Like a war wife, my solution to the recession and shitty economy is to spend pennies while feeling like spending millions: self-delusion through handicraft.
As I wrote here a couple months ago, I’ve had this long-term project of knitting myself a version of the beautiful cobwebby cardigan from Rodarte’s Spring 2008 collection. As shameful as it is to admit, I hadn’t done a single click of the needles since then...until last week, when I started and finished the damn thing in about 8 days.
In between, I actually had a couple chances to touch the cardigan in person, once in New York at Opening Ceremony back in April, and then again at the Barneys in San Francisco a few weeks ago. Each time, of course, I was filled with a desire to just take the thing off the rack and run, because the price tag is roughly $1200. I began the project of knitting up a version of the cardigan because of simple sad economic reality: I’d have to go without rent one month to buy this sweater.
When I first saw the price tag for the sweater, I was filled with a predictable sense of indignation. For $1200, you’d expect the sweater to mitosis itself into a pair of pants, double as an MP3 player, or at least have, as Thelma Ritter says in “All About Eve,” “diamond collars, gold sleeves.” But this sweater has no such tricks. From a knitter’s point of view, it is a simple babe: of standard stockinette stitch, no ribbing or complicated cable work, and a basic stripe pattern. To get the huge hole-y effect, you just have to use very thin yarn with very fat needles. A sweater that looked like it could be pretty easily hand-knit that costs over a thousand dollars? Is this cardigan a symbol of what is totally fucked up with capitalism?
Well, yes and no. The experience of knitting this sweater has actually given me a full appreciation of the original. My feeling now is: to charge $1200 for a mohair cardigan that looks like it was hand-knit by a giant spider on acid is indeed very sensible.
When I finally cast on the first row of the piece, it was activity for the bedbound: I caught a nasty summer cold. Laid up in bed, my throat filled with phlegm and delirious, I popped in the first tape of a Korean drama called “Jogang-Jichuh Club” (roughly: “First [as in concubinage rank] Wives’ Club,” about mismatched marriages that were falling apart because of socio-economic reasons), and began knitting this overdue sweater. Knitting and purling, I began to think about the fantastical and bizarre translation that happens between human labor and money. I started to think, was it really so crazy to tag as $1200 a sweater that was probably hand-crafted by a gang of Asian ladies, who hopefully did not go blind(er) in the process of knitting? In this day and age when $20/ barrel gasoline feeds cars the size of small apartment units, does the phrase “impractical spending”—or “splurge”—even have a sensible meaning anymore?
OK, so I can’t right now spend $1200 on a cardigan, but if I were an heiress, I would, because the handiwork of the knitting ladies are worth it. Knitting the pieces and seaming them together takes actually a lot of more thought than it appears. You have to handle the pieces delicately, and it takes a bit for your fingers to get used to maneuvering spiderweb-thin yarn on needles the size of flag posts. If it took me—a mediocre knitter—a week to finish this, how long would it take a skilled knittress to do it? Let’s say, maybe a couple days? Who are we to say that her two day’s worth of ladyfinger work is not worth at least half the retail price?
Make no mistake though, when I say “worth” I do so in a kind of hypothetical, fictional realm, because I’m sure that the knittresses were not paid $600 a garment (I hope they were). But come on, $1200 is not bad if you think about the cardigan as a gallery piece. The finished cardigan falls and puffs out just so around the body so that you feel like a little moth, hyperaware of the fragility of your own flesh. In this, the experience is similar in a weird way to wearing a corset, but the difference is that wearing the cardigan, you are comfortable. The piece is a powder puff, so mass-wise, it doesn't even feel like you are wearing anything. But you become so sensitized to your limbs because a wrong move can shred the sweater like wet toilet paper. You feel as loosely knitted as the cardigan next to your skin. The Mulleavy sisters of Rodarte cite Japanese horror films as a reference for the collection that housed the cardigan. I have to squint my imagination a bit to get that reference, but I love it that they challenge my brain to do that. That is art to me.
So even though I ended up spending about $40 for the yarn, it makes me feel good to think that my days of fingering yarn and plastic is worth $1160. Having knitted through, I no longer feel resentful of the price tag on that gorgeous original cardigan. In fact, the next time I’m in Barney’s, maybe I will, in the style of 19th Century salon-goers—or actually, more like Rindy Sam, the Cy Twombly-loving fan (who is also Asian!) who left her red lipstick stain on his painting last year—go up to the rack and give the price tag of that Rodarte cardigan a good, long, wet kiss.
In the spirit of DIY femininity, I now give you the lipstickvomit pattern of the hurl-couture spiderwoman cardigan. Enjoy!
This particular pattern is for someone who is a size 10 above the waist and size 0 below...
Also, be prepared to inhale a lot of mohair. You will be covered with loving, pawing traces of knitting.
The YARN should be very thin gauge, basically tapestry-thread thickness that would regularly be worked on needles US 3 to 7. I used: Alchemy “Haiku” (silk-mohair; Blue/ purple), one ball, $21; Karabella “Gossamer” (mohair; white-gray-glitter) one ball, $8; Twinkle “Kid Mohair” (wool-mohair; peach), one ball, $6.30.
The NEEDLES should be very large, US 17. I like the look and feel of the Japanese “Clover” needles that are made of bamboo, but actually the yarn usually likes them too and the stitches have a tendency to stick. So with this project, I think it’s better to go with slip-&-slide plastic needles.
BACK PANEL: 18” top, 20” bottom, 28” length from top to bottom : Cast on 60 sts of the white/glittery yarn. This will be the bottom of the cardigan. Knit some rows (no ribbing) until you feel like changing color. For me, this was around 6 inches.
Switch to the peach yarn, knit a few inches, about half the amount of the white.
Then switch to the blue/ purple yarn, for another few inches. The width of the striping is up to you. I did about 6” (12) rows of the blue/purple then switched to about 2” of peach then 4” of white, then back to a few of blue. But the striping pattern should be intuitive...you should stripe as wide or thin, regular or irregular as it feels right to you.
When the piece gets to be about 18” (36 rows), begin decreasing: decrease one stitch at the beginning of the row (by knitting the first two stitches together)and another at the end (knit last two stitches together. This is a total two stitches decreased per row. Do not decrease for another 2” (about 4 rows); decrease again on 5th row. We’re only decreasing 2 inches, which is 6 stitches, which means we only have to decrease twice more.
During the decreasing, you may want to do some striping between the peach and white-glitter yarn. I did about two rows of the peach with the first decrease, then switched to the white-glitter till the end. I thought about the peach as a kind of transition yarn between the blue and the white-glitter.
Stop decreasing at 54 St. Knit until the entire piece is around 28” (56 rows). If you go a bit over, or if you’re tired and stop a bit earlier, no biggie.
FRONT RIGHT PANEL: 8” top, 10” bottom, 28” top to bottom: Cast on 30 st. Knit, using the same intuitive (LAZY?) striping pattern until the piece is about 18” (36 rows).
Begin decrease: decrease one stitch by knitting the first two stitches together, knit row. Again, only a 2” (6 st) decrease so spread decrease out reasonably. But remember to only decrease at the BEGINNING of the kt row. The decreased end of the row will constitute the “draped” collar of the cardigan. Stop decrease when row is 24 st.
Knit until piece is around the same length as the back piece.
FRONT LEFT PANEL: same dimensions as right panel: Repeat the same knitting for FRONT RIGHT PANEL. When ready to decrease, decrease at the END of the row: knit the LAST two stitches together, so that the draped collar is on the correct side of the panel.
SLEEVE: 20” at the shoulder, 11” at cuff (to be halved, because the sleeve piece will be folded and joined when completed): In blue/purple, cast on 60 st. This will be the shoulder seam-joint of the sleeve. Knit first row, then purl the next row. On the third row, begin decreasing one stitch on each side (knit together first and last pairs of the row, subtracting a total of two stitches per row). Purl next row without decrease. Decrease two stitches every other row (so, on each knit row).
Knit until the piece is about 16” (48 rows). Switch to peach for two rows, then switch again to white/glitter till the end. The white/glitter part should be around 8” (24 rows). Stop decreasing when the row is about 11” (33 st). Continue knitting until the entire sleeve is 24” (72 rows).
GET IT TOGETHER: The process of putting the sweater together is much like its final look—it will feel like sewing together cobwebs, but hopefully you are black widowy enough like me! Even though it is tricky, I suggest NOT wet-blocking the pieces, because wetting the mohair will take the float out of the yarn, and take away its signature pussyfurshedding quality. (If you don’t want the sweater to shed on you, you can certainly “kill” it by wet-blocking it) Instead, stretch out the seams to be joined so you can get a clear view. I used the white-glitter yarn for seaming because it is of a slightly heavier gauge than the blue/ purple. Without blocking, it is nearly impossible to matress-stitch the thing so I simply use a whip-stitch (sometimes called “African stitch”). It is not as sturdy, but it is more sturdy than you’d think. Plus, the whole weave of the piece is vulnerable anyway, so it actually gives the piece continuity to use a “weaker” stapling technique.
The sleeves: fold the piece in half lengthwise and seam up the length, lay them aside. Seam the front panels to the back piece first by joining the tops of the three pieces. The seam should be about 5”, leaving a few inches for the flap-away collar.
Lay the sleeve against the joined torso of the sweater. The sleeve’s whipstitched side should be facing south. When you lay the thing out, the sleeve should just lay perpendicular to the shoulder-line of the torso. This is the way that kimono sleeves are joined; when the sweater sits on your body, it will limp down and give you chicly sloped shoulders. The first stitch should be the triple-cross point where the outer edges of the front and back panel meets the FOLDED edge/ corner of the sleeve (the side of the sleeve that was not whip-stitched). Safety-pin the bottom hem together so that the once the sleeve is joined, you don’t accidently end up with either front or back panel longer than the other. Join the sleeve to the back, and then the front of the torso.
Once one sleeve is joined to the torso, seam the sides of the sweater. Repeat for the other side, and then you’re done, ready to put on the thing over a ragged-out concert t-shirt and go have some drama!