Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Struggle Was Worth It...Well, Mostly

So I've been wanting a "real" hat for years. And by "real" I mean a hat that doesn't look knitted or crocheted. I have plenty of hats that I made, ranging from simple ski caps to intricate lace patterns and they are fine, ostensibly. But I've always admired a lovely, wool, felt hat --- even had a couple when I was first in college. One thing I remember is, hot damn, they are expensive to buy. I think I got the two that I had on an off-season clearance sale from a hat store (Hats in the Belfry, on South Street in Philly). We're talking about 23 years ago too.

Heh, didn't even think Hats in the Belfry existed anymore, but it's still there. And, lo and behold, felted wool hats are still VERY expensive, by my standards. I can't afford to plop down $140+ for a simple felted cloche. Seasonally, it seems the wool ones will go down in price. But even still, $78 is too rich for my blood.

So last month, I finally decided to embark on a project to make a felted wool cloche with my own hands. I used two different wool yarns that I had in my stash, so it literally cost me nothing except time to make it.  But boy did it take time. This is the pattern I used. I, of course, altered it because, well, that's just what I do. I seem to never be equipped to knit a thing directly and exactly as outlined in a pattern. In this case, my yarn gauges were: dark gray Wool of the Andes bulky & American Beauty red Malabrigo worsted, not DK (and yay me for choosing two different gauges as well). I also felt like it looked too tall --- almost Cat-In-the-Hat-ish. So I reduced the number of overall rounds.

The actual knitting part was not too bad. Yes, it is knit ginormous. Like ridiculously large. You look like Dumb Donald when you try it on. And, indeed, I felt like Dumb Donald for taking on this project. Then the only other instructions are to basically felt the living shit out of it until you end up with something that fits your head.

"Godammit this cannot be right...."

Below is a picture of the pre-felted hat compared to another hat I knit in a lacy pattern. I wear this lacy hat all the time. (By the way, here's that pattern.) I knit it with cashmere and it feels lovely and is warm as hell...literally, I suppose. I might have to retire it soon, though, because I've worn it straight for 3 winters in a row now. It has worn like IRON, surprisingly. But I should have it dry cleaned and put away so that I don't wear it out completely. Anyway, here's the comparison:

I was happy with the color combination. The gray and red (and it's an unusual red, almost a red orange) have a sort of classic, bygone-era look to it, which is what I was going for. I wanted this cloche to look like someone lovingly stored it in a cedar chest since 1928.

Well to achieve that look took a metric ass-ton of work. Knitting took, off and on, about three days. But the felting was, well, pretty much a whole weekend, if you count the time to felt the hat AND make and felt the tie that goes around it (see pictures below). I have a front-loading washer and dryer and by all accounts felting in a front-loader is not an easy task. Also, since this is a wearable item, size matters. It's not exactly easy to gauge what's happening to the knitted fabric if the hat is in a washing machine for an hour. So, hand-felting it was.

I spent a good 90 minutes (or more) standing over the sink in my kitchen and a tub of scalding hot water to get the first round of felting done. Aaaand it didn't look all that much different:

"Great. This is going to be harder than I thought." So I spent another hour working the fabric with hot water and rubbing it between my hands. This is one time when wearing rubber gloves actually helps the process go faster. Starting to see more of a difference, right? Maybe? A little? BETTER SAY YES, DAMMIT! Whimper....

My arms, hands, and back were killing me by this point. I went to Ravelry to see what others had done with their felting. Some of the suggestions were just not going to happen. I wasn't about to take everything and a roll of quarters to a laundromat and use a washing machine there on a Saturday. Come on. Someone else suggested that it's the heat more so than the agitation that will shrink the size down and to toss the hat in the dryer for "a bit" on high heat. So that's what I did. I did it for an hour. Went to check on it. Still very wet and the same size. Another 30 minutes. Checked it again. Pretty much the same. Another 45 minutes. Starting to look and feel drier, but the size wasn't doing much.  Gave it another 30 minutes. Starting to budge now! Another 40 minutes. It was mostly dry by this point and I could see that it looked more like felt and less like stockinette (yay!) and I did see a difference in the size too. And I was also really flippin' tired from running up and down steps all afternoon.

But running it through the dryer created another problem. It was nearly the right size (still not where I wanted it --- too tall) but it had no real shape or style to it.  It looked like a misshapen, upside-down bowl. Not happy. Also, because it was nearly bone dry by this point too, there was no way of shaping it. I didn't like how the crown looked either. Too floppy and sloppy. A felted cloche (which is French for "bell," by the way) should have a smooth, domed top. This was...eh:

Welp. Back to the sink! Tossed some earbuds in, got my gloves on: let's finish this bitch. I spent probably another hour working most specifically on the crown to get it to that smooth, domed shape I wanted and on the brim to give it that bell shaping. I paused a few times to try it on my head as well. This was not really that helpful. Putting a sopping-wet, woolen bucket on your head doesn't really give the same effect as the finished product. I kept measuring it with a tape measure to see if it was changing, shrinking, or growing in the ways I wanted it to.

By this time, it was like 5:00 pm. But I got it where I wanted it. Crap. Now I realized I had nowhere to put this thing to dry while holding its shape. I almost ran out to a local beauty-supply store to see if they had a styrofoam head I could buy. I was quasi delusional and thought, "Hey, what if I made a bunch of these hats in the future?!" Yeah. No.

But sheer exhaustion got the better of me and I ended up stuffing the inside with plastic grocery bags and propping it up on a plastic storage container we use for cat food. It worked out fine enough. Let the 2-day long drying process begin:

After about eight hours of dealing with this hat, the last thing I wanted to do was knit a 45-inch long i-cord. I hate knitting i-cords. But I cast it on anyway. Only got about a foot done during that Saturday evening. I was worn out and preferred to vegetate in front of the TV for the rest of the night.

Finished the i-cord on Sunday and had to felt that too. Since the i-cord was knit in the red Malabrigo, which is pretty much one step above roving, it was pretty easy to felt. It took maybe 45 minutes. I don't know if you notice it in the photos above, but even after just the first felting, the red portion was already full-on felt! Maybe if my sanity escapes me again or I get hit on the head with a brick and lose all memory of having made this cloche and I do it again, I will remember to use ALL Malabrigo....

So, it was done. It looks amazing, if I do say so myself. Now I just need a decent coat to wear with it. :-P  Next year!