Crafts at Scale

I’ve been kntting off and on since 2002 or 2003 (or so) but have been particularly “on” in the last couple of years. When I started working as a computer programmer (without formal training as such,) I quipped that I learned how to program from hand knitting. This is a simplification--of course--but it’s not that incorrect. Knitting is a system with some basic fundamentals (stitches, yarn, needle), a lot of variables (gauge, tension), repeated procedures, and a hell of a lot of prior art. This is a lot like programming.

Spinning too, has many of the same properties, but similarities aside they feel like different kinds of crafts: where knitting feels like you’re applying a set of understood procedures to produce something that’s unique, spinning is often about figuring out how to apply the same procedures in a way that prodcues consistent result. This makes sense you want to produce a quantity of yarn that’s on average similar enough that when you knit (or I suppose weave,) you have good consistent results. In many ways, spinning leads naturally to an idea of “production” or “scale” as an aspect of craft.

Just to be clear, these kinds of crafts should be fun and rewarding on their own merits. If you want to spin and are excited and happy to make and have yarn with variable thickness, or where every skein is unique, then do that. For me, particularly now, I find the problem of figuring out how to be consistent while spinning a couple of pounds of wool over the course of a few weeks to be really exciting and entrancing.

The kind of knitting that I’ve been doing recently has had some of these production/scale aspects as well: knitting with very similar white yarns removes color and minimizes texture as a variable. While I’ve been knitting roughly the same sock at production scale, the sweater’s I’ve been working on have some bespoke aspects, though the process is broadly similar. There’s something so compelling about being able to understand my craft and procedure so thoroughly that I can make things that aren’t wonky with confidence.

Programming is also very much like thsi for me these days. I spent years as a programmer trying to figure out how code worked, and how basic fundamental systems and protocols worked (e.g. webservers, Linux, databases,) and now I know how to build most things, or feel confident in my ability to figure out how to build a new thing when needed. The exciting things about software engineering is more about making the software work at large scale, the processes that allow increasingly large teams of engineers work together effectively, and being able to figure out the right solution for the problem users have.

I’m currently somewhere on the 7th 100 gram skein of approximately worsted weight, 3-ply merino yarn. My consistency isn’t quite where I want it, but if you look at all of the skeins they seem roughly related, so I think I’ll be able to make a sweater easily from it. I have two more skeins after this one. My plan from here is to alternate spinning batches of white yarn with spinning batches of not-white/natural colored wool for variety. Probably mostly 3 ply for now, though I may give 2 ply a go for one of them.

I’m knitting a white seamless style sweater, using Elizabeth Zimmerman’s method for bottom up sweaters. I’ve changed many of the numbers and some of the proportions, but nothing particularly fundamental about the process. I’ve knit 3 sweaters back to back with this same process, though this is the first with this specific yarn. I do have enough of this yarn to knit 3 or 4 sweaters, which I find both daunting and exciting, taken as a whole. With the sleeves done, I’m about halfway to the underarms on the body. I want to try knitting a saddle shouldered garment for this one.

Why Spinning?

A few years ago, I sent my spinning wheel away because I was living in a very small apartment with two very attentive cats. While I’ve been living in an apartment with more room (and doors!) for a few years now, only this week has my wheel returned: I realized that I missed spinning, and it’s not like soothing hobbies are unwelcome these days.

I started spinning about 15 years ago, and did it a bunch for a few years and then more or less stopped for a long time. It’s been interesting to start up again, and discover that my hands/body more or less remembered exactly how to do it. I had a few hours and about 200g of yarn to spin before some of the finer points came back and now I’ve spun a couple more skeins closer to my intention.

The other human asked “What do you like about spinning?”--well the question was phrased more like “is handspun yarn better?”, but I will paraphrase to better capture intent. There are, of course, a few answers:

  • the act of spinning is quite satisfying. Sometimes it’s enough for things to be fun and satisfying even if they aren’t productive.
  • the yarn can be sort of nifty, and although I’ve spun a lot of yarn, I have mostly not knit much with handspun yarn. I tend to like consistent and fine (fingering) yarns in my own knitting, and machines just do better at making this kind of yarn, so I end up giving a lot of handspun away to friends who I know will knit it better.
  • spinning gives you a lot of control over the wool (and kind of sheep) that go into the yarn you get, in a way that just doesn’t scale up to larger production schemes. I quite enjoy being able to first select what kind of sheep the wool I use comes from and then decide what kind of yarn I want from it. When other people spin, you can usually only pick one of these variables.

I’m currently spinning some white merino roving that I’ve (apparently had for years.) There’s a piece of paper in the bag that says “2 lbs” but between my practice skeins and whatever I did before I stopped, there’s probably only about a pound and a half left: this is fine. Merino is great, but it’s quite common and I knit a lot of merino. I’ve been working on getting a pretty stable 3-ply worsted weight yarn, and I’m roughly there. I like 3-ply because of the round construction, and worsted weight is about the heaviest yarn I’m really interested in knitting with or using (and it’s easy to design with/for!)

My next few spinning projects are with wool from different breeds of sheep (BFL! Targhee! Rambouillet!) though mostly undyed (and largly white), and mostly in larger batches (a pound or two.) I’ve never really gotten into hand-dyed roving, and mostly really enjoy spinning undyed wool: in most cases dying the finished garment or the yarn before knitting leads to the best result anyway. I guess one of the most The thing I like about spinning, in a lot of ways, is that it lets me focus on the wool and the sheep.

As a spinner, I’m far more interested in the wool and the sheep, in much the same way that as a knitter I’ve become far more interested in the structure of what I’m knitting than the color or the yarn. This feels entirely consistent to me: as a spinner I’m far more interested in the process and the wool than I am in yarn, and as a knitter I’m far more interested in using the yarn to explore the structure. Somehow, the yarn itself isn’t the thing that compells me, despite being kind of at the center of the process.

Anyway, back to the wheel!

The Most Plain Knitting

Last night I finished knitting a sweater that I’d been working on for either a while (pictures in this twitter thread) or not all that long, and promptly started the next sweater.

Also last weekend I handed off a bag of undyed (white) knitting to a friend of mine who is way more excited about dying than I am. This includes 13 or 14 pairs of socks (in a few different batches,) and a sweater that I knit. We also found someone who the sweater is more likely to fit than me, and I always quite like finding homes for wayward sweaters.

I have a couple of long flights for work trips coming up so I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t bringing a sweater that I was two-thirds of the way through and would likely finish. The next sweater is the 4th I’ve made from this yarn, and the 3rd plain sweater. I’ve made two plain raglans, and this last one was a crew neck.

By now I have a reasonable set of numbers/patterns for a “fingering weight sweater that basically fits an adult medium/small” that I’ve been honing, and enough yarn stashed to make about 9 of these sweaters. That should get me through the winter.

The crew neck is a touch lower than I think it needed to be, but it looks pretty smart. The thing about knitting Elizabeth Zimmerman-style seamless sweaters is that for the entire time you’re knitting the yoke section it really does not seem like it’s going to work out, so you have low-key panic the entire time, and then somehow, magically it all does. The key to success is to not overthink things too much and not fuck around.

I think this last sweater had a bit too much fucking around with the neckline, so it looks a bit weird (to my somewhat exacting tastes) where the ragland decreases interact with the neck shaping. The front of the neck could have been higher, and I think I could have done like 3-4 sets of short rows near the end to get the right effect for the front. Perhaps one of the next few sweaters can be another attempt at a raglan.

My plan for the next/current sweater is to do set-in sleeves with a crew neck. I have the math all worked out, so that seems like it might be fun. I’ve also never done EZ’s saddle shoulder (or hybrid) yoke, so that seems like some fun winter knitting. Regardless, saddles and set in sleeves are mostly constructed the same way, so I can wait quite a while to make a decision. After about 18 months of mostly knitting socks (and having gotten ~30 pairs done,) a (minor) change seems good.

Doubled Hat Pattern

Last year I wrote a draft of a book about knitting that I’m working on revising and also drafting something of a sequal to. The book contains a discussion of some fundamental techniques but mostly describes the process for knitting a collection of projects, mostly sweaters, but a few other things as well. The chapters exist somewhere between an unconventional pattern and a long form account of the design and construction process of several specific garments, though I hope there’s a sort of companionable air about it, even if the details end up being mostly technical.

In any case, this post is an attempt at the same form, more or less, but focused on a hat that I recently completed.

I’m going to be knitting a hat with a sort of unconventional empirical construction. There’s not a lot of preparation work that you need: no gauge, no sizing information, no counting stitches (unless you want,) just knitting and figuring it out as you go along. The hat itself is a simple beanie-style knitted cap, with a “lining” for extra warmth and potentially comfort.

Cast on 16 stitches. Your gauge probably doesn’t matter, within reason. I chose a fingering weight wool on the heavier side of fingering, and US size 0 needles. 16 stitches is about an inch and a half or two inches: from these stitches you’ll knit a strip of fabric that will encircle your head, so better to keep it narrower than 3 or 4 inches at the outside. I cast on using the long tail method, and I made sure that there was a generous tail left over afterwards as I intended to take advantage of this tail.

Knit, in garter stitch, until the strip is long enough to fit around your head.

I, for my part, made the strip 21 inches or so, around. My head is (unfortunately) 24 inches around, and I think if or when I do it again, I’d make it shorter: maybe 19 or 20 inches around. You can figure out the length empirically, buy placing the knitting around your head and seeing what fits. It’s okay to stretch the band a bit for a closer fit, but because there’s going to be another layer of knitting on the inside of the hat, it’s even expected that the hat will be a little bit big at this point.

When the strip is large enough, bind off, but do not break the yarn. You should have the tail from the cast on be on the same side of the work as the end of the working yarn from where you cast off.

With the same working yarn that you just bound off with, pick up stitches, knitwise, along the side of the strip, creating one sititch in every garter “ridge.” When you get all the way around the strip, join and knit in the round. Knit about an inch plain, and then begin shaping the crown.

I do this weird crown shaping that I wrote about here 15 years ago (!!) that I adapted from the toe shaping of a sock. I think it works better for hats than socks, and is great when you don’t want to figure out how to evenly divide into 4 or 5 “spokes” and have a spiral decrease. Convienetly, it also structures the decreases so that you switch to double points relatively late in the process. It does something like: repeat “knit eight stitches, decrease once (e.g. knit two together),” all the way around a single round, and then knit 8 rows plain. Then replace 8 with 7: knit 7 stitches and decrease, repeating around, then knit 7 plain rows. Continue on in this manner, moving the decreases closer together in the decrease rounds, and moving the decrease rounds closer together. Eventually, all your stitches will be decreases, and you can just alternate “decrease and plain” rows until you have 8 stitches or something, and then graft the remaining stitches together. I definitely always have the feeling of totally winging the ending: worry not.

Once you take have taken care of the crown stitches, I break the yarn and weave in this end. Turning my attention back to the long tail, I sew up the cast on and bind off ends of the original strip, and have the tail ready and the lower edge of the hat. With this yarn I fuse in the remaining working yarn using a felted or sewn join, and pick up stitches along the remaining garter edge, again at a rate of one stitch for every garter ridge, all the way around.

Knit about an inch here, until the hat is your desired length: I like to have 4 or 5 inches between the lower edge of the hat and the start of the crown shaping, but this is a point of personal preference. When the hat is the proper length, purl the next row to provide a turning round, and then stop. It’s important at this point to make some decisions about the lining of the hat:

  • if you plan to knit the interior hat with the same color and yarn as the exterior hat, purl a second row and continue.
  • if you want to switch colors, knit the next row with the new color, and then purl the following row in the new color, before continuing.
  • if you want to switch yarns to a different weight, be careful, but proceed as if you were changing colors (even if you’re not!) and do increases or decreases as required so that the interior hat is either the same or slightly smaller than the exterior hat.
  • if you aren’t changing yarn, or are changing between two colors of the same yarn, then you could omit all purl rounds, and just knit plain.

For my part, I switched colors and to a different yarn type with a substantially finer gauge, and increased rather a lot at this point. I think I probably increased a bit too much, though the hat still works fine. I think I’d probably tend to keep things more simple in the future.

Finally, knit the interior hat straight away until the distance between the lower edge (purl round(s)) and the beginning of the shaping row are the same, and then repeat the shaping for the interior hat, and finish it off. Fold the inner at into the outer hat and place on head.


  • the hat will be quite warm, so knitting with finer yarn is probably better. Also because the hat is so heavy, it’s viable to knit a bit loser than you might if it were single weight.
  • making sure that the inner hat’s total length from the brim to the crown is the same as the interior measurement of the outer hat can be a bit tricky, but getting it right avoids flaring in either direction. Avoiding the purl/turning round entirely gives you a bit of wiggle room, if you like.
  • this is a weird hat: while the hat looks great while on my head, it doesn’t quite lay flat. While I could have re-knit the crown to have a less aggressive decrease sequence (e.g. start with k9 k2tog, etc.) over more rows, I kind of like the flatter top look. Hats are super forgiving, and hats don’t really need to lie flat anyway because heads are three dimensional.'

Tips for Casting On a Sweater

Having recently started knitting a new sweater I realized that there are a lot of little things that I do, that are worth collecting in one place:

  • Do not tie a slip not to start, simply twist the yarn around the needle as a basis for casting on the first stitch. This twist looks like a stitch, but isn’t, you should decrease it at the end of the row, with the last stitch to complete the join.

  • Always used the German Twisted long tail cast on variant, which makes things a bit more elastic and just looks great, particularly when knitting ribbing, which I often do at the beginning of a sweater.

  • Wrap the yarn around the needle once per number of stitches that you need to cast on to estimate the length of the long tail that you’ll need to cast on. I find this overestimates a bit, but I’ve rarely regretted having too-long of a tail rather than having too short. While you can start again from the beginning in the case that you run out of tail, you can also splice in a second yarn.

  • If you do run out of yarn while casting on for the sweater, and you’ve been using the long tail for the finger yarn (loops around the needle,) you can sometimes get a few extra stitches out of switching to having that needle

  • Place markers periodically to make it easier to count, roughly every 20 stitches or so, and I try and make sure that one of the markers gets placed half way through the round. For example, to cast on 228 stitches, I placed 12 markers every 19 stitches, and the 6th marker was the “half way” point.

    I did one sweater where I put markers every 32 stitches and one sweater where I put markers every 16, and found that I spent far more time casting on the one with fewer markers because I had to double check my counts more. They really help.

  • Cast on to a needle that’s a bit bigger than the size you intend to use. I’ve been quite happy using a US 2.5 to cast on for a US 0 sweater. I’ve been using interchangeable needles, and being able to replace the larger needle for the smaller needle before beginning to knit has made things much easier to knit for the first row. It’s also an option to hold two needles together for the cast on.

    I also have to think about not pulling on the “thumb yarn” at all, as this will also make things tigheer.

  • While it’s good to be careful to avoid twisting the first row, if you do accidentally twist, undo the twist between the last and first stitch, which will hardly be noticeable.

Opus Knitting

My knitting projects, recently (and currently!) have been big not just “knit sweaters out of fingering weight yarn on US 0s, which I’m certainly doing, but big on another scale. I’ve written about this kind of project as epic knitting, but I’ve really gone down the rabbit hole on this one. I’ve started thinking about knitting projects less bounded by a single object or garment, and more as a “meta project,” here are the two examples:

  • All socks are hand knit. Right now I mostly wear machine knit socks. I have about 10 or 12 pairs of wool socks, and I just wear them every day. The thing I like about my current socks is that they’re comfortable, easy to care for and very easy to match up when I’m folding laundry. I also have three weights of socks, and the heavy and medium socks are definitely good even in warmer months.

    To avoid needing to buy new socks when the current batch wear out, I probably need about as many socks (10-12, maybe a few more to cover light weight cases,) and a slightly longer laundry cycle if I want to segregate sock laundry. But the project isn’t exactly about “just enough” socks, but also about having socks that are mostly the same, not just in terms of pattern, but also in terms of yarn content.

    In persuit of this, last week I sat down with a 1.5 kilo cone of sock yarn (merino, bamboo, nylon) and cast on for a sock, and I’m already on the second sock, of what I expect will be many. Gotta figure out some situation for dying them all the same color.

  • I’d kind of like to explore some more corners of the seamless yoke sweater paradigm. I’ve made, I think, 2 raglan sweaters ever, and a few of the “set in sleeve” type and that’s it! I don’t know that I’ve ever made saddle shoulders! I’ve also gotten into the habit of wearing sweaters more often these days, I think I’d like to do something more comprehensive along these lines. Having really nailed down a sleeve, as well as a way to shape the body of a sweater, it seems fun to explore different shoulder shapes for variety. The truth of the matter is that I really like knitting plain sweaters, so this gives some exciting opportunity.

    There are other kinds of sweaters that I’d like to get better at: cardigans, mostly, and also I think I’d enjoy exploring hems that aren’t ribbing, and also finding ways of knitting crew necks that I’d enjoy knitting.

In persuit of this, as alluded above, I’ve acquired a bunch of un-dyed yarn, in interesting fibers to knit “a few” sets of socks (maybe some gifts!) and to really get some practice in on these different sweater types. I’m definitely hunkering down into knitting at this scale and thinking about the ways that this broader

Even if it makes for somewhat less exciting blogging about knitting.

“Ah, yup, just knit another white sock.”

Anyway! I hope, if you’re knitting, you’re enjoying it as much as I am.

The Perfect Sleeve

I know I’ve been bad at blogging regularly, and it may be obvious from reading things here or talking to me that I’ve been knitting a lot. What is less obvious is that I’ve been writing a lot about knitting.

While I’d like to do some meta posting about these projects, instead I’m going to just jump in with a bit about the way I knitted the sleeve of the last sweater I made that I’m already duplicating because it was just that good.

I’m not a huge fan of well fitted sleeves on sweaters: I like to wear layers, and having a sweater sleeve hug my wrist often just means that I won’t wear the sweater: it’s good to get the sleeve right, in this context. At the same time, too bulky and the sweater looks goofy (to my sensibilities) and the sleeves take forever to knit. I’ve solved this problem, often, by knitting sleeves from the shoulder down: this way I can try things on as I go and easily re-knit the last few inches of the sleeve if things feel off.

The shoulder-down method works, but it’s bulky to carry the entire sweater around to knit a relative small piece of fabric, and it precludes knitting single-piece seamless sweaters, as you have to get too clever to make it all work.

Here’s what I’ve come to:

Start by casting on as you would for a sock: for me this means fingering weight wool with 64 stitches, US 0s (2.00mm) on 4 double pointed needles in knit 2 purl 2 ribbing. There should be 16 stitches on each needle, and knit for 2 inches.

This has several advantages not the least of which is you can chicken out after 2 inches and just knit a pair of socks. Your wrists and ankles (or calves) might be different than mine, and while my wrists are slimmer than my calves, ribbing is elastic, and I know that it won’t be too small. I know Elizabeth says to figure out the chest circumference and derive the sleeve from that, and you could do that, but chest circumferences vary more than wrists.

In the next row switch to stocking stitch, and increase to 72 stitches, or 18 stitches per needle. I use a raised bar-type increase between the knit and purl stitches on the first and third ribs.

Increasing a bit after the ribbing helps achieve both “the cuff pulls in and isn’t floppy” which is desireable, and also “sleeve isn’t too tight”. You could achieve this by using smaller needles, but I like to avoid needles smaller than US 0s whenever possible.

For sizing the rest of the sleeve, I believe that the “top” of the sleeve should be as wide as my expected yoke depth. To unpack: if the distance between the shoulder and the underarm should be 9 inches, then the sleeve should be 18 inches around. Given a gauge of 8 stitches to the inch, this means 144 stitches, and given paired increases in sleeves, 36 pairs of increases.

I do increases every 5 rounds. This means, knit five rounds, do an increase, knit five rounds. This means that there are actually 6 total rounds in any increase repeat. The increase are paired on either side of four stitches.

“Increase every 5th row” is a common knitting instruction and it’s pretty ambiguous. Do you mean “increase on the fifth row,” or “increase after the fifth row”? In computer programming we call this “a fencepost counting problem,” and over the course of 36 repeats (as is the case )

In the past I used to pair increases around an odd number of stitches so that there’d be a single “seam” stitch, but as the sleeve has an even number of stitches, and most sweater bodies have even numbers of stitches and I haven’t been particularly keen on EZ style pseudo seams, particularly since putting the increases 4 stitches away creates a clear “seam”-like effect. It definitely works.

The target size (144 stitches, or increasing 36 times for a total of 72 stitches,) means that the sleeve doubles in diameter between the end of the cuff and its final sleeve. My arms are a longer than average (particularly for my height, but that’s no matter,) but given everything, it means that after doing these increases I only need to knit 3/4s of an inch before I’m done with the sleeve. Perfect. In my estimation if you can space your increases evenly across the sleeve the result is pretty enjoyable. Having a sleeve that’s slightly longer than your arm increases the blousing effect, which by a little isn’t always a problem. If you need a longer sleeve, putting more plain knitting at the top is good too, and the increases can always be closer together at the beginning of the sleeve if needed. Having an idea of your row gauge can help figure out the math.

There you have it!

While I was writing this up, I managed to knit both sleeves for another sweater, but I have yet to figure out how I want the lower hem of the body of this sweater to go, so I think I’ll knit some socks in the mean time.

Iterative Knitting

I know I’ve been bad a blogger regularly, and it may be obvious from reading things here or talking to me that I’ve been knitting a lot. What is less obvious is that I’ve been writing a lot about knitting. While I’d like to do some meta posting about these projects, instead I’m going to just jump in with a bit.

I was getting my blood drawn last week--just routine--and the phlebotomist said “how are you doing with all the snow?” it had snowed almost five days ago, and while most of it had melted it was the first real snow of the year.

Most people didn’t spend 3 years in Wisconsin, I guess. It didn’t really register as that much snow.

We must rewind, because I didn’t actually hear her correctly the first time and though she said “how are you doing with all this,” and I just assumed that the “all this” was the omircon spike of the coronavirus pandemic in New York City.

I clarified, just because I’m not used to small talk about such enduring existential issues. After we chuckled, I said something like “oh, not much… Just knitting mostly.”

She was intensely interested, she asked what I was knitting (sweaters) and she (a crocheter it turns out,) was interested in learning to knit. I did the only thing that was reasonable and said “there are a lot of good videos on youtube, and also there’s this book called Knitting Without Tears by Elizbeth Zimmerman and you should read it, it’s great.” Good deed done.

In the course of this conversation she said “oh how many sweaters have you made?” I could tell that she was like “oh a couple,” but the truth is somewhat alarming, and I also don’t remember exactly.

“30 or 40, I think.” This has the potential to be correct, though I’m not sure.


“Yeah, I dunno, I’ve been doing this for a while.”

Also true. Lots of these sweaters were total rubbish, and since I knit my first sweater in 2003 or (or something,) and while I managed to make a number of sweaters that were really great, I also made a lot of sweaters that were really terrible in one way or another. The process of making sweaters better, in my experience is to knit one, and see what works and what doesn’t work and then fix it in the next go round. While having nice sweaters to wear is a good side effect of knitting, the process is the important part.

This is one of the reasons why I buy yarn in larger lots (often by the kilo or more, so I can knit a few sweaters) and while I usually just cast on a for a new sweater (or pair of socks) as soon as I finish the preceding one. While this might be an extreme implementation of this idea, the general approach is perhaps more applicable.

I started writing this post a few days ago as a kind of introduction to what I hoped was going to be some kind of pithy instructions for knitting a sleeve, but I decided to split it out after it was clear that I’d gotten a bit carried away.

Then, last night, I came to a realization about a different sweater that I’ve been knitting for a couple of weeks. Basically I wanted to take the basic pattern for a sweater that I’ve knit a bunch of times before and update it to be more like the sweaters I’ve been knitting more recently: slim sizing, vnecks, set in sleeves for the shoulders.

I don’t think it worked out: the sweater is a touch on the small side (but not unworkable), knitting the sleeve caps with short rows in two color patterns is frightfully difficult (and likely to look really messy in a part of the sweater where the eye is drawn to.)

I’m also not wild about the v-neck (as implemented) because I didn’t account for the fact that in two-color knitting the stitches are more narrow (and therefore the row gauge is equal to the stitch gauge) and as a result the angle of the v-neck is shallower than I wanted.

Finally, and while this is tractable, I’m grumpy about the fact that I made the steeks a bit narrower than I should have and the’ve all been threatening to unravel in an unexpected way: there’s some hubris here, as I did the “just cut, don’t worry” method of steek preparation.

They don’t all work out. ‘I’ve put the sweater in a bag and I think I’m going to let it sit for a little while before I really cut my losses, but I think I’d rather knit something I’m far more excited about than slog through a sweater I’m unlikely to wear (and would be unable to give away given the sizing.)

To my mind, it’s just as important to celebrate, learn from, and write about the sweaters that didn’t turn out as it is the ones that did.