In praise of garter stitch

I never used to use garter stitch, or at least not since I was eight and had to knit a scarf for a brownie badge (a searing experience – and not just because I was a willing participant in a paramilitary organisation – which led to me putting down the needles for some thirteen years). I thought it was just, you know, too basic. Too boring. Knitting every row? Oh, purl-ease….

Ahem. Sorry about the pun. Anyway, I was wrong. It is basic, but it is not boring. And it is worthy of being so much more than an entry for a ‘golden hands’ (yuk) badge.

cardi

I have flirted with garter stitch in the past, but it was this cherry-red cardigan that began, sneakily, to change my mind. Of course it helped that it was in one of my favourite cuddlesome yarns, Rowan’s Kid Classic, and though a garment knitted in garter stitch can drop like a particularly heavy elephant thrown from a great height, this one didn’t. Gauge can vary with wear, too, but again this was stable. I put this, and my fondness for the cardi, down to the yarn – and almost dismissed garter stitch again.

It was a few months before I found myself using the stitch again in a giant, subtly ruffled, shawl made from handspun. Garter stitch, because it has more rows to the inch than stocking stitch, uses more yarn – a lot more yarn (there are usually twice as many rows as there are stitches in a 10cm garter stitch square). Yes, it can look good but, my lordy, it eats yarn. I even had to stop when knitting this:

shawl

and spin up some more. Admittedly it is enormous, but nonetheless, pheew. So I cast aside childish, brownie-badge knitting things. For a while.

And then I needed to knit something simple, something I could do without looking down every row or checking a pattern frequently, and I also wanted to use up some of my stash. I hit on a hitchhiker shawl  which would conveniently use a single ball of grey-green variegated wool I had (Lang Jawoll Magic – a single, but a thick sock yarn) lurking in the stash, and how beautifully the garter stitch worked with the colour changes.

greeny

I then, of course, had to knit another – but in a very different yarn to see what effect it would have.

This time the yarn was a more standard 4ply, and had been hand-dyed in much shorter bursts of colour, which gave a radically different effect.

yummy

I wasn’t sure at first, but now I love it. I’d originally intended this to go into stock, as it were, but it’s definitely for me. I love the colour changes, the way you see golds and reds and oranges and browns all interlocking. Then there are all the other advantages of garter stitch, seen at their best in shawls and scarves – in my opinion, that is, and with the exception of my vile childhood experiment. It’s completely reversible, of course. It lies flat. It’s got great elasticity lengthwise… when you want it to (and if you don’t, as in a garment, just bind the seams and face the edges). It seems to me that if you marry garter stitch with the perfect yarn – of course this is true of any stitch, mind you – you can get something wonderful.

It’s had its uses in the past, making the welts at the top of stockings as long ago as the 1500s (they’d stretch more to go around a thicker part of the leg, and would then be held up by garters) and was often used for the front edges of garments, to prevent them rolling. There are examples of this in the V&A,

V&A1

such as this, allegedly made for the young Charles II (there’s no actual evidence of this), or this splendid stranded knitting, also seventeenth century (1600-25):

V&A2

where the front openings are done in garter stitch so they lie flat.

And garter stitch has been an essential part of ‘traditional’ knitting for centuries, featuring in panels on fishing gansies, for instance, or making the centre of Shetland hap shawls. Mary Thomas even goes so far as to describe it as being ‘characteristic of Shetland knitting’ and it is certainly true that many fine lace shawls have a garter stitch base. And that comes down to its reversability and lying flat, I guess.

I’ve now got a load of projects that I want to knit in garter stitch, especially since I bought Sally Melville’s book The Knit Stitch. It’s a superficially simple book – no, damn it, it is simple and that’s an art in itself, but it is very effective and I have several things lined up from it. Unfortunately the same is not true of Elizabeth Zimmerman’s Knit One, Knit All – I find her garments’ construction ingenious but they don’t appeal to me personally. What is also interesting about that book is the fact that EZ floated the idea of a book based on garter stitch for ages, and nobody picked up on it. It was years before it saw the light of day. Maybe everyone made the same assumption I did? Or maybe you have to hit on that combination, the serendipitous alignment of pattern, stitch and yarn to get garter stitch to sing to you? Hm, that, and not be scarred for life by a huge scarf knitted at the age of nine. Yup (see above), that’s not a typo: it was started when I was eight, but I grew faster than it did.

orange

Yummy.

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28 thoughts on “In praise of garter stitch

  1. pictfamily

    That’s lovely. I’ve recently gone back to garter stitch for some projects and really like the way they’ve knitted up.

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      Thanks, glad there’s another one who likes it (I’m know lots of people who don’t)! It’s great, isn’t it? Really effective…

      Reply
      1. pictfamily

        it is, and as you say it takes colour changing very well, and there is also the great fact that you can knit while doing something else, which helps to get things done. Some people are a bit snobbish about it though.

        Reply
        1. kate Post author

          They are, aren’t they? Don;t understand it myself (even though I fell into that trap for a while). Maybe it’s because it uses the first stitch you learn?

        2. pictfamily

          I think so, and you don’t get to show off what you can do quite so much, it’s more reliant on the pattern and the yarn.

        3. kate Post author

          Yes, it’s not so ostentatious!

          (Maybe you have to be completely confident in your skills to be comfortable NOT showing off, she added, nose in the air – rather like a real beauty dressing in horrible old jeans and a donkey jacket…)

  2. Anne A

    I’m also a fan, after starting a project with sock yarn which turned out looking like army camouflage in stocking stitch. I changed to a project in garter stitch, and the colours blended really nicely. Your ‘hitchhikers’ look lovely, by the way.

    Reply
      1. Anne A

        I should also say thankyou for introducing me to Martina’s patterns. I had some lovely sock club yarn waiting, and a Hitchhiker is now underway!

        Reply
        1. kate Post author

          They’re lovely, aren’t they! I’m going to start a Lintilla soon. When I’ve completed at least two of my WIPs… ahem…

  3. Lydia

    I am a reformed knit stitch person too. When I grew up it was just called knit every row, now we all call it garter stitch…. Helps to stop hem roll, sleeve roll, brilliant for disguising increases when shaping. I think Elizabeth Zimmermann is responsible for all this a la her magical baby cardigan!

    Reply
  4. ohdebs

    I have recently come to love garter stitch too. One thing I like about it is that it really shows off a variegated yarn. I like how it looks kind of like pixels close up. I didn’t know that it uses more yarn though. Thanks for the information on that. I was knitting a really cute vest (the pattern was called “Deb” so how could I not?) from the Seamless and Nearly Seamless book that was all garter. I was using alpaca/silk that I spun myself and had to keep ordering more of the top and spinning more. I got nearly done and realized that I had done something wrong and had to frog it all back. The problem was that I had to adjust the pattern to my yarn and I didn’t calculate it quite right. Very frustrating. Good thing I like knitting for the process. I may attempt again with that pattern but not that yarn.

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      Thought it would appeal to an artist! But what a frustrating experience – we have to be so careful when adapting patterns for handspun. I guess that’s why so many people use their handspun for shawls, scarves, etc…

      Just as well you’re into process knitting!

      Reply
  5. knitsofacto

    Something else about garter stitch …. anyone can do it, but not everyone can do it well … really, really even garter stitch is the mark of an expert knitter! I love the stitch, but personally I’m not so keen on the variegated yarns.

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      You are right, of course – saw a lovely example at our spinning group today.

      I’m actually coming round to your POV on the variegated yarn. Now the shawl is actually finished it’s a bit zingy, a bit toooooo zingy for me in my present intermittently dizzy state. I think it may have to be put aside for a while!

      Reply
  6. karibu57

    Of course Kid Classic is a wonderfully gorgeous yarn and I love it almost as much as I love Felted Tweed and the Hitchhiker shawl…well I have made oodles of them. You should definately try some of Martina’s other creations. They are all simple and mostly in garter stitch…perfect for carrying around to knit any place, any time, anywhere 😉

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      I’ve been investigating her others – and I love the one with the leaves (can’t recall what its name is exactly). I’ve got to make some sort of inroads into the stash before it all falls over and I am completely buried…….. agh….

      I think I prefer KC to FT (heresy!) and I have a soft spot for cotton yarns, notably Cotton Glace…

      Reply
      1. karibu57

        You mean ‘Leftie’..indeed lovely and has long been a ‘must make and use my stash’ for me too. I have made a Lintilla which was fun and a couple of Trillians (lovely simple eyelet edging). I know what you mean about the Stash taking over the house, at least I have some sort of excuse…or at least that’s what I tell myself!

        Reply
        1. kate Post author

          Have just hit Ravelry – they are delicious! Woooo!

          (But I’ve got my new project started, to cement my newly acquired magic loop skill – yes, I am knitting socks, but that’s just because, and not because i really want to – a simple stripy scarf knitted in the round. Charcoal grey and a delicate sunset/coral pink, John Arbon alpaca. YUM!)

  7. Pauline

    Hi Kate,
    Thank you for your lovely informative blog – I enjoy reading and admiring it! I have been thinking about and knitting garter stitch quite a lot lately, it’s the ultimate in comfort knitting, I think – especially with a favourite yarn. I am posting a picture of my latest garter stitch project and hope you don’t mind my linking through to this post from mine?

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      HIya Pauline, glad to ‘meet’ another garter stitchee, it is restful, isn’t it? I must cast on something soothing!

      Reply
  8. Jude Gray

    Hallo! Am knitting in garter stitch and loving it but do you press garter stitch? Hope so, it’s looking like it needs a bit of help.

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      I don’t press it as such – I give it a light steaming with a warm-hot iron and a really damp tea towel. Seems to work… good luck!

      Reply
      1. Jude Gray

        Thanks so much. That’s what I was going to do but wasn’t sure you were supposed to do even that to garter stitch. I think it’ll spring to life once it’s been steamed. Thanks again.

        Reply

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