How to knit left-handed

How to knit left-handed

NOTE: I’ve invoked the ire of some left-handed knitters with this one, and deserve the backlash — I guess my right-handed privilege is showing. I’m in no way meaning to suggest here that anyone who is knitting in the opposite direction is doing it wrong. My only intent was to send a message of encouragement to aspiring knitters who happen to be lefties that knitting is not off-limits to them; that there are a million ways to knit (no matter your dominant hand) and that you should give it a try and figure out what works for you. For those who have figured out what works for them is knitting in the opposite direction and managing all that comes with that, I doff my cap! Knit and let knit, I always say.  UPDATE: Karen might have said it better than I did.

There’s a certain question I get asked all the time, and also see being asked of others on social media on a regular basis — left-handed people who would like to knit and want to know where or how they can learn to “knit left-handed.” I always say the same thing and feel increasingly like I should say it here (where Google can find it!) as something of a PSA: Knitting is a two-handed sport. When we knit, have a needle in each hand. We insert the right needle tip into the first stitch on the left needle, wrap the yarn around it, pull this new loop through the old stitch, and slide it off onto the right needle. Repeat. So we knit from right to left across the work, moving the stitches from the left needle to the right needle one (essentially) at a time. Those are the basic mechanics, but no two knitters do this in exactly the same way. Take a look at the #howiknit tag on Instagram if you don’t believe me!

The central variable, though, is how you hold your yarn. Some people hold it in their left hand, which is referred to as Continental-style knitting, or “picking.” Others hold it in their right hand, which is called English or “throwing.” (Portuguese knitters run the yarn around their neck, or through a pin on their chest, and use one thumb or the other to wrap it around the needle!) Many right-handed people knit Continental, and I’m sure there are left-handed throwers out there. It’s more a matter of how you’re taught or what you’re comfortable with than whether you’re right- or left-handed. And even within the picking and throwing camps, everyone holds and “tensions” the yarn differently [i.e., which finger(s) it might be wrapped around, and how many times]. But again, no matter which hand the yarn is in, the underlying operation is the same.

So as a new knitter, no matter your handedness, you should experiment with the different methods and do whatever is most comfortable for you. (I recommend the videos at knittinghelp.com as an excellent starting point.) But please don’t think that, as a lefty, you should have to knit in the opposite direction or anything like that! Knitting is knitting, and takes both hands.

FOR LOTS MORE ADVICE, see Beginning to Knit

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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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Cardigans for first-timers: Or, how button bands happen

Cardigan patterns for first-timers

Ever since putting together the Pullovers for first-timers post, I’ve been laboring over a cardigan version! And here it finally is: good starter cardigan patterns, whether you’re a beginning knitter or have been knitting for years and have just never tackled a cardigan before. Cardigans simply are trickier than pullovers. (Much trickier to write about; potentially trickier to knit.) And since the pullovers post includes an overview of sweater construction methods, I’ve organized this one according to the key distinguishing factor amongst cardigans, which is the button bands. Throughout those categories, I’ve included a mix of the basic sweater types (top-down seamless, bottom-up seamless, seamed). All of which provides a fairly broad sampling of the many approaches to cardigan construction. As before, I’m giving you one very basic option in each category, followed by options that involve fancier knitting. If you are already comfortable with cables, lace, short rows, etc., there’s no reason your first cardigan can’t include those things.

If you haven’t read the pullovers post and/or don’t already have a basic familiarity with sweater construction types, you might want to take a minute to read that post before proceeding with this one.

Cardigan patterns for first-timers

MODIFIED SHRUGS / INVERTIBLES

Just like the drop-shoulder group in the pullovers post, these sweaters (a step up from the simple partially seamed rectangle known as a shrug) skirt the complications altogether. They don’t really hew to sweater construction in general and don’t have buttons or bands. Because they’re fairly abstract shapes to begin with, some of them can also be worn upside down.

suggested pattern:
Prewrapped Wrap from the Purl Bee — one T-shaped piece with picked-up ribbing along two edges, plus two little seams (free pattern)

or if you’re feeling more ambitious:
Cocoon Shrug by Nancy Ricci — three or four rectangles seamed into a cardigan with a double-thick collar (should be downloadable soon)
Stranger by Michiyo — five rectangles; involves grafting two front rectangles together at back neck, picking up stitches for the rectangular back, plus two more rectangles for the sleeves (see also Inversion Cardigan by Jared Flood)

pros: simpler to knit in many regards; the varieties of construction can be fascinating; potential for getting multiple looks from one sweater
cons: because they aren’t really shaped to the human form like a traditional sweater, they can sometimes look a little ill-fitting no matter which direction you wear them; won’t really teach you anything about true cardigan construction

Cardigan patterns for first-timers

NO BANDS / FAUX BANDS

Whether or not they have buttons, not all cardigans have button bands. Sometimes the collar or band is simply a swath of stitches along the fronts worked in a contrasting stitch pattern to the rest of the body.

suggested pattern:
Casco Bay Cardi by Carrie Bostick Hoge — no bands or collar (or cuffs, or waistband!); buttonholes worked right into the top-down seamless, garter-stitch body

or if you’re feeling more ambitious:
Purl Soho Cardigan Coat from Purl Soho — bottom-up seamless construction wherein a simple mix of garter and stockinette stitches create the illusion of bands; garter continues upwards for the yoke and neck (see also: Park Street by Pam Allen)
East Matunuck Cardigan by Amy Christoffers — also bottom-up seamless, joined at the underarms; a cable-and-lace motif worked along the fronts creates the collar; with this type of bottom-up integral collar, once you get to the yoke the “collar” stitches are worked separately from the body and joined at the end (see also: the fully seamed Sun Prairie cardigan; free pattern)

pros: none of the additional knitting/seaming of a button band; bands are structurally unnecessary for an open-front cardigan
cons: if you do want buttons, lack of structural bands can exacerbate the gaping-closure problem common to handknit sweaters

Cardigan patterns for first-timers

PICKED UP BANDS

Crewneck cardigans have straight front edges. V-neck cardigans have fronts that slope away from each other at the neck. Either one lends itself to button bands worked from picked-up stitches, knitted perpendicular to the body fabric. For a crewneck, you simply pick up along each front edge and knit; the neckband is worked separately from stitches picked up around the neckline. For V-necks (like Fable and Uniform), you pick up one set of stitches all the way around — starting at the right front bottom and working up the right side, around the neck and back down the left front. Common stitch pattern options for picked-up bands include ribbing (twisted rib, garter rib), garter stitch and seed stitch.

suggested pattern:
Louise by Carrie Bostick Hoge — worked bottom-up or top-down, an ultra-basic crewneck cardigan (with optional color-blocking); bands picked up along the two straight front edges and worked in garter stitch (see also: Uniform Cardigan for an ultra-basic boyfriend cardigan)

or if you’re feeling more ambitious:
Fable Cardigan by Kate Gagnon Osborn — an equally basic stockinette cardigan but this one’s fully seamed with set-in sleeves and has a shawl collar shaped with short rows
Trillium by Michele Wang (see blueprint at top of post) — bottom-up circular yoke with subtle chevrons and nupps and an intriguing series of short rows for back/neck shaping; button bands in twisted broken rib (hey, mine’s finally on Ravelry!)

pros: Picked-up edge provides some structure; less work than a seamed-on band (assuming you find picking up stitches easier than seaming)
cons: Arguably less structure than a seamed-on band

Cardigan patterns for first-timers

VERTICAL BANDS

Whether for straight crewneck fronts or designed to run from the bottom front edge to the center back of a V-neck, vertical bands are typically 1×1 ribbing worked (on smaller needles) to the length of that edge and seamed into place.

suggested pattern:
Linney by Amy Christoffers (pictured as knitted by blackbun) — bottom-up one-piece body with set-in sleeves and seamed vertical bands

or if you’re feeling more ambitious:
Dwell by Martin Storey — fully seamed, with set-in sleeves and seamed bands, and the addition of cables and pockets! (see also: Broadstairs)
Amanda by Lene Holme Samsoe — I know! but vertical bands worked simultaneously with the waist ribbing then set aside, worked upwards independent of the body and seamed on; perfectly suitable first cardigan for anyone comfortable with a cable chart

pros: 1×1 ribbing at tight gauge creates a denser, firmer band; seams provide optimal structure; least likely to stretch out at a different rate than the sweater; arguably the most “professional” looking band
cons: slightly more work than picked-up bands

Cardigan patterns for first-timers

PROVISIONAL BANDS

I’m not distinguishing between basic and advanced here because this is the tricksiest set in the mix. I’m seeing this lately, though, so I wanted to throw in a couple for the more intrepid among you: top-down seamless sweaters that start with a provisionally cast-on collar/band and are worked outward and downward from there.

Cedarwood by Alicia Plummer — with the look of an integral shawl collar
Skygge by Olga Buraya-Kefelian — with the look of a seamed-on vertical band

pros: Seamless; fascinating knitting process
cons: No real structural underpinning as with a picked-up or seamed edge

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Hoodies, zippers, sideways kimonos, steeks … there are seriously countless kinds of cardigans out there, but if I didn’t keep this reasonably basic and first-timer-y, it could go on for days.

If you are knitting seamlessly (from the top or bottom), do consider adding a basting stitch wherever a seam would/should be, as described in How (and why) to seam a seamless sweater!

Helpful? Will one of these be your first cardigan? Let’s hear about it —

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PROFOUNDLY UNRELATED: I’m one of the guests on this week’s Woolful podcast (along with the lovely Felicia Semple). I’m scared to listen, so I’ll count on you to tell me how many different ways I put my foot in my mouth!

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PREVIOUSLY in Beginning to knit: Colorwork for first-timers

Colorwork patterns for first-timers

Colorwork knitting patterns for first-timers

OK! Picking back up with the Beginning to Knit series, let’s talk about colorwork — specifically, stranded or “fair isle” knitting. (I’m not going into intarsia in this post.) Just like cables, stranded knitting is a great thing to try when you’re still fairly new to knitting. But even or especially if you’ve been knitting a long time and have never done it, it’s time! Both seem really difficult and amazing and impressive but are actually insanely simple. In the case of stranded knitting, it’s just stockinette and it’s almost always done in the round, so you’re only ever working from the right side of the fabric. You can handle knitting in the round, right? There are only two tricks to knitting multi- rather than single-color stockinette:

1) Holding the yarn.
If a pattern row has you knit two white stitches, then two black stitches and repeat that to the end of the row, you could literally knit the two white stitches, drop the yarn, pick up the black yarn and knit two stitches, drop it, etc. Nothing wrong with that, but it would slow you down a bit. Depending on how ambidextrous you are and which hand your normally hold your working yarn in, you could hold both yarns in your left hand, both in your right, or one in each hand. (That’s my preference.) There are copious videos on the web demonstrating all the options.

2) Minding your floats.
Imagine what I described above: putting one yarn down and picking up the next one. On the wrong side of the work, that new yarn has to reach across the two (or however many) stitches you just worked in the other color, and that little bit of yarn carried behind the work is called a float. (You’ve seen floats on the back side of fair isle knitting before, no doubt, but here’s a pic for you.) The reason most people’s stranded work winds up being tighter than single-color work is that their floats are too short and it pulls on the back of the work. So for one thing, you have to be careful to keep your floats even — the same width as the stitches they float behind. And for another, when the floats get very long — longer than a inch or so — you need to “trap” them by simply twisting the two yarns in back.

Sample colorwork chart from Pine Bough Cowl by Dianna Potter WallaThe other key difference is that when you’re working stockinette in the round, the last thing in the world you need is a chart — you’re just knitting every stitch! But for colorwork, you pretty much always need a chart showing you which stitches are worked in which colors. As long as you’re knitting in the round, you read the chart exactly like you knit: from right to left, starting at the bottom and working your way up. If a chart seems daunting, keep in mind that you only knit one row at a time. Block out all but the first (bottom) row on this sample chart and you’ll see that all you need to do is knit 1 green, 1 blue, 1 green, 7 blue, then repeat that 10-stitch sequence to the end of the round. You can do that, right? Then take the next row as it comes. I borrowed this sample chart from Dianna Walla’s free Pine Bough Cowl pattern, which was a huge hit with you all in the big cowls roundup a few months ago — it would be a great introduction to both colorwork and charts for the moderately ambitious among you. (Note that in some cases on a colorwork chart you’ll see black dots in some of the squares. Those dots are just there to emphasize the motif that’s being created — chevrons or triangles or whatever it may be. It’s just a visual aid; you still just knit every stitch.) [See UPDATE below about Dianna and charts.]

So, in my mind, the ideal projects for first-timers are those that A) are knitted in the round, B) never use more than two colors within a single row and C) don’t involve any long floats. Some suggestions, pictured above:

TOP ROW: BASIC GEOMETRY
left: Dessau Cowl by Carrie Bostick Hoge — super-simple triangles pattern, maybe slightly long floats (See also: Flying Geese Cowl, Tolt Hat and Mitts)
center: Netty Cowl by Ien Sie — polka dots worked in a tube and grafted into a loop (See also: Herrington and Empire State)
right: Amira pullover by Andrea Rangel — just a little colorwork around the circular yoke (See also: Willard, Stasis, slightly more intricate Skydottir, or the Altair hat)

MIDDLE ROW: ZIGS, ZAGS AND CROSSES
left: Harpa scarf by Cirilia Rose — tube scarf with long ribbed ends
center: Muckle Mitts by Mary Jane Mucklestone — my first colorwork project, includes both 2- and 3- color versions (either way just two colors per round) (See also: the more ambitious Seasons hat)
right: Vega hat by Alexis Winslow

BOTTOM ROW: GETTING INTRICATE
left: Gloaming Mittens by Leila Raabe — there’s a slight chance there may be some 3-color rounds in here but I don’t think so
center: Selbu Modern hat by Kate Gagnon Osborn — like delicate Art Nouveau wallpaper for your head (free pattern)
right: Funchal Moebius by Kate Davies — clever play with lights and darks in a tube that’s grafted into a moebius (or a loop if you like)

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I personally put off trying colorwork for two years, and then decided to take Mary Jane Mucklestone’s beginner class to get me off my duff and so I’d be sure to learn good habits right from the start. If you’re at all nervous about trying stranded knitting, then by all means sign up for a class. As I always say, you never know what else you might learn.

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UPDATE: Dianna Walla left a comment below about her chart. She just did a post on her blog about working from colorwork charts, which you should definitely take a look at. See also her recent post about color dominance.

Q for You: How do you join a new ball of yarn?

How to join a new ball of yarn when knitting

I have to tell you, I thought it was really funny that How do you weave in your ends was — by far — the quietest Q for You to date. The only Q that could even be described as quiet. Apparently everyone hates weaving in ends so much you don’t even want to talk about it! I had noted that the next Q was very closely related to that one, and it’s natural that it factored into some people’s responses, since it’s actually difficult to talk about one without talking about the other. That question is: How do you join a new ball of yarn?

Unless you always knit one-skein projects, or use yarn that comes in hanks as big as your head, sooner or later you have to learn to join a new ball of yarn to a work in progress. And there are nearly as many methods as there are knitters. My first time, I googled, and the consensus seemed to be to just drop the old yarn (leaving a long enough tail), start knitting with the new yarn, and weave both tails in later. In the two years since, I’ve picked up tips, watched videos and tried assorted other methods:

Holding both yarns together for a few stitches
Tying a half-square knot (don’t tell the no-knot purists!)
Weaving as you go
The Russian join (never actually tried this)
Magic knot (nor this)

But for the past year, I’ve been a devotee of the Spit Splice. I loosen the plies at each end, as shown in that link, but I also tear off about two inches of one ply on each of the ends, to reduce the total number of plies being spliced together. Overlap the ends for two inches, spit (yep!), and rub together until they felt into one beautiful strand. This method only works with yarn that will felt — so 100% wool (not superwash), and the more rustic the better. Those happen to be my favorite kinds of yarns, so it works out well for me. I love this method because it’s truly invisible, it’s quick and easy, and it leaves zero ends to weave in later. (The only downside is if you’re on a plane while doing it — it does raise a neighbor’s eyebrows.) If I happen to be working with a yarn that won’t splice, I just revert to dropping the old end and picking up the new one.

So how about you: What’s your method of choice?

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PREVIOUSLY in Q for You: How do you weave in your ends

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p.s. The large linen Bento Bag is now available in a beautiful shade of dark-chambray blue.

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Pullovers for first-timers: Or, an introduction to sweater construction

Idlewild blueprint

I’ve been promising this post on sweater patterns for beginners — or first-time sweater knitters at any level — for quite awhile, and it’s turned out to be a bit of a monster! But let’s get one thing clear right up front: There is nothing intrinsically hard about knitting a sweater. Don’t let the size of this post scare you! As I’ve said before, if you can knit a mitt, you can knit a sweater. Depending on the type of sweater, it may involve some combination of increases/decreases, casting on or binding off stitches mid-stream, picking up stitches, possibly even some short rows — some or all of which you’ve most likely done by the time you’re thinking about a sweater. It’s just knitting. But given the potential investment of time and yarn money, a sweater represents a bit of a mental hurdle for lots of knitters. I’ve met people who’ve been knitting for decades, who have all kinds of fancy knitting skills, but who’ve never felt confident about knitting a sweater.

I feel like in addition to the time and money, another hesitation for people is just not knowing how sweaters are made — what it is you’re signing up for. It’s less daunting to dive into a pair of fingerless mitts, say, without really knowing what it will entail. Embarking on something as big as a sweater when the process is a mystery can be doubly daunting. So this post is a set of patterns I think are good starter patterns, but which also provide an overview of the four or five most common* ways a pullover is constructed — along with some pros and cons for each — to help you decide which might be the best place for you personally to start. (Coincidentally, Hannah Fettig and Pam Allen just did a podcast on basic sweater types at knit.fm, so I’d suggest listening to that for their thoughts as well.)

NOTE: Since everyone’s skills are different, I’m suggesting one basic/beginner pattern for each construction type, along with more ambitious alternatives. If you’re perfectly comfortable with cables, lace, colorwork, or whatever, there’s no reason your first sweater has to be plain stockinette. But if you’re newer to knitting and doing your first sweater, you might want to keep it simple in that regard.

OK, here we go:

Drop-shoulder and dolman sweater knitting patterns for first-timers

DROP-SHOULDER AND DOLMAN SWEATERS

suggested pattern:
My First Summer Tunic — not pictured, but see this Knit the Look for more on this one (free pattern)

or if you’re feeling more ambitious:
Relax by Ririko — a bit of a hybrid with some eyelet interest
Idlewild by Julie Hoover — dolman with cables and shaping (see blueprint above)
Mix No. 13 by AnneLena Mattison — drop-shoulder with allover lace

The trickiest part of sweater design and construction is the “armscye” — the shaping of the joint where the sleeve meets the body. Drop-shoulder sweaters avoid the issue altogether by consisting simply of four rectangles (front, back and two sleeves) sewn together, with the body pieces being wide enough that the sleeves can just be a pair of tubes stuck on at the opening. Dolman-sleeve sweaters, similarly, are basically two big T shapes, one front and one back, seamed together, with an opening for the neck. Both are necessarily oversized to account for the lack of a sleeve cap.

pros: No armhole shaping to worry about; anyone who can knit a rectangle can knit four
cons: Drop-shoulder won’t really teach you any new skills (other than mattress stitch) or anything about true sweater construction

. . .

Top-down sweater knitting patterns for first-timers

TOP-DOWN SEAMLESS SWEATERS

suggested pattern:
Ladies Classic Raglan by Jane Richmond — ultra-basic top-down raglan

or if you’re feeling more ambitious:
Basic Round-Yoke Unisex by Hannah Fettig — or even the colorwork version, Willard Fair Isle
Portside by Alicia Plummer — boatneck tunic shape with pockets

With top-down, your cast-on edge is your neckline. You knit the yoke in the round, shaping it via increases, and it can be raglan, round-yoked, saddle-shoulder, or a simulation of a set-in sleeve. Once the yoke has reached your desired armhole depth, you set aside the sleeve stitches on waste yarn, join the back and front in the round and keep knitting the body downward from there. Then you put those sleeve stitches back on the needle and knit each of the sleeves in the round. So you literally knit the entire sweater in one piece, seamlessly. (For step-by-step photos illustrating the process, see the Ravelry page for my top-down-tutorial sweater.)

Sweaters knit in the round — whether top-down or bottom-up — have their detractors. But I consider them the gateway to sweater knitting. With top-down, you can literally try on your sweater as you go, giving you absolute control over the fit. Whether you’re knitting from a pattern or making it up, you’ll find lots of information about how it works — and how sweater shaping works in general — in my top-down tutorial. Understanding the basic concepts will allow you to modify any pattern to fit your particular shape.

pros: No seaming; lots of control over the fit
cons: None of the structural support that seams provide (less durable); with certain yarns, the sweater may twist on you over time, having been knitted in a spiral, which is what “in the round” technically is; less portable; the one big piece may feel more cumbersome to work on as it grows into a sweater.

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Bottom-up sweater patterns for first-timers

BOTTOM-UP SWEATERS

suggested pattern:
Sweatshirt Sweater by Purl Bee — with or without the kangaroo pocket (free pattern)

or if you’re feeling more ambitious:
Bedford by Michele Wang — simple cables on the body only
Stasis by Leila Raabe — colorwork and a round yoke

Seamless pullovers can also be worked from the bottom up. In this case you knit three tubes starting at the hem: the body plus two sleeves. When all three of those pieces reach armhole height, they’re joined together on a single long needle, and the yoke is worked seamlessly upward from that point, shaped by decreases. It can be raglan, round-yoked or saddle-shouldered.

There’s also a hybrid category of bottom-up sweaters, where the body and sleeves are each worked and shaped separately all the way to the top, then seamed together at the arm joint, which can be either a raglan or a set-in sleeve.

pros: Can be seamless; the three separate pieces are relatively portable, and sleeves are always a nice place to start
cons: If seamless, same cons as for top-down, above; not as much control over the outcome as with top-down; no way to try it on until the body and arms are joined, so adjusting the length requires ripping back/un-joining.

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Seamed sweater patterns for first-timers

CLASSIC SEAMED SWEATERS

suggested pattern:
Breton by Jared Flood (with or without the stripes)

or if you’re feeling more ambitious:
Redford by Julie Hoover — unisex! sweatshirt detailing, including side panels
Belesama by Michele Wang — ribbing plus textured-stitch panels on front and back

There have been sweaters for centuries longer than there have been circular needles, so traditionally sweaters were knitted in flat pieces** — just like you cut pattern pieces when sewing a garment — and seamed together with mattress stitch. Lots of people hate (or think they hate) the act of seaming. But I believe people’s increasing preference for seamless sweaters is as much to do with the control issue as with the actual seaming. I could be wrong, who knows. A seamed sweater typically has set-in sleeves, but can also be raglan or saddle-shouldered. With thoughtful shaping, a seamless sweater can actually be sculpted to fit a three-dimensional body, but the conventional wisdom (and the reality of most patterns) is that a set-in-sleeve sweater will conform to the human shape better than, say, a raglan. Obviously, there’s a lot of room for nuance and debate there.

In some cases, the sleeves of seamed sweaters are worked in the round up to the armhole, then the sleeve cap (the upper part of the sleeve) is worked flat. That eliminates the need to seam the arms.

pros: long-lasting, as seams provide structural support; pieces are portable; no painfully long rows/rounds to knit; a long history of published patterns to draw on
cons: you don’t know how you did until you seam it all together

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Whichever type of sweater you start with, fit is always a concern. Nobody wants to spend a month or more making a sweater, only to have it not fit in the end. So taking measurements — of your body and also a garment that fits the way you like — is critical. Any good pattern will include a schematic, detailing the finished measurements of the sweater. (Which presumes your gauge is the same as that listed on the pattern. If your stitches are larger or smaller, your sweater will be larger or smaller.) Picking the right size is the first step toward a successful outcome.

Questions? Disputes? Let’s talk about it—

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*There are infinitely more than four ways to construct a sweater but we’re sticking with the basics here!
**I’m being corrected on this in the comments. Read on for further info