Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Concerning Secrets of Speed Knitting, Supremely Sensible Supermarkets, and The Fox That Yearned For Kneesocks

I said I was going to track down the secrets of super-speedy knitting and that's exactly what I did. Got on a flight to furthest Norway (Finnmark to be precise) and went a-looking. Of course there were other aspects to the trip too. Wildife, for one thing.

The reindeer were everywhere, their big eyes reproachful as they lumbered out of our way. My landscape, not yours, they seemed to say. Take that noisy vehicle away.

This little stoat whisked across in front of us out on the Hamningberg peninsula, a place that deserves the title of The End of the World if anywhere does.

He even posed for a closeup, unable to resist the flattering temptation of a master photographer (no, no, not me, DH!)

The violet kneesocks really came into their own up there. (Jenny Lee's you may remember, from this year's Sock Madness). They were warm and fortunately so. Late May it might be in southern Europe (even Ireland) but it was still winter on the fells above Batsfjord.

This fox was totally enraptured by the same socks. 'I wonder now', he asked politely, 'would there be any chance of you making a set for myself? They would be ideal for the cold weather.' Three points here. Firstly, it is interesting he didn't consider the current icy conditions to be genuinely cold weather. Secondly, his words may have suffered a little in translation to Irish/English, for which blame this writer, not the Norwegian fox. Thirdly, if you are planning to make socks for a fox (or indeed a dog, cat, rabbit, reindeer) you need to think four, not two. And possibly adjust the toe shaping, if they're for a cat or dog rather than a fox. Just alerting you.

There were tantalising glimpses too of beautiful Lappish traditional dress dashing past in a snowy wood (I think she was shy).

The thing about this part of the world is that knitting is totally part of everyday life, and a necessary part at that, not an occupation for idle moments of amusement.

Look at this supermarket aisle in Ivalo, the northern Finnish town into which we flew before driving on into Norway. See that aisle on the left, where the woman is wheeling her trolley? Yarn, needles, and fixings, right in there with other household essentials.

And this? Now here we have a very small general store on the Finnish/Norwegian border at Utsjoki. Only the bare necessities. Which of course includes yarn. There on the right, opposite the fruit. Don't you just love these supremely sensible supermarkets? A pound of apples, two bottles of lemonade, and four balls of sock yarn, please. Certainly madam. Oh and I might as well take one of those 3mm wooden circulars too. Wouldn't want to run out.

Kirkenes is the place I remembered and shamelessly cajoled DH into revisiting. I said, wide-eyed, that it was for the scenery and the birdlife, but truthfully it was for this.

I would emphasise that this is a huge general store-cum-supermarket, selling food and drink, thermal underwear and diving gear, books and magazines, gardening equipment and spare tyres for 4 wheel drives. And it has a complete wall of yarn at one end. A whole wall!

If any of you are planning to visit Kirkenes (you might, if you're on a Midnight Sun cruise) then be warned - there is a very charming souvenir shop in the centre of the town which sells yarn as well as national dress and linen items and so on. But their yarn prices are two to three times as high as those of the Spar supermarket down on the quayside, for the same labels. I paid the equivalent of €1.40 to €1.50 each for most of the sock yarns and baby wools I bought here at Spar. That's about $1.50-$2 or thereabouts. The baby wools are almost nicer than the sock yarns - no sickly pastels for Norwegian babies, but bright vibrant primary shades, easy to see against the snow or fir trees. Yo for bright babies!

No, I hadn't forgotten. Speed knitting. This hunt was of course created by this year's Sock Madness where the Norwegian participants easily outdistanced the rest of us. I wanted to know why. And so I visited lots of yarn shops and watched and spied and asked discreet questions. Actually they were quite pleased to share their secrets and show me how they knitted.

This lady in Vadso was working on a complicated colourwork sweater for her granddaughter, and doing it at a frightening speed. She showed me. Ah, as I thought. Continental style, the yarn held over the left forefinger, not the right. Picking, not throwing. I can't do it. But yes, you can. Try again. See? But how do I purl? Like this. Like that? No, no, put the needle behind the yarn. Now! Good!

I bought one ball of really inexpensive thick yarn and a suitable circular (isn't it lovely, they have their own brand of bamboo circulars up there, appropriately named the Viking range) and worked for three days solid on mastering this new (to me) technique. Finally I thought I had it, and to celebrate cast on for a tie shawl which would be made entirely by the picking rather than the throwing technique.

In the meantime, I had packed every available corner of the car with spare yarn (well, you never know, and I did score a few balls of rare Faroese sock wool) and we had headed reluctantly back for Ivalo and home. But at the airport, what should I see in the souvenir shop?

This lady was knitting ribbed baby socks and although I had seen some speedy knitters up in Norway, this Finnish technique was supersonic! Her fingers simply flashed around the sock.

We hauled her up and made her pose in front of the shelves of tiny socks, felted boots, mittens, headbands and caps that she made for visitors to buy on their way home. Isn't that the best thing ever? To stock your shop not with mass-produced souvenirs, but your own handwork?

Huh? Oh yes, of course she was knitting by the Continental method. But so fast, so fast. And I did learn something new yet again. This is where it gets technical, so those who aren't really into knitting technique, skip the next bit. Generally when you purl, you put the yarn over the needle and then bring it in and through to make the stitch. Where she was working the purl stitches, she was bringing the yarn in from below, which is much faster - that is, bringing it under and up, not over and down, if you get me. And yes, that does create a knit stitch facing the other way if you're doing back and forth knitting rather than in the round, but so what? Knit it in the back. No worries. As long as you have uncrossed stitches, where's the problem?

OK, technical bit over. You can come back now.

The tie shawl a-la-Continental turned out superbly. It's in Knit Picks Andean Silk by the way, about a 5 or 6mm needle, I forget which. (And that cunning crochet two-colour twisted edging comes from the Traditional Danish Tie Shawl by Dorothea Fischer.) I was so pleased with it, especially as knitting it was fun and fast. And do you know something? It's wonderful to wear too. Tie it on whenever you feel the need, and you're warm without being smothered.

If you get hot, take it off or let it hang loose. Great. I love it! Consequently felt impelled to make several more by the same method, and thought I ought to share this with other knitters too, so listed a whole bundle of ideal yarns on eBay, trawled from the gigantic Celtic Memory stash.

These are the lovely homespun-style ones. They're on cones I sourced from a secret location, still with much of the original lanolin and factory dressing on them, but they're pure gold. Well, pure wool actually. They remind me most of Rowan Tweed. But nicer. Natural, denim blue, and a heathery lavender, all flecked with tiny lights of other colours, three different thicknesses, in that order, thickest to thinnest. The heathery one is about light worsted and the others go up from there.

And these are the beautiful Italian boucles. What I love about these is that the yarn and its colours do all the work. You can just whip off a quick garter stitch shawl in the simplest shape and it will look wonderful.

And finally of course the sock yarns some of which I am tempted to take off sale again and use for my own pleasure, to make little lacy shoulder shawls, to spice up whatever I'm wearing and suit the mood of the moment. If I haven't taken them off, you'll find them over on eBay. If the tweedy ones (ID 170506217549) have all gone, contact me and I might be able to skein some up for you.

The main purpose of this posting though is to alert you to several important points:

One. Never, but never neglect a close examination of Scandinavian supermarkets. Scan every shelf with a keen eye. You never know what you might find amidst the buns and the broccoli.

Two. If you want to improve your knitting speed, go Continental. Don't give me that 'Oh I couldn't possibly' defeatist line. You can, and you will. NOW!

Three. Start making shawls immediately. It could possibly become an addiction as serious as socks. And that's saying something.


knitski said...

Love your posts! I agree when up north you can find yarn in every location which just shows us they know the importance of YARN!

Sam said...

As a long time crocheter who finally figured out knitting, I find continental style to be much faster but also so much more familiar and comfortable. Thanks so much for the tip about faster purling!

Angeluna said...

I've been waiting for pictures of Norway. NOT ENOUGH!!! Wherever did you find that lovely little tame fox? He's straight out of a fairy tale.

And finally to see your Danish Tie Shawl, just perfect. And so practical. Started mine last night.

Popping over to eBay right now to see your heathered yarns.

Lea-Ann said... -- I couldn't resist the aisles of yarn and the beautiful little booties!! Had to share with my blog readers.

Erica said...

What a fantastic trip! I love seeing all of the handknits and the photos... They never disappoint! Great job J's DH :D

Audrey said...

Where'd my post go? Love your yarns and your pics! Keep skeining and dying. I'll keep buying!

CraftyGryphon said...

... the USA is sadly lacking in its Complete Grocery Store-ness. We need walls of yarn here!!

Sarah said...

What a marvelous purling improvement! Less wrist and elbow wear and tear.... Now if only I can learn to do it without the funny facial grimace!

kelley said...

I think you are right about shawls being as addictive as socks, I'm on a bit of a shawl jag myself. Happy knitting!

Anonymous said...

If you want to be even faster, try combination knitting. It is almost the same as Continental, just the purl is easier/faster. I made a little 'tutorial' a few years ago. I'm putting tutorial between quotes, because I'm just showing with pics and text what I'm doing.

If you feel like having a look at it, here's the link:

Cheers, Eva

Dreamin Diva said...

I'm going to try Continental knitting again in a shawl project as you suggest. I haven't figured out the purl part yet, but I'll give that a go as well. Love your posts, many thanks. Elly in NS

Anonymous said...

Actually, what slows my knitting down isn't the technique, but the indecision. "Do I like this project after all? Would a different stitch pattern emphasize this yarn's beauty more?". . .and so on.

The Finnish knitter you admire is doing what's sometimes called the "Eastern combined" technique, btw. Does make purling much easier for those who pick the yarn out of their left hands.

The pictures are beautiful. The fox is magical.
-- Gretchen

Helen said...

Okay, thanks Jo, as if it wasn't enough to plan trying out two-socks-at-once and magic loop this weekend, you've just made me switch over to Continental knitting on my shawl. Amazingly, I can't see much difference in tension, even though it feels looser. Blocking will sort it anyway. Right? Purling is a PITA mind, but I'm off to google Eastern Combined now - thanks Gretchen!

Anonymous said...

What a BRILLIANT post! One of the commentators on my blog gave me a link to it and I am thrilled! A world where grocery shops carry yarn - isn't that just a dream? :)

I'm trying to figure out the Finnish method of knitting from your description, but I'm not sure I get it. I normally knit continental so I'll have to experiment a bit to figure it out. :)

marit said...

Always great to read your posts, and very nice to hear that you had a good time in Norway:-) It is very convenient to have the yarn in the grocerystore! I'm used to it, and get grumpy when I don't find it;-)

Tracy WW said...

Wow! I've always been told that I "knit backward." Now I know that I knit in the Finnish-Continental way! It may seem backward, but it's fast and the end result is the same...

T said...

I so look forward to your posts along with those wonderful photos the DH/and you take. Thanks for the inspiration.

Dez Crawford said...

And what other secret did Fox have for you? Fox is always a messenger, you know. Sometimes from a female loved one who has passed on.

Amazed by the yarn-everywhere of such a beautiful country.

I don't "throw" per se... I pick off my right finger. It can be very fast. I sometimes knit continental, too, and I scoop the yarn up as you describe. But I have to stick with one method or another through a project because my gauge is a full needle size looser with Continental. This phenomenon has dashed all my hopes of switching hands for marathon stretches of stocking stitch.

Love those violet socks.

Lindy said...

Hi Jo -

What an interesting take on knitting "Continental". Until a decade or so ago I never knew there was any other way to knit. I had been taught to knit Continental many decades ago when I was about 10 years old and it has been the only way I have ever knit. When I see someone "picking" from yarn over their right finger I cannot imagine ever completing anything that way :-D

Finally - how did you get that little fox to eat from your hand? Is he really wild?

Lindy - looking forward to that vest pattern. :-D

Anonymous said...

I always enjoy reading about your travels. A trip to the top of the earth was just what I needed this morning....Louisiana is stinking hot inJuly!

Anonymous said...

Hi, I loved your last post...actually, I love all of your posts b ut I must make one comment. Every knitter who wins the fastest knitter contest is a right hand knitter. Every knitter that I have ever seen who is super fast is right handed. mary in cincinnati

ImplausibleYarn said...

What a great post, I found it being linked somewhere else. I must say you've sold me on the idea of visiting there. I agree, more supermarkets should sell yarn.

Beth said...

Thank you for showing me the importance of yarn in sensible supermarkets. What a fun read! I agree, no pastels, bright babies!

SharonO said...

Thanks, Jo. Knee socks may warm my toes but your posts always warm everything else. I do so enjoy them and I want a supermarket like those.

Robin said...

WOW! What a post and what an adventure!!! I'm a thrower but am learning Portuguese Knitting - much less hand movement. I have never been able to catch on to Continental but may give it another shot after I get comfortable with the Portuguese method. (GOOGLE Andrea Wong if you want to learn more about the Portuguese method.)

KiniaCat Crafts said...

I've tried Continental knitting - and it's not bad...but the purling confounds me.
Yes, I paused whilst reading your blog to try Continental purling by your description on the sock I'm might work for me!
Thank you for taking us along on the trip to Roan Inish! Lovely meandering!
Thank you also for visiting my blog and relating to the after-effects of dealing with creepy crawlies. I think you're response is quite reasonable! ;-)

PM said...

Hey Jo,
Loved the blue tie shawl, its so pretty! The fox was cute too, looks like he was all ready to follow u home!