Tuesday, February 21, 2012

FEAR NOT THE FAIR ISLE


I've been knitting for about 10 months now, having been a lifelong crocheter.  I've managed to work my way up from dishcloths to socks to (wow!) an American Girl sweater.  I lack the confidence to try a real sweater or an intricate shawl.  I also panicked at the thought of doing Fair Isle patterns or Norwegian patterns or anything involving more than one color.  I had read instructions in various knitting books and it just seemed too tricky, too complicated, too fraught with peril.  I imagined myself with strands of colored yarn going every which way, tangled and knotted and tying up my fingers like a straitjacket.

Enter Elizabeth Zimmermann.  I had heard her name on many knitting blogs and knew her to be quite popular (and quite radical back in the 1950s when she came out with daring ideas on the ancient needle art).  I have several of her books and she has a witty, dry humor that I love.  Her patterns, though, were as intimidating as the aforementioned two-color knitting.  They're more vague than I'm used to and seemed to assume I actually knew what the hell I was doing (which is never a good idea).  Now I understand the Zimmermann fan base.  I picked up Knitting Workshop on VHS from the library.  I'm assuming this was a PBS weekly series, produced in the early 1980s.  The tape starts with the basics, which I already knew, casting on and so forth.  She then had us start a hat and since I have a ton of wool gleaned from the Hobby Lobby clearance racks, I figured that was as good a project as any.  After having me merrily knit an inch of knit two, purl two ribbing and increase evenly around the hat in stockinette stitch, she announced that we were going to learn color blocking.  In other words...knitting with two colors.  Yikes!

I prepared myself for a complete disaster, got out a second color, and followed along.  And the result was astonishing.  I could actually do it.  Turns out it wasn't nearly as difficult as I had imagined.  It helped that she has a suggested technique, namely using Continental-style knitting for one color, American-style for the other.  (For non-knitters, this means that you knit one color with your left hand, one color with your right.)  The benefit is that your two strands of yarn stay separated, no great tangling of yarn and colors.  Zimmermann also has very specific ideas about what is and what is not necessary when color blocking and her advice made the whole process quite simple.

I started off with an incredibly basic little color pattern on my hat.  I was so amazed when I finished the first three rows to see that I was doing it successfully that I stayed up way too late that night finishing it up.  It was nothing to write home about for others, but for me I had painted the Mona Lisa.  Over the week I gradually stretched myself to try more complicated patterns (well, as complicated as you can get on something as small as a hat).


My incredibly simple (but awe-inspiring to me) first attempt on
the left.  My Sidney Poitier-inspired challenge a couple days
later on the right.


Thanks in part to Turner Classic Movie's Oscar film festival I managed to churn out half a dozen hats this week.  I had an unintentional Sidney Poitier film festival by watching In the Heat of the Night one night, followed by The Defiant Ones the next night.  (I'm thinking now I need to get out my own dvd of Lilies of the Field, which features Mr. Poitier's fine acting combined with him working on a church roof in all his gorgeous, muscular, shirtless beauty.  Sigh...)

The downside to all this knitting is that there are only so many heads in my family and only so many who are willing to wear hats.  (The Vulcan, my mother, and sister all turn down offers of hand knit chapeaux.)  Enter Bright Connections, a group working to improve the lives of Russian orphans in Kiev.  I found a post on JoAnn's forum asking for donations of hand knit hats and scarves.  Bingo!  The perfect intersection of knitting and philanthropy!  I need to get the goods to Sacramento by March 7 so they can be taken with them to Russia.  I'm hoping to have a full dozen hats done in time to ship them out next week.  If you'd like to read more about Bright Connections, please check out their site here.  If you're interested in donating your handy work, please contact brightconnections@hotmail.com.

For those interested in the patterns I used, the basic hat came from the companion book to Knitting Workshop.  The color blocking patterns came from another Elizabeth Zimmermann book, The Opinionated Knitter.  And I leave you with a quote from the divine Mrs. Z:

"Really, all you need to become a good knitter are wool, needles, hands, and slightly below-average intelligence. Of course superior intelligence, such as yours and mine, is an advantage." 


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3 comments:

quilt32 said...

Although I seemingly have everything Mrs. Zimmerman says is necessary, I've never done well with knitting. I love these hats.
Mom

Maggie said...

Holy Moly! Those are beautiful. I have knitted for years - maybe 8? And I've never attempted anything like that. Make me maybe want to try...

steph said...

Shannon--these are amazing!!!! Such a good job--and so fast!!!