Knitting isn’t what it used to be. In the good old days when all the grannies were knitting – there weren’t all the brilliant little tricks and ways of doing things that we have now. There was one way to increase, and one way to decrease. Without youtube, most people pretty much only used one cast on – the one their grandmother showed them how to do, or the one they learnt at school.

But these days, people have developed so many alternative ways to these simple elements. That’s what makes the difference between a beautiful handmade garment that you will love to wear, and that hideous jumper your great aunt made and your mom forced you to wear to church on Sundays while you tried not to make eye contact with anyone.

Back in the late 80s when Mrs Olson was teaching me how to knit in Needlework during the double period on Friday mornings, there was only one way to increase the number of stitches on a needle. At least, as far as I’m aware. If anyone should have known about knitting, it was the tannies in the Boland, and they sure didn’t use anything other than the good old knit into the front and the back of the stitch – kfb.

I hate the damn thing. It gets too tight when I’m trying to knit into the back leg, and I stab the needle around like an idiot to try and wedge it in. Once I do manage to get it right – without snapping the yarn – I get the flipping thing stuck. I’m left with my two needles trapped in an X, trying to wrestle them apart like I’m frantically stoking a dying fire with a pair of bellows, and hoping I don’t snap a needle in the process. Don’t even start me on the pfb. It’s enough to drive the most disciplined individual insane.

Besides the fact that I don’t like feeling as if I’m attacking my defenseless knitting, I really don’t like the way it looks. It’s too tight on the return row, and of course there’s the dreaded bump. I don’t know why anybody uses the kfb anymore. Truly. I have to reluctantly admit that there is the odd occasion when it’s the right call – mostly for that decorative swirl it creates. But then, I’m not really a decorative swirl kind of girl. I started knitting a scarf with a decorative swirl about 5 years ago. I stopped halfway, and it’s still hibernating now. I did knit a pair of fingerless mittens for my four year old that didn’t look awful using it for the thumb gusset. It’s unusual for me to trust the designer and use it as written in the pattern. More often than not, I rebelliously ignore the kfb and just do my own thing. I must have been feeling uncharacteristically compliant that day.

swirls created by a kfb increase

swirls created by a kfb increase

But knitters are nothing if not problem solvers, and there are some who have done their best to side-step some of the drawbacks to this maddening stitch. Rililie has the best picture tutorial on how to go about doing it without getting the annoying bump. It’s a pretty good work-around, but I still can’t see myself softening my resolve to stubbornly give it the cold shoulder on a regular basis. In my mind there’s still a tension issue because you are still putting a twist on the original stitch, and then arguably the increase is really only effected on the following row. I’m being picky, yes. I’ll find anyway to rationalize my subversive behaviour.

Fortunately, knitters have moved on from the world as it was in the days of Mrs Olson’s class, and patterns tend towards using increases that are smoother and look more polished.

These days it is fairly standard to use M1R and M1L as paired increases, but at the risk of sounding like a moaning minny, I feel pretty meh about these ones too.

It’s a visual improvement on the kfb, and afterwards I don’t feel like I assaulted a perfectly innocent piece of fabric. As you know, I am finicky. The problem with these ones – lifting the bar between two stitches, twisting it to draw the yarn though the loop – is that it distorts the tension of the two stitches on either side of the bar, and more often than not leaves a hole underneath. Not exactly my idea of undetectable. Theoretically you could take a crochet hook after the fact and carefully tug at strategically placed points in the adjacent stitches to even it out, but it’s not really ideal.

M1L and M1R pull the adjoining stitches to tightly, leaving a hole beneath them.

M1L and M1R pull the adjoining stitches to tightly, leaving a hole beneath them.

There is the little trick of doing a yarnover on the previous row, and then twisting YO when you knit it on the return row – I think it’s called an “afterthought M1”. It was a popular suggestion on the Colour Affection shawl for people who didn’t like how tight the regular M1L and M1R were. It introduces a little more slack, and I did in fact use it for one of the increases on the double increase row, but I still don’t love it. I’m not convinced the distortion is that much improved, even if it is a bit looser. When I do it, it still leaves a hole.

Then there’s the whole business of lift it up over the front, twist it through the back, take it under the bar, over the top, do the hokey-pokey, click your heels three times and hope it ends up leaning the way you wanted it to, because lord knows you’ll never remember which way you have to do it to get it going left or right. The only time I’ll use these is when they are specifically functional in the construction. For example, I only used M1L and M1R on the Colour Affection shawl because it needed tight edges to create the crescent shape.

Given my aversion to these 2 popular types of increases, you’re probably wondering what increases I do actually use. My default that I always go to for stocking stitch are smooth and lean beautifully when worked repeatedly. They don’t distort the tension of any stitches and generally don’t cause any holes, but you could add a cheeky little twist if you were finding that it kept happening. Leaning lifted increases are what I almost always use in stocking stitch, no matter which increase the pattern calls for.

It’s also not quite so difficult to remember which way each one leans – if you use your right-hand needle to lift up the stitch in the row below, it’s RLI (Right-leaning Lifted Increase) and if you use your left-hand needle to lift up the stitch in the row below, it’s LLI (Left-leaning lifted increase). I’m pretty sure you can’t go wrong with them.

Paired lifted increases worked for a sleeve

Paired lifted increases worked for a sleeve

In garter stitch, I’ve always thought increases looked a bit messy, and until recently I just went along with lifted increases and found them acceptable enough. But just a little while ago, I discovered the perfect, all but invisible increase to use in garter stitch. I read somewhere that this is the increase Elizabeth Zimmerman herself used most often. I figured that The EZ couldn’t be wrong, so I tried it in my Crisis Cardigan for the faux raglan increases. It’s basically a backward loop – you need to wrap it very tightly, do it as far forward as you can on the tip of your needle, and right up snug next to the previous stitch. Then it’s impossible to tell where the increases are. The stitches just seem to grow out of the fabric like magic. It also has left-and right-leaning versions, yes another tricky which-blooming-way-do-I-do-it-again thing, but it is truly worth it, and Techknitter’s tutorial is a good reference.

Backward loop increase M1A - the increase is worked next to the purl  stitch of the cable, and is impossible to see

The backward loop increase is invisible worked next to the purl stitch of the cable.

Every now and then it pays to try something new, just for the hell of it. Most recently I just finished knitting the Idlewood pattern by Cecily Glowik Macdonald, and the raglan increases call for k1r/b – knitting into the row below. Initially it seemed basically the same as a RLI to me, and I didn’t quite see why it was any different, or how using it either side of central stitches instead of LLI on the other side was going to create beautiful growing Vs. But so many of the completed projects didn’t mention using an alternative increase, and so many did comment on how lovely it looked, that I decided to give it a bash.

Although an RLI is worked into the stitch below, there seems to be a slight difference in directing the working needle over the top of the left needle and down through the back of the stitch for the k1r/b, rather than pulling the lower stitch up on to the needle. It is definitely less visible,  and more lovely. Even better – when paired it doesn’t need to be worked differently left and right – no little rhymes and mnemonics to remember to try and figure out what to do. There are very few tutorials available for this stitch compared with other increase methods, and this is a straightforward photo tutorial for it.  I’ve only used it once, but I am starting to think I am going to be torn between this and using lifted increases in the future. Maybe I’ll just alternate between them on different projects.

DSC00886

k1r/b used for raglan increases appears as though it has been worked in different directions

We all have a certain idea in our head of what the ideal increase or decrease looks like. So what I think is pretty, is not necessarily how another knitter would imagine it to be. Some people don’t seem to get the same tension and holy problems that I do, because everyone uses slightly different style or may get a different tension. It’s a matter of personal preference, I suppose.

The best way to knit perfect increases every time, is to figure out what it is that you think looks the best, the way you knit it. Knit a swatch, something like this one by Isolda, to see which you prefer. (I know, I know – I hate swatches too, but trust me, it’s worth it). Then stick to it. Every time.

Be subversive. Be a rebel. Ignore the (no doubt talented, and I’m sure very experienced) designer, and do your own thing. You won’t be disappointed.

About Beth Burke

So much yarn. So many patterns. So. Little. Time.