Post of today #2: UFO

Does anyone remember this? It’s a massive Gansey/Guernsey (could someone more knowledgeable than I please advise re: the correct garment terminology?) that I gained via the marvellous UFO Project Administration Service, set up by Rachael Matthews and due to exhibit from 10th June to 19th July in The Jerwood Space as part of The Contemporary Makers’ Exhibition.

Carolyn Rawlinson’s Sweater

The sweater – when I received it – came with a little bit of a moth issue, about 2/3 of one sleeve and 1/6 of the other, a strange assortment of mismatched needles, and a completed body knit entirely in the round. Add to this the intimidating prospect of steeking the armholes and the fact that the project formely belonged to Carolyn Rawlinson, – co-founder of The Wool Clip, and instigator of Woolfest – and you’ll see that this was a pretty serious sweater. This was a sweater with history; a sweater with technique; a sweater with context; a sweater with presence.

I struggled a little bit with figuring out how best to finish the work and how to do it justice. I didn’t know Carolyn personally, (though I gained a little insight as to the kind of person she was by reading the appreciation of her linked on the Woolfest homepage, and by reading through her own account of The Story of Woolfest) but I got the distinct impression we would have enjoyed hanging out together, and this prompted my decision to stain the unknit skeins of wool in the project bag with tea. This was the only sort of representation of my relationship to Carolyn that I could think up; afterall, if you want to get to know someone, you drink tea with them. I also boiled the main body of the garment in order to eliminate The Deathly Moth from it.

Then I dried the skeins and wound them on Rachael’s ball-winder, and I dried the body of the sweater, which – through its own weight, when wet – grew disproportionately in length. The tight fabric of Carolyn’s knitting relaxed also, but the fabric is still solid and firm, oweing to the no-nonsense characteristics of the Philosopher’s Yarn that I believe it to be knit with.

Then the sweater sort of hung around my bedsit looking accusingly at me and I tried various things with the sleeves, picking up and knitting on, then ripping out until I eventually got something close to Carolyn’s gauge. Then of course I was absorbed in making the podcast and I found all the counting of those diamond things in the pattern wasn’t really offering the mindless release from editing that I needed. And then the deadline for getting it finished started to come in, thick and fast, as time will when you are in a hurry and don’t have enough hours in the day.

So I resumed it, with a determination that surprised even me, and commenced to knit like the wind (to use Brenda Dayne’s phrase) on those sleeves. And that’s when I really started to think about who this Sweater once belonged to and whose project it was.

The yarn is sticky and scratchy; you wouldn’t wear it next to your bare skin. And it has tiny little bits of straw in it, and smells faintly of sheep. But I love this yarn, and I love the sweater it’s becoming. It’s the sort of sweater you would wear over some other layers on a bitterly cold but sunshiney winter day, and it would keep out the wind and give you a sort of armour against the elements. Working on the sleeves I began to marvel at the way the wool attaches itself to itself, its short, bouncy fibres easily entwining and staying neatly in their loops once knit. It’s rough, waxy texture running through my hands made a slight shucking sound as it went around and around the clickety needles, and the sleeve in my lap began to feel a little awkward, a little heavy. But the more I knit on, the more I began to find a wild, earthy comfort emanating from this project. I began to picture the sweater hanging off the back of a chair, near a fire or an aga, steaming gently as snow or a bit of light rain dry off it. And I began to see the Wellington boots that would be worn with it, and the good, thick socks. Perhaps there is a fine shirt that goes underneath for hymn practise in a chilly church, and a pair of trousers with a deep pocket for scissors, measuring tape, and a needlekit. I saw the sweater being chosen on fine days in March when it’s too hot for a coat but too cold for just a shirt. Saw the sweater being taken off its hanger, or out of its drawer, or off the back of its chair, or from the hook on the backdoor, and thrown on again and again, year after year, enduring abuse and time in the way that only a certain, hardy kind of wool can.

When it came to time for the steeking, I was less afraid than I initially had been. This is a sticky yarn, a strong yarn, a yarn designed to keep things together, a yarn you can depend on in a storm, a yarn from sheep who live in harsh, mountainous conditions. So by the time I had finished the first sleeve, my confidence in its suitability for steeking had grown considerably. I read and re-read the stuff Cecelia very kindly copied for me on steeking, and then I visited See Euny Knit for further edification, then I commenced with The Steeking.

I went with crochet reinforcement as there was really no way of getting this through my sewing machine and I couldn’t see how sewing it would be as good – in this case – as a sturdy line of crochet stitches. I believe I was actually meant to do the crochet lines of reinforcement closer together, so that only the purl bump* of each central knit stitch (the part you cut) would be left between the reinforcement lines, but I decided that cutting in between those stitches in the middle would mean there while was a little bit of frayed knitting on each side, there would be no loss of structural integrity. Plus it was 3am and I didn’t want to have to rip it out and crochet it again.

Then I cut the central purl bump in the middle part of the steek, and I picked up stitches around the armhole to correspond to the number of stitches at the top of the sleeve.

Then, using 3-needle bind-off, I attached the sleeves to the body. Then I turned the sleeve inside out and carefully folded the steeked edges back on themselves, and whip-stitched along them, so the inside of my seam looks like this:

Then I admired my handiwork.

I am really, really pleased with the join, and with the subtle gradations in colour between my knitting and Carolyn’s. (It’s all that tea, you see.) The brightly-coloured crochet reinforcement was my way of putting some humour into this garment; it struck me that I don’t know a single knitter who would disapprove of this secret use of inappropriate colour, hidden away inside a seam that looks so neat from the outside.

So there’s a whole other sleeve to finish, and the neckhole band to complete, but I am loving working on this UFO. I feel I’ve been taken to a different knitting world, one of sturdiness, practicality, warmth, outdoor knitwear and thick, hardwearing fabrics. I would never have started a project like this of my own volition; I gravitate towards very different knitting experiences, yarns and approaches. But through working on this and picking up where Carolyn left off, I’ve found a new way of doing things, new techniques, a new sort of garment to strive and labour for, and new things about yarn and how it behaves that I didn’t understand before. So I feel like I’m really learning from this project and I think it’s befitting for someone like Carolyn – who did so much to share her knitting knowledge and enthusiasm in life – to leave a project like that behind.

I don’t know what will happen to the jumper at the end of the exhibition at the Jerwood, but I hope that one day it will get worn out on a long, blustery walk in bright sunshine through all the places where Carolyn liked to spin and chat and knit and work and play when she was alive, because this is a sweater that needs to be worn outdoors.

6 Responses to Post of today #2: UFO

  1. Pingback: Post of today #2: UFO | India Wedding

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