Sunday, November 29, 2009

Tension Tips

Holiday emails have arrived with suggestions on how to handle tension during the festive season. Since this is supposed to be a knitting/spinning blog and I've been talking about everything but, I thought I'd offer my own take on tension...the knitting kind.

As many of you know, I'm a continental knitter. This is a loose term for someone who tensions the yarn with the non-dominant hand and since I'm right handed, this means tensioning with the left hand. This method is commonly refered to as “picking”. Because I teach knitting along with my spinning classes, I've learned how to mimic other knitter’s styles so that I can speak their own “hand language” when I’m explaining certain techniques. Most knitters these days are taught to throw, meaning that they hold their working yarn in their dominant hand.

In this process I’ve learned how to knit left-handed. Funny thing is, when I knit left-handed, I “throw”, so I'm still tensioning with my non-dominant hand. It took a while to get my tension the same picking and throwing. The aha moment came when I realized the following difference:

A: When I pick, I regulate tension on the stitch I am making because I have my working yarn held under tension as I make the stitch.

B: When I throw, I regulate tension on the following stitch, because no matter how much tension I have on the working yarn as I make the stitch, I usually let go of that tension somewhat as I move along to make the next stitch. Once I wrap the next stitch, I automatically snug the tension of the previous stitch in the process.

This is really the beauty of throwing, because you don’t have to be a deft knitter to control your tension. You can let go of the yarn altogether, knowing you can snug it up as you move along. When knitting with wool or mohair this isn’t much of an issue either way, as the yarn usually stays put once the stitch is made. But if you knit with rayon, alpaca, linen, ie anything slippery, you’ll see those stitches loosening as you let go of your working yarn.

For me, the beauty of picking is that by holding a constant tension on my working yarn I can fly along because I usually don’t pause to adjust tension at all. The working yarn glides between the knuckles of my index and third fingers and I rarely have to reposition my yarn. But if I’m not mindful of my tension, it can easily tighten, especially when working stitches that tend to draw in.

I think I noticed this most when I played around with different ways to tension fair isle, or stranded knitting, with two separate yarns. I’ve tried holding two strands in my left hand, picking one, then the other. But holding tension on two yarns at once had a cumulative effect and my stitches drew up too tight. I tried throwing both yarns, but it took too long to drop one strand, pick up the other, drop that one and pick up the former and although my stitches were nice I found this way too tedious. On top of that, it was sometimes too loose. It was when I tried picking with one yarn and throwing the other that I noticed how differently the two methods affected my work. I used the tension from the thrown yarn as a guide for my picked yarn and by working mindfully was able to even the tension of both yarns and increase my speed at the same time.

After working this way for a while I came to know the advantages of both tensioning methods. But also, it took a while for my hands to assimilate what my mind had discovered. At this point, I'm more comfortable throwing with my left hand, so if I feel like knitting this way, I just turn my work around and go left to right. This helps to relieve repetitive motion pain and boredom too...pretty swuft.

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