The legend of Morrigan

It’s time. Now that Amy’s baby, No Sheep for You has been published, and she has started the round of speaking engagements to promote the book (and, most coincidentally, I received my comp copy in the mail yesterday), it’s time to write about labour pains. Not Amy’s, but mine, in the creation of Morrigan.

Braxton-Hicks in knitting form.

Morrigan’s pictures are relatively elusive on the net. Here’s Wannietta’s first photograph of her.

The story is a bit long (the fact that I stop halfway through to rant about yarn doesn’t help), but if you take nothing else away from this post or its sequel, remember these things:

First, Jenna and meeting knitting deadlines are mutually exclusive.

Secondly, Wannietta is the most beautiful, talented, and wonderful knitter in this eight-planet solar system.

Thirdly, to date I have not actually seen this sweater in person.

Yes, you read that correctly: between the commencement of this project and the publication of the book, we lost a planet.*

Oh, and after Wannietta finished knitting Morrigan, it went straight to Interweave; I have handled the disembodied sleeves, but that’s all of the finished garment I’ve actually seen. I haven’t tried it on, so I don’t know how it fits me (it’s the smallest size in the book, and I may be too small to wear it). I know how it fits the model in the book — it doesn’t! She’s definitely too long in the waist and arms for the sample — possibly too skinny, as well.

Anyway. Once upon a time, Amy revealed her plan to author a book on knitting without wool, alpaca, and all those animal-hair based fibers that get up her nose. This could have been sometime in 2005 — I really can’t remember. Whenever it was, I know it was some time before the general call for designs went out. It was before that that call that she asked me to design an “aran” sweater in an Amy-friendly yarn.

I put “aran” in quotation marks because, as you know if you’ve seen the finished sweater in the book, it is by no means a traditional Aran sweater. However, the design started out with the principal aim of proving that those fabled, tight-gauged, Aran sweaters were not beyond the reach of the knitter who chose to work in hypoallergenic fibres. The secondary mission was to show that one could emulate the Aran style without being constrained to the traditional boxy shape of an Aran sweater.

To put it another way, my brief was to show that cables could be rendered successfully in non-animal fibre yarns, and that “Aran” wasn’t Gaelic for “big sack”. And on that latter point, I pontificated to Amy about what made an updated Aran sweater (yes, I really did write this in casual e-mail conversation):

While some people dispute what makes a traditional aran fisherman’s sweater a tradish sweater, it is generally composed of panels of different cables, more or less symmetrically arranged across the front and back, on a garment with a crew neck, drop-shoulder sleeves (may be saddle-shouldered) and consequently a loose fit (on women). Of all those criteria, the most important identifier of a tradish aran is the cable patterning–those vertical panels. There are other somewhat distinguishable styles of fishermen’s sweaters (Starmore’s book or Priscilla G-R’s knitting in the old way are good for identifying them); if you take away the vertical cable panels, you might still have a traditional sweater, but one that falls into a category other than “aran”.

So. If we are to create a modernized aran, the one thing it must preserve above all else is the patterning consisting of vertical cable panels. You can change the neckline, make it better fitted, etc., but if you have the vertical panels, people will (almost) always look at it and think, “aran”. So that’s the starting point: roughly 4″ of ease, set-in sleeves, V-neck, either hourglass or straight body, with vertical panels of cables. However, the panel design of the tradish aran is rather clunky, so it needs updating too. In this case, narrower panels of cables (more slimming) framing the center cable, which splits to form the V-neck. However, I’m thinking about toying with the division between adjacent cable patterns–for example, thinking about creating an allover cable pattern that repeats up the height of the garment, but varies horizontally to represent the vertical panels, or using panels, but eliminating the traditional column separators so that the pattern appears to be continuous, without actually being continuous.

Please don’t take that as some kind of definitive definition of “What is Aran?”, but it is a definition of what an “updated” Aran style meant to me for the purpose of this project. You can tell already [spoiler alert!] that I deviated from these initial thoughts in the final design, because Morrigan was completed without a V-neck, and I didn’t use the idea about the allover design. I still want to explore that idea of creating an allover cabled pattern (i.e., interconnected across the entire body, not separated into distinct panels) in which the repeats vary laterally, but I dropped that particular idea for this project early on, because of the potential difficulties in grading the pattern for other sizes. I’m willing to go to such lengths, but not for somebody else’s book.

By this point — certainly at least by late 2005 — I had worked up some vague sketches, and with the results of Shedir in mind, I had generally targeted yarns no heavier than DK and decided that most of the work would involve fine twisted stitches, restricting wider, bulkier cables to the center front detail. These limitations were geared towards reducing the weight of the finished sweater, because cottons and silks, as a general rule, are more dense than wool.

Because I really am a diehard wool fan, I already held the opinion that very few plant, silk, or synthetic fibers would meet the requirements for a really successful, heavily cabled design. I don’t deny that you can use these fibers for cabling, but I just don’t think that they’re particularly good for allover patterning or fine cabled details, either because of their density or their elasticity, or both. When the yarn is inelastic, like pure plied silk, cotton, or rayon, not only are tight cable maneuvers difficult to work (the stitches are hard to manipulate), but the finished product, being composed of so many dense cable twists, will be heavier than wool and will have a greater propensity to stretch vertically when worn. (Of course, non-wool yarns can be made to mimic the desired characteristics of wool, like the acrylic fibres that are crimped and cut to simulate wool fibers, but hey, using an acrylic yarn like that is the easy answer. The objective was to demonstrate that plant and synthetic fibers have developed to the point where the non-wool knitter isn’t doomed to big box acrylic brands.)

And so a minor tussle with the beloved editor began. What yarns originated from sources other than animals (besides silkworms) and were structured to provide a resilient and low-density yarn? The first obvious answer was Rowan Calmer, which I had already used in Shedir (plus, I knew that it would be possible for wool-lovers to find a substitute). I even started swatching various ideas for the cable panels by that point, using the last ball of Rowan Calmer left over from that project. But a good editor doesn’t develop tunnel vision, so we explored alternatives. We canvassed other potential candidates online, but I was pretty much opposed to most of them on the basis that I really, really wanted to have some inherent stretch in the yarn. The sweater was going to be complex enough with its texture patterning; it didn’t need to be made any harder by making the twists tighter and more difficult to manipulate, and increasing the likelihood of loose stitches in the reverse stockinette background.

Undaunted, Amy came back with a couple of sample balls from one of the TNNA shows for me to try before we settled on Calmer: Nashua June (the pink yarn) and RYC Natural Silk Aran. When she first described them, I dismissed them out of hand, but (probably ungraciously) agreed to swatch them. Nashua June is a 100% acrylic microfibre DK-weight yarn, which resembled mercerized cotton. In fact, it behaved very much like mercerized cotton when knitted up (I usually have problems catching all the plies mercerized cotton when knitting — the same thing happened with June). When I tried a basic twisted 1×1 rib, I had terribly loose purl stitches and the whole think looked messy enough for me to stop once I had enough to photograph. Yes, that pink swatch is very small. That’s an indication of how much faith I had in the suitability of that yarn. Amy said that she had seen a heavily cabled sweater worked up in Nashua June at the show and that it looked lovely, and while I believed her, I hazarded a guess that the cables of that sweater were not what I had in mind for this project.

The RYC Natural Silk Aran was, of course, aran weight — much heavier than the yarn I was contemplating for this project. Tweedy, too, with not only a blend of fibres, but also a blend of colours. The sample I had, overall, read as a tweedy neutral with a blue inclination (there was too much artificial light when that photo to the left was taken, but it shows you how tweedy the yarn is). That colour in itself was a problem, since it would have a tendency to obscure fine cables. Plus, it was far too thick for a comfortable allover cabled sweater. Not being wool or a similar fibre, it wouldn’t compress during knitting to a bulletproof, fisherman’s sweater gauge; it had to stick to something close to its labelled gauge. With the foregone conclusion in mind, I duly knit up a tiny swatch of that yarn as well, then officially dismissed it from the running. And so we returned to Rowan Calmer.

Of course, these rejected yarns have their own merits. Or at least, if you ask me, the Rowan yarn has merits. In general, frankly, I can’t see the point of a yarn like Nashua June. If it has a density similar to mercerized cotton, and acts like mercerized cotton when knitted up, and has the same price point, well… why, exactly, are you choosing to knit with the petrochemical rather than the plant fiber? What benefit is this actually giving you? The hand is about the same; the shine is about the same; any improved softness of microfibre is likely negligible; both it and mercerized cotton can be machine washed on delicate. I have no knowledge about its durability compared to mercerized cotton. Mind you, in googling about, I discovered that Nona enjoyed working with this yarn, and she says that she even found a little bit of stretch in it. I found it no stretchier than a similarly plied cotton.

On top of that, it’s more expensive than some mercerized cottons. June has 120 yards per 50 g ball and is machine washable on delicate, lay flat to dry, with a typical price of about $5.50 to 5.75 US. To cite an example at random, Jaeger Aqua is a mercerized cotton, also machine wash delicate, lay flat to dry; it’s about 116 yards per 50 g ball — close enough — and the price is currently about $4.65 US when ordered from the UK. You could add a dollar per ball for shipping and still match the price. An even cheaper alternative would be Diamond Cantata Cotton Crepe, also about 116 yards per 50 g ball: the only price I saw on the net worked out to less than $4 US. There’s also Filatura di Crosa Millefili Fine; the label claims DK weight, but it’s actually sport weight (the label also denies machine washability) — this yarn used to be cheaper in Canada than the U.S., I don’t know if that’s still true, although elann had some on sale a little while ago. I’d even cite Butterfly Super 10 DK or Classic Elite Provence as suitable cost-effective substitutes, but they’re a bit heavier than DK weight despite their labelling. Incidentially, Classic Elite’s retention of Provence is probably the only thing preventing me from cursing out Classic Elite as a wholesale sellout with all their snootily expensive luxury fiber lines and jazzy novs.

(By the way, don’t take this as a list of suitable yarn substitutes for Morrigan. I would consider sport-to-fingering weights to be better substitutes.)

On the whole, then, the only raison d’être I can see for June is… better profit margins? Better colour ranges? Better control over the quality of the finished yarn? I have no idea. It seems to me that the end user is no better off with this yarn as a substitute for a mercerized cotton. By contrast, when acrylic fibers are treated as a substitute for wool, it makes more sense: the easier care, the allergy issue. Rowan Calmer is a cotton-acrylic blend, but it plays up the softer and not the harder, mercerized-cotton-substitute side of acrylic, and has a chainette structure.

So, as I said, we went with Calmer. By this point, I had already tried some sample cables. Some were worked in wool. (This green yarn is discontinued Classic Elite Tapestry, which is wool and heavier than Calmer.)

But what colour? In real life, my colours of choice are black and earthy greens (with some grey and brighter, nearly chartreuse greens, thrown in for variety). Those are not Amy colours, and they wouldn’t have been good colours for a book project anyway. Since Shedir, I had started to develop a taste for just the right shade of ballet pink… but that particular pink that was used for Shedir had since been discontinued. And in fact, there wasn’t anything in the current Calmer colour card that would fit within the parameters of the book, and suit my taste. Oh, well.

This was the prototype shaped side panel of as-yet-to-be-named Morrigan, swatched in the round and then snipped open (always fun). And don’t worry, the “bald spot” in the middle of the swatch is not in the final version.

We guessed that 15 balls would be enough for whatever size I’d wind up making. While waiting for the yarn to arrive (or perhaps even after the yarn had arrived, I can’t remember), I madly sketched out charts, trying to work out a cable arrangement that would likely arrive at the right circumference based on my swatches. The intention was to have a number of narrow panels that would make grading the pattern easier. As well, because this sweater was meant to be a nod to the traditional cabled sweater, I wanted at least some of the cable panels to make reference to traditional patterns. The reference is obscure, but it’s there: one of the twisted stitch panels is a reference to X, and another to O.

So, with charts plotted and a bag full of yarn and promises, the real work started… sort of.

To be continued

*The registrant of this domain name was probably kicking himself. The only permanently relevant domain name, after all, is this — clever woman.

Incidentally, the discovery of the dwarf planet Eris was only formally announced in July 2005, after the publication of this. However, the dwarf planet was not actually named Eris until September 2006. What prescience! But whatever scary powers I might possess, clearly they are not strong enough to subdue a pile of Calmer.

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16 Responses to The legend of Morrigan

  1. Rebekkah says:

    Thanks not only for the beautiful pattern, but for this very interesting post. I love reading about the design process. I was planning on (eventually) buying the book for the fiber info, as I’m a wool snob who knows she needs to branch out and learn about other fibers. When I saw a photo of Morrigan, my desire to buy the book turned from a geeky need for basic knowledge to a knitter’s lust for a gorgeous pattern. Which I’ll probably end up knitting in wool, because that’s my comfort zone, and because I don’t even want to think of the cost of knitting it in Calmer.

    I’m curious about your statement that sport to fingering weight yarns would be a good substitute. I thought that Calmer was thicker than that. Perhaps I should just hunt down a ball of it to feel (and swatch) for myself. Of course, what I really want to do is buy the book and a ball of Reynolds Whiskey, to swatch with. If a light sport weight is a good yarn for the sweater, that’s the yarn I want.

    I look forward to the next installment of the story.

  2. Kristina says:

    Hi all:

    Any thoughts on whether Lana Grossa Elastico would work? (specs: 96 % Cotton, 4 % Polyester; Length: 160m/50g; Size of Needles: 3,5-4,5). I have used this before – the end fabric is rather stretchy. Why I ask – it is about 1/2 the price of Rowan Calmer (at least where I live) and I prefer the colour range of the Elastico as well.

  3. AnneB says:

    What a marvelous book! I’ve owned some Rowan Cotton for years and never seen a pattern that I thought would fit it well. The density of the cables are amazing. A swatching I will go!

  4. Kristina says:

    Absolutely amazing work by both you and Wannietta! Hard to believe…

    I have bought the book and would love to endeavour this sweater at some point. It will have to wait until I’m feeling a bit more patient, though.

    Too bad the Super10 wouldn’t work – one of my favourite yarns, which is reflected in the size of the stash. Thanks for the tips, though.

  5. Melissa says:

    Oh, my. I have yet to see the book, but it looks lovely. I really admire your work with cables: I love their texture and the really intricate things that can be done with them. Perhaps when I’m a more experienced knitter, I’ll design some of my own.

    I rather resent the loss of Pluto as a planet.

  6. Jennifer says:

    OMG – it’s so beautiful. Thanks for making me aware of this pattern. Now I’ll have to run out and buy the book.

  7. Melanie says:

    I just bought the book, both for Morrigan and the fiber information. I’ll be making Morrigan someday, but since I have an acrylic allergy, I’ll be doing it in all wool. The irony here isn’t lost on me. Thanks for another great pattern!

  8. Steph says:

    I got to see the final Morrigan on Wednesday and it’s gorgeous. Too small for me…but I bet it’ll look great on you.

    Congrats on a fantastic design.

  9. I cannot wait until the book comes out. As a professed wool addict, I wasn’t really looking forward to the book, but this pattern is GORGEOUS. I loved knitting Eris (it taught me so much, even though it didn’t turn out for me) and so I know I’ll love Morrigan.

    My family was thrilled about Eris the planet–it’s our daughter’s middle name. :)

  10. Shanti says:

    I’ll second Laura. Until I saw Morrigan, I was going to put the book back on the shelf. Instead it came home with me. Now I just need to find the perfect shade of Calmer.

  11. Laura says:

    My thoughts on buying this book just went from “I’ll look it over and think about it” to “Where’s my credit card?” Your modernized “aran” sweater is a dream come true. Thanks for sharing the behind-the-scenes story.

  12. Wannietta says:

    Thanks Jenna – you were awesome to work with! And to your point #1 – sometimes greatness just can’t be contained – and you met the deadline (the real, final, actual deadline anyway). Your mind works in the most wonderfully twisted ways; you really let loose with Morrigan and it’s intriguing reading with hindsight how she evolved.
    And even though seeing all those graphs printed in The Book are a bit daunting I’m definitely going to knit one up for myself. Any day now.

  13. Carol says:

    Wow. I love the sweater. But I think having become privy to your complex thought processes (I typed and erased about five other adjectives before settling on complex, and no, I won’t tell you the other five) I love it — and you — even more.

  14. Barb Outside Boston says:

    I absolutely love this glimpse into the birth of a pattern! Can’t wait to read the rest….

  15. Jocelyn says:

    Even though my first project from the book will be Tuscany, Morrigan is by far my favorite. I describe it as Shedir on steroids. I mean that in a good way. It is the most spectacular sweater, and great for warmer climates since I can’t wear a heavy Aran sweater here in Northern CA. I’ll get to it one day, I hope.

  16. Brenda says:

    When I first read through the Morrigan pattern I had the same feeling I used to get in high school when faced with a really involved calculus problem: overwhelmed with the complexity but secretly turned on by the challenge.

    One of these days, when I feel like switching my brain back on out of cubicle-zombie-mode, I will tackle Morrigan. And I shall be victorious.