 knit stitches (or 3 on each side), purling every wrong side stitch, and offsetting every other right-side row so the lace motifs were centered between the lace motifs of the previous row. This gave me a couple more starting numbers to work with: the shawl had to be a multiple of 10 stitches wide, plus maybe a couple buffer stitches on the ends, and a multiple of 4 rows (2 right-side and 2 wrong-side) long.
Second I needed to think about my trapezoids. I planned to do some number of full rows, then the same number of short rows, decreasing evenly in length. This wanted to be a multiple of my lace repeat, and 4 each just seemed like too few, so I went with 8 full rows and 8 short rows. To decrease evenly from the full row to the shortest short row, this meant that my cast-on had to be a multiple of 8+1=9 stitches. I took my starting number of 79 and rounded up to 9×9=81. This also went well with my lace motif of 10 stitches; I added one stitch of buffer at the top, and didn’t have a lot of dead space like I would’ve with 9 buffer stitches.
General rule for a repeating-trapezoid shawl: choose some even number, N, of full rows and make the same number of short rows. If your cast-on is X stitches, each short row should be X/(N+1) stitches shorter than the previous row, and the last short row should be X/(N+1) stitches long. This includes the wrong-side, purl rows: coming back, slip X/(N+1) stitches before you begin purling so that the row of new stitches will be shorter. This means that ideally X will be a multiple of N; otherwise you will have to fudge things a bit.
Hitch #3: you may notice my lace motif length (10 stitches) and my short row length increment (81/9=9 stitches) are not the same. This means that some short row ends fall in the middle of lace motifs and some fall at the edges, which doesn’t work if the last stitch of a row is a yarn over. So some finessing and replacing lace by knit stitches is required.
I had to figure out how the lace interacted with the trapezoids, and I decided to keep it fairly simple: if I could fit a full repeat of the lace in a group of short rows, I would; otherwise, I’d replace it throughout the group with knit stitches. So, in the first short row of the first group of 4, there’s 72 stitches, meaning 7 lace repeats, but the fourth short row has only 45 stitches, meaning only 4 repeats. Actually I fudged this one a little and made it 5. The last short row has only 9 stitches, so there shouldn’t be any lace repeats in this one, but again I fudged it on the first row of the group and made one. The third short row of each group has one fewer repeat, just like in the full rows. The goal was to not have sections where a lace row #1 followed a lace row #1 without a lace row #3 in between, as well as to avoid ending the row and turning the work in the middle of a yarn over.
Work in progress: one trapezoid and the next two full rows done
Last I needed to figure out my colorwork. I didn’t want to mess with floats, my tension is very bad, but I wanted the red bars to be fully enclosed by the dark gray. So I put the red on the insides of the short rows, where I could keep the main color yarn down at the bottom edge, and the full rows (and longer short rows; I only put the red on the second set of 4) would enclose the top edge. I switched colors on the 5th stitch, which fell between the k2tog and ssk of the lace motif and gave a pretty good width.
Hitch #4: short rows. I don’t actually know much about short rows, or rather I started this project before looking up how to do them correctly. If you are interested, go to youtube for some great tutorials. So I didn’t realize that short rows were more involved than just, y’know, doing some number of stitches and then turning the work and coming back—turns out doing this leaves some holes in your work. Ah well, I’m doing a lace pattern anyway, a couple extra holes don’t matter.
Hitch #5: also short rows. I’m not actually sure how you’re supposed to do shallow trapezoids like I wanted in knitting. Maybe you just shouldn’t do it. Maybe you are supposed to do slip stitches like I did, but leave this great long float behind the work. I decided to weave the float into the slipped stitches, alternating whether the yarn is in front or in back. I am not entirely pleased with how it came out, since it creates these stark vertical lines in the shawl, but happier than I would have been with any of the alternatives I could think of.
So, I started working: 81 stitches cast on, 8 full rows of lace, 4 short rows in gray, 4 short rows with red. Repeat, working the first full row straight into all these abandoned stitches and slipped stitches built up on the needle. Repeat 29 more times, worrying sometimes that I didn’t have enough yarn and sometimes that I had too much and would have an awkward amount left over. This is three months of intermittent work I’m eliding here, by the way. Run out of yarn on the second short row of a set, work backwards to pull out the two short rows, cast off. Now it’s time for blocking.
Now, I’ve never blocked anything before, but I had done my research, so I (thoroughly cleaned my bathroom sink and) gently washed my precious precious shawl in warm water and a little detergent and laid it out on all the clean towels in my house. By the way, 35″x60″ bath towels are like, the best thing humankind has invented to date. I was prepared with some sewing pins, since I don’t have fancy blocking tools, and somewhat worried that they’d rust all over my precious precious shawl, and ended up not using them because it lay flat and shape-able quite well just with the weight of the water and friction with the towel.
I hadn’t done enough research to be prepared for quite how much it stretched out. Call this hitch #6. I did my gauge swatches, but didn’t want to waste yarn or time, so I didn’t block them. Mistake! So suddenly my made-to-fit shawl had expanded by 20%+ in each dimension and wasn’t really made-to-fit any more. Compare the two pictures at right, before and after blocking; before shows my elbows and after overhangs them by a ways. Good thing I like oversized snuggly things. I am not sure if this is a property of lace in general, or if my way oversized needles contributed. In any case, I am going to consider this another in a long line of lessons to me about taking my time at the beginning of projects, similar to all the sewing projects I didn’t pre-wash and then could only wear once because they shrunk in the first washing. Yes, that took more than one instance for me to learn it. Anyway, the shawl is not too huge, even stretched, it is just larger than I intended.
Wrong side, not as pretty as the right side but not too bad either
Hitch #7, the final hitch. I had been carrying the red yarn along behind the work between sections, catching it in the thread every second row, because I hate cutting yarn before the project is finished, and I would rather carry it along than have to weave in ends or make lots of knots. I was planning to leave it this way—the floats were tidy and pretty much invisible behind the gray—until I blocked it! Blocking the lace made it pretty much functionally transparent. Plus, somehow it had never occurred to me that in a shawl, the wrong side is going to be pretty visible a lot of the time, and my floats were tidy but not that tidy. So I went through clipping the red thread between wedges, tying it off, and weaving in the ends, and now am much happier with how it looks both from the right and wrong sides.
Anyway, despite all the hitches along the way I am quite pleased, and will be wearing this a lot just as soon as the colder weather comes back.