Sunday, June 30, 2013

Tour de Fears 2013

I live with two spinning wheels, but I live with them in the way that I once lived with an empty-headed, perky-nippled go-go boy. He had his space, I had mine. No touching.

The difference is that I would like to spend more time with the wheels. I have spun on them and enjoyed it. I was given some merino roving and turned it, ultimately, into a decent hat. Here's what I did: I spun one bobbin of singles and chain-plied it. Chain plying allows you to turn one spun strand into a three-ply yarn. I was too lazy to spin two more bobbins to get a three-ply. I didn't know at the time that chain plying is supposed to be scary and difficult, so it wasn't.

Then came a dormant period, during which work picked up and spinning receded to the deep background. People would ask, as they do in this business, whether I was a spinner. "Yeah," I would say. "Kinda."

I became kinda a spinner the way I am kinda a go-go boy, which is to say not at all any more.

Then along came the Tour de Fleece, one of those lovely grass-roots events that has become possible in our electronically interconnected age. The idea is this: You set yourself a spinning goal, and you spin every day that the Tour de France bicycle race is racing. When the cyclists have a day off, so do you. You don't have to spin during every minute of the race, just every day. What you try to do with your tour is up to you. You could aim for endurance, production, skill building–it matters not. It's a self-guided tour.

I "did" the Tour de Fleece a couple of years ago. Kinda. What I did was decide that the partial bobbin on the wheel, which had been sitting there for eighteen months, was bugging me. So I took it off the flyer and stuck it on the bobbin rack. Then I had a glass of champagne.

Even without the half-empty bobbin the wheel continued to bug me. It sits in the dining room, and I pass it many times a day.

Then my friend greensideknits sent me note via Twitter (hi, I'm @franklinhabit) that the Ravelry fan group devoted to the BBC radio serial The Archers was forming a Tour de Fleece team. This is the team badge.


I never miss The Archers and I love that badge. The Latin motto translates to "Yeah, whatevs." Which has basically my attitude to spinning during the recent fallow period.

So I signed up.

The Tour started yesterday. I was ready. I had procured a batt of Corriedale from one of my favorite dyers, Lunabudknits. It's from her "Smoothie" line.


Unfurled it looked even better. Almost too pretty to tamper with.


But I tampered.

I began spinning it the only way I know how: with a worsted short draw. I made a sample, as Judith MacKenzie McCuin (in The Intentional Spinner) advises. I was not pleased with the results. Wiry, hard. Nasty to touch. Off the bobbin they came.


There is no point in spending a month spinning yarn you don't like.

So after Day One of the tour, I have changed course. I have decided that rather than the ho-hum goal of taking something pretty that is not yarn and making it into pretty yarn, I will instead pursue what is, to me, the frightening goal of using very, very good fiber to learn a new technique: woolen long draw.

In one day, this has unearthed a small mountain of deep-seated issues related to feelings of guilt, anxiety, unworthiness, inhibition, and perfectionism. If that sounds highly unpleasant, it is. But I'm staying on the wheel, because I think I may end up getting far more out of Tour de Fleece 2013 than I bargained for. Even if I don't end up with any yarn.

More about that tomorrow. Gotta spin.

Wait...One More Thing

Brief bathing drawers update. I found the perfect yarn and it's on the way. More on that when it arrives.

Wait...One Other Thing

Spinning celeb Jacey Boggs has launched a new magazine, Ply. The first issue is just out and is apparently selling like mad. It's an awfully good magazine. I have a regular cartoon feature in it.

We call this "irony."

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Getting Deeper Into My Drawers

My life, it sure is hot stuff.

In case you missed the previous installment, I'm setting out to knit myself a pair of late nineteenth-century gentlemen's bathing drawers whether you like it or not.


It's a bit of advance fun for this: a Nautical Knitting Caribbean cruise with Melissa Leapman. Melissa has caught the fever and is pelting me with illustrations and photographs of vintage knitted suits, though none quite so old as my intended.

We're having such a good time that we've decided to make this a challenge for all the cruisers. (If you're not yet on the passenger list, the link above will tell you how to become one.)

If you're one of the happy souls who will be sailing with us in December, knit or crochet yourself a piece of cruise wear. It can be any sort of cruise wear–not necessarily a bathing suit.

We're easy–it can be a cover-up for over your bathing suit, something to lounge in on deck, something to wear that's got a nautical theme to it. And we're going to award prizes.

Here in the workroom, I have been puzzling over what level of historical accuracy is called for with this piece. Chief among my concerns is the choice of fiber, which at the time would have been wool. Period. Until the arrival of springy, waterproof artificial fibers, most bathing costumes were made of wool–knitted or not.

It was the best choice–but that doesn't mean it worked perfectly.

Since I announced this project, I've been deluged with tragic tales of wool bathing suits. They sag. They itch. They fill up with sand. They refuse to dry out. They were replaced by synthetic suits quickly, completely, and for good reason.

In 2013, wool's not my only option. I could, for example, choose a yarn like Cascade Fixation that blends cotton and elastic. With elastic, I might create a suit that won't sag to my knees and expose my goodies the minute it hits the pool.

But it won't be a Victorian suit. It won't even be close.

The point of this, and there is one, is that I want to experience an original suit as nearly as possible, and that means wool. Furthermore: unlined wool. If I find the knitting of this suit is enjoyable, and decide to knit another, I'll see about trying something more modern next time.

With that question settled, I had to determine what weight of yarn to use. Nobody carries the "Baldwin and Walker's super fingering" the pattern specifies. Ain't it always the way? You pick out the pattern and find the yarn is discontinued.

I thought I'd write here about how I've determined what yarn to use, but with a caveat: mine is not a nice, tidy, organized brain. I seldom go from Point A to Point Z in a line of reasoning without detours and switchbacks. I thought about trying to make it seem otherwise, for pedagogical purposes, but I realized very quickly that worrying too much lately about making these entries polished and pretty is the number one reason you haven't heard from me.

So if you want more, and you seem too, I'm afraid you'll have to put up with the eccentric paths my projects always take.

I didn't know much about the yarn, but I did have a needle size: seven. Remember, of course, that we're talking about a British publication from before the turn of the twentieth century–so their seven is unlikely to be anything like a modern US seven.

However, I own three English needle gauges contemporary with the pattern. I checked out what a seven meant at the time–roughly, a modern 5 or 6. Roughly, because when an old size corresponds exactly to a modern size you may count yourself fortunate.

With a five or six, what sort of yarn would I need to produce a fabric that looks akin to what's shown in the engraving?

Also, with a five or six, what yarn would give me a garment of approximately the correct size?

We can only guess at the size the Weldon's suit came out, because the editors only tell us this:

For a medium, cast on 96 stitches.

That cast on is at the waist. How far around do those 96 stitches have to go? Halfway. I know this because I sat down and worked the pattern in my head, start to finish, scribbling an annotated schematic as I went. Here it is.


Not exactly complicated shaping, which I appreciate.

So for a men's medium, we need 192 stitches to wrap around the medium waist. We don't know how big the waist is, as there's no measurement given for that designation. Anywhere. Ever. Nor do they give us a desired gauge–they never do. The earliest mention of specific gauge I've ever run across was from the 1930s.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that a medium waist was considered 32 inches. You have to start somewhere. That's a medium waist in modern men's clothing construction, though more often than not it'll be vanity sized as a 30 or even a 29 waist. (Men: If you haven't actually measured your waist lately and think the number on your Levi's tag is your true measure, you're in for a nasty shock.)

And yes, yes, yes, "people were smaller in those days." Smaller, yes. What they were not, in general, is miniature. The amount of growth from then to now is often greatly exaggerated. Judging from extant examples of men's fitted garments and tailor's drafts, a waist of 32 inches would not have been either very large or very small. It would have been sorta average. You know, medium.

192 stitches divided by 32 inches equals...six stitches per inch.

Six stitches per inch is a little large for a yarn designated as "fingering," but this yarn was called "fingering" more than a century ago. Definitions change. And as you know if you've been knitting longer than a week, even now they frequently mean nothing.

A quick check of my trusty 1882 Dictionary of Needlework reveals an entry about "fingering" that confirms this was a stocking-weight yarn. Okay, fine. We recall that our particular defunct yarn was actually called "super fingering." Super, at the time, was often a designation meaning "more" or "larger." It's not out of the question, in fact it seems likely, that Baldwin and Walker were producing a yarn that was kinda like fingering, but fatter. I would have called it Baldwin and Walker's Fat Fingering, but they didn't consult me.

Here's where things get confusing. I have been able to establish with reasonable certainty the size of the needle–at smallest, a size five. A modern heavy fingering knit with a size five, even in the hands of knitter so uptight that he bends steel needles like marzipan, is going to produce loose fabric.

Loose fabric is not what is shown in the engraving, loose fabric is not theoretically desirable unless one is a late-Victorian flasher (and one is not), loose fabric is certainly not advisable in a garment that we know is going to stretch like mad anyhow.

This is where I decided to stop thinking and start knitting. With a size six needle, what would I get if started knitting with, say, a light worsted-weight wool? As luck would have it, I had some in stash.

I got a loose fabric of five stitches to the inch. Too big for the medium-sized suit, and positively transparent with even a little stretching.

So I went down a needle size, to our other possibility, a size five. I got a noticeably firmer fabric, and a gauge of five-and-a-half stitches to the inch.

I am a loose knitter. When looking to achieve the suggested gauge for a pattern, I usually go down a needle size. So I did.

I got six stitches to the inch and a very, very firm fabric. Still supple enough to wear comfortably (comfort being relative, of course) but not droopy.


If I go by needle size, the yarn I need ought to be worsted or perhaps sport weight. Any lighter, and I'll have to significantly reduce the needle size or face the possibility of indecent exposure the minute I put the drawers on. I can only assume that the super fingering was fat enough to qualify, in our time, as a sport weight. Either that, or
  • the Weldon's sample knitter had the tightest tension ever recorded;
  • the pattern gives an incorrect needle size;
  • or all three of my needle gauges, one of which is identical to the model printed in an earlier issue of Weldon's, are incredibly wrong.
Still with me?

And Finally (For Now)

Some of you were rather insistent that these could not have been meant as drawers for swimming. They're too revealing, you said. They must have been made to wear under a swimsuit or to wear while you were being bathed (as in, given a bath) by a servant, for reasons of modesty. No Victorian would ever have worn these alone to swim, it was suggested, because they didn't cover the swimmer from neck to knee.

Well, no. These were meant for swimming. I was planning to post this link to the Brighton Swim Club by way of illustration,* and was amused to see that commenter "Backyard Notes" beat me to it. We have some peculiar, popular misconceptions about "the Victorians" these days, often quickly dispelled by a look at the historic record.

These may not have been intended for mixed sea or pool bathing (you don't see any women in the Brighton group photo), but they certainly weren't for the bathroom.

Weldon's was a magazine for the middle class, not for the upper crust. It may seem in our servantless era that having a live-in maid must have made you superfancy; but it didn't. It made you solidly middle class. To retain a valet or gentleman's gentleman, you'd have needed a level of income above that. Your wife and daughters might have knit, but they probably didn't look to Weldon's for practical knitting patterns.

Only an odd and anomalous nineteenth-century man who would have put on knitted drawers so his valet could wash him.

That level of attendance would, in the first place, have been unusual. A servant (most likely not the valet, but a scullery maid or housemaid with access to the boiling water) might have filled the bath, if the house were not equipped with running water or fitted bathtubs. He might have attended the bath, in the sense of being ready, nearby, with a towel and dressing gown.

The valet might well have shaved the gentleman. Not uncommon.

But, if everything I've read is true, the valet would not have flung around the soap and cloth unless his employer were very young, very elderly, or very infirm.

Moreover, by definition a personal servant saw you at your worst and at your most naked/vulnerable. They laid out your clothes. They got you into and out of them. They packed and unpacked your cases, handled your jewels and watches, and in some instances assisted in your extra-marital (or pre-marital) philandering. You would not knit and wear special underwear to keep your valet from seeing your winkie unless you were a decidedly odd fellow indeed.

And listen, I know from odd. I'm knitting a damned pair of bathing drawers.

*Note to self: Must buy top hat.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

I Will If I Wanna

And we're back.

And you won't believe what I want to make. Let me show you the engraving.

Yes, engraving. Because you know how I am.


Gentleman's Bathing Drawers, as offered by Weldon's Practical Knitter in the 1880s/1890s.

You may well ask what I'm going to need these for. For bathing, silly. Specifically for bathing on the "Nautical Knitting" cruise with Melissa Leapman aboard the Royal Caribbean Liberty of the Seas in December. We leave from Ft. Lauderdale, and stop in Belize and Cozumel. There will be lots of water in between.

(Booking is going on now–more details are here.)

You can't very well go to the Caribbean in December on a boat with ten swimming pools and not have a pair of bathing drawers.

I've had little fond silent dreams of knitting my own swimming costume since the first time I saw one. I think it was in Rutt's A History of Hand Knitting. Or maybe not.

I haven't said much about that particular fond silent dream because people don't take it too well when you say you plan to knit something and then wear it into the water. They don't give you the ol' thumbs up and shout, "Godspeed, you crazy bastard!"

They act, instead, as though you've just announced that you intend to row across the Atlantic Ocean in a teaspoon, or shoot an apple off the cat's head with a BB gun, or watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians un-ironically.

It will itch! they cry.

It will sag! they cry.

You will look stupid! they cry.

You will waste time! they especially cry.

Allow me to address these questions one at a time.

1. I know.

2. I know.

3. Have you seen me?

4. I'm a man who knits lace shawls. Tell me more about this "wasting time."

I'm going to knit them because I wanna see what they're like. If they're terrible to wear, I want to know that for myself. I want to put myself into not the shoes, but the drawers, of a man of the 1890s who didn't have the luxury of going to Mister Fred's Sassy Swimwear and Video Salon on Halsted Street and picking up lycra shorts in a retro palm print. I expect to learn something–both about history and about garment construction–and if that's wasting time, well, that's how I most love to waste my time.

Will I regret it? Possibly. Especially since Melissa is insisting that she be allowed to photograph me modeling them for the knitters on the cruise.

So yeah, I may regret that; but you may regret it more.

We'll see.

Meanwhile, Mittens

The new Knitty is up (First Fall 2012) and for the first time, my "Stitches in Time" column features a new pattern instead of a translated antique or vintage pattern. It's for mittens, but the mittens do have one historical tie–the use of nineteenth century French embroidery charts to create the floral motifs on the hand and thumb gussets.


Because I am so very, very tired of winter gear with snowflakes on it. Florals in spring are a cliché. Florals in February, less so.

The yarn is Zitron Lifestyle from Skacel. I seem to have become slightly obsessed with it. I used it for these, for all the demonstration pieces in my "Heirloom Lace Edgings" Craftsy class, for this new design...


The Pleasant Morning Baby Bonnet

...and for one more design that's coming out in an e-book about which I shall yell and scream when the appropriate time comes.