Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Knitting In The Old Way

Nothing interesting or inspiring has come out of my kitchen this week. I've been a under the weather, and nobody wants to see photos of plain rice and breakfast cereal. Yesterday I finally got up the energy and the optimism for a gluten-free yeasted bread, but I won't be sharing the recipe here, because it was disgusting.

Fortunately, I've been having more success with knitting. Thanks to a series of classes offered at Fiberphilia this spring, I can finally knit a sweater. When I was a new knitter, without a local yarn shop to help me find my way in the world, I wasted skeins of expensive yarn knitting cubist sweaters: front longer than the back, left sleeve inches higher than the right. I learned, incorrectly, that sweaters are knit in flat pieces—front, back, sleeves—and sewn together at the end. I was relying on patterns to tell me how many stitches I needed, and how many rows to knit. If I couldn't achieve the number of stitches per inch used in the sample, I couldn't make the sweater.

But the mothers and grandmothers of northern Europe didn't knit that way; they created warm, well-fitting works of art without patterns to tell them whether they were doing it right. They considered their yarn, the needs of the wearer, and the proportions of torso, arms, chest, and neck. Knitting in the Old Way: Designs and Techniques from Ethnic Sweaters contains the collected wisdom of centuries of free-form sweater knitting. It was the textbook for Fiberphilia's sweater series.

My first project was a miniature version of the Icelander:

Instead of knitting this sweater in pieces, I knit the body as a tube, bottom to top, and steeked (cut) holes for arms. I never would have been brave enough to try steeking on my own, but it's so quick and logical, and it allows for easy knitting with two (or three, or four!) colors.

My favorite part of the sweater is the traditional stripe that is carried up the side of the body, under the armpit, and down the sleeve. When I make myself an adult sized version of this Icelander, I will never stop waving to people and doing the YMCA.

My next project was an Icelandic yoke sweater:

I sewed tubes for the lower body and arms, then joined all the tubes together on a long circular needle and knit around and around and around, decreasing in a few spots. Easy!

Knitting in the Old Way provides the sketches and guidance you need to design traditional sweaters with any yarn, for any body. A bit of math is involved, but it's nothing more than simple ratios. Given a chest measurement, how wide should a neck be? What about shoulders and wrists? Using your chosen yarn, how many stitches should you aim for?

What looks intimidating at first glance is simply working backward from measurements of the body the sweater will go on. It couldn't be more logical, or more liberating. I'm ready to ditch my old books of patterns and start designing from scratch.

For the first time in my life, sweaters make more sense than bread!


  1. Thanks for the book recommendation. Your wee test sweaters are absolutely gorgeous, I can't wait to see what you make full-size! I absolutely love yolk style sweaters, but I've never seen a pattern for them, so I'll definitely have to check out this book! Also, you went from no sweaters to colour work sweaters? Amazing! :)

  2. Really? The bread was disgusting, because it looks great. And so do the sweaters, very Very impressive! I love the idea of making my own clothes but the best I've done with knitting is a scarf--if you could call it that.
    Eco Mama

  3. Those look so great Mary! I wish I was skilled enough to make a sweater. I can't wait to see your full-sized ones.

    Sorry to hear that you are sick. I don't blame you for not cooking much this week. I never want to cook when I am sick either. Feel better!

  4. Those are works of art, Mary! The bread looks really good, sorry to hear it was gross. Hope you are feeling better as well! :)

  5. LOL, sorry to hear about the nasty bread! Cute sweater though :)

  6. ahhhh possibly the cutest sweaters of all time! Awesome job, love it!

  7. Wow, I wish I could knit like that!

    Sorry about the bread. Hope it works out next time.

  8. Mary, those sweaters are beautiful! You must be so proud. Sorry to hear about the bread, though.

  9. Amazing knitting! What I would give for the skill and patience to make sweaters like this.

  10. Ok, 24 hours after the fact I realized I typed yolk, not yoke. Obviously, I was just *that* smitten!

  11. Those mini sweaters are adorable!!! I really love the color combo on the yoked sweater, it would look super cute in human size!


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