Updated: Oct 30, 2020
As you are working along in a pattern, there is often a point where you are directed to pick up stitches. I know when I was a new knitter, that terminology was pretty confusing. I didn’t know exactly what I was supposed to do. Does that mean that I go along the edge of the knitting and stick my needle under a loop along the edge and leave that loop on my needle as a stitch? Sometimes, the instructions say to pick up and knit. What is the difference between those 2 things? Is there a difference?
In most instances, and at this point in my knitting career I can’t name any examples where this is not the case, picking up stitches and picking up and knitting mean the same thing. When picking up, or picking up and knitting, think of your fabric edge as your left needle. In fact, you will only be using the right needle when picking up the stitches. Insert the right needle into the fabric edge so that there are 2 strands of yarn on top of the needle, wrap your yarn around the tip of the right needle if knitting English style, and pull the wrap through the fabric. That is your first stitch! It works the same way knitting Continental. Insert the right needle into the fabric edge so that there are 2 strands of yarn on top of the needle, grab the yarn with your right needle and pull it through the fabric. One stitch has been picked up. Repeat the process until the desired number of stitches have been picked up.
Here is a Picking Up Stitches video tutorial.
Why Pick Up Stitches?
Here are some of the common reasons to pick up stitches. There are many other reasons to pick up stitches, but these are reasons that happen in many patterns.
Working in a different direction
An example of working in a different direction is a hat where you begin with band that goes around the head. A relatively small number of stitches are cast on. The band is worked flat until it is long enough to wrap around the head. The 2 short ends are sewn together to form a circular band that looks like a head band. This headband is the bottom of the hat. To work the crown of the hat, stitches must be picked up all around the top of the headband. The stitches will now be worked in the round and will be perpendicular to the stitches in the band. So, these stitches are worked in a different direction than the original stitches.
Adding a collar
A sweater has been knitted. This could be a sweater that is worked top down or bottom up. The sweater could be worked in the round or worked in pieces, then sewn together. The stitches around the neck are rarely left as live stitches to work the collar. The reason for this is that one of the keys to a good fitting garment is keeping the stitches around the neck from stretching out. These stitches bear the weight of the entire sweater. Because of the need for strength around the neck, it is best to have the neck stitches be either a cast on edge or a bound off edge. The knitter can pick up stitches to work for the collar along that strong and not super stretchy cast on or bound off edge.
Adding a button band
A button band can be worked at the same time as the body of the sweater, but that presents a few challenges, like determining exactly where to place buttonholes, and the size of buttonholes that will be needed. My preferred method is to pick up stitches for the side of the button band where the buttons will be attached first. Work the first button band, then do some experimenting. It is nice to be able to physically set the buttons on the button band to see what size of buttons and the placement of the buttons that is most visually appealing. Once those decisions have been made, that will determine the size and placement of the buttonholes on the second button band. On women’s garments, the buttonholes are traditionally on the right, and on men’s garments, the buttonholes are traditionally on the left. If you forget, or don’t care, I don’t think it is a big deal. It is your knitting, and you get to make those decisions.
Adding a border
Sometimes other types of borders need to be added to a knitted piece. This might be a decorative border to a sweater or a shawl, or even a fancy dish cloth.
As mentioned in the collar example, sometime the reason for picking up stitches is solely to give the knitted pieces structure and to prevent stretching of knitted fabric. If there is a chance of the weight of the fabric to cause the knitted piece to excessively stretch, even if it would be easy to add rows without binding off, it is better to bind off for strength and to pick up stitches for the extra rows.
Picking up Stitches on the Top of Bound Off or Cast On Stitches
Most of the time when picking up stitches along a bound off or cast on edge, one stitch will be picked up for every stitch that is bound off or cast on. There are some exceptions to that, and that has to do with the gauge of each piece of fabric. For example, if you are picking up for stockinette stitch along knitted ribbing, you would need to know the gauge of both fabrics. If the ribbing is 6 stitches per inch and the stockinette is 4 stiches per inch, that means you will pick up 4 stitches for every 6 stitches. Use your algebra skills, and simplify the fraction to 2/3, so you pick up 2 stitches for the stockinette stitch for every 3 stitches of ribbing.
Picking up Stitches on Top of Rows
Use the same math skills when picking up stitches along the end of rows. Most of the time the row gauge is higher than the stitch gauge. If the stitch gauge is 5 stitches per inch and the row gauge is 7 stitches per inch, then you will pick up 5 stitches for every 7 rows. This can easily be done by picking up a stitch along every row for 3 rows, then skip a row and pick up a stich along every row for 2 rows, then skip a row. This method covers 7 rows, but just 5 stitches are picked up. Repeat picking up at this rate along the remainder of the row edge.
A Needed Skill
Picking up stitches is a skill that is often used, but one that is not often explained. Feel free to come back to this post and the Picking Up Stitches video tutorial anytime you have a question about picking up stitches or are wondering why a pattern directs you to bind off, then pick up stitches in the very same place that the stitches were bound off. There is most likely a good reason, whether it be the stability of the garment or the look of the design. You may also come across a pattern that does not ask you to bind off, then pick up stitches. If you can tell that the fabric is very stretchy and that it may be beneficial to bind off, then pick up, then make the decision to modify the pattern to achieve a better fit!