Three Easy Provisional Cast Ons

Sometimes you don’t want to start a piece of knitting at the top or bottom edge. For example, you may want to make an afghan or rectangular shawl that you will be putting an edging around, or you may want to make a sweater, mittens, or socks, but you don’t know if you have enough yarn, so you start with the essentials—the body and sleeves of the sweater, the hands of the mittens, the feet of the socks—and leave the button bands, collars, cuffs, and thumbs for a matching yarn. When this is the case, you don’t want a real, definite cast on. What you want is a provisional cast on: a cast on that lets you have live stitches to knit from along the starting edge.

There are a number of ways to cast on provisionally. This post covers 3 easy methods that are technically not provisional cast ons, but when the project is finished, no one will ever know.

Leave a needle in the work

This method doesn’t necessarily produce a row of live stitches, but it does help you find stitches to work with, and it is definitely the easiest of the three described in this post as well as my favorite at this time.

It requires the use of a very thin needle, a needle that is 2 or 3 cm in diameter. Even if you have no intention of ever knitting with such an artifact, including one in your kit is a good idea as such needles are great for lots of things, lifelines being the most practical.

1. Hold your project needle and your skinny needle together as if they were a single needle; then cast on in the usual way. Hold them in your right hand for the simple and long-tail cast on, or hold them in your left hand for most other cast ons. When you finish, you have a row of stitches with two needles inside.
2. Place rubber bands around the tips of the skinny needle so the needle doesn’t accidentally slip out of the work.
3. Work the first and subsequent rows with the project needle as you ordinarily would.
4. When you finish your project and are ready for live stitches at the cast-on edge, you can either knit or graft directly from the skinny needle or knit a preliminary row with the skinny needle in the left hand and the project needle in the right.

Cast on with Scrap Yarn

This seemed the least complicated method when I decided to learn a provisional cast on. It takes some practice, but it works.

It requires the use of a piece of scrap yarn that is smooth, like dishcloth cotton, bamboo, modal, or nylon cord. Its texture should be different from the project yarn so you can easily tell the two apart by touch, and it should be a little over 3 times longer than the cast-on edge, so if the cast-on edge will be about a foot long, then you need a piece of scrap yarn that is a little over 3 feet long.

1. Cast on with the scrap yarn in the usual way. The crochet cast on is definitely the best method; just remember to put a pin in the last cast on stitch. The cable cast on is probably the second best method. If you prefer the long-tail cast on, tie the scrap yarn to the project yarn, lay the project yarn over your index finger and the scrap yarn over your thumb, then proceed as usual.
2. Work the first and subsequent rows with the project yarn. If you have a skinny needle, hold it together with the project needle to work the first row; place rubber bands around the tips of the skinny needle; and continue working with the project needle only.
3. When you finish your project and are ready for live stitches at the cast-on edge, pull the scrap yarn out of the work. Start with the last stitch you cast on. If you used the crochet cast on, simply pull the pin out of the last cast-on stitch, and tug gently on the tail. If you used another cast on, pull the scrap yarn out of the work, using your fingers or a knitting needle.
4. As you pull the scrap yarn out of the work, put the live stitches onto a needle. Obviously, this step is not necessary if you inserted a skinny needle into the work in Step 2.

Give Yourself a False Start

When I tried this method, I found it to be easier than the previous one. It gave me a chance to settle into my gauge, but when I was anxious to get a project going, the first few rows called for in this method felt like a big waist of time.

It requires two types of yarn in addition to the project yarn.
• The starter yarn can be anything though it helps to choose a yarn of a similar gauge to the project yarn. You’ll be working 3 or 4 rows with it, so you need a not so small amount.
• The scrap yarn is a piece of smooth yarn, like dishcloth cotton, bamboo, modal, or nylon cord, and it should be a little over 3 times longer than the cast-on edge, so if the cast-on edge will be about 30 cm long, then you need a piece of scrap yarn that is a little over 90 cm.
I use yarns with different textures so I can easily tell the starter yarn, scrap yarn, and project yarn apart by touch.

1. With the starter yarn, cast on the correct number of stitches, and work 3 or 4 rows. You can work in pattern just to give your hands a chance to learn it, or you can do some basic stockinet or garter.
2. With the scrap yarn, knit one row.
3. Work the next and subsequent rows with the project yarn. If you have a skinny needle, hold it together with the project needle to work the first row; place rubber bands around the tips of the skinny needle; and continue working with the project needle only.
4. When you finish your project and are ready for live stitches at the cast-on edge, pull the scrap yarn out of the work. You can start at either end. While you can use your fingers to remove the scrap yarn, picking and lifting it with a knitting needle works very well.
5. As you pull the scrap yarn out of the work, put the live stitches onto a needle. Obviously, this step is not necessary if you inserted a skinny needle into the work in Step 3.

The next few posts will cover other provisional cast ons, which actually do produce a row of live stitches. The methods described in this ost, however, work and are especially easy to do.

Embossing Patterns Directly from the BrailleNote

Those of us who like braille love the luxury of embossing braille patterns and tutorials directly from the computer. I say “luxury” because braille embossers are expensive, two to three thousand dollars being the low-end price; they usually require the purchase of extra software–another seven hundred fifty dollars–for translation from print to standard braille codes; and they pose the challenge of keeping them in good repair, not to mention form feed card stock in standard paper sizes. So a relatively small number of people own them and tolerate their quirks, even putting off upgrades to other systems in order to continue access to quick braille.

I’ve had a Braille Blazer (now discontinued) for over ten years. It’s temperamental, and if I don’t guide the paper, it jams or does peculiar things to line spacing, but it puts a nicely brailled hard copy of a pattern or pattern stitch in my hand within minutes of my finding it on the web. And there are few things as blissful to a yarny as referring to a brailled pattern while enjoying a TV show or waiting for a ride.

During the past year, I’ve upgraded my home office (computer, printer, scanner, and telephone) but haven’t been able to finish the transition to 2011 technology because I couldn’t find a way to use my embosser on computers that no longer have parallel ports.

Then the other day, while talking to a friend, I remembered that the BrailleNote, which I also own, should be able to convert print documents into contracted braille, and it should be able to connect peaceably to an embosser, so I did some reading of the manuals of both devices, Googled around a bit, and learned that I had three options: serial connection (always a PITA), Bluetooth adaptor and connection (described as iffy), and USB converter and connection (discussed more confidently).

Since I had a USB to parallel converter lying around, I used the third method. The converter is a Cables To Go 16899 USB To DB25 IEEE-1284 Parallel Printer Adapter Cable for Windows, which I bought from Amazon for about eleven dollars. The process worked beautifully the first time, so I decided to pass along the steps for embossing directly from the BrailleNote to a device with a parallel port. I have an mPower and Braille Blazer, but the steps should work for other BrailleNote and embosser models.

Translating the Document to Braille

The first step is to make sure the pattern is a braille file, so start by saving it as a brf or KeyWord braille file. The quickest way is to open the document in KeyWord and use the save As feature:
1. Open KeyWord, then open your pattern document after locating it on the SD card or in one of your folders.
2. Press Space+S or ctrl+S to save the document.
3. Press Backspace once to change the folder, or twice to select the drive where the file will be saved.
4. Press backspace+X or ctrl+X repeatedly to change the file format to brf.
5. Write the file name and press Enter.

Take a moment to read your file to make sure abbreviations have been translated correctly.

Setting up the Embosser

The second step is to set up the embosser. This only happens once, so you shouldn’t have to do it again.

1. Connect the usual parallel cable to the braille embosser.
2. Screw the USB to Parallel cable to the free end of the cable in Step 1.
3. Turn the Braille embosser on.
4. Turn the BrailleNote on.
5. Plug the USB end of your extra long cable into the BrailleNote. the BrailleNote says, “Printer ready.”
6. Go into the Keyword main menu, select Embosser, press space+S or type S to adjust embosser settings, set the port to USB, and the page and line lengths to 25 lines and 32 characters, exit and confirm that you want to save settings.
7. It’s a good idea to restart the embosser after changing the settings, so you may want to turn the Blazer off and on at this point.
8. The BrailleNote manual strongly recommends that you test the embosser right away by brailling the two practice documents in the General folder.

If the practice docs emboss correctly, your embosser is ready to go.

Embossing the File

The third and final step is to emboss the pattern. It’s the easiest of the steps.

1. Open your braille pattern file in KeyWord.
2. Press space+dots 2346 or ctrl+read+b to Go into Formatting, and make sure the page and line lengths are consistent with the embosser (25 lines and 32 characters).
3. Go back to the KeyWord main menu, select embossing, press enter, and respond to the prompts about the folder and file name, and so on.
4. The last promt is “Embosser ready.” Press enter, and after a pause that goes on a couple of seconds longer than you expect, embossing begins.

Nothing to it. Once the USB to parallel cable is connected and the embosser is set up, making braille patterns directly from the BrailleNote is a matter of converting the document to a braille format like brf, choosing the Emboss option from the KeyWord main menu, and following the prompts. A yarn crafter’s life doesn’t get any easier.

Salute to Crappy Knitting

I started working on a pair of socks a few weekends ago. I wasn’t very invested in the project. There was a splitty linen-nylon yarn I wanted to get rid of, a pattern stitch I wanted to swatch, and a comparison of short-row heel techniques I’ve been too lazy to make, so I combined the three in a pair of socks that weren’t especially attractive.

The stitch I was swatching is definitely worth repeating (twist-stitch Diamond from Barbara Walker’s Second Treasury)—a reverse stockinet background, the outlines of large diamonds in stockinet with the outlines of smaller diamonds inside—but the moss stitch I added didn’t grow on me any more than it ever does, and neither did some of the tweaks I’m doing to the main pattern stitch. (Admitting I’ve never really liked moss stitch feels wildly rebellious.)

At first, I was continuously fighting the impulse to frog and try again after swatching for real and rethinking the moss stitch, but I knitted on, fearing I would get myself caught up in one of those endless knitting-frogging-knitting-frogging-knitting cycles that would give Penelope a run for her money.

Once I suppressed all good knitterly habits, however, the experience of knitting crappy socks became fabulously liberating. I could try twisting the stitches that are where the diamonds flare the most, what I think of as the elbows, or I could try starting or ending the inner diamonds with knits or twists as the spirit moved me, or I could stretch or smash the diamonds by adding or subtracting the nonpattern rounds, or I could work popcorns into the corners or centers, and I didn’t have to worry about all the time wasted, the potential stitches lost, or the resultant yucky yarn if I had to frog back. I could freely knit away as I thought about the new computer system I had to set up, the new class I had to design lesson plans for, the diet and exercise regimen I’m forever putting off, and the pile of papers and other miscellanea, dubbed Desk, which I always put off cleaning.

It was wonderfully satisfying, more so than a plain old swatch, since I could imagine, when I wasn’t planning dinner or having wicked thoughts along the lines of my last trashy read, that the thing in my hands really could be a sock I’d wear: by the time I worked my way up from the toe to the cuff, I’d have worked out the stitch, and no one would be the wiser, right? That kind of thinking, of course, put me in mind of the generations of knitters who had to crank the socks and sweaters out by winter, some pieces receiving their full attention and skill while others, only the scraps of time allowed by the stove, the crying baby, the next chore on the list, and I thought that sloppy knitting, the kind of knitting that turns mental chaos into order, certainly deserves its own tribute.

Eventually, when I was less than half a pattern repeat from binding off, I pulled the needles out and ripped away at the work, starting immediately on a sock I liked in a variation of the stitch that was just exactly what I had in mind. The experiment worked right the first time, and my hands new the stitch so well that I could do a round or two while the computer booted up or while I sat on hold, and I could get a whole pattern repeat in while in the throes of a good book. Perfection is a goal, but so is crappy knitting, and knowing when to do which is one of the greatest gifts from the fiber gods.

Knitting Small Circumferences on Double-Pointed Needles

When I came back to knitting, someone gave me several sets of double-pointed needles. They were all for medium weight yarn, and most were short enough for sock or mitten knitting. I was about to declare this to have been very prescient of the giver, but since I promptly moved on to the wonders of circular needles, leaving the double-pointed needles (dpn’s) to languish in a drawer out of the great fear that I’d never get them to work right, I can’t boast about that. What I can boast about is that I finally learned to use them though I’m still far from feeling convinced that I’ll use them very often.

Double-points are probably the most traditional way to knit tubelike shapes. Nothing more than slender dowels with a tapered pencil point at each end, they are the closest thing a modern knitter comes to working with sticks. The needles sell in a couple of shorter and longer lengths, the shorter length being for smaller items like socks and mittens; the longer, for larger projects like hats,sleeves, and pullovers.

While there’s really only one process, there is a little variation in whether knitters work with 4 needles or 5. People who use 5 needles divide the work evenly over 4 of them and use the fifth to do the actual knitting. People who use four generally place half the stitches onto one needle, divide the rest over two more, and knit with the fourth needle, but they may distribute the stitches in some other way, based on what makes sense for the project or the pattern stitch.

If, like me, you’ve been dreading dpn’s, the thing to keep in mind is that these needles aren’t like regular needles. They’re rougher. You don’t notice it from normal handling, like when you use them to put your hair up in a bun or when you bang them on a sauce pan to let the family know dinner is ready. But as you cast on and begin to work your stitches, you notice that the metal, plastic, or wooden surface of the needle shaft is actually weirdly . . . porous and, yes, rough. This causes the work to slide more slowly along than it would on an Addi or Knit Picks circ, which reduces the likelihood that stitches will drop off one of the tapered ends and gives you and me time to grab them if they slip.

To learn the process, the best approach is to start a hat, mitten, pouch, sleeve, sock, or some other tube, using one or two circs. When the tube is 2 or 3 inches (5 to 8 cm) long, remove the circular needle(s), slipping the live stitches on to double pointed needles as you go. You can use 3 or 4 needles. I used 3 to have fewer things/needles to deal with.

Now here’s where knitting with double-pointed needles becomes a lesson in trusting the process and the tools. Once the dpn’s are in place, find the working yarn, which should be at one end of a needle. Grab that neighboring needle, the one that is closest to the working yarn. Hold the neighboring needle in your left hand, and with an empty needle in the right, start knitting.

That’s right. Just grab the needle nearest the working yarn with your left hand as if it were a traditional single-pointed needle (the ones with a stop at one end), put an empty needle in your right hand, hold the working yarn as you normally do, and knit away.

The other needles hang in the work without slipping out and onto the floor. If you’re nervous about losing a needle or if you’re an especially loose knitter (hey, what we do on our own time is our own business, right?), you can put point protectors on the ends of the idle needles, or if you don’t have point protectors handy, you can wrap rubber bands around the ends.

To start a project on double-pointed needles, cast the stitches onto one needle, using a firm cast on that keeps its shape, like the long-tail cast on, or choose any other cast on and work one row. Then start redistributing stitches by slipping stitches from one end of the cast-on needle to another needle or two. For example, if you plan to divide the work over four needles, put half of the stitches onto the second needle; lay the needles on a table perpendicular to each other, forming a wedge or V; then slip half of the stitches from each needle onto two more. If you plan to divide the stitches over three needles, lay a single needle on the table; then starting at one end, slip a fourth of the stitches onto a second needle, and starting at the other end, slip another fourth of the stitches onto a third needle. Much easier than I’m making it sound.

To actually start knitting, shift the collection of dpn’s that are on the table so that the working yarn is at the left end of one of the needles. If it’s near the right end of a needle, pick up the whole structure and flip it over, as if you were turning a pancake or emptying out a purse. When the working yarn is properly positioned, rotate the structure of needles so that the one with the working yarn is near your right hand. Do not pick that needle up, Instead, pick up the one next to it, the one nearest the working yarn, the one that starts with the first stitch you cast on. That is the needle that goes in your left hand. Hold an empty needle in your right hand, and pick up the collection of needles with stitches so you can bring the working yarn close enough to your left needle to knit. This is one of those knitterly moments when you really wish you had a few extra fingers, but it really does stop feeling awkward with a little practice.

Then just knit. When you finish working the stitches on a needle, put the newly emptied needle in your right hand, and use it to work the stitches on the next needle, repeating the process with each needle until you’re done.

That’s all there is to it. To avoid laddering where the needles meet, give the working yarn an extra tug after working the first stitch of each needle. Run your hand over the work periodically to make sure you haven’t dropped any stitches. Beyond that, it’s all a matter of trusting that things will go as they should–kind of like life. Who knew?

Magic Loop: Using One Long Needle to Knit Small Circumferences

I like knitting in the round. When the circumferences are small, like when I’m making socks, gloves, mittens, sleeves, and hats, my preferred method is to use two circular needles. I do a lot of my knitting on the go, and the two-circ method is perfect for that. I can just shove whatever I’m working on into or pull it out of a bag without worrying about dropped stitches; I can quickly figure out where I am in the round; and I can use the fact that the work is evenly divided over two needles to help me keep track of the pattern. Still, there are other ways to get the job done.

One method, the one covered in this post, is to use one long needle to knit small circumferences, a method sometimes called the magic loop. It’s most obvious benefit is that you only need one needle, which is sometimes all we have. Two other benefits are that it’s good for the unpredictable cramming and grabbing of knitting on the go and that there aren’t a lot of unnecessary needle tips to keep track of, as there are with the two-circ method.

What You Need to Magic Loop

To work in the round on a single circ:
• You need one long circular needle.
• The needle needs to have a very flexible cable.
• You need one or two stitch markers to keep track of the beginning or middle of the round.

The question of length is relative. Most knitters recommend a needle that is at least 36 inches (91 cm)long, but if you’re working on something small enough, like a child’s sock or the thumb of a glove or mitten, you can do so comfortably on a needle that is 24 inches (60 cm) in length. I find I work most comfortably when the needle is 1.5 to 2 feet (45 to 60 cm) longer than the row of stitches.

Flexibility, however, is not so relative. If you hold the rigid ends of the circular needle in one hand so that the tips point in the same direction, you should be able to run your fingers down the cable to a small loop at the end where it is folded in half. If that loop is about 1.5 inches (4 cm) long, the cable is flexible enough, but if the loop is over 2 inches (5 cm) long, then the cable is probably not flexible enough. And before you spend a lot of mental energy scheming, forcing the loop to be smaller doesn’t change the fact that the cable is too firm for what you are about to do.

How You Do the Magic Loop

Knitting a small circumference on one long needle is similar to knitting it on two circs in the sense that, once you pull a loop of cable out of the work, you have two imaginary circs to work with. Here’s how it’s done:

1. Using one long circular needle and any method, cast on an even number of stitches, 20 for this example.
2. Run your index finger along the row of stitches, stopping when you are between the two center stitches, in this case between Stitch number 10 and Stitch number 11.
3. Wiggle your finger left and right to separate those two center stitches, stopping when your fingertip is on the cable between them.
4. Grab that bit of cable with your thumb and index finger.
5. Pull! Keep pulling. You want a big loop of cable to form between those two stitches.
6. As you pull on the cable, use your other hand to slide the stitches as close as you can to the rigid tips of the needles, but leave them on the cables.
7. You may want to put a stitch marker on the big loop of cable to mark the middle of the round.
8. When the stitches are next to the rigid ends of the needle and when there is a big loop of cable between the two center stitches, hold the tips of the needle in your left hand, as if they were a single needle and you were going to start knitting a row.
9. Take a moment to observe the work. The tips of the needle are in your left hand. They are pointing up or to the right. One is behind the other; in other words, one needle tip is closer to you, and the other is farther away. The row of stitches is folded in half, like a closed book, and there is a big wire loop of cable sticking out of the spine of the book.
10. Make sure the working yarn is on the needle that is farthest from you. If it isn’t, rotate the stitches on each needle so that the smooth bottom edge of the fabric is on top of the needles, then pretending the two needles are a single needle, turn them up side down.
11. On the front needle, the one that is closer to you, slide the stitches onto the actual rigid tip of the needle.
12. Grab the back needle, the one that is farthest from you, and tug gently up or to the right.
13. Stop tugging on the back needle when you can pretend the back needle is the right needle; then place a marker on it and start working in the usual way.
14. If the needle is long enough, the wire loops will always be evident in the work. If the needle is a little short, the loops will tend to disappear as you reach the beginning and middle of the round. If the loops disappear, reposition the work as in Step 9, tug on the back needle and continue working.

Troubleshooting Magic Loop

One complaint about the magic loop is that the loops magically disappear. As you knit, there are always two loops of cable sticking out of the work. One is to your right at the beginning of the round, and the other is to your left at the halfway point. I like to keep a marker in each loop so that, if I lose my loop, I can quickly recover it by finding the marker and pulling on the cable there.

Another common problem of knitters new to this method of working in the round is loose stitches or a laddering effect below the loops. To avoid this, some knitters recommend changing the position of the loops every few rounds. I find that laddering happens only when the cable isn’t flexible enough, putting unnecessary stress on the work. It also helps to give the working yarn an extra tug after the first stitch following the loop.

The oddest gripe about the use of one long circ for small circumferences is that double pointed needles are needed for the smallest of circumferences. I’m not sure why anyone would stop using magic loop at any point. It works as well for the fingers of gloves and the crowns of hats as it does for anything else. Using shorter needles is more comfortable, to be sure, but it isn’t really necessary, and there’s never any danger of losing the loop.

Two Double Knit Cast Ons

One of my knitting fantacies is to make a sock using double knitting. An even steamier sock fantacy is to make a sock within a sock using double knitting, but one step at a time, right?

Double knitting is a technique that lets knitters make a tube on a straight needle. In a nutshell, the idea is to cast on an even number of stitches then * slip one, knit one * on an even number of rows, as two rows make one round. I’ll go into more details in a future post. For now, I’ll cover two methods of casting on for double knitting: one that is suitable for the open cuff end of a sock and another that is suitable for the closed toe end.

Open Cast on for Double Knitting

This is really just the simple cast on worked with two strands of yarn.

1. Use the yarn to tie a slip knot around the needle, leaving a long tail. The tail should be a little more than three times longer than the circumference of the item you’re going to make. If the sock is 8 inches around, the tail needs to be a little over 24 inches long.
2. Hold the needle in your right hand. This is the only needle you will use.
3. Position your left hand as you do for the long-tail cast on: your thumb and fingers are holding an imaginary glass of water.
4. Hang the tail end of the yarn on your thumb so that it goes over the top and down in front (nail side). The needle is pointing left between your thumb and index finger. The free end of the tail is on the side of your thumb that is closest to your wrist.
5. Hang the ball end of the yarn on your index finger so that the yarn goes under your index finger and away from you, behind your index finger (nail side) and up toward the ceiling, over the top of your index finger and toward you, and in front of your index finger and down. The needle is pointing left between your thumb and index finger. The ball end of the tail is between your palm and the strand that goes from needle to index finger.
6. Close your middle, ring, and little fingers around both hanging strands of yarn. The needle is pointing left, resting on your left hand. The yarn in your left hand does not form the triangle of the long-tail cast on because the yarn is wrapped around the index finger differently.
7. Make a loop with your thumb.
a. Twist the needle counterclockwise so that it points to you.
b. Point the tip of the needle down, stopping when it touches the fleshy part of your left hand.
c. Slide the tip of the needle up your thumb, stopping when you reach the tip of your thumb. The yarn around your thumb has formed a loop, and the tip of the needle is inside it.
d. Pull your thumb out of the loop, and tighten the stitch by catching the yarn with your thumb and straightening it.
8. Position the needle as in Step 6.
9. Make a loop with your index finger.
a. Point the needle down so that it’s pointing into the palm of your left hand.
b. Rest the tip of the needle at the base of your middle finger.
c. Slide the tip of the needle up your index finger, stopping when you reach the tip of your finger. The yarn around your index finger has formed a loop, and the tip of the needle is inside it.
d. Pull your finger out of the loop, and tighten the stitch by catching the yarn with your index finger and straightening it.
10. Position the needle as in Step 6.
11. Repeat Steps 6-9, ending with Step 7 for an even number of stitches.
12. Twist the working yarn and cast-on tail once.
13. Hold the needle with the stitches in your left hand.
14. Work the first two rows as follows: * k1, sl1 *.

Instead of a slip knot, you can just twist the yarn around the needle in Step 1.

Closed Cast on for Double Knitting

The official double knitting goddess is Beverly Royce. I have a scan of the 1981 edition of her book Notes on Double Knitting, but I don’t have complete publication information to share though I suspect the publisher is Schoolhouse Press. The book is generally very readable and clear, but I had an incredibly difficult time with the cast on instructions, whose details I almost understand. The instructions for Invisible Cast On 1 read as follows:

Make a fist with your left hand. Then make a letter “C” with the thumb and forefinger. Hold the “C” parallel to the floor. Leave the other fingers in a closed position. Pick up the end of the yarn in the right hand and lay it over the left thumb and on over the forefinger. Let the yarn extend about 12″ beyond the forefinger, or more, depending on how many cast on stitches are required. Then, grasp the two yarns in the other three fingers. Insert the needle, from front to back, under the yarn, from left to right and turn the needle counter-clockwise half a turn. This loop, or twist, is the first cast on stitch. You now have a yarn coming from the thumb to the twist on the needle, and a yarn coming from the forefinger to the twist. The needle, then goes over the yarn toward you, picking up a loop from the yarn coming from the thumb. Then it picks up a loop from the yarn coming from the forefinger by going over the yarn away from you. Now the needle goes under the yarn coming from the thumb. Two stitches have been cast on. Then, take the needle *over the yarn of the forefinger – over the yarn of the thumb – again over the yarn of the forefinger – then under the thumb yarn.* Four stitches have been cast on. Repeat the instructions between *’s for the required number of stitches. Always end with an “under”, as this places an even number of cast on stitches on the needle. Secure the last loop by twisting the two yarns, then begin P-S [pattern stitches] in rounds.

I spent weeks trying to trace the course of the needle and figure out how it picked up loops on its way. I finally came up with an interpretation that made sense to me and produced good results, but as I compare my instructions with Royce’s, I’m not really sure we’re saying the same thing.

Nevertheless, being an optimistic soul, I offer this alternative set of instructions. Royce suggests using a smaller needle for the cast on and first 2 rows. That makes sense. The round next to the cast on is a little looser than the rest, but not too bad.

Ana’s Instructions:

As you work this cast on, keep in mind that the stitches don’t keep their shape all that well, so it helps to hold the new stitches between the thumb and index finger of the right hand.

1. Put a slip knot on the right needle, leaving a long tail. Once you get the hang of this pattern, you can just twist the yarn around the needle as the official instructions describe.
2. Position your hands as for a long-tail cast on. The fingers of your left hand are holding an invisible glass of water. The yarn is laid over your thumb and index finger. The dangly ends are tucked into your middel, ring, and little fingers, which are curled closed. You’ve got an up-side-down triangle of yarn that goes from the middle finger upt to the thumb, over to the index finger, and down to the middle finger. The needle is in your right hand. It’s lying on the horizontal top of the triangle. One stitch is on the needle.

For the remaining instructions, the thumb yarn is the strand that goes from the thumb to the needle, and the index yarn is the strand that goes from the index finger to the needle. Those are the only strands you’re concerned with. the strands that go from thumb or index to the middle finger do not figure at all:

3. Move the needle toward you, and put it under the thumb yarn. This is the starting point.
4. With the tip of the needle, describe a circle that goes around the index strand: away from you and over the strand, down and behind the strand, and toward you and under the strand. Stop when you reach the starting point.
5. Move the needle toward you, then up, and back to where it was in step 2, the top of the horizontal part of the triangle. Once you get the hang of it, you’re really just moving the yarn with your thumb to ankor the stitch.

Bravo! You’ve cast on one stitch. the next stitch will be the same process in mirror image.

6. Move the needle away from you, and put the needle under the index yarn. This is the starting point.
7. With the tip of the needle, describe a circle that goes around the thumb strand: toward you and over the strand, down and in front of the strand, and away from you and under the strand. Stop when you reach the starting point.
8. Move the needle away from you, then up, and back to where it was in step 2, the top of the horizontal part of the triangle. Once you get the hang of it, you’re really just moving the yarn with your index finger to ankor the stitch.

Bravo! Another stitch has been cast on.

9. Repeat Steps 3 through 8 until you have the desired number of stitches, ending with Step 5 for an even number of stitches. Remember to work from one strand, then the other.
10. After the last stitch has been cast on, twist the tail and the working yarn once.
11. Work the first row as follows: * sl1, k1tbl *. The stitch will be twisted, and the ktbl untwists.
12. Work second row as follows: * sl1, k1 *.

With these two cast ons, I’m one step closer to making my double knit socks happens.

Getting Through the Boring Bits

Aside from socks, my favorite knitting project is capes, groovy substitutes for sweaters or jackets. The concept is simple enough: I make a collar or neckband as I would for a sweater; then I increase at regular or irregular intervals until the garment is 2 feet (60 cm) long. I just finished one, in fact, a frothy thing in spring pinks and greens made of a tulle-like cotton-silk ribbon yarn.

There one big drawback is that rows get longer as the cape grows, so the rows in the last few inches before the bind off can take one to two hours, depending on the number of stitches and on the complexity of the stitch pattern being used. Not surprisingly then, however exciting the project was in the beginning and however high my motivation is to wear it, the last vertical third of the cape turns the Zen of knitting into a twitchy fear of boredom and an unwillingness to keep on keeping on.

So how does one plod along?

By doing something else at the same time.

I think I’ve mentioned here that my mom taught me to knit when I was in kindergarten, but beyond a few scarves, shawls, and blankets for my dolls and an anomalous blanket for myself in college, I didn’t do much with the craft until my mid thirties, When I took up the needles again.

Initially, when I returned to knitting, I could not do anything while I knit. I had to concentrate on what I was doing, especially once I started working with interesting stitch patterns. After a year or two, I found my mind wandering, so I started knitting while my favorite TV shows were on, saving the tricky needle maneuvers for commercial breaks. Over time, I realized that I was getting wild and exotic with my needles even during the most dramatic scenes, a discovery which gave me confidence to try stitches that were more involved while my shows were on.

By this point, I had wholeheartedly embraced the power of multitasking during tedious stretches of yarn craft. My first intentional use of the power was when I came to terms with the fact that I’d put off fringing a shawl for over a year, so I cranked on AC/DC, Candlebox, and GodSmack, and fringed away. That worked so well that heavy metal became my cure for every-tedious-craft-related-thing from swatching to weaving in ends.

It occurred to me that I could move from music and TV to audiobooks. There really is no end to my gratitude for MP3 players and their capacity to play hours and hours of audio books without human intervention (the victor Stream rocks). I began with the comfortingly formulaic, steamy bodice rippers and murder mysteries, genres I read frequently and know well. I noticed the same pattern with audiobooks as for television: simple stitches (like stockinet, garter, or ribbing) at first with pauses for tricky knitting or complex listening, fewer pauses over time, and eventually, steady forward movement in both activities.

Since I learned to listen to books while I knit, I’ve gotten more knitting and more reading done, two fabulous outcomes. There are still times, of course, when I need to stop one activity in order to do the other well. Just yesterday, I got so caught up in a book that I kept screwing up the knitting. But for the most part, having an interesting distraction–like TV, music, or audiobook listening—is the best way to get through a long boring stretch of yarn.

Rug Poetry and the Craft Tradition

I’m a writer. This means that I have a degree in creative writing and that I hold non-writerly jobs so I can have enough money at the end of the month to send my work out to literary magazines, which mostly reject it.

Earlier this year, one of my poems was accepted by Magnolia Journal, a print anthology of socially engaged women’s writing. The poem is about buying a handmade rug in Morocco on a trip I took fifteen years ago.

The rug is its own miracle. It’s next to my bed, which is too high to sit on comfortably, so I sit on the rug to put on my shoes and socks, lingering amid thoughts of God, of the distance a rug must travel, of the endurance of art—all commonplace mysteries.

I think I wrote the poem because the rug seller spoke to me in poetry. His description was accurate. He couldn’t very well lie, after all, with my sister and other members of our tour party standing around as he showed it to me, but he could have spoken in geometric shapes or traditional techniques. Instead, he spoke like someone who was still awed by the magic of turning separate strands into a whole.

At that time, I understood that awe second hand, marveling in my mother’s yarn craft, but five years later, when I came back to knitting myself, I understood it in a very different way, in the unexpected bafflement that comes when a completed project goes onto its hanger or into its drawer, so different from the loose skeins of leftover yarn rolling around in their plastic bag that they seem alien from the piece and from the hours spent making it, or the odd disorientation that happens when I suddenly realize I’m using something I made and wonder how I worked this or that detail out.

Then I started to think about all the women who had touched my rug, the ones who had dressed the loom with cotton yarn, only a little thicker than the yarn I use for dishcloths, the ones who drew the design, the ones who dyed the wool, the ones who wound the different colors onto bobbins and worked the different sections of the pattern, the ones who cut the finished rug off the loom, and the ones who tied the overhand knots at the ends to keep the rug from raveling.

Once I started thinking about them, I couldn’t stop. I would think about them as I sat on the rug, running my fingers over the pile, which felt surprisingly ordinary, like machine-made indoor-outdoor mats. I would imagine their conversations—the kids, the husband, the neighbor with the evil tongue–when I rolled the rug up on the bed to sweep and mop underneath. I would wonder who was smug about her housekeeping, who wanted to highlight her hair, who dreamed about being elsewhere as I touched the back, which has the same pattern as the front, but the texture of stretched canvass.

And I would think about them and about my mother, an executive secretary and later field hand, who sews, knits, and crochets every now and then to make her home beautiful; about my sister, a trauma nurse, who had no interest in crafts until she bought a sewing machine at the age of forty, about myself, a social service interpreter who made socks in psychiatric wards while other people fell apart. I thought of all of us, the women I knew and the ones I only pretended to know, as I knit, as I turned yarn into something other, something both ordinary and remarkable that other women know about and other men and women can overlook, until they suddenly can’t.

To read a blog post about the journal and to listen to the poem click here. The sound file, which includes both my poem and a lovely essay by another writer, starts as soon as the page loads. The sound may be low, so it may be necessary to turn up the volume. The poem is called “Having Been to Morocco.”

Solids, Heathers, Jewels, and More

Colors can be something of a headache, and asking sighted people for clarification doesn’t help because each has a different notion of what color matches what and which color looks good on whom. So I’m not even going to pretend to go there. Instead, I’ll mention a few general bits and pieces about colors that may come in handy while working with yarn.

Some Basic Characteristics

Light and dark are contrasts. If you’re musically minded, think of light as one octave above middle C and dark as one octave below it. Think of muted, a dull version of the color, as quiet (piano), and think of vivid or saturated, a bold medium dark to dark variation, as loud (forte).

While most colors can be light medium or dark, white, yellow, pink, and lavender are light by definition, and black and red are dark by definition.

Solid yarns are the same color all the way through and make fabric that is uniform in color. A textural equivalent is the smooth public side of a store-bought knitted sweater.

Tweed yarns are solid yarns with flecks of different colors and make fabric that is uniformly not-solid. We all did a little weaving in elementary school or summer camp. (Remember the potholder?) The yarn and loom were big enough that the fabric we made had a definite grain and a clear textural pattern: the longer lines of the weft lay across the vertical warp, which was mostly hidden to the touch. This texture is like tweed: the solid background color is like the horizontal lines of the woven potholder that are easy to find with our fingers, and the flecks are like the tiny vertical bits that we can also feel. The foreground and background colors are so uniformly distributed that the fabric isn’t described as being two different colors though the two colors are seen.

Heather yarns are different muted shades of a single color. The different shades would be something like light blue, light-medium blue, medium blue, maybe a turquoise that’s more blue than green. Muted means that the colors are visually soft or grayish, like a dusty or fuzzy surface. The overall textural equivalent of a heathered fabric is like the fabric that results from working with slubby yarns, the yarns that are thick in some places, but thin in others. This type of fabric is full of subtle, but unmistakable variation. It has loose, almost lacey areas where thin yarns form a meshlike fabric; it has dense areas where thick loops interlock; and it has normal areas where thick and thin loops come together.

Variegated yarns are a dramatic version of the heathers. Variegation progresses through unmuted shades of the same color or more commonly from one color to another. The cape I’m making now has several shades of pink and peach, , a related lavender, white, and green. Texturally, the general effect is like making a slubby fabric, only imagine that the different fabrics—mesh, dense, and standard—are made of different yarns, maybe silk, wool, and cotton, so while the way one color or texture blends into the next is subtle, the over all effect is not.

Jewel tones are vivid medium or dark colors resembling gemstones (e.g., ruby red, emerald green, sapphire blue). They’re usually solid or nearly solid (meaning subtle variations of the same bold color), and they draw the eye, so they’re best for items that make a statement, comparable to a melody heavy with fortissimos, allegros, or slinky syncopations.

Colors and Stitch Patterns

To show off stitch patterns, solids and heathers in light to medium shades work best.

The darker the yarn, the less likely people are to see the stitch patterns and the more impressed they’ll be by the person who could see well enough to knit or crochet with the color.

Variegated yarns are best for no-frills crafting, like stockinet, garter, or ribbing for knitters. People never see the stitches amid all the interesting color activity, so take it easy and let the variegation do the work.

Jewels are also good for no-frills stitching. The colors tend to be darker, and their vividness is pretty damn interesting in and of itself.

All of these are generalizations, of course. A sighted friend with color and craft sense can discourse on various nuances or, more likely, point out a specific yarn that does or doesn’t do well with intricate stitch patterns, but knowing broadly what these color terms mean and how they affect our work is takes some of the uncertainty about what to do with our yarn.

Winding Yarn the Modern Way

One of my favorite yarny gadgets is my Knit Picks Ball Winder. There are few things in life as miraculous and elegant as the center pull skein, a cylinder of yarn you just pull and pull from. Its one flaw, though, is that it gets misshapen and battered as it shrinks, so rewinding the leftover yarn becomes necessary when the project is finished or when yarn havoc is reeking as the work is still on the needles. “Grab a piece of paper, and wind around that,” you say. I can, but the paper slips out or loops of yarn drop off the ends, and I’ve got a tangled mess to take care of. This problem gets even bigger when I need to wind the yarn that comes in hanks, the braid-like twists expensive and handmade yarn is often sold in. For these jobs, nothing beats a ball winder or the cute cake-like center pull skeins it makes, and my favorite part of the ball winder made and sold by Knit Picks is that it gives users the option of a handle or a clamp, so they can pick where and how to use their winder.

This post is mostly about how to use a ball winder. The one I have is the Knit Picks Ball Winder, which sells for about 20 dollars, a good price, but the instructions should work for any ball winder since they all have a standard shape and work more or less the same. Mine is made out of durable plastic and is light-weight, so it’s easy to carry around the house. It’s relatively small, accommodating about 3.5 ounces or 100 grams of yarn, though thinner yarn works a little better than the thicker stuff.

The ball winder itself is a square platform with a tall wide-brimmed hat on top. One side of the platform has a crank, like the handle used to roll the windows in a car up and down, and on the other side of the platform is a sturdy L-shaped guiding wire that starts underneath and points straight up to the ceiling, like an arm bent at the elbow. These are the four important parts. The platform or base is the part that is clamped to a table. The “hat,” which is called a spindle assembly, is what the yarn wraps around. The crank is what turns the “hat” and causes the yarn to wrap evenly. The guiding wire is what keeps the yarn from tangling around the bottom of the spindle assembly and also lets the operator (you or I) put more or less tension on the yarn. The fifth part of the ball winder is the clamp or the fixed handle, depending on which either one of us is in the mood to use.

Clamping the Ball Winder to a Flat Surface

The clamp is a big L-shaped screw. The long leg of the screw has a wing nut and a large plastic wedge. The short leg of the screw has a small screw with a large head. To clamp the ball winder to the edge of a table, follow a few simple steps:

1. Remove the short screw from the short leg of the large screw.
2. Turn the ball winder so that the bottom of the base is facing the ceiling.
3. Locate a hole on the side of the platform. It is near the crank.
4. Insert the short leg of the clamp into this hole.
5. Locate a rectangular hole on the part of the base that is facing the ceiling now. It is inside a large recessed circle. You should have no trouble feeling the short leg of the screw in that rectangular hole.
6. Wind the short screw back into the short leg of the clamp. Make sure the long leg is pointing toward the ceiling.
7. Turn the ball winder right side up so that the bottom of the platform is facing the floor.
8. Set the ball winder on the edge of a table, slide the plastic wedge up to the underside of the table, and tighten the wing nut until the ball winder is firmly in place. For best results, place the ball winder near the corner of the table.

I position the ball winder so that the turn handle is to my left and the vertical guiding wire is to my right. Well, I guess I should say that I clamp the winder close to the corner of a table or counter and position myself in front of it so I can turn the crank with my left hand.

Winding the Yarn

Winding the yarn is essentially a three-step process, which involves running the yarn through the guiding wire, securing it on the top of the hat-shaped spindle assembly, and turning the crank. Here’s how that’s done:

1. Running the yarn through the guiding wire — Notice that the top of the guiding wire has a coil, really just a loop with a hanging tail. Lay the yarn between the two loops at the top of the guiding wire. The Yarn tail should be in front, and the ball end should be in back. Next, pull the yarn tail down, behind, and to the left of the wire tail. Then pull the ball end down, in front of, and to the right of the guiding wire. The yarn is now through both loops, with the tail end closest to the rest of the ball winder.
2. Securing the yarn — Notice that the top of the hat-shaped spindle assembly has two grooves, where the bullet grazed the wearer as she ducked down. Turn the “hat” so that one of the grooves is close to the guiding wire. Then lay the yarn across the “crown of the hat,” positioned in both grooves. I like to leave a longish tail, at least 6 inches (15 cm). Some people like to put a stitch marker or safety pin around the yarn at the “crown” so they can find it easily.
3. Turning the crank – Pull the guiding wire toward you as far as it goes. Place your right hand on the guiding wire, loosely holding the yarn against the wire itself or against the table near the wire. Then turn the crank clockwise with your left hand at a slow steady rate, and use your right hand to put a small amount of tension on the yarn that is being fed to the ball winder.

When I was new to winding yarn, my preferred method was to cup my right hand around the guiding wire. I could use my palm to keep track of the yarn being fed to the winder, and I still had my fingers free to check that the yarn was wrapping correctly around the spindle assembly. Now I don’t bother checking the spindle assembly because I can tell I’ve got problems when I feel heaviness or lightness as I turn the crank.

Winding While Walking

If, like me, you don’t have very many good flat surfaces to clamp your ball winder to, you can remove the clamp from the Knit Picks model and attach the fixed handle. The handle is about as long as the guiding wire, and its general shape is like the handles at both ends of a big rolling pin.

Attaching the handle is simple.

1. Turn the ball winder so that the bottom of the base is facing the ceiling.
2. Run a finger around the flat end of the fixed handle, noticing two small tabs around the edge.
3. Locate a large circular recess in the center of the base.
4. Run a finger around the circular recess in the base, noticing two small notches around the edge.
5. Position the fixed handle in the circular recess so that the tabs fit into the notches. (This is where technical manuals get all male-and-female).
6. Twist the fixed handle clockwise until you feel it click into place.

The winding process is the same. The yarn is run through the guiding wire, secured on the spindle assembly, and wrapped around the device with the crank. In fact, the first few times I wound yarn, I balanced the winder on my stomach or thigh while I did exactly what I described in the previous section.

Once I felt comfortable with the process, though, I grabbed the winder by the fixed handle, catching the yarn between the handle and my palm, and cranked away. I paused to check frequently the first few times, but eventually learned to trust the yarn and the crank to let me know what was going on.

I decided to get a ball winder because I had a few hanks of yarn to work with, but I bought the cheapest one I could find because I thought I wouldn’t use it very often. It’s turned out to be one of the handiest gadgets I have, and I really do use it fairly often. I’m glad I got the Knit Picks Ball Winder because, aside from selling at a great price, it gave me a chance to experiment with the clamp and the fixed handle. I discovered I’m a fixed handle kind of gal, so much so that I didn’t try the clamp until today as I was preparing this post.

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