How Big is That Stitch?

This is part of a sometime series called Anatomy of a Knitted Stitch. This part is How Big Is That Stitch. 

When someone talks about the size of a stitch they are generally talking about what size the stitch is in relation to the size of the needles you use.  Are you casting on with a 10.5 US or  a 00 US?  If you are making a sweater it’s more likely to be the 10.5 cause a big sweater usually demands a big stitch.  If you are making an advent ornament then a size 00 US makes the most sense.

But what I want to talk about right now is not needle size but actual stitch size…how big is your knit in relation to your purl? This can be one of the most annoying and contradictory and annoyingly contradictory thing about knitting once you stop being a complete beginner and try doing some knitting without (gasp!!) a pattern. Don’t be scared! You can do it, but there are TWO things you will need to know/consider/learn about stitch size in order to avoid really screwing up your knitting.

Number One: Your stitches may not be even.

You know I teach people to knit.   Not long ago I was working with a new knitter (not really a student of mine, just a friend) and she was having trouble with some pattern stitches. She coudln’t get them to look the way they did in the picture.  We talked about blocking (to open the stitches) but no, that wasn’t the issue.  I asked her about her tension.  She wasn’t sure what I meant by “tension” in knitting, so we talked about how you could ensure an even tension while you knit so all your stitches are even – and no she felt like she was on top of that, her knitted stitches were all the same size as her other knitted stitches, and her purls were all about the size size as her other purls.  I was flummoxed, cause there was definitely an unevenness to her knitting – so I went to my last ditch troubleshooting trick and I asked her to knit a swatch for me, while I watched.

This opened a whole can of worms cause she said “Oh, pfft, I don’t knit swatches!  Those are so old fashioned.”  (That’s a quote, though it may make her blush to read it!

We will pause for a moment now, while I count to ten and say in a calm reasonable tone of voice that is not abusive, condescending or in any other way demeaning: “No, swatches are not old fashioned, any more than using knitting needles to knit things is old fashioned.  Perhaps you aren’t fully informed on the purpose and value of a swatch”

Let’s just breeze over the next few minutes (that’s a whole ‘nother topic right there!!) and jump ahead to the part where she, albeit a bit grudgingly, agreed to knit a small swatch for me.  She knit 15 stitches, then purled back – stockinette stitch for about 10 rows.  I knew what her problem was by the end of the second row, but I listened to her grumble, and I am glad I did – it was very educational.

This is what I learned.  She has been knitting for about two years.  She has made cowls, hats, mittens, and an infinity scarf.  She can read a pattern, and she is very comfortable with a circular needle, both for circular knitting and for magic loop.  She really is a competent knitter.  But it was the first minute of her flat knitting that told me what her problem was.

This is the problem:

Every time she has knit something she has used a circular needle.  She is a modern young lady, and a modern knitter – so she has never knit on straight needles (I am assuming because she considers that to be old fashioned as well).  Because everything she had done was circular, she has never had to do the simple thing I did when I first learned to knit: knit a row, then purl back.  She had worked in stockinette stitch, but it was circular, so every stitch of the stockinette was knitted.  She had even done a bit of reverse stockinette stitch, but again, only from one side (because it was circular) – so every row was purled.

What I realized as soon as she started to purl back was that her purls were much much looser than her knits.  In most of the simple patterns she had been using the difference between the size of her knits and purls didn’t matter much , they had been jumbled together, and any size difference just blended into the pattern when it was blocked.  But when she started making this shawl, it was flat, so she had to knit across and purl back, rather than around and around.  It was the first time that she had worked stockinette stitch by actually knitting one row, then purling the next – and boy did it ever show!! Her knits where fine, and so were her purls on their own, but her purls were about 1/3 bigger than they should be, when compared to the knits!!  So when you looked at her stockinette it was lumpy and uneven.

Moral of the story is this: If you look at your knitting and sometimes you like the way it looks and other times it seems uneven or lumpy-bumpy to you just knit your self an old fashioned swatch on old fashioned straight needles and see what you get.  If you don’t like the way it looks, you might have a problem.

Solutions to the problem:

IF you know your purls are looser than your knits there are a few things you can do to solve that problem.  You can work on your tension, see how other people hold their yarn to tension it and find a way that works for you.  This seems to be a problem for both continental and English knitters,  it’s not about what style you use, it’s about what style of tension you employ.  Awareness of the problem and intentionality while knit should solve the problem pretty quickly.  If you find that when you do a stitch pattern (like moss, or ribbing, or lace) you can’t really see the problem but if you do stockinette in the flat it looks awful (and you can’t or won’t lick the issue with practice) consider using two different sized needles.  If you know you purl bigger than you knit then arrange you needles so that when you knit you are using the size you are supposed to, and when you purl you use a size smaller  (to compensate for your loose knitting).  Obviously this only works on pieces that are all stockinette.

FYI: Learning how to lick the problem is really the best way to go.

Now that I have said that: that your knits and purls should be the same size – hang onto your hats for other thing you should know/consider/learn about stitch size.

Number Two: Your stitches will never be even.

That sounds like fightin’ words doesn’t it?  Let me go a step further: Your purl is is not the same size as your knit.  You know that a knit and a purl are two sides of the same thing, right? The purl is the back of the knit, and the knit is the back of the purl.  Well, just like the Tardis (it’s inside is bigger that it’s outside) knits are purls are not the same size.  Well, maybe it’s more accurate to say they are not the same shape.  Let’s take the two stitches one at a time.

Knit stitches are wider than purl stitches.  

It doesn’t matter if you have been knitting for ten minutes or ten years – if you cast on 30 stitches and knit in stockinette stitch for about 12 inches the fabric of your knitting is going to curl, with the knit stitches on the outside, into a 12 inch long tube of knitting (except near the needle, which keeps it stretched out straight).  It’s annoying, but it’s inherent in the fabric – when you put all the knits on one side they will take up more room SIDEWAYS and so will roll in from the sides.

That’s why when you knit dish clothes, or afghan squares, or shawls: at the edge we do a seed stitch, or a rib, or a garter, even if it’s just for a few stitches, to keep the edge straight.  By mixing knits and purls we create a fabric that is the width on both sides, so no curling.  Knit stitches will always be wider than purls, it’s the way they are built.

Purl stitches and longer than knit stitches.

It doesn’t matter if you are knitting with that 10.5 US needle or the 00 US needle – it’s not your knitting,  its’not the type of yarn.  It’s not because you didn’t slip the first stitch – purl side of a stitch takes up more room vertically than the knit side.  This is why when you start knitting in stockinette stitch (all the purls on one side) the bottom will curl out with the purls on the outside.  This used to be a bit of a no-no, but fashion got a hold of knitting a few years ago and decided it was cool to have sweater necks that curled out, or cuffs that curled up at the bottom of your sleeves.  I was brought up to use ribbing or seed stitch to stop the curl – but as I believe we have already discussed, I tend to be a bit old fashioned.

Bottom line: not matter how much you work at making your knitting EVEN the actual stitches are working against you to a certain extent.  I understand this intellectually, but emotionally I just don’t get it.  If knits and purls are like a coin, two sides of the same thing, then how can they be so differently shaped?  Well, I promise that it’s completely explainable how one side can be wider and the other side can be longer and they can still be the same stitch…but that’s when it gets really technical and I am frankly not nearly as interested in WHY it happens as I am in knowing that it does.

techknitterSo at this point you might be saying “wait, hold on! I really, really want to understand the detailed explanation of how a knit is wider and a purl is longer!  Well, first, I am sorry for you.  All the time you are going to take to learn, figure out, and inwardly digest this piece of technical knitting trivia could be better spent knitting, in my opinion.  But that being said, I recommend that you visit TECHknitter’s explanation.  This is just one of a huge number of very clear explanations for all things techy and knitty… also strongly recommend her index of past posts.

Knowing what will happen to edges of fabric that doesn’t have a relatively even number of knits and purls – and knowing how to use it or avoid it as I see fit, arms me with that knowledge I to to move forward and create lovely knitted creations…

As long as my tension doesn’t mess me up!!

Knitting Contradictions

Know any other knitting contradictions that bug, annoy, or titillate you? Tell me about them, I am ready to sympathize and make you feel heard.  We old fashioned knitters have to stick together!

Click here to learn more about the Anatomy of Knitted Stitches!

Twisted Stitches

This is part of a sometime series called Anatomy of a Knitted Stitch. This part is Twisted Stitches. 

Twisted Stitches

If you knit a stitch through the second leg, rather than the first leg, when you work a stitch (knit, purl, yarn over, or lifted, any stitch!) the stitch will become what is called a twisted stitch.

NOTE: you can twist purls, too!  There is however very little purpose to that since it doesn’t show up on the purl side.  IN fact, the only reason I can think of to twist a purl is if it’s on a cuff that might be turned up and you want the stitches to look the same on the inside and the outside, or you want to create a stiffer piece of knitted fabric for some reason.

Knitting through the second leg is not wrong, If it is a choice, and not an accident. 

Sometimes a pattern will tell you to twist a stitch.  This is often used to make knit stitches stand out in a pattern stitch.  And sometimes we accidentally twist stitches.

It’s when stitches get twisted accidentally that we consider them wrong.  Look at the picture below. Can you see the twisted stitches?

Part 3

It’s these ones right here:

Twisted Stitches

What Happens?

What happens when you have twisted a stitch?  The yarn that comes in on the right makes the SECOND leg, and the yarn that goes out on the left makes the FIRST leg. We know this is wrong becasue we know that Stitches Have Legs.  This change (knitting through the second leg) causes the stitch to look different from the others. Sometimes people say a twisted stitch is knit through the “back of the stitch” because the second leg is usually the one on the back of the needle.

If you took away all the rows before and after a row knitting – had just the ONE row of knitting, but in the same shape as if the other rows were there, this is what the yarn would look like.  On the left is the yarn in regular stitches, on the right is the yarn in twisted stitches.

Twisted Stitches

So what’s up with twisted stitches?

Twisted stitches are good for some things, and bad for others.  Here is a list.

Part 3d

Twisting a stitch makes that stitch really stand out.  That can be great (see sock picture below) if it’s part of the pattern,  I twist almost all the knitted stitches in this sock pattern I wrote a few years ago.  I wanted them to really stand out.  Twisted stitches stand out because they are different and additionally they also “stand out” literally.  A twisted stitch is a bit more raised up than regular knitted stitches, consequently they are more prominent in a field of knits.  A twisted stitch will also stand higher than a regular knit stitch in a field of purls. They are  also little more compact when they are twisted which creates a stiffer fabric.

Twisted StitchesThis can be good if you want it, like I did in these socks, but it can be bad in a field of stitches that you want to all look the same…

Some people think too many twisted stitches make the piece too fussy.  This is a personal choice, or a designers choice in a pattern.



To Twist or Not To Twist

That is the question.  If you decide NOT  to twist stitches in a pattern then you certainly don’t have too, but keep in mind two things:

1. The pattern will not look the same if you don’t knit it the way the pattern tell you.  It might change a lot or it might change a little. I recommend a pattern swatch to make sure you like it without the twists.

2. You must be consistent!  You can’t change your mind halfway through to suddenly start adding twisted stitches.  The difference is almost always REALLY obvious.

Embarrassing Admission: I had a student once who did not understand the anatomy of a stitch.   I explained to her about twisted stitches.  She twisted ALL her stitch and didn’t see any difference between her knitting and the others in the class.  Against my gentle recommendation she decided not to change.

Mea Culpa.  I didn’t try very hard to convince her.  I know it’s hard work to change a habit!  (Ask me sometime why I don’t knit continental.) I didn’t want to push her, I wanted everyone to have a good time. Well, everyone else in the class had plenty of yarn to complete a pair of socks.  Unfortunately, she ran out about half way through the second sock. Guess who’s fault that was?

I learned a big lesson from her socks! I am much firmer with students now and try harder to convince them to break the habit of twisting continuously.

Like anything in life, twisted stitches are great in moderation, however they can cause trouble when used to excess.

What happens if I twist a stitch by accident?

Twisting a stitch is not an emergency!  When you see a mistake within a few rows you can drop back and untwist it.  It’s not a hard mistake to fix usually.  If the error is many rows back you need to make a decision.  If it’s part of an intricate cable or lace pattern it might not be worth the effort to fix.  If you drop a stitch you have to fix it.   One twisted stitch is a pretty minor mistake;  the chances are that most people won’t even notice.

It’s a judgement call.  We all make mistakes.  If I accidentally twist a stitch in my knitting I employ my Mum’s secret method.  Here it is, released to the public for the first time!

When You Need to Correct A Twisting Error

(Mummy’s Top Secret Method)

Step 1: Place your knitting, error side up, on one side of the room.

Step 2: Walk to the other side of the room.

Step 3: In your opinion, will any random horse galloping by be able to see the error?

If YES: Fix error

If NO: Leave it and get back to your knitting

I have to tell you, I think this is a brilliant method for deciding, and strongly recommend it to you for twisted stitches and all other minor knitting errors.

Remember, you are suppose to be having FUN!

Click here to learn more about the Anatomy of Knitted Stitches!

Stitches Have Legs

This is part of a sometime series called Anatomy of a Knitted Stitch. This part is Stitches Have Legs.

First a quick note: when you use the word knitting there are two possible meanings to that.  One would be the Grand and Fabulous Skill/hobby/craft/blood sport of knitting.  The other possible meaning (OK so there might be more than two, come on and focus, people!) is a series of knitted stitches (unlike purled stitches).  Just because I am talking about the anatomy of a “Knitted” stitch don’t think I am ignoring the purls.  (I didn’t want  you purl lovers to feel left out!) I am talking about the Grand and Fabulous Skill of knitting, which includes all stitches, even the purls! 🙂

Stitches Have Legs

Every normal stitch should be worked through the FIRST leg of a stitch, whether you are knitting or purling. 

Wait, stitches have legs?

Yes, they do. Think of your stitch as a cowboy astride a horse.

The needle is the horse’s back. The cowboy has two legs, one hangs down each side of the horse, just like your stitch has two legs that hang down the two sides of the needle.

Part 2a

Notice to All Left Handed Would-be Knitters: Please see this post about knitting for left handed people for some useful information (warning: my personal opinion.)  If you are thinking about learning to knit it might make your life a lot easier.

So your stitches have two legs, like a cowboy on a horse.  But unlike the cowboy who has two legs that are probably mostly the same, your stitch has two legs that are sequential.  Meaning that there is very definitely one leg that comes first, and one that comes second.

To make this clearer (I hope!) look at this row of stitches that have already been knit.  I put the stitches on two needles, to show what’s happening in between the stitches.  When you look at this row of stitches, you can see the yarn comes  in from the stitch on the right needle and flows across the gap between the stitches and connects to the stitch on the left needle.  I drew a line to make it clearer.

Part 2b

So when you look at a stitch (knit or purl, yarn over or lifted; any stitch) there is a part that comes from before the stitch was created, this part forms the first leg of the stitch. Then there is a part that come from the stitch and goes to the the stitch after the stitch you are looking at.  That is the second leg.

Here the first leg of a stich (marked 1).

Part 2c

Here is the second leg of a stitch (of a different stitch)  (marked 2).  Can you see the first leg of this stitch? It is the one almost obscuring the second leg which goes down the back of the needle.

Part 2d

This is sometimes easiest to see if you take the stitch OFF the needle. (Don’t panic!  It won’t go anywhere if you treat it with respect!) In this image you can clearly see the yarn that comes from the right, makes the stitch (up and over where the needle would be) and then goes off to form the next stitch.

Part 22e

Here is a line to make sure you see how it comes in from the stitch on the right needle. Then it goes up one side of the stitch to create the first leg (marked 1).  Then it goes down the other side of the stitch (marked 2) as the second leg and on to the next stitch, which is on the left needle .

Part 22f

When you put in your needle to work the stitch you must be sure that you are working with the FIRST leg of the stitch (see image below).

Part 22g

This is normally easy to do because the way you knit automatically puts the new stitch on your needle so that is is ready for the next time you come to it.  It doesn’t matter if you are knitting or purling.  How magical is that?  When your stitches come off the needle, for whatever reason, when you put them back on sometimes the order gets confused.  Once you understand how the stitch works it become second nature to know if the stitch is on the needle the right way or the wrong way.

Knowing which leg is first  which leg is second is also important when you want to twist stitches.  That, however, is a story for another day. Today it’s just important to remember that stitches have legs.

Got questions?

Ask me in the comments!

Click here to learn more about the Anatomy of Knitted Stitches!