Thursday, 30 January 2014

Tips and tricks for new knitters: Needles and Hooks

One of the first questions facing the new crafter is "What kind of needle/hook should I get?"

My answer? It's very much down to the individual and how you like the feel of different materials in your hands. I'll start with hooks, because there seems to be a little less choice involved with them than with needles. 

Crochet hooks come in a range of sizes. The smallest run to about .6mm, and the largest can be upwards of 10mm. (American sizes use letters, but I find the millimetre to be more exact.) The sizes, like those of knitting needles, are dependant on the thickness of the yarn. Cobweb and laceweight yarn use the smaller needles, while working up through the different sizes you use bigger and bigger hooks or needles. More on that below. 

My set of crochet hooks. The one with a hook at each end is two different sizes.
Hooks are also made of several different things. I bought a set when I first started crocheting. The smallest hooks were made of metal, presumably steel. The bigger hooks were made of plastic, and I bought some that were made of wood. Some have handles that are made of a different substance to the hook itself. One hook I have has a wooden handle and a metal hook. Some hooks offer easy grips that have gel like handles and can have either a metal or plastic hook. If you suffer from arthritis or pain in your arms, something with an easy grip would be better for you. KnitPro makes a hook called Waves that offers easy grip; Clover offers two that I know of - Amour and Soft Touch. I have not used any of these hooks, but have been told the Amour are a nicer version of the Waves. I do not know the difference between the Soft Touch and the Amour. 

Disclaimer: It is my firm opinion that hooks and needles are a very personal thing. What one person really likes using, another person might not like. I will not recommend any kind of needle or hook for this reason, but will only say what I like using and encourage you to try different types yourself. Many local yarn stores will let you try out a type of hook or needle before buying. It can't hurt to ask. 

Needle are made of much the same things. Wood, metal, and plastic seem to be the default materials, but with knitting I find that depending on the yarn  you use, you will want to use different types of needles. Because in knitting you have many stitches on the needles, what yarn you use will be affected more than in crochet, where you have at most two or three loops on your hook. 

Slipperiest of all are the metal needles. These are either nickel or stainless steel as far as I know, and different manufacturers will advertise what their needles are made of. One yarn I usually use metal needles for is silk yarn. It tends to grip the needle, and when I tried to knit with silk on a wooden needle, I could hardly slide it up and down. Switching to metal made it much easier to work the rows. 

Next comes plastic needles. These are hard and durable, usually the cheapest of the needles, and I started on these. I found they worked pretty well for most types of yarn, but the ends are blunter than wooden or metal needles as a general rule, so if you're trying to work fine or splitty yarn, they might not be ideal. 

Finally, the wooden needles. These are comprised of either hardwoods like the KnitPro Symphonies, or bamboo. Bamboo needles are often soft on the hands, and warm up as you work, making them ideal for people with aches and pains in the hands or arms. Hardwood needles offer a superior gripping surface for the yarn, and are great for yarns that like to slide around a lot. If you're having trouble keeping yarn on the metal or plastic needles, go for the hardwoods. 

Double pointed needles. 
One set of circular needle tips with different sized cables.
Knitting also has different kinds of needles. In addition to the straight needles that everyone may be familiar with, there are double pointed needles ((DPNs) and circular needles. These last two kinds were developed for knitting in the round, although I use circulars as well for knitting flat as well. Circulars come in two different kinds too - fixed, where you have a cable between the needles that is a certain length, and where the needles are a certain width, and interchangeable, where you have a set. The set comes with needle tips of varying widths (usually ranging from 3.5mm to 8mm) and cables that make up a circular needle length of 16" to 32" or longer. Circular needles can be used to knit things which are too long for straight needles - the body of a sweater, or a shawl, which often has 300+ stitches in some part of it. The cable in between the needles holds the work, and I find it very useful in working with heavy items such as large garments. It helps take weight off the wrists and prevent RSI or other kinds of pain.

One thing to remember with double pointed needles is that you only work with two at a time; most of the needles simply hold stitches, much as a straight needle does. Depending on the number of stitches in your row, you can either use all five, or just four. A  minimum of three needles is needed to hold the stitches, and you work with the one not holding any. Rubber tips can be gotten to put on the end you're not working with so the stitches don't slide off.

I was going to cover tension swatches in this article as well, but I find I've rambled on somewhat about needles, so I'll leave that for next time. I'll leave you with this chart on what size needles work best with the different weights of yarn.

Laceweight (2-ply): 1.5-2.25 mm (US 000-1)
Fingering (also called sock weight or 4-ply): 2.25-3.25 mm (US 1-3)
Sport (also called baby or 5-ply): 3.25-3.75 mm (US 3-5)
DK (double knit): 3.75 - 4.5 mm (US 5-7)
Worsted and Aran: 4.5-5.5 mm (US 7-9)
Chunky: 5.5-8 mm (US 9-11)
Bulky (also called superchunky): 8 mm + (US 11 +) 

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Monday special: Tips and tricks for beginning knitters

I've noticed that several of my friends have decided to take up knitting or crochet recently, and many have been asking for advice. As with most people who love their craft, I am always keen to pass on information and help to new crafters. Sharing the joy of working with yarn is something that any knitter, crocheter, or spinner can relate to.

With that in mind, I've decided to do a semi-regular series on getting started in the world of yarn craft. These will likely be posted once or twice a week in addition to my regular weekly post.

I'm going to start with yarn. Yarn is the one material crocheters and knitters have to know best, and while getting to know how different yarn behaves is part of the learning process, there are some things I have learned through trial and error that might benefit people just starting out.

There are several different materials that yarn is made of. Probably the most well known and common to work with is wool. Wool comes from the fleece of a sheep, and there are many different breeds of sheep, so there are many different kinds of wool. The wool from the Bluefaced Leicester (BFL) and Merino breeds of sheep are common in use today. They are usually soft enough to wear close to the skin of all but the most sensitive person. However, there are many, many more breeds, and each has it's own characteristics. Wool often offers sturdy material once knitted up, and many types will felt. Felting is when the fibres of the wool stick closer together and make a very dense fabric, shrinking whatever has been made with it.

Superwash wool is wool that has been taken and chemically treated so that it does not easily felt. This can be more safely machine washed. This kind of wool is popular for socks and gifts, especially baby items that a busy parent can just throw in the machine instead of gentle hand washing.

Another type of yarn is that of the camel. Other camelids are also used, alpaca especially, and these are considered a more luxury yarn. The fabric they make often drapes nicely, making a different kind of fabric to that of pure wool. They are also very warm. One thing I have noticed about alpaca specifically is that is tends to "grow" as you work with it, and even after you are done with the project. I made a cardigan out of an alpaca blend yarn (with some silk and some wool) and it has grown to be too large for me, especially in the arms. One trick I have learned with working with this fibre is to use a smaller needle size than you would otherwise, because it will get bigger. Washing it does shrink it somewhat, but with wear it will grow again.

Other animal fibres used in yarn include angora, which provides a halo effect when knitted up, and silk, which gives a bright sheen to the yarn. Silk takes dye especially well, so any yarn with silk in it tends to be brilliantly colourful.

Plant fibres used in yarn are extremely varied. Personally, I have used yarn made of sugar cane, bamboo, cotton, and soya, and I know there are others out there. I am sadly ignorant of how these fibres are spun into yarn, but together they make up a wonderful selection of yarns that can be worn in warmer weather. Cotton comes in two forms; mercerised, where the strands have been treated so they do not separate easily,  and regular, where the strands are a little more separate.

In crochet, I find mercerised cotton easier to work with. The strands (plies) do not separate easily, and this makes it easier to take the hook through all plies without splitting them. In knitting, it is a little easier to take the needle through all the plies, although you have to pay attention. Splitting a ply in your yarn makes the finished work look untidy at best.

The way plant fibres are processed usually leads to a splitty yarn, and care must be taken when working with these yarns, but they produce delightful results. Cotton is my favourite material to crochet with.

There are myriad books written on the different properties of different types of yarn; I can not even begin to cover them all here. One thing I really recommend is doing your homework when starting a project with a new-to-you yarn. Ravelry comes in very handy here. For those of you not familiar with the website, it is a kind of network for yarncrafters. Databases with patterns and yarn are built into the site, along with forums and groups that you can join depending on your interests. There are thousands, if not millions, of different patterns, both free and for sale; there are also entries for nearly every yarn you can buy. These entries have information such as washing instructions, what fibre(s) are in the yarn, and many other useful things. They also have comments users have made based on their experiences with it. Reading these comments requires only a free membership, and can give you insights into how the yarn will behave while being worked and what the finished object will do. Will it felt? Grow? Look good with those cables you want to put in? It's all there.

Next time, I'll talk about needles and tension. If you have any requests, please feel free to leave me a comment and I'll do what I can!

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Wherein I get addicted to crochet

Fun matching hats!
I'm a little bit late with this week's blog, but in all fairness to me it has been a very busy second half of the week. More specifically, Wednesday was very busy, followed by sheer exhaustion on Thursday and a little less sheer exhaustion on Friday.

Wednesday, as I think I have mentioned before, is when my local knitting group gets together. This week I had a little added excitement in going. My housemate Katharina had decided she wanted to learn to crochet this past week, so I sat her down and went over the basics. I got as far as the (British) Treble stitch, and decided to set her to work on granny squares. She wanted to make a baby blanket, so was happy to get going on something that would be more than just going back and forth in a row. I was getting my things ready to take to the group, and she peeks her head in and starts asking me questions about yarn. One thing led to another and she came along with me! So I have gotten someone else hooked on yarncraft and I am very excited about it. I've been told I'm a very good teacher, so I've added teaching knitting and crochet classes to my list of considerations for the future. Once I'm back in America, I'll have a look at what local yarn stores offer and approach them with ideas.

After knitting group on Wednesday, we headed an hour south to the town of Brixham where I auditioned and Kat sat on the panel for Romeo and Juliet. This show is being put on by the South Devon Players, whom I have done shows with in the past, and will be set in the 1860s in Brixham. I went for the role of either Lady Montague or Lady Capulet, and got the former. It will be perfect, because I can sit in rehearsal and craft while the others are going their bits, then when I am needed (she appears 3 times in the show) I can toddle on and do a bit of acting. Best of both worlds.

After such a long day, I was too wiped out to do much but work on the newest project I have started. That's right, something new! I got a message from my friend Kieran, who recently had a baby daughter. He and his wife (also my friend) Krysh were wondering if I would be able to make a second baby blanket for them, and how much it would cost. I gave them a quote, and they gave me the go-ahead. Wednesday, I had a look to see if I could find yarn I wanted at the yarn shop, and found some. I bought it and started right away. I must have worked 4 hours on it Wednesday, and a further few hours Thursday. By late last night, I was getting near the end. I'm going to have to buy some more yarn soon.  I made the first one as a gift for their new baby, so I'm really quite thrilled to be able to make a second. It speaks volumes of what they think of my work and is a huge boost to my confidence. They asked for bold colours this time around; the first time I used pastels. I will make it to 3 feet square and then line it with fleece. I'll be seeing them at the beginning of February, so I have set myself that deadline so I can give it to them in person. I don't think getting it done in time is going to be a problem. I seem to be addicted to crochet at the moment.

Aside from that, I haven't been working on a lot else. I knitted quite a bit last weekend and early this week on my Marco pullover. I'm almost done with the body, and will do the arms and cowl neck during the Olympics. They will be part of my challenge for Ravelry's own version of the games. More on that once it's actually started.

 I did get my final hat washed and blocked for Halos of Hope, and sent those off on Wednesday as well. I'm sending a total of five hats, three of which will fit adults and two which I think will probably be too small. They do take hats for children though, so hopefully they will find heads that need hats. Three, the dark brown hats, are to the same pattern, the Sockhead Hat (Ravelry Link) which I altered to make them less slouchy, and two are simply hats I liked the pattern of.

Next Thursday is a show at Westpoint Arena (a local centre that does a lot of shows) called Crafts4Crafters, and I will be going with a small group. Depending on how tired I am afterward, I will write either that day or the next. There will be a lot of fabric vendors there, so I will be sourcing the fleece backing for the baby blanket. To see what else I get, tune in next week!

Thursday, 16 January 2014

A busy week

Last week, I promised I would write more about an exciting plan I have for 2014. I have been thinking for awhile about doing some of my own design work, but putting thought into what I am physically capable of, and how much work design actually takes, I have decided on something a little different. I'm planning to do just a few designs, and sell the results; my first foray into the field is a lace shawl. I have also decided I'm going to do armwarmers, and I got a book on designing sweaters for Christmas, so I'll probably have a go at that at some point as well.

I've already started work on a shawl design, and have notes for another and possibly a third. Lace shawls are something I am confident making, and so far my design work has gone well, if slowly. It's fatiguing work. I've only taken one picture so far, a little sneak preview of what the first few rows look like, which will have to do until I've knit the first shawl and am happy with how it looks. I'm sixty or so rows in now, out of perhaps 200; I plan to knit until I run out of yarn. The first shawl I will keep, and any adjustments I make I will integrate into a second shawl, which I will give to a member of my family. The third will be up for sale. My sister already sells some of her own sewing creations at local craft shows in Columbus, Ohio, and I hope to partner with her.

In addition to my plans, I have been doing a lot of more ordinary work, working on things both for myself and for others. Several knitting podcasts I listen to are participating in a Halos of Hope charity drive called the Podcaster Throwdown, (link to Halos of Hope store) where the various podcasters are competing to see who can donate the most hats. Listeners are encouraged to choose one podcast as their team and donate as many as they wish. I set myself a goal of five hats, some of which I made last year. The last one I finished this past week. It's a simple mock cable pattern called the Caramel Ripple Hat (link goes to my Ravelry project page), which I made out of Debbie Bliss Cashmerino Aran. It's quite small, but will fit a child nicely. I plan to get my hats sent off in the next week.

At the request of my housemate, I made a little holder for her dictaphone. I crocheted it out of green and purple yarn, alternating rows, and am very happy with how it turned out. The green rows are a simple double crochet (American terms) and the purple rows are a crossed double, where I crochet in the second space, then go back and crochet in the first. The top has a picot edge.

I have also started a sweater for her. The pattern she picked is Lundy, made out of some wool she picked up at Aldi - the brand is Kirkton House and it's an aran weight. The sweater is a mix of 1x1 ribbing and cables, an interesting mix of mindless knitting and intricate cablework.

That's not to say I'm not doing anything for myself. After doing five hats for Halos of Hope, I felt like making another for myself. I had recently given one away because it was really too large for me, and I thought I had just enough of the yarn from the first left to make a second if I made it smaller. I got out the pattern and knit the smallest size, and have just finished it tonight. It's a pattern called Everglade and I've made it out of The Natural Dye Studio's Angel DK, which I got some time ago in a club special.  This is unblocked, as I've literally just woven in the ends.

The other project I worked on for myself was a new pair of armwarmers. I seem to have developed a bad habit of taking finished objects I'm bored with and giving them to other people. My housemate is the major recipient of most of my recent generosity - since I've moved in she's gotten a hat that blocked large, and a set of armwarmers that have stretched, besides the dictaphone holder and the sweater that's on the needles. Anyway, I had some homespun yarn that I fancied using, and was planning to make a hat with it. Looking at the yardage, I decided to make the armwarmers with it instead, and was kind of glad I did. My spinning is getting better, but it's still not top notch, and this yarn is a little older than my newest and therefore not as good. It was uneven and would have made a rather rough hat, but it knitted up lovely and thick for armwarmers. The only downside I had was the fact that there wasn't enough. I had the foresight to weigh the ball at the beginning, and then I weighed it about half way through the first armwarmer and found I would be short. I dug through my leftover half balls of yarn and found a skein that complemented the handspun, and which was also a little lighter and not as itchy for the sensitive parts of my wrist and my hands, which didn't really need to warmth I required for my arms. I am exceptionally pleased with how these turned out.

I got asked a question during the week by a friend with Fibromyalgia who knits and crochets. She asked me some strategies  I use to knit and crochet when I am tired or achey. One of her main avenues of questioning was grips on crochet hooks. I gave her a response, but I thought there might be other people out there with the same or similar issues who don't know who to ask, and that a little something here would be good from time to time. Here is my response to her query:

"Bearing in mind I have ME/CFS and not fibro, and therefore more problems with the fatigue end of the scale than the pain, there are a few things I can say. I got some voltarol (diclofenac) gel prescription strength off my GP a few years ago when I went to him with pain in my thumb and elbow. He said it was RSI, gave me the stuff and told me to rest and apply when necessary. It was a huge tube and I hoard it, so I can use it when the pain gets too bad. I find the gel really works, if you can get it. It's also an over the counter medication, I believe.

Another thing that I use a LOT are braces. I have some for my hands, wrists (which make knitting next to impossible, but stabilize my wrists so that they feel better quicker) and an elbow brace that I often use when I crochet and sometimes when I knit. Elbows are one of the places where I get pain first, so I can wrap the brace around the base of my elbow and work fairly happily. All of these were recommended to me by GPs. The elbow brace is just a long strip of different kinds of material that fasten on via velcro. You can apparently get them at any sports store; they are commonly used for tennis elbow therapy. Mine was about £8 and I highly recommend it.

Talking about crochet hooks, I do know of a hook with a soft grip. One of the indie dyers I often buy from does a lot of crochet, and she got onto these ones by Clover called Amour. They’re fairly new out; bearing in mind she sells them on her website for about £6 they’re not cheap, but I’d guess they’re worth checking out. (Please note; I have not used these hooks, but reviews by other people have said they are good.)

A lot of different sources I’ve read recommend using bamboo needles when your hands are sore, as the lightweight factor in the needle works to reduce the grip you need, and also the wood is warmer and kinder to your hands. The only problem I’ve found with bamboo is that it is very grippy, so your projects using them are limited to things you really don’t want sliding off your needles.

In terms of the kind of needle I use, I almost always use circular needles to knit back and forth, and find it holds heavy projects easier than two straights. You aren’t straining your hands to hold something heavy up. This helps ease pressure on sore hands and arms."

If you're a knitter or crocheter reading this, and have not joined Ravelry, I strongly suggest you do. It's free, and has databases full of patterns and yarn; it also has places to keep track of what projects you're working on, what yarn and needles/hooks you own, and all your bought patterns. On top of that, there are forums and groups full of helpful advice and friendly people. I believe it is the best resource for fibre workers out there.

I hope to post once a week, so until then!

Thursday, 9 January 2014


It's been a long time since I've written a blog post, and I seem to be a little out of practice. This is my third attempt to write something, and I'm not sure I'm happy with it - but here goes.

The turn of the new year is always a time when we go over what we have done the previous year. I'll do a little of that in this post, and then over the next few days I'll talk about what this year will bring for me. I have exciting plans, and high hopes - probably the reason I'm resurrecting this blog after a year away! 

To start with - what did I do? Well, I did knit, of course. I did a little crochet as well, but not as much as I would have liked. I have trouble with my joints and have to take it easy; working with the hook too much makes my elbows and hands hurt. I also worked on my spinning, and am finally getting to the point where my perfectionist self is happy with the yarn I'm creating. 

The obligatory montages; first, the knitting finished objects: 

A smaller section for the Christmas presents I made this year:

And the crochet FOs:

And finally the spinning FOs. 

2013 was an interesting year for me. I started up amateur dramatics again. I was involved in two shows, one being the epic Les Miserables written as a stage play by the woman who directed it, based on the book. I had four roles, so it was quite a lot of work! I did a little bit of larp, and decided I was going to move back to the States. More on that later. 

My health has not improved any, and maybe even gone a little downhill. I still go to a knitting group, but I don't get out every week anymore. I find working on more demanding projects exhausting, and always have something "mindless" on the needles. However, my craft is one of the few constants in my life, and it is a rare day indeed when I physically can not do some kind of work. I mention this, because it will more than likely come up quite a lot in my blog. Suffering from ME/CFS has certainly changed my life, and talking about the condition is something I do openly and often. 

I'll end this by saying if you have anything you'd like to see me include, please let me know. I've already had a request for a tutorial on beginning knitting. I will probably do one for crochet as well. Thanks for reading!