As you know, I don’t like things that are messy. Like everyone else, I live in a perpetual ebb and flow of disorder, yet I struggle against it with all my might. (One of the happiest moments of my year just happened: the handyman cleaned all the windows in my apartment, inside and outside. In heaven, there are windows, and they are freshly washed.)
Having just knit the first 52 rows of Kaffe Fassett’s Big Flower Jacket –a joyful romp of crazy-ass stripes– I’ve come to the Big Flower portion of the program. That means it’s intarsia time, and I pull up short at the realization: knitting intarsia is one of the messiest processes in all of human endeavor. Intarsia is a metaphor for mess. It’s a tangle, no matter how you do it. The front side looks good (if you’re good, and lucky), but the back side is a slough of despond.
But I want the Big Flower, so I’m facing into the tangle.
Here’s the big flower chart:
The good news about the chart is that the Big Flower itself is all worked in one color (mint green Rowan Chunky Chenille), until the center of the flower, by which time I’ll be a pro.
The less good news about the chart: the petals of Big Flower are huge; this means there are many sections of mint green too wide to carry the background colors across. I investigated the idea of weaving the background color across the back of the mint green instead of cutting separate lengths for all of those narrow columns of background color, and rejected it. Carrying floats pulls in the fabric, and the deep colors of the background stripes would show through the unavoidable gaps in the cotton chenille yarn. I also decided not to carry the mint green, even though it would only have to cross the narrow sections of background. I just want to do it old-school, I guess.
More less-good news: the background is striped, the stripe colors do not alternate in any memorizable pattern, and some of the colors are combinations of 2 or 3 yarns. The tangle is going to be…extra tangly, and every row will require me to check the stripe chart in addition to the flower chart.
The possibly-worst news: I’m working three of these charts at the same time, due to my decision not to knit the back separately from the two fronts of the cardigan. TANGLEPALOOZA!
Ideas I’ve discarded:
Bobbins. The weight of bobbins, be they plastic or cardboard, causes yarn strands to twist, which causes them to tangle even more. I know that some people swear by them, but they’re not for me.
Butterflies. Same problem as bobbins, although perhaps to a lesser degree.
I’m going in au naturel, and I’m pulling from the tangle.
I am supported in these decisions by the man himself. In Glorious Knitting, Kaffe counsels:
WORKING WITH MANAGEABLE LENGTHS This is the hottest tip for speed and the preservation of your sanity when knitting with many colours. The different yarns inevitably get tangled at the back of the work, so I rarely have balls or bobbins attached. Instead I break off short lengths of 60-100cm (2-3 feet), depending on the area to be covered, and use these. As they get tangled it’s easy just to pull through the colour you want. When more of a colour is required tie on another length, knitting in all the ends as you work.
I love that offhand “as they get tangled.” We’re planning for tangling, people. Tangling is not the problem–it’s the process.
Since I advertised “how to intarsia” in the title of this post, here’s a short video I found very instructive, by Ruth Herring (WHOA–check that link to see Ruth’s incredible intarsia chops; and if it doesn’t make you miss the rain in Africa (YouTube link), I don’t know what will).
I love how Ruth says “bring it to tension,” when she gets to a loose stitch; there is something calming in that repeated instruction. Watching this video brought back memories of the first time I did intarsia. I was too new to knitting to realize that intarsia was anything one particularly had to learn. I just changed colors according to the chart, noticed the holes that formed at the color changes, and intuited that I needed to twist the old yarn over the new to close that hole. (Well, eventually I intuited that. It might have taken me a few rows to realize that the holes were going to be problem, and how to close them.) Later, I thought maybe I was missing out on a whole better way to do intarsia. I was almost disappointed to learn that no, my guessed-at method was pretty much as good as it gets.
Moral of the story: get the needles in your hands and do it the way that makes the best sense to you, and you’re probably doing it right. It never hurts to phone a friend, or check the YouTubes, of course, but trust yourself. You got this.
PS MDK Mailbag: Reader Anne S asked an important question the other day. She wrote: “I have several of Alice Starmore’s and Kaffe Fassett’s books, but can’t possibly use the yarns they specify, even if they were still available. Is it possible to get respectable results from the patterns substituting other yarns?” As for Kaffe, the answer is a resounding YES. In Glorious Knitting, Kaffe writes: “Because only small amounts of any one colour are needed, many of the garments can be made up of odd balls of yarn left over from other projects or bought in markets and at sales. Try to build these up into a store of beautiful colors by buying a few balls of anything that takes your fancy. Buy a nucleus of inexpensive plain wools and add a few special luxury items as you go along–mohairs, silks and so on.” While Kaffe recommends natural fibers, “if I stumble across the most delectable shade in acrylic or synthetic mixtures, my inclination is to work it into the garment here and there.”