Sunday, 10 March 2013

Getting organised to knit hand spun wool - centre pull balls and modifying a pattern

Why are centre pull balls more pleasing than randomly rolled up ones?  If it were just neatness, then the wool balls you buy in the shops would be more pleasing still, but, to me at least, they are not.  If it were simply pleasure in the pride of my own work, then other people's handspun balls would be no lovelier than shop bought ones, when they are generally streets ahead.

There truly is art in artisan.  No two things are quite the same when they are hand made, they speak to the heart, whereas machine made uniformity is practical, efficient, logical.  In Pied Beauty Gerald Manley Hopkins loved
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

Here I am, pontificating on the joys of the earthed and organic in a virtual, intangible, technological space.  Bit ironic.  Still, this blog will start with the poetry of a centre pull ball of natural sheep toned wool - the perfect balance of random colour harmony and functional form.

There is something thrilling about having everything organised, neat balls of wool and a clear plan for a project.  Arranged, but not regimented, a bit of room to go with the flow.  I tend to leave rather too much room for the flow, so no surprise that over the years, my knitwear has often born little resemblance to the picture on the pattern.  I have a tolerant family, but given that my hand spun beginner's wool is neither uniform along its length nor the same weight as any commercial brand, much modification of the pattern for my first raw fleece product proved necessary.   I found out the hard way that it is best to work out most of the detail in advance and will conclude with the fruits of this experience.

First, the satisfying and easy bit.  To start winding a centre pull ball, tuck one end of the skein under your watch strap and do not lose it.  Wind the wool round three fingers, straight at first and then diagonally.

Then wind straight again, then diagonally in the opposite direction, repeating this til the ball on your fingers starts to slip down and cut off the blood supply .

Wiggle your fingers out, then hold the ball with two fingers in the middle and carry on winding on the same diagonal shown in the picture, slowly turning the ball.

The hole in the middle gets tighter, so you will be down to one finger keeping the centre open by the end of the skein.

As you knit from it, it will sit still instead of bouncing about as a ball of wool does when you work from the outer end.  As you use up its heart, it collapses into a soft pancake, but holds together remarkably well.

If you don't think this is Pied Beauty, surely you have no wool in your soul.

Now the frustrating and harder part.  I chose a fab, fitted jacket pattern for chunky wool, picked a size smaller than I wear because my knitting is always looser than average and cast on as soon as I had made my first ball.  I had knitted two balls before it dawned upon me that the garment was elephantine and no single fleece would provide enough wool to complete it.  So I unravelled the thing, rolled the balls again and started with a much smaller size. Still the proportions seemed way out and the width of the piece veered in and out depending on whether I had knitted a row spun 'superchunky' or a row where the wool had accidentally gone down to lace weight for a bit.  A rethink was required.

I found a much simpler pattern for a box shaped raglan sweater in chunky wool, available free to download 

This time I did what it always tells you to on the pattern, knitted a tension square.  Sure enough, the number of stitches and rows to 10cm was nowhere near the same as was expected of the brand of wool specified.  I fetched an old jumper of similar design which fits me nicely and measured that to be sure how big I wanted the new jumper to end up, then calculated how many stitches I would need to cast on in my hand spun wool.   

I also decided to wash the tension square in a 30 degree cotton washing machine cycle to see how much it shrank and felted - about 5%, but the resulting fabric was not too thick and the knitting came up much more even for washing and drying flat, despite the artistic nature of the wool.  I added 5% to my pattern dimensions so the final thing would be the right size after a machine wash. 

Even then, once I got to the raglan, it knitted up much too narrow and I had to recalculate and reknit it three times before it matched my old jumper + 5%.

So, I think if you have hand spun wool of indeterminate weight and are wondering how to make something with it, choose a simple pattern, knit and wash a tension square in the stitch pattern you will be using, then work out how many stitches will give the measurements you need and keep on checking and adapting as you go.  If anyone has better advice on all this, I would be really grateful to hear it.

My holiday is nearly over, work on Monday, so I don't expect to blog again til next weekend, when I shall put up pictures and my final pattern for what I have called The Huxtable Jumper, a garment undeniably fickle-not quite what I intended, though jolly sturdy, and absolutely freckled (who knows how?).  In my eyes, it is poetry.


  1. Thank you! I have always wanted to know how to make center pull balls of yarn.