WIP: Celtic Knotwork as Knitting Patterns

Fun with test swatches. One cable pattern, two colors, three needle sizes. The orange yarn marks where I changed needles. The switch from orchid to blue marks where I ran out of my leftover orchid yarn and had to pull out another color.

Just because I haven’t posted in three weeks (ack!) doesn’t mean I haven’t been knitting. I’ve been trying out various cable patterns to simulate Celtic knotwork, as well as graphing up some more knotwork for possible colorwork patterns.

Celtic knotwork was used as decoration in the borders of illuminated manuscripts from Irish monasteries in the Middle Ages (think The Book of Kells). If you haven’t been reading one of those lately, you may have seen some of it as a design on a t-shirt or jewelry. A number of years ago, I made some fleece jackets with Celtic knotwork appliques, and I did a little research on it then. The patterns consist of a wide line, called a ribbon, which weaves in and out around itself to form an elaborate graphic. If you trace one of the ribbons, you will see that it will alternate between passing over and then under each time it crosses another ribbon. You will also often find that the motif resolves into one long, intricate path which loops back upon itself at the end. 


Here’s one of the appliqued jackets I made, with a square knotwork design. If you trace the ribbon, you will see that it is all one path.


When I started to think about ways to make an accessory pattern distinctive, I decided that incorporating Celtic knotwork would be one way to do it. Cable patterns are often associated with Fisherman’s Knit or Aran sweaters, which were named for the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. You can’t get much more Celtic than that. And at least some cable patterns strongly resemble the knotwork.

My first design, a diamond pattern, didn’t look sufficiently interesting to me, so I moved on from four intersecting lines to six. Because when I’m designing, more is more. You can see the winner at the top of this post, but I tried a couple of others first.

Pattern tests one (left) and two (right).

After I had tried test one, I saw a photo of a cable pattern much like it, but with the outer two strands on each side crossing each other during that long section between the intricate clusters of knots. So I made an adjustment and tried test two. I still didn’t love it, so I went back, looked at the photo, and realized the strands crossed each other twice. That led to test three, which I decided was the keeper. 

Tests two (left) and three (right) in worsted weight.

And here’s the graphs of each test, which I added on to as I adjusted. There’s an 8-strand design in the bottom right. Because more is more.

So, after about a week of messing about with an increasingly long test swatch in leftover worsted weight yarn, I decided the worsted was a bit too large for what I had in mind and moved on to leftover DK weight. At the time, I was thinking this would be for a hat. I would knit the cable band, then mattress stitch or kitchener graft it together so the band would be horizontal, as it is in the photos. After that, I would pick up stitches on either side of the band for the bottom ribbing of the hat and for the crown. The worsted test swatch was too wide and had too few rows per inch to give me the number of repeats around the hat that I wanted. There’s some math scrawled under the graphs indicating that a 30 row repeat of the pattern at 5.5 rows per inch in worsted would give me a 22-inch band with 4 repeats and a 27.5-inch band with 5 repeats. 

I tried a test without the side cables on the DK version, but it wasn’t as wide as I wanted, so I added the two 6-stitch cables on the sides. Also, that test was on some weird needles I had picked up somewhere that claim to be U.S. size 6, but that I realized are actually 0.25 mm bigger than a standard size 6, so I couldn’t use them for a pattern I intend to sell anyway.

The test swatch at the top of this post (scroll back up, I’ll wait) starts on U.S. size 4 (3.5 mm) needles, then moves to U.S. size 5 (3.75 mm) and finally a standard U.S. size 6 (4.0 mm). Each one gave me a slightly different gauge, leading to a different number of repeats to get a different diameter hat and so on. I spent an hour or two one day doing all the math (if size 4 needles give me a length of 3.75 inches for a repeat of 32 rows, then 6 repeats gets me 22.5 inches for a slightly slouchy hat on a 20-inch head, etc.) and coming up with a hat pattern that would require different needle sizes to make hats for different sized heads. And that would have a slightly different amount of excess diameter to make the slouch depending on the needle size.

That was about the time I decided that, in addition to the issue of the different needle sizes, the cable pattern itself was probably more elaborate than many knitters would want to deal with for a (usually) relatively simple item like a hat. So I’ve decided to use it as a central decorative band for the front of a bag which will be knitted in worsted weight and then felted. Right now, I’m playing around with ideas for a cable motif for the sides of the bag. The first idea was not a success. More on that, and on colorwork and Celtic knotwork, in a future post.




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