Knit your own adventure: swatching, gauge and EPS


When Tricia Holman visited my Guild to give a talk and workshop I didn’t think much of it. I knew Tricia carries on a knitting tradition begun by her aunt Elizabeth Zimmermann (EZ). What I couldn’t have known is how much my knitting would change as a result. 

Tricia visited the Guild in February with piles of beautiful and creatively constructed garments and hats to discuss how her aunt’s approach to knitting influenced her own designs. 

EZ, known as the grandmother of American knitting, is famous for her newsletters, a mathematical approach to knitting called Elizabeth’s Percentage System (EPS) and the “Surprise Jacket” patterns. 

Tricia noted that EZ’s knitting was deeply influenced by European traditions and that she was an advocate of Continental-style knitting (picking instead of throwing the yarn). EZ did not like purling and opted for knitting in the round or garter stitch patterns like the surprise jackets that have become a favourite with knitters around the world. That’s something else niece and aunt share. 

“I don’t like purling or sewing up. There are some who like it. What is so special about the surprise jacket is it’s really knitted origami,” said Tricia as she demonstrated how a single piece of knitted fabric could be folded into the surprise jacket. The guild members tittered in delight. 

Swatching is not for dummies

If EZ wasn’t a fan of purling or sewing up she certainly was a fan of swatching and test knits. If you’ve seen her Knitting Workshop DVD there are some Sasha dolls on the set sporting little sweaters and hats. EZ herself is surrounded by balls of yarn and swatches. 

That’s because for EZ gauge is everything. That and figuring out how to knit smarter—bending the knit to her vision instead of the other way around. Again her niece Tricia has taken her aunt’s what-if attitude. Through swatching and testing she has her own EZ-inspired designs. 

Tricia had many sizes and variations of the surprise jacket on show—from “very large nephew” size to tiny ones modelled by teddy bears. They showed the jacket’s flexibility. Just change the number of stitches or the gauge to change the size. 

little bear jacket

At the workshop Tricia had us do a teddy bear-sized surprise jacket. I’ve knit a surprise jacket before and I still screwed it up. But if you’re only working on a mini version, then it doesn’t matter so much when you need to start over. Also, you can learn the technique before you jump in to start the real thing. 

Tricia’s other top tip was to make a swatch hat. Want to try out a new idea? Why not make a hat to see if it works. It’s a technique Tricia used for her own patterns including her Spiral Sweater.

Knitting for spinners

Tricia is a spinner and says, “I get lots of wool as a spinner and then you’re on your own with patterns. That’s where the Elizabeth Percentage System is great. I can’t answer how much wool you will need but if you’re a spinner you can always spin some more.”

The Percentage System is a calculation for sizing garments based on gauge and desired body circumference.  “EPS” consists of a simple mathematical formula to determine how many stitches to cast on for a sweater, based on chest circumference and the assumption that sleeves and body are usually proportionate no matter what yarn or gauge is used.

Tricia’s message to spinners who knit was, you don’t need to follow patterns slavishly or be put off by sewing up (or even purling!). With a little imagination and some simple math you can easily make yourself a sweater that fits. 

Choose your own knitting adventure 

Cuff with peerie flowers

Many of EZ’s patterns are based on EPS and are sort of a choose your adventure approach to knitting. She gives you a map. You do the rest. It will all work out fine–if you swatch.

Knitting without a pattern had been out of the question for me, mainly because of lack of confidence, due to a longstanding laziness about swatching. I rarely swatched. I now realise that was dumb–especially for a spinner who knits. 

After a couple of hours with Tricia I was raring to go. I busted out my EZ’s Knitting Workshop DVD, my copy of the Opinionated Knitter and some yarn that had been lingering in my stash way too long.

casting on the body

I cast on the body, did a little leaf fair isle pattern (more stash yarn!). Now I’ve done the body and a sleeve. Once I get another sleeve knitted then it will be time to dive into the yoke knitting. I love yoke sweaters and am excited for this step. Still thinking about what kind of pattern to use. 

In anticipation of my next EPS knit, I’m spinning up some yarn for a Gansey. Now that I know I can choose my own knitting adventure based on the gauge of the yarn I’ve made, well the possibilities are endless! Yay. 

How to make a White Christmas wreath

White Christmas Wreath

White Christmas Wreath

The holidays always sneak up on me despite the ample reminders from shops who start stocking their shelves with Christmas Fayre in September. My guild–The Mid-Essex Guild of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers–gave us two months’ warning (maybe more) about this Christmas ornament competition for the December meeting. Still I put the finishing touches on my entry–the White Christmas wreath–in the car before bringing it in to the hall.

The White Christmas wreath is made from materials that anyone who does sewing, knitting and spinning will probably have around the house–felt, buttons, a couple of beads, yarn, stuffing (wool or acrylic) and maybe a pipe cleaner or two if you’re feeling extravagant.

Like so many of my other projects I’d mapped out the what and how mentally. The first step was making some felt for the leaves and flowers. I used the wet felt method described in Complete Feltmaking by Gillian Harris. I used some white fleece I had to hand and some white iridescent angelica fiber. The felt I made was on the thin side and I did needle felt it in places to reinforce. Making the felt was the most time consuming part of the project.

felt--made from llanwenog fleece and angelina fiber.

felt–made from llanwenog fleece and angelina fiber.

The next step was to make a knitted tube that would act as the base. I used my Addi circular knitting machine and some white handspun yarn. Using the machine knitting the tube took about five minutes.

Making a ring on the Addi machine

Making a ring on the Addi machine

I then stuffed the tube with so neppy bits of wool I have in abundance–meaning the bits of wool left over from the combing/carding process. I sewed the ends together, et voila, a ring.

Flowers and embellishments came next.

adding flowers and leaves

adding flowers and leaves

As you can see from the photo I’ve opted for flowers and leaves which I cut freehand. I’ve sewed and glued on buttons and needle felted leaves and flowers into place. Lastly in a fit of inspiration I needle felted a dove to nestle above the poinsettia-shaped flower.

Oh, and I won the competition!

First trophy I've ever won for anything!

First trophy I’ve ever won for anything!

The Wool Week that was

Paycockes, Coggeshall

Paycockes, Coggeshall

You know you’ve gone a bit potty for fiber when you find yourself in a 16th century merchant’s house in Coggeshall, Essex knitting and talking about wool all day.

That’s how I spent last Friday at Paycockes‘, with fellow members of The Mid-Essex Guild of Weavers, Spinners & Dyers’ doing our bit  for Wool Week.

Paycockes is a National Trust property nearby me. It’s a classic Tudor-styled building with a gentle garden in the back sloping down toward the River Blackwater. The Guild has demonstrated there before, because Paycockes has come to represent the wealth created by the East Anglian cloth trade. Naturally wool was at the center of that trade. There are many other towns and villages in Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk associated with the wool trade–notably Lavenham, Colchester and Braintree.

These days the accepted wisdom is that wool, and therefore wool fabric, woollen garments, knitting yarn made of wool etc, is in a decline. Hence the Campaign for Wool’s Wool Week events. Basically, it’s a world-wide effort to promote wool as a natural and renewable fiber suitable for a wide range of uses from garments to home insulation. Sounds like a no-brainer, right?

The Mid-Essex Guild’s spin and knit-in was but a small part of the Wool Week activities, but it did give me the chance to chat to and answer questions from Paycockes’ visitors. I’m going to share some of the comments made and see what you think.

“You just don’t see wool anymore.” That was a comment from one woman who came in and spoke to us about knitting for quite awhile. She wondered aloud if wool’s disappearance wasn’t related to “disposable high street fashion and out throw away society”. It’s a theory I guess. I couldn’t get past her first comment about wool just not being around. Really? I thought. But then I’m probably not a good judge of these things.

Another theory about the decline of wool was: “We all have central heating now. We don’t need big woolly sweaters.” That makes sense to me. Paycockes’ visitors  also observed, wool might be quite itchy, and moths like to eat it and then there’s the washing or dry cleaning. I hadn’t really considered all these reasons not to wear wool. But then I wouldn’t.

Other people asked me about my circular knitting needles and made comments about the big ball of wool one of the guild members had with her. “My what I big ball of wool!” The other comment that really struck me was this: “You can wear handknits again.” While wool is deemed to be less popular now, knitting is experiencing a resurgence in the UK. I can testify to that. Ten years ago there were two or three places to buy yarn in London, for example, and the range of yarn was limited. Now there are more shops and there is more choice. It’s a big difference.

Still, it didn’t occur to me that there was a problem with handknitted garments. But of course there is or was. There is still this lingering idea that store-bought is better. I also took the statement: “You can wear handknits again.” to mean there’s no longer shame in wearing handknits. It’s OK now. It’s even fashionable. In some quarters, knitting is still considered an activity one does out of thriftiness not for pleasure. Any knitter knows that these days most yarn is not cheap. Larger handknit projects can cost you a fortune in materials. Sal reckons most of the garments in Vogue Knitting require about $200-$300 in yarn. Not cheap!

Today I drove up to Colchester. When you come off the main road and head into town there is a meadow on the left side of the road. Usually there is a herd of cows in there munching away. Today it was full of sheep. Wool on the hoof for all to see.


Paycockes garden

Paycockes garden


display of blue-faced Leicester wool

display of blue-faced Leicester wool