Thursday, September 12, 2013

my round rant

What's a round rant? It's my rant against a fairly recent but widespread aberration (and I do not use that term lightly) to knit garments in-the-round. How do I know how widespread it is? Because I am asked for in-the-round garment patterns, because I am asked how to convert existing garment patterns to in-the-round, because yarn shop owners tell me they are asked for in-the-round garment patterns, because they say that's the first question they're asked about a new pattern: is it in-the-round?

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).
So we graduate and wish to produce a garment--probably not done in garter, some version of stockinette being the norm. And we notice rather immediately that the edge stitches are butt ugly. So we carry forward a memory of those selvedge stitches and think there's our answer! We can neaten the edges by knitting them or slipping them.

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.
No wonder these folks want to avoid side seams!  With these selvedges, they are difficult to execute and look awful.
  • 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.
Once, when explaining all this in class, a student asked So why do patterns tell us to do this? My answer was that The pattern was written for the knitter not for the sweater. The knitter can say What a good job I did on this piece. But then she tries to seam it . . . and thinks the seam is the problem when it was--quite simply--her choice of selvedge stitches.

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.


  1. Agreed! I used to hate seaming until I took a private lesson, and now I love it. I think most people are just afraid of it, so having a good lesson can really help with that.

  2. Amen, Sally, Amen! I am a fervent advocate of seamed garments, for all of the reasons you have stated in your rant.

    I would also add that garments knitted in the round are actually a coil, spiralling upward (or downward, if it's a top-down garment), which causes the skewing of the knitted item. And, if you add stripes to the mix, you have essentially knitted a barbershop pole! I have also never seen a truly jogless join in the transition of stripe colors in the round, no matter how masterfully the join was executed.

    I wonder if those knitters who are "anti-seam" have never been introduced to the mattress stitch for seaming. It's an easy, quick stitch to learn, and it definitely makes the seam invisible. I would suggest that those people knit two swatches, then seam the swatches together with the mattress stitch to see how easy and invisible it is. I think that little practice will result in many "converts" to seamed garments.

    Mary G. in Texas
    Ravelry GrannyxFour

    1. You are right that this is all dependent upon mattress stitch seams. And even though the people who object say this is what they do, I should have been specific about this. I've now amended the post to reflect this.
      Thanks for this.

    2. I will add that I have managed a pretty jogless join in stripes--for the knit-in-the-round legs of a doll.
      a. Knit the first round in the new colour as usual.
      b. Slip the first stitch of the next round in this newly-established colour.
      c. Continue knitting this colour until it's time to change colours.
      Repeat from a.

  3. I am a recent convert to flat knitting. I used to fear seaming knits ... and this from someone who can perform a half-dozen complicated seams in sewing garments, including a felled seam on a curve! What tripped me up was being told that I had to slip the last stitch in row to "neaten up" the edge. Thus my sewn seams turned out like crud, so I avoided them. Then I took a seaming class at a local yarn shop and was set straight. My first big seaming job after that was an Aran cardigan -- it turned out okay, but with all the cables and moss stitch, I should have backstitched (according to Alice Starmore) instead of using mattress stitch. Live and learn. My next seaming project had stockinette stitch along the seam, and mattress stitching this was fun -- and I'm as proud of the inside of the garment as I am the outside. I think it just takes practice. It was my goal this year to finally master seaming, and I'm happy that I can expand my repertoire beyond seamless sweaters. :)

    1. I'm ever so glad to hear of your conversion. Sounds like your experience was exactly what I had concluded! Thanks for the confirmation.
      And yes, mattress stitch--while the gold standard--is not what we should use in every situation. I find the following: a) that we have to anticipate what seaming method we will use before we choose our selvedge stitches; b) that many alternative but successful seams are, indeed, some version of that mattress stitch motion.
      Have you ever noticed that mattress stitch is the same "motion" as grafting (in stockinette)? I find that fascinating!

  4. Great article. I find sleeves are much easier to seam to body pieces when everything's knit flat as you can do them first after the shoulders when the garment is laid out flat and then do the body side seams. Yes, it does take time to seam neatly but the garments always wear and sit better.

  5. You may have nudged me into trying more patterns with seaming. I've knitted baby sweaters with seams, and short ones don't "seem" so intimidating. I'll give it a go, the next time I want to avoid a cardigan :) Thanks for the push to try!

  6. Thank you, thank you, thank you both for your comments and thoughtfulness. And please, if this works for you, pass it along to your knitting friends and shop owners. We need to FIX this!

  7. Thanks for a great article.

    If I'm knitting to knit, and going round/round is what makes me happy, ok. If I'm knitting to wear, well then I better decide WHAT I want to wear and HOW I want to look.

    Purling on a fair isle cardigan for my sister was no hassle at all. For me, I don't get the purling fuss in general. OK, it's not the same but, for me, that doesn't make it bad. For. me.

  8. I must admit to being one of those mostly knitting in the round knitters and from my study so far of knitting's history, it does seem to be very much the older way of doing things. Knitting garments in pieces, which involves purling, is very much a later invention.

    I try not to be completely set in my ways though and do what seems to suit the pattern, yarn and situation best. I have seen lovely jumpers both knitted flat and knitted in the round.

    Steeked jumpers did evolve in particular sets of circumstances, using particular "sticky" yarns, which are suited to it.

    I'm afraid I refuse to see one as "right" and the other as "wrong".

  9. You are right that it was an old way of doing thing. But it's kinda been "re-discovered" and is now being, in my opinion, over-used and over-demanded. I find this frustrating and needed to address it.
    I agree, it's not about right or wrong: people can get good results either way. BUT we are more likely to get good results--and have more options for doing so--when we knit flat.
    Thanks for giving it some thought.

  10. I agree that knitting a sweater in the round diminishes the impact of the finished product. You put all that effort and time into the garment but there is always a visible difference in gauge on the sleeve knitting down from the armhole.

  11. I LOVE to gives the finished garment more structure and hangs better when wearing. I sewed for many years before I learned to knit - so I actually enjoy the hand finishing! I've read all of Elizabeth Zimmerman's work and disagree about knitting everything in the round. The first sweater I ever knit was a Lopi ski sweater knit in the round for my husband. It's not awful, but I hate the just hangs - never again! And after you knit the body in the round and switch to flat knitting, there is often a problem in getting the same gauge.

    Seaming is very easy - and there are many You-Tube tutorials to help the novice knitter/seamer! Thanks for your rant, Sally - you're "right on"!

  12. I'd like to put in a word or two in defence of circular knitting, especially for Fair Isle sweaters worked in genuine Shetland wool. I find it much easier to follow the pattern, and spot mistakes, if the knit side of the fabric is always facing me. Any skew in the finished sweater can be cured by blocking (Shetland wool being particularly obliging in this regard). These sweaters traditionally include sleeves knitted in the round as well, so gauge difference between sleeves and body doesn't enter the picture. (And any sweater knit in the round can have similarly worked sleeves. Why not?) In addition, these sweaters don't have to "hang" like a bag, but may be shaped by the intrepid knitter with strategically placed increases or decreases as the wearer's shape dictates. After all, the sleeves aren't simple cylinders, and the body doesn't have to be, either. Steeking is no more an esoteric art than seaming is. As for seams giving structure to the garment, I agree completely that this is the case for many yarns; again, fibre content is critical and cannot be ignored when planning a project. And when it does come to seams, I've thrown mattress stitch out the window and rely on 3-needle bind-off for shoulders and slip-stitch crochet for everything else. I guess what I'm trying to get across is that no one technique is always "better" or "worse" than another. Different types of garments and yarns require different knitting and finishing skills.

  13. I agree with everything you say EXCEPT maybe your seaming preferences . But I agree that we all have to do what gives us the best result.

    I particularly agree with your point that one has to be flexible based upon fabric and garment. And that's why I wrote this rant--because many new knitters won't consider a pattern that isn't in-the-round. And that's just not right.

    1. I know, it's heresy not to like mattress stitch! I just never got the hang of it and my seams looked terrible :).

  14. I thoroughly agree with knitting in pieces for heavier items like Aran sweaters. However, I find fair isle much faster and better knit in the round and steeked - mostly because I get used to the pattern going one way and hate having to reverse direction on a non-symmetrical repeat. I do have a body that suits cylindrical sweaters, and haven't noticed skewing of the knitting in any of my fair isle jumpers.

  15. I love this rant! And always smile when you talk about flat/circular knitting. Really! I love it because you feel so strongly about design and knitting and you make us think! The best teachers do that!

  16. Sally, I think yarn stores should offer finishing classes. I took one it was great. How to block, seam, calculate button holes, the works. And fitting classes are helpful too.
    Like the one you teach Sally. I don't think these in the round sweaters really fit the body that well. And those raglan sleeves aren't for everyone! I want my knitting garments to look more like Eileen Fisher or Ralph Lauren. They seam! Jennifer

  17. I enjoyed your wonderful rant about seaming. I've actually read thru it twice & for most people I agree & suggest they go down the seaming road.

    Fortunately for me: my tension doesn't change whether I knit back & front in in the round. So, I knit in the round - because I am faster at it. I add a purl stitch side seam - because I agree the garment needs structure & only sew in the sleeves at the armhole.
    I have also discovered some stitches don't do in the round well - moss & seed stitch being the worst. They bias something terrible & create a wonderful spiral, which is exactly what you don't want on a sleeve.
    So- I might be different from the norm, but I so love me a well expressed & discussed argument. Thanks for taking the time to do this.

  18. I appreciate your comments and your appreciation of my argument.
    It's been wonderful to hear the different voices and opinions on this subject.
    And I know I cannot convince everyone: my wish is that we make informed decision to do what's best for our craft.
    Thanks to all for writing.

  19. Here here! Finally, I've read something that confirms my opinion on knitting sweaters in the round. I get very frustrated because it seems that 98% of all new patterns are written in-the-round. Knitting flat just works better--for me at least. My stitches are more even and the garment isn't slouchy. I hope this is just a trend that will reverse itself soon. You don't see any of those beautiful vintage and CLASSIC, DATELESS patterns in the round.

    1. Truly, one of knitting's most classic styles is the BOHUS tradition. And the very savvy artist who designed them insisted that they have side seams. Susanna Hansson, acknowledged to be the person who holds the BOHUS torch, says that these sweaters knit without seams do not hold up as well.
      As you say, beautiful, CLASSY, DATELESS, not knit in the round.

  20. Seaming is easy. My issue is that I don't enjoy purling and my knitting is a lot more even in the round. When I switch to flat I can generally manage to get the rows even but only by very tight purling or using a smaller needle for the purled rows.

    Pullovers in the round seem great to me. I don't miss the side seem at all. Cardigans are another matter and I wish someone would invent a way to get the stability of the seam but still knit in the round.

    Anyone up for that challenge?

    1. I understand that our knitting can look different when we go back and forth rather than in the round. But my question to you would then be "What do you do above the armhole or for the neck?" Do you go back and forth then, or do you steek?

      If the former, then I wonder if it wouldn't be better to have consistency throughout your sweater--rather than knitting below the armhole that looks different from knitting above the armhole

      If the latter, then I can only acknowledge the work you are willing to do, because steeking (cutting, sewing, etc) is work I would do anything to avoid.
      I guess we all have to choose what we wish to avoid.

      It is true that the yarn has to travel a little farther on the purl side, and this is revealed in our less elastic yarns. So in the spirit of a true confession, I will admit that in some yarns, my knitting is a little different between knit and purl rows. In some cottons, for eg, I can see ridges--but mostly on the purl side.

      I've been know to use a smaller needle for the purl rows under those circumstances. But a better fix to this--rather than the smaller needle--would be to wrap the purl UNDER rather than OVER (which is a shorter span) and then knitting through the back of stitches on the next row (which is a faster way to knit). (I think we call this EASTERN CONTINENTAL or COMBINATION knitting.) It means fiddling with our decreases, but that's probably a small price to pay.

      I am mostly happy that we are all thinking about and discussing this. Because mindlessly following patterns is what we should all avoid.

      PS That "faux" seam might fix the stability issue but won't address the other issue (about what to do above the armhole), plus it won't keep the knitting from spiralling.

  21. I just found your blog (through Ravelry, of course) and must say "Amen, sister!"
    -- stashdragon

  22. New knitter, own 2, not 1, takumi bamboo interchangeable needle sets, an terrified to try knitting in the round, the how of how a sweater can be made from a tube doesn't compute in my brain....but I can grasp the concept of different pieces flat and seamed to create a are correct that knitters go mad for the shapless sack patterns, it is to the point where I gave up on the local yarns shops, went online and downloaded books and patterns from the early Victorian era up to the 1950's to try and learn....if anybody thinks it is hard to learn to seam things together let that person attempt to translate a pattern from a book of needlework and knitting published in the 1840's(they used different terms and symbols than those in current use). But I guess I will have to learn how to knit in the round to make toys for a baby and child, as 98% of them are knitted in the round, sigh....I am also weird because to me dpns look way easier than one of the magic loop methods....also I like to pay attention to my knitting as I do it, not pay attention to something else when knitting, and I like a tailored look, anything shapeless will not suit me in the same way a bias cut outfit would not! I am going to check out your blog and your book, your rant sums up my thoughts exactly...also I never knitted a stitch prior to three months ago, and I have still never sewn a stitch in my life, nor do I know anybody that knits or sews, sigh.

  23. I'm late to the party but have enjoyed both the rant & the comments. I've been knitting since I was 5 & recently retired so more than a half century of knitting. I don't particularly mind seaming & really like to have a well finished piece. My preference is for round knitting because it is more durable. Many of the sweaters I produce are for outdoor activities & because of their inherent rigidity seams are the weak point--examine knitted pieces in a museum & you'll see it's not the knitting that failed but the seams. For my "normal" sweaters, I knit in the round, steek, & knit the sleeves shoulder to cuff. I enjoy the challenge of shaping body & armhole & knitting a set-in sleeve in the round. Knitting the sleeves down is a help to me because come September I receive a bevy of sweaters needing their cuffs replaced. I also find it easier to keep track of patterns when the right side is always facing me. Some things are simply better knit flat so that's what I do. I really can't understand the issue about round knitting spiraling. My response is so what? Although that is what happens I've never been aware of any related issues except maybe stripes but horizontal stripes aren't big with me. I also take issue with the gauge issue. In my experience it's the purl side of st st that's the issue which doesn't apply to round knitting. I might be a bit cavalier about that though because I was taught to knit the combined method by my Polish grandmother who simply called it knitting. Different strokes for different folks.