“Bind off loosely.” The knitting equivalent of “drive carefully.” Indisputably a good idea, but the statement on its own is not actually that helpful.
As an editor, when I see “bind off loosely” in a pattern, I seek clarification.
What sort of “loosely” is required? Is it a not-pulling-too-much-on-the-yarn-as-is-so-common-amongst-newer-knitters loose, or a so-you-can-get-a-crew-neck-sweater-over-your-head loose, or a suitable-for-the-top-of-a-toe-up-sock loose, or a fantastically-stretchy-to-accommodate-a-vigorous-stretch-blocking loose? Those are four distinct types of looseness, and each requires a different method.
Back to Basics: How to Bind Off
Let’s start with the standard bind-off. It goes like this:
K1, *k1, lift the right-most stitch on the right needle up and over the left-most stitch, and let it drop off the needle point; repeat from * until all stitches have been worked. Cut yarn and pull through final stitch to secure.
This method is firm: it has very little stretch. It’s useful when you need to create an edge that doesn’t sag over time: a sweater neckline, for example, or an edge that’s going to be seamed, like a blanket square.
Looseness Level 1: Not Pulling Too Tightly
The standard bind-off is inclined to tightness. When you lift the stitch over and let it drop off the needle, it tends to pull in. That makes perfect sense: stitches are kept the size they are by being on the needle; the minute a stitch drops off the needle, it will get smaller.
Goldilocks and the Three Bind-offs. The top one is too loose, the bottom one is too tight, and the middle one is just right.
In this picture, the middle swatch is what you’re aiming for: the bind-off row is the same width as the knitting, with no pulling in (the bottom swatch) or flaring out (the top swatch) .
For a slightly less-tight bind-off, the solution is simple: just use a larger needle in your right hand to work the stitches.
Maybe not this big, but you get the idea.
How much larger depends on your own tension, but I usually recommend two to four sizes larger. It’s worth experimenting a little!
Looseness Level 2: Sweater Necklines
If you need the edge to be firm, but not as constricted as it might normally be—a sweater with a fairly narrow crew-neck, for example—then add a bit of extra yarn with a few sneaky yarnovers.
As you’re working across the edge, using the standard bind off method, every few stitches, make a yarnover on the right-hand needle, and bind that off as if it’s a stitch.
In the image below, you can’t see the yarnovers—just that the edge is a bit more relaxed.
If you peek under the edge, the yarnovers can be seen:
A few cheeky yarnovers.
I sometimes combine this with the larger-needle trick, and then I find that a yarnover every third or fourth stitch is usually sufficient.
Some prefer to use a backwards (e-wrap) loop for those new stitches—the difference is minor. Others will work the yarnovers in the row before the bind-off.
Again, experiment a bit.
Looseness Level 3: Toe-Up Socks and Non-Lace Shawls That Still Need Stretching
There are items that are intended to be stretched: socks, which are worn with negative ease, so that they stretch to cling to your leg; and shawls that are opened up after knitting, with a stretch-blocking. For both, you need a bind-off edge that has more stretch to it.
For these types of projects, I’m very fond of the method known variously as the Russian Lace, the Estonian Lace, or the plain old lace bind-off. I find it’s plenty stretchy for toe-up socks, and for many of my non-lacy shawl projects.
Use the working needle, no needle change required.
K1, *k1, return the 2 stitches to the left needle and k2tog-tbl; repeat from * until all stitches have been worked. Cut yarn and pull through final stitch to secure.
If you’re fond of an SSK, you can also do it that way: rather than slipping them back to the left needle, just take the tip of the left needle and put it into the fronts of the two stitches to work them together.
The edge after working a lace bind-off.
In addition to being stretchy, this edge tends to flare out, so it’s not well suited for an edge that requires firmness, or needs to pull in. The intent is to make the edge stretchy enough to permit stretch-blocking of the whole piece.
Looseness Level 4: Vigorous Blocking
Many toe-up sock knitters swear by a method known as “Jeny’s Surprisingly Stretchy Bind-Off.” I find it too stretchy for socks. Whether it’s appropriate for you for that situation depends on your own natural knitting tension.
I can say definitively that you shouldn’t use it for garments—it flares out something fierce, and stretches a lot. A bottom-up sweater neckline would be off your shoulders in no time.
But I absolutely swear by this method for lace shawls that need a really good stretch after knitting.
Jeny’s is a variation of an older technique, sometimes known as the yarnover method, and was developed specifically to use with ribbing.
upper swatch: the yarnover bind-off method, worked on stockinette stitch. lower swatch: Jeny’s Surprisingly Stretchy bind-off, on ribbing.
The basic technique is that you’re creating a yarnover before every stitch, and dropping the yarnover over the stitch, when you lift the previous stitch over. This lets the bind-off stretch, because each stitch has extra yarn in it. That extra yarn sits around the base of each stitch like a collar. When you tug on the bind-off edge, the stitches have room to move and expand.
For an all-knit edge, work as follows:
K1, *yarnover on right needle, k1; lift both yo and right-most knit stitch over the stitch just worked; repeat from * until all stitches have been worked. Cut yarn and pull through final stitch to secure.
Note that this is not the same as the yarnover method I gave above—in that case, you’re treating the yarnover as a new stitch. For this, you’re using the yarnover to add more yarn to each of the existing stitches.
Jeny’s innovation was to be smart about the yarnover direction. When working a standard (or related) bind off, if you’ve just purled, you’ll find yourself moving the yarn to the back so that you more easily do the ‘lift the stitch over’ movement. In ribbing, if you’ve just finished a purl, you’ll end up having to move the yarn to the front again after the liftover, to create the yarnover. To save yourself that step, Jeny devised that working that yarnover in reverse is just as effective—leave the yarn at the back and pull it to the front over top of the needle in position to purl. Otherwise, it’s the same as the yarnover variant.
If you can’t remember which way to do the yarnover, don’t fuss too much. It works just as well either way.
(Without getting too theoretical, it would be very cool if you didn’t have to move the yarn to the front to do the yarnover before a purl, but it just doesn’t work. Unfortunately. Try it for yourself to see why.)
No Matter Which Bind-Off You Use
If you’re not sure about which bind-off method the project needs, or whether the method you’ve chosen will work, here’s a tip: thread a lifeline through all the stitches before you bind off. Work the bind-off, but don’t cut the yarn. Test it: try the garment on and make sure you can get your head through the neck opening; try the sock on; do your usual soak and stretch-block.
If you do need to undo it, the lifeline will hold the stitches so that it’s easy to put the needle back in and rework it.