Monday, November 17, 2008

On sock flats

At Stitches the other weekend, I spent a lot of time examining sock flats. If you aren't familiar with them, they are long rectangles of yarn, sometimes knit with two strands, other times knit with one with a line of demarcation to show the halfway point. They are dyed as knitted cloth, rather than as unknitted yarn. You can either unravel the cloth and wind it into a ball, or knit them directly from the cloth, just casting on with the loose end and unraveling as you go along. (The ones knit with two strands together are for those who knit two socks at the same time -- one strand for each pair, ensuring matching socks.)

What fascinated me were the ways in which the dyers had applied the yarn to the flats. (Please believe that I am in no way denigrating any particular dyers or vendors at the show; this is merely one of those pointy-headed musings to which I am prone.) Some of the flats had colors applied more or less randomly. But others had created patterns on the flat. Some had zigzags of color; others stripes or criss-crosses; some even had stamped or stenciled shapes onto the flat to create an image of, say, an insect or a flower in one color on a different colored background.

Which led me to wonder why.

If you were going to keep the flat intact and, I don't know, frame it or something, then the stencils and intricate designs would make sense. But it seemed odd that the dyer had gone to all the trouble of creating these designs, knowing that the person who bought them was going to (presumably) unwind them and knit them into socks. And given the variables in gauge and sock size and stitch pattern, there was no way the dyer could ensure that any particular pattern would be created or recreated in the finished socks.

One of the issues that Knitting Socks with Handpainted Yarn addresses in the technical section is why handpainted yarns look the way they do when knit into socks. I spend some time talking about the phenomenon known as pooling (or splotching, or stacking, or landscaping, or whatever you happen to call those effects where particular colors seem to line up in the knitted stitches and create patterns or unattractive blotches or almost-stripes).

And it seemed to me that a lot of these sock flats were going to end up pooling like a mofo.

One of the vendors had helpfully included a flat along with one of the socks knit from it. Curiously, the finished sock had a very symmetrical striping look to it. Upon closer examination, I concluded that the sock must have been knit using two separate balls of yarn, alternating rows. (I even saw what I think was the un-woven-in end where the second ball was added in, shortly after the cuff.)

Now there's nothing wrong with using two balls of yarn in alternating stripes to break up the pooling of a handpainted yarn. Indeed, it's a time-honored method -- but it's a method usually used when the knitter doesn't like the way the colors look as the sock is being knit up. In other words, it's something you do when your handpainted sock yarn is pooling and you hate it.

So if the sock flat looks attractive in its unknit form, but not that attractive in the knit-up sock, what's the point? Is it for the dyer to have fun playing with the flat? Or is it for the knitter who ends up knitting and wearing the socks?

I have resisted creating sock flats that use these kinds of decorative methods for the very reason that I thought they'd make socks that pooled and splotched. Now you're always going to have a skein of handpainted yarn here or there that pools and splotches -- it comes with the turf. But I guess I'm wondering what the point of the sock flat is if it doesn't do something different than you can do with a regular hank. (When I've dyed sock flats, I've used them to create striping effects that one can't easily achieve with a normal-sized hank of yarn.)

Your thoughts are welcome, especially if you've knit with sock flats before. (Just please don't mention any vendors or dyers by name in the comments. I don't want anyone to think I'm picking on them.)


KPiep said...

I have to admit that this is one knitting phenomenon that completely escapes me. I have absolutely no interest in using sock flats. Perhaps this is just a case of the newest toy?

Anonymous said...

Yes, it seems that most dyers don't seem to realize that the best use of blanks is to make long slow color changes (a la Kauni) without having to deal with looong hanks of yarn. I think a very good use of them would be to dip dye in a single increasing color density (1000=1500 yds lace weight) for a shawl or two identical blanks with more than just 200 yds each that could be used to do color work like the Kauni effect yarn.

Anonymous said...

Since I'm the dyer in this instance, I think I'll pick on myself a little. (I don't think you're picking on me, but I don't sell a lot of sock blanks -- I mostly did them one day, and have done hat blanks since.)

Well, this one (Butterfly) was dyed by MJ and overdyed by me to be a butterfly. The socks turned out random and kinda stripey, and the colors are lovely.

She's got another of my blanks, which was a dragonfly that's turning out lovely, too. The blank was wide enough that she's almost getting stripes around the sock from the 2 different colors on the blank.

I dyed two for myself, mostly in long-repeat colorways. The first set, which I'm still working on, has pink feet blending to a golden brown color. They're going to be tall socks, because I want to use all of the sock blank.

I'm liking hat blanks better than sock blanks, myself, because hats are a faster knit, and the shaping makes the colors really move and shift in a pretty way. My last blog entry shows 2 of the hats I've knit from blanks. The colors pool, yes, but they pool differently from how the blank was dyed.

To me, there's something magical about watching that kind of thing unfold. There's something neat about not knowing what color or colors your next stitch will be, and there's something cool about being able to get a long-color-repeat yarn without having to wind a HUGE skein, or lots of mini skeins to do it.

Carol said...

Thanks, crazymonkey. I can totally understand playing with them oneself -- messing around with color. And I really have enjoyed dyeing them in the long melding colorways. To me, that's what they do so beautifully. And I can understand dyeing one yourself and then knitting it up to see what happens, but I guess I think it would be less fun and fulfilling to have one person dye and another person buy/knit. The dyer doesn't get to see what happens and the knitter doesn't get to participate in the creative application of the dye. I've never seen hat flats, but it's a fascinating idea. I'm off to check out your blog.

Carol said...

Also, the ones I saw didn't look much like yours -- they didn't use multiple colors to create the stencil: it really looked almost like they dipped a large stamp in dark dye and stamped it in the middle of the fabric, so that all of the outline of the stamp was in the same color, and therefore would undoubtedly splotch or pool in some way. Your stuff's lovely!

Carol said...

I haven't used a flat but they are intriguing (more so now that I've seen one of yours in Sheelagh's package!). I think maybe it's just a new thing for knitters to try? I probably won't even dye one myself but might be interested in knitting one up.

beth02116 said...

I bought one for the novelty of it - but knitting from it just wasnt any fun. it's not so much the randomness of the colors that threw me, but knitting with kinky yarn makes it hard to knit with any kind of consistent gauge. do you pull it taut or let it be loose? I did a mix , and with washing it was ok, but not something I would do again.

Sherry W said...

I like to fiddle with sock flats. Like others have said it's an easy way for a home dyer to play around. Especially making self-patterned yarns without having a warping board or other annoying methods.

I really like knitting from sock flats. My socks are often on the go so no balls rolling around. I can just sling the fabric over my shoulder and knit away. Unless something really weird occurs, I usually don't care if my socks pool, to be honest.

I am guessing much of the decor of the flats is a sales point more then to create an effect. Some hand dyers are also dying phrases in skeins of yarn when handpainting. Someone will go, "oooh, I love dragonflies!" an buy it, and won't care if it pools, etc.

Anonymous said...

I've seen the flats dyed like you say, and really can't see the point (more sales? cause they're pretty?)
I like doing stripes on them (vertical) and get a spiral stripe when I knit them.
Now my friend Lil Ms. Slim Shady has a whole other approach. She paints and dyes amazing patterns on them. Then unravels just enough to give yarn to knit a ribbing on top and bottom...instant "fit perfectly over your jeans" legwarmers. Which are great in this climate!

On knitting with them...I've never had a problem with the kinks, but then I knit with my stitches and yarn and all sort of squished up and close together...but you do want to pull out the kinks to knit with it.

Anonymous said...

My personal pref.- I like the blendy stripes thing- and the vivid stripes- they're great for that.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that painting designs on the flats is one way to get a more varying stripe/spot pattern than you usually get.

savannahchik said...

I love blanks for the long-length subtle color variations. The crazy painting jobs on the blanks? I think they're mostly art ;)

beth02116 - When I have a partially-knit sock that's been marinating for a while, I'll re-wind it and throw it in the dishwasher when it hits the dry cycle to steam out the kinks. I haven't tried it with a whole skein to see if the steam would work on the inside of the skein but it might be worth a shot if you wanted to try sock blanks again.

SparkCrafted said...

i've considered getting a sock blank and then dyeing it to sort of resemble a Van Gogh if only to see what happens once it's unraveled and knit. depending on how that turned out, i might not ever experiment that way again. but i'd try it once. :-)

JelliDonut said...

savannahchik--can you tell me more about the dishwasher thing? I can just see the horrified look on my dh's face, but hey, anything for my knitting!

As for sock flats, I've never even seen one in real life, but I'm not sure I "get" the reason for the decorative dying, at least not from the perspective of the knitter. Maybe just for the fun of it. If I ended up with blobby socks, I wouldn't be happy.

Anonymous said...

Simply put, "eye-candy sells". Put it in the same category as eyelash scarves.

I prefer not to have yarn dominatrix skills as a prerequisite for a successful knit.

Unknown said...

I dyed some sock flats. Mostly I think they are perfect for striping as you'll be more likely to get matching striped socks. Also, I've seen gradient dyed flats which I think are very cool for sock knitting. I'm with you on the pooling and random splotches. Sounds like they'd be a disaster for knitting them up.

Eileen said...

REALLY interesting post - and interesting comments. So interesting, in fact, that I don't have anything to add, other than "Thanks for addressing this issue!"