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On this page you’ll find stuff that isn’t available in books or patterns—little discussions of the why and wherefore of knitting techniques. And if you email questions, I will answer them. . . as best I can. But remember, these are my opinions. There are lots of ways to do things, and you must use what makes sense for you. If what I say doesn’t, then don’t use it!

To help you find what you need, here is a list of the tips discussed, in order as they appear below:
  • knitters' graph paper
  • finding and knitting an alphabet
  • picking up vs picking up and knitting,
  • reading patterns,
  • yarn substitutions,
  • when pattern gauge isn't enough,
  • the right gauge for a yarn,
  • the slip knot,
  • slipped stitches,
  • binding off,
  • selvedge stitches,
  • selvedge stitches in reverse stockinette,
  • shoulder seams.

Knitters' Graph Paper

In the following post I talk about knitters' graph paper as something you do not need for two-colored stranded knitting--because it knits to a square gauge. But much knitting does not: stockinette is more like 5X7 than 5X5. So we need special graph paper if we want to draw out something, then knit it, and have the knitting be proportionate.

I have struggled to find this, because the knitters' graph paper you can download from the internet has two problems.

  1. The lines are black, which means I cannot see what I draw on it.
  2. It comes in 8 1/2" X 11" pages, and I have to tape many together if I want to knit something that covers my whole sweater.
So I have created my own graph paper, and I will send you the PDF file if you email me at sallymelville@sympatico.ca. (Some day I will learn how to offer this as a link, but for now just email me.)

You can ask for the LARGE--which will print on a piece of 20" X 28" poster paper.
You can ask for the SMALL--which will print on a piece of 8 1/2" X 11" paper.

The file will come in a light orange. You may print in in color (so you can see your pencil lines), but if you print it in black-and-white it will appear as a nice-to-work-with light gray.

When I went to print the LARGE size, they told me that they only print color on glossy paper--which wouldn't be cool to draw on and would be very expensive. So I chose to print in the gray. The large format was costly ($3 service fee + $4 for the job = $7 for one sheet), but it will probably accommodate front + back + 2 sleeves. But I'm also thinking you can find a cheaper way to accomplish this? Or you can tape together many SMALL pieces? Or maybe it's for a once-in-a-lifetime sweater and so worth it?

Long ago our guild had 2000 sheets printed for $120. But tthat was a long long time ago and through a very large guild. it took 30 years to use up all that paper! But now that it's gone, I see how precious it was and what a gift we gave ourselves.

Finding and Knitting Letters of the Alphabet

In our new book, we have a Christmas stocking with a row of hearts around the top. In the notes, I  suggest that some of the hearts could be replaced with someone's name. Here's how. (I am doing this 'generically' rather than just giving you an alphabet so you can choose your own font and learn this valuable skill!)

  • Get yourself some graph paper. (It need not be 'knitters' graph paper, because these letters will be done in two-color-stranded knitting which tends to be square. Regular square graph paper is fine, but don't choose something really tiny. Print it out from the internet if you wish. But do understand that it does not have to be the same size as the chart in the book.)
  • Look on your printer programme for a font you like. Print out the person's name, bold and at the 72 size. Or have the person for whom the stocking is intended write his/her own name. Or write your own letters.
  • Decide how many rows tall you want your letters to be. Lay your graph paper over your letters to see how many squares tall the letters you have printed are. (The heart chart will allow you a height of 8 squares for your letters.) If your letters are not the right height, take them to a photo copier and have them copied to the right height. When they are the right number of squares tall for your chart, you are good to go.
  • Now lay your letters behind your graph paper. Following the lines of the graph paper, trace the letters and colour them in. Look critically at your result, and adjust as needed. (If you really just don't like the result, perhaps you chose the wrong font? Do you need something bolder or finer?)
  • Now you have the name on chart paper, ready to knit in! 
If you are making the Nordic Stocking in Warm Knits, Cool Gifts, you can now knit-in the name over the area of the chart that was supposed to be hearts!

Picking up vs Picking up and Knitting

Sadly, knitting patterns are not yet standardized (as sewing patterns are), so there is some confusion as to what these terms mean. And sometimes a pattern will say one thing--"pick up"--when the results (a row of knitting) clearly indicate that you were meant to "pick up and knit."

I addressed the difference between these two terms in THE KNIT STITCH, page 41. But here is a more lengthy discussion of what these terms should mean. (I have Meg Swanson's agreement on this, so we're in good company here!)

  • To "pick up," you simply insert your left needle, from left to right, through bumps, or slip stitches, or whatever you choose along an edge, until you have the required number of 'stitches' on your LEFT needle. Do note that no knitting has occurred! If you did this with the RS of your work facing, your next row will be a RS row.
  • To "pick up and knit," you insert your right needle through something at the right edge of your piece (usually with RS facing), use yarn, and draw through a new stitch. You continue working from right to left until you have the required number of stitches on your RIGHT needle. When done, one row of knitting has occurred! Your next row will be a WS row.
  • What the latter does not ever mean is for you to insert your right needle, draw through a stitch, and then somehow knit it again!

Reading patterns

You may have been told (I know I have) that knitting patterns are like recipes--which you wouldn't use without reading through before beginning. 

I do not agree. I think that if we read through a knitting pattern--with its frequently torturous language--no-one would ever knit anything!

But there are things you should read through or work with before you begin, and here's what they are.
  • skill level (Make sure you are choosing a piece appropriate to your level. If you choose to challenge yourself beyond your level, do you have someone handy who has knit this same pattern and can guide you?)
  • size (Choose the right size by doing the following: measure your actual bust, then look at the finished size and be sure it has appropriate ease for the weight of yarn and style. Set-in sleeves often have 2-4" ease, drop shoulders have 6" or more of ease, raglans can be either of these. Some yarns or stitch patterns or styles can be tighter than 2-4" of ease, but be sure this is what you want.)
  • materials (Do you have everything you need before you begin?)
Once you get going, you can read a little ahead--especially to look for that pesky but unavoidable AT THE SAME TIME instruction. Otherwise, just work with what you encounter as you encounter it.

Yarn substitutions

Isn't it a pain when you find a pattern you like for which the yarn is no longer available?  And trust me, as bad as this is for you, it's a nightmare for me!

Before I've put a pattern out there, I've checked with the yarn company—to ask if this yarn is going to be around for a while—or I've chosen something that has enjoyed longevity. But if a mill decides to not produce the yarn anymore, or if a company finds the yarn no longer profitable, it's removed. No amount of begging on my part can change this. (I suppose I could promise to buy, say, $50,000 worth of the yarn—but I'd have to sell my home to do so.)

So while I understand the yarn company's position, I also share your frustration. What do we do?

If the situation is particularly perilous—as can happen when a yarn is very specific—I'll find a reasonable substitution and post it on my website. But often I am confident that there are many substitutions available—too many to discuss—so to address that situation I offer the following steps you can take to make a reasonable substitution.

1.    Look in the pattern for 3 pieces of information: the name of the original yarn + its fiber content, the yarn's CYCA weight designation, and the gauge of the pattern.
2.    If possible, go to a yarn shop that carries the original yarn and follow the next 3 steps: if you cannot get your hands on the original yarn, skip to step 7.
3.    Feel the yarn: is it soft (and will, therefore be drapey) or hard (and will, therefore, be stiff).
4.    Find a yarn with a similar feel (and perhaps fiber content) and of the same weight. (This matching weight is evident by a matching CYCA number. But often there is no CYCA number on the ball band, although sometimes you might find it on the yarn's website. In any case, you can look to the gauge on the band: matching gauges = matching CYCA weights.)
5.    Because CYCA weights and gauges on labels are only approximate, you should employ the 'twist test' to find a truly matching yarn. Here's how: loop the yarns against each other (so now two strands of one are in your right hand and two strands of the other are in your left hand); twist each hand in the opposite direction (to spin the air out); run your hand across the join between the two; if there is no perceivable difference in bulk, the two yarns will match. (If my words don't adequately explain this, go to The Knit Stitch or The Purl Stitch, and look up yarn substitutions.)
6.    Make a gauge swatch in your new yarn—just to be sure. (You know I have to say that!)
7. If you cannot find get your hands on the original yarn, work through the following 2 steps.
8. Find a yarn with a similar fiber content and of the same weight. (This matching weight is evident by a matching CYCA number. But often there is no CYCA number on the ball band, although sometimes you might find it on the yarn's website. In any case, you can look to the gauge on the band: matching gauges = matching CYCA weights.)
9. Make a gauge swatch in your new yarn—just to be sure. (You know I have to say that!)

When pattern gauge isn't enough

When making yarn substitutions, we often rely on the wrong information—the gauge of the project. Here's why that isn't always appropriate.

For a pattern, I might use a worsted weight yarn (that normally gets a gauge of 18 stitches over 4" over size 6 [4mm] needles).

But in this particular pattern and with this particular stitch pattern, I might use size 9 (5.5mm) needles to get a gauge of 14 stitches over 4". (You might even have done this yourself—used a super-fine yarn with medium-sized needles to knit an open-and-airy shawl?)

If you were to only look at the pattern's gauge—in this case, 14 stitches over 4"—you'd go looking at a bulky yarn, wouldn't you? You wouldn't normally go looking for a worsted weight? And you'd make an entirely inappropriate fabric.

That's why the CYCA number is such a good thing. Not only does it codify yarns from all of the world ('cause I have to admit that I don't know what a British 2-ply is?!), but it is a quick reference to the yarn's weight.

When you go to this CYCA number—which should be offered in every pattern—then you can look for a matching yarn—one with the same CYCA number (which should be on the ball band but most certainly on the yarn's website). And now you're ready to make a reasonable substitution.

By the way, I think they made an error in only allowing for 6 categories. In my humble opinion, there is too much of a leap from weight 4 (worsted, 16–20 stitches) to weight 5 (bulky, 12–15 stitches). There should have been a category between—that weight we've always known as aran and usually knit to 15-16 stitches.

For some reason, the weight they call medium has been assigned a gauge range of 5 stitches (16-20), while the fine and light weights were only assigned a gauge range of 4 stitches (23-26 and 21-24). I'm not sure why they did this, or why they felt compelled to limit the number of categories to 6?

If they had asked me, I would have suggested 7 categories. And I would have told them of the 'rule of 7.' (Do you know that rule? That human beings can easily remember up to 7 things. Go past 7, and our brains find it difficult. Hence, 7 numbers in a phone number . . . and the fact that any list you make should not have more than 7 things if you hope to remember them all.

Having said that, I think my number is decreasing to something closer to 4!

The right gauge for a yarn

What is the correct gauge for a yarn? Can we trust the label? Not always. Sometimes the label is just wrong, sometimes it offers too wide a range, and sometimes the stitch pattern of the garment works a yarn to something other than its usual gauge.

The right gauge for a yarn is what feels right—not so stiff as to stand on its own, but not so loose that the piece will not hold shape. It's a matter of experience. (And it is a tough lesson for new knitters who, having only knit scarves, believe that a worsted weight yarn is usually knit on a 6mm needle. Those 4mm needles look so tiny!)

I have learned, over many years of knitting, to knit to a tighter gauge than I did in my early years. Knit to a tighter gauge, I know that my garments hold shape better and don't pill as easily. (If you realize that plied yarns don't pill as easily as non-plied yarns, then you could see a tightly knit fabric as giving it the twist of more plies.)

I have also learned that the correct gauge for a piece is after blocking. But what is blocking? The most definitive blocking treatment would be to treat the garment as you would when you clean it, which most often means washing the swatch. (I have heard from a few folks who say "I knit my Einstein Coat, and I loved it . . . until I washed it. And then it grew!" I can honestly say that my original Einstein Coat was unwearable—too stiff!—until I washed it.) When you wash your fabric you can almost hear its long and wonderful sigh of relaxation.

But do we always have to wash the swatch? No, there is a pretty dependable shortcut: we can steam press the piece. When is this appropriate? When the yarn and stitch pattern can handle it: stockinette stitch in wool, for example. And what's the worst that can happen if you press a swatch you shouldn't? You mangle the swatch? It's only a swatch, and you've learned something about your fabric!

The slip knot

There's no getting past it: the slip knot is an ugly thing. I try never to use it unless I have to. And here's how.

  1. If working the long-tail cast on, just put the yarn over the right needle—tail to the front. Begin the cast on from here: the piece of yarn laid over the right needle is your first cast-on stitch. (Pull tightly against this 'first stitch' as your work the next one.)
  2. If working the cable cast on, start with 2 e-wrap (half-hitch) cast-on stitches. Begin the cable cast on by working between the 2 e-wrap cast-on stitches. After a few more stitches cast on, remove the first e-wrap cast-on stitch.
  3. If you do need to start with a slip knot, go back later to pull your thread through the knot once: this will take the 'ugly away.

Slipped stitches

I never teach a class without being asked "Do we slip knitwise or purlwise?" So I ask the class, "What do you think." And they give me a very curious answer. "If the pattern doesn't say, you are to slip purlwise." This is the prevalent belief of what our industry wants us to do.

I don't agree. Here's why. I've seen many instructions that say 'slip one purlwise' but very few that say 'slip one knitwise.' So it seems as if they tell us when they want us to slip purlwise but not when they want us to slip knitwise.

So when do we do what? These are not hard-and-fast rules, but they generally work.

  1. If working a decrease, slip knitwise.
  2. If working a stitch pattern, slip purlwise.

I will sometimes say, in class, "If you are going to touch it again in this row, slip knitwise: if not touching it again until the next row, slip purlwise." One student expressed this as knit now, purl later. Pretty clever!

Binding off

I can’t say that this is written in stone, but I have been told the following: that the CYCA (Craft Yarn Council of America) committee is setting the standard for what it means to ‘bind off’ and that they are intending to establish that to ‘bind off’ means to bind off in ‘knit.’

I am not sure I agree with this principle. I think ‘bind off’ has more usually been assumed to mean ‘bind off in pattern:’ if you are on a knit row, you bind off in knit; if you are on a purl row, you bind off in purl; if you are on a rib row, you bind off in rib. And so if the pattern-writer wants you to do something else (which is relatively rare), you should be told. Here’s why I think this is more logical.

  1. Most of us already do this—bind off in pattern. For example, if you are shaping a neck in a stockinette garment, you would—intuitively—bind off the right neck in knit (because it is a RS row) and the left neck in purl (because it is a WS row). (If you bound off in knit on a WS row, you’d get bumps at the last row of the left neck.) But no pattern ever explicitly tells you to do it this way—to bind off in purl on a purl row. You just know that you should.
  2. In addition, if you bind off a ribbed neck edge in knit, it might be too tight. Besides, it looks appropriate when bound off in rib. Try it to see for yourself!
Whatever the committee decision is, it’s best if we all approach our knitting intuitively, doing what feels right. And even if what I have been told is not the committee’s decision, this discussion is still important, because I never teach a basic technique class without being asked the question. (I suppose that if this is their decision, they are doing it so that the question need never be asked: you will be very often told how to bind off! And that’s probably a good thing. Really, the sooner these sorts of standards are employed in our industry, the better!)

Selvedge stitches

Here's my definition of a selvedge stitch: a stitch at the edge of a piece that may or may not be treated differently from the rest of the knitting. Doesn't  sound very specific . . . but we have too many choices and situations to be specific.

Here's what I think of the 3 choices we have.

1. Slip the fist stitch of each row (slip stitch)--I think this is lovely if this is the final edge of the piece AND the row gauge is twice the stitch gauge (ie, 20 stitches and 40 rows = 4"). Then this treatment of the selvedge is appropriate. Otherwise, if you are going to seam or pick-up-and-knit against the edge AND the stitch gauge and row gauge are more usual (like stockinette, with its typical 20 stitches and 28 rows = 4"), it doesn't work so well. (We get holes in the seams and don't have enough spaces to pick-up-and-knit against.) Also, I have seen (in students' work, when they put a slip stitch edge onto a stockinette piece) that the slip stitch itself is lovely, but the ugliness that we get from a stockinette selvedge (see below) is simply transferred to the next stitch--which would appear on the public side of the work after seaming or picking-up-and-knitting an edging. Again, lovely as she is, she doesn't work except in garter or a similarly-gauged stitch pattern.

2. Knit the first and last stitch of every row (garter stitch)--I only use this if the piece is done in garter and I do not want to a slip-stitch edge. Then it works brilliantly, because garter is best seamed by working close to the edge. (A flat edge butts to a flat edge, and all is well with the world.) It also works brilliantly for picking up against, because one can just insert the left needle through the very-obvious garter bumps at the edge. But a problem occurs in garments that need a seam allowance (whether we are seaming or adding an edging): garter wants to lie flat, but we want the seam allowance to turn to the wrong side--into the seam allowance. This is a struggle with a garter stitch edge.

3. Knit the fist and last sitch of every RS row, purl the first and last stitch of every WS row (stockinette stitch)--When the selvedge goes into a seam allowance (whether we speak of a seam or an edging), this is the selvedge I use most often. I know: she's ugly. But sometimes the unattractive one has the best personality! This girl rolls to the wrong side, which is exactly what we want her to do. I also find that her little 'knots' at every second row help me count rows.

I am often asked if patterns have these selvedge stitches built into them, and my answer is "Mine do, but I can't speak for anyone else." If you need to know, multiply the gauge by the width of your piece, and see if the numbers match up. (If your gauge is 5 stitches, and your piece is 20", but the garment has only 100 stitches in its width, then there are no selvedge stitches: if it has 102 stitches, then there are selvedge stitches.)

Selvedge stitches in reverse stockinette

This is kind of an advanced discussion of the previous tip.

The reason I like a stockinette selvedge is that it rolls to the wrong side. So if we do a garment with reverse stockinette at the edges, it, well, guess what, rolls to the front and is a heckuva thing to seam.

I've struggled to turn these to the wrong side and never been wonderfully happy with the result. So here are my sometimes-solutions.

  1. Give it 'right side' seams—I will sometimes seam a reverse stockinette piece from the stockinette side, taking ½ stitch into the seam allowance, and then turn the garment to the reverse side: you get little, 'right side' seams.
  2. Border the pieces with stockinette—If appropriate, I will add 2 stockinette stitches to each edge of every reverse stockinette piece. I will then take 1 stockinette stitch from each edge into the seam allowance, which results with a stockinette 'frame' at the edge of the reverse stockinette piece.

(By the way, I have tried putting 1 stockinette piece at the edge of a reverse stockinette garment to see if this is enough to make the selvedge roll nicely to the wrong side. But it is not enough. It's still a struggle to seam the piece.)

Shoulder seams

This discussion follows from the selvedge stitch discussion, and here's why.

People who know how to do side seams in stockinette struggle to do shoulder seams in the same fabric. Why? Because the piece doesn't roll to the wrong side! And so we struggle to make the edge go a direction it doesn't want to (kinda like side seams in reverse stockinette). If you don't believe me on this one, try a shoulder seam in a reverse stockinette fabric—where the seam wants to roll to the wrong side—and you'll see that it's a beautiful thing and oh-so-easy to execute.

I am not a fan of grafting or 3-needle bind-off at the shoulders. The whole weight of your garment hangs from this seam, and I want it to be tight and firm. So I just do the following.

  1. Bind off in pattern.
  2. Take the bind-off edge into the seam allowance.
  3. Seam the stitches of the row beyond the bind-off edge of one piece to the stitches of the row beyond the bind-off edge of the other piece, one-at-a-time.
  4. Turn the bind-off edge (which is now your selvedge) to the wrong side as you seam, pulling the sewing thread taut every 2 stitches. 
There are photos of this in my book, THE PURL STITCH.

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