A better buttonhole

The cardigan that launched my quest for a better button band

The cardigan that launched my quest for a better button band

In one of the best blog posts I have ever encountered, Techknitter discusses knitted button bands as a symptom of a delusion shared only by knitters, much like the shared delusion of opera fans. Unlike opera’s true believers, opera outsiders cannot suspend disbelief during a performance, and will see only the morbidly obese 65 year old tenor with bizarrely painted on eyebrows and a comb-over, not the 25 year old ardent lover he is supposed to be. So too, she wisely concludes, do non-knitters fail to suspend disbelief over handknits, and will see only the saggy button bands and soggy button holes we knitters ignore while we ooh and ahh over yarn choices and cabling.

As one who is no stranger to the achievement of ecstatic oneness with the universe via operatic performances, I will stick with her well-chosen metaphor, and declare that I want to achieve a Jonas Kaufmann level of hotness in my button bands. For anyone who clicked on the Jonas Kaufmann link just now, you’re welcome.

The project that started my search for a new button band was one I had made many times before – my Mary Anning.

Mary Anning

Mary Anning

I knew the pattern by heart, and since my daughter had begun to suggest she wanted a white cardigan, and I just happened to have a few skeins of a gorgeous white angora and silk fingering weight from Romni kicking around, I decided to make it yet again.

When I designed this cardigan, I wrote the pattern with a button band worked concurrently (i.e. button bands and holes worked as you go, knitting the whole thing up from the bottom). I designed it this way because the original design had a contrast colour on the cast on edge that I wanted to maintain in the button band, and, well, also because I can be very lazy. Why knit button bands if you can just do them at the same time as everything else? The best way to work concurrent button bands, of course, is to work out ahead of time how many rows the cardigan will be in your chosen size, in order to space the buttonholes evenly. However, the yarn I would be using was much lighter, and I didn’t want to bother doing a swatch in order to figure out how to alter the cardigan. You know, the lazy thing again.

So, rather than knitting the button band as I went, I decided I would pick up stitches along the fronts once I was finished, and just do a garter stitch button band. Adding to the button band requirements were the buttons themselves: Matilda wanted enormous, heavy, sparkly buttons, so I knew I would need a good sturdy button band and reinforced button hole. Who am I to deny a seven-year-old the opportunity to have enormous sparkly buttons?

At the same time, I was thinking about all the soggy button bands I had been seeing (and, only perhaps, making – the Happy Home Economist admits nothing…), so, with Techknitter’s dictum ringing in my ears, I realized this cardigan was the perfect opportunity for me to try something new. Since the button bands would be picked up and knit, if I screwed up in some way, all I would have to do would be to rip the button bands back and do them again. I had plenty of extra yarn, so I had nothing to lose by trying.

I worked both button bands straight, with no holes. After the whole cardigan was finished, with ends woven in, button bands completed, and seams seamed, I wet blocked it before getting to work on reinforcing the button bands and making the buttonholes.

I knew I would need some ribbon sewn on the inside of the cardigan to provide a sturdy platform for the enormous glittery button-like objects. I picked out a sturdy grosgrain ribbon in a lovely silvery grey, so that if the cardigan fell open there would be a nice neutral contrast colour inside. Grosgrain is generally delightfully inexpensive, which always appeals to the Happy Home Economist.

Every time I see a discussion regarding sewing ribbons to knitting, the author always suggests sewing it in by hand in order to create an invisible seam. I, however, am a terrible seamstress. After 60 minutes (which included 20 minutes of threading my needle. Apparently bifocals may be in my near future)…) of struggling and straining with my hand sewing, all I had achieved was a sore neck, sore eyes, and perhaps 2 1/2 inches of the crappiest, most uneven hand sewing I had ever seen. The stitches were so poorly done that the ribbon was sliding out of position and was slightly visible on the outside. I grabbed my seam ripper, ripped the ribbon off, and reconsidered my position.

I reasoned that, given my terrible hand sewing technique, whatever I did by hand would always be crappy. And take a million years. And (again) I’m lazy and don’t want to spend a million years sewing in ribbons by hand. The sewing machine, in contrast, would undoubtedly produce an even, secure seam, which, I decided would likely look kind of nice even if it weren’t invisible. I mean, it’s not like I am capable of creating a tidy invisible hand stitched seam anyway. So, if the seam is going to be visible despite my best efforts, then it makes sense to use the machine and make one that looks nice and is functional, regardless of the advice of whatever manuals, books and blogs had to suggest.

I pinned the ribbon on. Since the cardigan was quite stretchy and the ribbon, of course, is not, I spaced the pins fairly closely, pulling on the ribbon and the cardigan as I went. I threaded my machine with white thread to match the cardigan rather than the ribbon, since I didn’t want a noticeable thread running up the button bands on the right side. With a quick inhalation, I started up the machine, with the ribbon side facing upward. While the seams I made are not perfectly straight (as I mentioned, I am not a good seamstress), they are absolutely good enough. It looks cute on the inside, and the seam is invisible on the outside. All you see on the outside is a nice, firm straight edge that highlights the cast off stitches.

No sign of the machine sewn ribbon seam on the outside

No sign of the machine sewn ribbon seam on the outside

The next step was buttonholes, which I have never before made (again, pointing at self, terrible seamstress…). As I do every time I haul out my sewing machine, I got out the manual to figure out buttonholes. I also watched a few youtube videos on the subject, and read a few blog posts. Sewing buttonholes in knits, of course, is similar to steeking – I knew that if you sew up your knitting it will stay put when you slice into it, so I wasn’t too concerned about ruining my knitting. And again, I could always just rip out the button bands if it looked terrible.

I knit up a small swatch about the same size as the button band, sewed on a small piece of the ribbon I was using, and made a few practice buttonholes. I discovered the following issues, which may be useful information for anyone with the same lack of sewing experience:

  1. Large buttons with shanks will just pop out of automatic button hole sewing feet. I solved this by just using a large shankless button in a similar size. I tested the results by ensuring I could fit the sparkly shanked buttons through the holes I created  with the shankless flat ones.
  2. With my Janome machine, and perhaps others – I don’t know – whenever you complete a buttonhole you have to reset the machine by manually switching to some other stitch then back to the buttonhole stitch. I completely missed this piece of the instructions for an embarrassingly long time. Long enough for me to think that buttonholes were completely beyond my sewing abilities, or indeed that using a sewing machine was completely beyond my cognitive abilities.

At any rate, with those issues solved, I put a pin to mark where each button would go. The cardigan design was helpful for this – the garter stitch stripes across the yoke are equidistant, so I used those for the button holes.

The buttonholes were created with the ribbon side facing upward. After 3 lovely, firm buttonholes were created, I snipped through the ribbon and the knitting, and was soon aware that in all my years of knitting, these were the best buttonholes I had ever made. I don’t think I will ever use another method.

Finally, to secure the large shanked buttons in place, I used small flat buttons (grey to match the ribbon) sewn in position on the underside. For anyone who has never used this technique, it’s really simple and absolutely necessary in order to avoid drooping buttons. When you sew on your chosen button, simply insert the needle through the fabric – same as usual – and also through a small flat button held on the inside of the garment. Just keep sewing your button on, inserting your needle always through the inside button, the fabric, and the outer button.

The good-enough-inside seam, the delightful buttonholes, and the inside anchor buttons

The good-enough-inside seam, the delightful buttonholes, and the inside anchor buttons

Gratuitous picture of adorable child

Gratuitous picture of adorable child

 

Gratuitous picture of the cardigan and lacework. Delightful drape courtesy of Romni's silk angora fingering.

Gratuitous picture of the cardigan and lacework. Delightful drape courtesy of Romni’s silk angora fingering.

Foraging ahead

Last year, I got very excited about foraging. I had noticed a post on the facebook page for my neighbourhood, asking for help pulling out garlic mustard in our woods. Since I didn’t know what it was or what it looked like, I googled it. One thing led to another, as it often does with google searches and me: upon discovering that garlic mustard is a garlic flavoured member of the enormously nutritious brassica family, originally brought over by Europeans to, you know, eat, but now destroying native woodlands here because nobody is eating the freakin’ things, I thought it would be fun to find out what else is sitting in plain weedy view, deliciously and nutritiously awaiting consumption.

Evil garlic mustard, caught in the act of taking over a local ravine.

Evil garlic mustard, caught in the act of taking over a local ravine.

I discovered Tama Matsuoka Wong, and was soon making salads composed of purslane and lamb’s quarters. And here is an interesting fact about lamb’s quarters: while it is now considered to be only a weed, and a highly invasive one at that, it was actually cultivated by our early ancestors, and is closely related to quinoa. Next time you are pulling them out of your garden, stop and chomp on a few – I mean, if they haven’t been coated in alarming pesticides, that is. That is some seriously paleo eating. Taste-wise, lamb’s quarters are similar to spinach, and can be used interchangeably.

As for the garlic mustard, I will try it again this year. I will admit my first attempt at using it as food tasted… virtuous. And by virtuous, I mean “like the bottom of my lawn mower”. I will try it again this year – perhaps a goat cheese quiche, or smooshed up in pasta dough. Or in a kim chi. I am determined to eat my way through this invasive species.

I will post any future cooking successes I have with garlic mustard. In the meantime, however, I encourage everyone to keep these buggers in check. If you see one, pull it out! Even if you don’t eat it! They crowd out native species of plants, destroying natural habitats for flora and fauna alike.

 

Shake Your Bootie

Thoreau on spring: “This is the frost coming out of the ground; this is Spring. It precedes the green and flowery spring, as mythology precedes regular poetry. I know of nothing more purgative of winter fumes and indigestions. It convinces me that Earth is still in her swaddling-clothes, and stretches forth baby fingers on every side.”

Having purged my own winter-related fumes and indigestions, I feel it appropriate to return to work with a post on booties. What could be more spring-like than a celebration of new life?    My inspiration is my friend Andy, who has begun a project of knitting booties for babies in the hospital.  She asked me for advice on how to knit them; accordingly, I am writing up and sharing the blueprint I use for booties. This is a blueprint that has evolved over the years, becoming more and more efficient as my knitting knowledge grew. They are knit entirely in one piece, leaving you with only the first and last yarn ends to weave in.

The blueprint requires no math (other than an ability to divide by 3) and no particular yarn or needle size. Use whatever you have at hand (assuming, of course, that what you have at hand is suitable for soft tender baby toes, and that the needles you have make sense given the weight of your yarn). The booties are knit in one piece from the top down, and require only one teeny little seam up the back of the leg. They are worked back and forth, and can be knit on straight needles or circular.

WHAT YOU WILL NEED: non-itchy, soft yarn; needles (straights or circular) of a size appropriate to your non-itchy, soft yarn; one extra needle in the same size or smaller (in a pinch you can use a chopstick or any slender tapering object…); one tapestry needle.

  1. Cast on enough stitches to fit around the leg in question. In my example, I used worsted yarn and a size 5 US needle to cast on 18 stitches for a bootie that would fit a baby aged 3 – 6 months. The number will vary with your yarn, tension, needle size, and baby leg size. If there is a particular pattern stitch you wish to use for the leg, take that into account when you cast on. Make sure your cast on is reasonably stretchy. Ideally, the number of stitches cast on would be divisible by three. Even this is not a hard and fast rule, however, as will be discussed later.

    cast on as many stitches make sense for a leg circumference

    cast on as many stitches make sense for a leg circumference

  2. Work back and forth over these stitches until the length is what you want for the leg before the foot begins – later on, you will be seaming the sides together into a tube, but don’t worry about that right now. I  worked my demo bootie in garter stitch (knit every row), but of course you can use whatever pattern stitch you want: lace, ribbing, cables, colour chart, whatever. For those new to knitting, if you use stockinette (knit the right side rows, purl the wrong side rows) it will curl. The resulting rolled over brim could be a cute effect, but just be sure this is what you want.
  3. OPTIONAL: when the leg is long enough, you can add an eyelet row before you start shaping the foot. The eyelets are little holes through which you can insert a ribbon or an i-cord. For those who can read knitting abbreviations, an eyelet row would be written as k1 *yo, k2tog* rep to end. For those who do not read or speak knittingese, this means knit one stitch at the beginning of the row, then do something called a yarnover (abbreviated as YO). To do this, you just bring the yarn between your needles to the front, then lay it OVER the top of the needle in your right hand. Once it is on top of that needle, insert your right hand needle knitwise into the next TWO stitches, and knit them together. A yarnover makes a hole, as well as an extra stitch – that is why each one is balanced out with a decrease. When you get to the end of the row, if you have one stitch left over rather than two, just knit it and don’t worry about putting a yarnover in. It is probably a good idea to count your stitches again at this point – you should have the same number as when you started.
    The optional eyelet row - unnecessary, but cute and fun. Think of the ribbon possibilities...

    The optional eyelet row – unnecessary, but cute and fun. Think of the ribbon possibilities…

    Yarnover for (optional) eyelet row

    Yarnover for (optional) eyelet row

     

  4. Okay, remember how I said cast on a number divisible by three? It is time to start making the foot, and it is pleasingly symmetrical to divide the stitches into 3 equal groups –  a group for each side of the foot, and one group for the top of the foot You can totally fudge this however – just make sure the side groups are equal and then the top of the foot group can be more or less by one or two stitches. So here is what you do now:
  5. With whatever side you have facing at this point, knit across the first 2/3 of your stitches. Stop. Turn your work. Working in either garter stitch (again, knitting every row) or stockinette (knitting the right side, purling the wrong side), or your own choice of pattern stitch – the sample uses stockinette for the top of the foot but you don’t have to – work across the centre 1/3 only. Stop and turn again. In the example, I cast on 18 stitches – so that means that for this step I knit across 12 stitches, then turned and knit 6 stitches, and then kept working these 6 centre stitches over and over. Keep going, working only this group of stitches in the middle until you have created a centre strip that strikes you as being long enough to cover the top of the foot in question. Oh – for the next step you will want to pick up stitches with the right side facing you, so be sure to finish your centre strip with a wrong side row.

    Working on the centre panel to make the top of the foot

    Working on the centre panel to make the top of the foot

  6. Now that you have finished the top of the foot, it is time to pick up stitches along the side of the panel you have just created and re-connect to the sides. For the picking up stitches process, I have chosen a method that is relatively easy for non-bendy straight needles as well as circulars. OK – with the right side facing, knit across your centre panel. When you get to the end of your centre panel, gaze at the leftmost column of stiches running along the side of it. Give this left side a gentle tug, and observe the strands that connect this column to the rest of the panel. Take your LEFT needle, and insert it under one of the strands close to it. Continue to insert it under these strands, skipping one every now and again so that your left needle is basically woven through these strands. Pay attention to how many you pick up this way – you will want to duplicate this number on the other side.
    Needle is inserted into first strand to begin picking up stitches

    Needle is inserted into first strand to begin picking up stitches

    All the strands are picked up and ready to be knit

    All the strands are picked up and ready to be knit

  7. Alright – you are ready to knit down your freshly picked up stitches, so do that and then keep knitting through your neglected side stitches to the end of the row. From here on, work everything in garter stitch – no more purling. OK – now that you have finished that right side row, you need to work back on the wrong side. For those of you who say “Hey – I know I need to pick up stitches on the other side of the foot, and I know I can’t pick up stitches on the wrong side!” I say “Relax. All will be revealed, and by all I mean a method for picking up stitches invisibly on the wrong side.”
  8. So – on the wrong side knit across all your stitches to where the unpicked up cliff-like edge of the centre panel is. When you get there, turn your work so the right side is facing you. Now take your RIGHT needle, and do exactly what you did on the other side of the centre panel – pick up the strands that join the last column of stitches to the rest of the panel. Ideally you want to pick up the same number that you picked up on the first side of course, but judicious fudging by increasing or decreasing later can take care of any inequalities. Once those stitches are picked up, turn your work again so you have the wrong side facing you again. Knit across your newly picked up stitches – observe how the less-than-lovely seam from picking up stitches remains hidden on the wrong side where it belongs.

    Stitches picked up by picking up strands on the right side with the right hand needle

    Stitches picked up by picking up strands on the right side with the right hand needle

  9. This part is easy – just knit a few rows in garter stitch over all the stitches, back and forth, until you think you have a good height for the foot. This could be anywhere from, say, 3/4 of an inch to 1 inch or more.

    This looks about the right height to start shaping the bottom of the foot

    This looks about the right height to start shaping the bottom of the foot

  10. Okay, with whatever side is facing you, knit across the original side group of stitches, the picked up stitches, and ONE STITCH LESS than the centre group of stitches. Knit this last stitch together with the next stitch (through the back loop if you are facing the wrong side, and through the front loop if you are facing the right side). Stop and turn your work. Knit across your centre panel, again knitting the last stitch of this centre panel together with the next stitch, either through the back loop for a wrong side row or the front loop for a right side row. Keep doing this as you work down through the foot.
    k2tog tbl - knitting 2 stitches together through the back loops

    k2tog tbl – knitting 2 stitches together through the back loops

    K2tog - knitting 2 stitches together through the front loops

    K2tog – knitting 2 stitches together through the front loops

The bottom of the foot is taking shape...

The bottom of the foot is taking shape…

About half way down the foot, depending on how wide your bootie  is and whether you have an odd or even number of stitches in the panel, you could narrow a bit for a heel by just knitting some stitches together on the centre panel. You will need to have an EVEN number of stitches on this panel for the bind off, so be sure you decrease as necessary to have an even number on the centre panel before you get to the end. You probably don’t want to have more than, say, 6 or 4 stitches left on the centre, in order to have a nice small heel. Keep going until  the number of stitches left on the sides add up to equal the number of stitches on the bottom. For example, 3 on each side and 6 in the middle, or 2 on each side and 4 in the middle.

Here I have 3 stitches left on each of the sides and 6 left in the centre - time to bind off!

Here I have 3 stitches left on each of the sides and 6 left in the centre – time to bind off!

12. To do a 3 needle bind off of these stitches, you will need to slip the centre panel stitches to their own needle (with the yarn in position to begin knitting). Liberate the side stitches and observe how they must be joined together in order to start the seam that goes up the back of the leg. Join them on their own needle, again orienting them so that this needle is positioned to use the same yarn as the centre panel. This is easiest to do with double pointed needles, but can also be accomplished easily enough with regular needles.

The centre panel is on its own needles, and the sides are being pinched together before being slipped to their own needle

The centre panel is on its own needles, and the sides are being pinched together before being slipped to their own needle

The stitches are now lined up for binding off. Remember both needles need the same number of stitches!

The stitches are now lined up for binding off. Remember both needles need the same number of stitches!

13. OK – hold both needles parallel with each other. Insert a 3rd needle through the first stitch on the front needle AND through the first stitch on the rear needle. Pull a loop through both stitches – just like regular knitting – and pull both stitches off their respective needles. You now have one regular stitch on your right needle. Repeat with the next stitch on both needles. You now have two regular stitches on your right needle. Slip that first stitch over your second stitch, just like a regular bind off. Keep going across the remaining stitches, knitting stitches from both needles at once then binding them off. Work until your last stitch, then cut the yarn, leaving a thread long enough for seaming up the back of your bootie. Alternately, of course, you could also use a kitchener stitch to graft these stitches together instead of the bind off. Kitchener is more elegant, but I think there is something kind of fun about the chunky bind off on the booties.

Inserting the 3rd needle through stitches on both needles.

Inserting the 3rd needle through stitches on both needles.

The 3 needle bind off, completed

The 3 needle bind off, completed

The end: thread that yarn you just snipped through your tapestry needle, and begin seaming them together. Essentially, seaming is just inserting your tapestry needle up through a stitch on one side, then up through the parallel corresponding stitch on the other side. Then insert your needle up through the next stitch up on the first side, and across to the parallel corresponding stitch on the other. Remember that only one side gets the next up stitch, and the other side always gets the parallel stitch and you should be fine.

And voila – one little bootie made! I hope this post inspires you to play around with different knitting techniques, adding colour or lace or cables… or that it inspires you to join Andy in ensuring that babies in hospitals have booties!

Shaking my bootie

Shaking my bootie