By Clara Parkes
The world is awash in contrasts, whether we’re talking good versus evil or a glazed donut versus a kale salad. We can’t fully appreciate one without some degree of exposure to the other. So go ahead, get yourself a donut. I can wait.
Contrasts abound in the knitting world, too. We have puffy versus dense, wobbly versus smooth, soft versus crunchy, easy versus…not so easy. Without experiencing the bumps of the purl stitch, for example, we can’t fully appreciate the steady face of stockinette.
These contrasts are what drew me to Sabrina Schumacher’s half-circle Palazzetto shawl. In it, she uses a single knit stitch to “draw” a steady motif across a backdrop of bumpy reverse-stockinette. By working that knit stitch through its back loop, she makes that motif so distinct that it almost appears to float above the background. From a technique standpoint, the shawl may look daunting if you’ve never worked something like this before. But once you get the pattern established and can “read” it in your fabric, it’s not only easy but also quite satisfying to knit—like a puzzle whose pieces aren’t too hard to fit.
For my swatching, I decided to stick with 100% wool and let the yarn’s construction be the only variable. All three swatches used a fine wool, either Merino or its other-breeded equivalent.
I began where I always do, with a traditional two-ply, woolen-spun yarn made from pure, undyed fibers—think Brooklyn Tweed but more buttery. Woolen-spun yarns can vary faintly in thickness and twist from inch to inch. When knit up, they produce a wonderfully wabi-sabi fabric of beautifully consistent imperfections. In my swatch, the faint wobble on the twisted knit motif against the purl background reminded me of tree roots climbing across a forest floor.
From here I moved to a knitted tube/tape/chainette construction that you’ll find in Woolfolk Får (the yarn I swatched) as well as Shibui Maai (which is a 70% alpaca/30% Merino blend) or even Shibui Linen or Quince Kestrel, if you really want to shake things up and leave sheep behind entirely. Chainette yarns, being nothing more than miles of tiny I-cord, have tremendous sponginess and bounce. They have a way of rendering roundness without even a whiff of ropelike density. They are also extremely balanced yarns, producing steady, open stitches with nary a limp. Visually, the tube-like construction produces tiny dots within the stitches, almost like a piece of knitted coral.
Chainette Woolfolk Får.
The reverse-stockinette backdrop of Sabrina’s design was steady in its bumpiness, rather like a well-made cobblestoned road. The twisted-stitch knits were snug and upright while still carrying the same dotted look. The coral effect unified the background and foreground, toning down the brightness of the motif rather like a well-chosen Instagram filter.
Chainette Woolfolk Får.
Finally I went for maximum contrast with a super-soft S-on-S cable-style yarn from Woolfolk called Tov. I say “cable-style” because, by virtue of the initial and final plies all going in the same direction (the “S” direction), this is not a traditional cabled yarn. (True cabled yarns begin their initial plies in one direction, and then the plied strands are given a final twist in the opposite direction, which locks the plies and balances the twist.)
The twisted knit stitches seemed to glide over the purls like a wooden walkway over the Everglades. But because of the tightly twisted single-mindedness of each stitch, unless you work your fabric at a relatively tight gauge, you’ll lose some fabric cohesion. S-on-S yarns are spongy and bouncy and well-wearing, but with all the fiber ends so tightly tucked in, none is left outside to meet and greet the neighbors. Tug the fabric and each stitch locks its door and goes inside, leaving you with a mesh-like material whose transparency may not be what you’d wanted.
Finally, I should note that just because I swatched this shawl in three other yarns doesn’t mean you should avoid the pattern’s recommended yarn. North Light Fibers Water Street is an exquisite, decadent, domestically produced small-batch yarn. Water Street delivers a whopping 40% cashmere blended in a base of 60% superfine Merino in a well-balanced three-ply construction. It renders this shawl pattern with gorgeous cohesion while maintaining striking, lattice-like contrast with those twisted knit stitches. I can’t even imagine how glorious it would feel on my shoulders—though maybe I should give it a try and find out? You know, for science.
Clara Parkes is the brilliant mind behind knittersreview.com and the author of several fantastic fiber books.