Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Knit, knit, rip

All photos ©2012 Blue Bee Studio

There's nothing wrong with a little fudging. If you're knitting a garment for yourself, less-than-perfect can be perfectly okay. But when you're designing a garment for others to knit, the details have to be right. Swatching is a great help, but sometimes you simply have to see the whole thing knit up to know that it's not quite working yet. Ripping back is just an inevitable part of the design process, and I guess I'm pretty efficient at it.

I've come to realize though that not everyone does as much ripping as I do, and even experienced knitters can be unsure of the best way to pull back their work. Here are some tips to make the job easier.

Don't use a scalpel when a chain saw will do

Unknitting stitch by stitch (aka 'tinking') is laborious. To rip efficiently, you need to do as little tinking as possible. To drop back several rows (or several inches), I put the work on a flat surface and pull the needles completely out. If the knitting is simple and the yarn fairly cohesive, I just rip back as far as I need to and pick up the loose stitches. If the knitting is more complicated – say a lace shawl – or the yarn a little less inclined to stay put, I rip back to the row before the one with the error.

Next comes the tinking. There are different ways of doing this, but here's my method: I hold the knitting in my left hand, with the opposite side of the work facing me (wrong side if it’s a right side row I’m going to take out, and right side if a wrong side row). With my right hand, I insert the tip of the needle purlwise into the first stitch that the working yarn is going through, and gently pull the working yarn out. Holding the work in my left hand allows me to control the working yarn very precisely, and I tension it gently over my left index finger. It’s kind of like backwards continental knitting. I can work very quickly this way.

To minimize tugging on the stitches as I recapture them, I use a much smaller needle than the one I'm actually working with. If there are complicated decreases that require untwisting stitches, a tiny dpn can be useful, too.

If the yarn is something slippery like silk or linen and I'm afraid that I’ll lose control of the stitches once they're free, I steam the work while it's still on the needles to set the stitches. I use a handheld steamer for this, but a steam iron held above the fabric will work, too. Once the stitches are set, I rip back as needed, but leave the work on the flat surface while tinking that final row. This helps to keep from tugging the yarn out of the stitches before I'm ready to pick them up.

Unkinking the ramen

Once all the stitches have been picked up, the next step is to get the recovered yarn back into usable condition. Working with kinked and curly yarn is a recipe for wonky stitches. It's nearly impossible to have an even tension with seriously wavy yarn. To quickly get it back in shape, I wind the yarn into a small hank, then pin it out on a blocking board. I steam the yarn until the kinks relax, let it cool, then wind it back into a ball and get back to work.

My favorite knitting tool

If you haven't already guessed, I love my handheld steamer. It's possibly the best $15 I've ever spent. In addition to the above-mentioned uses, it's brilliant for finishing knits. And unlike a steam iron, there's no heated sole plate, so you can touch it directly to the fabric. One caveat though – keep it well away from acrylic yarns, as high heat can damage them.


  1. Thank you Elizabeth for this post. I taught myself to knit two years ago from watching Youtube videos and buying numerous books. Not in one thing have I seen or read about what to do once you have ripped back yarn and have a squiggly mess. I know!

  2. I've been resisting buying a steamer but now that I know I can get a handy little cheap one it's time to shop!

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your tips! What type of steamer do you have. I like that it almost looks like an iron.

  4. The brand is Sisan, and I got it some time ago from a sewing supply company. I love its compact size. A quick internet search didn't turn up many in this style, but if I were to replace this one and felt like spending a bit more I'd look at the Jiffy handheld model.