When first I learned about The Knitting Guild Association and its Master Knitter program, I figured it would be easy for me to get through the program. After all, I had been knitting for years and I loved to learn. So I signed up for level 1 and started on the swatches. But then, a funny thing happened.
I looked at those swatches to see what a knitting critique might say about them and realized they weren’t very pretty. But how could that be? They were simple stitches, like stockinette and ribbing, that I had been doing for years.
I learned something everyone learns when they start that program: knitting might be relatively simple to learn, but it is hard to master. And simple stitches are the hardest to make look perfect.
The irregular look our amateur knitting takes on is often referred to knitting tension. Not to be confused with knitting gauge, though sometimes people use the term tension interchangeably with gauge.
So what do you do when you realize your knitting could be neatened up?
Practice some more.
Get lots of practice knitting flat.
Some people try other styles of knitting, like continental, combined, or Portuguese knitting, to see if they get better results with a different style. Since I already knit combined, and don’t feel comfortable knitting another way, that didn’t work for me.
There is a course you can take, called Taming Tension, that helps a lot of people.
A teacher of mine once said that the spacing between stitches on your right-hand needle as you form your stitches controls your knitting tension, so you want to keep them uniform. That is something to keep in mind.
Another thing to keep in mind is where your previous row of knitting is while you knit or purl… do you keep it at the same angle below your needles?
Also, it is important to disturb the stitches on the left needle as little as possible as you work them (the row below the one you are knitting). If you pull on them, you will slowly move yarn through the row that might have been perfect before you knit the row above it.
What can go wrong with stockinette tension
If you turn over your stockinette and see big gaps, you have “gutters.” This happens when some of your knitting is looser and some is tighter. If it is irregular, that means you need to pay more attention to how you form your stitches and try to keep them uniform.
If it is pretty regular, you are probably purling looser/knitting tighter or purling tighter/knitting looser. You can check this by knitting a striped swatch where you change colors every knit row. Turn the work over after a while, and you should be able to see which row is tighter and loosen it up, or tighten the looser row.
Enlarged edge stitches
Enlarged edge stitches (or, for me, 2nd-from-the-edge stitches) can be corrected by knitting those stitches more tightly. Also, be sure not to pull the working yarn when turning your work, or you might be inadvertently shrinking some of your edge stitches, making the others appear too large.
How I figured out my tension
I knit a lot of small stockinette swatches, trying to figure out how to make everything look uniform, and realized that I needed to knit my purl rows more loosely and my first two stitches of my knit rows on the tips of my needles, and not pull on my working yarn when I turned it to work a new row. (Note that since I use the combined knitting style, my techniques will be very different than people who use other knitting styles.)
I also realized I need more relaxed hands when knitting swatches for the program, which means I needed to relax.
Don’t ask me how many swatches I knit up and ripped out, or how many hours I spent practicing. I’m not done yet, either. I feel like I’ve still got a ways to go before I feel my tension is where I want it to be.
But I will say that learning to knit with great tension is well worth it, since the quality of your hand knitting improves immensely.
How to knit great stockinette immediately
If you are not happy with your Stockinette tension but want to knit a project anyway, here’s a trick: knit in the round!
When you knit in the round, you don’t have purl rows to deal with, so your tension will be more even right away. You can make nice mitts, cowls, hats, and even sweaters without worrying about gutters and edge stitches.
This isn’t a permanent solution, but it is a great temporary solution to help you get some Christmas knitting done, or to just plain give yourself a break from practicing your flat knitting.
Don’t give up practicing knitting Stockinette flat, though!