Getting Even – Knitting Tension

Many knitters have asked me how I get my stitches to look so even and the same size, like those made on a knitting machine. I tell them that knitting even stitches becomes second nature after much practice, and being mindful of how you form the stitches. The main goal of a beginner knitter is to develop a steady rhythm, and a consistent, moderate tension. How does a beginner get there?

Knitting Tension

Many resources use the term tension and gauge interchangeably; these two terms are interdependent, but they have different meanings. I use “tension” to describe how loose or tight the knitting, or the amount of pull that is applied to each stitch. A knit fabric looks best at an even tension. You want to make a smooth, even fabric by keeping the yarn at the same tension as you form each stitch, without creating wonky or random sized stitches – short, tall, tight or loose. Every knitter has their own style of knitting; but you don’t want uneven work.

It isn’t unusual for beginner knitters to feel awkward manipulating the needles and yarn. It’s more common for beginners to knit on the tight side. You’ll find it difficult to insert the needle into the stitches, and your hands will ultimately hurt. Stitches should glide along the needle without much effort. Loose stitches are often caused by looping the yarn around the needle too loosely, forming gaps, and the likelihood of dropping stitches.

There are several factors that influence tension. The first is how you wrap the yarn around your fingers, regardless of whether you knit English or Continental style. You can use one finger, which is usually the index finger to control the yarn, or lace the yarn around several fingers. I use my index finger to control the yarn; the yarn lies over top my index finger on the right hand, and under the rest of my fingers. I find that if I wrap more fingers with yarn, as in the images above my knitting is tighter, and the yarn flows unevenly with a lot of tension. Any method you find comfortable is correct, as long as the yarn flows evenly around your fingers, and that your tension is consistent. It is more important that you find your comfort level to produce an even tension.

When learning to knit, it is natural to feel nervous, but you should try and relax into the process. Otherwise it is likely that your tension will be tight. Tight knitting only leads to further frustration and achy hands.

Paying attention to how you work each stitch, by controlling the hands, yarn and needles will result in a consistent rhythm. Your goal is to hold the yarn in the same way as you work the stitches, and with practice you won’t have to think about it.

Another important factor is to work at the tips of your needles. After working each stitch, it is moved to the barrel or fat part of the needle, which determines the size of the stitches. Working further down the needles, pulls the knit fabric apart between the needles at the tips. This causes the stitches to stretch, resulting in uneven work. You also don’t want to crowd the stitches at the tips. Move the worked stitches further down the needle to make room for the new stitches as you work across a row. This should be done after 4 or 5 stitches. 

Complete a row of knitting before laying it down. This prevents dropped stitches, and also prevents stretching the fabric, particularly if you don’t resume knitting for awhile.

Most of the above factors influencing tension, are simply part of the process of learning to knit, and with a lot of practice, you won’t have to think about how you are working the stitches. 

Even Edges

The major goal of beginners is to develop an even knitting tension, but beginners may also find that the side edge stitches can look uneven and loose. Even side edges are visually appealing, easier to sew, and are desirable for exposed edges like those of a scarf. The following tips will help you to even edges, and improve the finishing of your knit pieces.

Increasing and Decreasing Within Edges

Increasing adds stitches to a row of knitting, and decreasing reduces the number of stitches to narrow a piece. Most often these techniques are worked on the right side of a knit fabric. To avoid uneven or a step-ladder effect to the side edges, work the increases or decreases a few stitches in from the edge. For example, when shaping to the waistline, I like to decrease or increase 2 or 3 stitches in from the edge on the right side, forming visible “fashion marks”. You can decide on the placement and the slant of the increases or decreases, but maintain consistency throughout the garment shaping. Pattern instructions often specify the type of increase or decrease used, and its placement.

Sloped Bind-Off

When shaping shoulders or other areas of a garment where consecutive bind-offs are made, use the sloped bind-off technique to create a smooth transition from one bind-off to the next. See this post on making a sloped bind-off.

Slipping Stitches

For loose and uneven side edges, beginners are often taught to slip the first stitch of every row. I don’t recommend slipping edge stitches for every project, but practice this simple tip to form an even side edge. When working the first stitch of every row, make sure that the yarn is pulled tighter than for the rest of your knitting. This will help to prevent gaps along the side edges.

Edge stitches are referred to as the selvages of the knit fabric, and usually consist of the 1 or 2 stitches at each edge. Selvage stitches are added to the total stitch count and are used to stabilize the fabric, prepare it for seaming, or as a finish for exposed edges.

Blocking

Blocking your pieces won’t change the tension of your work, but it does help to smooth the fabric edges, and even the stitches and fibers. This is an essential step in finishing projects, and is best done before seaming.

Picking up Stitches

When adding borders, like a neckband, stitches are usually picked up along the edge of the garment. It is important that these stitches be picked up evenly, to form a smooth join between the edge of the garment and the border. 

Developing a steady, moderate tension is the main goal of beginner knitters. The most difficult part of knitting is learning to manipulate the yarn and needles. Being mindful of the factors that influence your tension, will help you reach this goal. With practice and patience, knitting an even piece of work becomes second nature.