Swatch it! Fall 2016
by Clara Parkes
Can we talk about lace for a moment?
In the realm of "traditional" lace projects, we tend to think of diaphanous sheets of tiny stitches that have been blocked open to reveal a hidden world of soaring buttresses and swooping arcs, twined vines, rosettes, and petals. It's stunning stuff.
But then you have projects like Dorothy Winn's Eyebright shawl, which combines elements of that so-called "traditional" lace with non-lacy things. Her design employs some of the most intriguing and challenging components of lace—the acrobatic K3tog, for example—with clustered "dots" and, up top, a smooth band of stockinette. And, whereas a traditional lace project does one thing to yarn, here each stitch family does different things. Which means you'll have to choose your yarn based on which "thing," or effect, you want to be the loudest.
Let me show you what I mean.
The original pattern calls for a hand-dyed blend of 50 percent lustrous silk and 50 percent Merino wool in what I believe is a smooth three-ply construction. "Smooth" is the operative word here, from the stockinette to the petals to the clustered dots. The smooth yarn works well because it presents no significant ply shadows. Instead, the eye can focus on the flickering palette of hand-dyed color. Nothing gets in the way, nothing yells.
But it's worth knowing that yarn can yell in lace—if that's what you want.
To show you what I mean, I pulled out a skein of Shibui Stacatto and began swatching. Here we let go of that relaxed three-ply construction and, instead, opt for two perfectly perpendicular, bouncy plies made of 70 percent superwash Merino and 30 percent silk. The visual effect is comparable to that of a string of pearls. In terms of the "line" you draw with your stitch, it's the varied swoop and wobble of a calligraphy pen. Depending on where the yarn sits within the stitch, you'll see a different kind of line.
All together, the result is a wildly pebbly, almost cobblestoned fabric with shadows and dips and bumps that render even "boring" stockinette with a dramatic accent. The two-ply construction highlights the yarn-over components of the stitch patterning beautifully, with soaring openings to accentuate the stitches around them. You do have to squint a little to see the big picture—but that's the point.
From here, I wanted to fill in all those potholes with something plump, squishy, and smooth—which is what the stockinette has been begging for all along. When you work any lace-styled motif that has yarn-overs, the more rounded your yarn, the more closed-in those yarn-over holes become. It's like a well-yeasted dough that's been allowed one final rise.
North Light Fibers Water Street
Nothing says a dusting of powdered sugar quite like cashmere, so I chose North Light Fibers Water Street for the job. This isn't a meager 10 or 15 percent cashmere but a gluttonous 40 percent--with the remaining 60 percent a superfine Merino. Together, the fibers have been blended and twisted into a well-rounded three-ply yarn. My yarn-over holes were still there, but they were plump, cozy, and cuddly. In exchange, I was rewarded with a superbly plump and even stockinette, with a smooth three-dimensional clarity that extended to the petal motif as well.
Water Street has a recommended five to seven stitches per inch, making it far heavier than the fingering-weight yarn called for in the pattern. But this is a shawl, where size isn't as much of an issue. And, you should be able to do anything you want, right? Right.
To its credit, the high-Merino content helped this yarn stretch and flex for those K3togs and a K3tog in which you work a series of yarn-overs and more K3togs to create nine stitches out of three. This would be far harder in a yarn with no give, such as a pure silk.
What this Merino/cashmere option lacked, however, was the fluidity and drape that is at the heart of most good shawls. Rather, it was the perfect option for someone who lives in Maine (hypothetically speaking) and wants to wrap a thick, prettily patterned shawl around her neck to stay cozy and warm.
And so, for my final swatch, I sought a combination of drape and halo in the form of Kismet Fiber Works Refuge. This ultra-smooth, four-ply fingering-weight yarn blends 50 percent lustrous high-drape silk with 50 percent baby camel—whose halo qualities are in theory similar to those of cashmere, but at a much lower price.
This was perhaps the finest, most concise of the yarns I swatched. By "concise" I mean that despite the halo potential of the baby camel, there was still very little fuzz to fill the space where one stitch ends and the next begins. On the recommended U.S. 7 needles, the stitches yawned a bit in the stockinette section, but they came to life in the lace motif.
The yarn's tightly twisted and plied construction provided a perfect canvas for the flickering semisolid hand-dyed Kismet colors. As did, come to think of it, the yarn Dorothy Winn chose for this project in the first place. Which is to say, we appear to have come full circle on this one.
Clara Parkes is the brilliant mind behind knittersreview.com and the author of several fantastic fiber books.