Book Review: Elizabeth Doherty, Top Down: Reimagining Set-In Sleeve Design

So, I have a confession to make: I have never knitted a sweater with set-in sleeves.

But now that I’ve read Elizabeth Doherty’s new book, Top Down: Reimagining Set-In Sleeve Design, I may finally give it a try.

IMG_0874This new book, published with/by Quince & Co, is what I would call a kind a technique-pattern book hybrid. The primary purpose is to explain how you can knit set-in sleeves in top-down sweaters, at which it succeeds extremely well. The book walks you through the structure of a sleeve (and particularly the sleeve cap, the bit that fits the curve of your shoulder) and what different factors lead to different kinds of sleeve cap shapes. Doherty’s explanations are extremely clear, and she provides a basic formula for knitting set-in sleeves from the top down that can be applied to any/most patterns. The book also has useful instruction sections on things like how to fit a set-in sleeve sweater and how to modify a given pattern to get results you like with Doherty’s set-in sleeve method.

If you are like me, and not yet practiced enough at constructing your own sweaters to come up with your own pattern or change the armholes/sleeves on a pre-existing one, you will find it particularly helpful that Doherty has included six patterns using her technique, three cardigans and three pullovers. The patterns each involve mostly stockinette stitch, with textural touches at collar/cuffs/waist, or down the button bands or front of the cardigans. They’re classic, simple designs that would fit into many people’s wardrobes.

With regard to the designs, each one shares a lovely balance between a kind of spare simplicity and enough texture in the details to make the sweaters interesting. Personally, I particularly like that the Meris Cardigan uses a more geometric lace, because it lets people who are not perhaps into some of the more frilly or traditionally feminine lace designs have the fun of knitting lace (as well as get a little ventilation in our sweaters).

This simplicity’s also reflected in the fact that I think these are fairly beginner-friendly patterns.  For instance, the button band in the Meris Cardigan is an eyelet rib, creating buttonholes for you automatically. More experienced knitters could easily modify this to handle the button band however they like, with whatever size buttons they like, but when the goal is for you to learn how to make top-down short-row set-in sleeves, that you don’t have to learn how to make more complicated buttonholes if you don’t already know how makes sense to me. Another example of this is how Doherty creates the look of cables on the Copperplate Cardigan with a traveling rib stitch. Of course there are tons of knitters out there who can cable up a storm, but it’s nice that if you want to tackle top-down set-in sleeves but haven’t yet done cables, you don’t have to. And perhaps one of the most considerate aspects of the patterns is that they all include both written and charted instructions for any kind of stitch pattern.

This is also a physically beautiful book. The photographs and layout all share that simple, spare aesthetic that can be seen on Quince & Co’s website and their previous designs, and they do an excellent job of showing you the designs.

I like all the patterns, though I think perhaps my favorite is the Underwood pullover:IMG_0894

I am a sucker for a wide neck, and I think that the collar detail is particularly flattering for someone like me, who wants to draw attention to my shoulders. (We’ll ignore that that the patterned hem probably also draws attention to the hips, which I don’t want, because its geometry is so satisfying.)

I have plenty of WIPs (as you know), and even more plans for others, but I think I will have to find time this fall to cast on something from this book, and tackle a set-in sleeve for the first time.
Not that anyone would have any reason to send me something to review, but just to be clear, I bought this book myself, mostly because I’m a sucker for anything to do with sweater techniques. 

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New to me yarn: KnitPicks Diadem & 28’s Cousin 53!

I’m sure you are all already familiar with KnitPicks, a lovely lovely company selling all kinds of goodies for knitters and crocheters, including lots of different yarns, at very reasonable prices. In those late-night Ravelry-surfing sessions where I pick out a couple gazillion patterns I’d like to knit, there’s something strangely reassuring about being able to go to the KnitPicks website, price the cost of the various projects, and realize that I could actually afford to knit them. (I almost never buy anything in those late night sessions, but it’s reassuring to know that in the hypothetical distant future when I run out of yarn, affordable options are out there.)

KnitPicks also produces an informative and entertaining podcast series. I haven’t worked my way through all of them by any means (I only stumbled onto podcasts around the beginning of this year, and they have 200+ episodes by now). However, I responded to a call on their blog for comments/stories for their podcast, sent an e-mail, and got my comment included (which is about as close as I’ve ever come to internet fame). The attention would have been reward enough, but in return for my comment they sent me a “charm pack” of yarn – one of their project bags stuffed with sample skeins! It was extremely generous and I’ve been having fun playing with yarns I might never have purchased on my own.

One of those yarns is Diadem. This is a fingering-weight yarn, 50% baby alpaca and 50% mulberry silk. It comes in skeins of 329 yards. And I’ve been intrigued enough by this yarn that it was the first of my freebies that I wound into a ball and cast on, to test it out. (I was too eager actually to make a proper swatch, so you get a finished object instead.)

FullSizeRendersorry, I forgot to take a picture of it in the skein/wound until mostly through the project!

The first thing you notice about this yarn is that it is incredibly soft to the touch. If I could sleep in a bed made only of skeins of this yarn I would be a very happy woman.

It simultaneously has a notable sheen and a subtle but definite halo, which may sound a little contradictory. The halo is very fine and soft, less obtrusive than the kind of halo found in, say, mohair. Perhaps because of that halo, it doesn’t have quite the glossy, almost metallic sheen you can see in polished silks. It’s a dry shiny, not a wet shiny, if that makes any sense. It feels matte rather than slick.

Structurally, it’s a very loosely spun single ply. It reminds me of the way that lopi yarns are described online, as a yarn very close to roving. The end of my cast-on tail seemed to lose its structural integrity quickly and devolve into a vaguely linear piece of fluff.

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Casting on was fine (although I realized that using dark wood needles to knit dark green yarn wasn’t my smartest move). That aside, it was still tough at first to distinguish the individual stitches. There’s so little twist holding the yarn together that the stitches spread out on the needle and the edges aren’t very clearly defined.

The looseness of the spin and the yarn’s inclination to spread makes it very very susceptible to splitting (though it probably doesn’t help that I prefer pointy-tipped needles). I found it helpful to insert the tip of the right-hand needle a bit lower in the stitch, closer to where the stitch emerges from the row below, rather than right up against the left-hand needle, because it can be hard to get the needle under those diffuse, undefined edges. If you do split the yarn, the resulting loops and pulls are pretty conspicuous. If you just catch the very edge, you might end up pulling away a wee piece of halo rather than actually splitting the yarn. It’s a little like what I imagine it would be like to knit with cotton candy.

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The yarn also has very little elasticity, which isn’t surprising given its components. Frankly, that lack of elasticity combined with the blurry stitches made knitting the first couple of rows pretty annoying. I tend to knit more tightly, and for the first couple of rows I had a hard time getting the stitches over and past the join between needle and cable in my circular needles. I had to make a conscious effort to knit loosely (which I don’t normally have to do even in cotton or other non-elastic yarns). Once I did that, things started to move along.

Knitted up, the fabric is extremely soft and fluffy. The halo is more obvious when knitted than in the skein. On the one hand, this halo obscures stitch definition, but on the other, the yarn’s sheen highlights stitch definition, so it’s a little bit of a wash.

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A yarn this soft and fluffy positively begs to be knit into something worn against the skin. I’m not sure it has the body to be an effective sweater, but that may just be my own preferences speaking, as I don’t always find fuzzy halo-ed yarn very flattering on the scale required for a whole sweater. I’m also not convinced this will be very hard-wearing, given how loosely it’s spun and how easily the halo seems to pull away from the fabric. If I were going to try to make a sweater out of this, I’d try smaller needles (I used US size 6 on this project) and make a fairly tight fabric, to try to reduce abrasion and give it a little body. Alpaca and silk also tend to stretch without springing back, so a sweater would be likely to grow, which knitting at a tighter gauge might also counter, at least a little. This also seems to produce the kind of fabric that might benefit from the structure provided by seams, if I were inclined to knit a garment in this.

But obviously if you’re not me you might be interested in knitting something other than a sweater. I don’t think this is going to be hard-wearing in any context, so it’s probably not the right yarn for a workhorse sturdy item you wear every day. In cold weather it would be lovely snuggled around your neck and ears, so I can see this making an excellent cowl (I especially envision one that’s long enough to wrap around twice, knit generously), with a slightly dressy twist from the sheen. However, you’d probably want to avoid a pattern dependent on wool’s inherent springiness and bounciness (for instance, something that relies on cables’ tendency to pull fabric inwards?), because this is fluffy but neither springy nor bouncy. I also think this would make lovely mitts – not so much actual gloves or mittens to wear in nasty weather as fingerless mitts to wear indoors in the winter or air-conditioning. That’s maybe not very practical either, in terms of wear, but they’d be so light and soft and warm, and not require very much yarn, that I think I wouldn’t even care.

Rather than swatch – which would let me give you some information about gauge, though it feels like a thicker fingering to me – I dove straight in to 28’s Cousin 53!. This is a free pattern for (as you have seen) a fingering-weight scarf with a little bit of simple texture from garter stitch ridges, yarnovers, and ribbing. It’s a pretty design and the pattern was clear and straightforward (although I’ll admit I chose it mostly because of the amount of yarn it required – I wanted to use as much of the skein as I could). It makes strategic use of straightforward knit-front-and-back increases to create a close-to-crescent shape without short rows, so would be a good beginning project.

IMG_1847 I wet-blocked (which I always do), and the result is a lovely, drapey, soft fabric that feels like wrapping kittens around your neck.

(So, I mentioned I wanted to get as much out of the skein as I could? I actually ended a couple of rows short of the pattern – and in fact, I ran out of yarn with something like 20 stitches left to bind off. The HORROR. So I hacked my knitting: I have been knitting another sweater from Lindy Chain, another Knit Picks yarn, in Ivy. Ivy is a dark green… pretty much the exact same dark green as Diadem Emerald. I thought, eh, no one will ever notice, and finished binding off with a piece of the Lindy Chain. Which is a cotton-linen blend chainette yarn with a texture about as different from Diadem as you can get, but I figured, for a free scarf I can’t complain. The overexposed pic shows where the patch is, but in ordinary light it’s pretty hard to see.)

IMG_1851 Tl;dr: Soft, luxurious, and snuggly; drapey; inelastic; probably not particularly sturdy; great for next-to-the-skin accessories.

(Thanks again, Knit Picks!)