The Countess of Landsfeld

The Countess of Landsfeld: a lace shawl for those who don’t enjoy or have not yet tried knitting lace, or who struggle with the wearability of shawls.

Worn like a cozy, cozy scarf

Worn like a cozy, cozy scarf

countess of landsfeld back shawl (2)

Worn like a cozy, cozy shawl

Like many people, I do much of my knitting in public. I have a large handbag, and whenever I have a few minutes free I get knitting. Sadly, this situation means that anything requiring concentration generally gets neglected.  As a result, my designs lately reflect a goal of creating garments that look complicated (because I am apparently very, very needy and adore astonishing people with my mad knitting skillz), but are actually really simple – easy enough to do while yelling “Clear! Clear! HONEY YOU’RE OFFSIDE!!!” (ask a Canadian) or while watching subtitled Norwegian thrillers (Hodejegerne – fun movie! Watched while working on the Countess! Even the scenes with the astonishingly handsome Nikolaj Coster-Waldau were watched while knitting!).

The Countess of Landsfeld Shawl is the happy result of my attention-deficit and attention-seeking knitting. It is named in honour of Eliza Gilbert, a woman who famously took shortcuts to get what she wanted. Lola_montezRather than submit to her 19th century choice of either a suitable marriage or genteel poverty, she ran away from family and convention, changed her name to Lola Montez, and presented herself to the world as a Spanish dancer – despite not speaking Spanish or, apparently, being much of a dancer. She blazed across the theatres of Europe, Australia, and America, counting among her admirers and lovers King Ludwig of Bavaria, who was so smitten that he ignored all advice and gave her the title of Countess of Landsfeld. Well, yes, this granting of a title did indeed lead to his eventual abdication, and, well, yes, the revolution of 1848 too, but my point is this: taking short cuts and breaking rules can sometimes be a really efficient means of getting what you want.

The Countess of Landsfeld is a celebration of shameless knitting shortcuts. The short cuts begin at the bottom with a no-tail long-tail cast on (never guesstimate your long tail ever again), and a traditional lace pattern – a 4 row variant of feather and fan – that forms its own scalloped edge, so you don’t have to fiddle about with more than one lace. This lace consists of a repetition of 3 rows of easy-peasy stockinette and one simple, rhythmic, unchanging row of repeated yarn overs and decreases. Well, yes, stockinette in which every 14th stitch is always knit or purled through its back loop – but it’s still easy. Afraid of missing that stitch? Use stitch markers – easier still.

Close up of lace detail, and picot cast off at the top of the shawl.

Close up of lace detail, and picot cast off at the top of the shawl. Seriously, that gorgeous lacy complexity is created by 3 rows of stockinette and one unchanging row of yarn overs and decreases.

This is lace that is, in truth, easy enough for a first lace project, but looks complicated enough to amaze and astound all those who see it. The whole thing is finished with nothing more than a picot cast off. This cast off is applied the top as well as to stitches picked up along the sides. It was chosen because it provides stretchiness and visual interest without distracting from the gorgeous complexity that is the main lace. You and your gift recipients don’t want to look as if you are wearing a doily, right?

Now that I have convinced you this is a mad easy shawl, suitable for beginners or the constantly distracted, I should probably let you know it does involve 4 to 1 decreases – but don’t panic! The pattern includes some mad easy solutions to the decreases that drive other, less plucky knitters away screaming in fear. Really, you should be happy these decreases are here. These decreases probably prevent this lace from being more widely known, so not only will you come away from this shawl with new weapons of mass decreasing in your knitting arsenal, but you will have a finished object that will make knitters gather round you, wondering how you did that.

countess of landsfeld back

The one row that does all the work (because the other three are always stockinette – amazing, right?) involves decreases that are typically referred to as k4tog and k4togtbl. To those who see these abbreviations and, quite rightly, say “Seriously? – those are really, really hard to do – I cannot get my ding dang needle through 4 stitches at once. Are you crazy? You said this was easy!” I say “Hah! The pattern explains no less than 5  alternatives that produce exactly the same results, and are way, way easier!” Indeed, with all the power invested in me as some random person with a blog, I propose a re-christening of the knitting terms k4tog and k4togtbl.  I dislike these abbreviations because they prescribe a technique (which I reject on behalf of all tight knitters with splitty or ungiving yarn, or unslithery, non-ninja-like needles, or fading eyesight, or arthritic fingers) when really, what the terms should describe is an outcome: namely, a decrease reducing 4 stitches to 1 that slants to the right (dec4R) and one that slants to the left (dec4L). How you get there should be your choice.

countess of landsfeld side view (2)

The yarn used in this project is minkyarn.com’s 70% mink, 30% cashmere 4-ply DK Chamonix. This yarn – which is made with brushed mink (they just brush them! The mink are fine, and live long, happy minky lives!) – was chosen for its delicious warmth, softness, drape, halo, loft, stitch definition, and best-ever-gift-giving-properties. This is yarn that makes you excited about the approaching cold weather. And really, don’t you think Lola would have wanted mink? Having said all that, of course, substitutions are fine.

Like my Sweet Spot Socks, the Countess of Landsfeld was created to keep me amused, and relies on a standard knitting model (in this case, a short row bottom up shawl) with a standard lace stitch, freely accessible in myriad stitch dictionaries plunked in. In other words, “Hurray! Another free pattern!” With that in mind, I am not precise in the yarn amounts. Working amounts out precisely would require some test knitting, and then it would be work, and purchasing of more yarn, and then I would have to expect payment.  I know it took me about 2 and a half of the 230-yard DK skeins, which would be about 600 yards. It is fairly long, so if you would prefer to be a bit more frugal, go for 460 yards and just cast on fewer of the lace repeats.

Click here to open the pdf: countess of landsfeld – Oct 2013 update 2. If you decide to make one too, let me know. I look forward to seeing some Countess of Landsfeld Shawls around!

My friend Suzanne - world's best shawl model ever.

My friend Suzanne – world’s best shawl model ever.

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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.

My knitting habit

My grandmother once proudly informed me that the cardigan she was wearing was over 30 years old. “They don’t make jumpers like that anymore”, she snorted dismissively. “It’s all a bunch of junk these days”. I admit that at the time, with all the arrogance and social conformity of youth, I thought it was hilarious that she valued durability over 30 years of changing fashions. Certainly, in fairness to my callow youthful self, the cardigan in question was a rather surprising coral and gold combination in a style rarely seen outside of dance routines involving dancers with names like Bobby and Cissy.

Now, however, I find myself increasingly disappointed, disgruntled, and dismayed by the poor quality of commercial knitwear. Pilling, bagging, and ripped seams – these, I find, are what I can expect within the first month of use, regardless of the price paid. And of course, there is the problem with warmth: too few commercial cardigans are warm enough to provide much relief for our Canadian winters, thus increasing the temptation to turn up the furnace (bad for the environment) and to avoid going outside (bad for your physical and mental health).

Which leads me to my list of why everyone should knit:

  1. It’s easy. Really, really easy. Illiterate, uneducated peasants have been doing it for at least a thousand years. You, with all the limitless power of youtube and books, can learn to do it. Don’t be overwhelmed by the apparent complexity of finished garments – it is all just variations (all of which are explained in patterns, so don’t feel like you are supposed to know them all before you start) of the same knit stitch. I do not know all the different ways to cast on, for example – I know some, have never learned many, and have forgotten a bunch too. If a pattern requires a particular cast on and does not explain it, I just look it up.
  2. Seriously, what else are you doing with your hands? Playing Angry Birds? We all have moments in which we must sit quietly and wait, like at the optometrist or on the subway, and we all have moments in which we want to sit on our bums and watch The Mentalist, not because it is a great show but because Simon Baker is adorable. It happens. And yes, of course you could whip out that Man Booker shortlisted book you conveniently carry about with you exactly for moments like this. I applaud you if you do. However, I can totally see you from here. That’s Angry Birds and you know it.  So here is crux of the matter: spend hours playing games on your phone and you are left with carpal tunnel syndrome and a feeling of shame; spend hours knitting and you are left with a lovely cardigan. And, for those of you who really do read everything on the Man Booker shortlist, you can listen to the books on tape while you knit. And, for those who cannot resist the lure of Simon Baker, you no longer have to feel shame for watching The Mentalist. You have purpose: you are knitting. It’s not your fault if The Mentalist happens to be on at the same time.
  3. I must be honest. Knitting is not an inexpensive hobby. Contrary to popular belief, knitters do not knit because it is less expensive than buying knitting. Good yarn is, well, costly. However, what you will be able to produce – if you are buying good yarn and not acrylic novelty yarn (but that is another post…) – will be of a quality that you would never be able to purchase, unless you are a Kardashian.
  4. You have no idea, no idea at all, how deliciously warm handknit apparel and accessories can be. Warm, soft, cozy… you will look forward to the winter.
  5. As Sheldon Cooper notes “The entire institution of gift giving make no sense. Let’s say that I go out, and I spend 50 dollars on you, it’s a laborious activity, because I have to imagine what you need, where as you know what you need. Now I could simplify things, just give you the 50 dollars directly, and you could give me 50 dollars on my birthday, and so on, until one of us dies, leaving the other one old and 50 dollars richer. And I ask, is it worth it?”. My husband is currently engaged in a gift economy with his brother, in which they both give each other a Best Buy gift card in the exact same amount for their birthdays. This has gone on for a few years now, and I am quite sure that on at least one occasion the same gift card was passed on. Just imagine the joy that one of these brothers would experience if the other would just knit him a scarf.