Sunday, October 19, 2003

Avoiding the Frump Factor: a short editorial on shawls and stoles ...

Shawls and stoles have made a huge comeback as accesory items in the past several years, and it's a real pleasure to see so many good designs which don't make the wearer look like a geriatric flu patient.

However, a lot of knitters I know are reluctant to come up with their own shawl designs out of fear of creating a frumpy-looking object. None of us knitters want to look like Great-Great-Grandma at a Temperance meeting.

As most shawls and stoles are either a simple triangle, or a simple rectangle, this would not seem like an intimidating design prospect in comparison to, say, creating a Chanel-style suit from scratch.

But there is much more to the design of a shawl than the idiot-simple geometry of a triangle or rectangle. The key to a really smashing shawl or stole is to create a great fabric.

First and foremost, a frump-free shawl must have movement to the fabric. The smaller the finished item is, the more difficult it is to achieve any kind of drape or movement if you use wool or acrylic (or a blend).

The primary rule of thumb, when considering wool or acrylic with regard to drape, is: the larger the item, the more drape it will have, because the garment's very own weight will create the drape and motion that is desirable for a good visual effect.

When working with wool or acrylic in a relatively small shawl or stole, a fairly loose gauge is important if you don't want to look like you are wrapped in a blanket. Too loose, and you get the dreaded "home-made" look. Too dense, and you have a stadium blanket.

By "relatively small," I mean either a triangular shawl whose longest point in the back reaches the waistline of the wearer (or higher), or a stole narrower than about 18" and measuring less than the fingertip-to-fingertip "wingspan" of the wearer.

In a relatively small shawl or stole, you need to achieve a gauge somewhat looser than sweater gauge -- which is the typical gauge provided on ball bands in worsted or sport-weight wools and acrylics. Go up one or two needle sizes, and make a stocking stitch gauge swatch of at least 8 by 8 inches. Then get a piece of silk or satin -- an accessory scarf will do.

Raise your hand as though you want to answer a question in class, and drape the piece of silk or satin over your hand. See how it looks like a draped statue? The silk follows the curve of your hand without clinging to it or tenting out lke a hat. It just falls into place.

Now, place the center of the gauge swatch over your fingertip. It should hang close to your hand and not "tent out." If it tents out, go up a needle size.

The second rule of thumb with regard to wool or acrylic is: the smaller the shawl or stole, the thinner your yarn should be. For most waist-length shawls, sport-weight should be the thickest yarn you use.

Are you making a large, dramatic stole, or a ruanna? Worsted and even bulky weight yarn can be used to good effect because the garment's very own weight gives it drape and movement. A ruanna is a piece of outerwear, so as long as it has good drape and some motion, a heavier yarn works fine. The best fabrics for a ruanna should give a similar effect to a good, drapey, woven wool fabric.

Color choice is also important to avoid a dowdy look. True pastels say "dowdy" in a shawl even if you are a "Summer" and look great in a baby pink turtleneck or a powder-blue bathing suit.

Any combination of frothy lace, heavier yarn, and pastel colors should be avoided by those who seek not to look frumpy.

Bear in mind what you are knitting the shawl for. If its destiny is to be a garment to provide warmth, go for wool, acrylic or a blend, but go big, so the fabric will have motion. And so you will be warm as well.

If it is intended to be an accessory, go for cottons, silk, rayon, viscose, alpaca, etc. These yarns have more weight yard-for-yard than wool, and will provide a better drape in a smaller item. A wrist-to-wrist 16"-wide stole done in eyelash and chenille will usually have a wonderful drape from its own weight, even at the gauge suggested on the ball band.

If you want to make a larger item from a "heavy" yarn like cotton, silk, alpaca, etc. stay close to sweater gauge, or the garment will eventually have that highly undesirable and net-like "stretched-out" look from its own weight.

The direction of your stitching is important with heavier yarns as well. If you work back and forth on the width -- the narrow measurement -- of a rectangular stole in a heavier yarn, it will narrow and grow longer with its own weight, especially in garter stitch. Unless you are using a balanced textural pattern (like basket weave or moss stitch) it is usually better to knit a simple rectangular stole back and forth on the longer measurement.

Likewise, a garter-stitch triangular shawl in inelastic, heavier yarn, if started from the back center point, will "grow" from a triangle into an arrowhead shape over time. Yuck.

The more textural the yarn, the less need you have for any sort of textured stitch patern. The patern will get lost in the texture of the yarn and the resulting, thicker fabric will have a bulky appearance. Plain old garter stitch or stocking stitch (or reverse stocking stitch) generally looks best in novelty yarns. Make a swatch of each to decide which fabric most pleases your eye.

Also consider novelty edges, such as one of Nicki Epstein's terrific embellishments, or a narrow, added-on border of faux fur or eyelash yarn instead of yer basic ho-hum fringe. I have very strong feelings about fringe. The best fringe, in my opinion, should be done in a smooth yarn, with a lot of movement, and it should be sparse and relatively long. The denser and thicker fringe is, the more it looks like you're wearing a bathmat.

Next time, a long-promised post of the pattern for my Boomerang Shawl.



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