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Lessons Learned

January 2, 2008

This time of year, it is not uncommon to find oneself reflecting back on the previous year and taking note of mistakes made and lessons learned. I am a visual/kinesthetic learner. Which is the educators fancy way of saying that I learn best by seeing and fouling it up doing it myself. The lessons that I have best learned are the ones that I have messed up the worst. With my knitting, I didn’t fully appreciate the value of gauge/tension until I made a Goliath-sized sweater for my tall-but-by-no-means-a-giant husband. I learned that 100% cotton doesn’t make good socks when the ones I made slouched down my ankles and into my shoes. Lessons learned the hard way stay with me for longer. That is not to say that I can’t learn anything by observation. For instance, I did learn by watching my college roommate shower a bottle of cheap wine all over our bathroom, that was obviously not a fun way to spend an evening. But for many things, I don’t really “get it” until I do it myself. Accidentally, touching that oven rack will forever remind you to use oven mitts. Trying to pick up dropped stitches in lace is a very effective way to learn the value of a lifeline.

Likewise, I learned that yarn has a personality the hard way. I had read various articles about yarn personality (i.e. what the yarn likes and doesn’t like) throughout the knitting blogosphere but I didn’t take it too seriously. But that was before I met lace weight yarns. I had done a couple of small lace projects here and there – socks, dishcloths and the like. I knew how to read a chart. So I thought I was completely and totally prepared to venture into the world of “real” lace knitting. After all, lace knitting is only knitting with holes!

So I signed up for one of those Lace-Alongs and ordered some lace weight yarn and the needles that everyone said were the best and I started knitting. I hadn’t made it very far into my project when I started having problems. The yarn was splitting and fraying and fuzzing and was really not much fun to knit. When I made a mistake, it was darn near impossible to tink. With lace, I shudder at the thought of full scale ripping. If you could actually separate the stitches in a decrease (which was quite a challenge) they were usually frayed so badly that they looked horrid. I was frustrated beyond belief, nearly in tears and ready to give up lace knitting before I had even gotten started. Fortunately, upon the advice of one of the other lovely knitters on the group, I ended up changing to a different yarn for that project and found that I had better results.

That would have been the end of the story except for two of my major character flaws traits. First, my frugal nature couldn’t bring itself to throw away something on which I had spent good money (and it is highly doubtful that anyone would pay very much for a partially knitted skein of yarn). Secondly, my stubborn streak hated to admit that I had been defeated by a skein of yarn. As an added complication, the yarn was really soft and really liked how it felt. So on a lark, I picked up the yarn and gave it a test drive on my newest needles – birch needles. I discovered that on birch needles this yarn behaved quite differently and had a completely different personality. It didn’t split or fray or fuzz so much. The difference in the results was astonishing.

At first, I thought that this was probably just because I was better at lace knitting now than I had been when I started that project. So to test this theory, I tried knitting the yarn onto that same metal needle that I have used the first time. After a few rows, I discovered that it was still a pain to knit on that needle – splitting and fraying again. So I knitted it back onto the birch needle and again the yarn was amazingly cooperative. As a final test, I deliberately tinked a few rows (even though I hadn’t made a mistake). With the birch needle, there was little problem un-knitting the stitches, even the ones that had been decreases or the dreaded double decreases. No fraying, no splitting and not dropped stitches. Unbelievable!

So I started paying attention to the combination of yarn and needle on my subsequent projects. I discovered that “sticky” yarns like cotton tend to knit better on very slick needles – nickel, for example. “Splitty” yarns tend to split less with blunt needles. And very slippery yarns work really well with wood or bamboo needles that have a little “stick” to them. So now when I have problems with a yarn, the first thing I do is try it with a different needle. It is amazing the difference it makes if the yarn likes actually the needle. I have not found yarn to be terribly brand specific but the material of which the needle is composed (metal, plastic, wood) does make a dramatic difference with some yarns. This also applies to and the shape of the point of the needle with some yarns.

So the moral of the story is this.
When you think the problem is the yarn, it might just be the needle.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Danielle permalink
    January 3, 2008 4:56 pm

    Sometimes, when I am thinking, “I’m the only one that…” I read your blog, and realize I’m not alone! Thanks and thank you also for the great reminder about needle/yarn combinations.

    The Christmas knits are so beautiful!!

  2. Emily permalink
    January 14, 2008 5:18 pm

    Great post!

    I prefer working with most yarns on bamboo needles (including cotton), but I find that not all bamboo needles are the same. Crystal Palace dpns are wonderful… and the metal join on the circulars loosens slightly as the needles age. I’ve never had a join fail, but I’ve had lots of yarns roughed up by the rough join. And I do know knitters who’ve had the join fail. Clover’s bamboo needles seem to work well for just about anything, and the join has stayed smooth so far. My LYS is now carrying a new to me brand of bamboo, and it’s got the dreaded metal join… So when I needed a needle in a hurry I went with a nice sticky metal needle with a smooth join. It ended up being the cheapest needle they had, because I knew from experience that the other choices would make me very crazy very quickly.

  3. Anonymous permalink
    January 14, 2008 8:55 pm

    As part of the yarn’s personality, I have discovered that if it does not want to be knitted into something … it will do its utmost not to be.
    Splitting, and not knitting to gauge (even though it worked at that gauge the last time you used it – on the exact same stitch!).
    Yarn can even influence the pattern. By “hiding” certain stitches – either in the written pattern, so you do not read them, or when you knit the row back. It ends up that your stitch count is off by the end of the row, and it is not possible to find where you went wrong – without ripping back to the beginning. Which is an especially good “trick” by the yarn, with lace knitting.

    Sigh. Do I sound a tad frustrated?
    (janeyknitting AT yahoo DOT ca)

  4. Tabitha permalink
    January 15, 2008 8:54 am

    At the risk of sounding incredibly mystical, I totally agree on yarn personality. If it doesn’t like the project you are working it will fight you every step of the way.

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