Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Habit Formation

Secret confession time:

I have a thing for guys who knit. +1 if they knit in public. +1 if they hang out with other knitters. +1 if they knit lace. +2 if they have beards. +3 if they knit lace in public. +5 for knitting lace in public while bearded. +7 if they have ever knit their beards into their lace. 

It should come as small surprise that I have a thing for Franklin Habit. He doesn't have a beard, but in every other way he is my ideal male knitter. (Franklin, if you ever want to seriously spin my fleece, grow a beard and knit it into your lace in public, with photographic evidence, and blog about it afterwards.)

I knit not one, but TWO of Franklin's retro Ladies' Travelling Caps. I knit the first one for my teenaged daughter, who wears her waist-length hair in a bun. She wore it almost daily with delight. Wherever she went, people asked if she was Amish. I made her a second one, with a matching scarf, in plum pudding colours.

I will probably have to make her another one every couple of years for the rest of my life.

As a knitter, I don't like to follow other people's patterns. I prefer to design my own knitwear. I like the number crunching to find the perfect fit and the joy of working something out on the needles until it is just right. I can count on one hand the number of other people's patterns I have knit in the past 10 years. 

I was emerging from the deep fog of bronchitis when Franklin came out with the pineapple. I had been in that state of sickness where you have been sick enough for long enough that you don't really believe you will ever be able to do normal things again, like knit ginormous pineapples.

Oh wait. That doesn't sound quite right. I had been deeply sick enough that I believed the rest of my life would consist of coughing fits interspersed with naps, with no time or energy for normal activities, let alone deranged ones like knitting ginormous pineapples.

The moment I saw that ginormous pineapple, I wanted to knit one. Evening bag sized. In a luxury yarn. With beads on. For my mom to take to the opera. I wanted to live in a world where knitted evening bags in the shape of pineapples make sense.

This desire seized me. My family, who had become so used to my wan convalescent state that they had forgotten what I am like when I get into the grips of an enthusiasm, was a little alarmed.

“You,” they said slowly, “want to knit a pineapple evening bag? Whatever would make you want to do such a thing?”

No worries. I'd already ordered the yarn. I'd started by looking for something that whispered elegance. On the way, I'd become mesmerized by a wild strain of Koigu sock yarn, one that insisted it was deeply luxurious and would make a pineapple that no one would ever forget. I believed it, and tossed in some Bretton sock yarn in sedate hues that might make a pineapple a person could, in fact, wear to the opera.

I now had enough yarn to make TWO pineapples.

I had had the image of twinkling little crystal beads, but a trip to the bead store yielded a stash of little tiger's eye chips that harmonized with the Koigu and looked like they would make wicked spines for a pineapple.

The Koigu pineapple was becoming distinctly more operatic, and yet less suited for opera wear, with every decision I made. This happens when a knitter falls into the creative process.

I took a look at Franklin's patterns, fixed the parts that I was sure were broken, and considered the size of the pineapple, the number of stitches, and my probable gauge.

I am a loose knitter, especially on small needles. I usually work socks on size 0 needles, and often work sock ribbing on size 000 needles. With some patterns, I have been unable to get some sock yarns to a fine enough gauge even with 000 needles.

I judged that the 320 stitches Franklin suggested I cast on would make a pineapple a trifle on the large size. I decided to whittle the cast-on down to 240 stitches (still a multiple of 16, as suggested briefly in this blog post about the pineapple's bottom). Although I was beading, I was damned well not going to bead each one of the 240 cast-on stitches. I would begin the beading later.

As I had not yet bought the beads, this meant that I could begin knitting right away. I congratulated myself on my knitting acumen, and picked up my needles.

I started knitting the leaves. After few inches, I noticed two things. The first was that the leaf lace pattern was unbalanced, leading to radically different-sized holes. This could be fixed by changing the lace pattern into a balanced lace pattern, which I would do on the next knit.

The second was that this pineapple was turning out to be a bit on the ginormous side. If I continued to knit it, I would have a beachball-sized pineapple rather than the elegant little evening bag that still inexplicably haunted my knitterly dreams. Moreover, my inner knitterly calculator deduced that I would need far more yarn than I had to finish a pineapple of these proportions.

I ripped out the leaves and cast on a much more sensible 160 stitches. The leaves went swimmingly and I soon got to the point where the knitter performs a little magic step of turning the pineapple outside in and changing to the main yarn.

Here I stopped for a while to thread the beads onto the main yarn. This proved to be challenging. The wicked little tiger's eye spines had been drilled with holes too small to easily fit over even such a slender yarn as Koigu sock yarn. A good third of the beads had holes that were too small, even after I threaded the beads first to a doubled piece of nylon thread that had the koigu threaded through it.

From Franklin's instructions, I had a clear idea how many beads I needed. Since I was losing a third of the beads, I had nowhere near enough.

I bought more beads. A week and much creative language later, I finally had all the kerfaluting beads I would need strung on the koigu.

Unfortunately, the beads were still too tight to move easily on the yarn. I decided therefore to work the plain rows from the unbeaded end of the ball and the beaded rows from the beaded end of the yarn. This decision saved me a great deal of creative language during the knitting of the pineapple.

With the first beading row, I had two awful realizations. The first was that beading ideally should have begun on the setup row after the colour change. The first pineapple spines are formed on that row, and beading that row would result in a more consistent pineapple. If a person wished to do this, they would bead the 8th stitch and every 16th stitch thereafter.

The second was that the beads are to be placed, not every 8th stitch, but every 16th stitch. This mean that I had strung over twice as many beads as I could possibly need. Given the agony of stringing those beads in the first place, this led to a little more creative language directed Franklin-wards.  I also might have cried just a little.

Once these little ripples were out of the way, I set in to knitting the pineapple with happy fascination. It is a beguilingly simple and beautiful pattern. I loved it. As it grew, it made me smile, and giggle, and occasionally laugh out loud.

Despite the severely constrained dimensions of my pineapple, I could see that yarn was going to be tight. I decided to take a leaf from the original pattern and transition back to the green yarn as soon as I started to run out of the main colour. I tossed in one round of green for every 4 rounds of main colour, then every 3, then every 2, then every other. Then I threw in a round of main colour after 2 rounds of green, then 3, then 4. At that point, I was close to out of the main colour, so I started in on the bottom.

I beaded right up until I started the bottom. This is contrary to Franklin's instructions, but I was in love with the wicked little spines and no longer cared whether Franklin approved of the liberties I was taking with his pineapple.

I had read Franklin's blog post on the design of the pineapple bottom with a level of fascination and appreciation that only someone who has designed a lot of knitwear could understand. This led to a deep enjoyment in knitting Franklin's elegant little bottom.

I finished the pineapple, braided a cord (monk's cord would be another wonderful and period-appropriate way to make cord for this bag, just saying), wove the cord through the first row of leaf stitches, and dangled the pineapple for inspection. I grinned, then went to my sock drawer and grabbed a fat, cushy pair of worsted socks. These I stuffed into the pineapple.

This was not an elegant pineapple. It was a wild and rather dangerous-looking fruit, and it was mine, all mine. I squeezed it in my hand. The spines, complete with their tiger's eye points, gave a deep tactile satisfaction.

I threw the pineapple to my daughter.

She held it aloft and remarked, “Like all healthy fruits, pineapples explode shortly after being placed.”

She was right. The pineapple did rather resemble a pineapple grenade from Ninja Kiwi's Bloons Tower Defense games. One of Franklin's pineapples, stuffed and outfitted with a kitchen timer, would make an excellent prop for a children's game of hot potato.

I took the pineapple to Quaker Meeting the next Sunday to show my Friends. As I was explaining about the 1840s vintage of the original pattern, I remarked that I did not know why knitted pineapples were popular in that era.

A bearded Friend immediately said, “I know why.”

In the early nineteenth century Britain and America, it was a common investment strategy to buy shares in a ship that would ply the world in search of profitable items to sell. When the ships ported, runners carried a pineapple to each of the backers to let them know that their ships had come in. The ship's captain stuck a pineapple on a post near his front door as a sign that he had returned home safely and profitably.

Pineapples were thus seen as a sign of good fortune. They were worked into crocheted bedspreads, tablecloths, and edgings. They were carved into bedposts and newel posts. They were also, apparently, knitted into bag form.

In ending my bout with bronchitis by knitting a wild pineapple, I was thus engaging in an old form of sympathetic magic. I was affirming not only a future where knitted evening bags in the shape of pineapples made sense, but also my own future good fortune.

With all of this under my belt, it was time to knit the second pineapple.

One thing that I had meditated on whilst knitting and enjoying the first pineapple was the fact that downsizing the pineapple so much had made the spines obscenely large. The resulting pineapple, while recognizable as a fruit that might potentially explode, also resembled a sort of many-nippled fertility fetish. While this was a fine, perhaps even a desirable, trait in a wild pineapple, it was not suitable for the model of elegant pineapplyness that had been my original intention.

I loved the wild pineapple deeply. I loved the discovery that went into its making and I loved the results that bristled from its uncompromising pineapply character. It was not, however, a pineapple that I could offer my mother on a suitable holiday with the comment that it was intended to be worn to the opera.

I went to a different bead store. Once again I had the image of glittering crystal beads to festoon the ends of the spines. Once again, I emerged with something completely different. This time the beads were coral beads. I also emerged with several different potential solution to the problem of stringing the tiny-holed beads on the slightly fatter yarn.

The coral beads wouldn't thread on the yarn at all. No how, no way. After breaking several beads, three beading needles, and fraying a few feet of yarn, I accepted this fact. These beads just weren't going to thread on anything much fatter than the nylon beading thread I had.

So I resolved to thread the beads on the nylon beading thread. I would work that thread double with my yarn on the beaded rows only.

This turned out to be a wonderful solution. I wished I had used it on the wild pineapple.

The next issue was the size of the spines. On some reflection, I decided to change the basic pattern stitch to (K4, yo, k1, yo, k4, sl1-k2tog-psso). This made the multiple of the pattern 12 stitches, including the distance between beads. which also required some minor finagling of Franklin's bottom. If a person was beading according to my design, they would bead the 6th stitch and every 12th stitch on the setup round.

I cast on 120 stitches. In the version of the pattern that I have, there was an error in the pattern that has since been corrected on the Knitty site. My pattern has the leaf rounds at (k6, sl1-k2tog-psso, yo, k1, yo) which is a multiple of 10 rather than 16. This caused me additional dancing in trying to get the downsizing to work out right, in addition to being the likely cause of the yarnover imbalance I mentioned earlier. If you attempt a downsized pineapple, you will not have either of these problems.

To finagle the bottom, I saw what Franklin had done when I knit the wild pineapple and decided to make things easy on myself by just faking it with the second. I did something like this:

Heather's Bottom

Round 1: *K4, sl1-k2tog-psso, k5 * (100 stitches)
Round 2: *K3, sl1-k2tog-psso, k4* (80 stitches)
Round 3: *K2, sl1-k2tog-psso, k3* (60 stitches)
Round 4: *k1, sl1-k2tog-psso, k2* (40 stitches)
Round 5: *sl1-k2tog-psso, k1* (20 stitches)
Round 6: *k2tog* (10 stitches)

I didn't count or anything, though. I just kept knitting the pineapple, lining up the decrease so that it centered below the last bead and omitting the yarnovers. I judge my bottom to be slightly less elegant and a wee bit more pineappley than Franklin's, but I understand that this is getting a little too personal so we will move on.

I found some delicious gold silk fabric and hand-stitched linings for the two pineapples.

With both pineapples, I used every bit of the single ball of sock yarn that I bought to use as the main colour. I would suggest the other people might want to get two balls of the gold yarn and one of the green to give them a bit more freedom in how long to make their pineapples.

At the end of all this, a salute to Franklin as a knitting designer. His patterns are well-worked-out, not overly complex, and quite charming. It is a tribute to him that I have worked not just one, but two of his patterns, and a further tribute that I have seen fit to finish both items and knit a second of each.

And do you know what would be just great? A pineapple hat pattern where the body of the hat is knit from the main pineapple stitch pattern and the hat has a topknot of suitably wild and properly shaped bromeliad leaves.