Sunday, February 24, 2008

Color, texture and ribbing without the icky dots--a mystery of knitting, explained

includes 13 illustrations, click any illustration to enlarge
*For those following along with the 8-trick Pocket Hat KAL, there are no pattern instructions in today's post. Rather, this is a general post about how to make ribbing without those icky dots, a trick which will be used on the hats in a future installment.
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This post explains where the contrasting-color blips ("icky dots") come from when you change color in knitting a textured fabric such as ribbing.  The post also offers a fix  for the problem.  That fix is going to work really well IF you are knitting a non-reversible garment, meaning one which is going to wind up with AN INSIDE and an OUTSIDE.  Examples are circular-knit items like the 8-trick pocket hat of this KAL or a sock, OR an item knit flat and then seamed, such as a pullover sweater knit in pieces and then sewed together.  

This trick will NOT WORK for a reversible item, such as a flat-knit neck scarf.  

This is because the fix moves the contrast color dot to the inside fabric face.  If both fabric faces are the "outside" (reversible item) there is no "inside fabric face," so the fix offered in this post doesn't apply. 
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the interplay of texture and color
Knitting contains many mysteries. This blog has already tackled one big mystery: why knitting curls (answer here). Today: another great mystery--why knitting in more than one color, such as stripes, makes ICKY DOTS in ribbing.Icky dots aren't confined to ribbing. They actually show up when you change the color in ANY sort of texture work. Today's post is split into two sections. The first section (with gold-dot illustrations) is general background about color and texture. The second part (with rust-colored-dot illustrations) applies this general knowledge to getting rid of dots in ribbing. If theory and reasons don't attract you today, you can skip down to the bottom  of this post for the fix.

Part 1: Background
We know that changing color in all all-knit fabric such as stockinette yields smooth un-dotted stripes. So icky dots which appear at a color change must have something to do with purls. But what aspect of purls creates icky dots? In the finest tradition of scholarship, I'm going to answer that question with a second question.
  • How would you make a single line of orange purls running across a brown background of stockinette?
By figuring out the answer to this second question, we'll be on the way to avoiding icky dots.

As you see, this second question really has two parts:
  • there is a color change -- orange against a brown background, and
  • there is creation of a new texture -- purls against an all-knit (stockinette) background
Looking at color, then texture, and then combining will yield the answer.

When you change a color, you are changing the color in the CURRENT row. Seems simple enough, but let's look at this one more time.

To make the current stitch, the tip of the RIGHT (working) needle pulls a loop through the stitch at the tip of the LEFT (holding) needle. This newly-pulled-through loop lays on the tip of the RIGHT needle when it is formed and joins the rest of the current row. All these stitches in this current row LAY IN LOOPS on the right (working) needle.

Illustration 1, below, shows a new row half-knitted: on this stockinette fabric (no texture) the NEW row being created in orange is partially knit, and lays in loops over the right needle. The left half of the OLD row is in brown over the left (holding) needle, while the right half of the OLD row has become the first row of fabric, which lays UNDER the orange loops on the right (working) needle.To sum this up, here's the first chunk of red text: when we change COLOR, we are affecting the stitches in the CURRENT row--the row laying in loops on the right needle.

This doesn't seem particularly mysterious (even if it IS highlighted in in red) so let's pass onto the issue of...

For the purpose of this post, we'll say that a stitch has three parts. As shown in illustration 2, these parts are one HEAD, and two ARMS, Left and Right.

In the context of knitted fabric, "texture" refers to knitting and purling. Naming the texture of a knitted fabric is just a way of saying whether the HEAD or the ARMS of the stitch are predominant.

Click to enlarge illustration 3 and have a look: in a plain knit-stitch (stockinette) fabric, the ARMS are the main feature, while the HEADS of each stitch hide on the back of the fabric. These predominant arms give stockinette fabric its characteristic little "V's" and its smoothness. (For another view, click here.)

In a purl-stitch (reverse stockinette) fabric, the opposite situation pertains. Click to enlarge illustration 4, and you'll see that the HEADS of the stitches are the main feature, while the ARMS hide on the back of the fabric. A whole fabric of bumpy little heads jutting out give purl (reverse stockinette) fabric its characteristic nubbiness, while individual purl stitches on a knit background stand out as individual bumps on a smooth background. (For another view, click here.)

Now that we've nailed down our terms, let's talk about...


"Creating texture" is what happens when you switch from knitting, for example, to purling. So, in illustration 5, below, the knitter is purling every second stitch on an otherwise all-knit (stockinette fabric) background. In terms of heads and arms, the heads of the purl stitches are being popped out onto the face of the fabric. This creates a texture pattern: a row where individual purl stitches stand out on a stockinette background.There are two important things about this process of pulling a new loop through an old loop.

First: the newly-purled stitches appear in the right portion of the OLD ROW. In other words, the new purls appear ONLY on the right side of the old row BELOW the partially-knitted current row--they have joined the knitted fabric and lie in the right part of the old row BELOW THE RIGHT NEEDLE.

Second, the loops of the current row, as well the unworked stitches on the left side of the old row aren't knits OR purls. They are not yet part of the fabric, and they are blanks. These unworked stitches (loops over the needle) won't join the fabric as knits OR purls until a new loop has been pulled through THEM. Yes, as surprising as this is, when you knit or purl a stitch, you're really knitting and purling the OLD stitch in the row BELOW the stitch you just made.

This is a pretty important point for all of knitting, worth repeating a little bit. If you scroll up and look at illustration 5 again, you will see lots of loops. The left needle is holding the loops waiting to be worked, the right needle is holding the loops of the current row you've just made. But none of these loops are part of the fabric yet. The orientation of these loops won't be determined until new loops are pulled through THEM, pinning them into the fabric either in the knit position (arms forward and heads back) or in the purl position (heads forward and arms back). Loops laying over a needle are not worked into the fabric, and they are neither knit stitches or purl, but are blanks!

We'll sum this up in a second chunk of red text: In creating texture, we affect the stitches in the row BELOW the current row. In other words, we are affecting those stitches in the OLD row where the old row lies BELOW the right needle.

Now that we understand in which row color changes, and in which row texture changes, we are ready to answer the question at the top of this post: how would you purl a line of orange on a maroon background?

As we've said, COLOR changes in the CURRENT ROW, TEXTURE in the part of the OLD row below the right needle. In other words, color and texture change in different rows. Therefore, as shown in illustrations 6 a & b, in order to create a row of orange purls on a brown background, we would have to have a two-stage process:
  • First, on the face of the stockinette fabric, we'd have to KNIT a row of orange, which puts color into the current row.
  • Then, on the NEXT row of the fabric, we'd have to work these orange stitches as necessary to impart a purl texture to them when they are viewed from the smooth "knit" side--we'd purl them if working in the round, but we'd knit them if working back and forth.

Part 2: Eliminating icky dots in ribbing.
We've established that color changes in the current row, but texture changes in the part of the old row below the right needle. In this second half of the post, we'll apply this new knowledge to eliminating those icky dots in a 2x2 (k2, p2) ribbing.*reminder: The illustrations in this half of the post are numbered with RUST-COLORED dots.

Illustration 1, below, shows a new color (orange) being purled onto the right needle. As we established above, purling with the new color is NOT the way to add a new row of a new color, and this illustration shows why: purling pops the heads of the ROW BELOW to the surface of the fabric. In fact, that's what the icky dots ARE: They are the contrasting color purl heads of the row below, as you can see at the arrows.
Illustration 2 is a closeup: Now it's easy to see that using the new color to purl the purls in ribbing makes the purled head of the old color show as an icky dot.
The next 2 illustrations below, 3a (overview) and 3b (closeup), have the keys to the mystery of creating ribbing without the icky dots. Specifically, if you KNIT with the new color, even in the purl rows, the dots will be eliminated.
See what we did? We SUBSTITUTED texture change for color change! Specifically, the top brown stitches in the purl columns (the two columns on the right side of illustrations 3a and 3b) are now knit stitches, and knit stitches, as we know, don't show any icky dots where they change color. The tricky thing is that, as illustration 3b shows, we return to the purl pattern by purling the purl columns in the SECOND row of orange, and this imparts the purl texture to the FIRST row of orange, as explained in part 1 of this post.

Now, in knitting, as in all other fields of life, there is no free lunch. Knitting across the tops of the purl columns eliminates the color change--the icky dots--but, this comes at the price of interrupting the texture of the purl columns. This price, however, is low. In other words, the trade-off of texture-disruption for dot-elimination is a pretty good one. The icky dots (color change) are easy to see, but the texture change is hard to see: it is hiding in the receding purl columns, as shown by the closeup in illustration 4. Of course, this illustration can't give you a feel of the fabric, and knitting across the purl columns at the color-change row leaves a little bump, but it's not much of a bump, and blocking usually smooths that right out. The only other price is a slight tendency to want to fold along each color change, but on a garment being worn, you will never notice this: only when you go to put it away does it feel slightly floppy.
What a lot of words and pictures!

In sum, the BIG FIX is this:
To eliminate those icky dots in ribbing (and all other textured fabrics)
  • KNIT all the stitches of the new color, all the way across the whole fabric, ignoring the texture changes (purls) of that row. So, for ribbing, on the color change row, just knit all the way across--no purling, just knitting.
  • On the next row as you work the loops of the new color, RETURN TO YOUR TEXTURE PATTERN. So, for ribbing, once you've completed the color change row and are on the second row of the new color, return to purling in the purl columns and knitting in the knit columns. This imparts the correct texture to the stitches in the first color change row, and hides the knit stitches on the inside of the garment.
Here is one last photo: 2x2 ribbing with the icky dots eliminated. Looks a lot better than the first photo of this post, ay?
You have been reading TECHknitting on "eliminating dots in ribbing: purling in color"