Announcement: The next meeting of the Knitters’ Debate Club is TODAY. The topic: Slipping the First Stitch of a Row.
Note: If you must throw things at the debaters, please keep it limited to soft items like skeins of unwanted eyelash yarn and sloppy pompoms.
My mother slips the first stitch of all her rows. I don’t. We have reached détente.
There’s an old joke about the woman who cuts the ends of her pot roast. A new bride cuts the ends off the pot roast before cooking it, and her friend/new spouse/mother-in-law asks her why. She doesn’t know, she says, but her mom always did it that way! They ask Mom, and her reply is that her mom always did it that way! They ask Grandma why. Turns out that when Grandma was first married, she only had one cooking pot. It was too small, so she cut the ends of the pot roast to make it fit.
I feel the same way about slipping the first stitch of every row as I do about cutting the ends off a pot roast: it’s a piece of advice that requires context.
Slipping the first stitch of every row is a very good thing to do in some circumstances.
The short answer is: do it only if the pattern tells you to do it. (If you’re pressed for time you can stop reading now.)
When Slipping That First Stitch Is Great
Slipping the first stitch of a row expands the edge stitch vertically, making it two rows tall. This means that you don’t get that weird uneven and twisted stitch that comes from working the edge stitch twice in succession.
It makes the edges of a piece tidy and clean.
A slipped-stitch edge: very pretty!
A regular edge: less pretty.
Slipping the first stitch is particularly fantastic for garter stitch.
a Slipped-stitch edge in garter: very pretty!
A regular garter-stitch edge: less pretty.
A tidy edge is just what you need if the edges of the piece are going to be visible in the finished project—for a shawl or scarf, for example.
When It’s Less Great
As mentioned above, slipping the first stitch of a row expands the edge stitch vertically, making it two rows tall. This means that you’re reducing the number of stitches at the edge by half.
Halving the number of stitches is not good if you’re sewing up. Proper seaming technique relies on the use of the bars–the horizontal strands of yarn that sit between the edge stitch and its neighbor. If you’re slipping the first stitch, you’re effectively reducing the available bars by half. If you work the edge stitch on each row, you’ll get one bar for each row, all spaced out evenly. If you slip the first stitch of the row–that is, only work it every other row–there are still two bars, but the slip causes them to stack unevenly. With a slipped edge stitch, the strand for the slipped stitch sits right on top of the strand from the previous row, so you’ve got, in essence, one double bar every two rows, as opposed to one bar for each row. (And no, working the two strands of the stacked double bar doesn’t solve the problem, because you’ve still got big spaces between the joins.)
On a regular edge, there are regularly spaced gaps, with one bar for each row.
On a slipped-stitch edge, there is a bigger gap between the bars, and each bar is actually two strands.
The enlarged stitches tend to be looser, and often the second stitch of the row is longer, too. (To combat that, my mother works the slipped stitch through the back loop on the return row.)
A slipped-stitch edge stitch makes the seam looser and less stable. It’s easier to seam when there are only half as many stitches to join, but it’s not as good a join.
For the same reasons, a slipped-stitch edge is not as good for picking up stitches, either—with one notable exception I’ll discuss in a moment. As explained in my article on picking up stitches, you’re usually picking up the stitches relative to the stitch-to-row ratio—typically 2 stitches for every 3 rows or 3 stitches for every 4 rows. If you slip the first stitch of the row, you halve the number of available places to stick the needle, making it practically impossible to pick up enough stitches (without some serious jiggery-pokery, anyway).
The big exception here is for flap-and-gusset sock heels. The standard technique is to slip the first stitch of every row on the heel flap, and then pick up one stitch for every slipped stitch along the edge (plus a couple more in a key location, but that’s a topic for a later date). This means that you’re picking up one stitch for every two rows. This is less than usual, a ratio of 50% rather than the usual 66-75%. But this works because you’ve likely worked your sock heel flap in a slipped stitch pattern, which compresses the rows—that is, increasing the row gauge, adding more rows per inch. So you don’t need to pick up as many of them to get the same number of gusset stitches.
How to Slip a Stitch
When slipping a stitch, there are two variables: how to put the needle in, and where to hold the yarn.
You can put the needle into the stitch as if to knit—also known as “knitwise.”
Slipping a stitch knitwise changes the position of the front and back legs of the stitch as you slip it.
Or, you can insert the needle into the stitch as if to purl—”purlwise.”
Slipping a stitch purlwise keeps it in the same position or mount on the needle, and is the most common way to slip a stitch.
And then there’s slipping a stitch with yarn in back:
Or you can slip a stitch with yarn in front:
Abbreviation: “WYIF.” most often used on a purl row.
When slipping the first stitch of a row, always slip it purlwise, as this preserves the stitch orientation, keeping the right leg to the front, so that it’s properly positioned for next time you need to work it. (Note that this applies to conventional Western-style knitters. If you work in the Combination/Eastern Crossed or Uncrossed method, the needle position isn’t important—just make sure you just keep the stitch mounted as appropriate for the row.)
But note that when you’re slipping stitches, the yarn position is independent of the needle direction. To be explicit, this means that it’s possible to slip a stitch purlwise with the yarn in the “knit” position, in the back.
If working a stockinette- or reverse-stockinette-based fabric, the yarn position (that is, whether it is held in front or back) is set by the row. That is, slip the stitch with yarn in back if it’s a knit row; in front if it’s a purl row.
If you’re working a garter-based fabric, slip the first stitch of the row with the yarn held in front, and then take it to the back before working the next stitch of the row. This causes the edge stitch to turn sideways, leaving a clean chain edge.
If you’re slipping a stitch at the start of a row, or in the middle—for a heel reinforcement, colour or other textural pattern—it’s always purlwise. With the yarn in the appropriate position for the row, of course.
Unless the pattern or stitch you’re working makes a specific and explicit exception, the only time to slip a stitch knitwise is when working a decrease, such as SKP, SSK, S2KPO, SK2PO, etc.
There is an argument about slipping the second stitch of your SSK purlwise, but we will save it for a future meeting of the Knitters’ Debate Club.
This Could Come in Handy