When it comes to picking up stitches along a vertical or slanted or curved edge of knitted fabric, have you ever wondered why so many patterns tell you to “pick up X sts for every Y rows” instead of stating a specific number of stitches? A lot (most?) of the time when we pick up stitches, it’s to create an edge treatment that will be worked perpendicular to the direction of the original knitting, such as a ribbed button band on a cardigan. If stitches were square, aligning those two bits of knitting perpendicularly would be a 1:1 situation, but stitches are generally wider than they are tall. So if you were to pick up one stitch for every row of your cardigan fabric, your button band ribbing (to stick to this example) would be wider than the length of edge it’s attached to, causing it to flare or even ruffle.* Since row gauge can be hard to match, and you might also have decided to make your cardigan longer or shorter than the pattern — or it blocked out a bit different than you intended, etc — it’s often best for the pattern writer to give you the formula to go by, rather than a fixed number. But even that’s not foolproof: You might do exactly as the pattern says and still find your ribbing is splaying the original edge a bit. Or there’s the inverse: If you pick up too few stitches, you’re gathering the fabric along that edge, causing it to be shorter than it started out. So if you run into trouble — or you’re not working from a pattern, or you’ve deliberately made changes — how do you know how many stitches to pick up?
My incredibly knowledgeable friend Kate over at Kelbourne Woolens advocates for an elegant mathematical way of figuring it out, by breaking your gauge down into a fraction (or potentially a compound set of fractions). I’ve used that as a loose jumping off point since first hearing her talk about it in a class at Squam a few years ago. But even then, I adhere to advice I first read in Pam Allen’s “Knitting for Dummies” when I was a newbie: Test it. Especially when you’re picking up along a lengthy edge, such as a cardigan front or a shawl border, it’s worth taking the time to pick up only along a few inches first, knit your edging, and see if it lays flat.
You can also do this on a swatch, although I prefer testing on a larger area than just 4 inches. The beauty of a picked up edge is that it takes very little time to knit — it’s generally only a few rows of knitting — and can be ripped out without having any effect on the original fabric. So it’s a simple thing, and completely worthwhile, to engage in a bit of trial and error.
*Same as if you pick up too many stitches around a neck hole — you wind up with a ruffly, stand-up collar. Pull that sucker out and pick up fewer stitches around the sloping parts to get it make a nice round shape that lays flat.
. . .
In the photo above (previously seen on Changing the Channel), I’ve entirely departed from the original treatment of Jared Flood’s Channel Cardigan — working a picked-up garter-stitch band instead of the pattern’s seamed English-rib collar. First, measure (maybe even mark off) the section you’re using for your test, so you’ll be able to tell if and how it’s changed once you’ve picked up into it — I used just the straight part of front edge here. I picked up 4 out of 5 for the first few inches (alongside the ribbing), then 3 out of 4 for the rest. You can see just looking at the photo that the lower part is being stretched — 4/5 is too many stitches here — and the rest of it was pulled in just a bit, so 3/4 is not enough. The correct ratio was somewhere in between, or rather a blend of the two. In order to effectively pick up 7 sts for every 9 rows, I picked up 3 out of 4, then 4 out of 5, repeat to the end. Make sense? Here’s how it turned out.
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