Why do people think they want this? Because, when making sweaters, dresses jackets, or coats, they don't like to sew side seams.
Okay, so let's look at this from every possible angle to see if there are any good reasons to support knitting-in-the-round as an effort to avoid side seams or for any other reason.
Disclosure: what follows is long, comprehensive, and forcefully opinionated!
1. What happens after we reach the armhole?
So, I say, you knit in-the-round to the armhole. Then what do you do?
One answer is Oh, well, then I start knitting back and forth. I'll ask if their knitting doesn't look different when they go back-and-forth rather than round-and-round? Well, yes, but I don't like to sew side seams.
An alternative answer is I keep knitting in the round but cut and sew for the armholes. And I, quite honestly, wonder in what universe it's easier to cut-and-sew rather than to learn to sew side seams?
2. How difficult are those side seams?
One thing that confounds me is the wish to avoid side seams when they are, in fact, the easiest seams to master and the most invisible of our seams. If executed properly (and more of that in the next section), our side seams--in stockinette and with mattress stitch--are absolutely invisible! They aren't invisible in sewing, but they are in knitting. Aren't we lucky!!!
Our shoulder seams aren't invisible, and they are more difficult to master. The same can be said of our drop shoulder or set-in-sleeve armhole seams: not invisible, not as easily mastered. So for most of our garments, we accept that some sewing is required. And we accept that they may be neither easy nor invisible. So why on earth are we so eager to avoid the one that is both easy and invisible!?!
3. Have we put thought into our selvedge stitches?
Having seen the request for in-the-round so often, I had to ask where it came from. And here's one thought.
Perhaps this comes from newer knitters who started with hats and mitts and cowls--without seams. So, they ask, why do I need seams in a knit garment. My head is round, my body is round: what's the difference? This is a very valid question, and I'll answer it in the next section.
It could also come from new knitters who started with scarves. Scarves are usually knit in garter stitch (knit every row), and for these we employ 2 popular selvedge stitches:
- knit the first and last stitch of every row (offering a neat edge)
- slip the first stitch of every row (offering a pretty edge, almost decorative, edge).
And it's not just newer knitters who use these selvedge stitches. There are many more experienced knitters (who I meet in my classes) who use garter or slip for selvedges. Some of them figured it out for themselves; some were taught to do this; some are following a pattern that directs them to do this.
So all these knitters--new or old--then wonder why they don't like their seams. Why? Because these are TERRIBLE choices for the execution of side seams!!!!
- Slip stitches are pretty, but they transfer the ugliness of the stockinette stitch to the stitch next door: so the pretty slip-stitch goes into the seam, and the ugly stockinette stitch rides along the RS of the work.
- Garter stitches are pretty, but they want to lie flat--rather than nicely turning the corner into the side seam. So we get bulky seams, because this stubborn, knotty little thing fights our seam.
- If selvedge stitches are worked as stockinette stitches, they are not pretty, but they roll to the back and produce invisible side seams. (The seam itself falls into the trough between stitches.) It's a wondrous and beautiful thing that doesn't happen in other stitches or crafts.
4. Why do we need side seams?
So maybe I have explained why people don't like sewing, maybe not. But it's a very valid question to ask why we need those seams anyway?
Why? Because side seams are the skeleton to the garment, helping it hold shape over time.
Think about this. We do not own garments without side seams. Look in your closet: not only does everything have side seams but, if the garment is long, it has a centre-back seam. We don't own skirts or dresses or jackets or coats without both side and centre-back seams. Why? Because fabric needs structure so it won't stretch over time.
The only garment we might own without a centre-back seam could be a T-shirt made from a tube of knit jersey. And what happens after we wash it? It skews! The side seams go wonky. This is what knit fabric does.
And speaking of fabric, most of what's in our closets is not knit: it's fabric, which has inherently more structure than our knits. Still, all those pieces have side seams. Why, oh why would we want to remove this structure from our more flexible knits?
5. What further reason might we have for side seams?
I also know that when we knit in-the-round what we get is what we get. When finished, we block it and see . . . hmmm . . . who will this fit?!? No matter how experienced we are, gauge can surprise us. Yes, we knit a swatch. But no, the finished gauge may not have cared to play by the same rules.
So, if we knit back-and-forth (front and back as separate pieces with seams to join them), we can knit a piece and discover Wow, that's not gonna fit! It's too big! So we call it the front and make the back in a smaller size. And if it's too small, we call it the back and make the front larger. We can do this--and make something that fits--if we did not knit-in-the-round. (I explore this in my book KNITTING PATTERN ESSENTIALS, in the chapter When things don't turn out as expected.)
6. What exceptions are there to all this?
As I said earlier, it is perfectly appropriate to knit hats, mitts, cowls, etc, in-the-round.
And we may also knit garments in-the-round to avoid purling. When's that? When working two-colour (sometimes called fairisle) pieces. For these, the tradition is to knit in the round and to steek for front, neck, and armhole openings.
But I can honestly say that since learning (and teaching) how to purl with one yarn around the neck (and another in the right or left hand or also around the neck), I've converted myself (and students who've learned these technique) to knitting two-colour pieces flat and with side seams. Seems (sorry for the pun) way less intimidating than steeking, cutting, sewing, with all the skill set that demands.
So that's my rant. It's supported by yarn shops who say Yes, we know they shouldn't be knitting in-the-round, but it's our job to give them what they want.
I see it as my job to help knitters make pieces that fit and will be worn--pieces that do honour to our craft. And this particular rant is a huge part of this mission.