Swircle instructions

If you would like to join the search by knitting experimental swircles (circular swatches of knitted fabric) get in touch with Jane.

Choose your yarn

Choose undyed yarn/s that have not been treated to prevent felting or shrinking (for example, avoid “superwash” brands). A light coloured fleece is preferable to a dark one to permit dye tests later. Note details such as name, brand, ply, yarn diameter. Another useful measurement is the yarn count, which is calculated by dividing the length by the weight. Keep a length of at least 5 inches/125mm in a sealed plastic bag for future data.

So far, the following yarns have been included: Alaska, Blue Faced Leicester, Doulton Border Leicester, Gulf Coast Native, Hampshire, Lincoln Longwool, early Merino, Polwarth, Romney, Swedish Fur and Texel. The project would like a wider variety of fleece to be represented. Please participate by choosing a yarn with an historic pedigree.

Knit a set of swircles

These are circular swatches of tightly-knitted fabric 5 inches (12.75cm) in diameter. The 5 inch (12.75cm) diameter is the most important dimension to target. Adjust everything else to achieve this!

Use four or five double-pointed knitting needles (pins) or a circular needle. You will need to choose the needle size according to the thickness of your yarn (see below). We used 2.5mm for our initial experiments for knitting yarn measuring from 5mm to 2.5mm in diameter (average 3.3mm). Keep the needles small and adapt your tension/gauge to produce tight knitted fabric.

Aim for 7 stitches/wales per inch (per 25mm) and 11 rows/rounds/courses per inch (per 25mm). This is the average gauge calculated from the historical artefacts and it is based on a wide range so it is a guideline rather than a target. The important priority is that the knitting is tight rather than loose.

  1. Use a circular cast on for 8 stitches: here is a good guide to this. But it is only a suggestion. You can use any cast on you like.
  2. Knit one round, dividing the stitches equally between four needles.
  3. Knit twice into each stitch on the way round (16 stitches). Use the cast-on tail to gently draw up the cast-on ring and use it to mark the end of the round by draping it between the needles.
  4. Knit plain for this round and all subsequent odd-numbered rounds (that is, rounds 3, 5, 7 etc).
  5. Knit twice into the 1st and 2nd stitch on each needle, resulting in 6 stitches on each needle and 24 in total. (Do this by knitting into the front and then the back of the stitch.)
  6. Set the pattern by imagining the circle divided into eight sections, with two sections on each needle.
  7. Stitches are increased in alternate rows/rounds/courses (that is, the even-numbered ones).

    BUT ...

    Each increase must not be directly above a recent increase - the location of the stitches that are used for increases (by knitting front and back) must be entirely random. Avoid creating lines, swirls or patterns of any kind in the knitting.

  8. Continue to knit the alternating increase rounds until there are 80 stitches in total (20 on each needle). If your swircle hasn’t reached a 5 inch (12.75cm) diameter, keep going until it has.
  9. Knit one round plain.
  10. Cast off.
  11. Knit four swircles for each yarn you are testing. Two are the “before fulling” evidence. Identify these swircles with tie-on waterproof labels recording your full name, the yarn’s name, and “BEFORE”. Put them in the bag with the yarn sample. The other two will be fulled and become the “after fulling” evidence.

Full your swircles

The aim of these experiments is to test a wide variety of yarns to see which comes closest to producing the mock velvet pile remaining in patches on the extant knitted caps. This stage in the process aims not to felt the fibres together but to full them so that they become smooth. This makes it possible to raise a vertical nap, which will be the next activity.

You will need a bowl, lukewarm water, soap, a mallet and a board to protect your work surface. A near-to-neutral soap is the best to use but don’t worry if you can’t find any. Just make a note of the brand or any other information which helps to identify it. Grate the soap with a cheese grater before adding it to the water. We recommend that you start with very little soap – less than half a handful. You can always add more if you need it.

Immerse and soak two of your knitted swircles in the lukewarm soapy water. Using your hands, work the swircles underwater by gently rubbing them together and agitating their surfaces. Put the wet swircles on the board, fold them in different ways, kneading them like dough. Then, beat them with a wooden mallet refolding them in between beatings or use a pair of mallets as fulling hammers. Keep moving the swircles so that they rub together in different directions. You will probably need to do this for at least an hour alternating between the three actions. If you have the strength and stamina, you may want to keep going for 90 minutes. Either way, keep a note of how long you full the fabric.

Nap your swircles

Teasels were used to raise the surface of the knitted fabric in the 16th century but you can use a vegetable brush or similar - preferably with real bristles. Avoid using a metal comb (such as a cat comb) as this will break the fibres of the fulled wool. Pick up the fibres in short, swift movements. See how long a nap you can raise by brushing the surface in short, brisk upward movements – literally picking up the fibres vertically. You can try this when the swircle is wet or dry but note which you do and how long it takes. In the past, this was probably done when the fabric was still damp. The nap on the originals is short because they were shorn to clip the fibres to an even pile. In some cases, the nap has been flattened from long burial but the best preserved surfaces are just like that on new plushy toys.

After napping, when the swircles are dry, identify them with a tie-on label recording your full name, the yarn’s name, the fulling time and “AFTER”. You should already have two knitted swircles which have not been fulled or napped with tie-on waterproof labels recording your full name, the yarn’s name, and “BEFORE”.

Record your swircles

Please take photos of your yarn, your swircles - one “before” swircle (which is just knitted) together with one “after” swircle (which is fulled and napped). Make sure the labels are visible and legible in the photo. Finally, take one photo of all these items together, and, if you have a photo of yourself in action, please add that too.

There is a questionnaire to complete which requests information such as swircle measurements together with the ply of the yarn, whether you knitted it as a single strand or doubled, for how long you fulled/napped the swircles. There are also opportunities to make your own additional observations.

Please send your swircle photos to Jane by email and to request a copy of the questionnaire.

Sending your swircles

Pack one of the “BEFORE” swircles and one of the “AFTER” swircles together with your sample of yarn ready to send to the KEME Team (address below). Keep the other pair for your own reference.

Please contact Jane by email before sending your pairs of swircles.

Dr Jane Malcolm-Davies
Tilthams Green
United Kingdom