How Stitch Patterns Affect Knit Fabrics

Ribbing and Cable Stitch Patterns

It’s important to note that fibers, yarns and stitch patterns work together to create a knit fabric, and are the key elements to the design process. Taking a look at each of these elements separately, helps to understand what each one contributes to the knit fabric, and ultimately to the finished design. This post looks only at how stitch patterns affect knit fabric.

Pattern Stitch Effects

One of the advantages of knitting is that you are forming a fabric, with its structure made by the stitch patterns. Knit fabrics have elasticity in both the vertical and horizontal directions. The amount of elasticity imparted by a particular stitch pattern affects how a garment drapes and hangs.

Garter Stitch

  • lies flat without curling at the edges.
  • like an accordion garter stitch fabric contracts lengthwise and expands widthwise to become shorter and wider.
  • depending on the yarn type used, garter stitch produces a dense fabric and can be heavy.
  • best knit with resilient fibers like springy wool to hold the fabric’s shape; less resilient fibers will stretch.
  • tendency to stretch and widen with wear.
  • takes more rows to knit the same length of stockinette stitch.

Stockinette or Stocking Stitch

  • curls at the edges, because the purl side is shorter and wider than the knit side.
  • has widthwise and lengthwise stretch.
  • fabric drapes well.
  • using a firm edge stitch like rib, holds the stockinette stitch fabric in place.
  • the wrong side of purl stitches when used as the right side, is known as reverse stockinette stitch.
  • most common of all the basic pattern stitches, and is the foundation for nearly all stitch patterns.


  • all rib patterns are formed by alternating knit and purl stitches horizontally, but are aligned vertically.
  • lies flat and commonly used as a border.
  • when the rib contains the same number of knit and purl stitches, the fabric is reversible.
  • when knit stitches dominate, they determine the amount of elasticity.
  • single rib produces widthwise elasticity, pulling the fabric in becoming narrow.
  • when using single rib as an allover pattern in a garment, consider the amount of ease to prevent unwanted cling. This can be an advantage by using ribbing to shape a waistline without decreasing or increasing.

Broken Ribs

  • pairs of rib stitches alternate positions across the fabric.
  • broken rib fabrics are more flat, and wider than regular ribbed patterns.
  • they lack elasticity.

Knit/Purl Textured Patterns (eg. seed stitch)

  • lies flat.
  • like garter stitch, it takes more rows to make these patterns than the same length of stockinette stitch.
  • tend to pull-up vertically becoming more dense.
  • these patterns look lovely in solid colours of smooth wool.

Twisted Stitches

  • made by knitting or purling into the back loop of a stitch.
  • twisted rib is common and helps prevent sagging of non-resilient fibers.
  • widthwise elasticity is compromised.
  • twisted stitches cause knit fabrics to be narrower than stockinette stitch with the same number of stitches.
  • twisting stitches on both the right and wrong sides makes the fabric dense, and restricts its stretch in both directions.
  • adds texture, and requires more yarn than stockinette to achieve the same width.

Twist Stitch Patterns

  • these look somewhat like cables, made by crossing one stitch over another.
  • forms embossed relief patterns.
  • these fabrics pull in, and stretch is compromised in both directions.

Slip Stitch Patterns

  • slip stitch fabrics are dense and firm, because slip stitches pull the other stitches together.
  • pay attention to your tension or knitting style, because these patterns shouldn’t be knit tight.
  • a bonus is that these patterns knit up quickly.

Lace and Eyelets

  • lace is more open than eyelet patterns.
  • lace knitting hanging from the needles appears narrow, and must be blocked fully to reveal openwork and stitches.
  • can be successfully made with both fine and heavy yarns.
  • a large test swatch properly blocked is important to measure gauge.


  • create embossed appearance on the knitting and is common in traditional Aran and Fisherman knits.
  • reduced widthwise elasticity, and fabric is narrower than garter or stockinette worked in the same number of stitches.
  • works well as panels or allover patterns.

Elongated and Drop Stitch Patterns

  • create openwork patterns with unusual textures that add dimension and decorative effects.
  • need to be well-blocked to lengthen loops.
  • because of their stretchiness they work better as panels or insertions, rather than as an allover pattern in a garment.

Colour Knitting

Fair Isle (Stranded Knitting)

  • typically worked in stockinette stitch.
  • stranding yarn produces a thick fabric, and is most suitable with light or medium weight wool yarns, or other resilient yarns. Chunky or bulky yarns in Fair Isle will be too heavy.
  • stranding technique requires practice, as pulling the yarn tight puckers the fabric. An even tension is required for a smooth, uniform fabric.


  • this technique of working with colour is different from stranding. The yarn isn’t carried across the back of the work, resulting in a single thickness of fabric. The yarns are twisted around each other at the colour changes.
  • resilient fibers work best to minimize tension variations.

Short Note on Mixing Pattern Stitches

When designing garments with different pattern stitches, making a large test swatch that incorporates all the planned patterns for your project is essential. This allows you to see how they work together. There are no set rules, but here are a few considerations:

  • stitch patterns like garter and seed stitches worked as borders alongside stockinette will have differences in lengthwise contraction between the two, because they require more rows to work the same length of stockinette stitch.
  • many patterns grow out of a ribbing format including cables and twist stitch patterns.
  • knit and purl combinations work well with cables and lace.
  • both lace and cable patterns combine well with a variety of stitch patterns.
  • as a general rule the more complex the pattern, and techniques utilized the more yarn is required.

The elements, fibers, yarns and stitch patterns are interdependent and work in together to form a knit fabric. Understanding how each of these elements affect your knit fabric will help you design the garment you envision. An inherent quality of all knit fabrics is elasticity. Stitch patterns affect the degree of elasticity, and also affect the dimensions of a knit fabric. There are no set rules for mixing pattern stitches in garments, and the only way to discover how various combinations work together is to make a large test swatch incorporating all the ones you plan to use. Maybe you’ll discover some unique combinations.