Picking and Grinning: How Your Knitting Style Affects Gauge and Fabric
I can’t talk about knitting styles without thinking about Roy Clark, because I’m a picker and he was a picker. His recent passing hit me with a flood of happy memories. Most Saturday nights of my 1970s childhood would find me snuggled into the shag carpet singing along to Hee Haw, while Roy picked his banjo at lightning speed with a giant smile on his face.
How do you knit: do you pick (Continental) or throw (English)? I do both, I started as a thrower, but in a quest to knit faster I taught myself to pick. I’m still a slow knitter, but faster than I used to be.
When I switched to picking, it changed my speed, and I noticed that it changed my gauge too. It wasn’t until after I became a spinner that I figured out what was happening.
Because I can’t quit talking about how yarn works, welcome to another installment of:
It’s Not You, It’s the Yarn
The combination of the direction a yarn is spun and your style of knitting might be a reason why you might not get the gauge/needle combo suggested on the ball band. How you knit affects your gauge and fabric, and ball bands lie.
Most commercial yarns are spun clockwise and plied counterclockwise. Depending how you knit you are either adding twist (tightening the yarn) or subtracting twist (loosening your yarn).
If you throw, wrapping the yarn around your right needle to make a stitch, it slightly twists the yarn clockwise and untwists the ply.
If you pick, scooping the yarn through a loop to make a stitch, it slightly twists the yarn counterclockwise and tightens the ply.
Fascinating cocktail party fact, or gauge killer?
Yes, and maybe.
Everyone’s knitting style and tensioning is different, and most of us have figured out ways to compensate for gauge weirdness caused by knitting style and yarns.
In the MDK Shop
One Knitter, Two Swatches
Here’s what happens with my knitting.
I knit two swatches throwing one and picking the other, doing my best to keep my tension the same.
My thrown swatch (on the left) has a gauge of 4.25 stitches per inch; my picked swatch (on the right) has a gauge of 4.5. For me, that’s a lot of difference, and answers why I had to buy a bunch of different needle sizes when I moved from throwing to picking. This was during the dark ages of knitting, before interchangeable needles.
It also gives me the answer to why my stranded, two-handed knitting always looks so weird: I’m knitting at two different gauges. I fix this by consciously changing my tensioning when throwing, or mostly just working two colors off of one finger.
Speaking of looking, here’s another thing about throwing. Even when I get my gauge to where I need it, by going down a needle size or two, my thrown fabric still looks different than my picked knitting. The untwisting that comes with throwing unplies the yarn, and leaves two strands side by side instead of twisted together. This gives knitted fabric a different look overall.
There are many commercial yarns that are very loosely plied, either for effect or to get more yardage out of fiber. These yarns are especially prone to stitches with parallel strands.
See where the arrow is pointing in the photo? It’s a stitch with two strands sitting next to each other, when they should be twisted together. Look around the photo, especially within the purple box, and you can see many stitches that are untwisted. They kind of look like coffee beans. It makes the fabric look uneven, and takes away from the durability that a plied yarn has.
One More Weird Thing
Here’s another weird thing: the way you pull your yarn from a yarn cake affects the yarn twist too.
If you pull from the inside it tightens the twist a little. If you pull from the outside, the twist stays the same.
I used a measuring tape to emphasize this effect.
So, if you throw, you can counteract the untwisting of the plies a bit by pulling the yarn from the inside of your cake. If you pick, pull from the outside to prevent overtwisting.
I would suggest to not knit double-stranded using an inside and outside strand of the same cake (or an inside and outside strand of two different cakes). The twist is different enough that they won’t nestle together well, and it will make your fabric look wonky. And nobody wants wonky fabric.
All of this is not to get you to switch knitting styles (#youdoyou), but to explain a reason why your gauge may go awry and why your fabric may look different from others in your knitting gang.
If a knitter is curious, or unhappy with their knitting. I want them to know what going on, and it’s almost always in the yarn.