We’ve all been there. We read a pattern and get to a technique we hate and think, “Do I really have to do that?” Often this seems to center around our desire to do literally anything other than seaming or picking up stitches. I get it, really I do.
Sometimes learning what you should and shouldn’t ignore in a pattern is all about trial and spectacular error (more about that at the end of the column). In today’s mailbag we have three questions that orbit around the theme, “Can’t I do this instead?”
The Stable Neckband
When you’re making, for example, a plain crewneck sweater with a simple ribbed neckband, do you advise binding off the front and back and picking up stitches, or leaving these stitches live and continuing them into the neckband? And of course, because you’re Patty, “Why?” Thanks!
This one is easy. YESSSSS, bind off and pick up for sure! Oh, how well I remember getting a few sweaters under my belt and then feeling cocky. I thought I was being terribly clever when I realized I could improve a pattern by skipping the step of binding off, only to pick up again. After a few times wearing that sweater I looked like the guy from the Downy commercial.
The weight of your sweater will hang from the back of the neck and shoulders, so it needs stability. That’s why binding off only to pick up is the way to go.
In the MDK Shop
Speaking of shoulders, we have not one, but two shoulder seam questions.
Seamliness Is Next to Godliness
I went to a lecture you gave once called “Ignore the Pattern,” and was surprised when you said not to slip the first stitch of every row if it’s a seamed sweater, but also said I could ignore stair step shoulder instructions if I wanted to replace them with short rows.
So, my question is, how do you know what to ignore in a pattern? For instance, I always thought it was odd that in top-down, set-in-sleeve patterns a (let’s just say very famous) designer has me cast on at the shoulder, work down one side and then pick up stitches to work down the front. I’ve always replaced that with a provisional cast on leaving those stitches live and then just worked down the other direction. So . . . a good ignore or a bad ignore?
Inquiring minds want to know.
Anxious to ignore in quarantine (Valerie)
Are there times when you shouldn’t use a three needle bind off for shoulder seams?
I have very strong feelings about seams, which is why I wanted to kiss Kate Atherley on the lips when she wrote Why Try Seamed. I love seams. They are wondrous things that keep our sweaters looking great for generations. A good side seam can keep a sweater hanging the way it should (more later on how Patty learned this the hard way), and a strong shoulder seam is your most important seam of all!
Valerie, the reason that designer had you construct your top-down garment as they did was to make sure it hangs properly and keeps its shape. With a strong shoulder seam, the front stays where the front should be, and your sweater doesn’t hang like a poncho.
Linda, the question to three needle bind-off or seam is an interesting one. There are times when a designer might call for a three needle bind off, but I’m assuming you are asking when you can replace a traditional seam with 3NBO.
First to the obvious: the stitches need to be live on the needle, so shaped shoulders might be out. I know, I can hear you through my computer screen screaming, “But what about short rows?” There are times when short rows at the shoulder might not look great. You might have cables or lace or a stitch pattern whose repeat does not lend itself to short rows. Also, I don’t really love how three needle bind off looks in a garter-based fabric, as you end up with a bit of a stockinette gutter at the top of the shoulder (there is a hack for that, but that’s a subject for another day.)
But beyond that, for me, nothing replaces the strength, beauty, and symmetry of a traditional shoulder seam. Let’s do a side-by-side comparison.
Here’s the RS of a three needle bind off. As you can see, the sides don’t really line up, but that’s not the end of the world.
Where things get interesting is the WS. Because you are holding two WS pieces together and binding off to join them, the seam is not symmetrical.
Just like in any bind off, it has the braid that pops to one side of the fabric and adds more bulk:
While the other side lies a bit flatter:
This can make the shoulder seam uncomfortable in certain bulky yarns, or visible in thinner yarns. I once did it in a drapey yarn and I could actually see the difference from the outside of the sweater. The BO braid ended up on the front of one shoulder and the back of the other shoulder and it looked weird. That’s the technical term.
The stability is also a bit different on each side, so if you do the bind off in a slippery yarn and it’s a long, heavy garment, one side of the seam can be a bit more “see through” . . . okay, that’s getting into the really picky, but since you asked.
On the other hand, a seamed shoulder can not only look totally seamless and beautiful:
But because it’s the same front and back, it will sit on your shoulder perfectly and even under stress, it holds its shape:
A strong and beautiful shoulder seam is super easy. Here’s a quick video to show you how:
I Fail Hard So You Don’t Have To
Finally, since it’s just us, in our safe space, it’s time for true confessions. I am a self-taught knitter. Along the way, I’ve done everything wrong you’d imagine in your worst nightmare: Knit a felted scarf with one ball of wool and one ball of acrylic—check; knit a sweater that came below my knees because I didn’t swatch—roger that; knit a shawl with every other row twisted—got that covered. I’ve made so many mistakes that I documented just a few in a blog series called Patty’s Big Box of Knitting Fails.
My reason for becoming a knitting teacher is so knitters can learn from my MANY mistakes, and here’s a sweater that I immediately thought of when reading your emails. Over a decade ago, I took a perfectly lovely, knit from the bottom, seamed garment and destroyed it. Looking back, I can’t believe how much extra work I did to avoid a few seams.
Here are my modification notes from my project page for the Gatsby Pullover:
- Worked body in the round
- Added short row shaping to the front neck
- Did short row shaping for shoulders
- Three needle BO for shoulders
- Skipped the buttons & button holes on shoulder
- Put live stitches from back and front neck on needle and worked the 1″ neck in the round
- Did a top down short row sleeve cap
- Worked sleeves in the round
End result—virtually no seaming!
On the left is a shot of me after tugging on the sweater so it would hang right as I sat perfectly still for a picture:
The sweater is knit with negative ease in rib, so, just like wearing a tube sock that twists around your leg as you walk, that’s exactly what happened to my sweater. Note the red lines in the picture on the right showing how the sweater had a tendency to spiral around my body.
Here are the notes I added to my project page after I wore the sweater ONCE:
Now I know why there are seams. The sweater torques around my body as I walk, the shoulders stretch out, the neck is not good, the sleeves pick up gaps, Ugh. My live and learn: There’s a reason the designer puts in seams at the sides, shoulders, and at the neck.
That was the last time I ever wore that sweater.
The moral of the story: When it comes to finishing, if a designer uses seams, Yes, you really do have to do that.