When one first learns to cook recipes are followed to the letter. With a little more experience–and hopefully a bit more skill–a cook adds a bit less salt, substitutes this herb for that, begins to pinch, pour, and dash without the use of measuring implements, and dares to improvise. Recipes are a starting point; a source for ideas and guidance. Often times I find myself looking at several recipes and cooking a dish using a combination of them, taking the best from each.
A knitting pattern is a recipe. It can be followed exactly or it can be a starting point; a pattern written by a trusted designer is always an excellent starting point. No doubt when designing for others an effort is made to make things as simple to do, easy to follow, and uncomplicated as possible. But sometimes simplicity comes at a cost, a more difficult and complicated approach may be the preferred approach. Or sometimes a pattern is a perfect match for what a knitter has in mind except for one or two details. There are just times when I want to trust my instincts, jump off the path, and travel in my own direction.
Helen Stewart is one of my favorite designers for straight-forward, easy to knit patterns that yield beautiful results. I am currently knitting one of her golden oldies, the Pebble Beach Shawl, for a summer knitting challenge after having just finished the Talisman, the first shawl from her Shawl Society series. The two shawls are very similar in set-up and construction. The Talisman starts with a backwards loop cast on and the Pebble Beach with a simple cast on at the top edge but otherwise are essentially the same. I had followed the instructions as written for the Talisman and was uncomfortable the entire time I was knitting it; the top seemed too tight, bunched up, and puckered.
At the time I kept thinking, “I should have done a garter tab.” I also was concerned with the tightness of the edge, usually something I do not have trouble with. A friend reminded me of a trick she had learned on the Melanie Berg On the Spice Market Shawl: for adding ease to an edge, add a yarn over on the right side and drop the yarn over on the wrong side. After being reminded, I began doing the extra yarn overs on each right side edge and within a row or two it was if the tense work exhaled, stretched, yawned, and relaxed for a nap. Although the miracle of blocking can fix a lot of ills, I was concerned the entire time that I was knitting that blocking magic would not be enough. In the end–although the top edge where there were no added yarn overs looks thin and tight–the Talisman came out okay. But just okay, it does not look as smooth at the top as a garter tab edge would have.
Like a cook who wants less salt but more spice, I added to suit my own taste. Of course I cannot speak for all designers, but I have asked some designers if they minded knitters making modifications and all have graciously said they do not mind at all. Perhaps they are curious to see how their original vision evolves when knitters deviate from their basic recipes. Different fibers, weights, and colors alone can make a difference, but when hundreds of knitters get creative–adding their own pinch of seasonings–it results in some interesting and even inspiring variations on a theme.
The Dreaded Garter Tab
For those of you who have not done a garter tab, the instructions seem outright bizarre and make no sense until you have done it a few times. It is just one of those things in knitting where, by following the instructions line-by-line, it just works. Trust to the force. Basically all one is doing with a garter tab is creating the first few stitches in the top border of the shawl, a little rectangular starting point. It is worth the effort, a garter tab creates the foundation for a smooth edge.
A garter tab starts with casting on the number of stitches that will be on the shawl edge. The cast on can be a garden-variety cast on, such as a long tail, or it can be a provisional cast on. Knit garter rows until there are the same number of garter ridges as cast on stitches, stitches will be picked up using the purl bumps from those garter ridges. Stitches are also picked up from the cast on edge. Picking up stitches using a provisional cast on is somewhat neater but picking up from a regular cast on works too, the difference is not too noticeable. Knit all the picked up stitches and, presto change-o, a garter tab is formed.
Hints. I like to start a garter tab with DPNs so I do not have to wrestle with a dangling cord while fiddling with such a tiny construction. For a provisional cast on, I like to use a crochet cast on with a contrasting yarn, adding several extra chains with a long loop through the last chain to remember which end to unravel. Obviously a tightly twisted yarn in a contrasting color is better than a soft fuzzy yarn in a similar color for a provisional cast on, but I tend to grab whatever is available without much concern over matching the weight and fiber content. When picking up stitches from garter rows, be careful to not pick up the the purl bump immediately below the needle as that will distort the stitch that is on the needle. I learned an easy way to pick up stitches on a garter tab in a Stephen West class and made a video so I would not forget his pearls of wisdom.
Substituting a Garter Tab in the Pebble Beach and Talisman
A basic formula for a garter tab is, cast on the same number of stitches as a the border (I use a provisional cast on, but it is a matter of preference), knit enough rows to form the same number of garter ridges as the border, turn and pick up that number of stitches, and finally turn, pick up, and knit the stitches from the cast on edge. There will be 3 times as many stitches on the needle as stitches on the border.
The Pebble Beach and the Talisman have a 3 stitch border. For the Pebble Beach I substituted the pattern instructions for the set-up with a garter tab by doing the following:
Reminder: my video for Stephen West’s easy way to pick up stitches in a garter tab shows a simple way to pick up stitches in a garter tab.
- Cast on 3 stitches (optional: use provisional cast on). Knit until there are 3 garter ridges (about 7 rows). Turn and pick up 3 stitches from purl bumps on the garter ridges, knit picked up stitches, turn and pick up 3 stitches from border, knit picked up stitches. (9 stitches)
- Row 1 (WS): K3, YO, K3, YO, K3 (11 stitches)
- Skip Rows 1-4 of pattern instructions
- Start pattern with Row 5 (RS)
I did not do a garter tab in Talisman, nor did I swatch and test it, but substituting these instructions for Rows 1-4 and starting the pattern with Row 5 should work in the same way as it did with the Pebble Beach. I did swatch and test the garter tab for setting up the medium size Pebble Beach. Although it is still a work in progress and has not been washed and blocked, I am much happier with the top edge on the modified Pebble Beach than I was with the Talisman.
Up Tight and On Edge
Modifications for creating a more relaxed edge are simple and are the same for both shawls; it really made the difference between having a puckered and tight edge and having a smooth and relaxed edge. Blocking the top edge of the Talisman was a chore but was much easier when I reached the part where I had added the modifications for the ease. Modifications are as follows:
- RS Rows: K3, YO, KYOK . . . [row instructions as written] . . . KYOK, YO, K3
- WS: K2, P1, Drop YO, YO . . . [row instructions as written] . . . Drop YO, YO, P1, K2
It is a bit cludgey on the wrong side as you are dropping a YO immediately before adding a YO, but both YOs are necessary. The dropped YO is what gives the row ease and the added YO is what is used for the foundation of the K-YO-K increases on the right side rows. I also found that the first YO on the WS was obvious to see and drop, but with the distortion from the K-YO-K from the row below, the final YO to drop was a bit harder to see. It was a matter of remembering to always drop a YO before adding a YO on the WS and, like with any pattern, after I had done it row after row after row it became automatic. Just remember, at the start of the row to drop the 4th stitch (the YO from the previous row) and add a new YO and, at the other end, to drop the 4th stitch (YO) from the end and add a new YO before the final 3 stitches.
In the Books and in the Works
The Pebble Beach is still on the needles but already I can see a smooth top and a more open and relaxed edge. The Talisman came out well enough, but were I to do it again I would definitely start with the garter tab and add the modification to ease the edges. A tasty enough dish, but it needed a dash of salt and a pinch of spice to taste.