Unravelling Your Knitting Without Tears

I hate to break it to you, but sometimes knitting needs to be unravelled to fix mistakes or maybe rework the yarn into a different project. Having to unravel work happens to all knitters, regardless of experience. Beginner knitters are often fearful of unravelling their work, for reasons they can only explain. The methods given below for unravelling knitting will help you remedy a problem in the easiest and most suitable way.

An advantage of knitting lies in its forgiveness. Most yarn types can easily be unraveled without ruining the yarn’s structure. However, certain novelty yarns are difficult to unravel. Bouclé yarns have an irregular surface with loops running along the strand. These loops often entangle and break when unravelling. Chenille yarns are almost impossible to unravel without the pile breaking off the strand. Mohair yarns with long hairs, are also difficult to pull apart; the hairs entangle and break. Scissors may be necessary to free the hair fibers as you unravel. However, don’t be afraid of working with these types of yarns; carefully work the stitches and try to prevent mistakes.

Recognizing Twisted or Backwards Stitches

For beginner knitters, it’s important to recognize twisted or backward stitches. The loop of a knit stitch hangs from the needle in a certain position. The correct way for stitches to sit on the needle is with the “leg” positioned on the right side of each loop in front of the needle, and the leg on the left in the back. If a stitch is hanging incorrectly from the needle, it is backwards or twisted. A backwards purl stitch looks different than a regular purl stitch; the back loop is nearest to the tip of the needle than the front loop. If you have to unravel your work, the stitches need to be placed back on the needle in the correct position.

Fixing a twisted stitch is simple. A backwards knit stitch is easily turned around with the tip of the right needle and placed back on left needle in the correct position, or simply work the twisted stitch through the back loop. A backwards purl stitch can also be turned around with right needle to the correct position, or purl through the back loop.

from The Knitter’s Companion by Vicki Square

Note: Not to be confused with backward stitch mistakes, Twisted Pattern Stitches deliberately twist stitches to create textured knit fabric.

Unravelling Stitch by Stitch (also called “unpicking or unknitting”)

Unravelling stitch by stitch is only practical for one or two rows. To unpick knit stitches, keep yarn in back of needles. Insert the tip of left needle into stitch from front to back one row below the last stitch on right needle. Slide stitch to left needle, pulling out yarn. For purl stitches, keep the working yarn in front. Insert left needle from front to back into the stitch one row below the last stitch on right needle. Slide the stitch to left needle, pulling out yarn.

from The Knitter’s Companion by Vicki Square

Unravelling Several Rows

When you’ve spotted an error further down a piece, it’s quicker and more efficient to pull out many rows, rather than unpicking stitch by stitch. There are a few approaches to unravel several rows of knitting.

Take knitting off the needles. Slowly and carefully pull the yarn out of the stitches row by row, until you reach the mistake. It doesn’t matter whether this spot is a right side or a wrong side row. The live stitches need to be placed back on the needle in the correct position. The working yarn should be on the left side of your work. Using a smaller knitting needle, insert it from back to front through each knit stitch across the row. To place purl stitches back on needle after unravelling, the working yarn should be on the left side of work. Using a smaller needle insert it back to front through each stitch across the row. (It’s easier to place stitches on a needle that is smaller than the one used to knit them, but make sure to change to the correct needle before you resume knitting). 

from Vogue Knitting The Ultimate Knitting Book

If you are concerned about dropping stitches, mark the row in which the error occurs with a piece of yarn or stitch marker. Take the knitting off the needle and pull out the yarn carefully to unravel stitches to within one row of marker. Now the stitches need to be placed back on the needle. Make sure the working yarn is on the left side. For knit stitches, hold the yarn behind the work, insert smaller left needle from front to back through stitch of marked row, then pull out the stitch. For purl stitches, hold the yarn in front of the work, then insert left needle from front to back, and pull out the stitch.

from Reader’s Digest Complete Guide To Needlework

Unravelling to a “lifeline” is another method of taking apart the knitting if you’re worried about dropping stitches. One method of making a lifeline is to thread a tapestry needle with contrasting waste yarn, and pull it through the right leg of each knit stitch of the row where you want to unravel to. Be careful not to split the yarn. Rip out the rows to the lifeline. Slip each stitch from left to right onto a knitting needle, removing the lifeline of waste yarn as you work. Make sure to put the stitches back on the needle in the right direction, so the working yarn is at the end of the needle ready to begin the next row.

from Vogue Knitting The Ultimate Knitting Book – removing yarn lifeline

Another way of making a lifeline is to weave a smaller straight knitting needle into the row of stitches you wish to unravel to. Insert the needle through right leg of each knit stitch, making sure to pick up stitches from the same row. You can also use this method with purl stitches; insert the needle under the first loop and over the second loop of each purl stitch along the same row. Rip back the working yarn to the row where needle is, and if this is done correctly you are ready to knit a full needle of stitches without having to reposition them. Transfer stitches to the correct needle size by slipping them off the smaller needle purlwise. Make sure the needle is pointed in correct direction before you resume knitting. A circular needle can also be used as a lifeline in the same way as for a straight needle.

Unravelling several rows of stitches of stockinette fabric is straight forward, and easy to keep track of rows. However, for complex stitch patterns with stitch and row repeats, you must keep track of the number of rows unravelled, to resume knitting on the correct pattern row. I don’t worry too much about the correct position of the stitches when returning them to the needle. I’m more concerned that I don’t drop any. The stitch position is easily corrected as described above when knitting is resumed. And finally, sometimes it’s easier to unravel the whole piece and start over again.

Want to rework unravelled yarn?

There may be times when you want to take apart a garment because you don’t like wearing it, or realize you can’t salvage a project. So why not unravel the piece and rework the yarn. For garments, the seams need to be removed first, and cutting into them is unavoidable. It helps to understand how the garment is constructed to avoid too much yarn waste. Unravel the yarn from each piece, and the yarn will have lots of kinks. Wind the yarn into hanks around the back of a chair, outstretched arms (with someone’s help) or feet. Secure each hank loosely in 3 or 4 places with yarn ties. Immerse the hanks in soapy water, swish them around, rinse, and hang to dry. After the hanks are dry, wind them into balls, and they are ready to use again.

I understand how frustrating and tedious it can be to unravel your work. However, taking apart your knitting is much more forgiving than with sewing. The majority of knitting yarns are easily unravelled without damaging the yarn’s structure. Why not unravel, rather than trying to live with an annoying mistake or project you don’t like.