How to knit a hat, part 2: Gauge and size

How to knit and measure a gauge swatch

I’m reminded why I always shy away from writing about swatching: There are a thousand caveats. I’ve kept this as brief as possible but the fact is it’s an important subject and I want to do it minimum viable justice. It’s a long post. So first let’s talk quickly about whether you need to swatch for a hat, and then I’ll launch into the whole how-to.

The answer to “Do I have to swatch for a hat?” is the same as for anything: Only if you want it to fit. A lot of people don’t swatch for hats, and I’m in this camp. (And it has led to multiple “learning experiences.”) Often you’re trying to squeeze a hat out of single skein and don’t want to give any of it to a swatch. Or you just really want to cast on and knit the hat, and figure you’ll find someone it fits when it’s done. Or you accept ripping as an integral part of knitting, so you let the hat be its own swatch and are prepared to rip and restart if need be.

My friend Rachel was elated to have knitted her first hat last week, and over the weekend I got a series of deflated text messages from her. She had soaked her hat, which was all ribbing, and now that the ribbing had relaxed it was way too big. I told her the hat-that-don’t-fit situation is a rite of passage. She replied plainly, “It’s very discouraging,” and yes, it surely is. But it can be avoided simply by knitting and measuring a gauge swatch first.

WHAT IS A SWATCH?

A swatch is a square of fabric that puts you in control of your outcome. The point of knitting a swatch is to understand how the fabric will behave and to establish your gauge — to see if your stitches are the same size as the pattern drafter’s stitches, and thus whether your finished item will be the same size as the pattern indicates. So the most important thing about knitting a swatch is that it has to be a nearly exact replica of the thing you mean to knit. Therefore:

• Use the exact yarn
No two are the same; a dyed yarn will even behave differently than its undyed version

• Use the exact needles
Your gauge will likely be different if, e.g., you swatch with bamboo and knit with metal

• Use the exact method
Swatch flat if knitting flat; swatch in the round if knitting in the round

HOW TO KNIT A SWATCH

In knitting patterns, gauge is usually stated either in stockinette stitch or in the stitch pattern used for the item in question, and it’s measured over 4 inches but might be stated as the 4-inch measurement or divided by 4 for the 1-inch measurement. I.e., “20 stitches and 28 rows over 4 inches” is the same as “5 stitches and 7 rows per inch.” You measure 4 inches rather than 1 to make sure you’re getting an accurate count of fractional stitches in a given inch, which can add up to quite a lot over the span of a garment.

In order to measure 4 inches, you need at least that many stitches — ideally more. The best swatch is a big swatch (especially if you really want to know if you like the fabric), but at bare minimum, you don’t want to be measuring edge stitches in your 4 inches. Sticking with that 5 sts/inch example above, you know that 20 sts will be about 4 inches (depending on whether you are a looser or tighter knitter), so you want to pad it to give yourself margin for differences and for measuring. I would cast on at least 25 stitches, but again, preferably more. And unless you already know yourself to be a loose or tight knitter, start with whatever needle size the pattern recommends.

Many people like to put a garter-stitch border around their swatches because it looks nice and because stockinette will roll. Others believe (especially if your swatch is small) that the difference in stitch and row gauge between garter stitch and stockinette will affect your measurements. I’m a purist, so I keep my swatches to only the pattern stitch and don’t put a border on them.

Again, if the item you’ll be knitting is knitted in the round, you must swatch in the round, and vice versa. Most people’s gauge varies between their knits and their purls, so if you knit a stockinette swatch flat (knitting on one side and purling on the other), your gauge will be different than when you knit stockinette in the round (knitting every stitch). And vice versa. Garter stitch worked flat is all knits; worked in the round it’s a combination of knits and purls. Here’s a good tutorial on swatching in the round — it’s much easier than it sounds.

HOW TO MEASURE A SWATCH

Here’s the frustrating truth: Some patterns list unblocked gauge and others list blocked gauge. Some don’t specify. (If you don’t know what blocking is, click here.) What you really need to know is: A) is the fabric going to change when you block it? and B) what are the final measurements?

So once you’ve got at least 4 inches of fabric — wide and tall — bind off loosely and measure your swatch. Write it down. Then block it however you will block your garment. If you don’t intend to ever wash your garment, okey doke, you’re done. If you intend to wash your garment by hand, go ahead and soak your swatch. If it’s machine-washable yarn and you intend to use the machine, machine wash your swatch. Then lay it flat to dry.

If you’ve done as I’ve done and knitted a plain stockinette swatch, you’ll have an annoying little rolled up worm of fabric. If you pin the edges while it dries, as pictured, it will flatten out, making it easier to work with and to measure. But you want to know the natural size of the fabric, so don’t stretch it when pinning. Once it’s dry, measure it again.

I’m pretty sure it was in Pam Allen’s Knitting for Dummies where I once saw the suggestion that you put a pin in the swatch at the 0- and 4-inch marks before counting. I’d never done that until I did for the sake of these photos, and that’s pretty sharp, so you should do that. First line up your ruler horizontally across the bottom of one row of stitches, with the zero point of the ruler at the outer edge of a stitch, as shown. (A knit stitch, which we’re looking at here, looks like a V. We’re counting Vs.) Put a pin at 0 and at 4. Now count how many stitches are between the pins, and that’s your 4-inch stitch gauge. (Divide by 4 for how many stitches per inch.) Now position the ruler vertically alongside a column of stitches. Again, place two pins and count the stitches between them. You can see here I have 20.5 stitches and 30 rows over 4 inches, or 5.125 stitches and 7.5 rows per inch.

Remember, I’ve knitted a stockinette swatch for this example because that’s the most common case. But your swatch should be in whatever stitch the pattern calls for where it states the gauge.

HOW TO “GET GAUGE”

Assuming you want your garment to match the pattern dimensions, you need to match the pattern gauge. If your stitches are too big (fewer of them per inch), try again on a smaller needle. If your stitches are too small (more of them per inch), try a larger needle. Make whatever adjustments are needed until you’ve matched the pattern’s gauge.

If it’s not important to you to match the pattern dimensions, you can always choose to knit at a different gauge, just make sure you know how different your gauge is and how much of a difference that will make to the finished dimensions. With hats, it’s fairly common to tweak gauge to tweak the size. I have a big head and most hat pattern dimensions are too small for my liking, so I look at every hat pattern and think “can I knit that in the next heavier weight of yarn on a needle one size bigger?” (E.g. if it’s a worsted-weight hat on 7s, I’m inclined to knit it in aran weight on 8s.)

Gauge is a function of yarn weight, needle size and the knitter’s tension, any or all three of which can be varied to get the desired results. It’s delayed gratification — casting on a swatch when you want to be casting on a hat — but you’re that much more likely to be gratified by the hat you wind up with.

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PREVIOUSLY: How to knit a hat, part 1: Anatomy lessons

How to knit a hat, part 1: Anatomy lessons

How to knit a hat (that fits)

Knitting a hat is momentous in a knitter’s life. The simple act of knitting in the round — creating a three-dimensional tube instead of a flat rectangle of fabric — is eye-opening. But then comes the crown, where you’re suddenly learning about shaping (in this case decrease stitches) and working small-circumference fabric either on double-pointed needles or via the Magic Loop method. By the time you weave in the two ends — only a few knitting hours later — your bag of tricks has grown exponentially.

Hats are a favorite among seasoned knitters for many reasons: 1) They’re relatively quick. 2) They’re an excellent blank canvas for all sorts of stitch patterns and thus 3) a small-scale way to get to do lots of different kinds of knitting. 4) They don’t require much yarn. 5) There’s almost zero finishing involved. And 6) just about everyone can use one. They’re also fairly straightforward, as knitting projects go, and if you simply follow a reasonably good pattern you’ll wind up with a hat! (And it will fit someone, if perhaps not the intended head.) No need to give it any more thought than that if you don’t want to.

But for any of you who do want to — to understand the steps and maybe exercise some control over the fit — let’s talk about the various parts of a hat, techniques employed, and decisions you might choose to make along the way—

PART ONE: The cast on

Most hats have a stretchy brim — which we’ll get to in a moment — but possibly the most important thing is for the cast-on to be stretchy. You don’t want your hat to either bag out or cut into your forehead. For that reason, hats generally call for the Long-Tail Cast On, which is nice and stretchy. And while there are patterns out there for hats knitted flat and seamed, most contemporary hat patterns are knitted in the round on a 16″ circular needle. (I’ll talk about the Magic Loop alternative below.) Working at one end of the circular needle, you’ll cast on the prescribed number of stitches, then the pattern will likely tell you to place a stitch marker (to keep track of the beginning of the round) plus some version of two things: “join in the round” and “be careful not to twist.”

“Join in the round” or “join for knitting in the round” means simply what’s pictured at the top of this post: spread your stitches around the circular needle with the working yarn dangling from the right needle (place the marker on your right needle) and insert the right needle tip into the first stitch on the left needle to begin knitting in the round. From here on out, every time you pick it up and put it down, you’ll always hold it with the working yarn coming off the right needle.

“Be careful not to twist” means making sure your stitches aren’t twisted around your needle. If they are, you’ll be knitting a mobius loop instead of a tube, and there’s no way to fix it other than to rip it out. So line up your stitches as pictured above, with the cast-on edge running along the inside of the curve of the needle, so you can see for sure that the stitches haven’t wrapped themselves around the needle.

PART TWO: The brim

Most hats have a stretchy brim so it will cling to your head and stay on. That typically takes the form of a couple of inches of ribbing, the stretchiest of knitted stitch patterns (and the ribbing is also often worked on smaller needles than the main fabric, so it’s tighter and stretchier). You aren’t beholden to the pattern, though. Maybe you only want an inch of ribbing and the pattern calls for two. Or maybe you want your ribbed brim to fold up so it’s double thick — you are welcome to knit four inches of ribbing instead of two (assuming you have enough yarn) and then roll it up. Maybe you want it to be 3×2 or 2×2 ribbing instead of 1×1, or vice versa. Or maybe you don’t like ribbing and want to use a different stitch pattern entirely. These are easy modifications to make — just be sure you’ve thought through any ramifications.

3×2 ribbing, for example, isn’t as stretchy as 1×1, so your hat might not be as snug. The hat’s main stitch pattern might be designed to flow organically from the ribbing, and changing the rib multiple would disrupt that. 3×2 ribbing is a repeat of 5 stitches (3 knits + 2 purls, repeated across the total stitch count) whereas 1×1 is a 2-stitch repeat. So your cast-on count would need to be a multiple of 5 instead of a multiple of 2. If the pattern’s cast-on count doesn’t divide evenly into your desired multiple, you’ll need to tweak the stitch count, and then also increase or decrease by the same amount on the last ribbing round in order to have the correct number of stitches to begin the body.

PART THREE: The body

With the most obvious exception being a beret, hats are generally knitted as a straight tube (no shaping) until you get to the crown, and the length of that tube is the primary factor in how tall (i.e., fitted or slouchy) a hat is. Any pattern worth its salt will tell you the finished height of the hat, and most patterns will specify in inches, within the instructions, how tall the body of the hat should be before you begin shaping the crown. Reading into the pattern, you’ll find a sentence something like “knit until the hat measures X inches from the cast-on edge.” If you prefer your hats longer or shorter than the finished dimensions given, the body is where you’ll want to make adjustments. Say the finished height of a hat is 9.5 inches and you prefer yours to be only 8 inches — you’ll want to eliminate 1.5 inches from the body. So if the pattern says to knit until 7.5 inches before beginning the crown shaping, you’ll subtract 1.5 inches from that and only knit to 6 inches. (If you’ve added extra fabric for a fold-up brim, make sure you’re measuring from the fold.)

In the above example — that is, a 9.5-inch hat that says to knit to 7.5 inches before the crown — we can infer that the crown rounds add up to 2 inches. But if your row gauge is different from the pattern’s row gauge, your whole hat, including that crown depth, will be different. So once you’ve got four inches of the body knitted, stop and measure your row gauge. If your gauge is bigger (fewer rows per inch) and you follow the pattern to a T, your hat will be taller, so again you might choose to adjust how many rounds you knit before the crown. Or vice versa — smaller row gauge (more rows per inch) means you’ll wind up with a shorter hat, so anticipate or adjust accordingly.

Of course, the body of a hat might be based on a chart or a repeat that requires a certain number of rounds to be worked. In that case, changing the height of the hat might mean working one more or fewer repeat, and having the final measurement be a difference of the height of that full repeat. (We’ll talk more about charts and repeats as we get into the Fringe Hatalong Series.)

PART FOUR: The crown

The crown is where things get really interesting from a knitting perspective — and the world is full of hat patterns with dazzlingly designed crowns. There are countless methods for shaping a crown, but all involve gradually decreasing the number of stitches in each row until you’re down to just a few — so the tube gets narrower and narrower until it meets in the middle. That means you’re eventually going to have too few stitches to stretch around the 16″ circular needle we started out on. Commonly, a pattern will call for you to switch to DPNs (double-pointed needles) once you reach that point. To do so (unless your pattern is more specific than this), you knit 1/3 of the stitches onto one DPN, the next 1/3 onto a second DPN, and the last 1/3 onto a third DPN, so your stitches are evenly divided between three needles — or as close as your stitch count will allow — and those needles form a triangle. Using a fourth DPN, you work across the first needle, which frees it up; use it to knit the stitches from the second needle; and so on, around and around and around. It looks wildly intimidating, but is actually quite simple, and a hat crown (where you already have a volume of fabric on the needles) is the easiest way to learn it. (There’s a good video here.)

The alternative is to knit the entire hat on one long circular needle using the Magic Loop method, for which there are countless video tutorials on the internet. (I’ll let you Google that since there isn’t one I’ve personally relied on — I’m not a Magic Looper.)

The pattern will always tell you how many decrease rounds to work — typically alternating between decrease rounds and straight rounds. Then it will tell you: once you have only X stitches remaining on the needles, break your yarn and thread it onto a tapestry needle, then pull it through the remaining stitches and cinch to close. Pass the end down through the center and weave it in on the inside, and voilà, a hat!

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In case you missed the announcement, I’m launching the Fringe Hatalong Series of occasional hat knitalongs this week and the first pattern pick is suitable for your first hat. I hope you’ll join in — details to come on Thursday!

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Introducing the Fringe Hatalong Series

Introducing the Fringe Hatalong Series of mini-knitalongs

Because I’m so focused these days on filling in my sweater wardrobe with handknits, I’ve been knitting fewer total items, which means trying fewer patterns and techniques and also knitting with fewer yarns. My closet might be benefiting, but what about my range of knitting experiences? How will I ever get around to all those intriguing hat patterns I’ve been stockpiling for ages? And how will I ever make a dent in my copious stash of single skeins of delectable yarns? Plus I love the feeling that comes with finishing things, and those moments are farther apart when you’re knitting sweaters. So I decided to make a pact with myself to knit some hats in 2015. I’m trying to resist the urge to be overly organized and formal about this — to just pick a hat and a yarn that I’m itching to spend time with — and I’m asking you all to knit along with me on these. Ergo, the Fringe Hatalong Series. I’m thinking of doing one roughly every other month (we’ll see!), and I’m thinking hats because they’re instant gratification and don’t generally take a lot of yarn, but more important, they offer the opportunity to try out lots of different skills in the form of lace, cables, colorwork, unusual construction methods, etc. Which means who knows what we might get into along the way.

I’m always saying I think a hat is a great first knitting project, but certainly it’s a great way to get past rectangles (scarves and washcloths) and pick up life-changing new skills. Future selections will bring other tricks into the mix, but the first hat I’ve chosen for the Hatalong series also happens to be a great first hat, period. So I’m hoping some of you who’ve never tried knitting in the round before will join in. The only thing you’ll need to know is how to knit and purl in the same row — we’ll cover the rest together. And if you don’t know how to purl, here’s a video for you!

Leading up to the first Hatalong, tomorrow I’ll have a post on how to knit a hat — meaning not just how to join for working in the round, but how to assess a hat pattern and decide if you want to make any modifications to it along the way. And then I’ll have another post about whether hats require swatches (pros and cons) and how to knit and measure a swatch. I’ll be referring back to those two posts for the entirety of the Hatalong series. Then on Thursday, I’ll announce the first hat selection by publishing the pattern here on the blog, but I’ll tell you in the meantime that the recommended yarn is Tolt Yarn and Wool’s Snoqualmie Valley Yarn, which I have in my stash and have been dying to get to, and which can be ordered from Tolt. If you want to substitute with something from your stash, you’ll need at least 175 yards of ideally 100% wool, DK (or light worsted) yarn with good stitch definition. So you want something plied (preferably not a single-ply or roving yarn), and in a solid, heather, semi-solid or tweed — something that will be well showcased by a very simple stitch pattern, and that won’t compete with that simple stitch pattern. Gauge for the pattern is given as “5 stitches and 10 rows = 1 inch in Garter Stitch,” so feel free to start swatching if you’re into that kind of thing. ;)

The hashtag for this series will be #fringehatalong, and I’ll be encouraging you to share your knitalong hats, your questions and comments once we get officially rolling on Thursday.

Are we excited?

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PLEASE NOTE: There is currently no way to take a picture of hats I haven’t knitted yet, so the photos at the top of this post are of hats I have knitted in the past. They are merely decoration for the post and are not meant to be indicative of the specific patterns that will be included in the Fringe Hatalong Series. If you’re curious what they are, though, clockwise from top left they are: Gentian, Stadium Hat (free pattern), Heel Stitch Hat and Gorro Montanhac.

Q for You: What’s the knit you couldn’t live without?

Q for You: What's the knit you couldn't live without?

This cardigan has really surprised me. I’ll be honest with you: When we finished that whole Tag Team Sweater Project, I was thrilled to have completed the sweater and beamingly proud of the knitting, as always. But I wondered how much I’d really wear it. There was that whole dissatisfaction along the way with the dimensions being different than the sample I’d tried on and adored. It being May in CA at the time, the Shelter seemed prohibitively hot. (Hotter than the intrinsically ventilated Acer I’d just finished in the same yarn.) Plus I almost never wear color, and here was this big purple thing! It just seemed too big, too long, too bright, the neck too high — there seemed to be a tiny bit too much of it, in every regard.

Flash forward to this winter in Tennessee, and I can’t imagine life without it. I unapologetically wear it two or three times a week, and every morning when I’m getting dressed, I think, “Would it be wrong to just put on my Trillium again?” It is freakishly cozy for how light and airy it is. (Go, woolen-spun!) Not hot at all. And whereas it seemed too long and big at first, now maybe the other cardigans are just too short and small! I completely love the proportion of it. But most of all, it’s that factor I first fell in love with when I tried on the sample: It sits beautifully around my shoulders, like no other sweater I’ve ever owned. I love having it on.

It’s not the flashiest thing I’ve ever knitted. Unlike other sweaters in my closet (both hand-knit and store-bought), nobody has ever asked me if I knitted it, that I recall. It’s just such a basic, perfect wardrobe staple, that I guess nobody ever thinks to question it. Which is exactly what I love about it.

So here’s today’s Q for You: What’s the knit you wouldn’t want to be without?

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PREVIOUSLY  in Q for You: How many needles/hooks do you own?

Knitalong FO No. 5: Anna Dianich

Knitalong FO No. 5: Anna Dianich

As you know, the mega-event known as the #fringeandfriendsknitalong started simply with my dear friend Anna Dianich and me wanting to knit a fisherman cardigan, and her gorgeous, woolly version is now complete. Here are her final thoughts—

You were knitting for Team Seam, following the pattern as written. The flat pieces/seamless yoke hybrid is not a construction method either of us had encountered before. What were your thoughts on all that in the end? Were there times during the knitalong, seeing other people’s progress, where you wished you’d done anything differently?

Yes. I was constantly doubting myself and questioning the pattern as written. Many times I thought how silly it was that I didn’t do the sweater seamlessly and wondered if I should have not done the button bands as written. Now that the sweater is done I am very happy that I chose to be Team Seam! I actually feel much more confident about seaming sweaters and, I can’t believe I’m saying this, I actually enjoyed the seaming process. I did follow your lead and seamed my raglan sleeves. They look so much better and there is more strength in that area that gets stretched and pulled every time I slip my arms into the sleeves.

You’re the first panelist to have completed the button bands as written — that is, casting them on with the waistband, then setting aside those stitches, knitting them the rest of the way separately and seaming them on. Had you done a vertical band before? What do you think of it, and tell us about having gone through with the ribbon backing I bailed on. (Should I regret it?)

I felt like I had made a big mistake by doing my button band this way. After seeing everyone else picking up for the button band I thought that doing a vertical button band would be more complicated and fussy. I have never done a vertical button band like this before (actually, this is the first time I’ve heard of it) but it was just fine. I did have a freak-out moment when I tried on the sweater after doing the button band (and before blocking) and the button bands flipped open, I had this same issue with my New Treeline Cardigan. I am happy to report that this is no longer an issue — the blocking fixed that problem.

I didn’t plan on doing the ribbon backing, but after all the hard work that went into this sweater I really wanted to add a little something special. Again, this is something I’ve never done before but after late night texting with Tif and a reading a couple of online tutorials, I dove right in. I am very pleased with the way it turned out, and I also enjoyed the process and learning a new skill.

As you’re knitting this sweater and approaching the join at the underarms, the pattern tells you to end your sleeves on the same chart row as you ended your body pieces, so the yoke patterning will line up. For some of us, because it’s a 40-row chart, this meant making the sleeves a little too long or the body a little too short. But you had a revelation that escaped the rest of us.

As you know from knitting my Lila sleeves, I have long arms. I wanted the sleeves to be a bit longer but if I had ended the sleeves at the same place in the chart as the rest of the pieces, the sleeves would be way too long or too short. I decided that as long as the honeycomb pattern matched up it didn’t matter where I was in the diamond pattern.

Brilliant. You chose a really woolly wool for your sweater, and I think it’s gorgeous — I keep saying it looks like a cloud compared to mine. Are you happy with your yarn choice for this pattern?

I knit my Amanda using Imperial Yarn Columbia 2-Ply, which is considered a worsted-weight yarn but it it really acts more like an aran. When I knitted the swatch, I loved how dense the fabric was — this sweater would keep me warm and toasty here in the cool and foggy PNW. My problem is I love my 6″ x 6″ swatches dense like this but I need to imagine how an entire sweater would feel knit this densely. I mean, I still need to bend my elbows, right? As I was knitting, I worried that this sweater would be like a very heavy straightjacket, but after washing it the fabric relaxed and bloomed and it’s perfect! I should have trusted my swatch.

I’m so glad you texted me that night and said you couldn’t get that girl’s sweater out of your head, because this all turned into such an amazing experience. You basically started all of this! — are you happy with how it turned out? And are you eager to embark on another cable sweater or have you had enough?

I can’t take credit for this. I did want to knit the Chicago-to-Manchester-Airport-Fisherman-Cardigan, but you were the one who found the perfect pattern. And if it weren’t for this amazing knitalong that you hosted and the talented panelists, my Amanda cardigan would still be sitting in a project bag next to my other neglected knitting projects. This amount of cables can be intimidating, but I was really surprised how easy this stitch pattern was to memorize. And doing this project really built my confidence in knitting cables without a cable needle, dropping down and fixing cables, and seaming.

I am THRILLED with the way this sweater turned out!  I had many, many doubts and if I did it again I would make my neckline a bit higher, but I really love it. I actually love it so much that I am a little scared to wear it. I’m nervous about having things spill on it. I take it off when I drink coffee, and I eye my kids’ fingers before they reach out to touch my sweater. No peanut butter and jelly on my Amanda, please.

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Thank you, Anna! Some of you may be wondering what happened to panelist Amy Christoffers. Unfortunately, life happened and she had to bow out awhile back. But Rebekka Seale is still knitting and has taken a fascinating detour. I’ll talk to her about that on the blog next week!

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PREVIOUSLY in #fringeandfriendsknitalong: Basted knitting: Or, how (and why) to seam a seamless sweater

Basted knitting: Or, how (and why) to seam a seamless sweater

Basted knitting: Or, how (and why) to seam a seamless sweater

So as I mentioned yesterday, I seamed the seamless yoke of my Amanda cardigan, and I want to talk about both how and why I did it — about the the idea of including what I’m going to refer to as a “basting stitch” in seamless sweaters to combine the best aspects of knitting seamlessly with the best aspects of seamed garments.

SEAMED VS. SEAMLESS

This is the central conflict of knitting, as far as I can tell. Knitters love seamless sweater patterns, for a multitude of arguably legitimate reasons: ease, speed, increased control over the outcome. But what’s best for the knitting process might not be best for the sweater. In most cases, a garment will wear better — hold its shape longer, and look better doing it — if it has seams to lend it structural support. A sweater without seams is sort of like a tent without poles: you can still climb in there and it will protect you from the elements, but it’s a pretty different experience. I have a beloved, much worn, navy top-down sweater in my closet that, even though it was knitted with neck shaping and the neck band was picked up and knitted from the cast-on edge (that picked-up edge being the only undergirding in that sweater), the yoke has mushed around and settled enough over time that I can now barely tell the difference between front and back. In fact, when I wore it on a flight to Seattle in November, I became convinced I had it on backwards.

As we were working our way through the Amanda knitalong, a lot of discussion arose about the relative merits of seamed vs seamless knitting and, combined with turning that navy sweater around that day before realizing it was on right the first time, I got to thinking about this conflict pretty nonstop.

I love a top-down sweater. I’ve had this debate with numerous people, and I maintain that top-down knitting is the gateway drug to sweater knitting — certainly it was for me. Top-down or bottom-up, I’m not opposed to the act of seaming; I genuinely enjoy it, and it doesn’t even take that long. When I was a brand-new knitter, though, the idea of knitting four or five large pieces (a big time investment) and seaming them together (further investment) and only then knowing how I had done — whether it fit and whether I liked it — was unimaginable. It was just never going to happen. Through top-down, I learned how shaping works, how row gauge especially factors into it … in short, how to exert control over my own sweater. Once the notion of knitting a sweater was no longer daunting, and with that gained understanding of how they basically work, I felt more comfortable tackling bottom-up and pieced sweaters, and more confident that I could get the right fit. (Although even now, I have no idea how an armscye is calculated or how to tamper with it, so set-in sleeves are still not malleable for me. Yet. And since I’m apparently incapable of simply following a pattern, malleability is important to me.) I see real value in seamless knitting, in other words, even as I see the value of seams. So what’s a knitter to do?

THE IDEA OF A BASTED SWEATER

As I was nearing the yoke of my Amanda cardigan — having chosen to knit the pattern in pieces as written, prepared to seam the sides and sleeves — I became increasingly preoccupied with the seamless yoke on the horizon. Why would I put all that effort (and seaming!) into a glorious handknit sweater and have it lack that critical underpinning of seamed shoulder construction? And I kept thinking about that trusty blue sweater and pondering the notion of reinforcing it. First I thought about adding something simple and austere like a row of single crochet along the inside of the raglan to shore it up. But it got me wondering why you couldn’t knit a seamless garment in such a way that you built in stitches that were meant to be seamed out later, the way you design steek stitches into a garment you’re going to cut open. Or like in sewing where you baste pieces together temporarily knowing you’re going to go back and add the finished seam later. And, falling more and more in love with the idea, I pondered what the right combination of stitches would be for that built-in seam allowance. But then once I started knitting the Amanda yoke, I realized the answer was right in front of me.

Amanda’s raglan “seam” is a single stitch of reverse stockinette — 1 purl stitch, in other words. It seems to me too weak a stitch to hang a whole sweater on, but it’s the ideal basting stitch. The number one benefit of seamless knitting, in my opinion, is being able to gauge and adjust fit as you go. So if you’re going to work seamlessly and then remove stitches at the end, you want to remove as few as possible, since that’s going to be an adjustment to the fit. Four stitches — one per raglan — is the smallest possible number for a yoke. One stitch per side seam is a total of only two stitches removed for the whole body. A single stitch per sleeve. All you have to do to seam this basting stitch closed is pick up the running thread on either side of that stitch and work it just like standard mattress stitch. And in doing so, you’ve just given yourself the perfect seam in which to bury the ends once you’re done. As far as I can tell, it’s flawless.

Basted knitting: Or, how (and why) to seam a seamless sweater

HOW TO SEAM A SEAMLESS SWEATER

Here’s the blow-by-blow:

Step 1) Take a piece of yarn about one-and-a-half times the length of your seam and thread it through a tapestry needle. Start at the first stitch at the bottom of your basted seam. (I’m using my Amanda raglan seam to illustrate, so that’s the first stitch up from the underarm seam.) Pick up the running thread to the right of the basting stitch — see upper left photo above — and pull your yarn through, leaving a tail to weave in later.

Step 2) Pick up the running thread to the left of the same stitch — see upper right photo above — and pull your yarn through, but don’t pull it tight yet. Leave it just wide enough to reach across the basting stitch.

Repeat steps 1 and 2 — lower two photos above — picking up the right and then left thread on either side of each stitch, until you’ve worked about an inch of stitches. Gently pull on both ends of the working yarn to pull the seam closed. The adjacent stitches should nestle up against each other naturally — don’t pull them too tight or they’ll bunch. This is all exactly like standard mattress stitch.

Keep working your way up the seam, pulling the stitches together every inch or so, until you reach the top of the seam. When you’re done, run both ends through to the wrong side of the work and weave them into the seam you just created. (I did it just like I do on the wrong side of ribbing.)

Basted knitting: Or, how (and why) to seam a seamless sweater

This took me all of eight or ten minutes per raglan, and increased the appearance and the lifespan of my sweater exponentially.

As I said, I’m certain I’m not the first person to ever add a seam to a seamless garment — likely far from it. But for me personally, this is an epiphany. I recognize the benefits of knitting in pieces — namely the portability. But since I do 95% of my knitting on my couch (and because I like to change things to suit myself, and because I dislike starting back at the bottom again for each piece) seamless knitting has undeniable appeal. But I believe wholeheartedly in seams. Now that I realize all I need to do when knitting seamlessly is insert a single column of purl stitches wherever a seam should be, and seam it up at the end, I feel like my whole knitting world may have changed.

Can it really be that easy to have it both ways? I’ll be testing the theory ASAP.

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PREVIOUSLY in #fringeandfriendsknitalong: FO No. 4: Karen Templer

Knitalong FO No. 4: Karen Templer

Knitalong FO No. 4: Karen Templer

This is pretty silly, but since I’ve been doing all of the other #fringeandfriendsknitalong panelist FO posts as interviews — and to help me organize my copious thoughts on this — I’ve interviewed myself for today’s post! Please forgive me—

Your sweater looks a lot like the pattern photo but you actually made several modifications. Can you summarize them?

– Minor details: tubular cast-on, and I worked the diamond cables so they twist toward each other instead of all one direction
– Knitted it at a tighter gauge, so I knitted a larger size to get the finished dimensions I wanted
– Added a pair of reverse-stockinette stitches flanking each diamond panel (in other words, one stitch to the outside of each of those slipped-stitch borders) to give me a little more wiggle room in my final measurements
– Also added extra stitches in the lower back, to give me the extra width I need across the hips
– Because my row gauge was also smaller, I re-charted the yoke to give me more rows (to meet the schematic’s yoke depth) and re-charted the neck shaping while I was at it
– And I did not cast on the button bands along with the waist ribbing — I left that out and did picked-up button bands instead

Weren’t you hell-bent on doing vertical button bands with a ribbon backing and all that?

I was. Then I knitted this sweater — and nothing but this sweater — for four straight months, and to be honest, I wanted to be done. And specifically I wanted to wear it to TNNA, the trade show, and the only way that was going to happen in the time allotted was to pick up the bands rather than seaming them on. I can always pull them out and change them, but I’m actually really happy with how they turned out.

With all the stitch patterning, I thought it would be nice for the bands to have a distinctive edge, so instead of binding off in pattern, I bound off all stitches knitwise from the wrong side, so what you see is just the edge of that row of bound-off stitches. I love it.

What happened to that whole shawl-collar idea?

I’m super jealous of all the shawl-collar versions that came out of this knitalong — Meg really should lock hers up when I visit. But it became clear that this sweater was going to be somewhere between fitted and too small, and I think a shawl-collar sweater wants to be a little slouchy. Plus I thought back to the impetus for all of this and what I wanted was an ivory crewneck cardigan to replace a retired one, so that’s what I did.

You were knitting for Team Seam, yeah? Are you happy you chose that path?

Yes, I knitted the five separate pieces (two fronts, two sleeves, one back) and then, as written in the pattern, joined them at the underarm and worked the yoke seamlessly. Like Kate, I’m a little puzzled at this approach, since the raglan seams are maybe the most important ones, structurally. And if you’re seaming, why not seam the whole thing? But I was planning to rewrite the neck shaping and, if I didn’t get it right on the first try, it was going to be a million times easier to rip back and adjust if it was one seamless piece. So I went ahead and did that. But then I did something I’ve never done before (although surely someone, somewhere has) — I went back in and seamed the seamless raglan.

Sorry, you did what now?

The raglan “seam” for this sweater is just one stitch in reverse stockinette, which seems really vulnerable to me. It looks nice as you’re knitting it, but I could just imagine it stretching out and looking, um, less good over time. I think it’s more a concern with my fabric than for those who used light, fluffy wools at pattern gauge. Rather than go any further into how or why I did that, I’ll save it for a separate post, because it’s a concept I’m really excited about and will be doing some pontificating about.

But meanwhile, yes, I’m very happy the sweater is fully seamed because I want it to last and keep its shape as long as it possibly can, especially given the time I’ve invested. Like, I hope my great-nieces wear it someday.

You mentioned your fabric — you opted to knit this is in a wool-cotton blend, O-Wool Balance. Are you happy with that choice?

Totally! I wanted this to be a 3-season sweater, and I’m so glad I did that because I would hate to be limited to wearing this only in the depths of winter. It’s too good to be packed away! Cotton is weightier and less elastic than wool, and because I also knitted it at finer gauge, my sweater looks really different from the wooly ones. I might need a wooly one someday. But I love the Balance and how it turned out — the fabric is cozy and lovely without being dense or hot. Exactly what I wanted.

So is there anything you’d change?

If I had it to do over again, I would have been less impatient by the time I got to the neck. I specifically charted the neck shaping (see below) in such a way that the slant of the decreases could be maintained beyond the fronts and into the sleeve tops. So if I felt like the neck needed to be higher and smaller, I could just keep knitting and decreasing. I don’t like it when the back neck of a sweater is too wide — I think that’s when it slides around while you’re wearing it. I’m happy with my neck shaping — the actual curve of it — I just wish I had kept going for a few more rows to keep raising and narrowing it at the back. But it’s a minor complaint in the grand scheme of how happy I am with this sweater.

I learned to knit so I could make this sweater — this is what I wanted to be able to do. The fact that it was knitted in the virtual company of so many good friends and readers is icing on the cake. As I was binding off the neck in a hotel room in Phoenix, I became aware of the fact that the sweater started with Anna and me accosting a stranger at Midway last summer on our way to Squam, and ended with me knitting the neck while at TNNA again with Anna, with lots else in between. So I really don’t have words for what all is knitted into this sweater. The difference between it and some anonymous factory-made sweater is genuinely indescribable.

Knitalong FO No. 4: Karen Templer

There are more photos on my Ravelry project page. And Anna and Rebekka are still knitting, so stay tuned! (I can’t believe I’m not last!)

Bleached horn buttons and Knitters Graph Paper Journal from Fringe Supply Co., of course. Photos by my darling husband.

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PREVIOUSLY in #fringeandfriendsknitalong: A different way to shape a sweater