California dreaming

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Last weekend, I traveled to Amy Herzog’s make.wear.love retreat (PDF), held at the lovely Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, California. How to describe it??

This was my first knitting retreat – and, actually, my first experience of formal knitting classes ever. I took a beginner’s spinning class once (at Fancy Tiger Crafts, my favorite yarn store ever – Denver, I still miss you). But otherwise, my mom taught me the knit stitch sometime when I was a kid, and I’ve managed to teach myself everything else via the glories of the internet. It was also my first time in northern California, so between these two things, it was a bit like entering a parallel universe.

The classes were great (though I have to share that I totally embarrassed myself, chatting with Norah Gaughan at check in, when we talked about being on the same flight into Monterey, because I totally did not realize who she was at all. At the end of the conversation I introduced myself, she rEllie’s, “And I’m Norah,” I said, “Nice to meet you,” and took two steps out of the registration building and went, “OH!!! THAT NORAH!!!!” So that was why she’d looked kinda familiar in the airport. Gulp. To be fair, it was kind of interesting then to think about how some designers are instantly visible because they model all their own stuff, and how some designers are much more behind the scenes – I find those kinds of marketing choices fascinating. I still couldn’t help but wonder if I’d been completely gauche though).

But anyway, the classes: my first was Norah Gaughan’s “Creative Geometric Design,” which was an engaging glimpse into how one designer approaches her projects, and a really fun way to think about coming up with design ideas. I don’t know if I will ever actually design sweaters (I fantasize that I will, but also suspect that fantasy is better off staying a fantasy), but it was also helpful for looking at schematics and thinking about what I might want in a sweater. The amazing part was how she could take a rectangle or circle of fleece, cut armholes in it, toss it on a model, and after about 30 seconds of tweaking, transform it into the roots of a beautiful garment.

Also she had a dark green alpaca sweater that looked good on everyone in the class and was the most amazingly comfortable, snuggly thing to wear, and everyone at the retreat is waiting with bated breath for the pattern to come out.

My second class was Julie Weisenberger (aka Cocoknits)’s “European Finishing Techniques,” which was a compilation of many tips and tricks. I was familiar with some of what she showed us, but many of the techniques were great and I will definitely use them (especially her middle-of-a-row bind off and shadow short wraps). The atmosphere was at once energetic and relaxed, with a lot of answers to individual questions. I’m still not convinced that her method of picking up stitches (to pick up and knit) will work for me, but I need to get the proper tools to try it properly on one of my own projects. My only regret is that by the end of her class I was fading fast, as the day had been full of learning and interaction with strangers, and my introvert brain was exhausted.

Also her sense of style was amazing.

My third class was Clara Parkes‘ “Know What Your Yarn Wants to Be,” about how different fibers and yarn construction result in yarns that work better for some projects than others, and some of the general things to keep in mind. She was as charming in person as she has always seemed online, and the depth of her knowledge is crazy. I’ve read her The Knitter’s Book of Wool, as well as a lot of other general discussions online about yarn and how to match it to a project, and while I’d never claim to be an expert, I wondered a little bit how much of the information would be new. And the answer was: plenty! For instance, sure, I knew that alpaca was a very slippery, smooth fiber, and that therefore it tends to “grow” because the stitches don’t cohere very well in finished fabric. But that was just a useful background for her discussion – a starting point, not the sum total.

Also now I want a pair of wool sneakers.

My final class was with Amy Herzog, “Sweater Design Intensive,” looking at different shoulder constructions for sweaters (drop shoulder, raglan and modified raglan, yoke, and set-in sleeves) and how to modify the different kinds to fit your shape. There was math, and I can’t claim I absorbed it all, but it made sense at the time and Amy Herzog explained it beautifully. What was really helpful – in a way that books can’t be helpful (though I have and value her books) – was seeing the actual real sweaters, which she wore, and used to demonstrate common modifications and fit issues, and passed around so we could see the construction and fabric.

Also she has the most beautiful speaking voice.

One of the things that thrilled me most about the weekend was how, well, ecumenical all the instructors were about methods and approaches and designs. No one was dogmatic or restrictive or scolding about what knitters should or shouldn’t do, instead emphasizing that while they had strong beliefs about the best way to do things, the important thing was that as knitters, we have accurate expectations for what a given yarn/pattern/design could achieve, and achieving that in a way that made us happy.

I also appreciated that there was quite a lot of diversity in style on offer. To date, Amy Herzog has emphasized fitted, set-in sleeve sweaters with waist shaping, and honestly, I felt a bit of an imposter when I showed up, as I never knit sweaters like that (I hate fitted tops and waist shaping). But she has started to offer Custom Fit designs without waist shaping (if you’re unfamiliar with Custom Fit, go take a look at the link), and is about to introduce an A-line option (previewed at the retreat). She explained that she was moving into more variation on sweater shapes, and in her class, she showed a number of examples of these new-for-her constructions from her next forthcoming book, which all thrilled me.

Norah Gaughan’s explorations of geometric shapes were further along that spectrum, nearly as far from the traditional Herzog sweater as you can get. But while the result was garments that were loose/non-fitted, even frankly voluminous, they remained flattering and not sloppy (and much more to my taste).

Even opinions about gauge and sweater fabric were varied. Amy Herzog was pretty decided that all yarn has a gauge that is right for that yarn, and I think Clara Parkes would tend to agree. (I found particularly interesting the argument that drape shouldn’t be about knitting a yarn at a loose gauge, but about the inherent qualities of the fiber.) But in contrast, Julie Weisenberger talked about how a lot of her designs used a very open gauge.

So all in all, it was a successful weekend. It was a little daunting attending by myself, but everyone was very very nice and it was pretty easy to fall into conversation with people. I find it a bit exhausting to talk to strangers for four days, and I had tiny flashbacks to high school social anxiety at meals, as there’s a dining hall that serves you cafeteria style, and then you have to scan the room and decide which table to plop yourself down at that day (did you sit with people who know each other already? are you interrupting their chance to get together and catch up? are they amateurs like you or semi-pros? are they perhaps esteemed local designers/dyers which you don’t realize until the end of the meal? ACK).

Conversely, though, something I found incredibly welcoming was how, if you were tired out from making conversation, or didn’t see someone you had already met, you could sit by yourself (at events more than meals, I should say), and as long as you were knitting, you were part of things. The way that knitting made you a part of the social fabric, even without being sociable, was kind of amazing.

I also loved that in every class, at least half of the students were knitting away the whole time. I know people who knit at conferences or work meetings, but I’ve never been in a position to do so, and have always had a sneaking feeling that to do so was rude. But here it wasn’t! How could it be rude to knit at a retreat centered on knitting? It was just lovely – both to have more knitting time, and to see what so many others were knitting, and start up a conversation about their yarn, or pattern, or needles, or so on (this happened with all the completed handknits people were wearing, too. Sadly, I didn’t actually bring any of my handknits, because they take up a ton of room and my suitcase is small).

So. That is an incomplete (though not short) description of my weekend away. It was truly very very far away from my daily life, and a lovely immersion in Knitlandia.

IMG_3495It was gray and cloudy-to-rainy the whole weekend, except late afternoon on Saturday, when the photographers with their tripods descended on the beach like seagulls. I was surprised to realize that although I didn’t grow up on the coast itself, growing up in a northeastern coastal state was enough to instill in me the belief that the sun should rise, not set, over the ocean – and when I saw the sun sinking into the Pacific it just looked wrong!

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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.