Fridays with Franklin - The Adventure of the Stealth Blanket, Part Two
For an introduction to what goes on in this column, click here.
For the first installment of this series, click here.
Today, as we continue the quilt-inspired blanket, I’m going to talk an awful lot about the S word. Sewing.
Don’t make that face at me. I wish I had a ball of Cashmere Queen for every knitter who has said, “Oh, I hate sewing,” after she has tried it once, for about half an armhole, then got frustrated and stuffed the project into a bag and shoved the bag into a closet and then moved to a new house without opening the closet again.
I’m not saying you have to love sewing. I’m not promising you ever will love sewing. I do believe that if you give basic sewing a fair shake, you’ll be glad to have it in your arsenal when a simple seam will get you the results that you want.
You might well ask why a knitted blanket must involve sewing at all. Many of you have asked. More than a few have asked indignantly, suggesting in heated terms that alternate methods (from join-as-you-go squares to garter stitch intarsia) would allow me to work the whole project in a single piece and avoid…shudder…sewing.
Those alternate methods all have merit, and the question is a fair one. So here’s my answer.
If I try to work a blanket this size in one piece, I know I will never finish it.
This isn’t going to be a bedspread, just alittle lap blanket; but even a lap blanket becomes a chore to haul around once you’re about a third finished. You can’t tuck it into a pouch or a pocket. You either knit it at home, stationary, confined to what I hope is a comfortable chair. Or you find a bag big enough to encompass it (along with the long, long needles and enough yarn to see you through the long, long rows) and you drag the bag from pillar to post until your shoulders give out.
If I can work on this only when I’m at home and at rest, I’ll never finish. I have to nibble away at it, square by square, wherever I happen to be–for example, in a taxi on the way to the airport–
or on the back porch–
until I’ve got enough squares to amount to something. Since the basic square is so simple, light, and small, it makes a perfect traveling project.
The sixteen I made to test this idea were worked at home, on the subway, in a few taxicabs, in four airports, in three hotels, on six airplanes, in the car, in a clutch of restaurants, and in seven states.
That’s why it’s a stealth blanket. If I’m going to knit it, I have to knit it almost without realizing I’m knitting it. If that means sewing–okay, fine. I’ll sew.
But First, I Block
My childhood needlework teacher, my late grandmother Pauline, beat it into me* that successful sewing owes much to proper preparation. We have here many small squares that we hope to join into one large square.
To get the best results those small squares really need to be square and equal. That means blocking them all to the same size and shape.
I prefer wet blocking, so all the squares went into a nice bath of warm water with a touch of gentle baby shampoo and sat there for about forty minutes.
While they relaxed, I set up an impromptu blocking frame. This idea isn’t original. In fact it’s been parroted so many times I finally gave up on trying to find the originator. Whoever you are, I salute you.
You need, first, a base of something firm but penetrable–it might be a couple layers of thick corrugated cardboard, a Styrofoam block, or–in my case–a piece of insulating foam left over from a home improvement project.
On this base, use a good straightedge (mine was one of Mom’s quilting rulers) to mark out a square the size that your finished knit squares need to be. Keep in mind that we are blocking gently–don’t expect to stretch a five-inch square to seven inches unless you’re knitting lace.
Then get yourself eight metal (and rust-proof!) double-pointed knitting needles a few sizes smaller than the needles you used to knit your squares. (Mine are eight-inch addi® double-pointed aluminum needles.)
Insert the needles into the base, as perpendicular** as you can get them: one at each corner of the square, and one in the center of each side.
After a thorough rinse, retrieve your squares from the bath and gently press out the excess water. They should still be damp, but not sopping.
One by one, stretch them over your uprights and slide them down to the base. Soon you will have a stack of clean squares blocked to match. The sight is immensely satisfying. Take a moment to enjoy it.
The downside of this method is that the stack can take a long time*** to dry. To hurry it up a bit, I a) blow a fan on it and b) peel off the topmost squares as they finish drying.
Next, We Plan
In assembling the squares for a blanket, we would do well to follow the wise example of quilters everywhere, including my own, dear mother.
Step One. Squares are sewn together into strips.
Step Two. Strips are sewn together into blocks.
Here’s the plan for sewing our block, which mimics the traditional pattern many quilters call Ohio Star.****
The arrows in the top row indicate that we first sew the four squares into a strip.
Then we sew the squares in the three rows below into three strips.
Then we sew the strips together to form the block.
This orderly approach keeps us from making grave mistakes, and also means each piece of the blanket is handled as little as possible–handling can lead to stretching, which leads to un-square squares.
Clever people, those quilters.
Then, We Prepare
Sewing isn’t knitting, even when you’re sewing two pieces of knitting together. It has a few special requirements; and if you’ll just take care to meet those you’ll be well on your way to success.
Light. Sewing needs a lot of light–in general, more than you need to knit. You can feel your way along a row of knitting, even in a dim lecture hall or a dark theatre. In sewing, you must be able to see clearly where the next stitch is to be taken. The usual table lamp in the living room may be insufficient. Work in good daylight, or under the very best artificial lighting you can muster. This is especially vital when working with dark colors.
Surface. Most of us knit with the work–even when it’s large–in our laps. Very small bits of sewing might be that portable; but you’ll do best to sew a blanket with the aid of a work surface. Do what you can to clear a level, stable area of table or desk to hold your supplies and the piece in progress. As you begin to sew the strips together into the finished block, the table will support the fabric and keep it from stretching. You’ll be able to focus on your stitches, not managing the bulk.
Length. Don’t reel off 50 inches of yarn to sew a 40-inch seam. The maximum length of yarn or thread to work with is somewhere between 20 and 22 inches. Longer than that, and you will suffer snarls, knots, and kinks sufficient to make you wish you had never been born. What’s more, long strands of knitting yarn may well weaken or wear through from repeated pulling through the fabric, and your seam will break.
Now, We Whip
I like to sew yarn to yarn with yarn–in this case, the blue (Color 1013, Tekapo) of my two-color pairing of Kenzie. My needle is the same I use for weaving in ends.
The stitch is whip stitch. It has many virtues. It is quick, easy, strong, flexible, and the same on both sides. Pattern writers from the great flourishing of knitted counterpanes in the nineteenth century usually called for blocks to be whipped together, and they knew what they were about.
Read these notes first.
General Notes. You will work your seam from right to left–unless you are left handed, in which case you may prefer to work left to right.
If you knit your squares according to the recipe in the previous column, you’ll find you have created slipped-stitch edges that look like elongated stitches. I chose this edge in part because it will help you see where to sew. When you take your stitches, always take them under both legs of that slipped edge stitch.
Don’t make your stitches too tight or too loose. You want an even tension that brings adjoining squares together with a firm but supple seam. Tight stitches will make the fabric pucker and stiffen. Loose stitches flop around shamelessly and leave gaps in the work. If after you work a seam you find your tension isn’t quite right, use the tip of your sewing needle to adjust the stitches. Nobody else needs to know.
Now, we sew.
Step One. Align your two pieces with wrong sides facing, and hold them in your non-dominant hand like a little sandwich. I work whip stitch while looking at the right sides, so I can really see what I’m doing.
Step Two. Insert your needle at the rightmost corner of the piece nearer to you, as shown. Pull the yarn through, leaving a five-inch tail hanging from the work.
Step Three. Insert the needle at the rightmost corner of the further piece, from the right side to the wrong side. In the same motion, bring the needle under the edge stitch immediately to the left of your first stitch in the nearer piece. Note that you are pointing the needle directly at yourself as you do this. Pull the yarn through until the selvages of your pieces just kiss one another. Mwah!
Step Four. Repeat Step Three, taking your next stitch in the further fabric under the edge stitch immediately to the left of your first sewing stitch. Proceed in this way to the end of the seam, taking one sewing stitch under every edge stitch your selvages.
Step Five. When you reach the end of the seam, cut the yarn leaving a five inch tail. Weave in both tails on the wrong side just as you weave in any loose ends on your knitting.
In Summary. *Insert needle from far side of work to near side under both slipped selvages and pull yarn through. Repeat from *, moving one slipped selvage stitch to the left to begin the next sewn stitch.
And At Last…
When the squares have become strips and the strips have been joined, we have a blanket.
Well, we have a blanket square. Fairly large–mine measures 21 x 21 inches. Nice for a big pillow cover, or a mat for the new baby to lie on while it does neonatal yoga.
I love the yarn. The design and construction have proven themselves worthy. But there’s one thing I’m not crazy about…the color. Rather, the lack thereof. This is fine. But I’m in a mood lately for lots of color. Not two colors, even two pretty colors like these.
I’m also thinking I’d like to try this in a slightly heavier yarn, to make the blanket really deluxe. But after sixteen squares, can I bear to start over?
Yeah, baby. Yeahhhhh. See you in two weeks.
*But don’t get crazy. If you find yourself using a square, level, and plumb, you are overthinking it.
**Not an exaggeration. I have a dent on my head where the yardstick landed.
***Names of quilt blocks are like names of knitting stitches. They abound, they vary, they contradict. You might well call this block by another name, or you might well know a different block as Ohio Star. What a world, my friends. What a world.
Tools and Materials Appearing in This Issue
Kenzie by HiKoo® (50% New Zealand Merino, 25% Nylon, 10% Angora, 10% Alpaca, 5% Silk Noils; 160 yds per 50g skein). Colors 1002 (Grey Salt) and 1013 (Tekapo).
Kenzington by Hikoo® (60% Merino, 25% Nylon, 10% Alpaca, 5% Silk Noils; 208 yds per 100g skein).
Designer, teacher, author and illustrator Franklin Habit is the author of It Itches: A Stash of Knitting Cartoons (Interweave Press, 2008). His new book, I Dream of Yarn: A Knit and Crochet Coloring Book has just been brought out by Soho Publishing.
He travels constantly to teach knitters at shops and guilds across the country and internationally; and has been a popular member of the faculties of such festivals as Vogue Knitting Live!, STITCHES Events, Squam Arts Workshops, Sock Summit, and the Madrona Fiber Arts Winter Retreat.
Franklin’s varied experience in the fiber world includes contributions of writing and design to Vogue Knitting, Yarn Market News,Interweave Knits, Interweave Crochet, PieceWork, Twist Collective; and a regular columns and cartoons for Knitty.com, PLY Magazine, Lion Brand Yarns, and Skacel Collection. Many of his independently published designs are available via Ravelry.com.
He is the longtime proprietor of The Panopticon, one of the most popular knitting blogs on the Internet. On an average day, upwards of 2,500 readers worldwide drop in for a mix of essays, cartoons, and the continuing adventures of Dolores the Sheep.
Franklin lives in Chicago, Illinois, cohabiting shamelessly with 15,000 books, a Schacht spinning wheel, two looms, and a colony of yarn that multiplies whenever his back is turned.