Wednesday, August 8, 2012

stop flipping out

Sometimes, borders just flip me out.

See this? The edge of an otherwise beautifully knit sweater stubbornly insists on flipping out.

I've had this problem more times than I can count. It usually happens with bouncy yarn knit at a fairly firm tension. Single ply yarns seem to be the worst offenders. The very worst offender I had, though, was this baby sweater out of superwash in a slip-stitch pattern with a garter stitch border.

What is really happening here is that the stockinette is exhibiting its tendency to curl and the ribbing is just along for the ride. So changing to garter or seed stitch won't fix the problem, because it's the stockinette causing the problem and not the edge stitch. Slip-stitch patterns have an even more pronounced tendency to curl, and that's what made the baby sweater such a problem.

Ideas that sometimes help:

  1. Reduce the size of the needles for the border. Going down two sizes usually helps a lot, unless the garment was knit at a very tight tension. In my experience, the hems of tightly-knit garments just tend to roll.
  2. Reduce the number of stitches 5-20% on the first row of the border.
  3. Knit a row of purl before beginning the border. This will encourage the border to roll towards the body instead of away from it. This is a weak remedy, but it's fixed some borderline cases for me.
  4. Increase the depth of the border. Sometimes, the garment gauge distorts the border gauge, and the border needs an extra inch or so to settle into shape.

If the border draws in narrower than the main body of the sweater, it will cling to the body and help keep the border in place. A nice deep border worked on needles several sizes smaller and up to 20% fewer stitches can help dramatically, particularly if you toss in a purl row before the border.

The tendency of stockinette to flip up is so pronounced that you can use a single row of purl stitches anywhere in any knit piece to make a crisp fold line. I do this anywhere I want the fabric to fold back on itself (hems, turn-back cuffs, etc). You can also use a single row of purl right before starting a border to encourage the border to turn towards the body instead of flipping away from it. (This doesn't work with garter stitch borders, though.)

Ribbing used as a border at the cuffs or body of the sweater really needs to be about 3" deep. It takes about 6 rows (1" or so in most handknit gauges) for ribbing to establish itself and really draw in. So during the first inch of transition from stockinette, the ribbing isn't really free to assert itself, and in the last inch in the transition to the air, the ribbing is a bit insecure. So give it enough depth so it can really be ribbing.

My personal experience is that ribbing is a great finish for men's and children's sweaters, but it often doesn't work so well on women. We have hips, and the flare of the hip encourages borders to misbehave. For women's sweaters, I use different kinds of edge treatments to tame the stockinette curl.

One of my favourites is a turned knit hem. Make the sweater as long as you want it, purl one row, and then knit at least another inch and a half. Gently tack the live stitches down to the wrong side of the sweater, making sure to allow enough give in your stitching for the sweater to stretch any way it wants to. The resulting edge is crisp, tailored, and unobtrusive. This will always counteract the flip if the hem is deep enough and you sew it down loosely.

Borders worked sideways often, but not always, counteract the flip. One that I think often looks classy is any cable knit sideways along the edge of a cardigan. A bonus with a sideways border is that you can match the row gauge of the border with the stitch gauge of the edge as you go. There's no need to figure out how many stitches to decrease to get a gauge that will suit the edge.

A lace edging often works beautifully, particularly one with an undulating edge. Typically, I start working these just below the waist because the more beautiful ones are 4-6" long when worked at a worsted gauge. I've worked these top-down, but often choose to work the edging bottom-up and then graft it in place. Sideways lace edgings work as well.

Lining or facing the sweater can help with slightly misbehaving edges. You see this a lot in vintage knits, edges that are tamed by sewing in a lining or facing. A wide grosgrain ribbon can help stabilize a button band or horizontal edge. I've used this to good effect in children's sweaters, but I don't think a ribbon would have enough oomph to stabilize the body border in an adult sweater. You'd need a deep facing to make an adult border behave, and in the process, you would compromise the elasticity of the edge. This is a good solution for some garments, but you rarely see it in modern knits.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Knitting Deceivers: Blocking

When I read my very first knitting book 28 years ago, the author talked about how blocking is not a knitting cure-all. It will not make a too big or too small sweater fit. It will not allow you to shift a huge amount of length into width or vice versa. It will not fix edges that misbehave.

There are exactly three (3) things that blocking does well:

  1. Stretch out a gossamer piece of lace so that it struts its lacy stuff.
  2. Allow the yarn to settle into its new shape gracefully.
  3. Smooth out small irregularities.
Blocking works very well for lace knit on fine yarn. Lace stitches like to be open, and blocking can help them do this. In a fine yarn, blocked lace can hold its shape well for a long time.

In most other situations, however, blocking can't do anything that dramatic. It can help shift yarn to neighboring stitches so that a piece looks more beautiful and finished, but it can't drastically alter the shape of a garment.

In laceweight yarns knit on relatively large needles, the knitted item doesn't have enough shape to combat the blocking. You block the piece, and there is not much yarn to pull back against your blocking. If you work with worsted weight yarn, though, the resilience of the yarn will pull back against the blocking and the item will re-assume its natural shape.

With a heavier yarn, therefore, you might be able to block a piece into shape, but it won't hold that shape very long. When you put it on a moving human body, the yarn will shift back around until it gets comfortable. Gravity will take its toll. Quite soon, the knit item will assume the shape it wants to be instead of the shape you blocked it into.

In some cases, such as flipping borders, a piece won't even hold its blocking long enough to dry. As it dries, the character of the knit will reassert itself.

Often, people suggest blocking a piece of knitting to change its size or correct a major problem. I don't know of any situation where this has actually worked. A person can confidently block the devil out of a piece. They wear it once, it assumes its real shape, and it gets stuffed in the back of a drawer forever.

If you have a piece of knitting that is:
  • Too big,
  • Too small,
  • Too wide and too short,
  • Too narrow and too long,
  • Has a border that flips out or in,
  • Has edge curl,
  • Has a collar or trim section that won't lie flat,
  • Biases,
Then blocking won't fix the real problem. Blocking can't change the character of knitting.

Knitted items have their shape because of the properties of the yarn and the knit stitches used. Knitting is inherently three-dimensional. We use this to advantage when shaping hats and sock heels. It comes into play when we use pattern stitches as well, even when we don't desire the three-dimensional effects.

If you knit a plain piece of stockinette fabric, it naturally curls toward the knit side on the top and bottom edges and towards the purl side on the vertical edges. The natural shape of a flat piece of stockinette fabric is not flat — it's more like a potato chip with rolled edges.

Experienced knitters know that stockinette is not a good stitch pattern for flat items, nor is any stitch pattern based on stockinette. For flat items, you need a balanced stitch pattern. The knit and purl stitches need to be arranged in such a way that they counteract one another's tendencies to curl.

Stockinette is great for items that encircle a body. The vertical tendency to curl inwards helps the item hug the body. Anywhere you have an open edge in stockinette, though, you need to do something to counter the fact that stockinette edges curl. If you do this properly, the item will hold the shape you want it to. If the edge is not strong enough to counter the curl, however, you will have borders that flip or otherwise misbehave.

Other stitch patterns have other tendencies. Ribbing is elastic widthwise (and thus draws in widthwise) and not lengthwise. Garter stitch compresses lengthwise and spreads out widthwise. At one time, these two stitch patterns were often used as complements -- garter stitch on vertical borders and ribbing on horizontal ones.

Moss stitch, seed stitch, and all members of that stitch family have a strong tendency to bias, particularly when they are knit from singles. These stitch patterns are also wildly expansive. They can grow lengthwise and widthwise with wear.

Understanding the way different yarns and stitch patterns work can help you plan garments that work. When you want to use a new yarn or stitch pattern, make a nice big swatch. When you're finished, let it sit for a day. Wash it, smooth it out, and let it dry flat. Play with it. See what directions it stretches in. Notice whether it has biased at all. Thread a knitting needle through the top and bottom edges, hang it up, and hang a little ball of yarn from the bottom edge. Does it stretch much after an hour or two?

If you end up with a piece of knitwear that has a problem, you can try blocking and see if it fixes the problem. In many cases, though, you might not be happy with the results. In that case, you can give the item away or you can rip out the parts that don't work and make something you will be happy with.

The ability of knits to be ripped out and re-knit is one of their big strengths.