Project planning – the Nahanni River (P201901)

This is the first in a series of podcasts on how I knit my Nahanni River vest project. In this podcast I explain how Iread the pattern to find out the yarn that I’ll need, any tools that I need and any techniques that I will need to learn to knit the pattern. I also talk about how I choose the size I want to make for the finished product, and how I do a gauge swatch for a project that will be knit in the round.

This is a video. There is also an audio only version:

Teabreak Knitter logo
Nahanni River 1. Project planning – the Nahanni River (P201901)

This my first podcast (more strictly a vlog). In it, I explain how I prepared to knit the Nahanni River Fair Isle pattern (designed by Betts Lampers and published by Simply Shetland). I look at how I read the pattern to find out about the yarn, tools and techniques that I would need to use, how I decided on the size I wanted to knit, and how I created a gauge swatch to check my decisions.

You will have to wait for later podcasts to see how I got on with the project and whether the approach I planned in this podcast works in practice!

The video version of the podcast is pubished on my YouTube channel. The sound channel from this is available as an audio podcast.

Links to items mentioned in the podcast


The headings in this transcript link to the point in the podcast where that topic starts. This transcript has been edited to correct errors and to clarify phrasing.


Hello, I’m Steve Foreman, known as TeabreakKnitter on social media.

This is my first podcast, and I thought that I would like to show you my thought process as I go about preparing and knitting a project. In this first podcast I am going through the planning stages.

The project I want to talk about is the Nahanni River vest. I purchased this [as a kit] at the Edinburgh Yarn Festival 2019. It is a Fair Isle project, and I bought it as a kit because I liked the colour scheme.

What I want to talk about in this podcast is how I read the pattern to find out the yarn that I’ll need, any tools that I need and any techniques that I will need to learn to knit the pattern. I also want to talk about how I choose the size I want to make for the finished product, and how I will do a gauge swatch.

Choosing the yarn

So, I have chosen the pattern and now need to read it to find out what I need to know.
The first thing to find out about is the yarn. One easy way to choose the yarn is to buy the pattern in a kit with all the yarn you need for it. Job done. Or, almost job done.

Let’s say that I’ve chosen the pattern and cannot get hold of the recommended yarn,
or I don’t like the colours in the recommended yarn, and I’d like to use a different set of colours. What do I need to know about the yarn to make a substitution?

The first thing is the type of yarn. In the UK we talk of 4-ply, DK, aran. This pattern used what is known as a 4-ply yarn (although I think the yarn is only made from 2 plies). It is the UK 4-ply weight (US fingering). On the ball band it gives us the gauge that the manufacturers think it will knit up to using the recommended needle. This information is also held in the Ravelry database, so it easy to look up other yarns that knit to the same gauge. Another thing that is important because I am knitting a Fair Isle project is that I want a yarn with good stitch definition. There is no point spending a large amount of time creating all those detailed patterns if what you end up with is all the colours merging into one, not contrasting, or being hidden behind a huge fuzz of wool. You want a wool that is going to show up your patterns well, which means using a wool with reasonably good stitch definition.

Skipping ahead, this pattern uses calls for you to “steek”. Steeking puts fear into the hearts of a large number of people because you are cutting into all that lovely fabric that you have just made. It is not as scary as it sounds, and when we come to a later podcast I’ll show you what I do when I’m steeking, but that’s looking several podcasts ahead from now.

But for now, what you need to know for your wool is that you want it to be slightly “sticky”, so, not absolutely smooth and slither everywhere, but that holds together a bit so that when you knit a few stitches and take them off the needle they still stay there and it takes a bit of pulling to pull them apart. When it is washed and worn, that means that the wool tends to bind together quite well over time. This stops the steek pulling apart. You don’t want wool that felts so easily that as soon as you look at it you get felt,
but you do need wool that clings a bit to itself, just to give that bit of encouragement to the steeks to stay put until the fabric has been worn a bit.

So, those are some qualitative aspects as well as the quantitiative aspects like the type of wool and the gauge it knits to. You also need to know how much weight there is in a ball of wool of your alternative (the recommended Spindrift comes in 25g balls) and how much length there is in a ball. This one is 105m, your substitute could be something different. But if you are looking to substitute with a wool and you find
that a 25g ball has a substantially different from 105 metres on it, then you want to start being a little worried that it is not going to knit up in the same way as the recommended yarn. If you get more length, then that wool is either going to be a lot thinner, or a lot more “open weave” or lofty than the Spindrift. The finished garment won’t have the same sort of drape, it won’t have the same sort of characteristics as this wool.

However, I’ve got it easy. I’m knitting with the recommended wool bought in a kit, so I should have enough wool, and it should knit up nicely.

Choosing your tools

The next thing I am going to look for in the pattern is what tools I need. Have I got the right needles? In this case, yes. But this particular pattern asks for me to use two circular needles of different length with 2.75 mm tips, and two circular needles of different lengths with 3.25 mm tips.

That’s not a problem, but the reason it asks for two different lengths is because as you knit you will change the size as you go up the body and do the steek, you will get fewer and fewer stitches per row [round] when you come to the armholes, and keeping the same length cable would mean that those stitches would be really stretched out. So, in the pattern it suggests that you change to a shorter cable so that those stitches still fit nicely around the cable.

I plan to keep using an 80 cm cable for this because I use the magic loop techniques (magic loop, travelling loop), which means I can knit as small a number of stitches on the needle as I like and still be able to continue with that same needle. If you find that you have problems with laddering when you do that, you might well want to change to a shorter needle. So, I’m quite happy to use two circular needles, one with 2.75 mm tips and the other with 3.25 mm tips. The larger one is an interchangeable, so if I do need a shorter cable changing is easy.

The other thing you find when you read through the pattern is that at some stage I am going to do a three needle bind-off. For a 3 needle bind off, I will need 3 tips. I need to make sure that I have another 3.25 mm tip available for doing that. An alternative is to make sure that I have some smaller tips that I can transfer the work onto, and use one of the 3.25 mm tips for doing that bind-off. But I need three needles of similar size for that bind-off. I just need to make sure that I have those extra tips available when I need them.

The pattern also calls for stitch holders (I have plenty of those).

And it calls for a coil-free safety pin to hold one stitch. Well, the stitch MARKERS I use are the ones that look like tiny little padlocks, so holding a single stitch on one of those is going to be really easy. I don’t have one of those on the desk in front of me, but in later podcasts when I am showing you my knitting you’ll see dozens of those stitch MARKERS lying around the various bits of knitting that I have. Of course, if you haven’t got one of those stitch MARKERS (I’m looking down at my desk) – there’s always a good old paperclip that you can pull out and use to hold a stitch.

Identifying the techniques

The last thing I am going to look at in the pattern are the techniques. Which techniques do I need to learn?

Let’s start in the very beginning with the cast-on. This pattern calls for the German twisted cast-on. I needed to do an internet search to find out what that is and I found that it is also called the Old Norwegian cast-on and the Twisted Knit Half-hitch cast-on.

I’ve done some research to find out how that is done, and looked it up in the “bible”
the Principles of Knitting by June Hiatt. This is a really good book. It’s a little bit … heavy … but in doing the decades of research for that book the author found that the same knitting techniques were called by different names around the world. That should be no surprise, as I’ve already told you different names for the same cast-on. She used a naming technique that tries to be independent of those old traditions and describe what you are doing – hence the twisted knit half-hitch cast-on. On my website I am trying to use that independent description to try to remove the associations with different knitting traditions that could be confusing.

A bit like the English/Continental way of describing how you hold the yarn when you are knitting. It’s not particularly English, and it’s certainly not continental. Some people in contenental Europe use what is called the English technique if that is how they were taught in their community, and in England people use the continental method
if that is how their commnity was taught. A lot of these names are meaningless in themselves, so in writing the reference book, the author tried to come up with a terminology that was fairly straightforward. Another example of terminology that can cause confusion when I read a pattern is when a pattern refers to the “right” side. Is that the side that is pretty and looks nice when you have finished your knitting, so in stockinette the nice smooth side, not the ridged side? Or is it the right-hand side of the finished product? And some times, patterns can be confusing. The author decided to use the terms “outside” and “inside” to describe the different sides, the different faces, of the knitting. But that’s a bit of an aside.

You will find on my website that I am trying to use the terminology in this book, where I can, but I do slip into using the terminology I have learned over the past few years as I’ve been learning knitting through the internet.

The other technique, that I’ve used before, but many people are coming to new, is stranded, or Fair Isle, knitting. Fair Isle is a particular type of stranded knitting. This is where you are knitting with more than one colour in one row, and you alternate so many stitches of one colour with so many of another and it goes right the way round. So you are using the colours all the way round. In Fair Isle it is only ever two colours in a row.
Other types of stranded knitting can use more than two colours. The big advantage of Fair Isle knitting is that if you are comfortable in knitting in both the English and the continental methods, with the yarn held in the right hand and also in left hand, then Fair Isle can be knit with one yarn in one hand and the other in the other. Some people hold both yarns in the right hand, others both in the left. Some will hold one yarn with the other lying on the table in front of them and when they change colour they swap over the yarns. It doesn’t matter so long as you get the fabric that you like. You can use any technique you like. I’ve used Fair Isle before, so it is not a technique that I need to learn.

The other technique, that is even more frightening to many people than Fair Isle,
is “steeking”. Steeking is where you have your fabric and you just knit round and round and round. So for a sweater you’d knit round and round and round, past the armholes and up to the top. And you make the armholes by cutting down that fabric. In a later podcast I’ll be taking about the steeks for this particular project, and that includes how you stop those cuts fraying back. But if you are using a yarn like a traditional shetland yarn, good Shetland wool, those steeks don’t need an awful lot of help to stop them fraying. They do not fray. The yarn holds itself together so well that you make those cuts and the fabric stays as it is.

All these techniques are referred to by my website and are linked from the show notes for the podcast.

Choosing the size

I have gone through the pattern, seen the yarn, the tools and the techiques. The next thing to choose is which size of the pattern I want to make.

I’m tall, and like my jumpers and vests to be longer than the average might be – otherwise I get a gap in the middle that can get cold in winter! I also need to be careful to make them wide enough, we all do, but for Fair Isle it is particularly important because there is not a lot of stretch in Fair Isle fabric, so you have to knit to the ease you want. It needs to be big enough to fit with enough space, and in my case I like to put a shirt on underneath without it being too tight.

The easiest way to do this is to find out what ease you really want, and to choose the final measurement you are aiming for, is to use a jumper (or other type of garment you are knitting) that you are really happy with the fit of. I measure that item and say that is the finished size I want to aim for in the garment I am about to knit. In this case, several years ago I knit a Fair Isle jumper, called Raga also sold by Jamieson’s of Shetland coincidentally, and that one fits, but a bit too snugly for me, particularly now that I have put on a bit more weight around my tummy.

So, this one I want to be probably 43 inch chest, to campare with the pattern that gives 42 inch or 45 inch chest. 43 inches is about 110 cm. As I said, the pattern gives me 42 or 45. I know I don’t want this to be tight, so I’ll make the 45 inch chest. Thats going to be about 115-116cm when finished.

The pattern tells me that if I knit a 45 inch chest, I’ll get a 24.25 inch length. That’s about 1.5 – 2 inches, say 4-5 cm, shorter than I would like ideally. So I’ll try to aim for a finished size that is a bit longer than that. To get the extra length isn’t just a case
of doing a few extra rows of stickinette, because you have a Fair Isle pattern. I don’t want to put the extra length in the ribbing at the bottom, because then the ribbing will become too prominent.

If you look, those extra 5 cm or so are going to be one pattern repeat of the major [motif] below where you start knitting in the design. The design calls for you to start at a particular point in the chart. If I started off with the motif below that then I would get about the 2 inches. But all that is dependent on what I’m going to talk about next, and that is the gauge.

Making a gauge swatch

The designer has designed the pattern using their own knitting style and standards, they have had kntting testers try out the pattern to make sure that it is right, and publishers can also have their “little thing” in the gaugethey may have standard gauges, that they think an average person would knit in that wool. The pattern in a guide line. The gauge is what the designer got, or the test knitters got, or the publishing house thinks you should be able to get. You need to test what you do against that.

If you are knitting a scarf, even a cowl, it doesn’t matter. But if you are knitting a sweater or a non-stretchy hat, or anything you are going to wear, or gloves, then it does matter what the gauge is. Because you’ll either find that you have something that is far too big, and falls over you, a hat that is always falling over your eyes, or too small like a sweater you cannot get over your head. The gauge is important, so we need to do a gauge swatch.

I’ve put some references on how to do a gauge swatch on my website, but I’ll put the link below on the screen as I’m talking.

The gauge swatch has to be big enogh to make a judgement. Everyone talks about a 4 inch (10 cm) gauge. That’s what ball bands talk about. That’s not quite big enough to do what you want. If you are dealing with a pattern, like this Fair Isle pattern, there’s a rule of thumb that says, across a row you want to have two pattern repeats. So that the variations is size as you knit groups of one colour togetherin a small number of stitches and then another average out; it is particularly important with cables that pull together very differently from the stocking stitch or garter stitch around them.

In this one [pattern], the pattern itself recommends that you use the pattern (motif) in the chart. This is good, because it means that the gauge you get, you can compare directly with the gauge in the pattern to see how things are going to work out.

The other thing is that this pattern is knit in the round. That is, you are on a circular needle and you keep going round and round and round. This means that you area always knitting stocking stitch, and your stocking stitch is made only of knit stitches – which is great! Most people refer just doing knit stitches over purl stitches. Most people find that their gauge in knit stitches is different from their gauge in purl stitches.

Why does this matter?

If I was to do a gauge swatch knitting flat and knitting two pattern repeats to the gauge here in the pattern, that would be a 15 cm swatch, which is what we want to aim for (that’s 6 inches). So its the 4 inches that you are going to measure the gauge over,
plus a couple of inches (2.5 cm either side), to avoid all those little stretchinesses and unevenesses around the very edge of the knitting that would upset your measurement.

We are going to try [for the swatch] to mimic what we are doing when we knit in the round. This means I can’t knit in one direction and purl in the other to do it flat, because the gauge would be different from when I am just doing knit stitches. There’s a link below to how you can do this. Effectively, what you do is knit one row, 15 cm, and instead of turning to purl, you slide all your stitches back along the needle to start again
but the wool is at the wrong end. You loop the wool loosely across the back, and you knit the next row. Slip it back, loop the wool round loosely, and knit again. You end up with nice even knitting on the front, and a right mess of strands of wool at the back.

When you have knit your gauge swatch, you can then bind it off loosely. All the strands at the back you cut in the middle and tie them off loosely on the edge to stop them coming totally undone.

Then you can handle that gauge swatch. The first thing you want to do is to measure the gauge as it has come off the needles. You take a 4 inch (10 cm) area – count how many stitches there are as you go across in a row, and how many rows as you go up 10cm. That is your “off the needles” gauge, and you need to make a note of that because that is the gauge that you will see as you are actually knitting. So if, as you are knitting and you relax into your knitting, and your fingers take over from your brain in controlling how the knitting is going to go, if your gauge changes you’ll be able to see how it has changed against the gauge swatch.

But that is the first part of the story, and that’s the bit of the gauge swatch that you need as you are going through to make sure your project is actually working out as you planned it. The second stage you have to go through is whether your gauge swatch matches the gauge in the pattern. To do that, you need to do a bit of processing (a posh term!).

Soak it [the gauge swatch] in water, perhaps with a little bit of wool-friendly detergent in there (ie soap) for at least 20 minutes, 2 hours might be better. Then you bring it out and squeeze it dry to get most of the water out – don’t twist it, don’t stretch it – and I then roll it up in a towel and wring the towel, so I’m not stretching the wool, but I’m pushing the water out as much as I can, because I don’t want it to be sitting around in the air too long wet, particularly if it is cold weather when that water is going to take a long time to evaporate. When I have done that I take it out of the towel, spread it out on a blocking pad which you could pay a lot of money for, or you buy children’s play tiles that are a lot cheaper, even if you buy them in local shops they are a lot cheaper than kniting blocking tiles. They do the same job. Lay it [the swatch] out on the tile, pin it loosely at the size it wants to be, let it dry and see what you get. That will give you the finished gauge. That’s the gauge you will actually get fo the finished garment after it has been washed. That, of course, is what you are interested in, becasue that is what you are going to wear. Again, count the number of stitches and rows across the 10 cm square. Compare that with what is in the pattern. If it is the same, it’s good.
If it is different, you could do a bit of arithmetic to find out whether the garment is going to be bigger or smaller, and how much bigger or smaller and is that what you would like to have.

Remember, in my case I could not get the exact size from the pattern, so it might be that my gauge makes it worse and I might need to change the size I was going to make, or it makes it better, or I might decide that it is knitting up too tight and I’m going to use bigger needles. Then I would swatch again with a bigger needle size. Or it it is already too loose, or I don’t like the fabric, it’s a too floppy fabric, not dense enough, in which case you need to try swatching again with a smaller needle.

That’s the other thing, it’s not just the size, though that’s important, but you also want to know whether the fabric feels right. Whether it is soft enough, whether it is too airy, whether it is too tight. The gauge swatch will tell you that as well. When you have done the gauge swatch you will have this information about how the fabric feels, about the stitch gauge, the row gauge. You can finalize your choice of needles and which size of the pattern you want to make.

I’ll now cut to a bit of video showing the start of the gauge swatch and some preliminary conclusions that I am drawing as I go through that. When I come back from that, I’ll talk about what I am going to do in the next podcast.

Starting my gauge swatch

I’m 4 rows into the gauge swatch for the Nahanni River vest.

First I’d like to explain to you what all the various bits of yarn are. The very first bit is Spindrift yarn of the same type but different colours from the ones I’ll be using in the main vest. On the right, this is the tail of the cast-on yarn. This is the tail of the contrasting colour, and these two [at the top left] are the working yarn. In the middle here we have the swatch, very small at the moment, and of course is stockinete – and is curling up.

As you can see, and may have guessed from the two colours, this is being knit in the Fair Isle pattern used within the vest. This gives me practice at doing that pattern, and also means that my tension will be the same as in the final garment.

To achieve that, I need to imitate circular knitting, rather than flat knitting, in the gauge swatch. Because if I was to knit this flat, I would have rows of knit and I’d have rows of purl. Like most people, my gauge is different if I knit purl than if I knit a knit stitch. The way I do that is to knit as normal from the left onto the right needle and when I have finished I slip back again so that I am ready to start again, moving from left to right needle again. And I just drape the working yarn across the back loosely so that it doesn’t pull tight. That’s what all these loops of yarn are at the bottom here. If I find this gets too complicated and in the way, I can just snip them and tie them in a knot on the side. They won’t come undone, particularly because it is a clingy yarn, which is just as well because the pattern will call for me to steek it later anyway.

So, how is it going?

Well, I started off with a very very stretchy cast-on. It’s so stretchy that it doesn’t put any constraints on the swatch, onto the size. This is the basic stranded cast-on. I have done 4 rows of enough stitches that I get a swatch big enough to measure against. You normally measure over [at least] a 4 inch sample of your fabric, (4 inches is 10 cm). This means that if you are going to measure over that amount, you have to have a bigger swatch to select the centre portion. That is particularly important for one of these swatches that is imitating circular knitting,because the stitches around the edge of this type will be particularly different from the stitches in the middle. That applies to all swatches – the edge stitches are always slightly different from stitches in the middle. But it is particularly important when you are imitating circular knitting.

I wanted to make this swatch about 6 inches wide, that’s 15 cm, so I used the gauge in the pattern [to calculate how many stitches I needed], and cast on the appropriate number of stitches to get something that is 6 inches wide. In this case, it is 48 stitches, which happens to be two pattern repeats. I’m now following two of the rules of swatch knitting.

The first rule is to knit it bigger than the area you want to measure, which I’m doing because I’m making it half as big again, and the second rule is to knit using a stitch pattern representative of the stitch pattern in the finished garment, because that way you will be knitting something that you can compare. And also, you need to do more than one repeat of the stitch pattern, because the tension will vary over the stitch patten. Perhaps not so much over a Fair Isle style stranded knitting, which has short floats, but if you are using longer floats or using cables, you will certainly get the tension varying across the pattern, so you want to be able to average that out.

So here I am, 4 ROWS in, how am I going? Well, you won’t be able to see this because the numbers on the ruler are too small, but if you measure it that swatch is 8.5 inches, which is about 21 cm. Remember, I was aiming for something about 6 inches.
I’m not worried about that. The reason I’m not worried about that is it is all very loose around the cast-on. – I’m very loose knitting – this is very looser knitting than I normally doI’ve been knitting a lot looser that normal because I’ve been worried about the stranding and getting myself going. I would expect that in about 4 or 5 more rows everything will have tightened up and I’ll be knitting close to gauge. We’ll see.

The last thing I’d like to talk about with this swatch is that I’ve prepared myself for having to do a second swatch. When I’ve done the two, how can I be sure which one is which? What I have done is tie a few knots in the cast-on tail. It’s a little difficult to see, so I’ll bring it up closer to you. If you look on the end here I’ve got one, two, three knots close together. That tells me it’s a 3 mm needle … but further on I’ve got a further knot here separated from the others so that’s three and one quarter – a 3.25 mm needle. If it was a 3.5mm needle, I’d have done two knots further up, and if it was 3.75 mm there’d have been 3. This is purely so that I can remember which swatch is which if I get more than one swatch. If you are using american needle sizes of course, you only need the one set of knots to tell you what size of needle it is. 2, 6, 8. Of course if you are using very fine needles, once you get to 0, 00 you’ve got a bit of a problem and will need to work out a system.

This is my swatch, 4 rows in. I’ll come back later and we’ll see how I’ve got on, and how I’m matching up to gauge.

Looking forward to the rest of the project

I’ve more or less finished this podcast now. I’ve talked about how I go through assessing the pattern, what considerations I want to make, about the yarn, the tools, the techniques, the size I want to make it, and how I draw the lessons from the gauge swatch. Now, I’ve got to go off, finish the gauge swatch, and I’ll come back in the next podcast to tell you how things have gone.

Where I am at the moment is that I think I want to make the 45 inches size, which will work aout about 114 cm round the chest. That should give me the ease that I want, because I want it to be loose, but not very loose. I think I’m going to need an extra band of motif on the bottom to give me the extra length that I need, and I’m quite happy with the wool.

The other thing is that I’ve done some calculations that said that if I put in that extra band, am I going to have enough wool? It is very difficult to tell, because this pattern, although it tells the amounts of wool it needs for the various different sizes, has several of the colours that have only one or two balls of yarn that are used. So how do I know whether it is I’m going to need more balls of yarn if I increase the size?

I could just buy an extra ball of every piece of yarn, but it uses several colours, at least 7 colours [actually 10 colours], so that’s a lot of extra yarn to buy if I don’t need it. This is where Ravelry came to my rescue.

In Ravelry, there’s a projects page for this particular garment, and you can see how it has worked out for various people, and some people have put more explanation in their project notes than others. Someone called maevezana [on Ravelry] has put quite detailed notes on. One of the things she has made a note of is how much yarn she actually used in her version of the vest. It is her version, not mine, it is in her size, her gauge, but for the size she knit, she used appreciably less yarn than is called for in the pattern. This tells me that the amounts used in the pattern are only a small part of the ball. You can only buy the yarn in 25g, so there is no point in telling you that you only need 7g of one colour – because you can’t buy just 7g of one colour. For most of the colours, what that set of project notes in Ravelry is telling me is that there will be plenty of yarn and also for the main colours that I am using, I will have only just started the last ball of yarn in that knitting so adding the extra motif, I should have plenty to go on. Famous last words!

If I do end up knitting that extra motif, will I be playing yarn chicken and keeping my fingers crossed that I’ve got enough yarn, or will I have enough yarn to keep going? There’s only one way to find out, and that is to knit the garment and suck it and see.

What am I going to do in the next podcast?

First thing, I’m going to have finished the gauge swatch so I’ll know what gauge I am getting. So rather than talking “I might need this, I might need that” I can say “this is what I am intending to do”.

Once I’ve decided what I’m going to do, I’ll then be casting on. There are a couple of things I’d like to talk about in doing that cast-on. Obviously I’ll be showing you the cast-on technique itself, but I’m also going to be casting on for knitting in the round. There are techinques to help me join in the round and not end up with a twisted cast-on. This can be really annoying, particularly for a project that you’ve cast on over 300 stitches.

Next time I’ll be telling you what I’ve learned from the swatch, and I’ll be talking about the cast-on.

Until then, that’s it from me.

Happy Knitting!