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The Science of Hearing -- Basile's Hair Cell Sweater

B. likes thin sweaters. Actually, men like thin sweaters. They get hot in big bulky things, and keep them in the closet until "skiing" or some other excuse.  

Sad to only see his knit sweaters come out a few times a year, I decided to go for something that would probably take a long time to make, but would be used regularly. We picked Elizabeth Zimmerman's Seamless Hybrid because I'd be able to adapt it to any gauge. Jared Flood has a particularly attractive version:

I fell in love with the color Sequoia in Madelinetosh Merino Light, a one-ply sportweight yarn. This color is perfect for B. He likes bright colors, but is shy about wearing them, so I try to find him colors that are on the fringe of his 'man' range of hues, with spots of brightness.  This is a bright brick red with slight black and red clay tones... it's really gorgeous. Of course, when I bought another skein much later, the color Sequoia looked utterly different, way more orange, no beautiful ruby toning.  Beware!

B. is a scientist, like myself. He works on how 'hair cells', the cells responsible for our hearing, develop in the embryo. These cells are exquisitely shaped, a real anatomical wonder! When sound enters our ear, it moves fluid over the "v-shaped" bundle of hairs along the cell and the sound frequencies are transmitted to the brain. You can see the bundle very well in these electron microscopy micrographs:

B. didn't know that his sweater would be a special Science Sweater. There are 4 rows of hair cells in the ear, 3 of a smaller size, 1 of a larger size. Here is some of B.'s actual data showing the 4 rows:

Using this chart I made in Excel, I knit 3 rows of smaller hair cell rows around the torso.

With another chart, I knit 1 column of large hair cells up the sleeves.

If you look closely, you'll see that I've added a 'mutant' hair cell on the sleeve, heh heh. One of the genetic causes of deafness he studies involves mis-positioning of the v-shaped bundle:

It took a couple of months, but he looked over at me one day and said, "That's not just stockinette... what are you DOING to my sweater?" Yes, he said "stockinette". I gave it to him, and it took about a full minute until his eyes opened wide and he said, "Oh my god, they're hair cells!" He was very happy. I hope that one day he will wear this sweater during a job interview!

Here is the saddle-shoulder style that gives the "seamless hybrid" its name. I was never really able to fix the little blip on the back that happens because of an unavoidable mismatch of kitchener stitch (it's on the left).

We had a disaster after blocking. I soaked the sweater in a Eucalan wash before blocking and after drying it had stretched to over 5 inches TOO LONG.  It was absolutely chilling, the blood drained from my face! Don't put tosh merino light in Eucalan, please! I threw it in a tub of super-hot water for 45 minutes, and it looked the same (oh, superwash). I let it dry, threw it in a basket to frog, and went on vacation for 2.5 weeks. When I came back, I took it out again to measure something salvageable... and it fit perfectly. It fit perfectly... how did it fit perfectly?? Ok, the sleeves had to be shortened, but no big deal, I had done them top down. I consider this whole experience a modern knitting miracle! This yarn clearly expands and contracts in mysterious ways.

B. wore his sweater almost every day this winter, how can that not make me tear up? **UPDATE 2019: yep, still on every week at least... 😁

And as for the one-ply yarn (always a pilling danger), it has a worn/fuzzy aura, for sure, but no pilling at all. I am surprised at how well it looks for this type of yarn.  

Let's end with the "man activity" shot seen in every men's sweater pattern book... Cheers!


  1. I love the way you personalized this well loved sweater pattern! I think I saw that very same hair cell pattern in an expensive ikat textile, those crazy Mayans were so ahead of themselves! The pictures of the hair cells are a bit scary to me. Anything enlarged like that just gives me the heebie jeebies. My husband is a retired metallurgist, and in his office he had photos of fragments of metal that were magnified so as to look unworldly, he thought they were beautiful. Thank you for the pictures though, you never know where you are going to learn something new! And, your B is a very fine model!

    1. Yes, material science uses electron microscopy ALL THE TIME to look in depth at structure. The pictures can be very weird... I know!

  2. Lovely sweater and great story - you had me on the edge of my seat when you said it was in the frog pile - glad it had a happy ending!

  3. So much fun Dayana. What brand of basket did u throw this into? I'm thinking I need it! :)

    1. It's some kind of vintage art deco basket... the brand is "Harry Potter"? What a weird name...

  4. I feel your pain with the blocking disaster - I blocked a cardigan once and after rinsing it in water and a little squeeze of mild shampoo and it came out HUGE. Tio wide and massively too long in both the body and the sleeves. I tried machine washing it to shrink it down, after a few washes nothing happened at all, then on the final wash it felted terribly and some holes ripped in it. I was completely heart-broken! :( So well done on your miracle fix, that's great news!

    The pattern is brilliant and it's wonderful that you put so much thought into making it a something that Basile would love and wear. Men are so funny about their clothes sometimes!

  5. I think I'm gonna cry I've made myself a beautiful cardi, first adult size 4ply knit from Madeline tosh light and it too has grown massively from a gentle soak. Please reveal the secrets of your basket! What can I do?

  6. Oh my, that sucks. But I'm not surprised. :( I have three suggestions. 1. The oven. Don't freak out, I know it's crazy! But heat tightens wool. Set your oven to 200F and bake your sweater spread on the rack (on parchment paper or foil if the rack is dirty) for 30 min. Take it out and look at it. Go another 30 min if you see any good coming of it. 2. The dryer. I like this option less because of the friction from moving, but I would do a medium high heat tumble for 10 or 15 minutes. 3. The hot sun. The problem with this is the possibility of color fading and it not really getting THAT hot.



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