Thursday, November 26, 2009

Avoiding "nipple in the middle:" some tricks to improve hat tops, glove fingertips and motif centers

You may be knitting a pattern starts or ends in the middle, and you may find that the very center stitches are humping themselves up into an unattractive stitch-nipple, a "knipple" as Adri has cleverly named it in the comments. 

One common example is the top of a bottom-up hat. The instructions will often tell you to stop when 8 (10? 12?) stitches remain on your needles, then draw the running yarn though these last remaining stitches. Other common examples include the fingertips of gloves, the tops of mittens and the centers of knitted motifs knitted from the edge to the center. When you thread the running yarn onto a sewing needle and draw the yarn through the last round of stitches remaining, these last few stitches look sloppy--they form an elongated nipple of stitches. This is bad enough on a 3-d object like a hat top, but is a truly sad way to finish off a flat motif (hexagon, square, circle).

This same sort of nipple-in-the-middle can form when starting in the middle: a top-down hat, a hexagon or octagon motif for a patchwork blanket, or a shawl or blanket knitted in the round.

Below are several tricks to avoid this problem, worked both top-down and bottom-up. If you already HAVE this problem, this post ends a couple of tricks to get rid of the nipple, even after the project is finished.


Trick 1: Stop one round sooner
In this trick, instead of working to, say, 8 stitches on a hat top or motif center, you'd stop one round (and one set of decreases) sooner, when, say, 16 stitches remain. Drawing the running yarn up through the larger number of stitches helps prevent a nipple because the stitches have to stretch further to the middle, thus flattening them. However, if you draw the yarn through this final round too tightly, you may end up with the opposite problem: a pucker instead of a nipple. Therefore, adjust the tension with a mild hand.

Trick 2: Kitchener stitch (aka grafting)
Instead of drawing up the running yarn through the final few stitches, you can Kitchener stitch (graft) the last few stitches together. This makes a flat join instead of a rosette, and finishes a circularly-knit object with a pleasant oval center. This is the classic ending to sock toes, and one of the ideas behind the "truly flat hat top," but this idea also works with very well for glove fingers and mitten tops.

Trick 3: Smaller needles
Knit the last few rounds with a smaller needle, then finish off by drawing the tail end through the last few stitches. This trick simply puts less yarn in the middle, so there is less yarn to pouf up.

Trick 4: Do not wind the yarn around more than once to hide the tail
Recently, while experimenting with new tricks for gloves, it came to me that glove fingers need a different ending technique than that I had been using for hats. When ending hats it has been my habit to draw the yarn through the center stitches not just once, but to continue around the circle again maybe two or three more times, in order to hide the tail end. While this is a simple solution to hiding the tail, the downside is that all this extra yarn makes quite a hard knot: a knot which might look unattractively nipple-y and, when worked on gloves, is quite annoying to the sensitive fingertips. Even for hats, I believe I will avoid winding around in the future.

The simple fix is to go around with the tail once, plus ONE extra stitch to avoid any gap, and then to skim in the end elsewhere, so as NOT go around again and again through the center rosette of stitches. For glove fingers, this works particularly well when combined with working the entire fingertip on a smaller needle to yield smaller, firmer stitches: the resulting thinner fabric allows greater dexterity when wearing gloves.


Trick 1: The disappearing loop cast on
There are several ways to start from the center out. The famous "Emily Ocker's" cast-on, of which you may have heard, actually results in quite a bulky set of center stitches PLUS hard little knots. I prefer the knot-less disappearing loop cast on. Disappearing loop is particularly effective when combined with the previous trick of using smaller needles. In other words, if the disappearing loop cast-on, as well as the first few rounds of the knitting are all worked on smaller needles, the amount of yarn available for nippling-out out in the middle is markedly reduced.

Trick 2: The umbilical cord cast on
The umbilical cord cast on is a waste-yarn method. A small tube is knit in waste yarn and the item being knit is started at the bottom end of this tube. Working a waste-yarn umbilical cord means your first garment stitches are more likely to exhibit even tension, which helps eliminate the nippling effect--firm tight stitches are less likely to nipple up than loose or uneven ones. Like the disappearing loop cast on, the umbilical cord cast on can be started on smaller needles to reduce the amount of yarn in the middle of the work.

Trick 1: Unpick and draw through
A few years ago, after one of my kids lost a winter hat for the nth time, I was looking over some old hats to get through the rest of the winter, and found one I'd knit years ago. This old-timer featured nipple-in-the-middle. The kid refused to wear such an object, so the fix went like this: In the first round of this top-down hat, I snipped a single stitch, unpicked and unraveled the yarn and caught the live loops on a thin set of dpn's. Once the live loops were securely caught onto the dpn's, I re-finished the center as if the hat had been knit from the edge-in. In other words, the fix was to run the unpicked and unraveled end through the live stitches. In principle, this is the same idea as snipping a stitch and unpicking a row to get live loops on the needle, on the way to changing the length of a garment. Another, slightly different way of conceptualizing this trick is that you are treating the first round as a waste-yarn provisional cast on.

Variations: Now, it may happen than when you snip and unpick, the resulting tail is simply not long enough to draw through the live loops. This is most likely to happen when the end has been worked in and snipped off before discovering the nipple problem. It would, of course, be difficult to firmly splice in additional yarn so close to the end. Luckily, however, there are three good solutions to this problem.

First, the classic solution of hand-sewers when faced with a too-short end is to insert the needle into the fabric most of the way and THEN thread it with the too-short end.This trick can be adapted to the top of a hat: insert the needle into perhaps three or four of the top (ending) stitches, until only the eye of the needle remains exposed, and then thread the exposed eye with the short end. As the needle is drawn through, the short end, will, of course, pop loose of the needle, but not before it has been worked through the few stitches into which the needle was inserted before threading. The needle is then re-inserted through the next several stitches, then re-threaded and the process repeated until the short end has been worked through all the live stitches PLUS one (to avoid a gap). The needle is then skimmed in through some stitches on the inside of the garment, the tail threaded on one last time, and the needle drawn through, losing the end of the short tail in the woolly loops in the back of the fabric and thus skimming it in.

The second solution to a too-short end is unravel enough extra stitches so that the tail IS long enough to thread onto a needle, and then draw the tail through these stitches, adjusting the tension so that a small attractive hole is created in the center of the work. In other words, when you unpick/unravel enough stitches so that the tail is long enough to thread onto a needle and draw through, you may find that you have so many live stitches that it would create a pucker if you were to draw the tail through tightly. Therefore, instead of drawing the tail through tightly, adjust the tension so that the tail draws the live stitches together into a neat rosette framing a small hole.

While a small hole looks very well in the middle of flat-knitted motifs such as blanket squares, it may not look so well in the middle of a hat. You can, obviously, cover the hole with a pom-pom or a tassel of one sort or another, but a third, more structural alternative is to unravel even more stitches, until your end is long enough to Kitchener-stitch with, and then Kitchener stitch shut the opening, making a fine oval ending to the formerly nipple-y hat. Alternatively, once you've ripped back far enough to yield enough yarn for a splice, you could do a Russian join or a back join (or a felted join or an overcast join or an overlap join) then proceed as though ending a hat instead of starting one.

Trick 2: Draw through without even bothering to unpick
A different situation with nipple-in-the-middle happened when I knit a cotton bag. Although started with the usually-reliable disappearing loop cast on, the stiff cotton did not squish together as wool would have, and the result was a nasty bump. As it happened, this bag was to be lined, so the inside of the bag would be my secret alone. Being fairly lazy, my fix was to simply thread a needle with a strand of the cotton yarn, locate the third round in, then draw the yarn through those stitches from the inside. Below is a photo of the outside, after the fix.

In other words, the stitches of the third row in were simply drawn up with a single strand of cotton yarn without even bothering to unpick them. This trick pooched up the nipple to the inside where it would never show (photo below) while tightening up the outside into true respectability (photo above).

This trick would obviously not work on a glove finger, but for utility knitting such as a cotton bag, it was an effective solution with no snipping involved, and an elapsed time of perhaps 30 seconds.

Photo credits: Barry Toranto.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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