Putting the Car in Cardigan

As far as public programming goes, museums generally stick to family craft days and swanky, after-dark cocktail parties. While there’s no shortage of those events at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, they can also boast of adding a Soapbox Derby to the mix. The first derby was held in 1975 and another in 1978.

Happily, after a very long hiatus, the event was revived this year, on April 10th at McLaren Park. The lineup of gravity-powered cars included models produced by teams who responded to an open call as well as entries by invited artists, schools and organizations.

Like most attendees, I was busily snapping photos of the clever entries—one seemingly made entirely out of bamboo, another constructed to look like a train freight car—when I was stopped in my metaphorical tracks by car number 40, CARdigan. I couldn’t help but appreciate the thoughtful design of a car made to look like an Aran cardigan, complete with ribbing along the hem, two types of cables, shawl collar, bespoke wooden buttons and pockets.

The curious knitter in me needed to know more.

The yarn immediately intrigued me. At first I thought it was made out of t-shirts, but then I learned it was Big Twist Tubular which is, as the name suggests, a tube of jersey fabric. Stuffed with polyester, the tube maintains its shape and provides very pleasing stitch definition. Having a semi-solid yarn most likely helped with weight. Even still, the finished project ended up using 37 skeins worth and weighed a whopping 61 pounds.

The crew—or CARdigang—included Katherine Ward, Dany Qumsiyeh, Christine Metzger, Nicole Perez and driver Miles Roa, who donned a yarn-covered helmet to pilot the vehicle down the track. While many other entrants leaned heavily into pit crew sensibility with matching jumpsuits, in keeping with the knitting motif, CARdigang members wore an array of Aran sweaters and cardigans.

A frame of chicken wire on top of a wood and metal base created the chassis for the giant cardigan. There’s a video of the car’s “dressing” here on Instagram—complete with buttoning up the front.

So how does one knit a CARDigan? With an enormous pair of needles of course! Christine’s husband made them using wooden closet rods, the equivalent to a US 85 (35 mm), a size I didn’t even know existed. They ended up being a little too cumbersome, so the original 8′ (2.4 m) needles were cut down and double points were very practically fashioned from the off cuts.

Just like a traditional sweater, the hem, cuff, button bands and collar were knit with a smaller size needle, in this case, US 50 (25 mm).

Size wasn’t the only unusual aspect to the project. When it came to adding a new ball, the stuffing of each end was tucked into the tube, secured with a running stitch and the two ends whip-stitched together for a seamless join. While that’s more work than most knitters are used to, we are all probably familiar with the doldrums of Sleeve Island—that boring stage of a sweater where the urge to abandon the project is very tempting. The CARDigan went through five sleeve iterations before the correct size was found. The knitting took over 100 hours to complete and finishing touches were made to the collar that day.

grandpa candy in the pocket!

After two very long years of lockdowns and curtailed socializing, it was wonderful to attend an event like the Soapbox Derby. Along with many things I’ve missed, are the sorts of chance encounters with something unexpected—like a car with a cardigan—and the opportunity to meet the makers responsible for taking a whimsical idea and turning it into a cozy, but road-worthy reality.

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