The Sunny Side of Working with Linen… mainly

One of challenges about moving to a country that has reliably hot summers is knowing what to knit in the summer months, or in fact whether you can knit at all. As we move into what here in the northern hemisphere is being referred to as ‘sweater weather’ and ‘sweater season’, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on my first summer of knitting here in Italy. In truth I feel like I’ve only just dipped my toe into this, so these reflections are very much first impressions.

We moved in June but since then I’ve been back to the UK for work and have been finishing up work projects and working to deadlines. We’ve also been working on the house doing lots of DIY and gardening, planting fruit trees and getting the vegetable garden into production. That has largely been successful so has also meant jam and chutney making along with preparing vegetables and tomato sauce etc. for the freezer.  With all this activity, and the heat meaning that we tended to eat later in the evening when it had cooled down, I had less actual knitting time than would normally have been the case. Add to this the combination of some unseasonably hot weather and menopausal hot flushes and yes, I’m afraid my knitting has taken a bit of a downturn.

I did have doubts about whether wool would be the best option for knitting in the heat and took precautionary action in the form of Lithuanian linen from Midwinter yarns and paired it with Isabel Kraemer’s Sunny Side [up] pattern which had been in my Ravelry queue since it came out in 2013. A short sleeved T-Shirt with a lace panel through the front, it seemed a perfect, simple linen project to see how I liked it before moving onto the more complex/elaborate projects in my queue.

I must admit I had a lot of reservations about working with the linen, I’m not the greatest fan of cotton and for some reason thought linen would simply amplify the problematic characteristics I associate with cotton. I find cotton hard on the hands for example. The linen I’d chosen also seemed very thin so I wasn’t sure how much I’d enjoy knitting with it.

My first step was to wind a skein into a ball. I was very careful and wound it into a nice neat centre pull ball that, with some cautious but not overly fussy handling, stayed together to the end. This may have been beginners luck because I completely messed up winding the second skein producing a tangled mess then after some prolonged untangling over several sessions, 2 reasonably sized balls and two rather small ones.

The second step was to swatch, partly to see how I liked knitting with the yarn and also to check my gauge of course. The pattern gauge is 24 stitches and 32 rows, my first swatch on the recommended 4mm needles measured 17sts x 31 rows unwashed. Not only was the stitch gauge pretty far off, I also didn’t like the fabric very much.

So I dropped down a needle size to 3.75mm and swatched again, measured my gauge 20 sts x 31 rows, washed my swatch and measured my gauge again, 23 sts x 28 rows.

This was the first surprise that this linen yarn had in store for me, that the stitches shrank in width but grew in height, enough to make a significant difference over a whole garment. I popped my swatch in pocket and walked around with it for the day  to see how movement and agitation  would affect it. It softened slightly losing the slight rigidity it had on drying and became a little more drapey.

2 swatches, the same number of stitches and rows worked. The swatch on the left is straight off the needles, the one on the right is washed and blocked. You see what I mean?!

Another thing that my swatch taught me was that although I was happy with how the linen fabric looked at a looser gauge in stocking stitch, the garter stitch looked much messier. I later found out that this was the case even on a needle a couple sizes smaller. For me, if I want to work more texture in linen I think I’d need to do so at a much tighter gauge to be happy with it.

I cast on my ‘Sunny Side [up]’ at Newcastle Central Railway Station at 6.45 am one morning and powered through the short row neck section as we made our way to Manchester. However, the neckline just wasn’t working out as I would have expected, so once I was awake enough to actually think about it, I came to the conclusion that I’d done something wrong and started looking at other peoples’ projects on Ravelry. From there I realised that of the 200 plus people who’ve knit it, I was one of the few that managed to misunderstand the instructions, or at least own up to it!

I had 5 stitch markers arranged around my knitting 2 marking each of the 2 sets of arm stitches and a beginning/end of round marker. When the instructions said ‘knit to the third marker’, rather than knit to the third marker I came across I knit to the third marker I had placed, so all my short rows focussed around one marker and gave me a very strange shaped piece of knitting for a round neck. Had I knitted, as I was supposed to, to the third marker I encountered each time, then all would have worked out perfectly, which it did, second time around…

Aware from my swatch that the stitches would shrink in width and grow in length, I planned to take out some length but still wanted to finish with a complete repeat. To do the latter meant that I only took about an inch and half out of the pre-blocked length, but actually that was enough and my garment ended up the length in the pattern.

That said, and despite what my swatch told me, I still wasn’t expecting quite the difference between my pre and post blocked measurements across the whole stitch count of the body.

Below is the schematic diagram from the pattern and the intended measurements for my size, and then my actual sizes of my Finished Object (FO) pre and post blocking.

Maybe you can see why I was concerned when pre-blocked it looked, and actually was, so wide. Had it not been so far off, indeed 12 inches or 30 cm bigger around at the bust than expected I doubt I would have actually stopped and measured it and compared it to the schematic prior to blocking. On the other hand, if it hadn’t been scrunched up an a shorter needle because all my longer needles were in other projects, and therefore I’d been able to see properly how wide it was while working on it, I’d probably have had a crisis of confidence sooner.

In this instance, as the second measurements show, blocking did resolve the issue and these extra 12 inches or 30cm at the bust disappeared and my top came out the size I’d intended and that my swatch had indeed predicted. If ever there’s a time when you really need to both swatch and to block your swatch, it’s when knitting with linen.

But, and yes, I’m starting a sentence with ‘but’ because it’s a pretty big one, despite knitting and blocking to the size in the pattern, when I tried it on I wasn’t keen on the length. I didn’t think too much of it until I realised it had been on the dress form for a week after taking the finished object picture. This convinced me I needed to decide  whether it was something that would stop me wearing it and therefore I needed to resolve it, or whether was OK with it. Then as I was giving it the side eye on the dress form, I spotted two glaring errors in the final lace repeat that had gone completely unnoticed when blocking.

So, off the form it came, the sewn in end was picked out, the final stitch undone and the knitting ripped back to the end of the penultimate lace repeat. Ripping back, the lovely linen stitches just sat there, holding their shape waiting to be picked up.  With all the stitches on these needles I tried it one again just to double check the length and decided it was good. I then worked the garter stitch edging again and cast off.

So all’s well that ends well…

As for the experience of knitting with the linen yarn, I actually enjoyed it a lot more than I expected. The yarn formed very round stitches that did slip off the needles at times but when they did so they held their shape, were easy to pick up and did not run or drop down.

I do knit more slowly with the linen than I do with wool. Suspecting this to be the case I tested this theory comparing my linen knitting with my sock knitting and the wool sock on dpns, was definitely speedier than linen on a circular. Whilst I find this interesting it certainly isn’t a deal breaker.

In fact, I’m planning my next linen cast on, although this will be in spring because I’ve a couple of wool projects to keep me going over the winter.  I’m wavering between Monarri by Stephanie Earp or the Ginga top by Yoko Johnston, both of which I love. I have the couple of skeins of linen in a dusky purple originally bought with Ginga in mind and have enough of the green left over that could be the contrast for Monarri…

Decisions, decisions. One thing I know for sure, I’ll be watching and washing my swatch before jumping in.

I’d love to hear about your experience of knitting with linen or fibres other than wool.

All, the best,

Tess

FO: Sunny side [up!] by Isabel Kraemer knit in Lithuanian Linen from Midwinter Yarns – Size medium with completed with 2 skeins of yarn, even before moving the final repeat.

Project cost: £23.00 – Yarn: £18.00, Pattern: £5.00 – approx (5.30 Euros). Knitting enjoyment and lessons learnt; included.


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