It’s one of those words that elicits very different responses depending on your hobbies. If you’re into home improvement, you probably love them! Knitters, not so much.
Sometimes knitters use the term “ladder” to describe what happens when you drop a stitch and it unravels, but that’s not the topic today. The ladders we’re looking at here result when the first stitch on a needle is larger than the rest.
Ladders can appear when working in the round, most specifically when you’re using a small circumference method like DPNs, magic loop, or two circulars.
That first stitch of the round is too big!
Ladders happen because yarn has to travel further to get from the stitch at the end of one needle to the stitch at the start of the next needle than it has to travel between two stitches side by side on a needle. You’re using a little bit more yarn each time you cross a gap like that, and the extra yarn gets taken into the first stitch on the left-hand needle, making it larger.
The working yarn is having to cover a larger distance.
When I first started making socks, I didn’t get much laddering at all, but when I switched to metal needles and starting knitting a little tighter, I started to see them.
A recently finished sock with a smaller ladder in the center of the sole. I’m not bothered.
If you’re pulling your stitches on your needles pretty darn tight, then that “extra” length will be proportionately even larger. Not everyone experiences this, but if you do, I offer some solutions, in increasing order of Seriousness:
Don’t Worry About It
If the ladders aren’t huge, I find that they often resolve themselves with washing and wearing. Particularly if it’s a sock that’s worn with negative ease—the constant stretching and resettling of the fabric tends to tidy things up nicely.
Don’t Start a Needle With a Purl
If you’re working a stitch pattern that’s a mix of knits and purls, arrange things so that the first stitch of each needle is a knit stitch.
A (conventional, Western, not-combination) purl stitch requires more yarn than a knit stitch. That over-the-needle wrap of the purl is longer than the under-the-needle wrap of the knit, meaning that your purl stitches will be bigger than your knits in the best of circumstances. Then if the yarn is having to travel further—between the needle tips—it’s bigger again. And it’s even a little bigger because the yarn is having to come around to the front of the work.
Pull the Second Stitch Tight
If the problem is that the first stitch of the needle is too big, then make the next stitch as tight as you can, so that the two of them average out to something more normal. (No, pulling the first stitch doesn’t help, since needle tips tend to get in the way.)
Work With Purl Side to Inside
If you’re working stockinette-based fabric, make sure your round is arranged so that the knit side is to the outside. This reduces the path that the yarn is taking between stitches. If you’re working with purl side out, the yarn is traveling a longer path between knit stitches.
This position is less likely to produce ladders.
More likely to ladder, since the working yarn is traveling around the outside.
Change Needle Type
Every knitter holds the needle and yarn slightly differently. Some knitters find the ladder situation is better on some types of needles than others. For example—if you tend to see bigger ladders on DPNs, consider trying magic loop.
Rearrange Stitches As You Go
Because ladders form at the first stitch on a needle, when you’re using traditional DPNs, you can make the bigger stitches less prominent by shifting which stitch is first. When you have worked across all the stitches of one needle, use the current working needle (rather than the newly emptied needle) to work the first stitch of the next needle. This constantly shifts which stitch is the first one on each needle. As long as you use a stitch marker before the first stitch of a round, you’ll keep your place.
The Hungry Stitch
Here’s a method to reduce the size of that first stitch. If you’re doing this, make sure that each needle starts with a knit—this method is less easy (and less fun) if there are purls involved!
Work a setup round: Work around, slipping knitwise the first stitch of each needle.
After the setup round, the first stitch of each needle has a “float.”
This leaves those first stitches “hungry” because they didn’t get the working yarn pulled through them. The working yarn sits at the back, like a stranded colorwork float.
For all following rounds, work the first stitch of each needle with the previous yarn’s float, as follows: Put the tip of the working needle into that first stitch, grab the float and pull it through—like crochet, basically! Then work across the rest of needle as normal.
And that’s it! This makes the first stitch of each needle smaller, because the float is a shorter length of yarn than you’d normally use to work the stitch.
You can work this method all the way through the project, but if you need to transition to normal knitting at any given round, close up as follows: Work the first stitch with the previous round’s float, but then return the stitch to the left needle and work it again normally.
The one downside to this method is that it can produce a tighter-than-normal first stitch. But those resolve with washing and wearing.
In the MDK Shop
Mind the Marker
You can also get ladders when you’re working the “full circulars” method if there’s an obstacle causing the yarn to travel further between stitches. The usual culprit is a larger stitch marker. If the yarn gets caught around it, you’re adding too much yarn to that first stitch.
Ladder Risk Alert!
The solution in this case is to use a smaller marker, or just take care to ensure that the yarn is not getting caught around it.