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Archive for October 1st, 2003

My Quest for the Perfect Beret

Wednesday, October 1st, 2003

I am plugging right along on my machine knitting experiments. I just finished the basic knitting part of a beret on the machine. I knit it on purpose at the largest gauge it could handle, so that I could felt it down a bit. (Actually if you shrink knitted goods, the proper term is fulling, not felting.) I have some fussing to do before I can try to shrink/full it, but so far it does look promising.

You see, I am very particular about berets. I wear one almost every day, inside and out, daytime and night. For one reason, I’m cold a lot of the time… about 9 months of the year. And during the summer, I try to keep my hair from sunbleaching when I’m not cold from air conditioning.

In the summer I wear cotton crocheted berets which are handmade, I think in Guatemala or somewhere in that corner of the world. The cotton berets are one reason why I’ve been interested in crochet, though I haven’t taken that learning curve very far yet.

However, in the wintertime I usually wear commercially-produced wool berets (machine knit in a factory). (See photo taken of me by L. Ruelaine Stokes, several years ago.) These fit so well, I can wear them all day and not even realize they are on my head. Sometimes I find them on my pillow after falling asleep because I didn’t realize I was wearing it when I went to bed. These are the ultimate. However, the two I have that fit perfectly are both black. I have another that is a little too big, a little too floppy, and it is a sort of light magenta.

These manufactured berets are not knit from center to brim or brim to center. They are knit around in a circle like the hand of a clock circling its face. They are knit in a small-gauge feltable wool yarn and then felted, purl side out, so that you can barely see the stitches. If you look closely on the inside you can see the knitting direction and one seam from the center to the edge, where it was sewn together. I have not figured out how to handknit a hat in this method, though short rows are surely part of the answer.

These berets do not have any elastic, either. They have a brim which is two layers of knit fabric folded into a sort of hem, and then felted together to make a very firm edge. This makes the hat very comfortable to wear for hours on end.

So here I am, a handknitter, trying to make berets to fit me well. The only one I’ve succeeded with was my purple brushed mohair and “charm” yarn hat I made last winter (see picture). That hat I knit from edge to center, but I didn’t knit a brim connected to the main hat body. I then made an I-cord that was exactly the size of my head and grafted the ends together. I sewed the hat to the I-cord loop and it fits great. Everything worked right on that hat, but it is not an all-purpose beret at all. I wear it a great deal, which sort of surprises me. I still want to learn to make a hat more like those I purchase, though.

So I found this “French beret” pattern written for beginners to machine knitting. I could tell from the photos on the pattern page, that the stitches were very loose even on the hat that actually fit the intended recipient. Therefore I figured I would make it even a larger gauge than they specified (still using the one strand of worsted weight yarn that they specified), and that would allow me to felt it down a little bit.

The pattern was very good for this new machine knitter. I’ve messed around with the machine but had never followed a pattern before. This pattern included short-row shaping and so it incorporated a lot of small lessons. I am glad I tried it as my first pattern attempt.

The hat looks about right at this phase of the process. I knit it in a feltable 4-ply worsted weight wool yarn I had dyed a while back. It is a predominantly medium-to-light turquoise low-contrast colorway. It looks really pretty on the purl side, where the colors blend more.

You can see from the photo that this pattern is designed in six sections. That means it has six rounded corners, as does my purple mohair beret. I really like it when the hat looks totally circular, but am hoping I can round out the corners a little bit during the fulling/shrinking phase.

I made a mistake though. I bound off as the pattern told me to, which put a seam on the purl side which is my “public” side, unlike that of the pattern’s author. The bind off was a backstitch with a sewing needle, so now I get to go and undo one stitch at a time. Then perhaps I’ll graft the stitches together rather than binding off on the other side. I think it will felt more evenly if I do it that way. I’m not looking forward to it, at all… but it will be worth the effort.

The brim is very big, very big. However, according to Jackie Erickson-Schweitzer’s free felted beret pattern, a way to control the brim size is to put a string in the brim before you start felting, that is exactly the size you want the brim to be when completed. What a great idea! So I will sew the rolled brim into place and put a string in that brim to tell it what size I want it.

I will hand-felt the thing, as I don’t trust the washing machine to do it for me. This yarn is already sticky and probably will shrink up well all by itself. Honestly, the top of the hat doesn’t need much work but the brim sure does! By hand felting it, I can concentrate on the areas that need work and go easy on the parts that are pretty much fine.