The Rainbow Spiral

Note from Stephanie: Dudes, it has become traditional, as I fall toward a book deadline and am reduced to singlular focus on that goal, for my good friend That Laurie to step up and guest blog. That Laurie is sadly, blogless (sorry Rachel H. …I mean “blog-free”) and these guest blogs are an opportunity for us to learn from her genius. That Laurie’s handspun, hand knit sweaters are always the darling of every fibre ball, and anyone who knows her knows that her answer to questions about how she comes up with this stuff is usually “I’ll do a guest blog and tell you”. Here you go. I couldn’t be more grateful for her timing. Please give a warm welcome to my friend and yours…That Laurie.

Before we spiral into spinning for a rainbow yoke, please note that Meg Swansen’s Spiral Yoke sweater is actually designed from the bottom up. Moreover, I freely acknowledge the appeal of that upward knitting trajectory. After all, knitting UP holds out the promise of the “exciting knitting” to get you through miles and miles of stockinette; perhaps as a result, knitting from the bottom up is by far the more common direction in sweater designs. In fact, most of the patterns I will mention here are written from the bottom up.

So why do I, perversely, insist on descending down the bodies of my yoke sweaters, perilously anchored on mathematical calculations that I could avoid? Top-down knitting is really the refuge of those, like me, who want to make shaping adjustments and check them by trying on the work in progress:


(consider this a teaser for NEXT post!)

That’s the high-minded reason. But, basically, I have serious issues with sheer indecisiveness and yarn quantities. I always have trouble deciding about the bottom of the sweater: how long do I want it? What edging do I want? Will ribbing draw too much attention where I do not want it to go? Do I want a shirttail hem? Moreover, when I am using my handspun, I am never 100% sure how much I will need for a given sweater. I would rather run out as I barrel toward the bottom of the thing than just as I reach the upper parts of the yoke.

I may even have a VERY limited amount of something delicious that I have spun up. I know there is not enough for a sweater, but it will be enough for the yoke, as long as I knit from the top down.


For this one, I had only four ounces of a precious, handdyed, shiny Icelandic roving, but I had a lot of black Galway in my stash! For both this sweater and the one featured in the previous post, I used mosaic stitches from Barbara Walker’s Mosaic Knitting for some rounds, increased the yoke, using EZ’s percentage system on the NON patterned rows, and changed the stitch pattern, if necessary, to accommodate the new number of stitches. Another good resource is Roxanne Barlett’s Slip Stitch Knitting”Slip-Stitch Knitting: Color Pattern the Easy Way” (Roxana Bartlett). It sounds more complicated than it is.

This strategy has appeared recently in Shannon Okey’s Spin to Knit; however, the use of handspun delights as yoke accents comes up in Spin-Off and in Lee Raven’s Hands on Spinning.

The decision between top-down or bottom-up is a very personal one, and, frankly, top-down sweaters pose unusual challenges. Folks who WANT to work from the top down but face a pattern with the other orientation have a few things to consider and some resources. The first question is whether your stitch pattern in the sweater looks the same from the bottom up as from the top down. Some do: stockinette, seed/moss stitch, ribbing of all kinds, and so on. If the stitch pattern DOESN’T look the same, well, you may want to rethink. Second is the vexing question of sleeve construction. Some, like set-in sleeves, require careful thought and work best in simultaneous sleeve-knitting.

The best resource for these matters that I know is Barbara Walker’s Knitting From The Top. Basically, she tells you how to convert ANY bottom-up sweater pattern into a top-down version. Raglan? Piece of cake! Fairisle or Icelandic Yoke sweater? No problem. Even set-in sleeves (as we shall see when I start mixing it up with Nora Gaughan.)

Where, you ask, is the rainbow spiral and what has it to do all this stuff about top down knitting? I am glad you asked! Since that sweater is basically stockinette, the straight knitting sections will look the same either way. The yoke, I thought, could be negotiated, but first I tested one of the variations on the spiral yoke sweater Meg Swansen offers:


As you can see, this version gives you a two-color spiral, and it inspired me to imagine what I could do by using some of my handdyed roving with the slow color changes. (See the previous guest blogs on dyeing roving). Basically, I dyed my roving in a rainbow of colors, spun it and then navajo-plied it to keep the colors together. Then I went about knitting the Spiral yoke from the top down. To get the effect I wanted, I combined the two versions of the pattern: the stitches travel AND the two-color knitting introduces the rainbow.


I even started from a provisional cast one so I could decide later how to treat the neck—I wasn’t so sure about how ribbing would work. Here is a closer look at the color changes:


I admit to fudging JUST a little when it looked as if the gold section was going to be too dominant. And I miscalculated so that I had some colors left over from my rainbow spinning. So I used them for the cuffs. An excuse for a final picture:


My bet is that this variation on the SYS (Spiral Yoke Sweater) would work just as well, though to slightly different effect, with a Noro yarn, perhaps Silk Garden Lite, which would match more closely the worsted commercial yarns you might want as a contrast.

Next time. Quiggling the Spiral: In which we explore yet another variation on the spiral yoke, this time using ribbing and color gradations produced in another way!

91 thoughts on “The Rainbow Spiral

  1. (gasp) The first sweater– the purple-and-yellow one– is the MOST BEAUTIFUL THING I HAVE EVER SEEN!!!! Don’t tell Steph.

  2. Beautiful sweater! I think it was Elizabeth Zimmerman who pointed out that kid sweaters knit from the top down are easily lengthened as children do insist on growing.

  3. Well done! Blog and colorwork and huh–I didn’t think I was interested in doing a top-down sweater, just top-down shawls. That’ll teach me.

  4. Once again, I can only stand in awe of the genius of That Laurie. And she totally rocks the rescue timing.

  5. Wow! Beautiful sweater, and nice work too. This is an article that I would love to see in Spin-off. You should definitely submit it That Laurie!

  6. Beautiful! and so inspiring for a newbie spinner like me. Thanks for helping de-stress the Harlot. Just curious, are you cleaning her house, too? If so, will you come to mine next? Leave Joe in Toronto – he’s a dear, but I am the router tweaker in my house and nothig with the word “hacking” is coming in.

  7. It’s always dangerous having That Laurie around. I well remember those amazing socks that sent me rushing to learn to spin so I could make some of my very own. I shall be back for the quiggling
    (do you like quiggling?
    I don’t know, I’ve never quiggled)

  8. …uh,that would be nothiNg. Funny how I proof-read these before hitting post and letters get dropped into cyberspace along the way 😉

  9. Thank goodness That Laurie is blog-free. My poor brain couldn’t handle all this learning on a more-frequent basis. Gorgeous, clever, erudite *and* helpful – what’s not to love?

  10. Wow… what inspiration. I agree about the top-downs for the indecisive… my arms are ape-like in length, but depending on the set of the sleeves, I can never tell how long to make them. Top down helps my sleeve length- measuring from the center back is most accurate for sleeve length.
    Anyway, the lovely Sidna Farley did some wonderful top-down classes and patterns and had a nice little self-published book. Unfortunately, according to “Knitters,” she has moved on to the great unknown.

  11. Welcome That Laurie! (Clapping and general fanfare.) Yowza, all of those sweaters are gorgeous! I’m a bottom-up girl myself (probably because I haven’t started spinning yet). I’ve been eyeing that spiral yoke sweater for a year or so. Never thought of doing it with varigated yarns. I don’t dye so the Noro suggestion is much appreciated. You do have an eye for color. Hope Meg S. sees this!
    P.S. to Steph: Hang in there!

  12. Very, very pretty.
    I made the spiral yoke sweater for my husband using the traveling stitch. ( It’s not my favorite type of knit, but he liked it. Your version is much more interesting.
    Did you add any short row shaping? Meg puts some in the back to raise the neck, and I’ve always wondered if you could put bust shaping in too. I’m thinking no, since they’d almost count each other out. I think I’d rather add waist shaping to a yoke sweater.

  13. I’ve always liked the idea of knitting from the top down, even though I’ve never taken the plunge.
    I like the spiral yoke. It looks like it would be perfect for adding beads to.

  14. Wonderful yarn and sweaters. I’ve never done a sweater from the top down but after reading this — just maybe .

  15. This is exactly what my knitting dreams have been filled with lately. I’m reading EZ now and hope by next year to be knitting my handspun into a sweater much like That Laurie’s!

  16. Thanks for the ‘guest blog’! These are some great tips for something to do with handspun, and ways of looking at multicolour roving in the future!

  17. It is becoming obvious to me that it’s a HUGE failure of my imagination to never have thought to do a partially handspun sweater, using commercial yarn for the rest.
    The rainbow yoke is amazing. Hey Laurie, maybe we … wear the same size? ya think? 😉

  18. Beautiful sweater!!! Thanks for rescuing “Our Harlot”!!! I really like how you did the bottom of the brown sweater. Looks really nice!!!

  19. Laurie, those sweaters are Gorgeous! I’m just finishing the collar on my first top-down, and I love it. I want to try the spiral yoke now. Yours is SOOO beautiful! Thanks for sharing with all of us and giving our Harlot a break.

  20. I have to learn to spin. To see those works of art and know I can’t even come close to a reproduction pretty much kills me. Yes, I could use silk garden light but it would be better if I made it myself.

  21. I, too, am blog-free, and I suspect that I’d get a whole lot less knitting done if I had one.
    My first and only knitted sweater was done bottom up, but in four pieces, (front, back, two sleeves) so I’m thinking I should be adventurous and choose a circular pattern for my next one. But not until I finish knitting the sock-that-never-ends.
    Hang in there, Steph. With friends like That Laurie, you know you’ll get through this book thing!
    ~ Dar

  22. What amazing and glorious work you do!
    I have to go fall on my DPNs now, as I know I will never reach such exquisite knitting heights.

  23. Hmm, I have an overwhelming urge to combine That Laurie’s top-down, no steeking inspiration with the beautiful Kauni rainbow cardigan pattern…
    Thanks for the wonderful guess blog, giving the Harlot a break, and making the hamsters in my read run just a bit faster!

  24. Simply gorgeous, Laurie! The rainbow spiral – wowsa. And that first one? ::thud::
    Thanks for guest blogging and SOS (Saving Our Stephanie). I love to see you guest blogging! Um. Well. Not the fact that it’s necessitated by Stephanie’s going out of her mind, you understand. It’s just that you show such beautiful stuff, and this is the only way we get to see you blog. 😉

  25. That Laurie is amazing, as usual. That first sweater is to-die-for gorgeous! =)
    And Steph, this is a good sign! It means you’re getting close!!! =)

  26. Thanks for this lovely guest posting! I’m just starting to spin myself, and I’m particularly interested in the slow-changing colour patterns and their uses, so this is very timely.

  27. Welcome, That Laurie. And uh, wow. Did you dye/spin that gorgeous blue in the middle sweater? Because I love the contrast between the plain black and the shiny sky/oceany blue.
    Those sweaters are great – maybe I should save that for my next Olympic event, me and circular needles not. being. friends.

  28. I’m so with you on the top down construction. Love that “fit as you go” element! Only…I had enough on my to-do list!

  29. Holy crow! That Laurie, you are awesome. I’m on my second-ever pair of socks, myself, but a knitter can always dream…

  30. (((THUNK)))) Passed out from the sheer gorgeousness of it all. The way you worked that extra color into the cuffs…genius.
    I was also tickled to see a reference to an author named ‘Roxana.’ There aren’t that many of us around (especially with one ‘n’). So now I know there are at least two knitting Roxana’s in the world. I like it.

  31. Wow. I am SO rushing home from school in ten minutes to dig out the Norwegian natural and Starmore navy yarns that have been waiting for me to be inspired! (Can I brag? Norwegian natural yarn, Alice Starmore navy, and real Irish Bainin… all for US$2.50 or less a skein. A little resale/junk shop near my mom’s house. No, sorry, it’s no longer there, and I’m not just saying that to keep all the good stuff to myself!)

  32. I am totally digging the SYS—the colors are amazing and I love that the cuffs have color too. Good job on the guest blogging. (Does it inspire you to join the rest of us in Blogdom?)

  33. Dude. I think I’ve just been inspired to knit my sweaters from top down if it means I can do something like that. That is freaking amazing. Freaking amazing.

  34. If you can approach Stephanie in her crisis state, please tell her how grateful I am that she covers her blog when she’s too busy. I love knowing that something heartening or funny will almost always be there when I need it. Ditto to all comments above, That Laurie, and one question. I know you didn’t say you exactly followed the Meg S. sweater, but your final picture looks like the rays of rainbow-ness are wider than the rays on the spiral yoke sweater. Did you change the pattern to make that part wider? After years of not knitting, I’m back in the fold (wow, an unintentional sheep pun) and your rainbow sweater is calling to me to go crazy and start one. Thanks for the lovely post, Kate

  35. wheww…I’m just finishing my first baby-sweater bottom up (ran out of yarn, had to order more), so my brain froze with your details. But I can see me doing this some day – it all makes sense. Hands, don’t fail me now! Thank you for helping Stephanie get the book done.

  36. …completely unrelated to this post but Stephanie, do you know that Casts Off is the #10 searched book on in Canada???? (they sent out a promo email telling me so)I think all YH fans should make it #1…hint, hint!(good fuel for meeting the current deadline I’d say)

  37. yowza. I am impressed and inspired and generally blown away, That Laurie!
    would love to see a detail shot of the blue-yoked black number…. 🙂

  38. When I grow up, I want to be just like you. Your work is awesome–exactly where I want my spinning/knitting to go. Thanks for stepping in and sharing.

  39. That is one gorgeous sweater…and just in time, as I begin the path down handspun row… I love the rainbows. First I have to learn how to ply…then I have GOT to get the navaho ply thing down. I love the color progression.

  40. Brillant and inspiring. Thank you. It’s also
    nice to know I’m not the only “blogless” person
    left in the universe!

  41. I almost always do my sweaters top down. I’ve had the Barbara Walker book for several years and plan on experimenting over the next year with a few of her styles and the mountain of discontinued Jaeger I just bought. I had toyed with a slip stich yoke idea which now goes on the definitely try list. Thanks, That Laurie.

  42. That Laurie, you are not only brilliant, you are timely. I’ve been pondering and pondering how to use what I’m sure is an insufficient amount of alpaca I recently dyed for a pullover for my daughter. Now I know! Thank you thank you thank you. I breathlessly await the next installment!

  43. I want to make my first sweater and would really like to make a cardigan. Do you have a recommendation for a pattern for me? I’d really appreciate it. I bought Hot Knits and thought about the Audrey pattern but it’s a bit busy and short. Any thoughts would really be appreciated.
    Your work is stunning!!
    thank you!

  44. Those sweaters are beautiful! I’m currently attempting my first top-down sweater – with set in sleeves. I’m also planning to steek the front so I can knit it in the round and still wind up with a cardigan. It DID occur to me that I should probably make sure that would work before I tried it on the $80-worth (US) of alpaca my MIL bought me to knit her a sweater, so I’m knitting a toddler size for my dd first. It won’t be that beautiful, but I’m feeling inspired. Maybe after Christmas… 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing!!

  45. Stephanie, i really needed to let you know… my husband has just asked me to print out some *more* coppies of your june 27, 2007 post… The way things are. this makes about 16 copies he has had me print out over the course of the last few months to share with the construction guys at work. apparently, some of the guys felt left out because they didn’t get their own copies to keep!

  46. effing amazing! I don’t have the time to learn to spin, but am going to have to harrass my friend Willow who does spin to make some pretty pretty yarn for me to even try this fabulous work of art.

  47. Wow! Love, love, love the color choices on the second sweater. All this top down talk means now I have a knitting ambition!

  48. Answers to questions:
    Yes, I did add some shortrow shaping after the yoke, just below the colorwork. As to shortrow bustshaping, I would guess that you could add it as well, depending on where you needed it. Yoke sweaters actually tend to be forgiving in that area, but you could try it on as you knit and decide whether the sweater’s lower edge was hanging level enough for you.
    I think the Rainbow Kauni would be super top down; I have been eyeing that one myself and trying to figure out how to dye enough for those long, long color repeats!
    I did spin the teal blue yoke yarn in the blue and black sweater, but I did not dye. I purchased four ounces of lovely handdyed icelandic roving–it looked like a huge amount in the bag but came out to a much smaller amount of yarn than I thought. I had to figure out something to do with it!
    Kate, VERY observant on the width of the “spokes.” The two variations of Meg’s sweater handle the yoke spirals differently. The travelling stitch version creates its angles with twist stitches every other row–that results in the deeper yoke for the adult sweater! The two-color version has to move colors every row in order to create the effect. I chose to do the travelling stitch every row (thus mimicking the two-color version) because a) I have narrow shoulders so the other yoke was pretty large on me in the version I knit and b) I was afraid I would not have enough rainbow yarn for the aforementioned larger yoke! You could do a number of variations here using just about any multicolored yarn.
    Stay tuned for set-in sleeves. One of these guest blogs has those from the top down as well!

  49. Beautiful yarn and sweaters! Speaking of beautiful, has everyone seen the new Kauni ET 280 on Astrid’s Dutch Obsessions? Purple! (Along with grey and black/charcoal) No affiliation, just love the yarn colors and would love to make a Kauni sweater as gorgeous as the Harlot’s.

  50. I read these first two entries in the order you wrote them, thus reading the one about your being a pear and not so much an hourglass first – well I look at the colorful sweater at the top of this page and it looks mighty hourglass to me! I’m learning a lot from this, thank you so much!

  51. WooHoo!! I have wanted to know how to do the rainbow color changes in the spiral sweater for about 3 years. I just blocked my first spiral sweater (all one color) last week and am thrilled to now be able to move on to the next step. Thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us and to you, Stephanie, for sharing Laurie with us. I am off to do a happy dance.

  52. wow. i’m sitting here totally in awe of your sweaters. they are stunningly beautiful and i love the way you write. i wish you would consider being blogless no more!

  53. laurie, you have helped me decide what to do with the precious kauni rainbow soon to come my way! i’d been thinking of a fair isle design, rainbow and light brown or off white. now i’m thinking of spirals and my first top-down sweater.
    i’ve knitted elizabeth zimmerman bottom-up yoke sweaters off and on since her book first came out 30+ years ago, but nothing top down. so it would be highly appropriate that my “second-generation” yoke sweater would be from a pattern by the second generation of a distinguished knitting family.
    thanks to you for sharing your info with us, and thanks to stephanie for granting you “guest host” status!

  54. New things to think about regarding knitting from the top down from That Laurie. Many thanks.
    To Stephanie – You don’t ask another author to write a preface to a work before they have read it, why should it be different for the author. I am not author, but have read about the process enough to know books take a life of their own. If you did write the intro first you might be surprised that it no longer fits when the project is finished. Can’t wait to see the finished product.

  55. Thank you Laurie, you don’t know how much this has lifted my spirits today to think I can now use all (well, possibly not all) those skeins of random handspun woolness sitting in a box. I resented the option of knitting a squared afgan with them. Now where’s my Zimmerman…

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