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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

Dear Patty,

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!

Bonnie

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.

 sad Neckband.

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.

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Speaking of shoulders, we have not one, but two shoulder seam questions.

Seamliness Is Next to Godliness

Dear Patty,

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)

and

Dear Patty,

Are there times when you shouldn’t use a three needle bind off for shoulder seams?

Linda

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!

However.

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

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About The Author

Patty Lyons is a nationally recognized knitting teacher and technique expert. In her pursuit of training the mindful knitter, Patty is known for teaching the “why” in addition to the “how.” She specializes in sweater design and sharing her love of the much-maligned subjects of gauge and blocking.

You can find Patty at her website and on Ravelry.

Do you have a problem you’d like Patty to tackle? Write to her at askpattymdk@gmail.com.

 

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29 Comments

  • This is a terrific article that every knitter should read.

  • What about styles traditionally knit wholly or partly in the round? There must be reasons for choosing that option, as well. How and when do designers make those choices? I would think it may be difficult to know the difference between a designer’s personal preference and a choice based on objectively “better” construction. I’m going to assume editors no longer switch out construction styles (I recall EZ’s first published pattern, which the editor changed from round to flat).

    • Those designs are MEANT to be knit in the round. I, sadly, was not doing a yoke construction from a hearty wool. Nope, I took a pieces sweater, knit in negative ease, and converted it to in the round AND knit it in superwash (sigh). Yes, I think (hope) the days of a publisher ignoring the designers construction choices are a thing of the past.

      For me, if it’s a designer I know and trust, then I know they’ve thought out the construction, the ease and their fiber choice. Oh how I wish I had honored the pattern I knit all those years ago.

      • That seaming video is super helpful! Magical.

  • Thank you for not just telling us to do things properly, but for actually taking the time to show us how…and, most critically, helping us to see why things work.

    Thank you too for reminding us that the time we invest in creating a garment needs to be acknowledged with special care in making sure it is finished properly. I have a sweater that is in the queue to be re-knit because I just did not do it right the first time. It is too big. I chose the wrong size because I was worried about it being too small. (If I had checked the gage and the measurements I would have realized that actually knitting it in my size would have worked out.) The buttonholes on the front are not evenly spaced because I did not think it would matter if I was off by a row or two on the center button. It matters. It is the first thing I notice every time I look at this sweater. (Very plain patterns demand very perfect finishes.) Because these mistakes frustrate me, I do not wear this sweater. And, because I love the pattern and the wool. I am going to give this another try.

    • I think you’ll enjoy seeing the GIANT sweater I knit (linked to from the Patty’s Big Box of Knitting Fails). I ripped it out and re knit it. I cried a little, but did it and I was sooooo happy I did. ❤️

  • Well, darn it all. I do see your point, I really, really do.

    What about stranded knitting? I would dearly love to eschew 99% of purling on a stranded sweater; would making a steek be an acceptable sub for knitting in pieces? After all, you have to sew it up at the end. I just want to avoid purling in stranded sweater designs like the plague.

    • It’s not about converting patterns that are DESIGNED to be knit in the round to flat, it’s about respecting / trusting that the designer chose the right construction for the design. Most fair isle is designed in wool and designed to be knit in the round.

      • There are several Marie Wallin sweaters I would like to jump into, and they are all knit flat. So my question was an honest one. Could a steek be used so I could knit in the round, cut it open, then seam it?

        • Hey, just saw this! Knit in the round, then steeked and seamed – https://knitty.com/ISSUEw20/PATThalmstad/PATThalmstad.php

        • I did once take a fair isle sweater from Rowan Magazine and convert it to be knit in the round with steeks, and it worked out just fine, it was scary as heck though, especially figuring out how to do set in sleeves with steeks!

        • Ohhh. I’m not familiar with flat fair isle patterns. I would say that question is best directed to the designer since I don’t know what the reasons might be (for instance designing on a super wash or other yarns not great for a steek).

        • Echoing Eastskye’s question: what about converting a knit-flat stranded design to knit it in the round?

  • “I Fail Hard So You Don’t Have To”
    Thank you! I learn so much from you’re mistakes- I’m sorry that you had them, but I greatly appreciate that you share, and explain, so that others can learn.

    • Don’t be sorry! If I didn’t make all those mistakes and keep pushing myself until I understood my knitting, I wouldn’t have become a knitting teacher!

      • I had one of those below-the-knee sweaters. I didn’t realize there was a difference between worsted and heavy worsted (Aran). I pulled out about a foot of it so it was tunic length when it was done, but it was two-color stranded knitting and so warm I could only wear it outside. If I was just standing and not doing anything. Now, I take the time for swatches unless I am knitting with the specified yarn AND it is something where exact dimensions aren’t crucial.

  • Patty is endlessly entertaining and her advice is WISE!

  • As a sewist I appreciate the structure seams give a knitted garment.
    But so many designs today have sleeves knit in the round – which I detest and try to avoid.
    Is this laziness? Or hate of seaming?
    I contemplate knitting the sleeves flat … but then default hoping the designer was right.
    Sigh.

    • I pretty much always knit those flat unless there’s color work. I like the structure seaming gives, and I hate knitting small things in the round. Back and forth for me!

  • This was so convincing, Patty. I keep watching your visual Kitchener video so I can follow your advice. And on top of that you now have me wondering what that piece of felted wool and acrylic looked like. Was it really terrible or could it have been cut up and salvaged as a square in a modular quilt blanket as a textural element. Probably not worth the trouble but I am always looking for ways to repurpose my mistakes. Oh, and an example of firm in-the-round sweater construction – Jared Flood passed around one of his first Cobblestone sweater samples in a class I took once. The yarn plus his precise gauge …That sweater looked like it would remain un-torqued forever. Don’t know if non-Jared Flood knitters had the same experience, though. Chloe

    • I wore that scarf for years (you can actually see it in the Patty’s Big Box of Knitting Fails link). It just kind of went in and out at the edge, it curled in for the un-felted acrylic sections and it lay flat in the felted sections.

      As for Cobblestone, just to clarify, knitting in the round doesn’t make a project torque around our body. I took a pattern that was in RIB and in NEGATIVE ease (oy!) and converted it to be in the round. Think of wearing a tube sock and walking around, does that rib stay straight up and down! Heck no. My Volition is designed to be knit in the round, but it has positive ease and swings away from the hips.

      I don’t want you to think the act of knitting in the round is not okay. It is very okay. We just have to be careful when we take a design that was meant to be worked flat and convert it to be in the round. That might not be okay.

  • Good news / Bad news. Good news: I read your article, watched the seaming video, grabbed my current project, ripped out the awful three needle bind-off I had at the shoulders, and re-seamed using your tutorial. Thank you! My sweater shoulders look great now. Bad news: I can’t stop uttering my new mantra “under the skinny part of the vee, back where it came from, under the skinny part of the vee, back where it came from….”

  • Patty, love how honest you are about your mistakes so you can help the rest of us avoid them. You are exceedingly generous. Thank you!

    • It’s easy to be generous with my mistakes since there are SOOOO many to go around (haaaaaaa)

  • I never cast off and then on again on a collar. But I do often stabilise it afterwards by threading fine clear elastic through, especially on a crew neck cardigan where I go right around from the centre front. A line of chain stitch or stem stitch embroidered on afterwards in the same yarn is another way. This works if I have no side seam and decide afterwards that more stability is needed. You can do it from the inside or the outside Please rescue that lovely sweater, all is not lost!

    • You are so sweet. All is lost for that sweater, but it taught me sooo much. The biggest issue wasn’t the neck, but knitting an all rib sweater in negative ease, in superwash and converting it in the round. It will always spiral around like a sad tube sock. But it taught me about the power of seams, so it’s the most valuable thing I’ve ever knit!

  • Thanks for the tutorial lesson. I have learned a hard lesson with a pattern by Yay for Yarn Slouchy Cardigan. I seamed the shoulders and it puckered. I tried to unseen it by picking the seams. Then the unmentionable of horrors happened. I ripped out the shoulder seam exposing live stitches. I’m willing that its going to be ripped out and start a different pattern. But I like the pattern because it’s in one piece and only requires sleeves to be made separately. At this point I’m very .

  • There is another version of the three-needle bind-off that lies flat. It’s called “modified three-needle bind-off”, and I discovered it in a tutorial video from Purl Soho on YouTube. They show it worked wrong sides together, which creates a nice chain on the front of your work, but you could work it the other way, which creates what looks like a row of reverse stockinette.

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