Guest post: On knitting winter activewear

Today I’m excited to announce a guest post by Andrea Rangel, the talented designer behind Andrea Rangel Knits. This woman taught me how to knit when we were in college together, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her without her knitting in tow.

I’ve asked her to talk a bit about the things to consider if you want to knit activewear. Since she’s moved to gorgeous Vancouver Island, she and her husband have taken up cycling as their primary mode of transportation, and she’s begun to come up with some cool designs inspired by bike riding.

Andrea’s patterns are not only lovely, they’re also extremely functional, durable, and fun to knit. That’s why if you’re a knitter who likes the outdoors, you should be excited that she’s planning to publish a book of outdoor knitwear in 2013 (I know I am).

(Giveaway is now closed.) As part of today’s guest post, we’ll also be doing a giveaway! Andrea has graciously donated a free pattern download to a random commenter, and I’m sweetening the pot with a pair of recycled inner tube earrings (Starry Night—Andrea’s favorite). Just leave a comment below between now and Friday December 7th to win.

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Knitting for activewear

Since I recently took up cycling as my primary mode of transportation, and since I’m always thinking about knitting, I’ve begun to think about cycling and knitting together. I’ve seriously contemplated the feasibility of knitting while cycling, and while I don’t think it’s impossible, I’ve decided that at my current level of skill I had better not try it. Which is a bit disappointing.

But, it does leave open the door of knitting FOR cycling, which is a long and unexplored path in my mind (though I have thought intensely about knitting for yoga.)

I have technical rain gear, but a heavy wool sweater keeps out the rain too. I wear a snugger cowl now though – this draping one got too wet.

When I start to think about knitting for a particular function, I usually start with fiber choice. It will probably be no surprise that I’m going to suggest knitting winter activewear with wool. Wool, after all, is almost the perfect fiber for keeping warm while trying to do exciting things out of doors in cold weather. Wool resists water, and when it does start to soak it up, it can get very wet before the wearer feels at all damp. It dries quickly and doesn’t smell too funky when wet (though you can get a sheep-y small that I find really delightful.) It also comes in an amazing variety of types so that you can find the perfect wool to suit almost any garment or accessory. You can even blend in some other fibers to get a bigger range of characteristics without losing the benefits that wool has to offer.

First I’d like to talk about wool for items that need to be durable. Anything that gets a lot of abrasion fits into this category—socks, gloves and leggings are examples. Yarn used for knitting these items should be plied, as single-ply yarn tends to pill and is not nearly as durable. It should be spun fairly tightly and perhaps be machine washable. Easy care is more important for socks and leggings than it is for gloves or mittens, but if you wear those mittens while playing in the snow or rain, a machine washable yarn won’t be as likely to felt during your snowball fight or from gripping wet handle bars with warm hands. Add a little bit of nylon to the mix and you’ve hot a hard-working, long-lasting material.

The yarn I’m talking about is, of course, sock yarn. You can get sock yarn in weights from fingering to DK, but what makes it sock yarn is the tightly-plied structure made with machine washable wool that is usually blended with nylon. And to top it off, you can get lots of different sock yarns from small independent dyers who make incredible and unique colors.

Here are a couple of examples of items made with sock yarn:

Lochside (click for pattern)

These little socks are made with Hazel Knits Artisan Sock, probably my very favorite sock yarn. I got the opportunity to work in the Hazel Knits dye studio while I was living in Seattle, and every new color had me desperate to design with it. Aside from being beautiful, this is a sturdy and soft yarn that’s a bit thicker than some other fingering weight sock yarns, which I like quite a lot. It’s amazing for color work and has lovely stitch definition.

As a little side-note, making socks with stranded color work adds a whole other layer of cushy warmth. They end up extra-thick and the stranded work creates even more pockets for warm air to get trapped and keep your toes toasty. If you haven’t tried color work, I encourage you to do so. Watching the pattern appear as you knit is almost as rewarding as wearing those socks on a frigid day!

Kalaloch (click for pattern)

These leggings are made with Blue Moon Fiber Arts Socks That Rock Heavyweight, which is a DK weight yarn. It’s heavy enough to keep your legs really toasty on a winter bike ride or hike, and is pretty fast to knit as well, but isn’t so thick that you’re going to get uncomfortable between the legs or when seated. Another benefit of this yarn is that it’s very resilient, meaning that can stretch and then bounce back to its original shape. This is really helpful in garments that you want to be very tight-fitting because it won’t stretch out with wear. Leggings like this are wonderful for wearing under skirts so you can have an extremely practical outfit while looking cute too! Even if they wind blows your skirt around, you’re not sharing anything immodest with the world.

Sock yarn is fantastic for lots of other things too – sweaters, hats, cowls – but it’s not your only option. If you’re very adventurous and like backpacking or bike camping, weight is a consideration when choosing your clothes. In that case, you might want to try a wool yarn that’s spun in a method called “woolen spun.” (It sounds redundant, but what can you do? It’s the English language.) This method jumbles up all the fibers while spinning them instead of combing them neatly, which creates lots of tiny air pockets that hold in warm air in the same way your down jacket does. Magical. Along with being exceptionally warm, the yarn created with this method of spinning is unbelievably light.

Shilshole (click for pattern)

A woolen spun yarn that I love is Brooklyn Tweed Shelter. Shilshole, shown above and worked in Shelter, is comfortable to wear and weighs very little even with the hood, pocket, and stranded color work. As well as being easy to carry, another benefit of light-weight yarn is that it maintains its shape without stretching because it doesn’t have heavy yarn weighing down on it. Though it’s a bit fragile while you’re knitting with it, Shelter creates a strong fabric that’s surprisingly good at keeping the elements at bay.

Books have been written about the different breeds of sheep and methods of spinning wool, but let’s just say here that if you know your yarn, you can get a stunning range of characteristics out of wool. If you don’t know your yarn, I recommend picking up my favorite book on the subject, Clara Parks’ The Knitter’s Book of Wool.

Here are a few quick tips to get you started knitting winter activewear:

  • For a light sweater, like a cycling or running jersey, choose a fingering weight yarn – any heavier and you’re likely to get hot too quickly. And make your armholes a little looser than usual. Tight armholes are not only uncomfortable and binding when you’re trying to have an adventure, they get sweaty fast, and even wool can be clammy if it’s completely soaked. Underarms also have a tendency to felt if they’re too snug, even when worked in machine washable wool. So give yourself an extra inch or so of armhole depth.
  • Keep your accessories fairly snug and avoid anything that hangs off your body like long scarves. Cowls can be worked at around the same circumference as a hat: big enough to get over your head, but not so loose that it can drape. A draping cowl is a little harder to comfortably zip into your jacket, and worse, it can collect rain water. (I learned this the hard way.) For arm and leg warmers, consider using encased elastic to help keep them up while you’re climbing, running, riding, or otherwise moving around a lot.
  • Knit some stranded color work socks and wear them in your boots or clogs. I say this because I adore my color work socks and am constantly wishing I had time to knit more of them.
  • If you want a cap that can fit under your helmet, choose a fingering weight wool and a pattern that isn’t too complicated. Cables are a wonderful thing, but can be too bulky for wearing under a helmet. My favorite cycling cap is a simple slip stitch pattern hat made with Brooklyn Tweed Loft (it’s the one I’m wearing in the top photo).

Having the right clothes and accessories, especially lovingly handmade ones is a beautiful encouragement to get outside during the dark months, a time when we need the activity the most. I’m so fascinated by this idea of hand knitted active wear that it’s what my next pattern book will be based on, so keep an eye out for it next year.

What hand knits do you wear while adventuring?

26 thoughts on “Guest post: On knitting winter activewear

  1. Awesome! Thanks for all the suggestions. Since I don’t knit, can you make any suggestions on crochet projects? I know knitting is preferably over crochet since knitting is less thick, so to speak (that’s not the right terminology, I know!). Thanks!

  2. This is great! I don’t knit but I know someone who does and we’re both active people :) I’ll send her a link to Andrea’s site too.

  3. I like the idea of using sock yarn for more than just socks. DPNs are kinda scary….too many ‘laddery type’ wholes end up in my work. I’m going to take up your suggestion for a tighter cowl to use while hiking. Thanks!

  4. I am all over those leggings! I’d make them a little longer, I think.

    Another great thing to knit for cycling is a set of ear covers. Ravelry has quite a few patterns. A friend of mine made me a set that she connected with a band she added that runs across the top of my head inside the helmet–a little extra warmth and with the wind blocked away from my ears it’s all I need on short rides around town so I don’t have to squish my hair with a full-on hat.

  5. This is a fantastic post. I’ve been thinking a lot about bicycle knits, but this is above and beyond what I’ve been dreaming about! I will look forward to Andrea’s book release with much anticipation. I’ve also been really excited about bicycle baby projects. I’m currently working on a baby track jacket that has a bicycle theme.

  6. Andrea didnʻt teach me how to knit, but she taught me how to not be afraid of my knitting, my (many) mistakes, and most importantly, how to fix them. Sheʻs right up there in the top of the list of my favorite designers, and Iʻm so thrilled to see how much sheʻs grown as a designer in the last few years. I canʻt wait to see what she comes up with to stay warm (or cool) while biking!

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