Thursday, January 17, 2013

Top down hat method: no pattern, no gauge swatch, no stitch markers!

I get comments all the time about how clever I am, but really I feel like what I actually am is lazy to the point that I always end up creating about fifty times more work for myself trying to avoid certain steps I find reprehensible in certain creative processes.  Occasionally, the results of my spectacular need to avoid work end up looking like brilliance, but I always kind of shrug off any suggestions to that end... I'm too familiar with myself and my own motivations to accept such praise.

I love knitting.  I really just love making things.  That's the other key to practically everything I do--I LOVE making things.  As in, I love making things.  To clarify further: I adore making finished objects.  As in, FINISHING things.  So, I suppose that actually I can say that I really just love finishing things.  Simple is good for me.  Getting it done is usually my goal.  There are very few things in this life that I make just for the pure joy of the making.  This might make me sound much less romantic about my "art", but really I feel that I make very little art.  I don't find some huge satisfaction in being called an artist.  I make things.  Finished things.  With two boys and a very full life of volunteering, business, etc., I don't feel like I have time for anything but actually accomplishing something when I finally get to sit and make things.  This could be why I feel so obsessed with making tutorials on my blog.  It's hard for me to feel motivated to share just about myself... that doesn't feel like an accomplishment.  But teaching something?  There, now, THAT'S suspiciously like making something (a tutorial), so I can do it.

Hence, my top down hat "method", which has been called brilliant, yet feels anything but for reasons mentioned above.  I'm going to attempt to teach here how I do it without a pattern and without stitch markers.  I apologize in advance for the quality of the pictures, but what I had with me when last I was working with massive yarn was my cell phone in very poor lighting.  I attempted to edit them to be clearer in Instagram.

This method was basically taken from Barbara Walker's "Knitting from the Top", which is actually brilliant, but pretty hard to get through at times.  You have to really read it and re-read it to get some of what she's saying, and most of her methods involve a ton of math.  I think it's worth it to learn her methods because once you do, you know how to make something, instead of just reading a pattern.  You develop an understanding of the process rather than blindly following someone else's directions.  I'm going to put the key words in bold so that you can find them if you're just skimming for tips and don't feel like reading all of what I'm saying here.

I said before that I work very hard to avoid certain steps.  Two things I hate more than almost anything on earth (in the confines of knitting) are gauge swatches and the use of stitch markers.  I don't think I have to explain the gauge swatch to anyone.  The stitch marker thing might sound strange, being that I kind of make the best stitch markers on earth (according to my friends at my LYS, who faithfully and constantly buy them from said LYS), but it's really more for situations such as making a top down hat... when you have to use more stitch markers than stitches at first.  I don't mind one or two in a shawl, across a few hundred stitches, but having eight stitch markers for eight increases over only 60 stitches or so?  Drives me crazy!

So, this method is about getting rid of gauge swatches and stitch markers... let's get down to it!

Basically, you start with as many stitches as you'll increase.  I do 8 stitches every other row for a standard hat with a nice, gently rounded top.  This works out brilliantly for me because I knit on five double point needles, so everything divides nicely into four for me.  I do 4 stitches every other row if I want to make a totally cute elf style hat.

Use needles that usually make a good fabric with the yarn you're using.  If you have no clue, usually the ball will tell you somewhere what size needles, from smallest to largest, that the manufacturer feels work best with their yarns.  If you tend to knit very tightly, use the largest listed needles.  If you tend to knit very loosely, use the smaller needles.  If you have no clue how you knit, just pull out all the sizes the label says, close your eyes, and pick a set at random.  Fortune favors the bold and all of that... Carry on!

With some irony attached, here's the basic pattern for the patternless top down hat:  (Many VEHEMENT thanks go out to MissJones on Ravelry who caught my mistake below and fixed my instructions for me!  Thank you so much!)

Cast on 8 stitches.  Join for knitting in the round.
Row 1: knit plain
Row 2: knit each stitch front and back until the end of the round.  (16 stitches)
Row 3: knit plain
Row 4: knit 1, knit one front and back.  Repeat until the end of the round.  (24 stitches)
Row 5: knit plain
Row 6: knit 2, knit one front and back.  Repeat until the end of the round.  (32 stitches)
Row 7: knit plain
Row 8: knit 3, knit one front and back.  Repeat until the end of the round.  (40 stitches)

I hope you've detected the pattern by now.  Every other increase row, you will knit one more stitch than the row previously before you increase.  Once you've knit far enough, you should be able to spread the emerging hat flat enough that you can measure how many stitches you're getting to the inch.  Do this on 3-4 places on the hat to make sure you're getting a constant measurement.

In my experience, knitting requires both math and figuring.  Stay with me and I'll explain myself, and hopefully I'll do it well.  There's the cold hard calculations and numbers... That's the math.  Your gauge measurement is where the math comes in.  Say I'm knitting a hat on size 10.5 (6.5mm) needles with bulky yarn and I'm getting a gauge of 3.5 stitches to the inch.  If I need the hat to fit a 21" head, I would multiply my gauge by my desired finished size.  In this case: 3.5 x 21, which equals 73.5.  That's the math.

I don't know about you, but I don't really know how to knit 73.5 stitches, so I'm going to have to figure this out to make it easier on myself.  This is the figuring.  Usually, with knit hats, you can get away with the thing being about an inch too small.  In fact, I would say that you actually WANT to knit slightly smaller than your desired finished measurement so that the knitting gets to stretch a bit and hug the recipient's head, rather than just sitting perfectly on top and then falling off every time they pull a hood up and down or cartwheel or whatever else they may do.  So an inch less than 21" is 20", and 3.5 x 20 = 70.  So we have two math results of 73.5 and 70.

To make things easiest on myself, I want a final stitch number that is divisible by my number of increases, that way I can end up with even sections, which makes me happy.  So I'm looking for a final number that is divisible by 8 (because I keep increasing 8 stitches).  A number between 73.5 and 70 divisible by 8?  We've already got it... It's 72.  If you are knitting on a circular or on two circulars or whatever, then this is the end of your figuring.

Now, I'm knitting on five double point needles, so one needle is the working needle, and four of them are constantly holding my stitches.  I like for the number on each needle to be even.  So I want to have a final number that is divisible by four, because four needles are holding my stitches.  Obviously, if the final number is divisible by 8, then it's divisible by 4.  But these are the things you have to think about when you do your own figuring if, say, you were increasing 7 stitches instead of eight.  I don't know why you would want to do that, but you could have some amazing reason that makes total sense to you, and it's helpful to know that being able to divide it evenly across your needles, however many you use, is helpful if that's something that you care about.

So now that I've done both my math and my figuring, I know that I will increase until I have a total of 72 stitches, or a total of 8 groups of 9 stitches.  Or, on my set of five double points, I would end up with 18 stitches per needle.

So how do you do all of these increases, especially if you're knitting with a smaller yarn, if you're not using stitch markers?  And how do you know when to do an increase row vs. a plain row if you're not using a row counter?  In fact, how can you knit a whole hat without a pattern and without even keeping track of anything at all!?  It's by learning how to READ your knitting.  It looks brilliant, I suppose, but really it was because I was sick of having to go to the effort of, like, making a hash mark on a piece of paper or something.  (Oh, the horror!)  Or, you know, putting a marker somewhere in the knitting.  (The stuff of nightmares!)  So I sat and figured out how to do it without all of that other stuff.  Fellow lazy crafters, rejoice!

Enter the photos...  I will do my best to explain, and again, I hope I do it well.

When you knit front and back (my preferred method of increasing for these things), you end up with a kind of a lump marking where you did an increase, like so:

When this lump is sitting RIGHT next to the needle or cord as in the photo above, you know you've just completed an increase row.  If you've just completed your increase row, it's time to knit a plain row.

Here is what your knitting looks like after you knit a plain row.  See a stitch has formed above the last lump?

So with that plain stitch above the increase lump, you know it's time to do an increase row.  How do you know where to increase without a marker?

Enter my gorgeous husband, who is pointing out with a third needle where the increase goes.  You knit front and back in the stitch on the needle that's over the last lump.  See, in the photo below, I've knit up to that point...

And NOW, I've knit into the front and back of that one stitch, making a new lump.  See how it stepped to the left of the first lump?

So the next time you come around, you'll see the lump sitting next to the needle and knit a plain row.  Then when you come around again, you'll see a stitch sitting on top of the lump and you'll knit into the front and back of the stitch on the needle over the lump, creating a NEW lump that sits farther left.  So you'll always increase one stitch in exactly the right place.

Now you basically just repeat this process until you get enough stitches to measure.  Then you do your math and your figuring and knit until you have as many stitches as you need, then you knit however you want until the end.  I stop about an inch and a half short and do some ribbing.  Rib the whole hat if you want to.  Again, it just depends on what you want at this point.

If you do this process on five double points like I do, you don't have to do as much "reading" of the knitting as someone knitting on a single circular or on two or whatever, because you'll always have one increase in the middle of one needle, and then at the end of the needle, so you'll increase in the middle, then knit and increase in the end without having to "read" at all.  You also don't even have to mark the beginning of your round because a quick glance at the lump on the needle tells you whether or not you're about to increase or knit plain.  If you are knitting on a 16" circular, however, even I would mark the beginning of my round.  Again, I'm not totally against all markers.  I just hate having a million of them.  I wouldn't mark the beginning of the round for two circulars or for magic loop because the beginning of a round is always one side, either way, and a quick glance at the lumps tells me what I'm doing for that entire half of the hat.

For the bind off, I thought I was doing Jeny's Surprisingly Stretchy Bind Off, but I found out I was doing it wrong.  Here's what I do (and it works very well):

I bind of all knit stitches in a typical bind off.  Knit two.  Slip the right stitch over the left stitch on the right needle.  For the purls: yarn over, purl the next stitch, pass both right stitches (previously bound off stitch AND yarn over) over left stitch.  Repeat for every purl.

If you did knit one, purl one, you'd basically knit one stitch, yarn over, then purl one stitch, and pass the two right stitches (yarn over plus bound stitch) over the left one.  Then you'd knit the next stitch and pass the right stitch over the left stitch, just like a plain bind off.  Then yarn over, etc.

When I was binding off the purl way on every single stitch, the edge would be almost comically stretchy, so I've started doing it only on the actual purls.  But actually, I bind off ALL of my shawls this way, with that yarn over purl thing, whatever the pattern edge is.  I know at least one lady at my LYS who does all of her shawls this way now, too.  It's seriously crazy stretchy.  You can block the heck out of it.

So how long do you make the hat?  I'm somewhat unscientific about stuff (I don't know if you can tell), but what seems to work for me is to lay the piece flat and look at what I've knit.  Not counting the dome part (or point part... if you're making an "elf" hat) of the top of the hat, I try to make the bottom part look like a slightly squat little square.  So knit the bottom part of the hat (beyond the increases) a bit shorter than the width.  This seems to work out perfectly for me.  Knit it longer if you want or shorter or whatever.  This is the part where your own figuring has to come in, and the preferences of the person you're knitting for, or the climate.  If you need that extra few inches to fold up over your ears because you live somewhere that actually gets cold, then knit extra.  If you want one comfortable layer because your "winter" makes most people laugh their heads right off, then do what I do.  OR, if you really want to be scientific about it, look up some free hat pattern on Ravelry using your weight of yarn and see how long they made their hat, and do it the same.

I hope this was in any way helpful to anyone.  I know it wasn't a real pattern, but it wasn't supposed to be.  I was trying to let you figure out how to make your own stuff.  Hopefully I did that!  I'd love to see any pictures of anything you make using this tutorial.


  1. Thanks, Kathy, this is more helpful than just a traditional pattern. I always learn more when I have a guide like this.

  2. Ok, so it is now 2016 and I have saved this link for 2 years so I could make another hat!! I've used your excellent tutorial before, but I'm very glad I re-read just now before casting on - just to cover the details, like where to increase. Excellent!
    Thank you!!
    Beverly near Yosemite CA

  3. This will be my first top down hat and I've only made one regular one before. I'm so happy to see your "pattern" :) It'll be a big help! I wasn't sure if I'd need to use Judy's Magic Cast on. Seems so much smarter doing a top down like this!

  4. Thanks for this! I'm winging a Pikachu hat for my youngest, and this was really helpful. Thanks for taking the time to write it out.

  5. I love this!!! Thanks so much! This will be my first hat. I never learned circular knitting until this year after over 20 years of straight needles. Decided to choose Magic Loop and I'm happy with it. It gets freezing here in upstate NY.

  6. Thank you for this! Fed up with struggling with gauge to get the right fit for a hat, I Googled and got your page.
    Wow. I mean, I am happy to swatch to get the right needle for the yarn but swatch after swatch to try and get the stuff to match the pattern? Why? I could have knit half a hat already.
    OK, so navy blue (with my aging eyes) was not the best colour to learn on, but I could work out - and feel - where I was supposed to be. I used one stitch marker. One.
    Thank you so much again.