National Knitting Night, and Maths

Have you heard of Slow TV?

It’s a neat idea. TV at the speed of real life.
Not reality TV. Real life TV.

A railroad trip from Bergen to Olso.
A fireplace burning.
A group of 7 Norwegian women attempting to break the International Back to Back Wool Challenge record.

I’ve been watching the knitting episode recently (in a number of installments, because it’s twelve hours long!) and it is really interesting.
Slow and interesting.

Watching how they approached the wool challenge, and seeing the various benchmarks of records set by groups from other nations along the way got me thinking about the math behind the project.

The current record is held by the Pembroke Merriwa Jumbucks, NSW, Australia 4hr 51min 14sec (2004).
That seems like a fair bit of time, until you start breaking down the yardage and the stitch counts.
Then you see what a remarkable achievement it is.

This was the Norwegian team’s first attempt at the challenge, and they had high hopes of beating the Australian team’s record. But their approach seemed pretty casual. I don’t think they’d done the math!

The rules specify a certain sweater pattern, down to the stitch.
Back and front are 96 stitch panels, 150 rows.
Sleeves start at 46 stitches, increasing to 96 over a total of 116 rows.

In round numbers, we’re talking about 39,000 stitches.

And probably about 1500 yards of two ply yarn, spun in the grease (no carders, combs or scissors permitted)

If you can spin about 200 yards of singles per hour and maybe ply as much as 400 yds per hour, then we’re talking about a little more than 15 hours at the wheel to get the 1500 yds necessary for the sweater.
The team can have up to 7 foot-powered spinning wheels, so that work is easily divided over the members of the team.

The limiting factor is knitting speed, because the knitting can only be shared by 4 people (4 pattern pieces).
And you need to get them knitting as soon as possible in order to have any shot at a good time.

39,000 stitches. About 11,700 each front and back, and 7,800 per sleeve.
Your average knitter (me, for example) can probably keep up a pace of 30 stitches per minute for a good long time.
But even if you were to go at it at that rate without taking any breaks or stopping to count rows, etc, 39,000 stitches is 22 hours of work.
Which, even divided by 4 people already puts you over the Australian time by more than 30 minutes. And that is just the knitting.

To get anywhere close to that time, the average speed of the knitters needs to be up around 55 stitches per minute, which will bring the knitting time for the front or back of the sweater down to around 3.5 hours. But keep in mind, knitting with greasy wool is a little different than knitting with regular yarn.

So far we know that:
1. you need much faster-than-average knitters.
2. they need to start knitting as soon as possible and
3. And they have to stay focused, and not be concerned with things like row counting

But before anyone can begin knitting, some yarn must be spun and plied.
So everyone must start out as a spinner.

And each spinner can only be producing on single at a time (unless they are working on a double-flyer wheel, but we’re not going to go there 🙂 )
The object of four of the spinners needs to be to produce 2 batches of two ply yarn to get the largest two pieces of the sweater going as quickly as possible.

This all needs to happen within one hour of the start time.

If they can get all the knitting started withing that time-frame, you’re off to a good start. Maybe an hour later two people cast on for the sleeves.From that point on, you have three people spinning to keep up with 4 people knitting.

If your front and back knitters can get each piece done in 3.5 hours, and your sleeve knitters follow suit, then you might get the knitting done by 4:30, which leaves you 21 minutes to get ends woven in, and the pieces seamed.


Now that’s what I call an action/adventure show!



    • denisemor

      indeed. fleecy math geek. I think that the next step in my in-depth analysis of this topic is doing time trials on spinning in the grease, and knitting with the resulting plied yarn!

    • denisemor

      I watched it on Netflix. I think that there are bits and pieces on Youtube, but not sure if they have subtitles.


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