By Clara Parkes
Dropped-stitch patterns are wonderfully deceptive. At first, your knitting looks dense and cohesive, a pretty piece of fabric that'd be right at home in a sweater. But then you reach your destination and release the designated stitches, and suddenly your fabric opens up to reveal something else entirely.
This "what you see isn't what you get" phenomenon can make yarn choices a challenge, especially if you want to substitute for something other than what the pattern specifies. Complicate matters by stranding two different yarns together, instead of using just one, and things really get fun. And since knitting is about having fun, that's what I decided to do, using Brenda Patipa's Acanthus pattern as my guide.
I wandered through the stash to find suitable swatch contenders, something completely improbable that would push us outside our comfort zone. My eyes fell on a lovely prepatterned sock yarn from years ago when I was working on The Knitter's Book of Socks. An idea hatched: What if I used that as the "control" yarn and stranded it with three very different yarns for swatches?
The label for that skein of sock yarn had long since been lost, but I'm pretty sure it had a mix of wool and cotton. It's a multiple-ply yarn composed of four two-ply strands all plied together in the same "S" direction. The yarn has a very round, cappellini-like demeanor that would make stranding interesting, since the more rounded yarns aren't always as willing to cozy up to others.
Brenda's pattern was written for a light fingering-weight, four-ply blend of even parts merino and silk. This being a rectangle shawl, I didn't really need to worry about how any fiber differences might affect the finished project—nor did I even need to worry that much about fabric size or my stitch gauge.
For the first swatch, I did what I always do: reached for the brushed mohair. Few things are as perfectly suited for stranding in this world as brushed mohair. It fits effortlessly within whatever stitches you try to create, lending a magical dusting of halo, a Shangri-La-like mist that transforms the everyday humdrum fabric into something magical. There's a reason so many people photograph the Golden Gate Bridge in the fog.
But there's something you should know about brushed mohair yarns, if you haven't already learned it the hard way: frogging is very difficult. The loose fibers are intent on embedding themselves within their neighboring stitches. While the swatch was gorgeous, the dropping of stitches was tedious. The answer came in the form of my pointy-tipped needles, which I used to help tug each stitch free. Tugging pulled out a bit more halo along the dropped stitches than the knit ones, but it wasn't too noticeable.
If brushed mohair is a challenge for dropped stitches, what about smooth mohair? Here we have very few options, but what we have is really good: Quince Piper. This 50/50 blend of wool and mohair (all fibers grown in Texas) has been twisted into a remarkably smooth and cohesive singles that renders lace exquisitely. Here, it didn't mind its sock-yarn companion and quickly snuggled up for the long haul.
Dropping stitches was still a little tedious, especially because I didn’t want to rough up Piper's smooth surface (which I did only a little). But here's the thing: What's the rush? In a way, I enjoyed taking a little more care in the un-doing of stitches. Don't they deserve this last show of respect before being abandoned forever?
While those first two swatches certainly looked cuddly, I wanted to end with a fabric that was closer to the silky swagger and drape of Brenda's original sample. Nothing "does" silk quite like silk, but the firm loudness of my sock yarn still needed the taming of a mohair halo.
The answer came in ArtYarns Silk Mohair Glitter, a slinky luxury yarn containing a fine single ply of silk stranded alongside three tiny strands of brushed mohair that have been vaguely plied with a fine sparkly Lurex. Despite all those conflicting strands and plies, the actual knitting was easiest of all the swatches. The fabric was by far the most plush and glamorous of the mix.
ArtYarns Silk Mohair Glitter
What made this experiment most intriguing was the fact that all the swatches were, by virtue of that prepatterned sock yarn, fraternal siblings. And yet by introducing another companion, each produced a distinctly different fabric. I wondered how many more I could try? Which is what I love most about this kind of swatching: It offers us total freedom to play and experiment, to challenge our expectations, to answer that universal question, "What if?" Ultimately, each piece of fabric we create, no matter what it is, can yield nuggets of wisdom that we'll carry forward into our next project, our next adventure.