Monday, June 16, 2014

Baby Surprise Jacket Revisited Again

As I've been thinking a lot about the Baby Surprise Jacket pattern lately - teaching a class, knitting for a friend and writing a blog post - I dug into my knitting memories and pulled out one of my favorite projects of all time.

A little back story: when I worked on the project I ultimately title "You Are My Sunshine," I was going through a phase where I was experimenting with mosaic knitting, a technique of color work using two colors but only knitting with one at a time. Alternately knit two rows with each color and, with well-placed stitches, you'll have a colorwork pattern that looks far more complicated than it is. My Clendenin cowl pattern is made with mosaic knitting.

Many years ago, after knitting several Baby Surprise Jackets, I experimented with marrying the two -- jacket and mosaic knitting -- together into one pattern. The Baby Surprise Jacket is all garter stitch and so, I thought, perfect for mosaic knitting. I think it was successful.

Mosaic knitting on the back
Mosaic knitting from the front
I love how the front looks conservative with a little flair at the bottom but the back is a riot of color and beams of light. I used a mosaic pattern from Barbara Walker's Treasury of Knitting Patterns (Volume 1 or Volume 2, not sure I remember which one) and expanded it to fill the sides. There's also some intarsia at the decrease and increase points so the coral color is solid at the ends and the mosaic knitting is only in the middle.

I haven't written the pattern, Elizabeth Zimmermann did the best version, but I have made my spreadsheet available if you'd like to copy my "You Are My Sunshine" Baby Surprise Jacket. Some basic notes: the chart only shows the sections between increases/decreases (marked by an "x" on the spreadsheet) and the white squares in the color section shows slipped stitches. And though it doesn't make any sense now, Color B is the main color (coral in my version).

I'd love to know if you try it!

Favorite Pattern: Surprise! It's a Baby Sweater!

Look at these adorable puppy buttons!
Into every knitter's life there comes a pattern that you will return to over and over and over again. I suppose it's true for any craft-type thing: favorite recipe, favorite painting style, favorite genre of writing or music, etc. You can probably think of a pattern off the top of your head that you've made several times and will gladly make several times more.

For me, it's an unlikely pattern -- a baby sweater. I don't have children. My nephew and niece are too far away and too rarely seen to get knitted garments (they grow too quickly and I have no idea what size they are for knits). Not very many of my friends have children or are having children. But still, a baby sweater.

Baby Surprise Jacket in three colors
I was introduced to Elizabeth Zimmermann's Baby Surprise Jacket about eight years ago. This was before I even joined Ravelry. How did we find patterns before Ravelry? I can't remember how I discovered the Baby Surprise Jacket pattern but that doesn't even matter. I did find it and I did knit it. Many times. The first sweater I knit was in 2007 before the pattern had even been added to Ravelry and there are now over 21,000 other projects for this sweater on Ravelry alone! And since it was first published in 1968, can you imagine how many babies have owned one of these sweaters?!

Back when I first bought the Baby Surprise Jacket from Schoolhouse Press, it was a single sheet of 8.5" x 14" paper with instructions on both sides. The instructions, in Zimmermann-signature style, are fairly spare and concise. And totally intimidating. But let me tell you, I sure learned a lot.

What I love about Zimmermann is she believed in the knitter and that the knitter should believe in him/herself. Not much handholding from Mrs. Zimmermann when it came to knitting patterns. Do this until that, then this step, then finish with that and then you're done. (Another of my favorite baby sweater patterns is also written by Elizabeth Zimmermann, the February Baby Sweater, and it is really only three paragraphs of instructions.)

After knitting, before seaming
After seaming and buttons.
It's a sweater!
The Baby Surprise Jacket is all garter stitch, no purling, two short seams and a couple buttons. Or no buttons. Add a hood. Or not. Jacket or pullover. Collar. Or no collar. And it really is magic -- one big, lumpy blob of garter stitch and two folds, two seams and it's a sweater. It does take a lot of trust that it will work.

I've taught the Baby Surprise Jacket class at Kanawha City Yarn Company several times and helped many of my knitter friends with the project. Here's some of the things I've learned:
  • The original pattern (I'm not even sure it's still available. My copy has been folded and unfolded so many times it's showing lots of wear.) is intimidating. There are few pictures, few instructions and lots of reliance on the knitter's skill and confidence. But it's doable!
  • There are many rows with a lot of things happening. Don't panic.
  • For almost the entire pattern, every right side row will have two decreases or two increases. Treat these decreases/increases as just part of the row and not an extra instruction and you will be less confused.
  • Every wrong side row is just plain. Just knit! It's a great time to relax.
  • Color color color color. Use whatever colors you want. Mix variegated yarns and solid yarns. Stripes are so easy because it's all one piece, whatever stripe pattern you use will automatically -- automagically? -- be symmetrical!
  • Don't stress about the finished size. Maybe this is just me because I've never had to bother with dressing a baby, but I don't worry about the finished size. If the sweater is finished before the baby arrives, it will fit at some point in the baby's life. And if it's a little later? Garter stitch is so forgiving and stretches in almost every direction. One of my friend's kids wore her baby surprise jacket as a baby and as a toddler - first as a jacket and then as a short sleeve shirt.
I absolutely recommend that you go out, buy the pattern and knit up many Baby Surprise Jackets.

Quick note on the pattern: I've been using a new version of the pattern in the latest class and it has instructions for baby, child and adult jackets, in addition to very expanded instructions. There are even line-by-line instructions if you get confused by any step. Buy it from Schoolhouse Press now! (I am not affiliated with Schoolhouse Press so all I get out of it is the satisfaction of a new Baby Surprise Jacket fan.)