Discovering double knitting

Well, what a day I had last weekend! Saturday with friends, Sheffield and some stressy (but very inspiring and interesting) knitting!

And, of course, Sockmatician… For those not in the know, Sockmatician, AKA Nathan Taylor has a YouTube podcast, website and is an unusual entity; a male knitting designer and guru.

I’ve seen Nathan’s podcast and followed him on social media for a long while and so know quite a bit about his backstory, which he is always open about. If you haven’t come across him before you should be able to tell from this picture that his workshops are a lot of fun!

I admire him greatly – not only for his phenomenal knitting and designing skills, which I will talk more about in a minute, but because he strides on regardless, living the life that he wants to live. Which is a lesson for all of us. Too much of my life has been spent worrying what other people think and trying to ‘conform’ to the generalised notion of what is acceptable and average. Big mistake. Its only in my middle years that I’ve become a bit rebellious (I have to say not in a very dramatic way as this involves living a crafty life!) and now live  just on my terms.

Compared to the challenges Nathan faces, however, continuing to push myself to do and achieve new things in my craft and business life and being an independent but cuddly middle aged mum/girl boss is not really on the same level. Not only is he a man who knits, Nathan is gay and living with HIV. He looks and dresses the way he wants to, he and his husband were the first same sex couple to marry in the UK when it became legal and they had it televised for Channel 4 and he is a vocal and thoughtful advocate of LGBTQ+ rights and fights to end the stigma that can still be associated with being HIV+.

The acting side of his life means he lives in London and combines his theatrical work with knitting design and knits in public every day riding the tube. And on top of all that, he is an inspired knitting designer, producing designs that are intricate, original and unlike anything that I’ve seen.

Nathan is a big exponent of Double Knitting, the technique, not the type of yarn. I’d first heard about double knitting from Dan of the Bakery Bears Podcast, who learned the technique from Nathan and showed his project a while ago. But I didn’t know exactly what it was, so when the chance came up to go to one of the sockmatician classes in Sheffield, at the new Wool Monty show (June 15/16 2019) I took it.

The wonder that is double knitting

Double knitting is essentially a way of knitting two layers of knitted fabric at once. OK, I hear you say, that would be a good method for something like a simple scarf.

That’s what I thought anyway.. I didn’t realise that its a method of knitting that can be applied to almost any pattern. It is possible to double knit in stocking stitch, garter stitch, cables, lace, ribbing, in the round or straight, using colour work or just plain. 

I was amazed to find out that the shawl Nathan is wearing in the picture of me and him is double knitted. What????? I know!

This is another of his double knitting scarves and to see this in real life is a bit of a game changer. You can’t quite believe its been knitted without some sort of immensely complicated knitting machine.

The Sanquhar scarf by @sockmatician

The Sanquhar (pronounced ‘sanker’) scarf is a wide two colour wrap, very long with many different panels. It is stunning in monochrome but can be done in any two colours. Its also fully reversible and lies completely flat without ever needing to be blocked. The patterns came from traditional colour work mitten designs from Sanquhar, in Dumfries and Galloway. That was a coincidence because I’ve just been on holiday to that part of Scotland but had no idea about it being the source of such a rich knitting tradition.

All of the colour work designs in the scarf were transcribed by Nathan transcribed by hand in a museum as part of a collaboration. Nathan’s pattern for the Sanquhar scarf is on Ravelry and the pattern blurb contains more details 🙂 And a pic of him wearing it…

The Sockmatician YouTube channel also has a video preview of this pattern, called Il Burato, which Nathan released a couple of years ago. There are also others in his Ravelry store.

Il Burato by @sockmatician

Il Burato is another long wrap and is made with four colours. The colour work is to die for and, of course, learning how to do double knitting will take some time. But, as he says, once you have the basic technique, doing this is not more difficult than doing a much simpler design. And there are no floats. NONE!!!!

A Sockmatician double knitting class

I’ve attended quite a few craft classes over the years and most of them have been very good. Class tutors put a lot of effort and energy into them and you come away on a crafty high, inspired with new skills and ideas.

High points have been classes with Leonie Pujol of crafty TV fame, Lucy of Attic24 (I did her Bower Bird class years ago) and now, learning double knitting with Sockmatician.

The format of the class

What I really liked about this class is that most of it didn’t involve actually knitting! It was more an introduction to the possibilities of double knitting – the carrot to reach out for. 

He brought quite a few of his finished projects, which range from fairly simple in double knitting terms to that complicated and work-of-art shawl.

Nathan told us a lot about how he started with double knitting and how its pretty much changed his life. I think he is currently doing far more knitting related work than acting as he is travelling around the UK teaching and combining that with vending at yarn shows. He has his own range of yarn that incorporates some possum fibre. That may or may not please you but I did do a bit of reading and apparently possums are destroyed as pests, so reusing the fur (?) means that doesn’t go to waste. Not sure about this as possums live far far away but someone on here might know more.

Anyway, back to the class. A lot of it was talking and explaining, which seemed a bit strange at first. Most of the classes I’ve been too like to get you doing something with your hands within minutes. But the introduction was key to understanding what we could do with double knitting once we’d got the hang of it and when it came to doing the knitting part and having a go, it all made more sense.

He explained the technique very clearly, there was a 10 page printed handout with a video link to a tutorial on casting on and getting the edging right and Nathan walked around giving individual help as and when needed. 

So what is double knitting?

Basically, its knitting two layers at once. You knit with two colours and work them alternately in the row, building up two layers of stocking stitch with the two right sides facing outwards. 

As a technique it helps if you can knit and purl and maybe if you have done some colour work. However, its a bit like if you can knit and crochet and then try to do Tunisian crochet. What you know already helps, but its a totally new skill and it takes practice.

As a knitter who still struggles, although I am getting better, and a knitter who has tried colour work once and enjoyed it, I was worried. However, it was heartening to notice that the other ladies who were more experienced knitters than me, still struggled with getting going with double knitting! I felt less like I was knitting with two left hands!

The hardest thing is the yarn management and how to hold it. Once you crack that, I think you will really start to be able to make some amazing things.

This is the project that we were learning and none of use even got half way through it – its painfully slow to begin with but I think I was just getting the hang of it by the end of the class.

One of the problems I had is that my knitting tension goes haywire when I am trying out something new. In this case (and apparently its a common issue) my tension was way too loose. I also tried to be clever and use some of my own yarn that I wanted to test out for colour work. Will. I. Never. Learn!!!

Since the class I spent a bit of time on Sunday trying again. I chose two yarns that were identical this time (Stylecraft Bellissima) and cast in using a slightly smaller size of needle (3.5mm) and used my straight bamboo needles. I had another false start but then, the much awaited aha-moment happened and everything clicked.

The result is a bit of a wonky heart coaster that is certainly not perfect but this is my first double knitting project and I am so pleased to have managed it. I’m so pleased at finishing it that it might become a little wall decoration rather than getting squished by my pint mug of tea. And just to prove its double sided…

Pros and cons of double knitting

I thought it would be useful for you to know some of the advantages of double knitted fabric. They may be more, but these are the ones I can remember.

  • Double knitting is double thickness, so very warm and practically wind proof. The stitches are offset between the front and the back, so there are no holes, unless you make them using a lace pattern.
  • Double knitting is stocking stitch (stockinette) but it doesn’t curl. Not at all. You can make a scarf and it doesn’t need blocking. You can make a hat with no need for a ribbed brim.
  • Double knitting can be done in a colour work pattern, a lacework pattern, cables and textured stitches and anything you like.
  • You can increase and decrease while working double thickness work (which is why shawls are possible).
  • Double knitting colour work stretches. Frighteningly so. Nathan stretched that monochrome Sanquhar scarf to twice its width without any bad things happening apart from 10 women cringing. This is because its colour work but not stranded or intarsia, so there are no floats.
  • Double knitting is fully reversible. It is the same pattern on both sides, but the colours are reversed. So you can wear your scarf whichever way round you want.
  • You can work double knitting in the round, so you can do cowls and hats.

Of course, there are disadvantages to everything and these are the ones that I’ve identified with double knitting as a technique:

  • Its a new skill that needs to be learned and practiced. 
  • Many double knitting patterns involve purling. I don’t know what happens in the round, but all stocking stitch worked on two straight needles involves purling. Double knitting, however, means knitting and purling every alternate stitch not alternate rows… So its like working in one by one rib, permanently.
  • Until you get really good I think its going to be a slow method of knitting. I find knitting slow anyway compared to crochet, so this could be a problem. I think the colour work aspect would help hold your interest though.
  • Apart from Nathan, few designers seem to be producing patterns that use double knitting. 
  • The patterns could be very long and more expensive. However, I see that Nathan only charges just over £6 for his Sanquhar pattern though and that must have been months of work. I bought the Il Burato pattern for around £7 and that is 21 pages of explanation and charts and has several links to tutorial videos. He said the shawl pattern will be coming but it will be the length of a book…

What I got out of the class

It was a really good day out, very entertaining and fun and I really felt inspired and that I had glimpsed a world of yarn craft that I had never seen before.

Another slippery slope, maybe, but as I’ve been doing more knitting I realise that I am easily bored by it and need to have a challenge or a goal to move towards. I’ve tried making simple projects but maybe its time to go for something a bit more complex and really get going with colour work and, maybe even double knitting.

If you ever get the chance to book onto one of Nathan’s classes I would highly recommend it 🙂