Sometimes a hand-knit comes into your life.
These aren't mine, I'm just pretending they are because I like them so much.
They're handmade wool slippers that belong to a friend of mine. They're comfortable, they fit well, and they're well made. Naturally, when I first encountered them, I started wondering how exactly they were made -- and whether I could replicate them.
Here's the thing about these slippers -- they were knit flat and from the top down. Because of that, they have a seam up the bottom of the foot; when I said that they are comfortable, I meant "except for the fact that you have to stand on a three-needle bind off ridge that's right in the center of your foot."
And because of that, I decided that if I were to make a pair, they would be done in the round. I am one of those knitters who has never been able to come up with a reason to knit flat a thing that could be knit in the round; I'm sure there are arguments for flat knitting, but don't mind me, I'll just be over here guarding my DPNs with my life.
So today I decided to figure out exactly how these were constructed. Here's what I found, with some pointers on figuring out how a knitted piece was constructed.
The basic information: how much does it weigh? What's the gauge? How many colors were used? Was it knit flat or in the round?
These slippers are 110 grams each and made at 6 sts and 8 rows to 4cm. This pair was done with four colors (white, black, grey, brown) and the other pair that comes up in the photos below was done with 10 (orange, light orange, grey, pink, green, yellow, blue, olive, black, white). Obviously there's some flexibility in color choices here.
Seams are the easiest way to tell whether a piece was done flat: if there are seams, it was probably done flat. The slippers have a seam at the bottom (the annoying one) and up the back of the heel; they were knit flat.
The next step is to figure out where a piece was begun. We could tell pretty easily that the ridge at the bottom was a bind-off ridge, meaning that the slipper was started at the cuff. The other really easy way to determine this is to look at stitch direction, especially if you have a rib with which you can work.
Here's the top of the slipper. If you flip it over, it becomes clear that the cuff is the cast on, because what you see with it upside down is what we're all accustomed to seeing come off of our needles.
How many stitches were cast on for the slipper? If you can find the beginning of the round -- you know what it looks like -- you can count from there. Again, this is easiest if you are working with a rib, since you can count by twos. If you're counting stockinette consider putting some other markers in, especially if there are a lot of stitches. If you come up with an odd (or even a strange) number -- 37 stitches, 103 stitches, 89 stitches -- you probably miscounted.
Round to the nearest likely number -- for something flat, multiples of 2 are common, but for something round, multiples of 4 are more likely, especially with a k2/p2 rib. Failing either of those, the closest multiple of ten is always a good place to start. Usually, by the time you get farther along in your deconstruction, you'll be able to say "oh, there are 48 sts here and 36 sts there, so the right total is 84, not 85." Don't worry about it too much.
The slipper has a 40 stitch cast on. Counting rows is easy: there are 6 rows of color 1, then 4 rows of color 2. The original slipper in the photos, again, was worked flat, so our unknown knitter would have been working with a long skinny strip of rib, not a tube or a cuff as we sock knitters know them.
The next part is where it gets interesting: as you can see in the photo below, we have stitches running in two different directions. The instep (the checkered part) is knit flat, separately from the sides. I put a marker on either side of the instep flap and counted: there are 14 sts in the checkerboard. (I then realized that it would have been just as easy to count the checkers and multiply by two. Well, you can't win 'em all.)
The instep is knit in a 2 stitch/2 row checkerboard with the yarn held double. It's 14 stitches across and 24 rows deep. At the toe, the 14 instep sts are continued down into the front and stitches are picked up along the side. It seems that the knitter would have worked a wrong side row on the instep, then continued into the side of the slipper with the next right side row.
So: because they were working flat, they probably returned to the beginning of the row (in the cuff sts on hold) and knit across, picking up stitches as they went. 23 sts were picked up on each side of the instep, plus 14 flap sts and 26 cuff sts for a total of 86 stitches.
If I were trying to replicate the slipper in the round, I would work the 14 sts of the instep, then pick up stitches along the side. When I reached the cuff stitches (on hold), I'd work across those and down the other side, back to the front of the slipper; it's basically the same mechanic as picking up stitches along a heel flap.
Here's what that would look like, having picked up the side sts and knit a few rows:
The whole slipper was done with the yarn held double: the cuff, instep, and sole are solid colors and the side was done with one strand of each: first grey and white, then brown and black. The sides are brioche, which I've never done -- it took a while to determine exactly what was going on with that part.
The bottom is garter stitch: after 6 rows of brioche rib, the knitter switched back to white and worked 11 rows of garter stitch (again, these were knit flat, so that wouldn't have been the pain it sounds like to those of us who like round knitting). The seam at the bottom looks like a three-needle bind off, then they wove in the ends and that's that.
The ability to deconstruct a pattern is a good one to have -- it lets you say "oh, this sweater is perfect, and here's why it fits really well." It lets you say "this is the worst sock in the world; I will never use this technique in this way." It lets you say "hey stranger on the bus, can I look at the inside of your hat for a second?"
It's also really handy for those times when you need to repair a store-bought something. Hole in your hat? Take out part of the seam and darn it. Sweater sleeve just one infuriating half-inch too long? Take out the cast off, frog a few rows, and re-close it. Feel like annoying someone? Undo and redo (badly) one of the seams on their sweater. They'll never know what happened!