More Shakespeare

I love “Hamlet.” It’s my favorite Shakespeare, hands down. I fell in love with the play in high school, despite my largely apathetic classmates and totally incompetent teacher. Mr. H was squeamish about discussing sex and violence and mispronounced our vocabulary words — two things that made him a terrible candidate for teaching the classics and earned my unending disgust.

I didn’t always love “Hamlet.” I’ve owned my old, beaten-up paperback of the play since I was about 10. Sure that it would be excellent fodder for my precocious, pretentious preteen reading habits, I opened it right after I got it from my brother, scanned a few lines and paused. I very clearly remember thinking “Um … maybe I’ll be ready for that later,” and I returned the book to the shelf, where it rested for five more years, turning yellower and more fragile until I finally felt qualified to read it.

I think two-color brioche stitch is my “Hamlet.” I tried it over a year ago and fell completely flat. It’s not a hard stitch pattern, but it has its own definite interior logic that made no sense to me when I first tried it. I bought some KnitPicks “Merino Style” in red and black — OK, so I’m a little predictable with the favorite colors — and I cast on.

And I failed. Immediately. I could not make sense of the directions. No matter what I did, no matter how much I read up on it, I could not make it work. It looked so simple, so logical: follow the pattern exactly, and I would have brioche stitch. I didn’t need to understand it; I just needed to do it. And I couldn’t, no matter how hard I tried. I started, and started again, and it never came together.

I ripped out the yarn so many times that I finally gave up and charted that dead kitty design for double knitting, just to have something else to do with the yarn. I told myself I didn’t really want brioche stitch anyway, and my new scarf pattern was infinitely better than what I’d had in mind when I bought the yarn. That Merino Style is still there, balled up, sealed in a sandwich bag and buried at the bottom of the wool box. It hasn’t forgotten. It grins up at me from behind odd balls of merino and half-started projects every time I dig through the box, reminding me of the double-knit scarf I’d planned and abandoned. I can live with that — at least the double-knit scarf was a failure of initiative, not intelligence. I can accept being lazy. I can’t accept being stupid.

On the walk from class to car the other day, I dreamily ran lines from “Hamlet” through my head, trying to memorize them well enough to break out with them on short notice. Still a bit of a pretentious 10-year-old at heart, I liked the idea of being the kind of person who says “Angels and messengers of grace defend us!” when startled. The wind nipped at my neck with a little more fervor than usual, promising more bites to come in the advancing winter. It sure would be nice to have an alpaca scarf, I thought. Last winter’s alpaca scarf, a beautiful heathered gray yarn in fisherman’s rib, was a narrow little thing that never did recover from being squashed into pockets a few too many times, and I couldn’t find the damn thing, anyway. It was time for a new one.

A bit of stash-digging turned up four skeins of Classic Elite “Inca Alpaca,” a soft, wonderfully warm yarn. Only two of the skeins matched — two dark, heathered gray; one plain black; and one variegated that ran from cloud gray to almost black. (Hello, monochromania!) I debated making Grumperina’s gorgeous Shifting Sands scarf, but I’m all cabled out recently and wanted something squishy and stretchy and fluffy, without being loose or holey. A thought floated into my mind: Why not two-color brioche? Trying not to think of last year’s ignominious defeat, I found directions for a two-color brioche scarf online and heedlessly cast on in the worst possible setting: in the car; at night; by the light of a headlamp bought for camping; with the black yarn and the variegated, which started out a rich charcoal only a shade lighter than the black; and using rosewood needles the color of good dark chocolate.

And I nailed it. The stripes settled in comfortably right where they are supposed to, pleasantly and subtly geometric. The slipped stitches lined up in precise little rows. The yarn knitted up into a lofty, plush fabric that peaked and dived in deep, defined ridges. The rare missed yarnover was gracefully picked up and brushed off and set back on its feet with minimal fuss. I stopped looking at the pattern after knitting just an inch or so, and even remembered how to do the set-up row when I ripped out and started over on smaller needles. I dumped the pattern’s knobby garter-stitch edges, creating a sleek selvedge that blended into the scarf. I’d found my perfect scarf: warm, beautiful, a delight to see and touch.

Even better, I’m no longer brioche stitch’s bitch. I don’t have to feel like I’ve been outsmarted by yarn. The stitch pattern ripples comfortably through my head, borne on total understanding of how and why the pattern works. I can finally say that every frustration, every confusion of my last attempt at brioche stitch is gone — succumbed to a new and far more daunting challenge: knitting seven feet of scarf on double-points barely larger than sock needles.

Alpaca brioche
Two-color brioche-stitch scarf: pattern eventually, if anyone is foolhardy enough to ask.