April 11, 2006

MY INTRODUCTION TO COUTURE KNITTING

I've spent the past four days in a very intensive workshop taught by Catherine Lowe. (It was two workshops, really -- the first two days were the "Basics of Couture Knitting," and the second two days were "Designer Details." But there was enough building of skills and information based on what happened one and two days before, that I'm just going to call it one workshop.)

Before going to the workshop, I didn't know very much about Catherine Lowe. I knew the pattern she has in Scarf Style:

GarterStWrap.jpg

I had read this pattern pretty closely at one time, thinking that I might make this wrap. It is easily the longest pattern in the book. Now, you might think that that makes sense, since most of the patterns are for scarves, and this is a whole wrap/cape/drapery kind of garment -- it's a bigger garment, therefore it needs longer instructions.

But if you look at the photograph, and read the pattern, you realize that the wrap is all garter stitch. There are colorwork scarves in that book that are probably more complicated to knit that have much shorter pattern instructions.

So, what gives? Why is the pattern for so apparently simple a garter stitch wrap so long and involved?

It has to do with Catherine Lowe's unique vision for garment design. (Her term for her vision is 'couture knitting.') First, Catherine Lowe is totally into selvedges. In our case in point, the garter stitch wrap, the wrap is made from four garter stitch triangles that are joined to form a square. Each of those triangles has selvedge edges. Second, Catherine Lowe is totally into joining pieces of knitting on the needles, and she calls this 'constructing' a garment. In the four days of our workshop, she never uttered the word 'seam' (except to say that it might have been something we might have done in the past). In the case of the garter stitch wrap, it is constructed by joining the four garter stitch triangles using a three-needle bind-off. And third, Catherine Lowe is obsessively into fine details of finishing. What that means for the garter stitch wrap is that the cast-on edges that form the front opening for the wrap are enclosed within a binding that you knit for them. Since the instructions for these three things must be included in the pattern directions, plus the additional fact that Catherine Lowe is a former college professor and uses language precisely, and it is now obvious why the pattern for an apparently simple garter stitch wrap is the longest pattern in Scarf Style.

I'd been studying this pattern late last summer and in early fall, thinking it might be something to wear for the holiday party season. I chose not to knit it because I didn't want to wade through four pages of instructions, because I don't like garter stitch (it tends to look amateurish, plus its dense row gauge takes twice as long to knit), and because I misunderstood the schematic. The directions call for a wrap that finishes to a size of 56". I'm only 63" tall, and I had visions of myself wrapped in these miles of garter stitch fabric that would hang down to my ankles, looking like a little girl playing dress-up in big sister's shawl. But mostly I didn't knit this wrap because all of that garter stitch seemed like a lot of knitting.

(Prior to the workshop, the only other pattern of Catherine Lowe's that I was aware of was a kimono jacket in Interweave Knits. It's a beautiful jacket.)

So the first day of the workshop, Catherine Lowe had brought with her all of the garments for which she has published the patterns, including the garter stitch wrap. She explained the features of each garment that make it couture knitting. In the case of the wrap, each of those triangles that make up the complete wrap are garter stitch knit on the bias. Garter stitch knit on the bias looks woven and drapes beautifully -- so my objection about the amateurish look of garter stitch vanished.

"But that wrap is a lot of knitting," I said, remembering my other objection to garter stitch.

Catherine said, "It is a lot of knitting. It's two sweaters' worth of knitting. But it's a very simple row repeat, and I have a friend who's made three of these wraps, just taking her knitting in the car with her and knitting whenever she's stuck in traffic."

Back at home that night, I looked up the pattern. The wrap takes 3000 yards of yarn -- that's at least two sweaters' worth of knitting! I don't know whether I'll ever have occasion to be stuck in that much traffic . . . .

Catherine let us try on all of the garments she'd brought, so I had the opportunity to try on the wrap. I had misunderstood the schematic; there's actually a hole for your head in center of the wrap, so that I wouldn't have 56" worth of fabric hanging from my neck, but only half of that, or 28". In fact, the wrap hung to the back of my knees, a flattering length.

As is so often the case, the wrap looked prettier in person than in the photo in the book, and I mentioned this to Catherine. She agreed, saying that she knit it on needles that were fairly large for the fiber, so it has an airy, almost faux lacy look to it. They photographed it for the book in such a way that it looks heavy and dense.

When last I blogged, Thursday evening getting ready for the workshop, I had written that I needed to get my homework swatches done. We were to prepare 4 swatches, knitted to a gauge that would result in a 6" square. Here's something that I love about Catherine Lowe: At the end of her swatch instructions, she wrote, "If time is short, prepare swatches 3 and 4."

When is my time not short? I got 3 and 4 done Thursday night. (Not blocked, though -- didn't allow time for that.) Friday, Day 1 of the workshop, we didn't use our swatches at all; instead, Catherine spent the morning talking about what couture knitting is, and describing the garments she'd brought. She spent the afternoon discussing swatching as a component of garment design. She emphasized the washing and blocking of swatches, saying that you have to know how your yarn will behave after being washed and blocked before you can launch into the knitting of a whole garment. She said that, in general, your knitting will relax and your gauge will get larger when washed. She said that she typically will soak her swatches for 24 hours.

During class, I was able to take notes and knit swatches 1 and 2.

On the way home that evening, I swung into the grocery store and bought some Clairol Herbal Essence Clarifying Shampoo. I didn't have 24 hours to soak my swatches, since this was the evening of Day 1 and I'd be going back for Day 2 bright and early the next morning, but I did soak my swatches for 2 hours before blocking them:

CoutureKnittingWorkshop 005.jpg

(I know this photo looks like I'm marinating chicken breasts in Clairol Herbal Essence, but really, take my word for it, those are four swatches of merino wool.) And, sure enough, those swatches that I had so conscientiously knitted to a gauge of 6" square, did relax. They finished out to 6-1/2" square. Over a whole sweater, that would be a huge increase in size. Lesson learned. And I better re-think my gauge for Take Two of my Level 2 vest.

Will continue with my report on highlights of the workshop, in later blog entries.

Now, it's back to real life, and in some areas I am sorely behind schedule, having devoted time and attention to birthday party preparations and to the workshop. Here it is, the 11th of the month, and I have yet to update my Specials page on the Two Swans site. It's on my to-do list for today.

Posted by Karen at April 11, 2006 10:53 AM
Comments

Thanks for the info on Catherine Lowe. I would have loved to take the workshop, but family obligations interfered. I look forward to the next installment. Patti in Portland

Posted by: Patti at April 11, 2006 12:56 PM

Sounds like a fascinating class, Karen. Thanks for writing about it.

Posted by: Jewel at April 11, 2006 02:11 PM

Verrry interesting. Are you SURE those aren't chicken breasts in the Clairol? Cause it sure looks like it. LOL
I think I get more out of your descriptions of the class than I would if I were actually in the class. I'm so knitting people deprived I would NOT be able to focus.

Posted by: Aarlene at April 11, 2006 08:18 PM

Interesting post, Karen!! I can't see couture knitting ever being my thing--too fussy--but I really enjoyed reading about it, and about the differences between the photograph and what the wrap looks like in real life. A lesson learned!

And I agree with Aarlene--definitely chicken breasts.

Posted by: Ryan at April 12, 2006 08:17 AM

That is all fascinating. I missed something, though. Why the Herbal Essence Shampoo? I use Eucalan and soak for 30 minutes, does it make that much difference to go for 24 hours?

Posted by: Anne at April 12, 2006 04:51 PM

This is the *Clarifying* version of Herbal Essence Shampoo, and one of two shampoos that Catherine Lowe recommended. (The other one was Pantene.) Her knitted garments that we tried on smelled wonderful!

Aside from the smell, though, the reason for the clarifying shampoo is that, in the manufacturing process, yarns get coated with a little bit of wax or oil to go through the machinery that results in that skein or ball that you buy. You want to get that wax or oil out, and a clarifying shampoo that is designed to remove hair gels and mousses will work best for this, according to Catherine Lowe.

Can't say how Eucalan compares, since I've never used it -- but we could run an experiment, you and I. :-)

As far as the amount of time to soak: My first knitting teacher said that you have to soak wool for at least 20 minutes for the fibers to open up and release the dirt or whatever. I frankly don't know whether 2 hours or 24 hours is better than 20 minutes. And it would seem to me that if you are soaking for 24 hours, your tepid water is cooling off over time and the fibers would be closing down, so it would seem to me that there's a point of diminishing returns and it would be counter-productive to soak for that long, unless you have a way of maintaining that tepid temperature.

Catherine Lowe said that she soaks her swatches for 24 hours; didn't say for how long she soaks her finished garments.

I know lots of people use hair shampoo to wash their woolens, and Herbal Essence shampoo and conditioner are products that we use chez Campbell (when we aren't using Biolage), and I do love the smell of it, so I'm a happy convert to use it for my knits.

Posted by: Karen at April 13, 2006 08:08 AM

I'd love to take a class with Catherie Lowe. Her techniques are so well thought out. Thank you for the write-up.

Posted by: Angela at April 13, 2006 09:22 AM

I, too, admire Catherine's couture techiniques and have used them for a hat kit that I purchased from her at Stitches East. I had the opportunity to wear the wrap from the Scarf Style book for a brief moment and it draped on me like a cloud. I recently purchased the yarn for the wrap from Habu Textiles and hand-dyed the yarn, so that the color had some contrast in it. So far, I have received several positive comments on the first triangle that I am currently knitting. I hope to have it completed in time for the cold weather. I also plan to travel to upstate NY this summer for one of her workshops, if the gas prices do not continue to rise!!!

Posted by: Loren at April 28, 2006 07:24 PM