AMKM: Tension Problems, Part 1.

For my second ‘Almost Master Knitter Musings’ post, I’ll talk a bit about tension problems.  Not in your shoulders and back, but in your knitting. 🙂

For many knitters, the tension on knit rows is tighter than the tension on purl rows.  Garter stitch, as well as knitting in the round, won’t show tension problems since every row is knit.  But not everything can be knit in the round or in garter stitch!  What’s a knitter to do?

One technique is to use a smaller needle for the purl rows, to adjust the tension in those rows.  But, you have to remember which needle is which as you’re knitting.  If you have two different colors of needle tips (for interchangeable needles) you could use one color of each as a reminder.  I personally don’t like doing this, because it really only works for stockinette!

In order to tackle the problem at its source, instead of changing needle sizes to fix it, you need to analyze your knitting as you are knitting it.  Purls are typically looser because more yarn is used to perform the stitch.  If this is the case for you, then you can try to consciously tighten your tension when knitting purls, or tug on your yarn after each purl to get rid of that extra yarn.  Once you get into the habit of doing this, then it can become second nature and you don’t have to think about it anymore.  And voila!  You have even tension!

Another method for dealing with looser purls is to change how you make your purl stitch.  A ‘combined purl’ uses less yarn to make the stitch, which can make the tension more like the knit stitch.  It seats the stitch backwards, however, so on your following row you need to knit into the back of those stitches to avoid twisting them.  This is a very good technique when working with seed stitch or 1×1 ribbing.

The pesky purl stitch is most often the cause of tension problems when working cables and ribs.  If you work at tightening your purl stitches, then your tension will even out when working more complicated stitch patterns, too!

For Part 2 we’ll talk about some other common tension problems.

Holladay, Arenda. ‘On Your Way to the Masters: Tension Problems’. Cast On, Fall 2002.
Stanley, Montse.  Knitter’s Handbook. New York: Reader’s Digest, 2001.

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4 Responses to AMKM: Tension Problems, Part 1.

  1. Rachel Eldridge says:

    What I enjoy about these posts is learning the why. If I stop to think about it, I probably knew that purl stitches take more yarn. But as knitters we don’t often stop to think as we are so busy doing.

    Tension issues also lead into the importance of swatching as you going to knit — flat or in the round, in pattern and so on.

  2. Jorah says:

    Heather, is it true that all purl stitches use more yarn? Or is it only the first purl stitch after the switch from k to p? I’ve assumed for a long while that k1/p1 cloth is more stretchy partly because of the constant back-and-forth of the yarn.

    For the purl stitch itself, since it is just a knit stitch from the other side, wouldn’t it be structurally identical and thus use the same amount of yarn as a knit stitch?

    • Heather says:

      Well, it depends on how you knit. I believe Continental knitters actually use less yarn when making purls than English knitters do, but they still use a bit more yarn when making purl stitches than knit stitches. It’s true that the first purl stitch after a knit stitch is going to be even looser – so it’s even more important with those stitches to tighten the tension up, but in general all purl stitches are looser. Of course, all knitters are different, and many have very consistent tension without even thinking about it!
      Watch how the needle and yarn work the next time you knit – compare knits to purls – the way the needle goes into the stitch and the way the yarn wraps around the needle – a purl ends up using more yarn – especially in English style. They end up structually the same stitch, but because the needle approaches the working stitch from the back, this changes how the stitch is made and the amount of yarn used to make it.
      I hope I’m making sense! We can explore further at the next Guild meeting!