Crochet Curmudgeon Revealed

It isn’t often that I am interviewed.  Since becoming a professional crochet designer I’ve been grilled by the best, asked the most penetrating and difficult questions, and have answered as honestly and sincerely as possible.  Most interviews focus on my craft and the crochet techniques I champion. Some are just great opportunities to brag on… I mean, promote… my books, current published designs and whatever I’m working on at the time.  All of them take the form of Q&A, where they send me a list of questions and I send back my answers, and for the most part my words are presented as written, perhaps edited for length.  Don’t blame them.  I do tend to ramble on.

But I worry.  I often worry that something I say could be taken out of context and misunderstood.  I really worry that instead of presenting myself as a competent, innovative but quirky crochet designer I come off sounding like a total geeky, odd-ball curmudgeon (which I am, but who needs to know that?). It’s the rare interview where the questions are put to me in such a way that both personalities are revealed, and published in such a way that I am not embarrassed to let people read it.

VY14_1 23.inddWEBS Summer 2014 Catalog

This brings me to the most recent Q&A I did for WEBS, America’s Yarn Store, for the feature in the Summer 2014 catalog, WEBS <3 Doris Chan.  I love them back, too!  My only tiny and in no way critical issue with the interview is the altered interpretation of that list in the right-hand sidebar.  In the original Q&A, I was asked to list My Five Favorite Things.  If the question had been what are my five must-haves (as published), I would have curbed my normal impulses and limited the list to crochet/craft related objects of desire. But no. Instead I allowed a couple of my geekiest and gooey-sticky-soft-centered answers to sneak onto the page.

Tardis T

So, although I love this interview and deeply appreciate WEBS, Kathy Elkins and Sara Delaney for allowing me the honor, you can understand my wanting to correct the impression that I am a total EEEDIOT.  Yes, baby animals are my favorite things.  I will fall apart playing with a litter of puppies or baby bunnies.  But are they MUST-HAVES?  I don’t actually have any baby animals here at the moment.  Besides, you get them, you feed them, they grow.  You no longer have baby animals, you have monster animals.  Just saying.

I have never been to the WEBS ginormous warehouse of a store in Northampton, Massachusetts.  It’s about time, don’tcha think?  So on my way back from the CGOA 2014 Conference in Manchester, New Hampshire I plan to make the short side trip and visit WEBS for the first time.  If you’re in the area and want to see my face light up with joy and yarn-overload, please come, Monday 28 July, late morning, if I get my butt in gear and leave the conference venue early enough.

Tammy and Me: CFFs (Crochet Friends Forever)

Who’da thunk it?  My CFF Tammy Hildebrand has just published her beautiful new book, Crochet Wraps Every Which Way. I believe mine is the final stop on the book’s blog tour, the trail of which you can backtrack by visiting Tammy’s Facebook page, Hot Lava Crochet.

Tammy Hildebrand's new book!

Tammy Hildebrand’s new book!

Others have written reviews and extolled the wonderfulness of Tammy’s bouquet of designs.  I can only sit here stunned.  HOKEY SMOKES!  Ten years ago when we first met, we could only have imagined this happening in our wildest dreams.

I kept running into Tammy (and I do mean literally) at a Crochet Guild of America conference, summer 2004 in Manchester, New Hampshire. This was my first CGOA event and I was a wannabe professional crochet designer there to meet like-minded people and forge a network, so I was going full tilt, dashing around and blithely bumping into… well… everyone.  The first days I was there I ran over Tammy a number of times wandering through the hotel lobby, piling into and out of the elevator.  We had a little mutual admiration thing going on, trading comments and compliments about each others crochet wear. Back then Tammy seemed a shy thing, hanging back from the crowds and commotion, hesitant about public speaking, avoiding any glare of attention on herself. Her husband George, the gallant gentleman, was ever at her side, carrying the huge bags of yarn Tammy had collected from the show floor market, lending his steady calm support and encouragement.  GOD, he really believed in her and wanted so much for her to realize her potential as a crochet designer, even if Tammy was reluctant to put herself forward.

Being complete newbies to the design game, we both jumped at the chance to worship at the feet of crochet legends Rita Weiss and the late Jean Leinhauser, who were on site scouting talent for their latest publishing ventures.  Tammy, not realizing that the two crazy ladies were holding court, like queen bees, smack in the center of the hive of activity in the hotel lobby, had missed her appointment and was anxiously looking around for a clue as to what she should do.  I found her there at the edge of the crowd and offered to share my own appointment with Rita and Jean.  From there we became buddies.

I don’t remember exactly when she started calling me her “little buddy”.  Oddly, geekily, it makes me think of the Skipper and Gilligan (“…a three hour tour…”). Through the years we have shared our crochet lives as best we can, long distance by phone and e-mail, meeting once or twice each year at CGOA events. Tammy, once too painfully shy to be coaxed into the limelight or onto the catwalk, would go on to serve on the CGOA board of directors (she was just elected Vice President!), chair the Professional Development committee, became one of my go-to models for fashion shows and the Design Competition parades, where she now enthusiastically models her own award winning designs and anything else we throw on her!  Tammy blossomed, not into a delicate flower, but one of those Steel Magnolias, now in charge of her destiny and enjoying life to the fullest.

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It was to Tammy I turned in 2005 when I desperately needed help to finish samples for my first book, Amazing Crochet Lace.  She put her own work on hold and crocheted the Allegheny Moon Mobius and the huge Pistachio Parfait Ruana.  And now in 2014 I am thrilled that Tammy asked me to contribute a comment for the back cover of her book and to participate in this blog tour.  Again I ask, who’da thunk it?

I am bursting with pride and happiness for her and can’t say enough about Crochet Wraps Every Which Way.  Please see for yourself with this wonderful Look Book created by her publisher, Stackpole, and join me in congratulating Tammy on her success.

Convertible Crochet: Zodiac Extra

In the course of crochet designing I create pieces of a certain class that never get published.  They are prototypes and practice runs, or in blunt terms, they are rejects. Some of these are never finished as full samples and acquire UFO status, see Rule #20. A few are alternate versions of published designs that for whatever reasons are not included with the pattern. And a few are personal garments that (assuming I can squeeze into them!) I wear at events where showing off your crochet is de rigueur. VKL NY January 2012 signing

For the book Convertible Crochet I did a lot of extra crocheting just to figure out for myself how the constructions would work under varying circumstances. Like not getting gauge.  Like the neckline being too huge. Like the garment proportions not being human.  Like running out of yarn. The worst of the experiments became UFOs that you really don’t want to see or know about; make that I don’t want you to see or know about them.

But a few of the more attractive alternate versions can be enlightening for readers of Convertible Crochet and it’s these saved samples that I’d like to share with you as book extras.  Let’s look at  Zodiac as published:

Zodiac

Zodiac

In the book, Zodiac is a relaxed fit tunic with octagons added for sleeves, crocheted in DK weight superwash wool, Filatura Di Crosa Zara.  Before this yarn was ordered, I began tinkering with an early prototype in a stash yarn, Blue Sky Alpacas Alpaca Silk.  Not only did this heavenly yarn NOT work to the target gauge, but there wasn’t enough on hand for the sleeves! Owing to the more delicate nature of this yarn, I knew I really shouldn’t rip out the completed body, so this stash remained tied up in a doomed prototype until much later, well after the book was written. Cobbling together any little scrap balls left from the main construction, I created bindings for the armholes in lieu of sleeves and I got a lovely long vest that I previewed in New York at Vogue Knitting Live, January 2012 (a year and a half before the book was published).

Zodiac Sleeveless

This version is crocheted as written for Zodiac, with just a few alterations. Knowing what happened here can help you deal with your own results.

The first issue is the gauge for this yarn. It is a touch finer and silkier than the design yarn, not as wooly, plump and rounded. So the motifs are just a fraction of an inch smaller than stated gauge. There is still plenty of room inside for a vest at this size, but it is slightly shorter in the body.

The major issue is that I ran out of yarn. With the four 50 g hanks on hand (about 580 yards) there wasn’t enough for two more big octagons for sleeves.  Here is the book sample laid out flat:

Zodiac flat

Because the tunic is designed to have a dolman sleeve shape, omitting the sleeve octs leaves huge droopy armholes.  I opted to finish the motif edges of the armhole with a binding using Foundation Single Crochet for the foundation, combined with a controlled type connecting round of chain spaces. To match at the neckline, I also worked the binding around the neck edge with Fsc (instead of the Fdc as written).

Zodiac Sleeveless flat

And here’s a tip that addresses one annoying problem with this design.  Zodiac lower sleeve is defined by the connecting of two octagon motif sides; the finished edge at the point of the sleeve is equal to the sum of two motif sides (10″) but the circumference at the connection is somewhat less (more like 8″).  Working gauges smaller than written will suddenly and inevitably result in non-human sleeve circumference.  If you find yourself in this situation where the sleeve bottoms are too tight for comfort, omitting the sleeves and binding the armholes as I did for this prototype is a brilliant way to rescue your project and have something wearable. Rule #3! VKL NY January 2012 at Knitty City BoothVKL NY January 2012 teaching

Can I Crochet With This Yarn?

Well, darlin’, even though the label clearly states “hand knitting yarn”, the short and sweet but hardly perfect answer is, yes, you can crochet with anything that you can wrap around your hook.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

The designer question I would ask is, “Will this yarn be happy in crochet?”, and the answer to that is complicated.  Every yarn has to be treated as an individual and respected for its own qualities.  I’ve had the pleasure of working with dozens and dozens of ‘em, from high-end luxury yarns to craft store bargain ones, silk purse and sow’s ear, the good, the bad and the totally indifferent.  I’ve enjoyed most of them, not-so-much enjoyed a few, and outright refused to work ever again with only one, maybe two. Maybe three. Back in 2010 I wrote a blog post that was going in a different direction from this one, but what I barfed up concerning my relationship with design yarn bears reprinting:

“Doris designs begin with yarn, always yarn.  I can propose, or an editor can suggest/demand, what sort of garment is needed for such and such an issue of a magazine, and we can reach agreement on an overall silhouette or impression, (for instance a fall/winter cardigan with 3/4 sleeves and collar), but that is an intellectual exercise, a step in a particular direction.  A wish.  For it is the yarn that tells me what it wants to be.  Happiness is when the editorial vision matches the desires of the yarn sent.  Agony is when the yarn refuses to cooperate and become the design it’s earmarked to be.

How does yarn speak?  How do you know when the design is right?  It’s like how you are sure you like dark better than milk chocolate.  How you feel better wearing blue and not rust.  How to tell if you are in love.  You just know.

Listen for the voice.  I pull an end from every skein and roll it between my fingers to assess the properties of thickness, density, roundness, twist and texture.  Do not rely solely on the hook/gauge suggestions or weight/yardage and fiber listings on the yarn label, or the wpi (wraps per inch) info to tell the whole story.  Your experienced fingers can gather more information about that yarn than anything you could read. This is the beginning of hearing the  yarn speak.

Each yarn has one optimum gauge for my purposes of top-down seamless lace garment construction.  A bit of tinkering and experimentation (some call this swatching, but what I develop is not your usual swatch) will soon tease out of the yarn what this gauge should be. The choice of yarn therefore is of such incredible overriding importance because the yarn totally dictates the gauge, that gauge helps determine which stitch pattern to use, that stitch pattern creates the fabric, that fabric is what makes the garment work.

I am not insisting that there is only one gauge and one way to use a particular yarn.  All I am saying is, for my very particular method of design and for each specific project, a yarn will tell me where it is happiest.  Once the piece is finished, blocked and put on the body, if you’ve been listening all along, that yarn will show you its greatness, how it behaves, moves, breathes, drapes and yes… you will hear that yarn sing.”

What was left unsaid in 2010, and what I chose not to mention at the time, is that my organic design process really chewed up certain yarns because there’s a lot of *crochet, uncrochet, recrochet, uncrochet some more*; repeat from * to * until you’re ready to scream.  Hokey Smokes, some samples were starting to look crappy before they were half-way done.  If only I had more of the technical designer in me, the type who engineers major chunks of the project first, then plugs in whatever yarn… and then can actually bundle the whole thing off to a contract crocheter who essentially tests the pattern while making the crocheted sample. Never gonna happen.  I worried about the many yarns that did not stand up well to my style of organic designing; three years ago I thought the fault was mine.

Since then I’ve come to realize that for relaxed (exploded) gauge lace crochet garments, Z-twist products are ultimately happier than S-twist ones.  As demonstrated with the mystery swatch in that previous post:S Twist DK yarn

some S-twist yarns become terribly untwisted with crocheting. This shows up as slackness in the exposed tops of stitches and the in the hanging chain spaces of my favorite lace stitch patterns, as an uneven gauge through the length of a skein of yarn, as a tendency of the yarn to grow increasingly splitty, as the appearance of sloppiness instead of the desired effect of drapey looseness. By the time I got to ordering yarns for my latest book, Convertible Crochet, it was early 2011 and I knew what I had to do.

Of the 19 yarns I cast, seven of them are Z-twisted.  That is a staggeringly huge percent compared to the ratio of Z to S yarns in the general population. In order of appearance, the Z-twist yarns are: Berroco Weekend, DMC-Cebelia Crochet Cotton, Blue Sky Alpacas Skinny Dyed Organic Cotton, Tahki Cotton Classic Lite, Prism Yarns Windward Layers, Louisa Harding Mulberry silk, and NaturallyCaron.com Spa.  I thoroughly enjoyed them all. Some of these yarns were chosen because they were destined to become skirts, in which cases a firm Z-twist contributes to long wear and stability in fabrics on which you will be sitting. I did offer two butt-covering pieces in an S-twist yarn, Elsebeth Lavold Hempathy, which worked so incredibly well as a bottom weight because of the sturdy fiber blend of hemp, cotton and modal (a type of rayon) and resulted in such beautiful drape that I put up with the untwisties.

What about the other yarns featured in the book?  How did they get happy?  Well, one of them, Southwest Trading Company Oasis, is a tubular or tape yarn, where twist is not an issue. The others, although S-twist, were perfectly fine in their roles, chosen for other properties such as luscious softness (NaturallyCaron.com Joy! and Filatura di Crosa Superior), wooly goodness (Manos del Uruguay Rittenhouse Merino, O-Wool Balance), stunning color (Misti Alpaca Tonos Pima Silk), easy care (Kraemer Tatamy), spot-on gauge (Spud & Chloe Fine and Filatura di Crosa Zara), or simply because they told me they would be fine. With a bit of TLC and judicious blocking, every piece turned out splendidly.

This begs the real question, and the point of today’s exercise: why aren’t there more Z-twist yarns on the market?  Darned if I know. :-)

On Choosing/Not Choosing Yarn for Crochet

(Note to picky readers: Please pardon the less than professional photography. I had the devil of a time with shaky-cam after dozens and dozens of attempts just to get the few good shots. I’m a crocheter, not a shootist!)

OK, so that was a trick question.  There is nothing essentially wrong going on with that crochet swatch.  Although most readers and comment-leavers are totally correct in assessing the yarn used in this swatch as having a final S-twist, most have also assumed that this is a bad piece of crochet.  S Twist DK yarn

Not so fast there, cowgirl.  Compare that previous image to this one:

Willow detail blockedThe same piece, but blocked.  From how crappy the stitches look in the before image, you thought this might be cheapo yarn.  Definitely not. This is a DK blend of 75% New Zealand Merino wool and 30% cashmere (Zealana Willow) that retails for around $15 a 50g skein. As a participant in a program that provides knit and crochet examples for new yarns that will be on display at TNNA in a couple of weeks (an exhibit aptly named the Great Wall of Yarn), I was given this yarn on which to work some crochet magic.

So how do I evaluate a yarn that’s new to me?  First impression is important. Here’s Zealana Willow in the skein:Willow in the ballImmediately you can see it is finished with S-twist. Upon closer inspection (peeling apart one end of a strand) I discovered that it is composed of three plies, three Z spun singles. This construction is fairly unique in my experience. The hand of the yarn in the skein is wonderfully soft, but not completely squishy.  By adding cashmere to the fiber content, by doing the plies as singles, then finishing with a looser S-twist, they have created softness and airiness, avoiding any density that can happen with wool. The surface appearance is not totally matte; there is a nice reflective quality that some might call a sheen. I’m willing to wager that Willow knits up beautifully. My task is to make it sing in crochet.

How do I know this is a DK weight yarn?  Just because it says “Double Knit Weight” right on the ball band does not automatically mean it works to DK gauge.  Do you see the difference? This is an imported brand and does not give the CYCA category for DK weight.3-lightThese little ball band symbols are the current accepted standards for classifying weights for hand yarn. Some manufacturers, brands and distributors label their yarn by weight alone (in manufacturing it would appear as yards per pound, YPP).  In other words, if a yarn falls within a certain range of YPP, then it is put in that class.  But yardage weight alone does not tell the whole story; we need to consider other factors such as density, diameter, texture, elasticity and eventual finish of the fiber. That makes a total difference in how the yarn will work in knit and crochet, in your hands and in your fabric.

Lucky for me Zealana Willow is indeed DK, perhaps on the light side of DK, at 148 yards per 50g skein, and a knitting gauge of 22 stitches per four inches. With a design for DK wool yarn (Zodiac in Filatura di Crosa Zara) already in place in my book, Convertible Crochet, I chose to work one of those featured motifs for the swatch. My first trial, using the same hook size, H/8 (5mm), was a Copernicus Minor Pent:

GWOY Zealana Willow This is the full motif, finished and blocked.  Before blocking I did not notice any serious issues with the S-twist, and honestly the yarn seemed happy. The motif did not quite get the same gauge as listed for the sample yarn Zara in the Zodiac pattern; it came out a tiny bit smaller and the fabric did not have the luscious drape of the original design yarn Zara, but those facts were not at all a concern for this end purpose, so this is the sample I eventually submitted.  What would happen, I mused, if I pushed this yarn farther?  I went up a hook size to I/9 (5.5mm) and crocheted another motif, this time a Carina Minor Pent. That’s the one I asked you readers to examine.

What happened?  Good news and bad news.

Good news. By exploding the gauge with the larger hook, the motif did reach the target diameter I was seeking and nicely matched the stated gauge for the design Zodiac; the resulting drape was, to my taste, improved. In person, you’d judge drape by feeling, fondling, hanging and otherwise playing with the fabric or swatch.  Since readers here can’t touch the results, I tried to figure out a way for you to see the drape. I forgot to do this with the Copernicus version so that you could get a side by side comparison, but here is the look of the drape of the Carina motif:

Willow drapeSee how the motif bends by itself and hangs off my finger.  Crochet fabric with lesser drape would stick out more and stand by itself like a potholder.

Bad news. The combination of this more relaxed tension with swapping out the motif style from Copernicus (more closed lace, with some stitches made into stitches, including rounds of solid single crochet) to Carina (more open lace, with no stitches made into stitches, the tops of tall stitches and the chain spaces are more exposed), exacerbates the twist issue.  The S-twist is more visibly and obviously being untwisted, particularly in the exposed loops of the outer motif rounds.

Now, here’s the lesson: block your crochet. This sample became respectable with blocking for two reasons: finishing the fiber, finishing the stitching. I already surmised that the wool and cashmere fibers would change with blocking. Both fibers really need blocking to bring out their best (most prized) characteristics: softness, slight bulking up (fulling) of each strand, and the hint of halo we expect from cashmere. And I know for absolute certainty that lace crochet needs blocking to smooth out the stitches, to lock the stitches into place, to attenuate stitch definition, to achieve finished shape and dimensions and to create an overall professional appearance. All this you can see when you compare the before and after shots, huh?

Willow full motif blocked

Blocking is your friend.  It means pretty much the same thing as “hand wash, lay flat to dry”.  I like to call it “wet and set”.  I talk more about wet blocking on this page.

So I go through this kind of special agony each time I am presented with a new yarn.  Often I am asked, as a professional crochet designer, what yarns I like to use.  HA!  Very rarely, as a professional designer, do I get the chance to actually use the yarns I like to use (I never choose the colors as published, BTW). More often I am compelled to design with yarns that suit the purposes of editors, advertisers and yarn companies for that particular magazine issue, or that specific season, as I just did with this TNNA assignment.  Working each unfamiliar yarn so that it realizes its full potential in crochet, making sure the yarn is happy, but at the same time making myself and other crocheters happy… that’s what I do.

What happens when I am given the opportunity to use ANY YARN I WANT?  I’ll talk about that next time.