Friday, December 23, 2016


I needed to make a baby hat in a hurry, so I went to my go-to pattern called “The Tri-Cornered Hat.”  I’ve made this cute hat a few times, as it’s quick and easy.   As I started thinking about this project, I realized “Oh, my gosh! I’m doing so much math.”  There’s math right off the bat.  It uses chunky yarn and big needles = fast knitting because everything is big.  If you’ve read my past posts, you know that gauge is very important.   A lot more math is necessary when figuring out the amount of stitches to cast on.

Having dug through my yarn stash and found an appropriate chunky pink yarn, I began the cast on using size 11 needles.  I didn’t know exactly how many stitches to start with but knew that, due to my pattern, I needed a number of stitches that was divisible by three and then that resulting number had to be divisible by two.  (Pretty confusing as three things need to be correct – the proper circumference for the size of hat desired, a number divisible by three then two.) 

As I cast on and got near the needed circumference, I began analyzing the more complicated math.  I was right around 40 stitches when I looked at the size, but it was too small.  I thought, “why not go to 50 and see how big that is” but then realized that 50 is not divisible by three.  Oh, 51 is, 3 ÷ 51 = 17, but 17 is not divisible by 2.  What next? 45?  3 ÷ 45 = 15 but again, 15 didn’t work with the next step of math.  46?  Nope.  47?  Nope.  Ahh, 48 was the magic number.  3 ÷ 48 = 16.  16 ÷ 2 = 8.  Yes.  I enlarged my cast on to 48 and it looked to be about the right size.  (Who knows how big a nine month’s head is anyway?  Plus, there’s always some stretch – or room to grow, right?)

Now that I had the right number of cast on stitches, I began knitting in the round.  The pattern calls for at least 6” of knitting before working the tri-corner portion of the hat.  But, uh-oh.  I was running out of yarn.  I had thought this might happen, so I had a complimentary color for the top of the hat, but this also posed a math problem.  This yarn, while called chunky, was much thicker than the hand made yarn I started with, which would mean altering the needle size with this new yarn to continue making the same size stitch as the rest of the hat.   I knew I had to go down several needle sizes so grabbed a size nine and gave it a try.  Creating a nice tight knit stitch resulted in a similar size, so I could move on with this new yarn. 

Once I reached seven inches in length of the hat (I added a little more for safe measure), I began dividing my stitches per the pattern.  I separated my stitches into three pairs of 8 and cast off using the kitchner stitch.  Whala.  Hat completed in short order with a little math lesson included

Girls' Maker Night: Math-y knits

A few weeks ago, I hopped on I-70 with a carful of yarn and drove eastward towards Pittsburgh, PA - home of many bridges, The Steelers, and an awesome little makerspace named Assemble

The space is always buzzing with workshops and displays of local art, but I am particularly intrigued by the Girls' Maker Night (GMN) workshop series, which is a Monday night event open to and geared towards middle school girls in the area. The range of skills explored at GMN is diverse, but this week, the girls would be learning about knitting and yarn bombs with yours truly. Kylen Tennies - master knitter and manager of Knit One in Pittsburgh - co-led the workshop with me.

Workshop Design

The plan for the workshop was structured, but malleable. The intention was to explore the mathematics of knitting while also starting a conversation about yarn bombing, a form of street art that can be used to communicate (sometimes controversial) statements or draw attention to public spaces without leaving permanent or environmentally destructive damage. It was important to leave room for the girls to ask questions, make mistakes, and talk about school, art, life. 

What's a yarn bomb?

A yarn bomb, as discussed in an earlier post, is a street art technique through which the artist covers a physical object in a 3-D net made of yarns and fibers. Yarn bombers often install their pieces at night, similarly to other street artists. One interesting feature of yarn bombs is the minimally destructive capacity of the material used; unlike other forms of street art that are sometimes dismissed as being destructive or obscene, yarn bombing is rarely critiqued as being socially, civically, or environmentally harmful. 

As the girls arrived at Assemble, Kylen and I worked up a rough sketch of the door handles we would be attempting to yarn bomb with the freshly knitted pieces. Assemble is housed in a structure that shares space with a set of apartments. The girls agreed that it would be a nice way to share the positive features of craft if we couls yarn bomb the door handles of the building that are used by many people. 

With help from Jess, one of the leaders and organizers at Assemble, we bundled up and went outside so that we could look closely at the doors. We took measurements of the dimensions with measuring tape. This activity allowed the girls to develop a better understanding of the concept of a three dimensional net, which would be knitted to cover the surface area of the door handles. Once we were back inside, Kylen and I talked with the girls about the measurements we had taken and how we could use the yarn label to help us achieve gauge for the materials. These ideas will be covered in more detail in a future post-so stay tuned! 

Cast Ons & First Loops

To begin, each girl picked up a pair of size 13(US) or 15(US) needles and one skein of yarn. We talked about about the feel of the material and the quirky names that companies sometimes give to the yarn. One skein was even called Pittsburgh Yellow, which we all thought was funny! The first step in the knitting-centric phase of the workshop was to teach and learn to make slip knots and cast on. It is often the case that the difficulty of casting on turns people away from knitting -- it's complicated, it feels weird to do, and takes many attempts to master. From my perspective, the best way to approach those difficulties while teaching the girls to cast on was to be straightforward about the initial awkwardness of the motion. 

We begin the cast-on lesson by exploring the material and learning to make a single slip knot.

After all of the girls crafted a working slip knot, Kylen and I slowly demonstrated the motion of the knit stitch with our needles and yarn. We were careful to repeat the motion from different angles so that the girls could observe what the materials looked like from the crafter's point of view. 

The girls test the fit of the slip knots on knitting needles. 

It was important for us to stay aware of the challenge of knitting for the first time. The beginning of knitting can be difficult, and there were murmurs of frustration in the room. Fortunately, there were enough facilitators in the room to have close to a 2:1 ratio of learner to educator, so all of the girls were able to receive one-on-one instruction in the workshop.

The motion of the knit stitch becomes more natural after knitting a few rows. 

Garter Stitch Gals

The remainder of the workshop centered on creating rectangles of garter stitches. We focused only on the knit stitch. To achieve the measurements required for the doors, each girl had to stay consistent with the number of stitches in each row. This exercise naturally led to conversations about tension, for shifts in tension can cause inconsistencies in the shape of the knit. 

After some one-on-one instruction, the girls are able to knit additional rows by themselves. 

Needed: A few more stitches in time

The girls at Assemble were good examples of young makers - genuinely curious about The Way Things Work. They asked a lot of questions, and most of them really focused on their knitted pieces. This workshop also left space for the girls to chat about life, family, holidays, school and other thoughts while crafting, which demonstrated the ease with which hands-on making can be incorporated into after-school spaces while also offering outlets for social engagement. It is important to note that we ran out of time and could not complete the full yarn bomb that we had imagined and talked about in the beginning of the workshop. In retrospect, this workshop design may have been better suited for a two-session workshop.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Loom Mechanics

Variation in loom mechanics can provide clues about the cultural origin and age of a particular loom type. Here, we begin to take a closer look at the engineering involved in loom construction. We find that this variation in structure is quite diverse. Further, the loom mechanics inform the technique for how the loom should be used to weave. In this post, we compare back strap looms to warp weighted looms as we explore the rich cultural and mechanical history of these tools.

Backstrap Looms

A type of backstrap loom is used for centuries in countries such as Peru, Guatemala, China, Japan, Bolivia, and Mexico. It is used by Mayan women in some parts of Guatemala. The loom typically consists of six to seven rods, which usually weavers make themselves, and the width of the project depends on the width of the rod. Generally, Mayan women use embroidery to attach multiple parts of the woven cloth in order to attain the required width. These rods perform the basic function of raising every other warp thread. A backstrap loom is easy to carry as it can be rolled up when not in use.

Back strap loom.jpg
Weaving with a backstrap loom involved the coordination of multiple rods.

The rods are of varying size and often are handmade.

Warp Weighted Looms

Warp yarns hang from a single bar in the warp-weighted loom. Groups of warp threads are tied to the hanging loom weights, which keep the tension correct throughout the weaving process. In contrast to the back strap loom, the warp weighted loom is designed to lean against a wall while two weavers work together. A single heddle bar is often used, but it may have been the case that weavers in early European history used multiple heddle bars depending on location and desirable designs within a community. In the warp-weighted looms weaving, clay weights shaped like rings hang from the yarn to control the tension of the material bidirectionally across the weave. As you can imagine, the warp-weighted loom is not easily portable like the back strap loom may be.

Two weavers simultaneously interact with warp weighted looms.

The warp weighted loom is thought to have originated in Ancient Greece and spread north and west throughout the rest of Europe. Evidence of these looms - both in folkloric tale and pictorial artwork - can be found in European villages. Depictions of warp-weighted looms - specifically of two women work with a warp-weighted loom, can also be found in artifacts from Ancient Egypt.

Depictions of warp-weighted looms can be found on ancient artifacts.

The story of the warp weighted loom is mysterious. Typically, this type of loom is historically associated with Scandinavian people, but over time, the presence of the loom diminished until the design nearly disappeared from common use. In 1964, Marta Hoffman published a monograph centered on ancient weaving technology, specifically the warp weighted loom. Hoffman had to search extensively to find any weavers who still knew how to use the loom. Eventually, she came across six weavers - three sets of two women - in Norway who could still use the loom. Hoffman narrowed the focus of her research to these six women.

It is interesting to note the role that observable differences in loom construction play in modern comprehension of narratives related to materialisms. Variation in loom mechanics led to variation in design across time and location. A closer look at the particular loom used to make a weave can give the weaver or consumer an in-depth understanding of the cultural background of the craft.

Co-written by Pooja Saxena and Kate Samson

Saturday, December 3, 2016


Yay!  I accomplished my first yarn bomb project.  I successfully bombed a tree on campus without much notice.  Good thing my dogs were good decoys. 

I’ve read that there are two ways to yarn bomb.  One is to know what you are going to tag and do the measuring beforehand and the other is to make something and find the right size object to tag.  Since I wasn’t really sure where to begin, I chose to sit and knit and picture where I would like to place my finished project.

While creating this piece, I was also learning a new stitch, which involves creating fast increases and fast decreases to form a bubble on the surface of the knitting.  I wanted to space these out in a pattern, so I had to count my stiches and do the math to figure out where I would place them.  I wanted them to be offset, so I had to do the math there too in order to have the bubbles scattered across my sample equally.

I also wanted to place three monster claws on the bottom of my swatch, which required dividing my stitch count by 3 in order to equally space my them.

Once completed, I measured my swatch lying on a flat surface.  It was approximately 11”.  I had read that a good tag fits snuggly on the object in order to not flop and drop and sit securely.  As I was walking to campus, I stopped when I noticed a small tree I thought might be a good fit.  I measured the base of the trunk and it was just over 12”.   I then wrapped my sample around the trunk and it was a perfect fit – snug enough to stretch and grab tightly.

Feeling a bit more confident that I knew what I was doing, I walked on campus to the edge of the woods seeking a similar size tree trunk, visible from the walking path but also “hidden” enough that I could easily complete my tag in broad daylight.

Nervously I bent over and began to whip stitch the ends together using the long tail from the top and the bottom.  (I had left enough yarn at the beginning and the end of my swatch, having done the math to know how much yarn would be needed to sew my swatch to the tree.)  I had just enough to secure the sample, stretched just enough to fit tightly around the tree trunk.

Hooray!  The math prep enabled me to create an interesting and successful tag.  Now on to my next tag.  Stay tuned. 

Monday, November 7, 2016


A few weeks ago, I realized I was behind in getting a start on a baby gift.  I rifled through my yarn stash and found a skein I thought would suit the pattern.  In my haste to begin, I DID NOT do a swatch, I DID NOT check my gauge, and I DID NOT check my needle size.   I began knitting along, only paying attention math wise, to increases and decreases and number of stitches on my needles.    About half way in, I stopped to really take a look at what I was creating.  Boy, did I wish I had done the math!  My sweater that was intended to fit a 9 month old, would probably fit a 10 year old!  Rats.  I was forced to frog the whole piece.  (Rip it, rip it, rip it.) 

I learned my lesson.  My second attempt involved making swatches and testing needle size.  The important thing to always remember in knitting is to think of the ratio of the thickness of the yarn to the size of the needle.  Make a swatch, count your stitches and compare that result to the recommend stitches per inch on the pattern and then make adjustments, if necessary.

While I always try to look at the cup half full, I sure wish I hadn’t wasted my time by not doing the math.  Winter is coming.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Think Tank(top) - Part 2

After several weeks, I have finally finished my first full-knit garment. As mentioned in an earlier post, I have been working on the Beach Tank pattern by Jess Schreibstein. I initially began the tank top as a summer challenge. The top was intended to be an ideal knit for warmer weather. I chose to knit the piece with hemp so that it would be light and airy, and the finished pattern - mostly stockinette - would add style to any Beach Babe outfit (after all, it is the Beach Tank).  

The finished Beach Tank with high-low hem. 

"What took you so long? What could be tricky about a tank top?" you ask. In my imagination, I would whip up this garment in a few days, but as you probably can imagine, the project was not a piece of cake. 

The pattern appeared to be within my knitting skill range, but I did not anticipate a few of the challenges that arose along the path to completion. In particular, I was not aware that I would have so much variability in my tension. I have not experienced issues with tension since my earliest days of knitting. This variability led to two the creation of two tank top components of different size; even though I had used the same materials and the same needles, the front of the tank top was smaller than the back. Gauge can be fickle. The math is reliable, but sometimes, the crafter is not. 

I sat in my living room, looking at the two problematic tank top pieces. The edges did not line up. I thought back to all of the places I had carried these materials: Indiana, Illinois, Oregon, California. These materials were with me as a I stressfully waited for my airplane to arrive at O'Hare and also as I calmly observed the Cascades, just outside of Eugene. In these moments of reflection, it occurred to me that the context in which I had knitted the different sides of the tank top had varied, and this variation in context could have led to variation in tension. There is some humor in this reflection. Who else can look at a knitted piece and identify the rows that were more cathartic and perhaps less meditative? Can you look closely at the last cowl you made and find the point at which you changed location (mentally or physically) in your knitted project? 

The high-low hem is visible at the end of the seam. 

The two knitted pieces flew with me across the U.S., bundled in my backpack until I arrived in Bloomington, IN, where I could stop in Yarns Unlimited for some fiber art expertise. One knitter at the shop listened to my story about the two tank top pieces and responded in an "it's no problem" tone that caught me off guard. I had been worried that I would need to reknit one complete side of the tank, but this knitter communicated that there almost always exists a way to incorporate mistakes into the complete project. We measured the sides of the tank top, and she then suggested that I seam the sides to make a high-low hem. I had never heard of this type of hem, but I did recognize the idea once she explained. She then showed me how to seam the two sides of the tank top together from the inside. Lastly, I completed the i-cord straps and wove in the ends. 

I-cord straps weave in on both sides.  

Friday, October 21, 2016

Yarn Bombs

Have you noticed trees in your community that are wrapped in yarn. Or a light post that wears a sweater? How about a bike rack, adorned with granny squares? 

What is going on there?  Two words: Yarn Bomb

Yarn bombing, otherwise known as graffiti knitting, is a form of street art through which an artist covers an object or space with knitted or crocheted pieces. This "kniffiti" can be traced back to Houston, TX, where the movement began in the early 2000s. A group of six artists collectively began to cover objects in the city with yarn. They called themselves Knitta, Please. Though this group has since dissolved, one member - Magda Sayeg - continues to cover her world in wool. In fact, many people look to Magda as the leader of the global yarn bomb movement.

Yarn bombers are percolating in crafting communities (and actual communities) worldwide. Like other forms of street art, the yarn bombers often use the material as a medium though which to fire up conversations about controversial topics. For example, one group of artists in California has been working on an environmental textile project titled There Is A River Here, which serves to draw awareness to healthy and vitality of the Santa Ana River. 

It is interesting to note the contrast between harsh nature of hard-to-talk-about topics and the softness of natural fibers. In some ways, wool is nearly limitless*. Further, we tend to conceptualize bombs as destructive, eradicative creations, but it seems that yarn bombs function exactly oppositely. Yarn bombs are constructive and hold presence without requiring permanence. 

Over the next few weeks, I will be taking a closer look at the practice of yarn bombing. In particular, I will be exploring the mathematics, collaborative design, and engineering involved in these wooly wonders. Quite frankly, how does an artist figure out how to cover a curvy park bench in a nicely-fitting sweater? 

*Note: Different than this form of limitless.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Think Tank(top) - Part I

As summer comes to a close and the time for those beloved, warm wooly materials approaches (woo!), I realize that my days are numbered for lightweight yarns and bare arms. It so happens that this is also the time I begin to think about tank tops. 

Specifically, I am curious about the construction of a tank top - the garment architecture, if there were such a term. What is the foundation of a tank top? Is this the sensible starting point for a new garment maker (me)? Is sensibility important in knitting? 

How difficult would it be to knit a tank top? 


This tank-top-thinking was further inspired by a recent trip to Knit One in Pittsburgh, PA, where I observed Kylen - master knitter and manager of the shop - knitting a tank. At first, I couldn't quite identify what she was making. I knew the mystery piece was not a scarf, but I could also see that the project was not being knitted in the round. She told me that she was knitting a tank top. Specifically, she was working through the Beach Tank pattern by Jess Schreibstein

Kylen used two lightweight yarns instead of a single yarn, so her project was two-colored and textured. I was interested in the way that the colors looked together; the dual yarns added a dimension to the stockinette stitches that I really liked, both tactually and visually. 

(It is also interesting to note the way that observations of knitters by knitters during yarn shop visits often inspire future projects.)

Kylen showed me how to find the pattern on Ravelry and talked through color choices with me. We picked up many skeins of yarn and held different colors next to each other through the familiar pre-knit waltz around the yarn shop, which has become standard procedure for many of my knitting endeavors. Ultimately, I chose to use hemp, a natural fiber that is both lightweight and new to me.

The use of two colors in the Beach Tank pattern gives the knitted loops a textured, multi-chrome look.

Hemp hem

The pattern is knitted from bottom to top, so the cast-on stitches and first rows become the bottom of the garment. This bottom-to-top process of making was familiar to me, for hats are also knitted like this.

Note: I find that knitting, which is often a bottom-to-top endeavor, has changed the way I look at clothes, hats, scarves, and other handmade pieces. I now think through the form and construction of the piece, rather the the look alone, similarly to the way that an architect may look at and analyze a structure.

The first few rows of the garment gave me a feel for the hemp, which was a new material for me. The fibers do not expand in the same way that animal fibers do. I learned experientially that this fiber feature leads to more space between loops if the rows are not knitted tightly enough. Since I tend to be a loose knitter, I had to tink - or unknit - the hem after knitting a few rows and reknit with greater tension. It soon occurred to me that I needed to beware to knit much more tightly than usual if I wanted to end up with a garment that was not full of loose loops and therefore see-through.

In the beginning, I knitted loosely, which left too much space between knits and purls in the ribbed hemline.

Shipshape shaping

The Beach Tank pattern also introduced more complex shaping to my repertoire of skills. To clarify, shaping is the technical term for the use of increases and decreases to shape the a knitted fabric. Although previously-knitted hat patterns had included decreases, I had never thought through the steps involved in armhole and neckline shaping. The shaping in the Beach Tank involved a series of slipped stitches (SSK) and stitches knit together (K2tog). 

Decreases are used to shape the armholes of the Beach Tank. 

Instead of knitting in the round, the Beach Tank pattern calls for two separate pieces: a front and a back. As I worked through the shaping of the first main body piece, it was important to remember that I would be crafting a second piece that would need to be shaped in the same way. Therefore, it was crucial to check in occasionally and take note of the tension with which I was knitting. In retrospect, I should have been even more attentive to the similarities and differences in the creation of the two main body pieces. Look out for Part 2 in the Think Tank(top) series to see how things shaped up.