Thursday, February 22, 2007

Uneven knitting, part 1: stockinette fabric--how to tame "rowing out"

The human eye is great at seeing even the most subtle patterns, and for good reason--for much of human history, survival depended on knowing whether that shadow might be ... a tiger looking for dinner!

For knitters, this means the eye immediately seeks out patterns in knitted fabric--an advantage if your sweater features lovely cables. But the eye's ability to pick out patterns is a disadvantage if your sweater features the Knitter's Bane: the "rowing out" of uneven stockinette fabric.
click picture
the knitter's bane--uneven stockinette fabric
Stockinette fabric is typically made by knitting across the front and purling back. If you knit at a different tension than you purl (a VERY common problem) your fabric develops those tiger stripes the eye is so well-suited to detect. The looser row (for most knitters, the purl row; but for some knitters, the knit row) pouches out and distracts.

Below is a three-part post attacking this problem. Part 1 lays out some traditional tricks. Part 2 shows some limitations on these tricks. Part 3 lays out a final trick--a maybe new way of thinking about the problem.


Many, many tricks have been developed over the years to counteract the problem of uneven stockinette fabric. The four traditional tricks I've found best are laid out below. If a different trick works for you (and if you're feeling bold) consider sharing in the comments!

Trick one:
Garter stitch and circular knitting

The easiest cure for uneven stockinette fabric is never purling. There are two ways to accomplish this: garter stitch fabric, and fabric made by circular knitting.

In garter stitch fabric, there is only knitting back and forth. There is no purling. Similarly, in circular knitting, stockinette fabric is not made by knitting there and purling back. Instead, it is made by knitting endlessly, round and round.

Accordingly, for garter stitch fabric, and for circular knit fabric, it matters not at all that your knitting differs from your purling. There simply isn't any purling.

Many clever designs exist for garter stitch garments, especially those created by the late, great Elizabeth Zimmerman. As to circular knitting, many things can be made in the round--hats, sweaters, socks, even square flat things like blankets and shawls can be made without purling by working in the round if they are started from the center and worked on circular needles.

Trick two:
Adjust the tension of your hands

A more challenging solution to differently tensioned knit and purl is to teach your hands to tighten up what's loose, or loosen up what's tight. To work this, you first have to figure out which way is looser, knit or purl.

Here's how: make some fabric, ending on a knit row, and leave the fabric on the needle. Lay the fabric on a table, knit side up. Dim the overhead lights, and slant the beam from an adjustable table lamp or flashlight to throw your fabric into relief. You know that the row on the needle was made by knit. The row below that was made by purl, the row below that (2 from the needle) by knit, and so forth. Find the looser rows, and count down from the needle to figure out how they were made--by knit or by purl.

Now you're set to mess around--to experiment. Can you increase the tension on what's looser? Is it easier to loosen the tension on what's tighter? Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither did you learn to tension your yarn in a day. Change takes time and attention. Plan to make a scarf. That'll give you plenty of length to fool with tightness and looseness, and you'll be able to see your results as the scarf gets longer. In the best-case scenario, the scarf ends smooth and even, and the problem is solved.

Trick three:
Different size needles

This trick is really an extension of the second. If your hands stubbornly resist your brain, if they continue to churn out stripy fabric no matter what you tell them, the next thing to try is tricking those hands into submission.

Your experiment with the beam of light already revealed which technique is looser--knit or purl. For this trick, arm yourself with a needle of a smaller size, then do the looser technique with that.

In other words, if you are working with a pair of size 6 needles, and your purling is looser than your knitting, take a size 5 needle to purl, and keep the size 6 to knit. Remember--it is immaterial what size needle holds the stitches to be knit, the finished stitch is determined ONLY by the needle making the stitch--the right needle. This trick lets you create the looser stitches around a smaller needle, making the looser stitches smaller, and therefore tighter.

It might take time to figure out this trick--your scarf might be quite long indeed by the end of the experiment. Also, I know knitters who must use needles TWO sizes apart to tighten up the loose technique, so if at first your fabric remains stripy, try, try again.

BTW: if you're making stockinette fabric by working back and forth on circular needles, you can work this trick by screwing two different size points on each end of the cable from an interchangeable tip kit--such as those made by Knit Picks, Denise or Boye.

Trick four
Pick yarns which hide the flaw

Novelty yarn is generally thick and thin and every which way. Who cares if the purl and the knit are different? Frankly, with most novelty yarn, its hard to tell if it was made by knitting or purling at all--garter stitch is the more usual method of creating a novelty yarn fabric. Handspun yarn is also commonly available spun "thick and thin." Variegated yarns (some of which are beautifully hand dyed) and tweed yarns both help hide undesirable fabric stripes with a randomly varying color pattern--the eye is fooled away from the uneven fabric surface by the undulating colors.

* * *

All of the above tricks unquestionably work. For many knitters, these tricks solve the problem for once and for all. If you've just started attacking the uneven stockinette problem, one of these tricks could hold the solution you've been looking for. But, at some point in your evolution as a knitter, you may have bumped up against ...


Garter stitch: Avoiding purling altogther can become tiresome. Garter stitch is bulky and slow to knit-- it takes a great deal more yarn to make the same length of fabric in garter stitch than in stockinette. Also, garter stitch is not suited to sleek fashions. A garter-stitch T-shirt or halter-top might be a bit odd.

As to circular knitting: at some point, perhaps the short rows back-and-forth across the back of a sweater neck or a sleeve cap, that old purling is going to rear its head. Then where are you?

As to changing your tension: If you can train your hands, this IS the best solution. Yet, experience shows that, for many knitters, when you're tired, or when you're knitting on autopilot, the hands may stubbornly revert.

The different size needle trick might work for you--it works for many--but when you want to knit with a new yarn, the relationships between the needle sizes might change--you might need two sizes smaller instead of one, you might need one size smaller instead of two. To succeed as a two-different-size-needle-knitter, you're going to have to be extremely serious about swatching each time you try out a new yarn. If this is you, great, problem solved. But, hmm...well... many knitters aren't really THAT serious about swatching.

And as for the last trick--using wild yarns, well... just as there is a limit to the number of garter stitch garments one wardrobe can absorb, so you may find that there is also a limit to the number of novelty tops, rustic handpun garments and tweed or varigated sweaters.

The upshot? Each of the tricks above works, but each is potentially limited in some way. If the limitations affect you, if you've tried these tricks and remain dissatisfied, then, the best and most lasting solution, IMHO, is what I am going to call ...


nr st fab 1 br ribNear-stockinette fabrics are those which can substitute for stockinette fabric with no alteration to the garment pattern. Near-stockinette fabrics feature a subtle surface pattern of purling on the "knit" side. Hunt through a pattern stitch book--ideal is a small all-over pattern. These surface patterns work two ways: first, the pattern itself interrupts the stripe, and second, the pattern disguises any remaining stripy-ness by inserting another, more pleasing pattern.

nr st 2 croc skinFor substitution into a stockinette fabric garment, the near-stockinette fabric you choose should not alter the structural properties of the fabric. However, it turns out that stockinette can take quite a bit of alteration and not lose its basic properties --the stitch to row ratio, the tendency to curl, the direction of that curl, the weight, hand (drape) and bulk of the fabric.


Another limitation on near-stockinette fabrics is to choose one which doesn't interfere with your garment shaping. Carrying up a line of knit stitches in a broken ribbing pattern is a lovely substitution for reverse stockinette in an aran sweater (see illustration of broken rib) but it can make decreasing for a set-in armhole challenging. A less linear, less insistent pattern, like crocodile skin or speckled purl would not raise that issue.

Don't conclude that the stitch patterns shown here are all you have to choose from--these three patterns are my particular "old standbys" for near-stockinette fabrics, but there are many, many others to choose from.

PS: This post is part of a three-post series. The other posts in the series are:
Uneven Knitting, part 2: Bunching, big stitches and lumpy fabric--the problem of too-long runs.
Uneven Knitting, part 3: Fixing the loose column in ribbing, texture and cables

Good luck!


Leah said...

What a great post! I had this trouble with my purl rows when I first started out and found that I needed to pay a lot more attention to my tension when purling. No more watching TV & not looking while I purled. It took a while but I got a good sense of what my "purling" tension needed to be to match my "knitting" tension.

Well worth it in the end as those tiny little ridges are aptly titled the "bane" of our knitting existence!

Caren said...

As usual, a fabulous explanation of a common problem, with terrific illustrations. I've found that my purling tension comes out perfectly if I purl using Annie Modessit's "combined" method (and knit through the proper leg on the way back of course). My understanding of this phenomenon is that purl stitches wrapped "properly" use more yarn than knit stitches. I guess purling "backwards" takes less yarn and is therefore a closer match to my knit tension. Thanks for the awesome blog, it's one of my new favorites!

twellve said...

greetings fellow cheesehead.

not that i've ever had this problem OR tried this solution, but i have heard that one could also learn to knit backwards and therefore avoid the whole purling thing.

C said...

What a wealth of knitting knowledge you have! That was a great post. Very informative and such clear instructions!

Liz said...

I love your site! I know this is off the current topic, but do you have any recommendations on what to do at the end of a row when knitting a double-knitted scarf? If I just keep knitting the knits and purling the purls, the sides remain open...
Any thoughts?

--TECHknitter said...

Hi Liz--without knowing anything about your pattern (or even quite what you mean by "double knitting"--several techniques go by that name) the best I can suggest is to "twist 'em." In other words, when you get the the end of the row, twist the two separate yarns together by passing one ball over another before you knit back. Hope this helps.

Janice in Camas said...

I just got here by a link over at Be*mused, and, boy, am I glad. I've been knitting just over a year (self-taught through books) and I'm doing pretty well, but I can clearly see that I'm going to be spending a lot of time here. I love that you're explaining "why" something works. A lot of books tell us to do something without really explaining the pros and cons. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

--TECHknitter said...

--You're very welcome!

Amaranthe said...

It appears my problem wasn't tension, but the twist of my stitches. I knit and purl the throw method. My knit stitches were clearly twisted, but I was knitting the normal way (in the front loop). So, I twisted all my knit stitches (knitting into the back loop), and purled the normal way. For me, this results in an even stockinette.

Anonymous said...

Could blocking fix this?

Anonymous said...

My favorite solution is combined knitting -- something I've only learned recently. I saw it in an Annie Modessitt book, but I didn't understand it. I saw it in Priscilla Gibson-Roberts book: Knitting in the Old Way, and I didn't get it for years! Then I sat and swatched and LO! a great light shone! Knitting Continental, the purl is scooped in the other direction. Then the stitch mount will be "backward" but you simply knit into the back loop when you come by to knit it in the next row. Faster and smoother purling, plus the gauge tightens right up!
This site is incredible. Thank yuou so much!

Anonymous said...

My solution is to "purl back" by knitting left handed. I knit continental right handed, and then go back English left handed which has a much more even tension, plus I don't have to turn my work!

lindaro said...

Hi there. I have uneven problem of a different nature. On each one of my knit stitches the right side of the little "heart" is not as tight as the left side. This creates a weid barber pole look? Anyone seen this before?

CricketB said...

Another stitch that will show the difference is Trinity Stitch. k3p3 each row, but offset them so each 3-stitch column is garter. You end up with a column of purls and a column of knits. The swatch lies flat, too, so you don't get distortion trying to hold it flat.

Start the swatch with a few rows of stst to establish RS/WS.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Cat Bordhi, for pointing me to TECHknitting. Love all the great info.

Christine said...

My way around purling entire rows is lefty-knitting. A great solution for the lopsided carpel tunnel syndrome, because both hands get a chance to work/rest. Imagine how quick it goes to continental knit an entire cardigan - and NOT steek!

Just make sure you're looking at the stitches and not twisting them.

Ghost of a Rose said...

I found a very simple solution that works great for me. My purl rows do tend to be looser. So when working a purl row, I wrap the yarn around the little finger of my right hand an extra time to give it more tension. That's it, so quick and easy!

As you mentioned when using different sizes of needles, not all yarns respond the same way, so some yarns might require even more (or less) tension. But that kind of thing can be worked out while making your gauge swatch.

Your blog is incredible - my favorite! It should be mentioned in all knitting classes!

Classics Revisited said...

Thanks so much for this info and for your blog! I found it on google when searching for the cause & solution of my "rowing out" problem, which I can now hope to conquer. I'm adding you to my RSS reader right now--I don't want to miss a thing! Thanks again!

Cliftonian said...

You have an awesome blog! Very helpful to me in answering questions.

However, I haven't been able to find the answer to my current question anywhere on your blog, so please excuse me if I'm repeating...I am knitting a sampler afghan and one of the squares has two cables in it. Well, the square ends up with a waist -- narrower in the middle and wider on the top and bottom. How can I avoid/fix this?

TECHknitter said...

Hi Cliftonian:
You ask an excellent question. The answer is to stategically cast on extra stitches, then decrease them away again. There are two different ways of doing this.

1) cast on extra stitches one or two rows before the first cable cross takes place--the cross is where the pinching starts. What you do is, add a few stitches at random across the row, on both sides of the cable. You'll have to fool around a little to see how many stitches to add, maybe 3 on each side of the cables (6 total) to start.

Then, in the first or second row after the last twist, get rid of these stitches.

As to how to hide the stitches so the increases and decreases aren't so evident, I suggest making the background something plain, yet bumpy, such as reverse stockinette or garter stitch.

2) cast on the number of stitches you require, work the border, then cast on extra stitches for the cables in the row just before the cables begin. This lets the cables exist almost independent of the background fabric. At the other end of the square, you decrease these stitches away.

Long story short: increase some stitches, then decrease again, and this will counteract the pinching at the "waist." Whether you add these stitches to the cable or the background material is knitters choice.

Since its a sampler, maybe try it both ways on two different cable squares, and see which way comes out better for you!

Thanks for writing,

Rose said...

My purls are tighter than my knit stitches. And that is with purling from the back. I am currently knitting a sweater with stockinette stitch and using 3.5mm circular needles. My stitches became looser going down the body. I was thinking of switching to maybe 3.25. or 3mm. What do you think?

TECHknitter said...

Hi Rose--I encourage you to experiment with needle size to correct tension issues. And, if the purls are tighter than the knits, you may wish to consider trying a slightly smaller needle for the knits, to bring the two operations into alignment, stitch-size wise.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I came by hoping for some help on uneven seed stitch. When I first started knitting (2 years ago) seed stitch was easy and looked great. For some reason the last two projects, my seed stitch seems off-balance. It isn't an even, every-other row checkerboard look, but some stitches almost look as if they are in pairs. I have checked and double checked, I am doing both purl and knit correctly and winding the yarn around the needle counter-clockwise. My tension in other stitching is just fine. sorry to connect on here, I did not see another post that related to my question. Thank you.

TECHknitter said...

Hi Anon: This sounds very much like a yarn problem, rather than a tension problem. Have a look at the article below (cut and paste the address into your browser window) and see if it describes the issue. Best, TK

Anonymous said...

Thanks, I checked out the link you posted. Interesting. I am currently knitting a scarf on size 15s using cotton tape yarn, in seed stitch, and the seed stitch is big and open but not off balance. So hopefully it is indeed the yarn in my other projects. I will block carefully, and hope thet seed stitch ends up looking more like itself.. Thanks for the help!

Ugly Fat and Crabby said...

I only noticed that I have a rowing out problem about a year ago when I was making a lot of doubleknit blanket squares. I'm not sure if I didn't have the problem before or if I just never noticed. I'm using different size needles on the sweater I'm knitting flat now, but that won't work for doubleknit.

I knit English with both yarns in my right hand. I consciously pull the yarn a bit tighter for my purls but I'm not consistent with that. Any better suggestions to cure rowing out in double knitting?