photo and drawing of seed stitch

How to switch between knit and purl stitches

Alright, so you have learned how to knit and purl. Maybe you know that it’s called garter stitch when you knit every stitch of every row, and that it’s called stockinette stitch when you alternate between rows of knit stitches and rows of purl stitches. You are ready to take on a new challenge: Changing from knit to purl within a row! You can create hundreds of different patterns, only using the knit stitch and the purl stitch, by combining them in different ways. It takes a little practice to learn to switch between knit and purl and to not mess it up, but once you do, there’s no stopping you.

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The Position of the working yarn

The working yarn is the yarn you are currently knitting with which is attached to the last stitch you knitted and to the ball of yarn. The most important thing when you are learning to switch between knit and purl stitches is to pay attention to the location of the working yarn. When you knit a stitch, the working yarn is behind the needle tips, and when you purl a stitch, the working yarn is in front of the needle tips. That means that when you are switching between the two, you are constantly changing the position of the working yarn by pulling it between the tips. Here’s a video from melodysmakings of how that looks in practice.

The above video is an example of English knitting, meaning the working yarn is held (and moved) by the right hand. If you are a continental knitter, keeping the working yarn in your left hand, take a look at this video by NobleKnits.

Knit one, purl one: How to avoid mixing up ribbing and seed stitch

The most common stitch to learn after garter stitch and stockinette, is one of the knit-one-purl-one stitches, either 1-by-1 ribbing or seed stitch. Both are excellent choices for learning how to alternate between knits and purls, and you will quickly find a rhythm. If you would like to try a project with seed stitch, I have a free pattern for a seed stitch dishcloth.

In principle, ribbing and seed stitch are simple. Still, about half of all new knitters struggle initially with getting ribbing or seed stitch right. They intend to make ribbing but instead end up with seed stitch, or they are trying to make the seed stitch and end up with ribbing. Sometimes, everything looks perfect for several rows, but all of a sudden, the pattern changes even though the knitter swears they have been doing the same thing. What’s going on?

Sketch of 1x1 ribbing and seed stitch
The patterns for 1×1 ribbing and seed stitch (sometimes called moss or linen stitch) are very similar. Both have 2-row repeats, and both are made by alternating knit and purl stitches. It is easy to confuse the two.

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The secret revealed – odd or even number of stitches

Tutorials teaching you to make ribbing and seed stitch often forget to mention an important tip: The instructions for 1-by-1 ribbing and seed stitch depend on whether you have an odd or even number of stitches. So, if you didn’t pay attention to how many stitches the tutorial told you to cast on, you have a fifty-fifty chance of creating the opposite pattern to what you were trying to do. And, if you accidentally add a stitch or drop a stitch, the pattern will suddenly change from one to the other. Here are the instructions for all four options when knitting flat (it is different when you knit in the round, i.e. when knitting a tube).

# of rows
1 x 1 ribbing
seed stitch
even numberRow 1: *k1, p1; rep from *Row 1: *k1, p1; rep from *
Row 2: same as row 1
Row 2: *p1, k1; rep from *
odd number Row 1: k1, *p1, k1; rep from *Row 1: k1, *p1, k1; rep from *
Row 2: p1, *k1, p1; rep from *Row 2: same as row 1

For all four cases, you repeat rows 1 and 2 until you reach the desired length. k1 means knit 1, p1 means purl 1. rep is short for repeat. You repeat the stitches after the * over and over till you reach the end of the row. (Learn how to read a knitting pattern)

Read your knitting

The trick is to realize that a knit stitch on one side of the work will appear as a purl stitch on the other side, and equivalently a purl stitch will be a knit stitch on the other side. Once you can reliably recognize a knit stitch from a purl stitch, you simply read your knitting and depending on the pattern, you know if you are supposed to knit or purl the next stitch. A knit stitch looks much like a large V, and a purl stitch looks like a bump or a horizontal bar.

Watch this video from theknitwitch to learn to recognize a knit stitch from a purl.

For ribbing, you are creating columns of knit stitches and purl stitches. To achieve this, you knit the knit stitches and you purl the purl stitches as they appear on the needle. For seed stitch, you are alternating the two stitches down the column. Therefore you knit the purls, and you purl the knits, as they appear. Here’s a video showing you how to knit the knits and purl the purls from Rokolee DIY.

Even when you know exactly what to do, and you have learned to read your knitting, you will still make mistakes. If you spot a mistake in the current row you are working on, tink (knit backwards) to the mistake to correct it.

Seed and moss stitch, name confusion

What is called seed stitch in the US is called moss stitch in the UK. I’ve also seen it called linen stitch. It is a 2-stitch repeat with 2 repeating rows.

What is called moss stitch in the US is called double moss or Irish moss in the UK. It is a 2-stitch repeat with 4 repeating rows.

There’s also double seed, which I’ve sometimes seen called double Irish, double moss, or box stitch. I’m not sure about the country convention for this one, but it is a 4-stitch repeat with 4 repeating rows.

Jill Wolcott Knits has a nice demonstration of all three different patterns. I recommend using the words seed, Irish moss and double seed for the least amount of confusion. Always double-check the pattern when in doubt.

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Tension issues between knits and purls

When you start to work on patterns where you switch between knits and purls within a row, you may notice that your tension is uneven and that your work looks untidy. What you want is the same tension between a knit stitch and a purl stitch as between two knits or two purls. What typically happens, is that the first purl stitch after a knit stitch tends to be really loose compared to everywhere else. You will not usually experience this problem in the knit-one-purl-one patterns (1 by 1 ribbing and seed stitch), but it shows up wherever you have a knit stitch, followed by more than one purl stitches. If you are a neat freak like me, this will really bug you, but luckily there’s an easy fix. After making that first purl stitch after a knit, you pull the yarn behind the needles as if to knit, and give it a tug, before again moving it forward to make the second purl stitch. I have only ever come across this trick from the one and only, VeryPink Knits. Watch this and subscribe to her channel. You are welcome!

Comments and questions are welcome

I think I have covered most of the tips, tricks and issues related to learning how to knit patterns with knit and purl stitches in the same row. Have I left something out? Do you have questions, I haven’t answered? Was this helpful to you? As always, I would love to hear from you.

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