Stitch Mount: Cowgirls and Infidels and Why It Matters
We often get folks in the shop saying, “I don’t know what went wrong, but it just looks funny. Can you fix it?” Of course the answer is, “Yes, we can fix it.” But it’s not nearly as panic worthy as it seems. It’s almost always a stitch mount problem.
Stitch mount is the phrase we use to describe how stitches sit on our needles. If you look at finished knitted fabric, you can see that each stitch is a little loop laying flat with a stitch on either side of it, a stitch below it that it came out of, and a stitch above it that comes out of it. Edge stitches are a slightly different matter and we’ll discuss them another time. The interesting part, and the focus of our discussion today, is that, while stitches lay flat in the finished fabric, they are turned 90° to sit on your needle.
Stitches Are Cowgirls:
Let’s use an analogy. Imagine that all your stitches are little cowgirls. When they are standing facing you in your finished fabric, you can see that they each have two legs, and a head that is either bent away from you (a knit stitch) or toward you (a purl stitch). If your needle is a horse, all the cowgirls sit on the horse with the right-hand leg (your right, not theirs) on the side of the horse facing you.
The reason it works is that we have a consistent way of wrapping our yarn around our needle, or, in the case of continental knitters, picking our stitches with our needle above or below the the working yarn. Here in the west, we wrap our yarn in a counter clockwise motion around our needle, or place our needle above our working yarn and pick our stitch down and through to the loop. For a knit stitch, the yarn comes from behind both needles, makes its way around the working needle, and falls back behind again. For a purl stitch, the yarn comes from in front of both needles, wraps around the working needle and falls to the front again. Easy, peasey, cashmere squeezy. As long as we remember to move our working yarn from front to back if we switch from knitting or purling. (If we don’t remember, we wind up with yarn over holes where we didn’t want them, but that’s a topic for a different day.)
When your yarn follows a counter clockwise path around the working needle everything works out great. We don’t usually think about it. It just happens and we all ride along smoothly. Until it doesn’t. Things start to go pear shaped when we place a stitch on our needle in an out of the ordinary way. When we pick up dropped stitches, when we rip back rows and pick up live stitches or when we’re picking up stitches along the edges of things, we are putting stitches on our needles in out of the ordinary ways, and we can get our cowgirls mounted on the horse higgledy-piggledy with some having the right leg forward and some having the left leg forward.
Stitch Mount Correction Magic Trick:
Not to worry. You can always take an individual cowgirl off the horse, turn her so the correct leg is toward you, then gallop along. Or, you can take the cheater way and just knit or purl into the right leg side of the stitch, NO MATTER WHERE IT FALLS. If the cowgirl is sitting backwards on the horse, grabbing her by her right leg means working into what is now the back leg instead of the front.
Usually, if all your cowgirls are mounted on the horse in the usual manner (right leg forward), and you knit into the leg on the back side, you’ll twist the stitch. Conversely, if a cowgirl is mounted on the horse backwards and you work into the leg in the front, you wind up with a twisted stitch. When stitches are lying flat, their little feet are placed next to each other with a tiny space between them. When stitches are twisted, they will be crossed over each other…as if they really need the little cowgirls room. And twisted stitches are not bad. Like most things knitted, there are times, places and good reasons you might want to twist your stitches on purpose. Twisted stitches give depth and texture to your finished fabric. They are featured in some Aran patterns. They also thicken the finished fabric slightly. It’s actually quite pretty and can be warmer. You might want to try experimenting with adding patches of twisted stitches to liven up an otherwise smooth and bland stockinette piece. Twisting your stitches will also tighten up your gauge so be aware.
Remember above when I said, “Here is the west…?” Well, in the Middle East, where knitting was possibly invented a thousand years ago, they do it all backwards. They wrap their yarn in a clock wise fashion, work into the back leg of all their stitches, and all their cowgirls are mounted on their horses with their left legs toward you. Crusades have been started for less reason! But before we call them Infidels and start accusing anyone of doing it “wrong,” let me state here and now that there is no visible difference in the finished fabric. None. You can not tell by any method that one finished piece was knit in the clockwise manner and another in the counter clockwise manner. As long as, whichever manner you choose, you work into the right leg of every cowgirl for a smooth fabric and the left leg for a texture one, you are doing it right.
And that brings me to Combination Knitting. Yes, there are some knitters who swing both ways. and they have their reasons. Did you know that purl stitches, by their very nature, are looser than knit stitches? Yup. It has to do with the distance the yarn travels in the process of making a stitch. When you knit, the path from the base of the last worked stitch, around the working needle and through the loop is rather short and direct. When you purl, the yarn travels up and over the working needle before being pulled through the loop. This adds a tiny bit of slack between the stitches. This slack gets pulled into the stitches themselves as they snuggle together in your fabric, and the purl stitches will grow slightly but noticeably taller than the knit stitches.
Of course, all this is reversed in the Middle Eastern, Infidel, clockwise way of doing things. Their purl stitches are the snug ones and their knit stitches are the ones that grow taller.
In either case, the phenomenon is called Rowing Out, and it is a mark of an inexperienced knitter. Over the course of time, most knitters will make tiny adjustments in the tension of their hand to compensate for the slack, and their stitches, both knits and purls will become uniform and indistinguishable.
A Trick For Correcting Tension Issues:
Sometimes, though, the tension issues persist. Rowing out messes with your gauge and makes your fabric oddly uneven. The simplest solution is to practice Combination Knitting where you wrap your yarn counter clockwise on your knit stitches and clockwise on your purl stitches. This ensures that your yarn is always traveling the shortest distance between your stitches, and the circumference and height of all your stitches is constant.
It also means that some of your cowgirls will be mounted on the horse with their right legs forward and some with their left legs forward. Remember how to compensate for that? Yup. Just remember to always work into the right leg, NO MATTER WHERE IT FALLS for a smooth fabric. Or work into the left leg if you want to add texture.
The next time you run across a stitch that “look funny,” look closely and see if it’s just a cowgirl sitting backwards on the horse. And try working into the front and back legs to see what happens. Remember that it’s just string and you can always make a different choice.
Want to learn more? We have classes for beginner knitters and crocheters, as well as more advanced fiber artists. We also have social Stitch And Spin circles several times a week, and events throughout the year. For a complete listing of classes and events, see our page http://overtherainbowyarn.com/events/. Over The Rainbow Yarn is where your fiber dreams come true.