Friday, 2 October 2015

Early Worm Cowl Knitting Pattern and Essential Guide to Color Knitting Book Review

"Are you ever going to do anything with this skein of wool, or are you just keeping it as a pet?"  My companion, Elinor Gotland, had clearly tired of seeing its loveliness displayed on the back of a kitchen chair.  "That drab thing has been gathering dust for months."
"Well, at least I've found out that meadowsweet plant dye doesn't fade."  I stroked the yarn lovingly. Elinor prodded it with the tip of her hoof.
"Last time you dyed with meadowsweet, I'm sure you got a lush purple-brown with iron.  How did you manage to make this one gloomy green?"
"I just dipped the dyed end back in the pot with some iron added and simmered it again.  No idea why it came out different, but I think that green is lovely.  Variations on one dye plant colour are always so harmonious."
"That skein is as harmonious as a dirge, Beaut. Still, it's your funeral."  Elinor abandoned the kitchen, humming Abide with Me as she went.

Colour taste is a highly individual matter.  I happen to enjoy the muted ranges of plant dyes and generally find them safe to combine. OK, I admit it, I am a bit scared of going overboard and ending up in knitwear better suited to a toddler.  It's all very well fancying some lavish exuberance, but I'm not even sure how to describe a car crash colour clash, let alone avoid one.  Storey Publishing sent me this Guide to review, having no idea of my lack of colour expertise.  I unwrapped the parcel, buzzing with expectation. Great first impressions - clear text, lots of pictures, the 2015 paperback edition is solidly bound, printed on nice thick paper - obviously, it would be rude of me not to have a proper look straight away.
The first chapter covers much more than the familiar colour wheel.  By providing a vocabulary to her readers, Margaret Radcliffe also helps us understand what is going on within a particular shade. She suggests manipulating digital images of yarn to work out value, a term to describe how light or dark a colour is, so I took this shot of some plant dyed samples.
Interesting to see the apple leaf, centre left, has a similar value to the adjacent weld, centre right. This means there is not a strong contrast between them, so though they look quite different to my eye, neither would stand out if they were knitted in a pattern together. The green skein was yellow weld, overdyed with the blue woad.  Its high value looks like the sum of those two dyes together.

Leafing swiftly through chapters on stripes and slip stitch patterns, I paused to admire the Windowpane Bag, which has its pattern written out in full.  Right at the top, it says windowpane stitch creates a fabric with little stretch, ideal for a bag.  That is just the kind of salient fact I usually find out the hard way, I had actually just formulated the thought that that particular stitch would be shown off to great effect in a scarf, . Though I have looked at illustrations showing the form of knit and crochet stitches before, this is the first time I've read such insights into their function.  There are tips on the effect of changing needle size and whether a stitch pattern creates fabric that is liable to curl; Margaret Radcliffe has put an immense amount of practical experience into her Guide, way above and beyond colour.  Oh joy, just what I needed, the next chapter was all about multicoloured yarns and knitting techniques to enhance or tone down the interplay of colour.  What is more, there were pages of pictures showing how the properties of lustrous or textured yarns, like mohair or boucle, may enhance or obscure coloured stitch patterns.
My pet skein was Chunky Thick and Thin Falklands Corriedale from Wooltops.  This is how it looked when I bought it at Wonderwool last April.  Its delicious softness has survived mordanting with 10% alum then simmering in plant dye baths and its destiny had to be some kind of cuddly neck warmer.  My problem getting started was indecision over how to make the best of it.

I had this sickening suspicion that varied thickness and varied colour might be too much already and it would be wise to keep the knitting simple and make a garter stitch scarf. However, on page 123 in the Essential Guide to Color Knitting Techniques, there was a very similar thick and thin yarn in much richer colourway.  The swatch in the photo showed how garter stitch would be warped into curves and stocking stitch would pop out in bulges due to the variations in yarn weight.  These effects could make a bit of a mess of a small scarf, I thought.  The Slipped Honeycomb Stitch example showed short lengths of yarn exposed on one side of the fabric, some thin and shiny, others fat and matt.  Flipping back to page 105, I read that slipped honeycomb does not curl, requires no borders and on big needles, it gives a drapey fabric perfect for scarves and afghans.      Oh yesssss!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Getting bold now, deciding I'd go for a circular knit cowl, I cast on an odd number of stitches, ready to begin.  Half way round row 2, I realised the pattern directions were for straight needles and I'd have to go back, knit 2 together for an even number and start purling to compensate for working in the round. On row 5, I saw I had made a twist in the cast on and was knitting an accidental Moebius loop.  

Still, I was by no means downhearted.  Even though Cowl Mark One ended up too long and narrow, the fabric had come out lush and I had another skein of that yarn hidden under the bed.  Dropping my daughter off at the airport at 6am next morning, I made the most of the full moon to pick a bunch of yarrow, since its white flowers gleamed on the quiet roadside.  Feeling positively druidical, the dyeing was done by teatime and I was asleep soon after. The early bird may profit by her adventures, but who spares a thought for the early worm? 
A revised cowl pattern follows, short and wide enough to be snug in a double loop round the neck.
With many thanks for inspiration and advice from The Essential Guide to Color Knitting Techniques by Margaret Radcliffe

paperback ISBN 9781612126623 
e-book ISBN 9781612126630
available October 2015 at £14.99

Early Worm Cowl


One skein 200g = 100m Chunky Thick and Thin Yarn
10mm circular needle
Big darning needle for sewing in the ends.


7 stitches and 18 rows = 10cm x 10cm


Cast on 70 stitches (or any even number if you want yours to be longer and narrower or shorter and wider), place a marker and check to make sure there is no twist in the row before joining to knit in the round.  Keep the yarn loose as you work.

Round 1 Knit all stitches.  Slip the marker to the right needle and bring the yarn forward, under the needle.
Round 2 *Purl one, slip the next stitch purlwise* repeat til you reach the marker, slip it to the right needle and pass the yarn back under the needle.
Round 3 as Row 1
Round 4 *Slip a stitch purlwise, purl the next stitch* repeat til you reach the marker, slip it to the right needle and pass the yarn back under the needle.

Repeat these four rounds seven times, by which point there will not be much yarn left. Cast off very loosely in purl and sew in ends.  Wash and block gently.
Final size - loop approximately 100cm, but nice and stretchy, width 15cm 


  1. That bloomin' sheep has got some sass!

    I am not into neck warmers but I like that one, love the way the white makes a kind of wave.


    1. You're right, it has come out like a wave. If I have enough Japanese Indigo left for a last vat, I could try dyeing another skein leaving about the same length white, knit it up and see if that happens again. Oo, cracking plan,

  2. if you love that colour book - try this one:

    just as good! radcliffe really has a knack of giving useful tips even for experienced knitters! and the cowl has turned out nice - I love natural colours, pity though, that most of the yellows, greens and browns dont' suit me. DH and DS are just as "nice" with their comments about my work as your companion Elinor is - so I try to avoid colours that make me look like.... putty:)

    good luck with the next batch of jap. indigo!