Nancy Drew and the Clue in the Epic Sweater

As the New York Sheep and Wool Festival fast approaches this year, I thought perhaps it was about time I blog about last year’s Rhinebeck sweater! Once you see how long this post is, you’ll know why I dragged my heels on writing it for a year. 😉

I knit the most insane thing I’ve ever created, and possibly will ever create. It was an epic ode to a childhood love: a fictional character who helped teach me that young women can be (among many other things) strong, smart, independent, clever, resilient, daring, unapologetic in showing their wit or skill. And they can do it better than any man in the room.

So without further ado, let me introduce you to my epic Nancy Drew sweater.

The idea started as a spark. Just a little spark. It’s an innocent enough thing that both simple and truly bananas projects start with. Mine went into the latter camp.

I had the idea to create a version of a sweater type for (probably mostly) boys and young men in and around the 1950s. An illustrated sweater with a huge machine knit intarsia design of a stereotypical theme. Often Western motifs, sometimes an animal or scene like sailing. Kind of like these.

Sources: left, Hopalong Cassidy sweater auction / right, Roy Rogers vest (original auction no longer found)
Sources: left, panther sweater / right, Hoppy (Hopalong Cassidy) sweater

These were usually just a few colors: a background color, a dark contrast color, and a bright or light contrast color. Sometimes one or two other colors to round things out. They frequently featured contrasting ribbing. And that was the initial goal for mine—just a few colors, contrast ribbing. But I had to come up with a theme!

I ruminated about that for awhile. It had to be something I loved enough to drive myself to the brink knitting what I knew would end up being a stupdenous amount of intarsia. And… there’s not a whole lot of things that fit that bill and would work in a large illustrated format. But one thing was calling to me that I thought would work: Nancy Drew.

Specifically, Nancy Drew book art. Open one of the vintage books up, and you can see the similarity right away in the endpapers!

The endpapers are basically simpler versions of the book cover art. But which cover (or covers) to select?? There were several editions of the same books. Pretty quickly I decided it needed to be from the editions I mostly had as a kid, which were the yellow spine ones from 1959 through 1978. Those are the ones I mostly collected (my very first thrifted items!). So it was only fitting I used the art from the books that spoke to me the most from my past.

I poured over the covers for ages, and I really thank the Nancy Drew Sleuth unofficial web site for their wealth of information about Nancy Drew, particularly the page showing all the cover variations. I spent hours on this page!

As I hemmed and hawed, I occasionally threw a book cover into Photoshop and played with it a bit to see if I thought it would be be suitable, and just to kind have an idea of where I was going with this plan. A full cover, or a bit of a cover, or pull Nancy off a cover? Wasn’t sure yet. As I went along, I leaned towards a full cover.

I was pretty sure I wanted to do The Quest of the Missing Map because I’ve always loved maps, but early on decided I’d do a cover for the back of the sweater too (sure! make it doubly hard!). I also kind of wanted to do one with Nancy, Bess, and George (Quest of the Missing Map worked for tat) and then one with just Nancy alone.

And so for a few reasons, the initial idea of having it be only a few colors had to be scrapped, as the artwork was going to be too complicated, and there was no way I was going to include Nancy and her friends without all the appropriate hair colors! But I knew I’d still try to keep the feel of the original vintage sweaters.

Once I knew for sure which two books I was doing, the work really began. It would be The Quest of the Missing Map and The Clue of the Black Keys.

I really can’t explain exactly what I did. Hours of trial and error, and feeling through what I thought looked right.

In the broadest sense, I scanned the artwork, limited the color palette a lot, did a lot of freehand work to clean up areas and add in things. For instance, I needed more distinct foliage in the background of Clue of the Black Keys than the cover actually had, because the art needed to exist in the center of a sweater on its own, not defined by the edges of the book cover. You can see how that compares below.

All told, I think I probably spent upwards of 50 hours or more just getting the book cover charts finalized. Yes, it really was that much work!

How did I do the charts? I primarily did them in Photoshop and an online app called Stitch Fiddle. It was my first time using Stitch Fiddle and I found it absolutely fantastic for working with a giant chart and swapping colors out and limiting color palettes. I stumbled on it by accident and hadn’t heard of other knitters or designers using it, but for my sweater, it was ideal. A year’s subscription (I think it was around $25 USD) was worth its weight in gold for this project. (You can use a limited version free.)

I did most of the general design and cleanup work in Photoshop first—adding and taking away sections, moving foliage, swapping out eyeballs, giving Nancy a shirt in one chart, outlining the treasure chest better in one chart, cleaning up lots of extraneous pixels. Then I defined and limited the color palette in Stitch Fiddle. And then I did the last remaining cleanup work. Hours and hours of cleanup work. Good grief, so many pixels. Sooo maaaaanyyyyy pixxxelssss.

Here’s part of the transformation process for one area of the chart that had a ton of cleanup work, including getting legible letters from the original book cover back into a legible format on my chart, and making lots of spotty pixelated sections and shadows actually ‘read’ as parts of the map. For reference neither of the charts shown below were the finished version. But both were probably somewhere many hours into the whole process.

The book titles were certainly a lot more straightforward (though by no means easy). If there are any super eagle-edge vintage Nancy Drew book fans, you may notice the font of the titles doesn’t match the era of the cover art on my sweater. The titles were from the earlier editions. I just liked the font better, simple as that!

I was somewhere towards the beginning of designing the charts when I decided I needed to knit this in fingering weight yarn to get in as much detail as possible, and I chose Jamieson’s Shetland Spindrift. You can get it locally in the U.S. from Schoolhouse Press, and for me it’s just a quick mail trip from Wisconsin to Illinois, whereas the only local yarn shop that I knew used to sell Jamieson & Smith (different brand) closed and ordering from the U.K. would have taken too long. So that made it an easy choice. Since I was starting this last mid-July, I needed every spare knitting second to get it completed by Rhinebeck last mid-October.

That’s a lot of colors up there. I kept the general feel of those high contrast sweaters, but in the end the front chart had 8 colors and the back had 9 colors (same colors, plus one more shade of green).

Let’s go back to that fingering weight thing for a second. I swatched while I was still designing the charts, but for the life of me, at the time, I was having the devil of a time trying to get a tight enough gauge, even on size 0 needles. My goal gauge with everything working out perfectly was 7.5 spi, but I kept coming up looser. Ysolda gave me a great tip, to try Eastern purling, which can help tighten up your purl rows if they tend to be looser than your knit rows (mine do, and for some reason at the time it was even more pronounced). Here’s her tutorial. That switch helped a lot, although changing my knitting style for a specific project took some extra concentration!

Two book cover charts, each 122 stitches wide, and 144 or 160 rows tall. Plus book cover title charts, another 50 or so rows. Size 1 needles.

How was it to knit? I mean, what can I say. Terrible but satisfying? Terrible but satisfying.

I printed the charts because they were gigantic. In fact, so big that I had to tape them together and cobble together an extender to my magnetic chart board to make it all work. Not a chance would I have tried to do this on my iPad, too small!

Did I tell you that I hate knitting intarsia? I hate knitting intarsia. At the maximum, I had 15 bobbins going at a time. Utterly ridiculous. A mess of bobbins and sticky Shetland wool. It was just as horrible as it sounds like it would be.

And I knew it would be, so I mentally had a backup plan: I’d start with my favorite chart as the front (Quest of the Missing Map), and if I decided along the way it was all so horrible I couldn’t stand the thought of doing a second chart, I wouldn’t do the back chart.

Watching it grow did make up for some of the pain of knitting it, because somehow it felt like magic.

There were a lot of “Holy shit, I’m really knitting this!” moments. I think seeing Nancy, George, and Bess’s faces take shape was one of the most satisfying parts, because once I could see their faces and recognize them, I knew it was working. It was really working!

I even took it on the road a couple of times! Here I was knitting the front of the sweater at Jen from Grainline Studio‘s house. Her lovely dog Oaty is the background. 🙂 I was up to the book title chart at that point, so only two colors!

A little over a month after starting the front of the sweater, it was soaking and ready to be blocked!

I can’t even tell you how long I stared at this once I blocked it. In fact, I kept it propped up on blocking boards until it was time to sew up the sweater, I was that excited about it! Who am I kidding, I still am… I stared at this photo a lot when writing this post! 🙂

Remember how I gave myself an out in case I didn’t want to knit the back chart?

OBVIOUSLY I KNIT THE BACK CHART.

(That’s of course my Nancy Drew dress that I’m wearing above. I love that photo!)

I took a lot of progress shots with the knitting and the charts as I was going along, because even though I was the one who put in the hours to make this all happen, it was still kind of astonishing to me to see it take form!

I didn’t take a lot of photos of the wrong side of the work as I was knitting, but here’s one for you below. I was really diligent about weaving in ends every few inches or when major areas were complete. I didn’t want the nightmare of doing it all at the end!

(The sections you see left un-woven-in below at Nancy’s eye and mouth were areas I wasn’t sure if I’d need to do a bit of duplicate stitch on later, to tidy up a few stitches that didn’t look quite as good in the final knitting as on the chart.)

About another month in, and the back was done and blocking, too.

It felt MONUMENTAL to get both the front and back complete. Here they are, with their respective books. I dare say I was almost a little wistful when they were both finished!

The rest of the project wasn’t very exciting, though somewhat of a welcome relief after all that intarsia! Like, a lifetime’s worth of intarsia, let’s be honest. I seamed the pieces, knit the contrasting neckband, and knit the sleeves top down (my tutorial link on that technique).

With a week to spare, I finished my sweater before last year’s Rhinebeck, meaning exactly one year ago this week. 🙂

And I could have taken proper photos of this on a real camera for you, but honestly I thought it would be more fun and realistic to share the photos my best friend took on Saturday at last year’s Rhinebeck. We ducked behind one of the buildings to grab a few moments of quiet and snap these photos. (Because yes, if you’re at a knitting festival wearing a totally mad intarsia sweater featuring a great female fictional character, you WILL get stopped to talk about every 10 feet!)

I think my joy is pretty obvious, no??

I was so happy to get to wear this at Rhinebeck!

Reflecting on all of this a year later, I don’t think there’s a single thing that could make this sweater any better in my eyes. And what a wonderful feeling that is.

It was such a great experience designing and knitting this special sweater, and then getting to share that joy with so many other knitters.


Want a little more (how can there be more?!)? Check out my Ravelry project page. You’ll also find me talking about my sweater at the end of the Kristy Glass Knits “Tell Me About Your Rhinebeck Sweater” 2017 video on YouTube.

Disclaimer…

Because I remember what last fall was like as I shared all the stages of this on social media (and it was mostly wonderful but): No I will not share these charts. No I will not sell this sweater. No I am not turning this into a design to sell. No I will not write a tutorial on how I took the art and turned it into charts to knit. No I am not looking for ideas on future sweaters like this that you think I should make. This was like a love letter for myself. Well and truly for me. Start to finish. I’m happy to share about the process and final outcome, but this is all mine. Please respect that. Thank you. 🙂

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Golly, 21 Comments!

  • The sweater is wonderful! I am at a loss for words! I have only been knitting for around 2 years so a task like this seems huge! Well done. Also lovely to read a post from you – I know it takes ages with the great photos etc but it is very much appreciated! Only this morning I re read your post on sleeves & neckline finishing on you brown plaid dress – now about to do mine the same way. Hope all is well with you & yours.

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  • I am speechless, Tasha. With decades of knitting under my belt, I am overwhelmed at the sheer volume of time involved, and your workmanship is flawless. Seriously. Your tension is spot-on, your colour choices are a perfect interpretation of the original artwork, and I agree wholeheartedly – this cannot be improved upon. Wow. Just wow.

    I’ve been toying with an idea for a Rosie the Riveter throw (not with fingering weight – hell no – we’re talking sport weight on 3.5mm at best) and was really thinking of going with duplicate stitch for control, but I think I’ll be able to pluck up the courage to go with intarsia (which I generally dread). You’ve renewed my enthusiasm. Again, just wow. Thanks for sharing this, and for the link to the Stitch Fiddle app. How very cool! All the best to you and yours! xxxx

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  • What an outrageous effort of love and fun! That is a tremendous sweater, so inventive and yet personally traditional and meaningful and really cool. Good for you! Thanks for showing us.

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  • Absolutely so cool. What a labor of love. Nancy Drew books were some of the books I cut my teeth on – and helped provide me with a lifetime of loving to read.

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  • Your Nancy Drew sweather is a truly amazing work of art. My love for reading awoke while reading solen of my mother’s Nancy Drews from the 1950’s. How I loved the books and their cover art, especially the ones from the 50’s. For some reason Nancy is named Kitty here in Sweden where I tres up, while Bess and George still is Bess and George.
    Anyway a heroic Sweather for great heroine.

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  • You’ve put hours into this project. Love it for you! It is a work of art.

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  • Absolutely awesome! A labour of love that looks fantastic. Hats off to you! What an inspiration. Truly well done!

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  • That’s Brilliant! Well done!!!

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  • Thank you. Fabulous in every way.

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  • Charlotte Newland October 12, 2018 at 3:02am

    I can’t get over how absolutely EPIC this project is. It makes me love you even more. The total joy on your face is wonderful!

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  • Wowsers!!! I mean, wowsers!!! This is AMAZING!!!! To say it was so much work is an understatement, but, my goodness, it was worth every stitch! Happy wearing!

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  • This is amazing! <3

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  • Thanks for posting all this additional info. As a technique geek, I appreciate all the tips. That purl tip will definitely be worth trying for ribs, as Ysolda describes. But are you saying you did all the purls that way? And then did all the knit stitches through the back loop? That really would add a degree of difficulty! I get the shakes thinking about the intarsia. Congrats on your fantastic achievement.

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  • This is the BOMB-Diggity!!! What a super cool project to have made — a love letter for yourself indeed! So glad you shared it with us and I hope you get to love wearing it for many, many years!

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  • All I can do is slow clap. This is really an astonishing achievement. I’d wear it all day, everywhere, forever if I made it, but I know I’d never have the conviction to do something so amazing.

    Congratulations.

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  • So awesome! It is wonderful to make something for yourself that you put so much effort into. Thank you for sharing.

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  • Wow!
    This sweater is STUN.NING. And I love that you took the time to write such a detailed post about it!
    I loved following the process on instagram but this pot actually reminded me about one thing that I loved when I first started reading sewing blogs maybe year ago or so… the fact that we could really get into the detail of things, discussing tiny choices with other sewing/knitting nerds. All that to say that it is super cool to get a glimpse into your whole process.
    I’m not super good at commenting but I really enjoy reading your posts and this one gets me excited for knitting colourwork (which is bad because I actually don’t really like doing it …).

    Also, smart of you to include the disclaimer at the end; because I can tell you that at least two or three of these questions ran through my mind while reading it, out of simple curiosity… but I do think that you included enough info in the blog post for someone eager to take asimilar process with some art they love… i had not heard of stitch fiddle before, i’m going to bookmark that for sure!

    have a very nice weekend!

    Cynthia

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  • oh no… my comment is full of typos and I don’t think i can delete it and repost 🙁
    * “post” not “POT”
    *”8 years ago” not “year ago”

    and generally, sorry for the weird grammar and choppy style… I guess I DID get really excited and wrote without proofreading … and as a result it reads a bit like an excited toddler telling their parents about their day 😉

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  • Juliana @ Urban Simplicity October 13, 2018 at 11:02am

    What a completely bonkers and utterly wonderful project! I’m in awe every time I see a photo of your sweater. Nancy Drew was a particular childhood favorite of mine too!

    Congratulations on a job well done!!

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  • Tasha, this is a fantastic post! Thanks so much for taking the time to go through the process with us. It is truly a labour of love. I was a huge Nancy Drew fan in the 60s and still have the books. I love, love, love this jumper. Oh, and the Nancy Drew dress is super too!

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  • Beth in Maryland October 17, 2018 at 3:24pm

    Thank you for posting this! What a feat of knitterly engineering and creativity! I’m moved to admit something I’ve kept to myself all these years: Judy Bolton is just not as inspiring as Nancy Drew. Only Nancy could be the source of such an effort.

    Reply

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