I am a biased knitter; so much so that I believe knitting offers an almost infinite variety of pattern stitches over crochet. And some have yet to be discovered. One of the advantages of a knit fabric is you can design it’s weight, drape and movement through yarn choice, but just as critical through the pattern stitch. The amazing thing is all pattern stitches are made up of the same two “building blocks” – the knit and purl stitch.
In the following, I talk about the main categories of pattern stitches and some of their characteristics. The distinguishing feature between knit fabrics and woven fabrics is elasticity. A knit fabric has vertical and horizontal stretch, and the amount of elasticity of a pattern stitch affects how a finished garment drapes or hangs.
Categories of Pattern Stitches
Garter stitch is the simplest of all stitch patterns. It is usually the first pattern you learn. I’ve given it a category on its own, as it doesn’t fall into the knit and purl combinations. Every row is knit, but visibly it forms horizontal ridges of “purl” stitches. Each ridge is formed by two rows of knitting, and both sides look the same.
Garter stitch is a dense fabric, and requires more rows and yarn to make a length of garter stitch than the same length of stockinette stitch. It lies perfectly flat without curling at the edges. A garter stitch fabric tends to contract lengthwise, and expand widthwise, becoming shorter and wider.
Depending on the yarn choice, garter stitch can be heavy and tends to stretch and widen with wear. A springy, wool yarn holds its’ shape well in garter stitch. A less resilient fiber such as cotton or bamboo will stretch out of shape. Using large needles, fine weight wool or mohair in garter stitch produces a beautiful openwork pattern, perfect for shawls.
Knit And Purl Combinations
Stockinette Stitch (Stocking Stitch)
This pattern is the most common of all, and is the foundation for nearly all pattern stitches. Stockinette stitch is formed by knitting one row on the right side, and purling the next row on the wrong side; continuing to alternate knit and purl rows. The right side or knit side structure looks like vertical lines of interlocking “V’s”, the knit stitch. The wrong side forms horizontal ridges of “bumpy” purl stitches.
Stockinette stitch does not lie flat, but curls at the edges. Blocking evens it out somewhat, but depending on the design, a firm, edge stitch pattern such as rib will hold it in place. This pattern has widthwise and lengthwise stretch. It drapes well, knit with a smooth, lofty yarn. A bumpy, novelty yarn is tamed by this pattern stitch.
Knit/Purl Textured Patterns
The simplest of a knit and purl combination is seed stitch. Seed stitch alternates every row with one knit stitch and one purl stitch, creating a pebbly effect. Unlike ribbing, the knit stitches are purled and the purl stitches are knit. This pattern lies flat, and the stitch gauge is wider than it is tall; fewer stitches and more rows for every inch of knitting. Moss stitch is similar to seed stitch, but alternates one knit stitch and one purl stitch horizontally, and offsets the stitches every second row.
This is my favorite group of pattern stitches, so simple, just alternating knit and purl stitches to create texture. I love them knit in solid colors of smooth wool. This category includes an endless variety, including basket weave, check, block, traveling lines, and fancy textures like brocade.
A ribbed fabric is formed by alternating knit and purl stitches horizontally, creating columns of knit and purl stitches. The knit stitches appear raised on the surface, and the purl stitches recede, forming an accordion-like fabric. It has a lot of horizontal elasticity, so the fabric pulls in. The width of the ribbed columns determines the amount of stretch; the wider the ribs, the less the fabric draws in.
Ribbing is very effective as an allover fabric, providing a close fit or used to define a waist without having to increase or decrease stitches. Like garter stitch, it can be heavy, so be wary of using heavy yarn.
Twisted stitch patterns are made by knitting or purling into the back loop of the stitch – the leg of the stitch that lies in the back of the needle, rather than in the front when knitting normally. Twisted rib is common; the knit stitch is only twisted on the right side of the fabric.
Twisting stitches decreases the amount of widthwise elasticity, and twisting on both sides, creates a dense, somewhat stiff fabric. They add textural dimension, and look beautiful as ribbed edgings on sweaters, and help to prevent sagging of non-resilient fibers.
Twist Stitch Patterns
Twist stitch patterns are not to be confused with “twisted stitches”. These patterns cross one stitch over another in a cable fashion; the stitches exchange places horizontally, but unlike cables do not require the use of a cable needle. They typically create embossed relief patterns.
The twist stitch fabric pulls in and requires more yarn than for the same width of stockinette stitch fabric. The stretch is compromised in both directions.
Slip Stitch Patterns
This technique is simple and quick, but looks visually complex. Many slip stitch patterns lend themselves nicely to contrasting colors, as in Mosaic Knitting. These patterns are worked by slipping stitches from the left needle to the right needle without knitting or purling them.
Slip stitch fabrics are dense and firm, because the slip stitches pull the other stitches together. You have to pay attention to your tension or style of knitting; you don’t want to knit tight. These pattern stitches look fabulous as outerwear, and I have knit some lovely coats. The bonus is how quickly they knit up!
Yarn-Over’s – Eyelet – Lace
Yarn-overs combined with decreases create holes, which cause the knit fabric to slant at different angles. There is a subtle distinction between eyelet and lace patterns, but generally eyelet patterns are less open than lace.
Lace patterns are assumed to be the most complex requiring a lot of skill, but this is hardly the case. Some lace patterns are incredibly simple, and most are less tedious to knit than cables. Visually, they are stunning and they are my second favorite category of pattern stitches.
Lace hanging from the needles appears narrow, and needs to be blocked to their full width to reveal their beauty. Lace is typically worked with fine yarn on small needles, but is lovely with heavier yarn on larger needles. The image below is a weighty wrap I made with a worsted weight wool in a lace pattern.
Some of the most beautiful pattern stitches include cables, found in traditional “Aran” and “Fisherman” Knits. There are many types of cable patterns, creating an embossed appearance on the knitting.
Although cable patterns differ in appearance, a basic technique is used to make all cables, a cable needle to hold stitches. All cables are formed by exchanging the positions of two or more stitches, crossing a stitch or group of stitches over another stitch or group of stitches.
Cables can be worked as panels or as overall patterns. They are amazing in combination with ribs, lace, or twist stitches. Like twisted and twist stitch patterns, cables have reduced widthwise elasticity. A cable fabric is narrower than a garter stitch or stockinette stitch fabric worked in the same number of stitches.
Color knitting is not a true category of pattern stitches, as colored yarns can be incorporated into any of the other groups of pattern stitches for the desired effect. Mosaic patterns, which are slip stitch patterns are typically knit in two contrasting colors to create stunning designs that appear complicated, but are simple to knit.
I’m including Fair Isle (Stranded Knitting) and Intarsia as two categories of pattern stitches, but they are really methods of working with color to create a variety of pattern designs.
Fair Isle (Stranded Knitting)
Stranded knitting patterns are typically worked in stockinette stitch. Two or more colors are worked in the same row to form a thick fabric with floats on the back. Traditional Fair Isle, developed in the Shetland Isles, uses only two colors in a row. To create the color motifs, the unused color is carried or “stranded” across the back of the fabric. To prevent long floats, the unused color is caught by the working yarn at regular intervals.
Stranding takes practice; if the stranded yarn is pulled too tight, the fabric puckers. A swatch of Fair Isle fabric with the same number of stitches as a swatch of stockinette stitch fabric is usually narrower, so the gauge is often different. Stranding produces a thick fabric, and if the yarn is chunky or bulky, the project will be too heavy. These patterns look best with light or medium weight wool yarns or other resilient fibers to keep the project light, and to reveal pattern detail.
Intarsia is a method used to form areas of color; pictorial or graphic designs. Blocks of color are worked with small, separate balls of yarn or lengths of yarn, and aren’t carried across the back of the work. Instead the yarns are twisted around each other at the color changes to prevent holes in the knitting. Like Fair Isle, wool or other resilient fibers are best to minimize tension variations.
The above are the main categories of pattern stitches, and within each category is an endless variety of patterns. Any of the above can incorporate colored yarns or be combined together.
As a beginner, if you haven’t purchased a book or two devoted to pattern stitches, I highly recommend them for your knitting library. My favorite two books are by Barbara G. Walker – “A Treasury of Knitting Patterns” from 1968 and “A Second Treasury of Knitting Patterns” from 1970. I typically pull them out to begin my design process. I hope this has given you incentive to experiment with the variety of stitch patterns, and who knows, maybe you will discover an amazing new one.