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.
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:
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.
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.
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,
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):
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.