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.)