Designing a Lopi Sweater with Lars Rains: Construction

We’re back with another installment from our friend Lars Rains of Modern Lopi as he works through the progress of designing a new sweater for his upcoming Modern Lopi 2 book. This week, Lars examines the construction of traditional Icelandic sweaters.

Well, the Winter Olympics are officially over and normally I would have had more than enough time to have completed at least one full sweater. After all, the cover sweater photo for my first Icelandic book, Asymptote, only took me nine days to finish, even though I basically knit about 16 hours a day to keep up with that schedule. I thought that I would have been much farther along on Blizzard, the sweater that I am designing and knitting for Berroco’s 2018 Lopi KAL. However, either I am knitting much more slowly as I get older or I kept getting distracted by other tasks over the past two weeks.

One of the challenges of becoming a professional knitwear designer is balancing the many scheduling requirements required of any small business. Even though I did manage to work the body of the sweater to the armhole divide (what I like to call the black hole of stockinette), I had to work up two swatches on a tight deadline for magazine submissions and write up three patterns that I sent out to my sample knitters. Fortunately, I had the week off from teaching high school algebra full-time, so I also had the time to fit in as many doctor appointments as I could, take our two dogs to the vet, put in an application to adopt a third one (fingers crossed!), set up two new computers that will make my designing process so much easier, and pick out and arrange new living room furniture, all while watching as much of the Olympics as I could. It was a very busy week to say the least!

What I thought I would do with this blog post is to go into greater detail about how I construct a basic, bottom-up Icelandic yoke sweater, looking at the process from a designer’s point of view. The very first step that everyone should undertake when knitting a garment is working up at least one swatch. I normally make a 6″ by 6″ square in stockinette, with a garter-stitch border to make it look pretty and lay flatter. From this swatch, I get the two most important pieces of information that I will need to design a sweater: my stitch gauge and my row gauge. I need to know how many stitches and how many rounds it will take for me to knit one inch with my chosen yarn. I use these two numbers with eight body measurements to come up with my basic lopapeysa pattern. (While I go through these steps, I will be distracting you will some of the gorgeous landscape pictures that I took of the area around Ísafjörður in the Westfjords on my last trip to Iceland.)

Traditional Icelandic sweaters have a looser fit, with about 2 to 4 inches of positive ease. This means that if you have a 49″ chest like I do, the finished chest measurement of my sweater will be around 52″. Be sure that when you are measuring your bust or chest that you place the tape measure about 1 inch below your armpits, as that is where you will be joining the body of your sweater with your sleeves to work the yoke. Also, if your waist or hips happen to be larger than your bust or chest, you are going to want to use the largest measurement and then add your desired positive ease to come up with the circumference of the body of your sweater. (I loved how deep the blue of the water in the fjord was and I was captivated by the glacier off in the distance. I also liked the many different types of wildflowers that grew up in the rocky soil along the sea wall.)

You then take this number and multiply it by your stitch gauge (the number of stitches you get to an inch) to come up with the number of stitches that you are going to cast on for your body. Remember to check that this number is divisible by the stitch multiple for your ribbing. For example, I really like the look of 2×2 ribbing, so I would need to make sure that my cast on number is divisible by 4. I usually work my ribbing to a desired length using needles that are two US sizes smaller than the needles I used to make my gauge swatch. I then change to my larger needles and work a few rounds of stockinette before starting my band chart. (Ísafjörður is a small town that sits on a spit of land in the middle of a fjord between two large mountain ridges on either side of it. I first discovered it on a DVD by Sigur Rós and as soon as I saw the music video in which it was featured, I knew that I would have to visit someday.)

Depending upon the number of stitches in your band chart repeat, you may have to adjust the stitch count on your needles slightly by decreasing a few stitches. For this sweater, I just took the first twelve rows of my yoke chart and used that. Personally, I like for there to be some sort of connection between both charts. As it was a 4-stitch multiple, I didn’t have to adjust my initial stitch count. Once I finished the band chart, I just kept knitting until I reached the length I wanted for the body of my sweater. On my last round at the top, I calculate the number of stitches I want to put onto a stitch holder or waste yarn for my desired underarm width and then knit until I am half that number away from my beginning-of-round marker. I then slip off my underarm stitches onto a holder, removing my marker along the way, and leave the remaining body stitches on the needles and set them aside.

I then start working on my two sleeves, beginning with measuring my cuff circumference and my upper arm circumference, once again about an inch below my underarms. As I don’t want my sleeves to be too baggy, I may only add about one inch of positive ease to each of these measurements to come up with my stitch targets. I follow the same process as above when calculating the number of stitches to cast on based on my ribbing multiple and adjusting my stitch count, if needed, to fit in a full repeat of my band chart. Once I get to this point, I measure my sleeve length up to where it is going to join the body below the underarms and then calculate how many rounds of the sleeve that I have worked so far. By using my row gauge, I know how many rounds I have available to work my sleeve increases and I also know from my stitch gauge how many stitches I need to increase to reach my upper arm target measurement. (I visited Iceland in July, so most of these photos were taken around midnight. I really liked how the shadows falling on the mountain ridges contrasted the earthy reds at the summit with mossy greens underneath.)

I like to work paired symmetrical increases set in by one stitch on either side of the beginning-of-round marker, so I divide the number of stitches to be increased by two to come up with the number of increase rows that I need to work. I take the number of rounds still available and divide it by the number of increase rounds and round this answer down. This number tells me that I need to increase two stitches every multiple of this number as many times as I have increase rows to work. Just like with the body above, I slip off my underarm stitches onto holders when I am done with the sleeves and set them aside. (This is probably my favorite photo from my visit up north. Even in the middle of the night, light from the sun is still visible as the town is protected by its surrounding mountain ridges. I found it difficult to want to go to sleep when there was so much beauty and inspiration all around me.)

In my final blog post, I will talk about how I join all of the pieces together and what design considerations I have to take into account when working the yoke. Of course, I’m also hoping to have a finished object ready to show you by the end of this exciting Lopi KAL. I hope you enjoyed this description of my design process and that you will be able to take something away from it to help you customize your yoke sweaters in the future.

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