Why Doesn’t the Pattern Tell Me How Many Stitches to Pick Up?

Have you ever wondered why a pattern doesn’t tell you exactly how many stitches to pick up around the neckline or button band of a sweater? Maybe you’ve even felt a little cheezed-off about it (and perhaps mumbled a few choice words under your breath…). Surely they don’t expect you to just guess, do they?

The answer is “No, but…” because there’s more to a neckline or a button band than one simple stitch count.

Several years ago I worked in a yarn shop and one of my duties was to answer knitting questions as they came in the door. One of the most common issues for our customers centered around picking up stitches, and their struggles fell into two primary camps:

  1. The pattern doesn’t tell me how many stitches to pick up, so what do I do? – or-
  2. The pattern told me how many stitches to pick up, and that’s what I did, but it looks really weird and/or doesn’t fit over my head. What do I do?

Can you relate?

Giving you an exact number of stitches to pick up for just about anything is a bit of a red herring. I know it’s comforting, but it’s a false sense of security. In the end, that stitch count may or may not actually be the right number of stitches for your project. That’s right – there isn’t necessarily one exact stitch count that will work perfectly for every knitter, even for those knitting the same size.

What affects the number of stitches to pick up?

  • Your row gauge (especially if it differs from the pattern)
  • Your cast-on method and tension
  • Personal preference for neckline width
  • Your tension in ribbing
  • The yarn you used
  • The length of your sweater (including any additional length you may have added)
  • How you’ve worked your edges (i.e. are they tidy or loose?), and whether or not you slipped the first stitch of every row

The number of stitches to pick up is a dance – and it tangos with your stitch tension, your cast on, your edges and your bind off. They are all part of a beautiful – albeit seemingly mysterious – process that results in a sweater that looks polished, or doesn’t. (For the record, it’s not as mysterious as it seems – it just takes a bit of understanding and practice.)

I can tell you how many stitches to pick up, but to do so would require me to make certain assumptions about all the things I listed above. If I assume your knitting is exactly like mine (which it isn’t), and I tell you to pick up the exact same number of stitches that I picked-up for mine, then I’m doing you a disservice and leading you to believe that there’s a one-size-fits-all solution to the perfect neckline or button band. That’s simply not how it works. Knitting is part art, part math, part science, part intuition – and when it comes to finishing, we must rely on our eyes our fingers and our own judgment to know we’re getting it right.

Having rules, guidelines and exact sets of numbers feels safe (and for some aspects of knitting, they are essential), but friend, when it comes to the finishing it’s stifling. It means we run the risk of bypassing our own best judgment in order to follow an arbitrary stitch count that may or may not really be the right number of stitches for best results.

Sure, there are some situations when having an exact number of stitches works out just fine, especially if you’re picking up stitches for a design that requires an exact stitch count (like a cabled panel), or if it’s along the edge of a cowl with buttons. But when it comes to sweaters, unless there is a very specific reason to have a stitch count, I believe that your results are significantly better when you can pick up the number of stitches that gives you the best results for your project.

A few expert tips and lots of practice make a big difference. The more you knit button bands and necklines, the better you’ll get. And if you want to know my secrets for getting great results every time, check out my online workshop: Pick-Up Artist to sharpen your skills.

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