Read an Excerpt
Elizabeth Zimmermann's Knitter's Almanac
By Elizabeth Zimmermann
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Meg Swansen
All rights reserved.
An Aran Sweater
ONCE UPON A TIME there was an old woman who loved to knit. She lived with her Old Man in the middle of a woods in a curious one-room schoolhouse which was rather untidy, and full of wool.
Every so often as she sat knitting by the warm iron stove or under the dappled shade of the black birch, as the season might dictate, she would call out to her husband:
"Darling, I have unvented something," and would then go on to fill his patient ears with enthusiastic but highly unintelligible and esoteric gabble about knitting.
At last one day he said, "Darling, you ought to write a book."
"Old man," she said, "I think I will."
So she did.
It was well-received, but, although it contained much that was reasonable, and even new, it did not contain all the things she knew about knitting, nor any of those things she continued to "unvent." So she wrote another book, and you hold it in your hands right now ...
IT is QUITE TRUE; we do live in a schoolhouse in the middle of a woods. We have been in the United States since 1937, and we have three grown-up, beautiful, and intelligent children. One of them has two children.
I was born and brought up in England, in a middle-class family, and was educated by governesses and in private schools, which means that my head contains some very odd pieces of information, indeed, and little formal knowledge.
My husband was born and erzogen in Bavaria, in a family of considerable culture, and had a good German education in proper schools and the University.
For "brought up" and "erzogen" you may read "raised," but that always sounds to me like bread.
Our backgrounds and nationalities appear to complement each other nicely; we are now retired, and enjoying it exceedingly. He can carpenter, plumb, read, paint, write, brew beer, shoot, and fish. I can do none of these things except read and paint.
But I can knit. I knit all year, day in, day out. It is my passion, and I rarely knit the same thing twice the same way.
Here, then, is a knitter's almanac; a monthly record of the changing year in the light of my amiable craft. Let us start with a challenge—an Aran Sweater. Simpler projects will follow.
IT IS A COLD AND SNOWY JANUARY. The holidays are done with, and Twelfth Night will be any day now: what better time to embark on a long and lovely project? I have masses of thick unbleached natural cream wool, which with luck should work up into a really solid-looking Aran. It knits best at stitches to 1", measured over stocking-stitch, and if you can find some wool which knits at the same GAUGE, we can work together.
Because I am thoughtful and kind, I will give directions for the same classic Aran at a GAUGE of 5 stitches to 1" (measured over stocking-stitch) at the end of the chapter, which means that I shall be making two sweaters while you make one, but it's all in the day's work, and a pleasure, I assure you.
For centuries Arans have been knitted by the womanfolk of the Western Isles of Ireland from the cream-colored, unbleached, handspun wool of their own sheep. Many of the jerseys have turtle-necks to keep out the wind, and 7/8 sleeves that don't get wet and draggled when the nets are pulled in. Originally each family had its distinctive patterns, as the Scottish clans had their tartans. I don't know the reason for this in Scotland, but I have heard that the Aran family-patterns helped to identify the man washed up drowned. A sobering piece of common sense.
Some patterns were used by all families, but by now, what with loosely-knitted imitations from goodness-knows-where flooding the cheaper sweater market, the whole subject has become thoroughly confused.
Let us, therefore, design our own Aran, using the patterns that please us most. There are beautiful pattern-books available which contain many hundreds of different and distinct patterns in the Aran idiom. When you consider the combinations and permutations of so many possibilities, you can see that every knitter in the world could design a different sweater from various arrangements of these beautiful stitches.
Most Aran patterns are forms of cable, and all Aran sweaters contain several different ones. For ease of execution, I often divide my Arans into four, and put the same sequence of patterns in each quarter. You could, with only slightly more effort, divide your sweater in half, with the same pattern-sequence on back and on front. Or make a sampler of all different patterns, with the back different from the front.
Now pay close attention; the watchword for the next page or so will be GAUGE. What better way to start a book dealing with knitting?
GAUGE means the number of stitches—or, if necessary, fractions of a stitch—to 1" in a given knitted article. Directions unfortunately often recommend a definite needle-size for this GAUGE. Please,oh please do not rely on this.
Take some of your wool and the size needle your intelligence tells you might be right, and make a swatch. That is to say, suit the needle-size to your own personal and peculiar way of knitting. Do NOT try to get 5 stitches to 1" on a # 8 needle if you have to work uncomfortably tightly to attain this GAUGE. It is my private opinion that a #8 needle is customarily recommended for 5 stitches to 1" because it is physically impossible to knit at a finer GAUGE with it, no matter how you squeeze your stitches.
Some of us do not like to squeeze our stitches; we like to knit loosely and placidly. For a GAUGE of 5 stitches to 1" we may need a #5 needle, and should use one. Experiment, for goodness' sake.
The foregoing, which I lay before you in all seriousness, and from the bottom of my heart, now brings us to the hitherto knotty problem of the GAUGE of Aran knitting.
Regrettably, many Aran directions call for a GAUGE of so and so many stitches to 1" measured over patterns. This piece of doubtfully useful information belongs, if anywhere, at the end of directions; at the beginning it can lead only to muddle and possible sorrow. Are we supposed to cast on the full number of stitches, and, having completed several inches in patterns, and measured, find out that our knitting is too tight or too loose? We have very possibly been using the size needle recommended, our knitting tension is different from that of the knitter of the model, and this is the result.
When the original sweater was completed, the knitter probably laid it out flat, measured it, divided the number of stitches by the inches, and gave the result as the necessary GAUGE in pattern. How she arrived at the right number of stitches to cast on in the first place, it is perhaps kinder not to ask, as there is no easy way. Aran stitches, and all cables, pull in differently one from another, and if there are several patterns, all pulling in at various tightnesses, each will have a different GAUGE.
If, when the model was finished, the knitter had simply taken the same needles and wool, and worked up a small rectangle of stocking-stitch, and taken the GAUGE from that, we could do likewise, and match our stocking-stitch to hers. Then we would be in the clear for using the same needles and wool to make our Aran patterns at the same GAUGE as hers, and come out at least approximately right.
When you look at directions for an Aran, look also for the words "GAUGE measured over stocking-stitch," and you will save yourself grief. Should the directions say "GAUGE measured over patterns," proceed warily. Then it is a good idea to cast on half the stitches for the total body-width, and embark on an Aran cap instead of a swatch. Use all the patterns called for, and if the cap turns out to be exactly half the width of the intended sweater, you can start on this without a qualm, and be one cap to the good. Make it 6—8" high, and bring it to some kind of a finish at the top. It is sure to fit somebody.
Should you realize that the cap is turning out narrower than half the wishedfor width of the sweater, change to larger needles; your cap will be narrower at the lower edge, which is an advantage.
If it is wider than you want, change to smaller needles, and make it upside-down—that is, with the narrower piece for the lower edge. Cast off, knit up stitches along the cast-on edge, and finish it for the top.
Now you have a cap—or even two—some part of which is the correct GAUGE, and you can proceed with your sweater enjoying a feeling of confidence and rewarded intelligence.
There is a way of modifying a group of Aran patterns in a sweater without changing the needle (and thus the GAUGE), which I always bear in mind when working on a new design. I compute as best I can—drawing on experience, naturally—the number of stitches for half the sweater, and start the cap. (Isn't it convenient that a cap measures just about half a sweater?) Should the cap turn out narrower than I had hoped—shall we say by 2"—I add the necessary 2" in the form of more purled stitches between the patterns. All true Arans have one or more purled stitches between their patterns. I reserve the right, and you can too, to decide on how many of them my sweater will have. If the GAUGE, measured over stocking-stitch, is 3 1/2 stitches to 1", seven added stitches between patterns will yield two extra inches. If seven doesn't fit in too well, make it six, or eight; we will not quarrel with one stitch.
If my cap turns out too wide, I can take away some of the purled stitches between patterns, modify one of the patterns, or eliminate it entirely.
Let us cast on, then, for our experimental caps, anything between 90 stitches in thick wool and 100 or 110 stitches in finer wool, and forge ahead with the mental turnings and twistings which will result in a truly individual Aran, designed by you for you. Or for someone even dearer. You can take note of what I do, and do likewise; or improve on me.
Should you find these "Notes for Thinking Knitters" intimidating, look at the end of the chapter. There you will find exact directions for making this classic Aran, 44" around, with more purled stitches between patterns, at a GAUGE—measured over stocking-stitch-of 5 stitches to 1". Use any yarn that works up at this GAUGE. Unbleached cream all-wool is what should be used.
I took down Gladys Thompson's exemplary book "Patterns for Guernseys, Jerseys and Arans", the very first and best of the Aran books, which shows only classic and genuine Irish designs, and from it I chose two patterns. One is very wide; I shall put it twice on the front and twice on the back, and shall have little room left for much else, but never mind. It is an understated but rich pattern, and one of my favorites. As it has no name known to us, we call it "Fishtrap", because that is of what it reminds us. It will be flanked by narrow twisted-stitch cables; two of them to each quarter. The quarters will be divided by an absolutely minimal pattern—a vertical rib of just one twisted stitch (K 1 back). This stitch will run up both underarms and up the center of back and front. As I am planning a cardigan, I shall substitute K 1 B, P 2, K 1 B, at center-front, to allow for cutting.
Yes; I always cut cardigans, for I start them (and finish them, too, for that matter) as circular pullovers. Circular construction is especially desirable for Aran work, for it has it all over two-needle knitting when one is working complicated cables. If you have the right side of your knitting constantly under your eagle eye, you are much less likely to go astray with the patterns, and I think you will find the directions easier to read, too. I have arranged "Fishtrap" for you in columns, divided by its three vertical lines of K 1 B. Even if you tend to confuse the travelling-stitches, you will be able to use these vertical lines as guides. Between them, as you shall see, the travelling-stitches veer in several directions.
What is a "Travelling-Stitch"?
It is an essential but quite simple feature of many Aran designs, and is no more than a miniature two-stitch cable which edges its way to left or to right. If it is to travel to the left, it is achieved by Left Twist (LT); if it is to travel to the right, by Right Twist (RT). LT and RT are sometimes known as Back Twist (B tw) and Front Twist (F tw) respectively, as they are started from the back and from the front. I think that LT and RT are more expressive terms, and shall stick to them from now on.
A cable is usually made by taking two stitches on a spare needle and holding them in front of your work (Left Cable), or at the back of your work (Right Cable), while you knit the next two stitches. You then put the first two stitches back on the lefthand needle, and knit on. The two pairs of stitches have changed places, and you have effected a cable. Larger cables may be made in pairs of three, four, or even five stitches, or sometimes on uneven pairs of stitches. The smallest cable is made with two stitches, and this is the one that concerns us at the moment.
After the first few times of taking a single stitch on a spare needle, holding it in front or at the back while you knit the next stitch, and it trying to slide off all the time, the craythur, you will smartly come to the decision not to fool around with spare needles, but simply to knit the second stitch first and the first one second, and slide them both off the lefthand needle together. If you keep cabling the stitch in the same direction, it will start creeping across your knitting to become a full-blown Travelling Stitch. If you want it to travel to the Left, knit the second stitch from the back first; if to the Right, knit the second stitch from the front first. In short, perform Left Twist (LT) or Right Twist (RT) respectively. Here is how they go:
Skip the first stitch on the needle, and dig into the second stitch from the back. Knit it, but do not take it off the needle. Now knit into the front of the first stitch, and slip them both off the needle together. LT completed. It leans to the left.
I perform this differently from some knitters, and perhaps you will like this way too: Knit two stitches together from the front, but don't take them off the lefthand needle. Now dig into the second stitch, knit it again, and slip both stitches off the lefthand needle together. RT completed. It leans to the right, and is a good mirror-image of LT, even though performed in a rather unorthodox fashion.
The only other stitches you will need for "Fishtrap" are Knit (K), and Purl (P) of course, and Knit 1 Back (K 1 B), knit into the back of the stitch, thus twisting it.
"Fishtrap" is 35 stitches wide and 28 rounds high, and I have given you a chart for it as well as conventional written-out instructions with the kind permission, nay, encouragement, of Barbara Walker. It is she who has collated and rationalized the disparate theories of charted knitting, and licked them into magnificent shape. Once you have tried complicated patterns, or even simple ones, from her charts, you will look only with pity on written-out directions.
The chart is as wide and as high as a single pattern-repeat. Start at the lower righthand corner and work your way across, following the symbols. A blank square is a Knit stitch; a dot is a Purl stitch. Where two diagonal lines run to the Left over two squares, make a Left Twist; where they run to the Right, make a Right Twist. The square with the B in it means "Knit 1 Back" (K 1 B); a twisted stitch.
Having, on a circular needle, of course, finished the execution of round 1 on the pattern-chart, complete the first round, putting in the other cables and the repeats of "Fishtrap", until you come to the first stitch of the round again. Then work round 2. And so on. Every pattern-round is shown, and every stitch. Notice that on the even-numbered rounds there are no twists: just knit and purl your way around. Don't forget the K 1 Bs.
A great advantage of this kind of chart is that it gives you a pretty good picture of the design you are aiming at. It has as many squares as there are stitches, and each stitch is in the correct relationship to its neighbors. Even if you insist on working from the written-out directions, check your progress with the chart. I'm willing to bet that you will finish up your Aran working from the chart alone.
Excerpted from Elizabeth Zimmermann's Knitter's Almanac by Elizabeth Zimmermann. Copyright © 2010 Meg Swansen. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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