Queer | Feminist | Doctor

CW for mention of sexual violence, genital surgery and suicide, mention of trans-exclusionary viewpoints

I’ve been told multiple times this weekend that (“true”) women are oppressed because of their biology, that it is having a vagina that makes women targets of sexual violence, that it is not possible for a trans woman to be oppressed as a woman because she is “biologically male”.

I have already written a post on why the idea of “biologically male” is a bit more complicated than TERFs would have you believe, but one of the things that I got sent was a lot of links to scientific papers on brain differences between men and women. The people who sent me these links are adamant that there is no such thing as a “male brain” or “female brain”, but as usual, the reality is more complex than that.

In the past 50 years, there have been a lot of studies into what determines one’s gender identity. In the 1960s there was quite a concerted effort made to put forth the theory that we are born as a “blank slate”, and it is only the way that we are treated throughout our lives (“socialised”) that gives us a sense of what our own gender is.

There is one very famous study which was of a pair of identical twin boys, one of whom had his penis destroyed aged about 7 months, due to a surgical accident. Their names were Brian and David Reimer. Psychiatrist John Money saw this as an opportunity to do a case study in gender, which he hoped would prove his “blank slate” views were correct – he instructed that this baby have his name changed (from David to Brenda) and that he be raised as a girl.

The study was highly unethical for a large number of reasons which I will not go into here, but initially Dr Money reported that his experiment had been successful, and that the boy David had successfully been socialised as a girl. He did not report that David became more and more insistent that he was a boy, or that before age 18 he socially transitioned to live as a man.

The whole family was incredibly damaged by the study, and both boys killed themselves before age 40. In the end this case study showed that socialisation is not the be-all and end-all when it comes to gender.

This is a problem for trans-exclusionary radical feminists, as they claim that gender identity is not a real thing, that your internal sense of your own gender comes from the ideas patriarchy feeds you about what it is to be a man, or a woman, and that any sense of gender you have is due to your personality, not due to your gender.

Were this the case then transsexual people would be considered gender-atypical rather than transsexual. But if it really were true, then why would anyone be transsexual?

Many of the people that argue that trans women are “actually men” have no experience of gender dysphoria, how stressful and damaging it can be. In fact they try to use the fact that trans people are more likely to be diagnosed with depression and anxiety, as evidence that trans people are “just crazy”, that we are deluded in our sense of our own gender.

The fact that the levels of depression and anxiety, and suicide risk, improve dramatically with appropriate treatment of gender identity disorder (including but not limited to medical and surgical treatment) is an inconvenient truth they seem to ignore.

Gender IS socially constructed, in that there is no real reason why the activities and personality traits associated with a particular gender should be unavailable to someone of another gender. But gender is ALSO part of people’s identities, their sense of self.

Cis people claiming that their gender does not form part of their identity are speaking from a position of privilege, they have the luxury of viewing their experience of the world as the default. It takes emotional intelligence and empathy to realise that while you personally may not experience your gender as part of your identity, others do.

Many cis and trans people spend a lot of time reflecting on what their gender means to them, and how to interact with their deep seated sense of their own gender. For a cis person to object to being described as cis is comparable to a pale-skinned, brown haired person objecting to being called a brunette.

That person may not identify as a brunette, but since brunette is a descriptive term used to describe a particular complexion, it would not be factually incorrect to use that word to describe them.

Trans-exclusionary feminists claim that only “womyn born womyn” experience oppression as women. I find it difficult to understand why they believe this, as it is pretty clear to me that most people judge a person’s gender based on their appearance, and not their chromosome type or their genital or reproductive anatomy.

In a society that oppressed “womyn born womyn” due to their anatomy, it would be customary to examine someone’s genitals or take a DNA test on meeting them, so that you could tell their “true sex”. This is clearly not the case.

The VAST majority of people take a glance at what someone looks and sounds like, and instantly and subconsciously put them into a box, of “man” or “woman”. They then treat that person as the gender that they have guessed. Most of the time they are right.

Some people, cis and trans, do not “pass” as the gender that they are presenting themselves as. Some women are very tall and get mistaken for men. Some men have high voices and get misgendered over the telephone.

Being misgendered is something that happens a lot to trans people, but cis people do experience it too. A man trying to be polite by opening a door for a woman doesn’t ask for her full gender history first.

So, society does not treat women according to their biology, but according to the gendered behaviours in which they engage, plus their body shape, posture, and other factors which add up to their overall appearance to others. This is called “gender presentation”.

So I’ve spent quite a lot of today attempting to discuss gender with people who are convinced that transsexual women are (despite the name) actually men. I’m not going to reproduce their arguments here as they are upsetting for many and triggering for some, so I’m just going to explain my views on sex and gender and what evidence they’re backed up by.

There will be some descriptions of medical syndromes including intersex conditions, but I will do my utmost to keep it simple.

If you’re interested in a more in-depth examination of biological sex as a social construct I highly recommend “Hermaphrodites and the medical invention of sex, by Alice Domurat Dreger”. I read it while working with Professor Sarah Creighton, a gynaecologist whose area of expertise is adolescent and adult women with disorders of sexual differentiation.

Those six weeks changed my life in more ways than one, but it is the gender and sex stuff I’ll be discussing here!

Full disclosure: I am a medical doctor, and identify as both trans and genderqueer, and am undergoing a gender transition which may include hormone and/or surgical treatment. If that information is enough to make you reject anything I have to say on gender and sex, then I guess I just saved you the bother of reading the rest of the blog post.

But I hope, like any good scientist, that you are interested in learning about the evidence, and letting that challenge your views!

What do people mean when they say “biological sex”?

On the surface of it it seems like quite a simple thing – are you male or female? But, like many aspects of biology, it is more complicated than it seems at first glance. Over the past 150 years or so, scientists (mostly highly privileged men, let’s be honest), have been trying to figure out what determines someone’s “true” sex, and as more discoveries have been made about how the human body works, our ideas of what “true sex” or “biological sex” means have changed.

Usually, now (2015), people mean whether you’re male or female, or as I’ve been asked “are you a boy or a girl?” It is usual when a baby is born to ask “boy or girl?” and a LOT of baby stuff (congratulations cards/balloons, clothes, toys) are made in pink for girls, blue for boys, and not many other options are available!

When a baby is born we look at the external genitalia to see whether the baby is “boy or girl”, but in many cases it is impossible to tell! For a number of reasons, a girl may be born with what looks like a penis and even a scrotum (this is called “virilisation” and “ambiguous genitalia” in medical practice). Or a boy may be born with a tiny penis that looks more like a clitoris.

When someone isn’t clearly male or female we call them “intersex” – and there are intersex conditions that show up at birth, and those which aren’t revealed until later life, often at puberty. It is estimated that as many as 1 in 1500 children are born with an intersex condition or “disorder of sexual differentiation”, although some are very mild.

Historically, it used to be  said that people who were attracted to women must be men, and vice versa. This seems like a ridiculous view seen from a modern perspective – now that we understand that sexual attraction, or sexuality, is not the same as gender (how you feel) or sex (what your body looks like).

Then, as science progressed and different biological features were discovered, it was said that your hormones were what made you male or female, or what appearance the cells of your gonads (testes, ovaries, or occasionally something inbetween) had under microscope. Chromosomes were discovered, giving us another way to try to find out someone’s “true sex”.

But the fact is, no one of these features can be used to tell whether someone is male, female, or intersex. It’s true that MOST women are born with a clitoris, vagina, uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries, have low testosterone and high oestrogen and progesterone, and have XX chromosomes.

But there are some women who are born without a vagina (vaginal atresia, which can be caused by Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser syndrome, and complete androgen insensitivity), some women who are born with XY chromosomes (complete androgen insensitivity), some women who are born with genitals that look somewhat, or completely  like a penis (this can be caused by congenital adrenal hyperplasia for example). There are some women who have a high level of testosterone (for example in cystic ovarian syndrome).

In truth, it looks like there isn’t such a thing as someone’s “true sex” – rather than being a binary that you can measure from a single test, it is a spectrum, made up of a number of different characteristics, including hormone levels, reproductive tract, chromosomes etc.

I often hear people proclaiming that they are “XX” or “XY” but I wonder how many of them have had their chromosomes tested? There are people in the world who have intersex conditions that they’re not aware of, although some of this is because intersex conditions have been so stigmatised that the truth was hidden from them as children, and they have grown up without this important knowledge.

More recently, brain scanning has been used to try to figure out what gives someone a “female brain” or a “male brain” – some early differences were touted as being “the answer” to why some people have a “male body” but feel that they are a woman, or vice versa.

Some of these papers showed similarities between a cis woman’s brain, and a trans woman’s brain, even without any hormone treatment muddying the waters. Other papers were less certain of the differences.

One review paper concluded, surprisingly enough, that while there were characteristics share by men’s and women’s brains, there isn’t such a thing as a “true female brain” or a “true male brain” – just like with the rest of the body.

When it comes to biological sex, you can categorise yourself and others by how many of the boxes they tick from either the “male” or “female” list – but if you try to predict someone’s sex from just one of those characteristics, you aren’t going to be right every time. T

his relates to trans men and women, because some radical feminists (called trans-exclusionary radical feminists, although apparently some prefer the term radical feminist separatists) think that trans women aren’t “really” women, and that trans men aren’t “really” men – and the arguments they use usually related to biology and the idea of “true sex”.

I’ve written this post to show that like gender, “biological sex” is an idea that only exists because society agrees that it does – which is not to say that it does NOT exist, but that the idea of what it is is socially determined, and not based in “biological fact”.

For a comprehensive explanation of sex-related brain differences in relation to gender identity, you may find this article useful, although it does get somewhat technical at points: http://www.shb-info.org/sexbrain.html

Depression and Labelling

3 years ago, while undertaking a Masters degree, I became ill and had to drop out of the university course. I was diagnosed with a moderate depressive episode, started taking medication and having talking therapy. I ended up having 3 months of sick leave, and could probably have done with a bit more than that, but I didn’t want to miss my final year of medical school, so I gritted my teeth and managed to get that last year done while I was still quite ill.

Because my illness made it difficult to get out of the house some days, I didn’t have 100% attendance, and although my attendance wasn’t particularly different to the other fifth years, the fact that mine was due to illness meant that the University had to check whether I was well enough to work, before they’d let me have my degree.

This is one example of how, once you’ve been labelled as mentally ill, everything you do is associated by some people with your illness. This is not a new phenomenon. The “Rosenhan Experiment” in the 1970s sent “pseudopatients” in to psychiatic hospitals, presenting with fake symptoms, but behaving as their normal selves as soon as they’d been admitted. Their normal behaviours (such as keeping a diary) were labelled as pathological (obsessive note-keeping) and once they were discharged, most were given a diagnosis of “schizophrenia in remission” – i.e. once you have received a label of mental illness, you have it forever.

Over a number of years now, with some help from therapists, I have been trying to stop doing things which were previously making me unhappy. I am now open with people about my gender, sexuality and non-monogamous lifestyle – being closeted, especially with people who are important to me, like family members, was very uncomfortable. I also started dyeing my hair again, got more piercings and started getting tattoos – these were things that I had stopped myself from doing because I felt that other people would disapprove. Being able to be myself more authentically is much more comfortable than trying to “live up” to what I imagine other people’s standards are, even if it does cause conflict sometimes.

Unfortunately, I have discovered, some people do not see these changes in the same light as me. Some see me receiving a mental health diagnosis and then starting doing all kinds of “crazy” things. And some people have labelled those things that I have been doing to make my life easier and happier, as being somehow pathological. I don’t know if they hope that my personality will “go away” once my depression is better, or that I’ll return to being the less challenging, less expressive, more “normal” and ultimately less me version of myself that I used to be. And I don’t know how to reach out to those people, how to reassure them – if they think I’m “not myself” then will they listen to what I have to say?

At Nine Worlds Geek Fest I delivered a session which was basically about making yarn from bought clothes. There are two main ways of doing this which I covered in my session – unravelling bought knitwear, and making yarn from jersey fabric (usually t-shirts).
I wrote this blog post so that people who didn’t make it to the session can find out what they missed🙂


T-shirt yarn

This is made from jersey fabric, usually in the form of t-shirts. You can use old t-shirts, t-shirts you never wear, t-shirts bought from thrift shops/charity shops (especially those who sell clothing by weight) or if you have a particular yarn result in mind you can make it out of brand new t-shirts. If you are buying t-shirts to make yarn out of, try to get the biggest size possible. The yarn is made from the section of the shirt below the armpits so the longer the shirt, the better.

Once you have got your t-shirt, you next need some sharp scissors – dressmakers scissors are ideal. You can also use a rotary cutter if you prefer. Cut a horizontal line across the shirt, right under where the arms join to the body. You may find it helpful to draw a line onto the fabric first with a ruler, to make sure that it is straight. You can buy special fabric pens to do this, or dressmakers chalk which is cheaper, or you can use the corner of a bar of soap.

Now you should have a rectangular tube of fabric. Your next aim is to make a spiral cut so that this is turned into one long thin strip of fabric. There are a couple of ways of going about this. The first way is to start at the bottom edge, cutting in a slope into the fabric until the strip you are cutting is about 2cm wide. Any thinner and you will have problems at the next stage. Then just carry on cutting, keeping your cut the same distance away from the edge of the fabric. Hopefully you will end up going round and round until you’ve got to the top. The second way of cutting the fabric is to lay it out flat and make a series of parallel cuts into the fabric – do not cut all the way across or you will have lots of loops instead of a single strip! This is another point at which you can draw the lines on if you prefer. Cut until about 5cm away from the edge of the tube. You will then have a vertical strip of fabric with lots of loops hanging off it. Then you go along this solid edge, joining up each cut with the next one up. This joins all of the loops into a single strip.

Now that you have a single strip of fabric the next step is to stretch it. I usually do this at the same time as winding it into a ball but you can do these two steps separately if you prefer. All you need to do is go along the length of the strip, stretching it reasonably firmly between your hands. This causes the edges to roll up and the strip to look more like a piece of yarn. Once you’ve got it all wound up into a ball it is ready to be made into something.

The yarn can be knitted, crochet, woven (although it is stretchy so you need to bear this in mind), or used to make things like rag rugs or proggy mats.

Unravelling knitted items.

This can be a very cheap way of getting hold of yarn. At the moment high street shops have a lot of knitwear in them, and in the sales you can pick up jumpers for as little as 3 GBP. Often the ones in the sales are the extremes of size, and since you will be unravelling it, getting as big a jumper as possible is to your advantage.

The first step is to identify which jumpers are suitable for unravelling. Some mass produced knitwear is made by knitting a large sheet of fabric, then using an overlocker to sew it together, which sews and cuts the fabric at the same time. If you are wearing a t-shirt, then the seams will probably have been done with an overlocker.

This is no good for unravelling, as instead of having a jumper knitted with a few lengths of yarn, you have a jumper where the yarn has been cut into lengths as wide as the jumper is. Unless you are happy having lots and lots of bits of yarn a metre or less in length, these are not thje jumpers you are looking for. The jumpers you are after are ones in which the pieces of the jumper (ie front, back, sleeves) have been made separately and then sewn together. [pictures of the right and wrong kind of seam]

The second step is to figure out if the yarn will be any good once the jumper has been unravelled. Mass produced knitwear often uses yarn which is made of many thin threads held together, whereas yarn sold for knitting usually has one, two or three strands twisted together, which makes the yarn more robust and much easier to use for hand knitting. A bought jumper made of strands held together is not necessarily useless for unravelling – you will need to pay attention when knitting it to make sure the yarn is not splitting as you are knitting it. This can be an advantage however as it means that you can hold strands of the unravelled yarn together to make a thicker yarn, without it looking odd. [picture and explanation of unicorn hat and strands]

Another factor which can effect the result you get is whether the jumper is made with a single yarn or using different colours of yarn. Obviously using different yarns means that the length of each yarn will be shorter than if the jumper were made with just one colour. Fairisle jumpers are much more difficult to unravel as the strands are often twisted around each other. I would not attempt to unravel a fairisle patterned jumper as I think it would be far too much effort, but if you’ve got the time and patience to do it then there is no reason not to try.

The third factor which you need to take into account is the fibre/yarn type. Mohair and other fluffy yarns tend to be more difficult to unravel. With a mohair jumper you cannot just grab the yarn and pull it to unravel, you have to unravel it stitch by stitch and it often gets tangled. If you are buying a second hand jumper which is made of yarn with a high wool content, then it may have slightly felted together in places, which will make unravelling more difficult. If you are unravelling a jumper and are finding that it is resistant to unravelling, there are a couple of things that you can do. One is to soak it in water with fabric softener or hair conditioner in it – this lubricates the yarn a bit, hopefully helping it to slip past itself and unravel more smoothly. Another is to put the (dry) jumper into the freezer. I’m not sure how this one works but I’ve heard that it does help!

Once you have identified that the jumper is of suitable construction and the yarn is likely to be usable, the next step is to get it home and start unpicking the seams. Your best friend in this step is a stitch ripper [picture] which you can get from a craft shop/haberdashery department for a couple of quid. I usually unpick the side seams first, and then the sleeves and shoulder seams, which should break the jumper down into its component parts. Often the sewing technique used on the seams is such that if you pull on the right bit, it falls to pieces in your hands, which is most satisfying! If you can’t find the magic thread, then you will have to unpick it stitch by stitch. I usually hold the seam with the right side of the fabric facing me, with one side in each hand [picture], and pull the two sides apart so that I can see the joining thread in the gap between the yarn. An alternative is to unpick from the wrong side [pic]

The trickiest bits are usually the labels and the armpits. Labels are sewn onto the fabric and can usually be unpicked but you may have to give in and cut it out. Armpits are tricky just because there’s usually two different seams coming up against each other and so figuring out which thread is holding you back can be more difficult.

Once you have the jumper deconstructed into flat pieces, you can start unravelling the yarn. Knitting unravels in the reverse of the direction that it was made, and most commercially made jumpers are knitted from the bottom up, so you need to try to find the end at the top of the piece. If however you are struggling away trying to unravel a piece from the top, it is worth trying to find the end at the bottom just in case it was made the other way around. The ends of the yarn are usually sewn in to one of the edges of the fabric. Once you have found it, you will need to undo (or cut) the last stitch that was knitted, and from there you should be able to pull the yarn, causing the row to unravel. After the first stitch, you should not need to thread the yarn through anywhere – I’ve found that trying to do so can cause more problems than it causes so do so with caution. It *should* just unravel. It is worth winding the yarn into a ball as you go along, as tempting as it might be to just keep pulling on the yarn until the whole piece has disintegrated. If you don’t wind as you go, you will have turned a flat piece of fabric into a tangled pile of yarn which you then need to untangle, instead of a neat ball of yarn.

You can either use the yarn it as-is, or you can wind it into skeins to get the kinks out. I use a niddy noddy which you can buy (or make out of PVC pipe reasonably easily) or you can wind it around an object like a cardboad box. Once it is in a skein, tie some threads around it to stop it getting tangled, and then either hang it up in your bathroom to let the humidity get the kinks out, or soak it in water and then hang it up to dry. You will then need to wind it back into a ball – do not be tempted to knit from the skein, it is way more hassle than winding it into balls!

Next year I’m considering doing another session on making yarn out of stuff you’ve bought, but this time moving away from fabric/yarn and towards things like plastic bags, straws, wire etc.

Do you recycle clothing into yarn? Do you have any projects or techniques you would like to share? Or do you have questions or comments about what I’ve written here? If so please post a comment below – I would love to hear from you.


Assimilationism is the act of encouraging minority cultural groups to be similar to larger cultural groups.”

This word is one I’ve only learned in the past year or so, but I’m glad I did because I realised that it is something that I experience in a few different ways. I’m going to describe a couple here.

1. Heteroassimilationism

This is usually expressed in the idea that Queer people would have such an easier time of things if they just behaved like all the “normal” people. The idea that Pride would be a lot easier for people to “deal with” if it wasn’t full of people dressed and acting outrageously. Or when LGBT campaigns put forward the idea that the mainstream should accept us because “hey, we’re just like you!” – we want to get married, have kids, serve in the army, all the things you straight people want!”

Of course having equal access to marriage, adoption/fertility treatment + military service is important, but this kind of campaigning erases the experiences of Queer people who have no interest whatsoever in being “just like a straight person”.

2. Assimilationism in medical culture

Medicine is *extremely* hierarchical. A professional hierarchy is of course necessary to some extent – for newly graduated doctors to have the same level of responsibility as those who have been in the job 20 years would be dangerous and stressful for everyone. But the social hierarchy that we have really grates on me.

Doctors don’t just have a hierarchy within our teams, but some specialities in medicine have a culture of superiority over others. There are stereotypes for most specialities – anaesthetists just sit around all day, orthopaedic surgeons are knuckle-dragging morons, all surgeons lack empathy, etc. I think that patient safety and care quality would also be helped if we stopped trying to say that people working in other specialities are idiots! Do I sound like a hopeless hippy when I wonder why we all can’t respect each others’ expertise, the medical training we all have in common, and do our best to get along?

I’m really glad to find that recent reviews of the NHS have suggested that a less hierarchical workplace would be good for patient safety – the idea being that since junior doctors rotate round into different teams every few months, we bring a fresh perspective to the established practices in a workplace. We are uniquely placed to spread good ideas across different workplaces and notice when a team’s standards of care have drifted. I have a natural inclination to challenge lazy thinking, poor practice, stereotyping etc. I am still working on my skills at doing this without rubbing people up the wrong way – sometimes when I’ve asked someone questions about why they did something the way they did (consultants included) it has gone well, but other times it hasn’t and I’m trying my best to learn from my experiences. Having some of my views backed up by a prestigious review of health care in the UK strengthens my conviction that I don’t have to be assimilated into the medical social hierarchy to be a good doctor.

Of course, the heteronormative assimilation I experience in mainstream society is also present in medicine. My experience of this isn’t helped by the fact that I feel my queerness and my disability make me vulnerable socially, and so at work I tend to be more reserved and less vocal about my personal life than my more “normal” colleagues get to be. I think takes me longer to feel “safe” in a “mainstream” social group than it does with people who I know understand certain things about me, like what polyamory is, the fact that people have pronoun preferences, what pansexual means etc.

Since starting entering the medical profession I’ve begun to explore the boundaries of what is considered a “professional” or an “unprofessional” appearance for a doctor – standards which I believe are based in the medical profession’s origins as a profession run by rich white men. In my first job a nurse complained to my supervisor that she felt that my ear cartilage piercings were unprofessional. To his credit my supervisor told me that it was my body and what I put in it was nobody’s business but mine, but that I might want to think about how my piercings affected how people saw me. Happily I was able to tell him I hope that my appearance helps people to see that I’m the kind of person I am AND a doctor at the same time, which will hopefully challenge people’s stereotypes of what kinds of people get to be doctors. After a few months my supervisor let me know that I’d changed his mind, and that he admired me for sticking to my guns.

I’ve also tried having unnaturally coloured hair at work (I’m not the only hospital worker I’ve seen with pink hair, just the only doctor) which has similarly gone quite well and I’ve received compliments from some medical colleagues which has been great. I’ve also started using the phrase “one of my boyfriends” when the topic comes up, which has been quite interesting – some people don’t react in the slightest which does make me wonder if their brain has censored out my words, like a Derren Brown mind trick. Each further step I take helps me to feel more secure in being myself at work, which is considerably more comfortable than feeling that I have to be closeted all the time.

Hopefully though the effects of the decisions I make on how to present myself at work, won’t just have the effect of making it a more comfortable place for me to be, but will help other people to feel that they can be themselves – both hospital workers and patients. I believe that a diverse population is best served by a diverse population of healthcare workers. And I also believe in “being the change you wish to see”. This stuff is important to me, which is why I do it, and why I write about it. I’m really interested to hear about other people’s experiences of challenging workplace cultures, where the desire to do so comes from, your successes and times when things went less well. Leave your comments below!

This week I gave a presentation to some of my medical colleagues, about caring for trans* patients – with the recent #transdocfail Twitter storm as the means of convincing them that it is a relevant topic to their everyday practice. I was a bit nervous before as it was an ‘outing’ of sorts – I didn’t directly disclose anything about my gender but I did out myself as someone with a keen interest in trans* issues and some experience in LGBT politics. It was only about 10 minutes long and it went pretty well – my colleagues took it seriously and responded with thoughtful questions, which was a big relief to me! I’ve put the slides up on Google Drive for anyone who wants to have a read – constructive feedback is welcomed.

the finished jumper

This jumper is inspired by zombie flesh – scarred, pocked and decaying. In order that it doesn’t actually fall apart I have cunningly devised a means of making it look that way with no risk of it actually falling to pieces. I’ve used a number of techniques to alter the appearance of the fabric. It is knitted from the top down, seamlessly.

The actual knitting of it is a bit like jazz – you make it up as you go along, and pretty much whatever happens you pretend it was supposed to come out that way. It is probably worth doing a practice swatch trying out each of the techniques so that you get practice at doing them and find out what they look like with the yarn you have. I’ve listed most of the techniques I used to make the fabric look this way, and I have to say I did get better at it as I went along!

Things to bear in mind: certain techniques will make the fabric looser and more drapey (dropped stitches, knitting with the yarn wrapped round twice)  and some techniques will make the fabric tighter and stiffer (knit into the row below, cables). Be mindful of where you are putting these places – do you really want a loose drapey bit over only one boob? Or a tight bit under your armpit?

I used Jaeger Roma (discontinued) in Mineral, 10 balls, and 5.5mm needles.

Fabric close-up: ladders caused by deliberately dropped stitches, and at the top left, the little black hole was made using a yarn over

Fabric techniques:

  • Dropped Stitches:

Set up row = at the point you want to start a ladder, k2tog, m1. Place a marker if it will help you to remember/recognise the position in the row.

Continuation row: When you get to the stitch created in the last row (should be arising out of a “twisted” stitch in the work), drop that stitch, and then make one stitch out of the bar that is left.

Last row: Drop the stitch, don’t make one, and instead kfb into the next stitch.

In the picture to the right you can see that I “set up” a new ladder next to the one that I was about to finish which adds a bit more texture and interest (ladder comes down middle of photo and then finishes about the same time as a new one starts just to the left). In the bottom half of the photo  there are two ladders next to one another, separated by a couple of stitches.

  •  Yarn over

To keep the fabric width the same, precede (or follow) the yarn over with a decrease of some kind – it can be a few stitches away if you want, or it can be immediately before or after. On the next row knit the yarn over loop, leaving a hole in the fabric underneath

  •  Knitting into rows below

close up of fabric detail showing use of yarn overs + cables, and how they can be combined

Pick up a stitch from 2 rows down and put it on the needle. Knit it together with the next stitch. You can do a one off of these or several in a row for a long bump. Makes a horizontal bump in the work which I think looks a bit like scars or stretch marks. You can see these in the picture at the top of this blog, just by my left thumb!

  • Cables

I cabled between 1 and 3 stitches, and usually 1-3 stitches to the right or the left. Cables are good to combine with other stitch techniques as you can see in the pic to the right. They make the fabric look more twisted/tortuous and remind me of the kind of scars you might get from a severe burn!

  • Purl

One of the more straightforward techniques! You can put a purl here and there to break up the smoothness of a stretch of stocking stitch, and you can purl instead of knitting with most of the other techniques. The aim is to get the fabric to look uneven, as if it is worn and decaying, and the bumps of purl stitches add to that effect. Easy to forget cos they’re so simple but worth sticking in here and there! My jumper also has a few irregularly shaped patches of  reverse stocking stitch which look to me like the zombie has a graze – the undead don’t heal well.

fabric close up showing stitches slipped with yarn in front, and a meandering cable of 1 stitch at the bottom left

  •  Knit into back of loop

This is more subtle but makes the fabric look a bit less evenly knitted and adds to the “decaying” look.

  • Slip a stitch with yarn in front 

This leaves a short horizontal bar on the fabric. I grouped these together and only slipped 1 stitch at once, but you could experiment with slipping more than one stitch if you wanted to.

  • Knitting with the yarn wrapped round twice

This makes your stitches looser. You can do if for a stretch of 8 or so stitches for a line in the work of bigger stitches, you can do several rows with the looser stitches grouped together for an area of fabric that is drapier and more open, or you can do a stitch here and there to make the general texture more interesting.

I used a top-down construction which is as follows:

Do a gauge swatch. Find a free top-down sweater pattern in that gauge (via advanced search on ravelry) to tell you how many stitches to cast on and what increases to do. Do a provisional cast on in case you want to come back and change things later. Knit the jumper according to the pattern (or not, you may want to add/remove waist/bust/hip shaping etc) but with all the techniques listed above to make the fabric look awesome. Do not be afraid! If you stick to these techniques then your fabric will hold together!

Bottom edges:

close up of right cuff

close up of left cuff

Zombie rib: *knit 2 or 3, purl 2 or 3* til end of round. So that it didn’t look too neat, I made “mistakes” along the way, adding purls where they “shouldn’t” be, and perhaps an occasional cable or yarn over.

At the bottom of the jumper I tried a few different techniques. Part is the same as the cuffs. At the front did a “double” edge – cast off then went back a few inches and picked up a new stretch of knitting, making a second, rolled edge (stocking stitch with no ribbing). I stopped knitting in the round and divided the bottom of the jumper into 4 or 5 uneven sections, trying a different technique in each one. I’ve got a couple of big holes in one place where I worked back and forth on two separate sections, then knit across both of them for a bit, and then divided them again at a slightly different point. By the time you get to the bottom you will hopefully be pretty comfortable with the techniques you’ve been using and ready to create some of your own!

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