Friday, April 13, 2007

How to avoid ladders on DPNs (double pointed needles)

click pictureladders-1
Ladders happen when the tension of knitted fabric consistently changes between the same two column of stitches. The usual place for ladders is where dpn's come together, although this same problem can arise between the front and back stitch sets in Magic loop knitting as well. Another popular place for ladders is along a line where stitch markers are inserted.

Here are three solutions:

TIP #1:
PROBLEM: The tension change issue is more dramatic, and the ladders more obvious, when you are working on 4 needles (3 holding needles and a fourth working needle). This is because the rigid triangle formed by the 3 "holding needles," and the steep angle of the work make it harder to knit the first and last few stitches. Anytime you have a few stitches which are harder to work than their neighbors, you get a tension-change (and maybe a tension headache?).

SOLUTION: Double pointed work is easier on 5 needles (4 holding needles and a fifth working needle). The shallower angle of work possible with 4 holding needles means it isn't as hard to knit the first and last few stitches. In other words, the first and last few stitches aren't notably any harder to knit than the middle stitches, so there is less reason for the tension to change, and fewer excuses for ladders to form.

TIP #2:
PROBLEM: When you first learn to knit on dpn's, it's to hard make ladders go away by changing your tension. Sometimes a ladder occurs because the tension at the change point is too LOOSE, sometimes because the tension is too TIGHT. Trying to compensate by pulling tighter, or knitting looser can make your ladders go from one kind to another without ever solving the problem -- frustrating!

SOLUTION: Practice makes perfect. At some point, maybe on your eighth (or twentieth) pair of socks, you'll look down and surprise!--your hands will be knitting along without creating ladders.
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In the meantime, though, try this trick--

Because ladders occur where tension changes are stacked up in the same column, it is possible to avoid ladders by un-stacking the tension changes.

Stated otherwise, if on every round, you move the point at which the tension changes -- the change point for the dpn's-- there simply cannot be any ladders.

There are two ways of shifting the change point: forward (leftward) switching and backwards (rightward) switching. The illustration shows forward switching which was created by carrying two stitches forward every round. Backwards switching would look very similar, but the dots would recede rightward on each new row, instead of proceeding leftwards, as shown.

Instructions for both kinds of switching (carrying) are below.

Forward (leftward) switching
(also called "carrying stitches forward")

If you'd like to keep track of where your round begins, place a stitch marker (see tip #3 for more about stitch markers). Next, follow these 8 steps:

1. Work until the next left needle in rotation (blue) pops free. (Illustration A.)

2. Leave the right needle (green) currently in your right hand just where it is--this now becomes the old right working needle.
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3. Lay the newly freed left needle (blue) down on the table, or maybe park it behind your ear, carpenter-style. (Illustration B). This parked needle was the old left needle, is now the empty needle and will soon become the new right working needle. (Your left hand is now free.)

4. With your free left hand, grasp the next dpn (holder-needle) to the left--this becomes the new left working needle (purple).

5. Knit another few stitches (orange) off the new left working needle with the old right working needle. (Illustration C.) (How many stitches you knit is up to you. The illustration shows 2 stitches carried forward, but you can carry forward some other number: 5 stitches? 7 stitches? 13 stitches?--amuse yourself by varying the number--it relieves some of the monotony of endlessly going around and around. The only real rule is to not let the stitches get wildly unbalanced between the needles for too long.)

6. When you've knitted the chosen number of stitches you want to carry forward, simply stop knitting with the old right needle. (Right hand is now free.)
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7. With your free right hand, take the empty needle from behind your ear, or from the table where you parked it. This needle now becomes the new right working needle. Using the new right working needle, work all the stitches off the left working needle, until the left needle is popped loose. (Illustration D).

8. Repeat steps 2-7.

As you "carry stitches forward," you've not only eliminated all possibility of ladders, but you've gained other advantages, too.

By freeing your left and right hands at different times, you maintain one hand on the work at all times. This maintains a better tension, is quicker than re-arranging both hands on two new needles at every needle change, and makes it easier to get back into rhythm at each switch--only one hand has to get re-organized at a time.

Backwards switching
also called ("carrying stitches backwards")

Backwards switching is the same idea as forwards switching, but instead of knitting additional stitches onto a needle, several already-knitted stitches are slipped backwards, onto an empty needle. The empty needle thus becomes the new right working needle, and the direction of slip moves the point where the dpn's come together rightwards by several stitches.

1. Use the right needle (green) to knit to the end of the left needle (blue) in the usual way. Illustration A.) The left needle is the empty needle and will soon become the new right working needle. (Illustration B.) Retain the empty needle in your left hand.
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2. The right needle is finished knitting and has now become a right holder needle, holding all the stitches you just finished knitting. Retain this holder needle in your right hand.

3.Holding the empty needle in your left hand, and the right holder needle in your right hand, use both hands together to slip the last 2 (or 3, or 4) stitches (orange) you knit PURLWISE (open--not twisted) from the right holder needle onto the left tip of the empty needle. (Illustration C.) By this act, the empty needle has become the new working right needle.
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4. Let go of the right holder needle, and switch the new working right needle into your right hand, then slide that needle rightwards so the newly slipped stitches are at the left tip and the new right needle is in position to knit further. (Illustration D.)

5. With your free left hand, grasp the next dpn (holder-needle) to the left--this becomes the new left working needle.

6. Repeat steps 1-5.

As you can see, backwards switching requires both hands to have to be re-arranged at every needle change. Also, the act of slipping the stitches from the right holder-needle to the new right working needle adds a step. For these two reasons, backwards switching is slower and less efficient than forwards switching. However, there are times you need to be able to switch backwards, such as for...
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Combination backwards and forwards switching
Sometimes you might find that progressive switching, either forward or backwards, would mess up the needle placement by interfering with shaping--such as at sock toes. In this illustration, the shaping stitches (in red circles) cannot be switched or the shaping will be hard to keep track of.

But what about the center stitches of the toe where 2 dpn's come together on a smooth piece of non-shaped fabric? (In this illustration, the center stitches are those inside the bracket.) It is not uncommon to see a big ladder running right down these toe center stitches.

In a case like this, you can use combination forwards and backwards switching on the center stitches. Combination switching lets you change where the dpn's come together at one end of the needles, but keeps the other end of the needles in the same place--so you don't mess up your shaping.

Here's how: Where the dpn's for the toe centers (front and back) come together, carry 2 stitches forward between these two dpn's for a few rounds, then on the next several rounds, carry 2 stitches backwards. If you keep alternating between forward and backwards switching on the center stitches you'll avoid ladders on the toe centers, but you won't disturb the shaping at the toe edges.
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TIP #3:
PROBLEM: A ladder develops where stitch markers are inserted.

SOLUTION: Use yarn scraps for stitch markers. Do not allow the marker yarn to become entangled in the fabric--keep it free. The tail between stitches does not have to stretch as far around a scrap of yarn as around a metal or plastic marker, so the tension does not change where the marker lies.

This is rather a sad solution, because there are many creative, beautiful jewel-like stitch markers on the market today, and it's more fun to use these pretty markers than to have your work bristling with odd scraps of yarn. However, perhaps you will consider the absence of ladders a consolation.

You have been reading TECHknitting on: Avoiding ladders on dpn's (double pointed needles).


marjorie said...

You are right about practice making ladders disappear. One day I just noticed that they were gone.

I had more luck as a beginner with socks with a cable pattern when I positioned my needles to "end" in the purl column framing the cable. The ladder seemed somewhat hidden by those purl stitches.

Another somewhat more expensive solution to the ladders around the marker problem is to use the small rubber rings (they look like the rubberbands for braces, only in neon colors) that you can knit into a stitch and cut out later. I got mine at Patternworks, and they're handy for this sort of thing.

i.d.d.a. said...

Just stopping by to say hello and that I enjoy checking out the Tech stuff. You sure put alot of work into this. Thanks

Ronna said...

Thank you so much for your hard work and sharing such valuable information. You spell things out better than anyone.
I cut up straws for stitch markers. They are free and can be cut away, especially if you forget to remove them before putting in a lifeline.

Nik said...

Now, where has this blog been all my life? great pictures, and I think that it is a great place for beginners and advanced knitters to learn the ins and outs of knitting. Bravo. I shall link you, 'K?

--TECHknitter said...

Dear Nik--thanks for your kind words. I'd appreciate a link, thanks--gets the word out...

Kim said...

I'm working on socks on 2 circs, and I was getting ladders between the two needles. Now I am more vigilant - I make sure the non-working needle is fully pulled through to the cable, and I knit the first 4 stitches very tightly.

Nanette said...

I also do the "rearrange stitches to avoid ladders" trick and I make sure to never have a needle change right in the center of a colorwork pattern. A ladder is always more noticeable there.

I find that when I use longer dpns I am more likely to get ladders because I think I stretch the work out more. Now that I've moved to 6" or shorter dpns (unless larger dpns are absolutely necessary) I tend to scrunch up the work on the needles so any stitches don't fall off the dpns and the ladder problem is much less noticeable.

Merigold said...

Thanks for this information. I've tried moving the stitches around, but didn't know what I was doing. :-)

I don't get ladders when I am knitting st st, but when I knit ribbing I do. Anything special going on here? Will the same tricks work for this and will experience just cure it some day, hopefully?

kidoc said...

Hi, just started perusing your instructions, I love them! I have found that I can eliminate the 'ladder' when using 4dp needles by inserting the new 'working' needle under the left handed needle. In other words, the right 'old' needle is above the left 'new' needle, and the working needle is inserted through the yarn from below. I suppose I also have done it often enough that I automatically adjust the tension. I realize I can not write the instructions as clear as you do, that is an art in and of itself! Thanks for all of the great tips, I will keep reading. Happy knitting.

Marie T said...

Just in case anyone is ever looking for those rubber rings mentioned in the first post - you can now get brace rubber bands in neon colors too. The ones I have are green, pink, orange or purple. These aren't the bands that go round the brackets, they're the rubber bands that go from top teeth to bottom teeth and snap at the worst times. :-)
Just an FYI.

lizrides said...

Thanks for the step-by-step explanation and the great graphics. I'm looking forward to this next project being ladder-free!

heysandi said...

I realized too late that I have three ladders running all the way down the arm warmers I'm making (with 4 dpns). Starting over won't be a big deal, but is there any way to fix this after the fact? Will blocking the piece fix it, or no?

P.S. Thank you so much for putting together such a lovely site. I wish I had discovered this years ago...

TECHknitter said...

Hi Sandi--Thanks for writing, and its great to hear that you are finding TECHknitting blog useful.

Blocking will fix the problem somewhat, as will wear. Over time, the problem will become harder and harder to see, but we are talking maybe 6-8 washings and maybe 20 wearings--ladders are not a problem which fade away overnight.

There is another trick though that you might be able to use, depending how large the ladders are. It is possible to hook up the rungs of the ladder into a whole new column of stitches. This is the same idea as correcting the loose column of stitches which can happen alongside a line of decreases--and there is a TECHknitting post about that (cut and paste the below address into your browser)

Good luck!


Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your great information!

My question is concerning ladders when using Magic Loop or two circulars. I can't seem to figure out how to go a couple of stitches farther.

Muffy said...

I knit two color mittens on 4 needles. To avoid ladders and also keep the secondary color from becoming to tight I knit with the right side of the work on the inside of the tube created. It is easy to rotate the knitting on the needles and when you get to the point where you need to decrease or finish off the knitting just rotates back out.

Geekz Galore.. said...


Excellent blog. I have a question, how do I avoid ladders on DPNs while ribbing? The proposed solution when applied to ribbing, causes it to go all wonky and crooked..

Anonymous said...

For stitch markers, I do something similar to the dental brace rubber bands.... I found teeny tiny baby ponytail holders in bright neon colors made by Goody. They are tiny -- about 5/16" in diameter, and they are very thin, so they don't get in the way of working yarn. Might I also add, they are cheap and readily available at pretty much any drugstore or discount dept. store. I think I found them at the "big red bullseye." ;-)

Eat Make Inspire said...

Thanks for this post - I've linked to this on my website,, as I found it very useful when working on one of my first projects in the round, a little baby hat.

Jamie P said...

Thank you so much. I"m a new knitter (little over a year, my goal, to make kilt socks for my husband) I had been searching for a solution for the laddering and didn't find anything that worked for me until I found your blog. I've did a combination of adding a needle and carrying stitches forward.

Thanks Again!!