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An Advanced Class inPicking Up Stitches

June 2nd, 2011

You probably have realized I like to design a lot of items that get knit in multiple directions. Elsewhere. Watershed. Cloud Chaser. You get the picture.

Some of the time, it’s extremely important to pick up the “right” number of stitches.

For example, when working the front panels of Cloud Chaser, one must pick up an exact number along the sides of the back, or the fabric won’t be the right size, and in the right pattern.

You should be able to see from the arrows in the above photograph, how the back is knit from the hem upwards, and the front is knit from a picked up edge sideways.

In this case, you’ll absolutely need to make your best efforts to picking up the number of stitches specified.

When Working With Exact Numbers…
Let’s pretend that you need to pick up 80 stitches. One easy way to do this is to use scrap yarn (or safety pins or removable stitch markers) to split the fabric into quarters. Fold the edge where you’ll be picking up in half to mark the center, then in halves again to mark each of the quarters. When picking up stitches, your goal will be to make sure 20 fit into each of those quarters.

But here’s a hint. “Exact” doesn’t have to be perfect after the first row. Let’s say you finish picking up stitches and discover you’ve only got 78. For most patterns, it’s 100% fine to just increase on the following row, as long as you’re sure to do it evenly. In the case mentioned before, you could either choose to increase one at either end, or do something like work 25 sts, increase #1, work 28 sts, increase #2, work 25 sts.

What if Stitch Counts Aren’t Exact?

“Perfect” stitch counts actually aren’t always necessary. Think of an armhole, for example. Does it matter if it’s worked with 40 or 44 stitches around?

No! It does not matter, as long as you follow these 2 simple rules:

  1. Be sure to pick up as evenly as possible!
  2. You must pick up the same number of stitches for both armholes!

In cases like this in my patterns, I often write more general instructions on how to pick up stitches rather than how many to pick up. This can be confusing, but I believe it’s far more important that a picked up armhole (or neckline) band look smooth and even than that knitters have exactly the same number of stitches as I did. This is particularly true for trims using simple stitch patterns like a 1×1 rib.

I have a simple formula that I use when picking up stitches along even edges when working with stockinette.

One stitch for every stitch and 2 stitches for every 3 rows.

Sounds confusing? It’s not.

Think about an armhole for a set in sleeve or sleeveless piece. Instructions in most cases are provided in 3 sections:

  1. At the bottom, you’ve cast off stitches for the underarm.
  2. Then, you might have a few rows of shaping, generally by casting off 2, or 3 stitches.
  3. Finally, you work straight up and down to the shoulder.

You’ll pick up stitches into these areas by focusing on either the stitches or the rows of the existing fabric, to determine how many and where to pick up.

I like to start at the center of the underarm. This allows me to really hide my ends where they won’t show.

Does it matter if it’s the EXACT center? Not even a little bit. But it’s usually pretty straight forward to count your cast off stitches and divide by 2 to figure out a good place to start.

First, you’ll focus on the stitches of the existing fabric. Remember, you’re aiming for 1 stitch for every stitch.

Along this cast off edge (#1 above), you pick up one stitch into each stitch that was cast off.

Continue on in the same way for the shaping rows (#2 above) as long as the pattern has you decrease or cast off at the beginning of every row. Aim for one picked up stitch for every cast off or decreased stitch you see.

As soon as the pattern switches to decreasing 1 stitch at a time on every other row, or even less frequently, you’ll want to change how you’re thinking.

Now, switch to looking for the rows of the existing fabric. I like to look about one ‘column’ in from the edge so I have a very clear V in stockinette to aim for.

Here, you’ll aim for 2 stitches for every 3 rows.

To do this, pick up the first stitch in the very next row up the side of the piece. Pick up a stitch in the very next row. Then, skip a row.

Continue on in this way until you’ve reached the shoulder, or the half-way point of your task.

This, my dears, is the perfect time to write down how many stitches you’ve picked up so far. When working the second half, you’ll have a number in mind.

So. “1 for 1 and 2 for 3” is how I choose to think about it, almost every time I approach a new design.

  • Why is it important to pick up at regular intervals?
    Using a pattern for picking up will help make sure your fabric lays flat, without bunching, pulling, or puckering. The last thing you want are gaping holes in your knitting. Following a regular pattern not only makes it simpler, it sets you up for a perfectly picked up edge.
  • What about pattern? Don’t I have to worry about a multiple of 2, or 4 stitches for my ribbing?
    Yeah, you do. This is why this technique is really good for simple edgings that don’t have a multiple of, say, 13 stitches.

    If it’s a multiple of 2, and if you’ve worked both sides the same, you’re in luck! If not, you’ll only be off by one stitch, which is easy to make up when working the first row.

    For a multiple of 4, or a multiple of 4 + 2, it’s still not a problem to increase (or decrease) to the desired number when working the first row. Sometimes I prefer to knit one round before beginning any ribbing just to make this easiest to accomplish.

  • Does it matter if you’re off by one stitch on the second half?
    Not really. Again, you’ll probably want to even things up before you begin whatever pattern you’ve got in mind.

The Key to Picking Up Stitches is GAUGE… Kind Of

Many of you may have learned that it’s appropriate to pick up 3 for every 4 rows. This concept relates to a standard ratio found in stockinette fabrics. For example, 18 sts and 24 rows to 4 inches square is actually just a ratio of 3 to 4.

But, when working with stockinette, I’ve found that I prefer using a ratio that results in the picked up stitches being a tiny bit further apart. The ratio of 2 to 3 works – with stockinette – because stockinette fabrics tend to grow in row gauge over time. Picking up fewer stitches along the edge actually helps the fabric hold it’s shape far better, and prevents the edgings from flaring or expanding.

This may also have to do with our current approach to knitting garment design. Sweaters knit with fingering weight yarn – as was more popular pre-1960 – tend to be knit more firmly to create a more substantial and hardy fabric. The advantage of dense knits is that fabric tends to stay put over time. And so, it’s easy to pick up using the ratio of stitches to rows and ‘get away with it’.

If you’ve ever knit a traditional fair isle, with sleeves picked up from armhole steeks, you’ll recognize this. The same gauge for the body is used for the sleeves, so the ratio really should be as close as possible to prevent distortion.

However, the introduction of chunkier yarns necessitated a relatively looser gauge. A bulky sweater is one thing, but a bulky sweater knit with the firmness of a sport-weight fair-isle is much much much less fun to wear. With looser gauges comes the need to control the fabric, particularly with seamless garments. A tighter pick-up ratio works perfectly.

Some Caveats…
The “1 for 1 and 2 for 3” rule doesn’t work with every stitch pattern. Garter, lace, and cables can create a really differently ratio-ed fabric than one worked in stockinette. If you’re not sure what will work, test it out on the side of a fully blocked swatch first. Think about how the width of the ‘new’ knitting – the part you’re picking up – needs to match the height of the ‘old’ knitting.

And whatever you do, the most most most important thing is to make sure your work looks good by picking up as evenly and consistently as possible.

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10 Responses to “An Advanced Class in Picking Up Stitches”

  1. Jamie Grace-Duff Says:

    Thank you! I actually HATE picking up stitches for 2 reasons, first I never get it even (Thank you for the tips, seriously, they will revolutionize my knitting!) and second, I have never developed a comfortable easy efficient manner of actually picking UP the stitches. I should probably watch some videos online of how other people do it. Super awesome post!

  2. Meredith MC Says:

    How did you know that I’m about to pick up a whole whack of stitches for the collar on my current project? Thanks for the info and encouragement!

  3. April Says:

    Thanks for these tips. They’re going to be really helpful for my next major project.

  4. Debi Says:

    I am so glad your back, have totally missed your posts.

  5. caston4u Says:

    This is awesome!! so clearly written. Thank you.

    btw: Im going to add you to my list of sites if you dont mind?

  6. Linda Quick Says:

    Incredibly helpful. Thanks so much.

  7. Donna Says:

    I’m struggling with a Mac and Me pattern for a scarf: picking up a ton of stitches from the base in mohair/silk. This has inspired me to keep at it. THANKS!

  8. Evelyn Dugger Says:

    This is the first time I’ve seen your posts. I’ll be coming back!!. Thanks for the tips.

  9. Lenore Says:

    I’m making a felted Bedouin Bag and it starts with making the base with 40 stitches cast on. Now I have to pick up stitches on that base to 120 stitches. Do I do it in two rows (pick up stitch for stitch on the first round and then finish the picking up on the second round??)
    I need help.

  10. Lisa T Says:

    Thanks. I’ve adjusted a pattern on a vest I’m knitting, and I wasn’t sure what the ratio would be, since I can’t use the original numbers. This was very helpful. I’ve just added you to my list of favorites.

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