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The knitted spreads called counterpanes that decorated many nineteenth-century beds were traditionally worked in cotton yarn. The quality of this yarn varied widely, depending upon what was locally available. I have seen counterpanes knit in every type and grade of cotton, from grocery string to carpet warp to the finest yarns of the period. I have also seen some old counterpanes that combined strips of linen knitting with linen yardage.
Even though many old patterns recommended cotton (and some suggested a particular size and even brand of needles), only a few mentioned the weight of yarn to use. Because of this, I used my own judgment as to the suitability of yarns for the samples in this book and assembled a variety that resembled the spectrum of yarns I had seen used in many actual counterpanes. Each yarn produced slightly different results, depending on its soft or hard texture and dull or shiny finish. (Cotton yarn often undergoes mercerization, a process that treats the yarn under tension with alkaline caustic soda, giving it not only an extra-smooth surface but also a lustrous finish. This yarn is usually called perle or pearl cotton.) You will see the varying results of these yarns in the photographed samples accompanying the patterns. The yarn and needle size used are noted in the captions.
For the most part, I have specified traditional cotton yarns for the patterns in this book, but depending on the project you have in mind, other yarns could be used. Linen would make lovely curtains or placemats. Wool would be suitable for a pillow cover, a throw or garments incorporating these patterns. When choosing yarn, consider the yarn's weight, texture and finish as well as its overall appropriateness for the pattern and project you have picked and for its ultimate setting.
Some readers may wonder how to estimate the amount of yarn needed for a project. It is difficult to generalize since this amount depends on the size of the yarn and needles chosen, the kinds of stitches in the selected pattern, your gauge (that is, the tightness or looseness of your knitting) and, of course, the dimensions of the full project. Therefore, I suggest knitting up an entire ball or skein of the yarn you have chosen to see how many pattern units can be made. I found, for example, when working the Scottish Farmer's Pattern (pp. 30-31) with Parisian cotton on size 1 needles, that one ball yielded six pattern units. Yet for the Dunraven Square pattern (pp. 90-93), which I worked with Wondersheen on size 0 needles, I got 4½ pattern units per skein. And for the Corinthian Squares pattern (pp. 72-75), which I knitted in Antique Bedspread Cotton on size 0 needles, one skein produced three units.
Once you know how many pattern units can be made from one ball or skein, it is simple to calculate the amount needed for the full project. First, determine the total number of units needed by dividing the dimensions for the full project by the dimensions of a single pattern unit. Then divide the total number of units needed by the number of units produced by one ball or skein of yarn. The resulting figure will tell you the total number of balls or skeins needed for the project.
Whatever your estimate of the yarn needed, however, always buy a little more. Dye lots do run out, sometimes in a matter of weeks. Keep in mind that even white yarns are dyed. By buying more yarn than you need, you may end up with leftovers, but do not worry. It is a good idea to have some yarn on hand in case you need to mend the counterpane at a later date. If you have a lot of yarn left over, you might check with the yarn store to see if the new, unused balls or skeins can be returned.
Needles and Miscellaneous Equipment
The tools used in knitting are nominal in price and easy to come by no matter where you live. They are as near as your local shopping area or your mailbox. You may, in fact, already have some of them.
Most important is a carefully chosen selection of knitting needles. Needles greatly affect the ease and pleasure of your knitting, and it is far better to buy a few needles of good quality than many of inferior grade. The needles should be smooth, with gradually tapering points that are not sharp or blunt, but slightly rounded to avoid splitting the yarn. The need for good points is even more important when working with small needles and fine yarns that have little or no stretch, such as cotton and linen.
You will also need to consider several other things in choosing needles: the needles' size, or thickness, their length, the material they are made of, and whether you want (or need) to work with straight or circular needles. The size of needles you will need depends on the gauge you prefer for the finished piece. I knitted the samples in this book mainly on sizes 0, 1 and 2 needles, which I found best duplicated the look of the historical counterpanes.
I used both straight, double-pointed needles and circular needles in various lengths to work these samples. Circular needles are among my favorites. I find them easy to work with and ideal to travel with because they have no waving ends to catch on chair arms. And they need not be used just for circular work. They can be used for any pattern that is to be worked flat and calls for straight, single-pointed needles.
I also enjoy working on double-pointed needles, which are required for many patterns. These needles also offer an advantage when working on medallion units. The needles conveniently serve as "stretchers" for the work, allowing me to stretch the work out flat, check my progress and spot any errors. In the end, the choice of needles is a matter of personal taste. By all means, use whichever needles you feel most comfortable with. But whatever your choice, always buy the best available.
Since cable needles for turning a cable do not come in sizes small enough for the pieces in this book, I use an extra double-pointed needle for this purpose. It does not have the bend of a regular cable needle, but it nonetheless securely holds the stitches being moved for the cable. Some companies package double-pointed needles in sets of five, but more often they are sold in sets of four. If you plan to work on more than one piece at a time and prefer a particular brand of needle, I suggest buying several packages of double-pointed needles.
Another matter of personal taste involves needle finish. The most common needles in sizes small enough for counterpane knitting are made of aluminum or plastic, but there are also other types of metal needles and some made of natural materials like bamboo. If you have not already found your own preference of finish, try out a variety of needles. You will soon find one that feels just right to you.
Needle weight is another consideration for some, and I include myself among them. I find that I work best with needles that are light in weight. I suggest again that you experiment to find your preference. After all, a counterpane is a time-consuming project, and it pays to work with tools that you find really comfortable.
In addition to needles, you will also need crochet hooks and tapestry needles. Crochet hooks are frequently used to join seams, finish edges or add borders; and they are invaluable for picking up dropped stitches. Match the size of the crochet needle to the size of the knitting needle you are using, and choose them as carefully as you do knitting needles. I used sizes 2.0 mm and 2.5 mm to join some of the multipart pieces in this book (see Assembling and Finishing Counterpanes on p. 14). Some other several-part patterns were joined by sewing with a tapestry needle. This needle has a blunt point with an elongated eye and is also used for weaving in yarn ends. You will want tapestry needles in sizes 13 to 16 for a range of yarn sizes.
Besides these necessary tools, there are others that make certain tasks easier. Ring markers (in small sizes for the pieces in this book) help designate where patterns begin and end, and where increases or decreases are to be made. A needle-size gauge (use one for your particular brand of needle), a stitch counter, scissors and a thimble are all useful additions to your tool box. A tape measure or ruler, T-pins or other strong straight pins, and a blocking board are important for blocking the finished piece.
I recommend tagging samples so that you will have an accurate record of your work for future reference. String tags are perfect for this purpose. Record all the relevant information about the swatch: the type of yarn, its weight and dye lot; the size of needle; the pattern name and source; and the date the sample is knitted.
A small box, approximately 5 in. by 31/2 in. by 5 in., makes an excellent spool holder, but any box about that size will do. The spool holder allows the yarn to be drawn off the spool in the direction of the twist—that is, in the direction in which it was spun and wound. If the yarn is drawn off in another direction, an extra twist will be added to it, causing it to kink and tangle.
To make a spool holder, punch holes through two opposite sides of the box. Insert a long knitting needle, a chopstick or a thin dowel through the holes and through the center of the spool to hold it steady. An empty coffee can or container of a similar size will hold a coned yarn steady.
Finally, here is one last bit of "equipment" to add to your kit. Since yarn can be snagged by rough fingernails or skin, I suggest keeping handy an emery board and hand cream.
Before settling down to knit a project, it is important to knit pattern samples to determine your gauge. This is a vital and valuable exercise for all types of knitting, and in the case of clothing, where exact fit is required, determining exact gauge is crucial. In the case of counterpanes, however, gauge is less crucial and need not be exactingly determined—a counterpane, after all, must only approximate certain dimensions to cover a bed.
Yet while there is some leeway with gauge in counterpane knitting, making sample pattern units is still important. These samples provide an opportunity to experiment with various yarns and needle sizes and let you see the pattern worked in different gauges. I suggest beginning with the yarns and needle sizes I used for a given pattern. Then if you find the sample too loosely or tightly knit, change yarns or needles or both until you produce a fabric that pleases you.
Counterpane units should be blocked on a blocking board when finished to flatten them and bring them to their final size and shape. In the photo here, a unit of Wilma's Pattern (see p. 141) is being blocked as a fan shape and a Swirls and Squares medallion (see p. 40) is pinned for blocking as an octagon. After being dampened with water and air-dried, the units will retain their shape when removed from the board.
Once you become familiar with a pattern as written, you may want to try changing it a bit. Making sample pattern units enables you to experiment with new combinations of stitches and see how patterns interact with one another. You will find that even slight variations in an element of the existing pattern can alter the appearance of the knitting. This is the time to discover that a pattern combination or a particular yarn is the right—or wrong—choice for the piece you plan to make.
An unblocked piece of knitting is in a limp, unfinished state. The blocking process makes the knitting lie smooth and flat and form to its final shape and size. Block the pieces as you finish them, and always block before joining pieces together.
For blocking you will need a surface that is flat and rigid, yet porous enough to insert pins easily. Half-inch fiberboard sheathing, a lightweight insulating material that is available at most lumberyards (I use Celotex brand), makes an excellent blocking surface. It comes in 4-ft. by 8-ft. sheets and can be cut by the lumberyard to any size you want. For my purposes, I find a 12-in. by 24-in. rectangle convenient. If you cannot find fiberboard sheathing, use a cork-faced bulletin board. You will also need heavy brown wrapping paper, several inches larger on all sides than the fiberboard or bulletin board, 1¼-in. T-pins or some other rustproof pins strong enough to be held under tension, sturdy tape and a spray bottle of water.
Cover the top of the board with the brown paper, pulling the paper tightly over the edges and taping it on the underside. With a pencil and ruler, mark off 1-in. squares with a series of parallel horizontal and vertical lines set 1 in. apart. (If you use a #2½ pencil, the pencil marks will not come off on your knitting.) These lines will be the measuring guides for the length and width of the piece being blocked and will also serve to keep it straight while it is being stretched. A ½-in. grid can be added if the size of the pattern units requires it.
It is the edge of the pattern unit with the least amount of stretch that will establish the blocked size of the piece. For strip and rectangular patterns, the cast-on edge is the one with the least amount of stretch. For squares, triangles and fan patterns, another edge may be the least elastic. And in the case of medallion patterns, all the edges will have the same amount of stretch, which means that any side can serve to establish the blocked size of the piece.
Begin blocking by placing the finished piece face up in the center of the blocking board. Position the square or rectangular units so that the edge with the least amount of stretch sits on a horizontal line and another side of the piece sits on a vertical line. For a medallion unit, position any one of its sides on a grid line, or align the points on opposite sides along a grid line, as I have done in the photo on the facing page. For a shell or fan pattern, decide first how you want to assemble the units, since they will be blocked differently for the two possible assembly methods. To join the units as a series of cascading fan shapes (see the diagram below), each unit should be blocked as a fan, as shown in the top of the photo on the opposite page. To assemble the pieces as four-unit squares, each unit should be blocked as a triangle. In the latter case, the two short sides of the unit will be blocked as a right triangle. The side with the least amount of stretch should be positioned along a horizontal grid line, and the adjoining side along a vertical line.
Assembly Options for Shell and Fan Patterns
Any of the fan or shell patterns (pp. 132-143) can be assembled in one of two ways: as a series of cascading fans or shells, or as four-unit squares. For the first method of assembly, the unit must be blocked as a fan shape, as shown in the photo on the facing page. For the second method, the unit should be blocked as a right triangle.
When working with squares or rectangles, pin one corner of the horizontal edge, pull the edge taut and pin the other corner. Then place pins at 1-in. intervals along this edge, angling the pins away from the knitting. Next, pin the top corners of the piece. Then return to the bottom edge and begin working your way up each side, pinning at ½-in. intervals and alternating from side to side. Stretch each side to its maximum as you work up the length of the piece, and be careful to keep it hugging the vertical lines and undistorted in shape. Make sure that the opposite sides are stretched equally in length, and repin them if necessary.
Work similarly with a triangle, pinning first the side you have positioned on a horizontal grid line, then the adjacent side positioned on a vertical grid line and finally the diagonal edge. Be sure to stretch and pin all edges taut, and keep the triangle undistorted. Do not rush the blocking process. Instead, be patient in order to do a good job. You are, after all, establishing the finished size of the piece and ultimately the size of the counterpane. If the pieces are blocked properly at the outset, chances are that you will not need to block them again after cleaning the counterpane.
With a spray bottle and warm water, dampen the piece well and press it with your hand so that the water penetrates the knitting. Then let the piece air-dry completely before removing the pins. Once removed from the blocking board, the piece will collapse slightly.
Assembling and Finishing Counterpanes
Counterpane pieces are joined by crocheting or sewing them together, no matter what their configuration is to be. When crocheted together, the pieces can be positioned back to back or face to face. The former produces a raised seam on the front of the fabric, which can be an interesting design element. The latter yields an invisible seam. When sewn together, the pieces are placed face to face or side to side, with the resulting seam invisible in both cases.
Crocheting Units Together
When crocheting units together, they can be positioned either back to back or face to face. To join units, insert crochet hook through edge stitch on one unit and corresponding stitch on other unit (1). You can pick up both loops of edge stitch, as shown, or just inside loop if working with pieces back to back. In latter case, strengthen seam by also picking up on back, inside loop of stitch below and corresponding pair of inside loops on other unit.
With crochet hook inserted, throw yarn over hook (1) and pull a loop through (2). Then insert hook into next pair of edge stitches, throw yarn over hook (3) and draw a second loop through. Finally, throw yarn over hook (4) and draw a single loop through the two loops (5). Continue in this fashion across edges being joined.
Excerpted from Knitting Counterpanes by Mary Walker Phillips, Patricia Abrahamian. Copyright © 2013 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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