By Sandi Rosner
The edges of a sweater can have a huge impact on the look and fit of the finished piece. Designers put a lot of thought into which type of edging will best complement the garment as a whole, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a sweater your own by changing the edging to one that better suits your style.
Keep in mind, however, that edgings are functional as well as decorative. Changing the style may change another element of the pattern. Some edgings serve to control a particular stitch pattern’s natural tendency to curl or roll. Others determine whether the sweater openings will hug the body or swing free or provide weight at the lower edge so a sweater drapes properly. The type of edging can impact the “feel” of the sweater as it is often the detail that separates sporty from dressy or classic from trendy. Let’s look at some of the options that are within the reach of any knitter.
Ribbing is more often than not the default edging for sweaters, hats, mittens, and socks—and for good reason. Ribbing lies flat and draws the fabric in to hug the body, making it an excellent choice for sleeve and mitten cuffs. A sweater with ribbing at the lower edge will hug your waist or hips for a classic, sporty look. And with the resurgence of popularity of turtlenecks, ribbing is essential— it expands to let your head through, then snugs in around your neck.
K1, P1 ribbing.
There are lots of variations beyond basic K1, P1 (above) or K2, P2 (below) ribbing , all of which produce different degrees of elasticity and different looks. For sweaters where the body is worked in a cable or textured stitch pattern, it always pleases me to see the ribbing flow into the stitch pattern in a way that looks intentional.
K2, P2 ribbing.
Sometimes I want the look of a ribbing, but I also want the edging to hang straight, not pull in to hug the body. In these cases, I use a flat ribbing (below). As you can see, this stitch pattern retains the vertical knit ribs, but replaces the purl ribs with garter stitch.
It’s worked, over a multiple of four stitches plus two:
Row 1: (WS): P2, * k2, p2; rep from * to end.
Row 2: (RS): Knit.
Repeat Rows 1 and 2 to desired length.
Garter Stitch and Seed Stitch
Garter stitch and seed stitch share the virtues of looking exactly the same on to both sides of the fabric, laying nice and flat, and hanging straight without drawing in. Garter stitch (below) creates a strong horizontal line and is ultra-easy to work: simply knit every row if you’re working flat, or, if you’re working in the round, alternate knit rounds and purl rounds.
Seed stitch (below) produces a pebbled surface, which is one of my favorite textures in knitwear. Work seed stitch over an odd number of stitches, as follows:
Row 1: (WS): K1, * p1, k1; repeat from * to end.
Repeat Row 1 to desired length.
With both garter and seed stitch, it is important that you check your gauge. It’s often assumed that these stitches will have the same gauge as stockinette stitch—after all, they’re just knits and purls—but that’s not always the case. Many of us knit to a looser gauge in garter stitch or seed than we do in stockinette. If this is the case, your edging will flare out unless you use a smaller needle.
Perhaps the most elegant edge finish is a turned hem. A turned hem hangs straight, without flaring or drawing in. Since the fabric is doubled in this area, your edges will be durable and less likely to fray with long-term wear. The turned hem also allows you to continue the stitch pattern from the body of your sweater all the way to the edge.
For the simplest turned hem (below), work in stockinette to the desired hem depth, usually 1½-2 inches (4-5cm). Knit one wrong-side row to create a turning ridge, then continue with the body of your sweater. When the knitting is done, fold the hem to the wrong side at the ridge (it will fold cleanly here) and sew it in place.
Turned hem, right side.
Turned hem, wrong side.
To prevent the cast-on edge from impeding the elasticity of the hem, I like to start with a provisional cast on using waste yarn. When it’s time to sew the hem, I release the live stitches from the waste yarn one by one and sew them in place. The reduced bulk of the provisional cast-on also seems to make the stitching line less visible on the right side of the work.
Turned hem with provisional cast-on, right side.
Turned hem with provisional cast-on, wrong side.
If the thought of sewing the hem isn’t appealing to you, you can knit the hem stitches together with the body stitches. To do this, begin with a provisional cast-on using waste yarn. Work in stockinette to the desired hem depth then knit a wrong-side row for your turning ridge. Continue in stockinette (or the stitch pattern you’re using for the body of your sweater) until you’ve worked the same number of rows after the turning ridge as you did before it. Now remove the waste yarn and place those stitches on a spare needle. Fold the hem at the ridge and knit the two layers together, working each stitch from the body needle together with the corresponding stitch from the hem needle.
A popular variation on the turned hem is the picot hem. Work this just like a turned hem, but replace the turning ridge with a right-side row of eyelets, worked as follows over an odd number of stitches.
Picot Turning Row (RS): K1, * yo, k2tog; rep from * to end.
When you fold the hem at the eyelet row, it will form a pretty serrated edge.
For all turned hems, consider using a smaller needle for the rows which will form the underside of your hem. This can reduce bulk and make your edge lie smoother.
When sewing your turned hem in place, take care to align the columns of stitches and to always sew into the same row. It’s worth being finicky about perfect alignment— failure to do so will result in a hem that skews or refuses to lie flat.
One of the great joys of knitting is that it gives you the opportunity to personalize your wardrobe by making sweaters that are yours alone. There is no law that says you are required to knit a pattern exactly as written. You have complete freedom to change any element to one that better serves your purposes. Next time you take up your needles, spend a few minutes thinking about how a change in the edging might customize the look and fit of your sweater.
Sandi Rosner is the Executive Creative Director at Premier Yarns in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her latest book is 21 Crocheted Tanks & Tunics: Stylish Designs for Every Occasion (Stackpole, 2016).