Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Tutorial: Picking Up

In the dark ages of my knitting past, the task I least enjoyed was picking up stitches for borders and collars. Vests (or waistcoats, depending on your linguistic heritage) were the worst--not only neck and possibly front borders, but two armhole borders on top of that. Pick up hell! The patterns I used to follow always told me the exact number of stitches to pick up, and instruction books (this was the pre-internet era) explained how to divide up the border into inch-long segments with pins and then pick up a certain number of stitches in each segment. What, I wondered, was I supposed to do if I wanted to alter the length of the garment or the depth of the armholes?
Then along came Elizabeth Zimmermann and I was liberated from all this nonsense. Starting with her words of wisdom and with many years of experimentation, I've devised my own no-fuss set of pick up rules. Here they are, and I hope they will help you too to relax over this important aspect of finishing a garment. (Caveat: garter stitch is a separate category with its own rules. That's for another day.)

1. With a garment in stocking stitch or in a textured pattern (other than garter stitch), make sure you have one clean column of stocking stitch along the pick up edge. If necessary, add a stitch at the edge of an aran or other textured design to create a selvedge for picking up down the road. Knit this column on the right side, purl on the wrong side.
2. When it comes time to pick up, focus on the inside half of this outer selvedge stitch, this one here:

I hope you realize that although I've been using the term "picking up", what I'm really writing about is "knitting up". Starting at the bottom of the edge in question, poke the needle through the left half of the outer stitch, catch a strand of yarn and pull it through--one stitch "picked up" or "knitted up". You're not picking up the half stitches first on a separate needle and then knitting them later, and you're not sticking your needle all the way to the back of the work and picking up from there. There are some circumstances that might call for the latter, but in the ordinary course of knitting that would create too much bulk in the join between the body of the knitting and the border.
Example: In the double wave cable jacket I'm currently working on, there were two stocking stitch columns at the edge of the armhole, just as in the drawing above. I worked into the inner half of the outer column, leaving one column whole, right next to the sleeve. See?

3. What about pick up ratios? On front borders I usually pick up 3 stitches for every 4 rows. On diagonal edges, like a V-neck I pick up every stitch. For armholes, I usually pick up 2 stitches for every 3 rows, even though the edges are straight like a front edge. I guess I like the armhole to draw in a little. Of course, if you have live stitches, as you might across the back of a neck, then just knit those live stitches. At corners, where there tends to be a gap, pick up the horizontal strand between stitches and work an M1 into it. Make such M1s lean toward the centre back (in the case of a back neck border) or toward the underarm ( in the case of a sleeve). Very tidy.
Sometimes you have to change the rules. For instance, on my Perth Cardi I picked up 3 stitches for 4 rows all along the long diagonal front edges to prevent them from drooping. The key is to remain flexible. If a particular ratio doesn't look right, try something else.
4.Oh, and generally, I go down one needle size for borders. 
Questions? Thoughts? 


  1. This is super helpful! I have knit plenty of accessories but have been stalled out on my first vest because I could not for the life of me get the 'correct' number of stitches picked up along the front edge. I've also had trouble with the number picked up being even on either side. In your experience, is being off by a few stitches usually noticeable when finished?

  2. Alicia,
    There are a couple of ways of solving the symmetry problem. As you knit up, keep a tally of the number of stitches on the first side (I make a diagram and write down the numbers for different sections with a pencil), then as you near the end of the second side, fudge a little if necessary by picking up a few more or less. The second way, advocated by Lucy Neatby, is not to do anything on the pick up row, but then to work a few decreases in the next row on whichever side has too many stitches. Either way, it's a lot easier than picking up a pre-designated number that may not correspond to your actual knitting.

  3. Using the left leg of the edge stitch is a great idea. I usually pick up & knit through the ladders between the first and second column of stitches but this might be an easier way for students to see the rows they are working with. You write great explanations!

  4. I can't seem to get past the idea that I hate picking up stitches. I think I make a much bigger deal out of it than it is because I hate fuzzing up the yarn when I have to rip out! I don't like the way the v of the v neck vest looked that I just made for my baby grandson. There was probably a trick but the pattern didn't offer any suggestions. It gapped a bit at the v. Maybe I should have done a decrease right at the point before I started the 2x2 ribbing. Not too bad so I left it as is. Thanks for the tutorial.