I am realizing that having a knitting project last a year and a half correlates to a large number of blog posts written about it. Not just blog posts where the publish button has already been clicked – that total is three, not including this one – but blog posts which have been languishing in the drafts folder. Now that I’ve finally finished my epic cowl, I can stop being embarrassed of my failure, stop hiding my old posts, and bring new found knitting knowledge to the light of day. So now, let me tell you about the joys of knitting lifelines. They sound important, don’t they? Oh my knitting friends, they are crucial if you want to enter the world of crazy stitch patterns. Read on…
Post started October 8, 2016
I have a knitting project that has been languishing. It’s not because I don’t love it, because I do, but somehow other priorities keep popping up. There was my daughter’s requested blankie, the 100th birthday present, and a new baby layette (for a welcome niece on her way). All really legitimate reasons to take a knitting break from a complicated project. However I’ve finally started to make some consistent progress on the Purl Soho cowl. The days are getting cooler and in no time the weather will call for me to wear this beauty. (Future me – ugh, I missed an entire winter!) Thankfully my fingers have memorized the pattern and I can knit while watching my daughter’s soccer practice or television.
This week was full of problems at work. Anticipated problems. Surprise problems. Big and little problems. I was looking forward to the distraction of spending Friday night watching Grey’s Anatomy and getting a few rows knit. Just about the time the whole Alex Karev thing blew up (Future me – I’m not really sure what the Alex Karev thing was all about, but it apparently drew my attention away from my stitches) something felt funny in my knitting.
If you aren’t a knitter this might sound strange – felt funny – but I assure you when your fingers know a pattern you can feel a mistake before you see it. The “knit in the row below” stitch felt too bulky. Then the next knit stitch felt weird. I took a third awkward stitch before my brain screamed “stop”! Something was wrong and things were about to go wronger. My desire to escape from my problems was being complicated by a new knitting problem.
Can you see the mistake? The place where the pattern goes awry starting at the fourth stitch from the last one on the needle? Here, I’ll show you a close up too. This is not a good situation.
But do you see those odd blue and yellow strings hanging out the edges of my cowl in the not-close-up picture? Smarty smart me put in a lifeline a couple of rows before the mistake, so the issue is fixable. Problem solved!
Lifelines allow a knitter to go back in time to a row where the pattern is correct and start over, even when there is a complicated stitch pattern. You just take your needles out, rip all the stitches out, and begin again. When your pattern has a repeat, like this one does, it’s best to put the lifeline at the end of each repeat, unless it’s a big repeat, then feel free to put in lifelines mid-repeat. Basically you’ll want to weigh the annoyance of putting in a lifeline against the annoyance of ripping out more rows if you make a mistake.
Right before I started the checked rose section of my cowl, I learned about lifelines. See, the first section of the cowl, the rambler pattern, was knit painstakingly. I knew that using the knit into the row below technique meant that any mistake would be next to impossible to fix. It’s hard to make stitches come back when the stitch itself depends on you removing every other stitch from rows to make the fabric. So I only knit the first section when I could pay close attention to my knitting, but that severely limited my knitting time. My preferred method is to multitask knit.
Online knitting searches led me to the lifeline idea. Basically you either:
- Thread a piece of scrap yarn – in a contrasting color and with a smooth texture – into the completed last row of your pattern repeat using a darning needle. Just finish the row and thread your scrap yarn through the stitches. (I used a circular needle, so just threaded the waste yarn where the cord was.) Make sure the yarn is substantially longer than the garment you are making, so it doesn’t get pulled through.
- Some needles – not mine – actually have little holes in the needle which allow you to thread waste yarn into the hole before you start the last row of the repeat, and as you knit the waste yarn will automatically be pulled through the stitches. Sounds cool, but not possible with the tools I have.
Post Continued August 10, 2017
I didn’t really understand how this lifeline magic worked, so I made a swatch! (I swatched more with this project than all my other projects combined to date.) This helped me figure out how to place a lifeline and how to use it to recover from mistakes. Here are the steps of creating and using a lifeline.
- Begin knitting your pattern.
- Remove the cat from your work.
- When you’ve completed a repeat of the pattern – 6 rows in this case – take your darning needle and thread scrap yarn through each stitch of the completed row. Leave the stitches on the needle as you do this. In the below image you would thread the yarn where the bamboo needle is: through the green stitches.
- Start knitting again. The next time the pattern repeat ends, put in another lifeline. When you are confident there is not a mistake in a section you can pull out the lifeline for reuse. My rule of thumb was rotating three lifelines.
- Now, oops, you made a mistake. Take the needles out, and rip back to the lifeline. Rip away! Don’t be shy. The waste yarn will keep you from unraveling too far.
- Take your knitting needle and follow the waste yarn through the stitches.
- Now just start the pattern again. I was worried that I’d need to adjust the pattern – just do a simple knit row or something – since the pattern involves knitting in the stitch below, but somehow magically this technique just takes you back to exactly the same place you were when you finished the row. It’s like all those hours of knitting after the waste yarn went in never happened.
This technique is great for complicated stitch patterns, lace, and cables. It’s an invaluable technique that I anticipate making me a braver knitter, because I’ll know how to recover from a mistake. Let me know if you’ve ever used the lifeline technique and how it’s worked for you.