Litmus Cowl and Sweater

In the world before covid, last November (2019) I needed to cast on some totally mindless TV and take along public transport knitting that wasn’t a sock and I decided to knit Amy Florence’s free litmus cowl* pattern; essentially a plain stocking stitch tube joined at the ends to make an infinity cowl. A seemingly simple pattern and project, it left me plenty of head space to reflect on the relationship between mindful making and conspicuous consumption and the joy of working with beautiful vintage yarns.

My goodness what an addictive knit it was. I embarked upon it assuming it would be a long term project that would just be picked up when I needed the rhythm of knitting around and around, and could be put down again at any point mid row. In the end it was done in less than a month (Series 3 & 4 of Man in the High Castle helped) and once finished, I’m not sure I took it off during waking hours for most of the winter. In fact it took me through into March and back to the UK, memorable because I wore it to my last visit to a ‘bricks and mortar’ yarn shop; Ring-a-Rosie in Whitley Bay pre-lockdown -if you get the chance, GO, they’ve got stunning yarn (including their own beautiful hand dyed yarn range) and you’ll also get an equally warm north east welcome.

The reason I’m sharing my Litmus Cowl here though, isn’t just because I love it so much, but because it took me down a bit of a rabbit hole and it reflects a lot about my current knitting and how I’m thinking about it.

I mentioned in a previous post on my new cowl neckline top, that I’ve recently been focussing on working from my stash and enjoying the yarns that I have ‘accumulated’ or ‘curated’ over the years. That distinction in itself says a lot about my relationship to my stash and is something that I’ve been thinking about in relation to the #stashless2020 initiative that I also referred to in that post. My thinking has not taking place in a vacuum and I’m grateful to the discussions in the Crimson Stitchery Ravelry group at the beginning of the year which I have to say I’ve been missing since the Ravelry accessibility issues kicked in (or effectively kicked me out). Within these discussions a distinction was drawn between conspicuous consumption in the knitting industry and mindful making. While these two thing may not be mutually exclusive, they certainly aren’t one and the same thing, and I think a lot of the people in that group welcomed the opportunity to be seen and fully recognised as makers rather than simply consumers.

My own relationship to my stash has changed since we moved and has been further influenced by these discussions and the community that grew up around them and fostered them. The very act of working through everything in my stash, packing it up, donating some of it to charity projects, unpacking and organising it at this end confronted me with the reality of how much stash I had and reawakened the sense of potential it represented.

Alongside more limited access to yarns shops (I was rather spoilt in the UK) and a determination not to be too precious about my stash, I feel I’m working with it in a much more creative and fun-ctional way. This it seems, has also made me a more monogamous knitter and my wardrobe has grow significantly as yarn turns into finished objects rather than languishing in liminal ‘Wipness’ (or a as endless ‘works in progress’).

As a result I’ve been recognising and thinking about how the excitement of creativity sees me through to the completion of projects, while the excitement of consumption fuels many more cast ons, than cast offs.

I’ve also been free-styling it a lot more with my projects. Perhaps taking a pattern as a starting point, but more often than not deciding what I want to make, drawing my own schematic or sketch, adding my measurements and just casting on, then checking my gauge and knitting, increasing and shaping to match my drawing. This way I’m so much more engaged and invested in my knitting, only once have I given up on a project worked this way and that was because of a poor colour placement – I should know that yellow that close to my face makes me look ill…

But back to the Litmus cowl, one of the reasons I kept knitting so avidly was to see how the vintage heathered yarns I was using, interspersed with charcoal grey Valbella, a Lidl light fingering wool nylon blend sock yarn, knitted up. While some of these vintage yarns were older than me and had long been in my stash, the vibrancy and depth of the colour still completely wowed me.

As I worked with these materials the pure pleasure I derived from these scraps of yarns picked up from charity shops and house clearance was both aesthetic but also in the connection they made to the other knitters in whose stashes theses scraps had previously sat for as much as 60 years.

What’s more the carbon footprint or wider environmental impact of these yarns was at last being translated into a useful object however partially or belatedly, and I frequently spared a thought for the sheep whose fleece was passing through my fingers so, so many years after its final shearing.

Most of the yarn used was Patons Nylox 3 ply sock yarn, apart from one scrap when when I unwound it to wash out the kinks, it had been knitted with previous, turned out to be Peter Green ‘Pamplon’, which I’ve not heard of before. The more you look at these heathered yarns, the more colours you see.

I followed the Litmus cowl pattern largely as written but used a smaller needle – 3mm/US2.5 and 105 stitches. Each grey stripe was 12 rounds wide, and contrast ones 11 round wide, except for when it seems I couldn’t count, and each stripe used about 3-4g per stripe so it was perfect for even those really small scraps of yarn.

In total I initially worked 45 stripes and used approx 100g of the charcoal grey Valbella and the same of assorted scraps.

After blocking it grew about 10cm, I wore it once and decided it was too long so took out 6 stripes and re-grafted it so it was 70cm flat and 140cm in total.

I loved the cowl so much that I not only wore it all the time, but I decided to knit a sweater in the bits cut out of the cowl and other similar yarns in my stash, again with the Valbella as the contrast.

I used this as an opportunity to work on my bespoke top down yoked tee pattern. I love this style of sweater and it’s perfect as a transitional garment in autumn and spring or can be worn over a long sleeved t-shirt in the winter.

The yoke stripes are determined by how much of a scrap of yarn I had. I used a slightly larger scrap for the first stripe to make sure I got through the short rows in the back neck and the first stripe all in one colour, then worked through the scraps from smallest to largest trying to alternate between blues and green/browns which I also did through the body where I was using almost but not quite full balls, so less than 25g each time.

I was so pleased with this, so much so that the first time I wore it out it was still damp from blocking!

I was a little worried that I may have too little yarn, but in the end I think I may have made it a little too long. It was finished just as temperatures got too hot to wear it, so it’s only has a single outing so far so the jury’s out on the length. I may take out the final colour and pull back the penultimate colour to re-work the short rows for the high/low hem, I like to a little extra length at the back, but that will wait ’til the autumn when I get to try it again. It probably will happen though if I’m still thinking about it now, and anyway, that’s one of the great things about knitting your own clothes – these things are totally in your own control.

Do you have a favourite type of yarn that might not be fashionable but that you just love working with and wearing? It can be so easy to be precious about favourite yarns and be wary of knitting them, but why put such limits on our enjoyment?

Until next time, have fun with your knitting and take care,


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