My Silk Saga: Knitting a Lace Shawl with Pure Reeled Silk

Hand Knits by Peg's Knitting Arnoldussen
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Finished shawl with shawl pinFinished shawl from back

22 October 2009: A couple years ago I was on a lace knitting roll and decided to treat myself to pure reeled mulberry silk. This is the Rolls-Royce of silk and maybe of yarn as well. I did a lot of online shopping in my mighty effort to find the perfect silk at the perfect price. When I found it I was so excited to begin my project.

I had a perfect project planned: a triangular shawl that would be a combination of gorgeous motifs and complex lace. What a wondrous showpiece item this would be!

I laugh now when I think of it. Knitting with silk proved to be a most humbling experience. Oh, I've knitted with blends and had no problems. But pure silk is the most slippery stuff imaginable. Not only would it not stay on the needles, but every time it slipped off, multitudes of stitches would instantly slide apart through many rows back. Working with complex lace, it was impossible for me to figure out how to pick them all back up so as to correctly maintain the lace pattern. I ended up giving up entirely.

So here we are a few years later. I've not knitted in all that time, mostly because I've got lots of other projects to play with in other realms. I've had time to think about this lace thing -- lots of time. So, here's where it's at:

I'm using wooden needles, beeswax to rub on the silk, and a much simpler pattern -- my scarf / pattern. I'll make it shawl size, though. Hopefully these adjustments will render the project doable.

Beginning of silk lace project

Today I discovered that Brittany no longer makes walnut Victorian knitting needles. I only own one pair, size 6. Now I wish I had more. Not sure whether I'll work in size 6 or use my size 3s. The 3s are Clover and they might be bamboo. It's been years since I bought them and have no recollection. They have a smoother feel than the Brittanys, which might not be an advantage when working with silk.

By the way, reeled silk is not the thing to use if killing moth pupae is a troubling concept. Then peace silk is the stuff for you. It is spun rather than reeled. Reeled silk is made from the unbroken silk thread that the caterpillar makes, which is one continuous filament. It must be harvested before the adult moth ecloses from the cocoon, and the cocoon must be boiled to dissolve the adhesive that holds it together, thus killing the pupa within.

I don't have a problem with the killing of moth pupae, the reason being that in the wild and to sustain a balance in the population of moths, so many creatures prey on caterpillars that few ever become moths. This also becomes a truth in the sericulture industry. So very many eggs are laid that the numbers would be overwhelming if these bugs were not killed off somewhere in the process. There aren't enough mulberry trees on the face of the planet to sustain them all. Even if peace silk is produced somewhere in the process, some of the offspring of the resulting moths would have to be destroyed at some point, for obvious reasons. So, why not do the most practical thing: kill them at a point in the process where some benefit comes from it? The benefit in this case is reeled silk. There is no fabric like it!

I raise moths (giant silkworms), and I like my bugs. I don't kill them. But I am a realist. If I were to turn my indigenous caterpillars loose, probably none would survive, as average survival in the wild is around 1 in 100! The gypsy moth problem exists due to introduction of a non indigenous species into an environment where it has no predators. Predation checks caterpillar populations, thus protecting trees and plants from defoliation.

Further, I believe in the God of the Bible because He has shown me that He is real and He loves me. Silk is a gift from Him for mankind to enjoy. When Adam and Eve sinned, it was the Lord Himself who provided them with clothing. They tried leaves and that didn't work too well. The Lord then made them leather garments. Think about it. Where does leather come from? Leather is a gift, silk is a gift. God gives good things, and He Himself instituted the use and killing of animals to benefit mankind. There are restrictions. He did not institute cruelty (acts done with sadistic intent); He did not institute wasteful, wanton destruction.

So, I've begun knitting my lace project on the size 6 Brittanys and coating the silk with beeswax. So far, so good. The stitches do not seem to be the least bit inclined to slide off the needles. No doubt a time will come when I'll drop one. Hopefully the beeswax will hold it in place long enough for me to perform a rescue. We'll see.

Ripped and switched to size 3s

23 October 2009: After knitting several rows on my #6s, yours truly decided the work was too loose, so ripped it out and started over on the 3s. I've concluded it definitely looks better this way, so 3s it is, I think. It's an experiment, so I reserve the right to change any of the equipment as many times as need be.

Recently I stayed at a B&B that also happened to be a farm. Being a life long city slicker, I loved it there. I was talking with the couple who own the farm, knitting came up, and the woman told me that she found knitting frustrating because of all the counting. I'm not always socially astute -- more like cluelessly spontaneous -- and I blurted out: I don't count! I quickly clarified by explaining that I count rows to match backs to fronts and produce identical sleeves, but I don't count while knitting. She just looked at me incredulously, and I wondered what kind of nut-case she thought I was and why. Maybe I just totally misunderstood what she meant. But anyway, I don't count, and I always taught my students not to count. What fun is knitting if it becomes tediously masochistic to perform? Read your work -- and I'm not talking about the pattern. Look carefully at your knitting and it will tell you where and when to put the next yarn over, left or right slant decrease, increase, seed, bauble, stranded color, etc. There's no need to count rows. I don't even own one of those row counters and never have. Useless item! Annoying if you totally rely on it and then forget to switch it.

Patterns used to present row-by-row text, and with this method, until the pattern was established, it was somewhat necessary to keep track of rows for a while, especially if the knitter was inexperienced. However, with the charted method, you see the picture of the pattern from the start, which totally eliminates row counting. Oh relief!

As I work, I can feel the slight stickiness of the beeswax on the yarn. Beeswax has a very low melting point, so the warmth of my hands softens it as I knit. Maybe one could also use paraffin -- one of those little plastic cases of the stuff sold at fabric stores. The case is designed for sliding thread through a notch across the paraffin. I have one around somewhere, but I could not find it. Had no trouble at all finding my stash of beeswax.

I bought the beeswax from a keeper for the purpose of preserving my coiled baskets. It does a wonderful job, though the process is scary in the beginning. To apply, one must slop melted wax all over the basket, then bake it in an oven set at its lowest possible temperature. The basket goes in looking like it's been ruined, and comes out looking perfectly normal, which elicits a huge sigh of relief from its maker.

Starting the border

Regarding reading work, notice that only the edge yarn-overs add actual increases to the count -- one per row. All other yarn-overs combine with a decrease that neutralizes them. When reading one's knitting, it's important to perceive this.

I should probably mention, when I first got this yarn it was two hanks. No sane knitter knits from hanks, so I promptly put a hank on my swift and tried winding with my yarn winder. Ha! Way too slippery!! I ended up balling it by hand, and it was not smooth going. The yarn on the swift kept tangling, and believe it or not, silk is real good at sliding off of the ball as one winds. This is why I'm working from a plastic bag. Maybe no sane knitter works with pure silk; I'm wondering.

10 Dec. 09 I haven't knitted yet today, but I have been knitting, and my work is progressing nicely. The silk is behaving. I suppose it helps that the lace design is familiar. I've made a couple of minor errors, but they were easily fixed by running. I did have to rip a couple rows, once, because an edge yarn-over wasn't quite right (those can't be fixed by running). I could have left it, but I have a strong streak of perfectionism in me, sometimes.

One little thing a knitting project does for me is it helps get me through Packers games, provided they aren't playing too horribly. I cannot sit through a football game unless I have a project to keep my fingers busy with. I like Aaron Rodgers, so far. He doesn't fill his personal life with perverse or questionable activities. His humor during interviews is really cute. He plays guitar (so do I). He honors the Lord with his words. My daughter says she wants to marry him. She's only seventeen, so he'll have to wait, which he probably won't. It's not like they've ever met. Maybe she'll model this project when it's finished. I sure won't! That could be a long time from now, though. Aaron will probably be married by then. And besides, why would he look at this knitting journal, anyway?

By the way, I eventually retired the beeswax. The bamboo needles provide sufficient friction to keep the stitches on them, so the back-up run prevention seemed unnecessary.

Starting the border

2 January 2010: I started the first border today. The live edge of the inner triangle has been put onto the longest circular needle I own, not to knit with, but to function as an extra long holder. This piece is no-stop multi-directional knitting, so I cast some stitches on and commenced with the border, which catches the yarn-overs along a side.

Working with the silk continues to pose certain difficulties that don't arise with wool, all having to do with the slipperiness of the thread. However, I'm still making good progress.

5 January 2010: One of my friends was mildly grossed out by a Facebook reference of mine to "caterpillar spit," so I explained myself, and decided I might as well post the explanation here as well. Caterpillars spit a liquid enzyme from modified salivary glands. It is spat through a tube in their mouths, and hardens when it contacts air. The continuous thread is three-sided, like a prism, and refracts light, which is what makes silk iridescent. Being a fiber artist, I get real excited about lustrous caterpillar spit. My shawl looks and feels wonderful, and all the credit goes to little bugs and the God Who designed them.

Border progress - side two

8 January 2010: I've completed the border on one side of the shawl, worked around the point, and am progressing up the second side. The border on the third side will be different, as the third side is the edge that drapes over the shoulders. Things are going smoothly -- no disasters to report.

Working final border across top

10 January 2010: Having finished the continuous two-side border, I'm now working the final border, which is worked across the top, and living dangerously: working silk with an INOX Express circular needle. This needle is as slippery as the silk!

Clicking on these small photos will pull up larger views.

A problem I'm encountering with silk, once again due to its slipperiness, is that any little catch produces a large pull, instantly. I'm hoping the blocking process solves this. Things that look like errors are nothing but pulls.

Unblocked but finished

13 January 2010: I finished this thing today, around 2:00 a.m., following a disaster in which a stitch escaped my slippery INOX needle and ran way back. Rescuing my work resulted in some very tense moments. Following that disaster, I was determined to get this thing finished and off of knitting needles forever, end tied off most securely.

At this point, and after several hours of recovery sleep, the shawl is unblocked and ragged looking. Blocking should solve that, plus I have ends to tuck. Getting a photo of the entire shawl required a fish-eye lens. Thankfully, I have one. There are advantages to owning obsolete electronics, one being that accessories are cheap on Ebay.

Junction of all three parts of shawl

The corner shot showcases all three parts of the shawl: the inner triangle, the wide border, and the narrow border. This shawl has no seams or picked up edges. Rather, the wide border is incorporated into yarn-overs placed on the outer edges of the inner triangle, and the narrow border is connected to the live stitches of the working edge of the inner triangle, thus producing a continuous construction.

Blocking the shawl

I have a spare bedroom, which doubles as my office/workroom. When my three semi-fledglings aren't home (most of the time), the bed doubles as a great blocking surface. So, here's the blocked shawl, barely seen on white background, drying into proper shape. Maybe "Princess" will be agreeable about modeling it later.

By the way, the fledglings don't all sleep in the bed at the same time. Mostly, they aren't all here at the same time.

Blocked dimensions: 65 X 37 inches.

Knitted Silk Lace Shawl

14 January 2010: Blocking is completed. Daughter wasn't feeling too cooperative about modeling it, so I just hung it for a photo shoot. Those big spaces in the open work are not errors, but pulls. I can't seem to correct to the original tension.

Journalized (blogged) collection of design projects:


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