Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Why bands and cuffs are wonky, and what to do about it (part 2 of "knitting better bands")

Includes 7 illustrations
The previous installment of "knitting better bands" showed that stitches along the edges of garments, stitches such as Wanda and Lon, stretch out because they have a lack of family support. Instead of being supported by 8 adjacent stitches as are stitches in the middle of a fabric like Norm, edge stitches are supported by only 5 stitches. In other words, edge stitches have a completely exposed edge along which there are no stabilizing stitches.

Without stabilizing stitches, edge stitches want to S-T-R-E-T-C-H out, and this is true no matter what KIND of stitches these are--ribbing, garter, seed stitch--the edge stitches will stretch regardless. So, when the edge of the FABRIC is the edge of the GARMENT, the garment edges--bands, cuffs--will be wonky and stretched out. The good news is that this is a structural problem: it's NOT YOU! No! It's the structure of the fabric edge to WANT to stretch and wonk-ify, and this is an unavoidable, built-in characteristic.

Now this problem is nothing new to knitting, and there are two solutions. The first solution is the most common: This is the oft-repeated advice to carefully adjust the amount of yarn IN the edge stitches. In other words, this is the "Goldilocks" solution: cast on (or off) your edge stitches "just right," not too tight and not too loose.

The obvious problem with this approach is that it can take years of experience to find that happy medium. Expert knitters can do this, but beginning and even intermediate knitters often RUIN their otherwise lovely garments trying to follow this advice.

When the error is NOT ENOUGH yarn supplied to the edge stitches, the result is a TOO TIGHT band. Who has not seen a lovely sock, the cuff of which is biting painfully into the flesh of its proud creator? Who has not seen a lovingly hand knit sweater with a neck cast off so tight as to be a nose scraper when dressing or undressing?When the error is TOO MUCH yarn supplied to the edge stitches, the result is a TOO-LOOSE band. Who has not seen a cuff which flops over the wearer's hand, no matter how often the cuff is pushed up onto the forearm? Who has not seen socks with saggy bands which will not stay up?If the Goldilocks solution of getting the fabric edge "just right" tends to be a challenge for non-expert knitters, what is the second alternative? Well, if edge stitches are inherently objectionable, do not make the fabric edge the garment edge. That's right--if edge stitches are icky, just banish the nasty little creatures from your garment edges.

Edge stitches like Wanda and Lon, with their precarious 5-stitch support system, are a poor choice to locate at the edge of a garment. It would be far better to have the garment edges be the far superior kind of stitches with an 8-stitch support system, the kind of stitches normally found inside the fabric--a stitch like Norm, of the previous post in this series.

I will admit that the first time you hear this solution, it sounds like a magic trick. Knitted fabric has to start somewhere, right? So how can the edge of a garment not be the edge stitches? In actuality, this is no kind of trick at all--the knitted FABRIC will have an edge, but that edge will NOT be the edge of the GARMENT. The stitches at the edge of the garment will be 8-stitch supported (or some equivalent) and will therefore be far less likely to want to stretch, bag, roll or sag.

There are several variations on this theme, and today we will start with the simplest: the rolled edge. Additional alternatives will be covered in future posts.


A rolled edge is nothing other than a few rows or rounds of stockinette stitch at the very edge of a garment--there is a gallery of rolled edge photos at the end of this post. As you know if you have been knitting for any length of time at all, a wide piece of stockinette fabric will roll up lengthwise, showing the reverse stockinette side. (For the reasons this is so, click HERE.) This property of stockinette can be harnessed at the edge of a garment by knitting enough rows or rounds so that the casting on (or off) is completely hidden in the roll of the fabric. A loose cast on (or off) is desirable: it will never be seen, and, being loose, it cannot constrain the natural roll of the fabric. By this trick, the fabric edge is NOT the garment edge: The garment edge is an 8-stitch-supported rolled bit of stockinette.

If the stockinette fabric is not elastic enough to "hold in" the edge of the garment on its own, there is nothing to prevent you from adding a few rows or rounds of stockinette to border a very firm ribbing indeed. The ribbing will hold in the garment edge and the rolled edge of stockinette creates a border to the ribbing while eliminating all possibility of a too-tight or too-loose cast on (or off).

Three final points:
  • First, it is easy to modify any pattern whatsoever to begin and/or end with a stockinette roll. Simply cast on loosely and knit several rounds or rows (usually somewhere between 5 and 12) until you can tell for sure that the cast-on will be hidden in the roll of the fabric. Then, proceed to whatever instructions the pattern commences with--whether it be a band of ribbing, garter stitch, seed stitch, or whatever. At the cast-off edge, simply make the band as directed by the pattern, and then continue on with several rows or rounds of stockinette, casting off loosely after knitting a matching number rows/rounds to the cast on.
  • Second, a stockinette roll garment edge assures that the cast on edge will perfectly match the cast off edge, because it matters not at all whether the casting hidden in the fabric roll is a cast-on or a cast-off. This perfect match may be hard to obtain with other combinations of casts on and casts off.
  • Third, a rolled garment edge is extremely sturdy. Powerful forces make stockinette want to curl. As anyone who has tried to block the curl out of a stockinette fabric knows, that is an impossible task. By harnessing this powerful curl, you actually protect the fabric edge. The curl is relatively broad--far broader, at any rate, than the single row of stitches at a cast-on or -off edge. This relatively broad edge means that a slightly different part of the curled fabric presents each time the garment rubs against wrist or counter or coat or pants leg. Compare this broad rolled edge to an exposed cast-on or -off edge: the unsupported yarns in the cast edge stretch out and so wear away on one another. Also, the same part of the cuff is always exposed to being rubbed, which accounts for the relatively common sight of frayed and running cuffs and bands, particularly in children's clothing. By contrast, rolled edges will typically last the life of the garment, even for utility garments such as hand-me-down children's mittens.
Below is a little gallery of stockinette rolls "in person," showing how effective this simple little trick can be on garments ranging from classy garments knit in luxury fibers to utility garments like booties, mittens and hats.


1. (below) This simple silk garment is knit with rolled edges. As you can see, the edge of the garment is not the edge of the fabric--the stockinette roll meets the wrist and lower edge some rows in from the fabric edge, resulting in 8-stitch supported garment edge stitches. Strictly speaking, this garment does not have bands, the rolled edges take the place of bands. This garment is not a new one--it has been extensively worn, and the rolled edges have held up very well over time.
2. (below) This baby bootie has a rolled edge: very cute, very simple, very practical. There will be no struggle to insert floppy little baby feet into this generous cuff, and the rolled cuff has maintained its shape through countless washings. (Note the tie-lace--the stockinette roll is not sufficient to hold the bootie on, because it does not "draw in" like a ribbing does.)
3. (below) This hat band demonstrates a rolled edge as a border to ribbing. The hat is held on the wearer's head with an ordinary ribbing, yet the edge of the ribbing cannot be cast off too tightly due to the rolled edging. The wearer of this hat will not complain of ears feeling pinned to their head!
4. (below) These mitten cuffs also show a rolled edge as a border to ribbing. Snowballs, sled runners, zippers, velcro, mitten clips, teeth (used to pull on that second mitten) and all around little-boy tomfoolery would all spell doom for a simple cast-on (or off) edge: these wear out before the end of winter (at least around here--Wisconsin). By contrast, the broad curl of a rolled edge protects the lower cuff edge through many wearings (and wearers).
5. (below) "Fishsocks." The broad rolled borders makes the very edge of these socks stand out, and the ribbing draws them in again, giving this type of socks a "fishy" profile. They fit very well, however--the ribbing stretches to match the diameter of the rolled border when the socks are put on. Kids find these socks easy to draw on--the rolled border provides a handle. * * *
This post is part 2 of a series. The other parts are:
*How to knit better bands and cuffs, part 1: Opera and Soap Opera (November 1, 2007)
*How to knit better bands and cuffs, part 3: Hems and facings:(November 22, 2007)
*How to knit better bands and cuffs, part 4: Knitting shut hems and facings (December 9, 2007)
*How to knit better bands and cuffs, part 5: Sewing shut hems and facings (December 23, 2007)
*How to knit better bands and cuffs, part 6: Your steam iron: a mighty weapon in the fight against curling and flipping (December 25, 2007)
*How to knit better bands and cuffs, part 7: Zig-zag bands (December 29, 2007)
*How to knit better bands and cuffs, part 8: Provisional tail method of 1x1 tubular cast on (January 11, 2008)
*How to knit better bands and cuffs, part 9: Tubular cast off for 1x1 ribbing (it's pretty) (January 15, 2008)
*How to knit better bands and cuffs: the wrap-up (January 23, 2008)

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