02 November 2011

Helical Knitting

As you all know by now, I'm pretty picky about whose patterns I knit. Yes, I want a satisfying finished object, but I usually also want to learn something. I look at a pattern and ask, "Is there anything new and interesting that is worth my time and the precious yarn in my stash?"
I thought I had worked out my teaching schedule for the remainder of 2011. Then Mariana sent out an e-mail to the shop teachers including a list of new class ideas for fall and winter. One of these was Double Heelix by Jeny Staiman from the First Fall 2011 issue of Knitty. As Jeny is already in my blog links list (Curious Knitter), I had already read about these and watched her video. And I've already been teaching Judy's Magic Cast On when I teach toe-up socks.

I can report that I thoroughly enjoyed the knitting. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I knocked out the project in about two weeks from cast-on to bind-off. First off, Jeny does some of the same twisted, maniacal stuff that I do. For example, she doesn't cast on at the end of the yarn, but rather, somewhere in the middle. Secondly, she and I agree that the Magic Cast On often works better if you cast on the lower stitch and then the upper stitch. (Accomplished sock knitter Woofgang Pug is also in agreement on this. Great minds in consensus.) The reason is that if you cast on upper then lower, when you rotate to start the first round you'll be knitting into the stitch you just cast on. If you do lower then upper, you'll end with an upper stitch, then rotate to knit into a lower stitch which was the next to last stitch cast on. Much better.

I am thinking it may be fun to try the helix flat in some other ways. Jeny has come up with an innovative increase using the Magic Cast On to create the heel shaping. In the heel there are two different colors going but four strands (two of each color) in what is called helix or helical knitting. Some people also call this barber pole knitting. If you worked on the Big Sock at STITCHES South 2010, then you've done helical knitting. TECHKnitter has a wonderful discussion here or you can dig out your back issue of Interweave Knits, Summer 2009, pp. 28-30.

The downside is that you have multiple strands going in the round. And you need one strand for each row of thickness you want in the stripes. So for example, if you wanted to knit a candy candy with a wide white stripe and a narrow red stripe, you might need one or two strands of red and maybe three or four or five strands of white. In this sock, you are knitting stripes that are two rows thick, so you use four strands (two of each color).

So why do this? The upside is that you don't get a jog at all. And if you are working in the round, as you are on a sock, you just knit around and around and around merrily.

Jeny mentions three different "flavors" of Double Heelix. They can all be viewed on her blog here or on the Ravelry page for Double Heelix.
  1. A 2x2 spiral heel with a plain foot and plain leg. You can make your pair identical or fraternal, as you like.
  2. A 2x2 spiral heel, then 1x1 striped foot and leg. In this case, Jeny also worked a plain instep and heel cuff, but you could just run 1x1 stripes through the whole sock.
  3. A 2x2 spiral heel, then 2x2 stripes on either the foot or leg. On Jeny's blog, she worked the spiral on only half the sock and worked the other half plain. On mine, I worked the entire socks, heel to foot to toe to leg to cuff in 2x2 stripes.
How you handle your yarn may vary based on which flavor you wish to knit. I should also mention that this is a great pattern if you have single orphaned 50g skeins of sock yarn. Many manufacturers now use 100g put-ups for socks, meaning you can knit a whole pair out of one skein. If you can find two different but complementary 50g skeins in the discount bin, you are set. In this case, I had two skeins of Shibui sock yarn in my stash. Jeny's examples also show what a great pattern this is for paring a loud hand-painted yarn with a plain yarn.

For all flavors, I recommend dividing your yarn. So if you have two skeins, divide them in half using whichever method you like (scale, swift, or something else). You now have four balls, two of each color. One pair will be the left sock and the other will be the right sock. So right away, you can put half the yarn back in your knitting bag.

If you are knitting flavor 1, follow Jeny's directions in the pattern. She has you pull about 15 feet of yarn off the balls, then cast on at that location. That will allow you to work the spiral heel. When those 15-foot tails run out, you'll be left with a single strand of each color. One becomes the foot and the other becomes the leg, as you like.

If you are knitting flavor 2, you may want to find the midpoint of your strands and cast on there. This will allow you to knit your spiral heel, and then end up with one strand of each color to go down the foot and up the leg. I think flavor 2 with the plain toe and cuff would be especially good if you are knitting for someone with large feet. You can use a 100g skein for the plain main color and a 50g skein for the contrast. When the contrast runs out, just keep going with the plain main color.

If you are knitting flavor 3, you will want to find not the mid-point but the one-quarter-point of the ball. In my case, this was about 22 to 24 yards and I made size small. If you are making a larger size, you might want to wind off just a little more than one-quarter. If you do this, you should be able to knit your spiral heel, then work 2x2 stripes down the foot all the way to the toe. If you've guessed well, you'll hit that sweet spot between having enough yarn to finish but not having too much waste. Now you can cut the yarn, find the midpoint of the remainder (what started as the three-quarter ball), join in so you have two strands of each color, and work 2x2 stripes up the leg.

A last note: a did depart from Jeny's directions for the toe. I followed her pattern and shaping for both the foot and the leg, working half of each round with one color and half of each round with the other. This sounds strange now, but when you make a helix, you'll soon discover this is very logical. And in this case, this logic grows out of the spiral heel itself. So I just followed the pattern, and when the toe decreases are worked every row, I just kept going until I had only 10 sts on each needle. I worked 1/2 a round (8 sts on one needle). Then I finished the round by grafting the remaining half-round, including grafting the decreases. This gave me a toe that matches my heel.

And I had a little good luck. I managed to start both heels at about the same place in the color repeat on the skein, and did the same thing on the legs. If you look closely, you'll see that there is some flashing in the variegated colorway, but that the flashing is very similar on both socks. So they are closer to being an identical pair rather than a fraternal pair.

For someone who isn't a sock knitter, I seem to be having too much fun with socks!

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