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Posts Tagged ‘het breien in betere banen’

Some time last year I wrote about my intentions of knitting a sweater, based on a picture from an 1950s Dutch knitting book called Het Breien in Betere Banen, or A Better Course in Knitting:

a better course in knitting - breien in betere banen - de vries-hamburger men's outfit

Although this book deals with knitting, it doesn’t contain a single pattern for garments. Nevertheless, it is scattered with inspirational outfits, one of which was this beautiful sweater, knitted in alternating textural stripes of brioche rib and honeycomb brioche.

As you can see, the original sweater is very much of its time, with its high waist and tight fit. Not a shape I would want to wear, but almost everything else about it I love: the texture of brioche stitch, the zips, the small pockets at the waist line, referred to in the book as “ticket pockets” and the collar. The only thing I wasn’t so keen on were the chest pockets, but they could easily be left out.

Brioche Sweater and grafitti

Me posing in a decidedly urban setting

For this sweater I spent a lot of time swatching and calculating, to arrive at the right fabric and shape. Apart from the hints and tips from the Dutch book, I also used a lot of ideas from Catherine Lowe’s book on couture knitting techniques The Ravell’d Sleeve. I thought a lot about the right selvedges to use to make seaming up easier, using bound edges to create a finished look, and using many needle sizes to make a good ribbing and transition from ribbing to main fabric.

brioche sweater sleeve

The sleeve cap has been fully shaped for a nicely set-in sleeve. You can also see the waste yarn at the ribbing that helped me make a very nice tubular cast-on

One of the things I’m particularly happy with, are the sleeves. Knitting is a very forgiving fabric as it is so stretchy, and many knitting patterns nowadays do away with a curved sleeve cap as things will kind of find their way after a few wears. It is also a nightmare for pattern writers to write up the instructions for a fully curved sleeve cap, as the decrease rate changes every few rows, so many knitting patterns don’t bother. But as I didn’t have to worry about that, I could do exactly as I pleased and I made fully curved sleeve caps (as an aside, some knitting pattern writers did use nicely shaped sleeve caps, such as James Norbury.)

brioche sweater cuff

Tubular cast-on and 1×1 ribbing and about five different needle sizes to keep the ribbing under control

I’m also really pleased with the ribbing on the sleeve cuffs and the welts. I decided to use Lowe’s preferred method of a tubular cast-on with waste yarn. I find that using the waste yarn method (you can still see it in the picture of the unseamed sleeve, as I only took it out after final assembly) it is much easier to be consistent with the cast-on. I used to favour the Italian cast-on, also sometimes known as the alternate cast-on, but that relies on attempting to be consistent with the tension whilst casting on. A bit of a challenge when casting on roughly 180 stitches! As a tubular cast-on looks very nice, but isn’t necessarily that resilient, Lowe advocates the use of a very small needle size for the casting on, and then gradually increasing the needle size as the ribbing is worked. To make the transition from ribbing to main fabric smoothly, the first inch or so of the main fabric is also knitted in a smaller needle size than the bulk of it.

brioche sweater collar

The collar of the sweater has bound edges for a neat finish

Another area where I used graduating needle sizes was the collar. The outside edge of the collar was knitted on a large needle size, and then I gradually moved to smaller needle sizes to give the collara curved shape. It’s barely noticable I used this trick, and that makes it extra satisfying. No decreases to distort the honeycomb brioche! Speaking of which, I found Nancy Marchant’s book on brioche knitting indispensable in chosing the right increase and decrease techniques. Brioche stitches are not like your regular knitting, as they are built up by slipping stitches whilst making a yarn-over at the same time, alternated with knitting together the slipped stitches with their buddy yarn-overs. This has all sorts of implications, which Nancy is much better at explaining than I am.

brioche sweater set-in sleeve

The set-in sleeve cap, with perfectly matched stripes

I also managed to perfectly match the stripes when I seamed the sleeve into the armscye. I wasn’t sure whether this would work out, as this area of pattern matching was elusive. I haven’t found any resource that explains how you can ensure that the shaping you come up with for sleeve cap and armscye will allow you to match stripes perfectly. All the tutorials I found were for sewing patterns, and they all start with: check that your sewing pattern is suitable for stripes, otherwise you will not be able to match them at the armscye seam. But surely somebody must have designed it to be so to start with?

brioche sweater in merino

The brioche sweater was knitted in merino, a surprising choice for me!

The author of the Dutch book, De Vries-Hamburger, explained how she feels you arrive at the best results if you think about the fabric you want to achieve and then find yarn to match rather than starting with the yarn and then hoping to find a suitable pattern to go with it, and I wanted to put that theory to the test. And I ended up with a surprising choice: merino! Im not usually a fan of merino. It’s often only good at two things: it’s very soft, and it takes colours well. I don’t find it performs very well as a hand-knitting yarn. It’s often superwash treated, which affects the handle, and it often starts pilling very quickly. The Blacker Swan merino 4-ply I chose, however, seems to be different from what I’ve experienced before and it is more lively, and a has nice handle as well as being soft. So far I don’t regret my choice!

A few days ago I met up with my dear friend and comrade in wool, Felicity “Felix” Ford, and we had a lot of fun taking these pictures, so I’ll part this blog post with some more gratuitous photographs of my sweater. I hope you’ll enjoy them as much I did taking them with her!

brioche sweater side view

The triumph of the set-in sleeve

brioche sweater collar with zip

The collar with its bound edges

brioche sweater ticket pocket

The ticket pocket

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When I visited the Fries Museum earlier this year, their textile conservator, Gieneke Arnolli, showed me an old Dutch knitting book that I just couldn’t get out of my head. I felt it would be an indispensable addition to my knitting library, but it took me a while to find a copy of this book.

a better course in knitting - breien in betere banen

A Better Course in Knitting – “Het Breien in Betere Banen” by L De Vries-Hamburger

Het Breien in Betere Banen, which I think translates best into A Better Course in Knitting was written by L De Vries-Hamburger and published in 1949 by DA Daamen’s Uitgeversmaatschappij n.v., ‘s-Gravenhage, The Netherlands (you may know ‘s-Gravenhage better as Den Haag.) So far I have not been able to learn much about De Vries-Hamburger. From the introduction I know she taught knitting after the Second World War, and she wrote this book as result of many requests by her students.

The introduction is an essay about her one-woman quest to shift knitting from the realm of domestic craft to that of applied arts, and an attempt at creating a new folk art movement. De Vries-Hamburger recoils at the thought of knitting patterns written out row by row, as this will lead to the mind-numbing copying of someone else’s creative thoughts. She makes this very clear in the opening paragraph:

What is the purpose of this book?

Is it necessary that another new item is added to the reams of existing ones and is the publication justified?

Those that speak thus expect a knitting book, preferably brimful with new patterns.

This book, although it deals with knitting, is not that book.

She feels that every girl and woman is capable of creating unique garments, and following knitting patterns to the letter can never be fully satisfactory. Handicrafts can be much more than that! This book aims to point out possibilities and make knitters more confident in their own abilities.

BreienInBetereBanenSidewaysKnit

left: blouse designed by the wearer and knitter, aged 16; right: both dresses designed and created by the wearer: no. 1 by a girl aged 9, no. 2 by a girl aged 11. De body of dress 1 is knitted in red and white cotton; the other in pale yellow, white, and rust-brown cotton. Skirts and sleeves made from cotton fabric

So, this book then doesn’t give you any knitting patterns, but plenty of hints and tips on how to approach the knitting of garments. De Vries-Hamburger is a fan of knitting from the top, as she feels it’s easier to try on works in progress on and ensure a good fit. When knitting from the top is not desirable for whatever reason, she advocates knitting the ribbing last. The knitting starts with the main part of the body or sleeve. These then get blocked and sewn up, and the ribbing is knitted in the round from the cast-on edge down. This way it’s easier to adjust length, or replace fraying cuffs and welts.

a better course in knitting - het breien in betere banen - de vries-hamburger

Creating tweed effects by using two or more colours in a “mistake rib” pattern

This book was written not long after the Second World War, and in one section where this becomes apparent is on how to create colourful fabrics without resorting to stranded colourwork. Yes, stranded colourwork is good way of using up odds and ends, but she points out that by playing around with mistake rib (cast on an ODD number of stitches, then K2, P2 to end (you’ll end with 1 knit or 1 purl); turn work, and again K2, P2 to end (again you’ll end with 1 knit or 1 purl) and using more than one colour can be even more economical. The purls on top of knits in different colours create pleasing tweed effects. By using double-pointed needles it is possible to knit the right side of the fabric more than once, by sliding it back to the other side of the needle once a row is knitted. This way it’s possible to knit odd numbered repeats. For instance in the little swatch above, in the top section I knitted two rows in white, and one in blue.

a better course in knitting - het breien in betere banen - de vries-hamburger

Creating dazzling effects with simple stitch patterns on top, and using short-rows for shaping fabrics

However, De Vries-Hamburger also likes to play with colour in a more traditional way and has lots of lovely examples of stranded colourwork. She even devotes a whole section on sideways knitting (knitting from side seam to side seam instead of knitting from top to bottom or vice versa,) and how a few simple stranded colourwork rows can look very sophisticated when used this way, such as the blouses shown in the second picture.

a better course in knitting - het breien in betere banen - de vries-hamburger

Short-row shaping used to great effect in this detail for a gored skirt

I feel that De Vries-Hamburger really understands knitting and the qualities of knitted fabric. She is very clear on why knitting is a unique way of creating fabric, as it is possible to shape it whilst you create it. Compare this to sewing, where one uses a piece of cloth, which needs to be cut to make the shaping. With this in mind, she believes that a knitter should start by asking: what kind of fabric do I need to make this item fit for purpose, and once this is determined, start looking what yarns and stitches will lead to the desired effect. This in contrast to what often happens: a knitter has some pretty yarn and a stitch dictionary, and then tries to find a garment  to which these can be applied.

a better course in knitting - het breien in betere banen - de vries-hamburger

Some of the inspirational images in “Het Breien in Betere Banen”

As has been made clear to the knitter and reader in the introduction, this book does not contain a single knitting pattern. However, it is full of inspirational pictures, which De Vries-Hamburger hopes will be a starting point on an exciting creative journey for the intrepid knitter.

Reading this book, which was written in 1949, I came across many prescient ideas that resonate with latter-day knitters who probably have never heard of De Vries-Hamburger. To name a few: Barbara Walker advocates knitting from the top in order to create well-fitting garments. The inimitable and opinionated Elizabeth Zimmermann also wanted to free knitters from the yoke of the knitting pattern and preferred to give knitters “recipes” in which they can plug in their own ideas. And even finding links to the 21st Century is not difficult: Amy Twigger-Holroyd‘s PhD research on home-made fashion, sustainability, and design is partly based on the believe in the inate creativity of knitters to design and adapt their own clothes – something she calls Folk Fashion.

So, why did I decide to use a herringbone tweed fabric as a backdrop for my pictures?

a better course in knitting - breien in betere banen - de vries-hamburger men's outfit

An inspiring outfit!

I was smitten by the only men’s garment in this book. It is knitted in alternating stripes of brioche rib, and honeycomb brioche (if you want to know more about brioche stitches, then look no further than Nancy Marchant; what she doesn’t know about brioche stitch is not worth knowing.) As you may have gathered, there is no pattern for this jumper, and I have done a lot of swatching to arrive at the right fabric. I also happen to have a length of herringbone tweed I purchased from Jamieson’s of Shetland during Shetland Wool Week last week.

Taking a leaf out of De Vries-Hamburger’s book so to speak, I started with thinking about the fabric I wanted to make for this jumper, and then started to look for an appropriate yarn. I ended up with a very surprising choice: Blacker Swan merino 4-ply. I’m usually not a fan of merino yarns. Yes, they’re soft, and yes, they take dye beautifully, but they seem to lack any character. I also have a notion (unsubstantiated at this point) that the merino fibres finding their way into hand-knitting yarns are often not the best quality that can be offered by merino sheep. I have more than once been disappointed in the amount of pilling that ensues after a few wears. On top of that merino is often treated to be superwash, which to my mind alters the handle of the yarn unfavourably. Blacker Swan seems to be different, and although this may be due to the fact it has some Shetland fibre mixed in, I’m more than willing to give merino a chance once more.

a better course in knitting - het breien in betere banen - brioche stitch swatch

A whole outfit in the making

I’m looking forward to cast on and start knitting, and use my long Christmas break to make a smashing pair of tweed trousers and keep you updated on my progress. And, of course, to let you know how I got on with my renewed interest in merino wool.

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