Forensic (adj): relating to or denoting the application of scientific methods and techniques to the investigation of crime
This is a bit of a geeky post, but I hope you enjoy it all the same! I was inspired to write it because I am one of the many knitters in the world making a Christmas present for someone, and I began thinking about the legacy of gifted knitted items. They’re made in hopes of being much-loved, well-used, treasured items; the recipient or wearer will hopefully take it on part of their journey through life, memories and associations formed with each wear and recalled at a moment’s notice. Like food and favourite meals, treasured items of clothing can be powerful emotional triggers. Most of the time the story begins the moment the item is used or worn, but lately I’ve been thinking about the chapters that have already been written; a prologue, if you like, about the making of the item, like the choice or reasoning behind ingredients in a recipe. What has already gone into the garment? How has it gone from being a ball of wool to something cherished and useful? What has the journey been like?
Last week I started a project that’s a bit different from my usual. A little while ago, I was contacted by and met with a woman looking to have an heirloom blanket mended and restored. Moths, as ever, have committed the crime applied to the definition above. So far it has wrapped up two or three generations of her family, and the latest little snuggler is due any day now. I couldn’t say no, for a number of reasons. Textiles are in the genes, and my heartstrings were tugged. But I also couldn’t resist the challenge of restoring the blanket: it is an opportunity to go back to basics and test my mettle as a knitter.
For what it’s worth, I always tell my knitting students to pay attention to their knitting: to get fully acquainted with how correctly knitted stitches look and feel, how they lie on the needle, how one stitch is connected to the next by following the path of the yarn, how to differentiate between a knit and a purl stitch…the list goes on. In short, how to “read” their knitting. I say “for what it’s worth” because the import of my words doesn’t always fully register, at least not for a while. This is no reflection on my students, of course; they work hard and I rarely ask for more insofar as commitment, enthusiasm and attentiveness. What I mean is that by really studying knitted fabric, by keenly observing its construction and how it is engineered, one builds a solid foundation and confidence from understanding how things work and fit together. It usually takes new knitters time and patience before they start to appreciate how much they can gain from scientific observation of their hobby – and this post is a relatively unusual example of that.
I’d seen a few photos of the blanket before it came into my possession, and knew that whilst most of the moth holes were small and easy to darn, two were relatively large and the best course of action would be knitting patches and carefully sewing them on. And this is where the forensic work began: there were no pattern instructions available, so I would have to reverse engineer the stitch pattern. All very CSI/Bones, isn’t it? How could I turn it down?! Anyway, here’s a picture of the blanket:
It is so pretty and delicate, and I love this lattice pattern. It looks simple to recreate, but my initial thoughts about its construction disappeared after the first two attempts at swatching. At that stage, I’d thought that the increases and decreases occurred on different rows, i.e. eyelet increases on knit rows, decreases on purl rows. Then I decided to take my own advice – always good to walk the talk! – and examined the first two rows of the blanket:
You can see here that immediately after the garter stitch border is a plain knit row. If the pattern had begun immediately after completion of the border, the ‘ladder’ or connecting thread between the two divergent stitches at the bottom of the eyelet wouldn’t exist. This ladder belongs to the row above the last ridge of garter stitch. Looking further up the work, all stitches in this position looked the same. So far, so scientific. Yet this conclusion also revealed more information about the woman who’d knitted the blanket: the fact that she’d chosen a stitch pattern that was easy to knit and beautiful meant that she’d given equal thought to her family’s needs and her comfort and enjoyment as a knitter. Having a row of plain knitting meant that she got a ‘resting row’ and could work quickly. This is fair enough; she’d chosen a 4ply wool yarn to show off her talent and the delicacy of the lattice pattern.
If my attempt at profiling was correct and there were alternate plain knit rows, then the pattern had to be worked entirely from the purl or wrong side. Next question: how?
I’ll start with the increases. We are so used to making various types of yarnover these days, we forget that there are plenty of other ways to make a stitch, or even an eyelet. This eyelet, I supposed, is actually a made stitch, purled into the front rather than the back to create the hole. It couldn’t be a yarnover because of its connection to the stitches on either side. The two ‘legs’ of the stitch forming the decrease are the clue: the left of these leads directly to the increased stitch above the eyelet, which indicates that the ladder or connecting thread has been worked into. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one for this project. Compare these two photos – blanket with ‘made yarnovers’ on the left, spider lace with more ‘typical’ yarnovers on the right:
The next step was to figure out exactly how the decreases worked. I knew it couldn’t be p2tog, because the stitches didn’t cluster or join together at the top like a little fork. They also followed the direction of the knitting. The clue here was the ‘bar’ or strand of yarn lying across the stitches above the eyelet; this indicated that a stitch was slipped or passed over. It’s a little more difficult to see from the purl side, but below right you can see a stitch inclining to the left, showing that it has been passed over at least one of the following stitches. I turned over to the knit side and saw it more clearly in reverse – the passed stitch inclined right.
Because this bar looked as though it was being carried over two stitches, I thought it must be “slip 1, purl 2, pass slipped stitch over the purl 2”. Only one way to find out: combine these two findings in a new swatch – and hope.
I’m using 4ply yarn on DK needles, so the fabric is a bit loose, but the key thing is the appearance of the stitches: they look and behave in the same way as those on the blanket. It’s easy to be distracted by the differences in tension, the age of the fabric and how the blanket has been used and worn for 30-40 years (it has definitely been ironed – you can see below that the garter stitch side border has stretched and opened up completely), but that is the next part of the restoration challenge – getting my modern swatch to match the vintage blanket as closely as possible. Different knitter, different time, different yarn…so many variables. But then again, that’s also part of the fun.
It’s been a beguiling project – but most importantly a privilege. I am working and focused on the task at hand, but it has been impossible to avoid tapping into and understanding the mind and heart of a fellow knitter whilst thinking practically and scientifically about what I am doing. I was able to conclude that there were plain knit rows in the blanket not only through observing the behaviour of the stitches, but also drawing on how a knitter might rationalise a project like this. I have been able to work out the pattern and reverse engineer it because I understand what it is to think like a knitter, and this is the connecting thread, or tie that binds. And I wonder if other Christmas knitters out there are quite aware of how much their projects reveal about themselves as well as the intended recipient. Maybe, maybe not – time is ticking and the big day is less than a week away! – but some of them will probably get together later and swap tales about cutting it fine before the seasonal deadline. The stories (yarns?) will continue, just as this blanket will continue to wrap up the babies in my client’s family for many years to come.