Thursday, April 21, 2022

Intarsia obsession

How does a knitter get obsessed with intarsia?

It doesn't happen overnight for sure. 

I was never a fan of intarsia for several reasons. First and foremost - the need to cut yarns and work from many small balls. It creates lots of leftovers and complicates your work. Working from one ball is by far cleaner and easier. Second reason - places where colors are changed are prone to have gaps or holes, which is true especially when you begin connecting different yarns. And - as soon as you start seeing a finish line - you get stuck with innumerable tails to hide! 

All this said, a couple of years ago I made a cardigan from Keito Dama, with some elements of intarsia.

It turned out to be not too difficult to use different balls at the same time. And the process was rather engrossing and fun. It was akin making a tapestry only with needles. The bonus part - I love the end result!

My next intarsia project - also a cardigan, also from Keito Dama - was a total revelation for me. Not only did I figure out how to avoid gaps and holes between different yarns easily (just hold them tight at the connecting point) but I wasn't much annoyed by the constant untangling of balls in use. There was some method in the madness and after a while I could identify the ball that was "the main culprit" and get rid of the mess quickly. And the fact that my colorblock cardigan was worn quite a lot last summer made my affection for intarsia grow.

I've already told you many times about my love of old knitting magazines. Of course, there is some nostalgia involved but the main reasons are accuracy of their math (especially true for the old Phildars and Pingouins), clarity of their drawings and diagrams, and unlimited choices and variations of patterns that could be incredibly inspiring.

In my vast collection there are several Anny Blatt and Filatura di Crosa magazines from the 80s full of colorful intarsia projects. I don't think that they all look modern now. Moreover, most of them definitely don't match my style and I wouldn't wear them in a million years. Especially the ones from Anny Blatt - too complicated, with too many adornments and details that distract attention from the whole garment and make it look too busy. Yet, I love looking at these magazines for inspiration. They are so full of clever ideas!

Meanwhile, life was going on, and I became busy knitting for my nearest and dearest. All of a sudden I started getting requests from everyone. It is nice to feel needed and useful but it is boring and not exciting to make the same things again and again. As a general rule people like things that they already know, right? Especially in clothes, as I discovered recently. Last year my older daughter took me to a store and showed me a sweater (made from some very expensive cashmere, but oh so bland and simple) that I had to recreate for her. Done (no pictures, sorry).

My husband asked for another zippered jacket with nothing - no hood, no pockets, just a zipper. Done (also no pictures).

My other daughter didn't want anything but she liked my sweater with a zipper and tried  the one that I made for Halloween/Christmas.

It fits her like a glove - the sweater went to New York.

My half-brother (I have two half-brothers) asked me for a sweater and I spent a long time making it (he is tall with long arms).


It wasn't easy because he lives far from us, in a different country, on another continent. He gave me his measurements but still it was nerve wracking and I was anxious and stressed till the moment he put the sweater on and sent me pictures.
So this one was done as well.

In between I managed to make a little jacket for myself in simple stockinette. I made it almost entirely while watching TV (there is always lots of TV watching around Christmas and New Year).  I saw a colorblocked jacket on ME+EM website that I liked a lot plus I had similar colors (not exactly, but close enough) in my stash.

I changed the construction of the jacket  - mine has raglan sleeves. Otherwise, I tried to stay as close to the original as possible.
This is the original version from ME+EM website
I love this jacket - it is light, soft, warm, and can be worn under a coat. The bright sleeves are my favorite. This color makes me happy. I don't have good pictures because I still haven't learned how to photograph myself (and probably never will) and besides me there is only one person here who agrees to do it, albeit reluctantly. This person has been busy with other stuff most of the time and my jacket was left unphotographed (like most of my other projects, alas).

And then the war started.

During the last five years we went through several natural disasters (I am not even touching politics now). We survived a category 4 hurricane, a pandemic with lockdowns, new rules, and disappearance of toilet paper. 

And now the war. February 24 was a terrible day in our family life. No, I don't have any relatives or friends in Ukraine. Even in Russia there are not many people who still remember me. After all, for the last 27 years we've been living in the US, our children grew up here, we stopped checking news from Russia many years ago. Yet, still it hit us like a ton of bricks. 

For a while I couldn't do anything but check the news feed every 5 minutes.  I - the person who keeps telling everyone "Stop reading the news" - couldn't concentrate on anything else. At some point I noticed that my whole body wouldn't stop shaking and knew that something drastic should have been done to change the situation.

I remembered a jacket with a palm tree and a parrot (sort of) that I saw in an Anny Blatt magazine.

I promptly collected as many matching colors as I could find. Most of them were tiny balls of ColourMart cashmere scraps. My yarns had different thickness and couldn't be used together. So I spent quite a lot of time mixing, reballing, and rewinding them to get approximately (the operative word here!) same gauge in all of them. By the way, I made several changes while in the middle of making the back when it became obvious that some colors didn't look right or some yarns were too thin or too thick for the main fabric.

This project was extremely absorbing. It required all my focus and dedication and definitely helped restore my self-control. 

The magazine's variation of the jacket has lot of "bells and whistles": different intarsia versions for back, fronts, and sleeves; sleeves have stripes in the middle; crocheted stripes go along the sleeves and back shoulders; there are multicolored bubbles; intarsia is not uniform stockinette, some of it is done in moss stitch. Plus the whole pattern is rather short and boxy, not to my liking.

After I finished with colors and yarns, I went looking for a jacket pattern that would fit me better and found one in an old (surprise!) Phildar magazine appropriately called New Classic.

True to its title it contains simple but classic patterns for the whole family. I picked a jacket with "fully fashioned shoulders" (aka "Japanese shoulders") that I described in detail here. This type of construction is really well fitting if done right and I like my stooped back in it better (if it is possible to like a stooped back).

My version of the jacket was supposed to have intarsia only on its back, everything else was supposed to be done in black with colorful borders, wrists, and button band frames. I was also hoping for pockets. 

Sleeves - the easiest part - were knit first. Then I started my journey with the back.

When the back was finished (surprisingly quickly), the balls of black yarn looked tiny and almost all other colors mostly disappeared. Ok, no pockets, but would I have enough black yarn for the fronts in one color? After long deliberations and lots of yarn weighting I didn't want to take a risk and started looking for other solutions. 

I made several sketches trying to visualize my future fronts in different color patterns.



The one with a big flower seemed to be more logical. I drew this pattern on a piece of graph paper (it wasn't easy at first, but it wasn't too hard either) and promptly started knitting. At this particular moment knitting was like a drug to me. More knitting - less thinking (and less worrying).
And that is, in a nutshell, the story of my Tropical cardigan. By the way, the original pattern from Anny Blatt is called Salamandre but I changed it so much it didn't feel right to use the same title.

There is one last thing that I haven't told you about this jacket and you cannot see it in the pictures. I put my Floridian address on it, knit it in the side of the right front which makes it almost invisible (unless I raise my right arm and turn sideways). It is a sort of inside joke that can be understood only by the people who live in the Florida Keys and are familiar with the local direction system.

I would have preferred my original plan - all black front with intarsia only on the back. I do think that two intarsias are different in style and partially in color. Yet, I still like this jacket because it taught me quite a few important lessons.
Lesson one: intarsia is the best therapy for anxiety. While living through a traumatic event, just pick up your needles and start knitting something extremely complicated. You'll feel better... eventually... 

Lesson two: you don't have to hide all the tails in one go. Actually, it works better if you pace yourself, going methodically section by section. I did it this way for each part before washing and blocking.

Lesson three: there is no need for many colors of the same exact yarn. Using a little bit different yarn actually adds some texture to the final look.

Lesson four: intarsia only looks scary. It is a lot of fun, but it requires total absorption and focus. 

While making the jacket I stumbled on this cardigan by R13.

It has an intarsia pattern (check), a really well known intarsia pattern (check check) originated in Scotland (check check check). It is extremely expensive and made look older and worn out on purpose - two things that I don't like in knits. Instantly I had an idea to recreate this cardigan without distressing and with the yarns that I had. I think that unconsciously I was afraid of starting something simple and straightforward that wouldn't require all my attention. Plus I do like distressed jeans but truly hate distressed knits. Blame my poor childhood in the USSR. I don't find laddered  knits with holes and frayed edges attractive, rather the opposite. They look depressing and untidy to me. 

I remembered the wonderful walnutty brown Hawkshaw sheep yarn bought last year during Perth Festival of Yarn. Here is the link to the seller's website and her Instagram page. Next time I plan on buying more of this yarn in Perth.

It is finger weight but if doubled it could work for my R13 jacket knock off. I also brought from Scotland several balls of Rowan kidsilk mohair in black and white that could work as well but were thinner than needed for the project. I decided to mix them with Drops alpaca in black and white (leftover from the Keito Dama jacket). Together these yarns gave me the right thickness  and added the fluff of the original jacket that the Hawkshaw wool was lacking. 

All the preparations - sketch drawings, pattern calculations, gauges, yarn balling - were made while the parts of the Tropical jacket were blocked and drying. As soon as one jacket was finished I started working on another one. No pause whatsoever. 

Here you can compare and contrast my cardigan with the original.



What did I do differently? 

The shoulder construction. This time I didn't go for the "full-fashioned shoulder". And I think the original has exactly this type of shoulders if you look closely. Obviously, I didn't look closely - too much in a hurry.

My version doesn't have pockets - again!

The paradox of my existence is that I own so much yarn yet am constantly running out of yarn. Like everyone else, I am very much risk averse. When it looks like I won't have enough yarn to finish my knit, I start panicking. And making an intarsia project you deal with many balls that are smaller than the initial ones, plus in this case I was using the yarn doubled. After the back was finished my brown balls didn't look too promising, so I decided to get rid of the pockets. Now I can tell you that it was a wrong decision. I would have had enough yarn for pockets. Big sigh!

I made more buttonholes and my buttons are different. My cardigan is less fluffy and less oversized.

And I had to embroider the colored strips that criss-cross the losanges unlike in the original cardigan which is machine knit and the strips are done simultaneously with everything else.

Embroidering was the most difficult part while working on this cardigan. The actual knitting went pretty quickly. The pattern is geometric, regular, and easy to remember. I was using 3.5 mm needles, not 2 mm and 2.5 mm like in my Tropical jacket. And there were only 3 colors. 

I spent the whole day figuring out the embroidery technique that would work better for this piece. Normally for embroidery you would use yarn that has either the same thickness or even is thicker than the main yarn. My crocheted strips with alpaca/mohair mix looked terribly handmade and sloppy. Any other kind of embroidery looked the same since I wasn't really skillful in it, and no matter how much I practiced it would not get better. Eventually, I went back to crocheting, but used only Rowan kidsilk mohair for it, omitting Drops alpaca.

I had to crochet as loosely as possible to avoid tightening and gathering around the strips. It took a while (and many unravelings) to find the right tension. On the bright side (always look at the bright side...) this cardigan will keep its form and won't stretch no matter what - the thin crochet strips keep it in place nicely.
And this a short account of how I suddenly became obsessed with intarsia. Now I am working on another project from an old French magazine with intarsia and fair isle together. Who needs a therapist when you can just knit intarsia instead, right?





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