Ask Patty: Let the Tool Do the Work
Last month’s column (in my mind titled Gauge: The Lying Liar Who Lies to You) explored when and why your gauge swatch might be lying to you. One thing that always signals a “liar swatch” is when a knitter mentions “relaxing into their project”—meaning they settle into their real gauge.
But what about a gauge that changes back and forth throughout a project? This brings us to the promised Part 2.
Part 2: Consistent Stitches—Let the Tool Do the Work
In my Improve Your Knitting class I start by talking about a few basic no-nos when it comes to stitch sizing. In today’s column I’m going to touch on the most important aspect of creating your perfect fabric: a fabric that will have a consistent gauge throughout and that won’t change based on your stress level or your caffeine (or cocktail) level, because you are letting your tool do the work.
The humble knitting needle is the perfectly designed tool to create the perfectly sized stitch every, every, every time, but we have to use every part of it correctly to create a perfect stitch.
- The tip is unsized but there for a reason.
- And the shaft of the needle is what sizes your stitch.
Your needle’s shaft is your measuring cup. You wouldn’t bake a cake by just eyeballing the ingredients, so don’t eyeball your stitches! (image courtesy of charlotteslivelykitchen.com)
Two letters from knitters experiencing gauge frustrations demonstrate different sides of the same problem: not using the measuring cup.
Case Study #1: The “Grab and Go”
I am a very loose knitter. So loose that I still can’t get gauge when I size down to US 3 (3.25 mm) when the pattern calls for a US 7 (4.5 mm). I know the trick (thanks to your video sweater classes) of knitting a different size with my gauge, and I’ve gotten good at the math, but it’s a PAIN. I’d like to know WHY I have this issue. I really don’t understand. Also, my swatch is a waste of my time since it never matches my knitting. As Joss Whedon would say . . . GRR, ARG!
Janet might suffer from the dreaded “grab and go.” A grab and go knitter is not using the tool as it was designed to be used. She is using the tool only to reach through the old stitch and grab some yarn and pull it through to the right needle, but not to size the new stitch.
This is similar to reaching into the flour with the measuring cup and bringing up a big heaping cup of flour but then not leveling it off.
The telltale sign of not using your needle to size your stitch space under the needle.
Here you can see that I could stick a whole other needle in the space beneath the stitches on this sample I knit using US 6 (4 mm) needles and the grab-and-go method.
To tell what size needle really fits those stitches, I can back it up to the cable and try changing needle tips until I find the size that slides in with no resistance and no space underneath. In this video, you see me trying a US 7 (4.5 mm), US 8 (5 mm), and finally we see these stitches—that I knit on a US 6 (4 mm)!—fit a US 9 (5.5 mm).
So how, you might ask, could I have created stitches that fit nicely onto a US 9 (5.5 mm) needle with a US 6 (4 mm) needle?
By working the stitch on the wrong part of both needles.
Here I have filmed myself “grabbing and going” both for picking and throwing. Take a look and notice where the old stitch sits on the left-hand needle and what happens to the new stitch on the right-hand needle.
The stitch I’m about to work is still on the shaft of the left needle. So now, even if that stitch was sized properly the row before (which it wasn’t), I would be stretching it out twice its size. The reason our needles have a lovely tapered tip is so we can advance the stitch we are about to work to the tip of the left needle, giving us room to enter it with the tip of our right needle, without distortion.
The reason needles come in different sizes is so we can wrap the yarn around the shaft of the right needle to create our new stitch sized to the right needle. Now you might think you can pull that stitch loosely through and—once it’s on the right needle—give a yank to the yarn to tighten it up. But that only lifts up the legs of the row below. There’s no crying in baseball and no tugging in knitting.
So, what is the secret to a perfectly measured stitch? Advance the old stitch to the tip of the left needle. Now you can enter that stitch without distortion, wrap your yarn around your tool and—with even tension still on your yarn—pull (if it’s a knit) or push (if it’s a purl) the new loop through the old loop and size it to the shaft of the right needle.
But what about the too-tight knitter? How does that work?
In the MDK Shop
Case Study #2: The “Tip Worker”
I have a question about my gauge. I’m a really tight knitter. I’ve always been really tight. I usually have to go up 2 or 3 needle sizes. I can’t work on wooden needles at all because it hurts my hands, so I always use metal. I know I must just tension my yarn really tight, but I’ve gotten used to it. The issue is my tension always changes during the knitting. Some spots are looser and some are tighter. I don’t get it, because I feel like I tension my yarn the same way so how can this be? HELP.
Tighty tight tight Natalie
Natalie may very well be what I call a tip worker. A tip worker is working the old stitch off the tip of her left needle all right, but she is also sizing the new stitch to the tip of her right needle. This is why after a few stitches are formed, and they are shoved down onto the shaft of the right needle, they feel so tight.
You can also see how it would be difficult to maintain a consistent gauge, since the size of the stitch will depend on exactly where on the taper of the needle tip you choose to make your stitch.
Enlarged to show tipture
Watch me exit the stitch on the tip and you’ll see why the tight knitter is sooooo tight. Kind of like taking that 1-cup measuring cup and just eyeballing ¾ of a cup each time.
Watch me create a few stitches, in both picking and throwing, advancing the old stitch to the tip of left needle and sizing a new stitch to shaft of the right needle. Notice that the yarn wraps 360 degrees around the needle with no space underneath.
For those of you who have taken my live class (now live via Zoom every month on my website) “Build a Better Fabric: Perfect Your Knitting,” you know there are many other tips to create the perfect stitch. Beyond the measuring cup, we also talk about preloading, virgin legs, the Pez Dispenser, the grocery store conveyor belt, and the exit path (sounds like a fun class, right!), but the most important of all of the tips is the measuring cup.
It all breaks down to these simple steps:
1. Advance the old stitch to the tip of the left needle.
2. Enter the stitch and wrap the yarn.
3. Pull (knit) or push (purl) the new loop through the old loop with even tension on your yarn.
4. Size that new loop to the shaft of the right needle and exit.
By letting your tool do the work, no matter what the weather is, no matter how many cups of coffee you’ve had, no matter how annoyed you get at your coworkers forgetting to mute themselves on Zoom for the millionth time, your first stitch will be the exact same size as your last.
Now grab your measuring cup, bake yourself a cake and knit the perfect fabric!