Friends, I come to you today with a rallying cry. As a designer and teacher, it has been my mission to push the bounds of what we consider to be possible in knitting. Knitting has traditions, but it doesn’t have rules. We can create knitted fabrics however we want.
It’s taken me longer, though, to apply that reasoning to the way we write the directions for creating that fabric. Just because things traditionally have been written a certain way, doesn’t mean they have to continue being written that way. Sometimes the way things are written in knitting bear only a conditional resemblance to what’s actually happening with the two sticks and string in your hands.
There’s a particular convention in knitting that I think is not only vague, but downright confusing. And I want to change it. So, fellow knitters, I come to you today under the banner of the following statement:
Down with “front” and “back.”
What do I mean by this? Let’s start with the instruction “on the RS, slip 1 with yarn in front” (or sl1wyif, in abbreviated form). To do this, I bring the yarn towards me, because whatever side I’m currently working on is the front. Then I slip the stitch, then I bring the yarn away from me to the back, because whatever side is facing away from me is the back. Cool. Got it. Here’s what it looks like on the right side of my work.
But what happens when we flip our work around to work a WS, and encounter the same instructions? “On the WS, slip 1 with yarn in front.” It’s written as the same action, right? So it should look the same, right? But when we flipped our work around, what was front is now back, and what was back is now front. So when we slip 1 with yarn in front on the WS and then look at the finished action from the RS, it looks totally different from our previous one. If we had done the same action on the RS, it would have been a “sl1wyib”: slip 1 with yarn in back.
Confusing? You bet. How are we supposed to know what our fabric should look like if what is front and what is back keep changing? This is the crux: with “front” and “back,” the actions of our knitting are shown in relation to us, and not in relation to our knitting. In so doing, we are trained as knitters to understand what the action is, rather than understanding what the action does.
Let’s look at another example. When working wrap and turn short rows on the RS, instructions typically read: “bring yarn to front, slip stitch to right needle, bring yarn to back, slip stitch back to left needle.” (There are also arguments as to whether you move the yarn first or whether you move the stitch first, but we’re going to leave that particular anthill alone for the moment.) This is a list of four actions, and our knitter brains can work through their checklist, tick, tick, tick, tick. But what are we actually doing? We’re starting with our yarn on the WS, where it normally sits while we’re working stockinette, bringing it forward to the RS and around the stitch it’s wrapping, then bringing it back to the WS ready to turn our work. When we do turn our work, hey presto, our yarn is sitting on the WS ready for us to work a purl row!
Now let’s look at WS wrap and turn short rows. For those, “bring yarn to back, slip stitch to right needle, bring yarn to front, slip stitch back to left needle.” Oh hey, that looks like the exact opposite of what we did for the RS ones, so we must be doing something entirely different, right? Nope. Because we’re working on the wrong side, what was front is now back and vice versa. Same as with the RS version, our yarn starts on the WS, goes to the RS, and comes back to the WS.
Believe it or not, wrap and turn short rows are entirely symmetrical if we look down at them from a bird’s eye view. The actions are identical, and create a perfect mirror image. It’s the words—the ever-shifting delineation of front and back—that don’t match up. The words are telling us different things than the actual actions. And I, for one, am not having it.
In the MDK Shop
A Modest Proposal: Revolution
So what is the solution? I propose that any time we have to refer to locations in our knitting, we throw the words “front” and “back” out the door. Instead, I propose that we refer to actions by their relationship to RS and WS, with RS and WS established early in the pattern—by reference to stitch pattern, color, or by placing a locking stitch marker on the RS.
So if we look back at good old “slip 1 with yarn in front,” if I want the yarn to travel across the RS of my work, then “slip 1 with yarn to the RS” (or sl1RS). If I want the yarn to travel across the WS of my work, then “slip 1 with yarn to the WS” (or sl1WS). We then get to use the same instruction on RS rows and WS rows, and we get to understand better what’s happening with out actual fabric. Win, win!
The same would work for those wrap-and-turn short row instructions. Instead of “bring yarn to front, slip stitch to right needle, bring yarn to back, slip stitch back to left needle,” it would be “bring yarn to RS, slip stitch to right needle, bring yarn to WS, slip stitch back to left needle.” And those same instructions would work for both RS and WS short rows, showing us that the actions used to create them are symmetrical and helping us understand better what’s happening with the structure of our fabric. Now, we are not just tied to the word-by-word instructions, we are understanding how they work in relation to the fabric in our hands. So much better!
From now on, knitting comrades, my patterns will refer to RS and WS instead of front and back. I am hoping this will help knitters bridge the gap between what the action is and what the action does.
Will you join me?