Fruit of the twine

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kNIP – Knitting In Public

Posted by yarnberry on June 7, 2007

This Saturday is World-Wide Knitting in Public Day.

To be honest, every day is Knitting in Public day for me. I have a long bus ride to work/school, and it’s a great time to work on a project.

Some people have theorized that knitting in public can be a feminist statement1, a way of rebelling against the way feminine pursuits have been sequestered in the home, or reclaiming the value of traditionally female work2. I like that idea, but if I’m honest, I have to admit that I started knitting in public because it never occurred to me that people would find it weird. After all, plenty of people read in public.

I hadn’t bargained on knitting’s antiquarian reputation. Debbie Stoller has said that when she started knitting on the bus, she “might as well have been churning butter, it was so strange” to the other passengers1. Friends who live in bigger cities have told me that KnIP doesn’t attract too many stares on the subway anymore, but I guess the movement hasn’t arrived here yet. People are constantly surprised to see someone my age knitting or crocheting. I get a lot of comments — especially lately when I’ve been knitting socks. There’s something about those size 00 dpns that people find fascinating.

Unfortunately for me, one of the reasons I knit in public is because I’m a bit of an introvert. I like to zone out with my knitting or crochet project and ignore the crowded bus around me. I never know what to say when people ask me about my knitting, especially when it’s one of those “hey the sky is blue” comments like “wow, those are really small needles!” (“Yes, yes they are”) or “Why are you knitting with more than one colour?” (“Because the pattern has stripes”).

I know that people are just trying to be friendly and make conversation, but I don’t seem to play well with strangers. This leads to a lot of awkward, knitting-filled pauses. I hope this kNIP thing catches on soon, so I won’t stand out so much.

  1. Brown, J. (2001). Do it yourself. Salon.com.
  2. Minahan, S. and Wolfram Cox, J. (2007). Stitch’nBitch: Cyberfeminism, a Third Place and the New Materiality. Journal of Material Culture 12(5)

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Knitting, math, and rules of thumb

Posted by yarnberry on May 20, 2007

Recently I have been reading about the history of knitting (more to come on that in future posts). Looking at the gorgeous, intricate sweaters that were knitted by ordinary people in earlier centuries makes me wonder: how on earth did they design these sweaters without a hefty dose of algebra and geometry, let alone long division and multiplication tables? Personally, it takes me graph paper and a calculator to design a sweater or to alter a pattern for a different size.

I discussed this with my dad over brunch the other day, and he suggested that many craftspeople in earlier eras used simple “rules of thumb” to figure out problems like what angle to set a roof at — problems that without the rule of thumb would involve complex mathematics.

I had a little fun today, googling “rules of thumb” to find some modern guidelines for knitting and crochet:

  • To get a neckline to lay flat, knit 2 stitches together in first round at each shoulder (here)
  • When knitting with ribbon yarns, use smooth, blunt needles (here)
  • When substituting the yarn used in a pattern, wool can substitute for cotton, but cotton does not substitute well for wool, especially in cabled patterns (here)
  • If a social function requires you to hold a cup of tea or a martini, it is best not to knit (here)
  • The fuzzier the yarn, the harder it is to crochet with (here)
  • To pick a needle size for knitting with handspun, select a needle that is the same thickness as two strands of the yarn lightly twisted/plied together (here)
  • Crochet requires 30% more yarn than an equivalent knitted pattern (here)
  • You can determine the double-stranded gauge of a yarn by multiplying the yarn gauge by 0.72 (here)
  • Hold your crochet hook like a pencil for precision and control, or like a knife for looser tension (here)
  • And my favourite: If it serves no purpose, don’t do it (here)

Most of those don’t sound like the kind of rules of thumb that would allow you to design a fair isle sweater “off the cuff” though (haha).

And here are some knitting books with rules of thumb. I’m not aware of any similar books aimed at crocheters, although you can apply many of the techniques as long as you account for the different height and width of crochet stitches.

More to come on this…

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What is mercerized cotton, anyway?

Posted by yarnberry on May 16, 2007

One of my students asked me this in class, and I didn’t know the answer. Now I do.

Mercerized cotton is chemically treated to make it strong, silky, and more receptive to dyes. The cotton is treated, usually with lye (sodium hydroxide), while it is under tension. Then it is washed with water and acid.

The mercerization process was invented in the 19th century by John Mercer, an Englishman. Mercer (1791-1866) was a dye chemist, a handloom weaver, and a calico printer. He invented a number of weaving devices and dyes, including special orange dye used for calico fabrics. At age 59, he perfected a mercerization process using lye, sulphuric acid, and zinc chloride. His process did not become popular at the time because the chemicals were expensive and the treated fabric shrank by about 25%. Apparently he patented the process in 1850, but I haven’t been able to find the patent online.

Later, the German inventors Richard Thomas and Emmanuel Prévost discovered that if the process was done with the fabric under tension, it would not shrink and would become even more lustrous than with the original process. The charming illustration below is from their 1898 US patent application.

Freeman, M. S.  (1997).  "mercerize." A New Dictionary of Eponyms. Oxford Reference Online: Oxford  University Press
"Mercer, John 1791-1866."  (1997).  Chambers Biographical Dictionary, 6th ed. Chambers Reference Online: Harrap Publishers Ltd.
"mercerize, v."  (2005).  In McKean, E (Ed.), The New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd Ed. Oxford Reference Online: Oxford University Press.
"mercerization, n." (2001).   OED Online: Oxford University Press.
Thomas, R. & Prévost, E. (1898). U.S. Patent No. 600,827. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

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