Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Uneven knitting, part 2: bunching, big stitches and lumpy fabric--the problems of too-long runs

This blog has previously discussed the problem of uneven fabric which results from "rowing out," uneven stockinette--uneven from row to row. Today, we have the related problem of knitting which is uneven from column to column. Sometimes, this problem is easy to identify, expressing itself in bunchy vertical columns across the face of the fabric, as shown in the photo below. Sometimes, however, this problem expresses itself in quite a mysterious manner, with just a few "too big" stitches showing in an otherwise perfect row.

When you first begin knitting, unevenness is, of course, unavoidable. But some knitters remain plagued with this issue. In my experience, this mainly results from a positioning problem called "too-long runs."

To explain: When we knit, we have two needles--the holding needle and the working needle. (For most knitters, the left is the holding, the right the working, but for mirror image knitters, this is reversed.) To knit a new stitch, three things have to happen, and two of them concern positioning.
  • The stitch about to be knit has to be pushed or drawn away from its neighbors, onto the tip of the left (holding) needle--positioning issue #1
  • The stitch has to be knit
  • The newly-made stitch has to be parked on the right (working needle) far enough out of the way to permit the next stitch to be made without falling off in its turn--positioning issue #2.
Obviously, each of these things ought to happen the same way each time--each stitch about to be made should be drawn forward from the pack of waiting stitches by the same distance, each new loop drawn through ought to be the same size, and each newly-made stitch ought to be parked out of the way by the same distance from the tip of the working needle.

The problem of the middle stage--drawing the same amount of yarn through each time to make consistent loops--we will save for a later post, it being a problem of feed tension. For today, we are only looking at the positioning issues of moving the stitches toward being knit, then out of the way afterwards. In other words, these positioning issues cause the problem covered by today's post: the problem of fabric uneven across the columns.

One root of this problem is that in knitting, you are in the odd position of trying to slide stitches around while also holding--clamping, actually--those very same stitches in one place as you grasp the knitting needles so as to operate them. The second root of today's problem is that knitting is complicated, and positioning your hands just right can be a bit of a chore. The natural result is the tendency of not wanting to shift the hands too often--of making as many stitches possible before re-positioning the hands.

It has been my observation that knitters who create smooth fabric have overcome this tendency. They re-position their hands every few stitches, or even, every stitch. But knitters whose fabric is not-so-smooth tend, perhaps, to hang on to the needles, shoving forward a bunch of stitches at a time, knitting all these--perhaps as many as 10 stitches or even more--without repositioning their hands on the needles. In other words, these knitters do not reposition until it becomes absolutely necessary to do so because there are no more stitches reachable on the left needle, while the newly-made stitches are about to fall off the right needle tip.

As you can imagine, when using this bunch-wise system, the first stitch to be knit is separated from its left-hand neighbor by very little distance, while the last stitch of the bunch is drawn very far from its neighbor--a neighbor being held back to be the first stitch of the next bunch. Similarly, the first stitch of the bunch to climb aboard the right-hand needle is held a fair distance away from its right-hand neighbor--the last stitch of the old bunch--while the last stitch to climb aboard is jammed and crammed up against the other stitches newly-made in the same bunch.

The evil is that the running yarn--the yarn coming from the skein--has to run a further distance between stitches in widely-separated bunches than between stitches of the same bunch.

If this is a one-time random event--maybe the knitter was trying to get in a few last stitches before running for the phone--the result is the mysterious set of too-big stitches in the middle of an otherwise good row. This sort of problem can usually be blocked out: as the knitting flexes, the small amount of excess yarn stretches from one place to another.

However, when this sort of distortion is systemic, the fabric cannot recover. In other words, if the hand routinely takes bunches of roughly equal numbers of stitches, the fabric soon begins to distort into vaguely vertical columns, each column representing the width of the bunch-wise knitting. Fabric knit bunch-wise, where uneven amounts of yarn routinely lays between stitches in adjoining columns, is unlikely to ever lay smooth, not even when properly blocked.

Once the problem has been laid out, it becomes easier to understand positioning adaptations made to solve this problem. One reason why the old-time production hand-knitters used knitting sheathes or belts to hold the needles was to separate the holding function from the knitting function. If the needles and fabric can be supported without the hand clamping the stitches to the needle, the hand becomes free to guide the stitches, smoothly and evenly bringing each stitch to the working tips and taking it away again, always moving the stitches by the same amount. In machine knitting, this problem of uneven runs has been solved by having an entire bank of needles, one for each column, and these needles are fixed in position, so that the running yarn always travels an identical distance between adjoining stitches.

For the modern hand knitter, the cure is to reposition the hands and the stitches often, keeping the runs short--a few stitches, at most. Slower initially, yet soon the hands take the situation in stride. Keeping runs short by moving the stitches evenly up to the left tip and away from the right becomes one more automatic gesture among many made by the knitter's hand, a smoother fabric resulting.
You have been reading TECHknitting blog on "uneven knitting--bunching, big stitches and lumpy fabric."


JelliDonut said...

Excellent explanation!

Jennifer Leigh said...

Interesting! As a general rule, I advance a stitch every time I knit a stitch-- it's just part of the dance my fingers do. I can knit without looking because I hold each stitch open as I knit it; I can feel the stitch, and once it's knit I grab its neighbor.

The issue I have that's related to this comes from knitting with circular needles. Occasionally the work doesn't move smoothly across the join of the needle to the cable, and the stitches start fighting me rather than advancing smoothly. I haven't paid a lot of attention to the evenness of my knitting when I'm having that problem, but I will look for it!

TECHknitter said...

Hi Jennifer--yes, feeding the stitches smoothly is what I meant to get at.


nopinkhere said...

Thank you! I think I do this! I'm off to knit some and see if your advice makes a difference.

subliminalrabbit said...

brilliant post! i agree with jennifer l - i also have trouble with feeding stitches smoothly when working on circs. i think it's a combination of the joins and the fact that i knit a bit more tightly, as i grasp onto a shorter needle. every once in a while i have to tell myself to relax!

CricketB said...

Aha! A reason to knit English. You have to put down your knitting for each stitch!

(Did I just perpetuate the myth that English knitters let go of the needle? I knit English and never let go of the needle.It stays loosely cupped in my fingers, with my thumb loose on the newer stitches. My wrist flexes so my index finger can wrap the yarn around. But I never let go of the right needle, and am faster than many Continental knitters.)

elizabeth said...

This is, unfortunately, very timely. I was counting on blocking to correct my bunches, but now I think I'll rip that half-finished sweater and try again another day...

Laura Sue said...

This post reminds me of the centipede who, upon being asked how he runs, is put into such a quandary thinking about it that he has to have a lie down. Very informative. Thank you. I believe I am doing that on a sweater I am currently knitting and will have lots of knitting left to work on correcting it.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. I like the way you dissect each problem and always eventually find the unquestionable explanation. I never thought to this one and, after reading your indications, it's obvious. I confess that this problem does not concern, me because my knit is perfectly regular (ah ah ;-)) (40 years of pratice behind me is the explanation there). But I occasionnaly help beginners and will transmit this indication to them for sure!!
Thank you TECHknitter !!
Chantal (stamm92)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the (as always) clear discussion.

I have a friend who is an older woman from Holland and she knits using long straight single-points. She sticks the "hold" under her arm and pins it in place like that.

bibliotecaria said...

I would add that one of the possible problems that cause this is the wrong needle type. Some needles are more grabby on the yarn than others, depending on the type of yarn. Sometimes that is desirable (lace knitting, for example), but having the right tool can make it easier to move the yarn along, akin to the cable needle join catching problem.

Ruth C said...

Thanks for this! Since the problem is greater/lesser amounts of yarn, I wonder if it is related to my question (which I can't find in your index, though it appears to be mentioned one post as a potential future topic):

When I knit columns switching from knit to purl (such as a basket weave pattern) one column is always looser-looking--I think the problem is always switching from knit to purl but switching from purl to knit doesn't have the same problem.

Have you seen this problem and (I hope!) figured out how to fix it?

Laikabear said...

I tend to do that knitting until you can't reach anymore stitches thing, but I haven't noticed that bunching... Maybe I need to take a closer look!

Thank you for writing this blog. I find it so useful and have learned so many things that aren't in any of the knitting books I have. :)

Judi P said...

Great post, as always.

I'd like to jump on Ruth C's suggestion for a future post on avoiding oversize stitches when switching between knits and purls. My daughter was so frustrated last year with this problem with her 2 x 2 ribbing that she hasn't tried to knit a sweater since. (So sad!) I believe it's the column of knit stitches right before (or is it after?) the purl ditch that looks loose and unattractive. Surely the problem is caused by the extra yarn involved in bringing it forward to purl (or, come to think of it, maybe it's when you move it to the back to knit), but for her, no amount of attention/extra tension would correct it.

ColorJoy LynnH said...

As a teacher of many beginning knitting students, I've seen this tendency on the needle but never noticed its result in the final fabric. Your post will help me explain the issue to them. Thanks!

KnittingGeek said...

My advice is... loosen up!
I'm amazed at how tightly some people knit. If you simply relax, don't yank on the yarn, just let it glide through your fingers without interfering or altering the tension, your stitches will be even. I don't have to advance the stitches manually because mine are loose enough to slide right along with the natural motion of the knitting.

DevaRupa said...

I have had this problem for years and never known how to solve it. Thank you so much!!!

america said...

very difficult to handle for the fresh beginners any such unforeseen situations and problems...but it is good that there is enough guidance on this.

Kim Tackett said...

I'm a fairly new knitter. The information in your post is very enlightening. A eureka moment. You mentioned another post that addressed the same type of problems, but I couldn't find it. Can you help?

TECHknitter said...

Hi Kim--the link is in the first sentence of this post--a link to a post about "rowing out." I don't know how to add links here in the comments, but if you can't find the link in the post, try cutting and pasting this address to your browser window, and you will also get to the post on rowing out.


Thanks for writing--TK

CP said...

Not all bunchers wait till the very last minute to advance their stitches. I'm a buncher, and I have consistent gauge. In the rare instance where the stitches are far apart on the needles, I know I've waited to long, or am doing an unusual maneuver to cause that. It's far from the norm. I bunch the stitches near the tip, then feed from that group until the feeding feels "off" then I bunch again. It keeps the stitches exactly where I expect them to be and easy to work.

TECHknitter said...

Hi CP--your bunching is part of a system for consistent feed, and so, is not a problem but a help. The issue is not actually the bunching itself, but the uneven feed it encourages for many knitters (but not you!) Thanks for writing with your excellent point.