Pattern: 128-11 Top with pattern on round yoke in “Muskat” by DROPS Design
Yarn: Louet Euroflax Sport (100% linen), colorway Melon Mix
Needles: U.S. 4 Harmony wood Options interchangeable 60″ circulars (magic-loop style) & U.S. 3 nickel fixed Options 47″ circulars
While reading Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s book Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years — Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times, I became fascinated with linen. Barber reveals how difficult it actually is to extract fiber from flax and make it usable, and how we can tell that tomb paintings in Egypt depict linen thread being spun by noting the little wetting dish the fiber passes through on its way to the wheel.
Knitting with linen yarn is an equally fascinating and complex process, for which I received plenty of advice via my Ravelry research. The yarn is coarse on the fingers, so I soaked and air-dried the skeins before winding them into balls. Because of the twist that must be imparted to the yarn when spun, and the inelasticity of the fiber, stockinette stitch tends to bias, or lean; a square ends up as a parallelogram. I made a swatch to test a “half twined” technique that some said counteracts this tendency — wrapping every other row backwards so that the next row of knitting twisted the stitches to the right — and the results were good, so I forged ahead.
Given this experiment, and a fiber whose properties I had not yet experienced, I was nervous about the outcome of this top. No one on Ravelry had knit it in linen, although there were a few cotton versions (as the pattern specifies). Could I keep a consistent gauge? Would it grow uncontrollably upon washing, drying, or wearing? Would it even fit, and would I like the style? I perserved for months, making slow progress toward the lace section at the yoke when I could finally cease the labor-intensive effort of half-twined stockinette. When I got there, I raced toward the finish, but with trepidation in my heart. How would it emerge — as a garment with all the cooling, refreshing, and flattering properties I could dream, or as an unwearable poster child for failed theory?
I tried it on after binding off the neckline. To my relief and delight, it fit perfectly. But that wasn’t the end of the story. Linen is stiff and rough until washed; with the application of water, the abrasion of washing, and the heat of drying, it becomes soft yet crisp, a cloth that pampers the skin, catches the light, and drapes like silk. But washing and drying not only change the nature of the fabric but also its gauge. Wet, the plant fibers swell, stitches move and slide, length increases, width shrinks — or maybe vice-versa. I wasn’t brave enough to toss it in the wash, at least the first time; I hand-washed, rinsed, then packed it in a lingerie bag and put it in a drier on my usual medium setting.
It was late at night when I took it out an hour later. But I couldn’t wait. I tried it on and — magic. Softer, lighter, clingier, but with the same perfect fit. When I started this tee, everything about it was a gamble. I didn’t know how it would look on my torso, how the yarn would act, how all my alterations would turn out. What happened was way beyond my expectations. It’s not just a warm-weather top that taught me about linen. It’s an alchemical transformation of plant into yarn into cloth into a human-friendly shape, and I’m frankly stunned that my hands had anything to do with it.