Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Correcting Mistakes in Knitting: Lifelines

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How to correct mistakes in knitting is a subject that comes up every time I teach someone to knit. Too often students admit that if they make an error, they feel their only recourse is to rip out the entire piece. How frustrating! When I started to learn how to fix my knitting goofs, my knitting soared! I felt so empowered and in control. And, being the teeny tiny control freak that I am....

So here is Lesson One of the "Correcting Mistakes in Knitting," which is Lifelines.

A lifeline will save your (knitting) life! When you're drowning in missing YOs and k3togs, you'll be begging for someone to throw you a line!

What is a lifeline?

A lifeline is a string that is threaded through a row of knitting. As you continue to knit, that string will stay in your work "just in case." If you make a blunder so big that you can't fix it through other, less dramatic means, you can frog (rip out) your work all the way down to your lifeline and try again. Note that this is better that ripping out your entire project. Especially when you're working on a shawl that contains over 68,000 stitches (like the shawl in these pictures).

When should I use a lifeline?

You can use a lifeline whenever and wherever you want. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How comfortable am I with this pattern?

  • How often do I make mistakes when working a pattern like this?

  • How devastated would I be if I lost half my work? 10 rows?

  • If I had to rip out half of my work, would I lose motivation to continue with this project?

If you're prone to make mistakes, are working a new sort of pattern, would be devastated or lose motivation if you had to rip out too much, you'll want to use lifelines more frequently. If you're not likely to make major mistakes, are comfortable with the pattern, and wouldn't mind it if you had to rip back 50 rows, then you can use lifelines more sparingly.
Lifelines are most often seen used in lacework. Lace is the most finicky knitting to try to fix without ripping back. When you drop a stitch in stockinette or garter stitch, it's fairly easy to dip down, catch your stitch, and run it back up (another blog post on that soon). If you drop a stitch in a lace shawl, and it drops down through yarn-overs or increases or decreases...this can get trickier, and it may be easier to just rip down to your lifeline and try again. You can certainly use a lifeline in a stockinette sweater or hat though. That's the beautiful part of knitting...you're the one that gets to write the rule book! Do what works for you.

Also, lifelines will be easiest to place in a plain knit row, but can be placed in any row if needed.

What kind of string do you use for a lifeline?

Again, this is personal preference. And it's going to depend on what type of yarn you're using, what size needles, and the type of project. Scrap worsted weight yarn won't work well for a dainty lace project for instance, but may work just fine for a project made with bulky yarn. As a general rule, your lifelinen should be the same thickness as your yarn or thinner. You should also use a color that will show up against your working yarn. Don't use a black lifeline if you're knitting a navy blue project. Don't use white if you're knitting a cream project. You want to be able to see your lifelines easily. Trust me on this one. When you drop back down to your lifeline, you will have to pick up each stitch from the lifeline and get it back on your needle. The contrast will help immensely.

When in doubt? Dental floss! Waxed and unscented, though I personally haven't had any problems with  mint-scented. White dental floss doesn't work all that well with paler projects, but for most things it works just great. Because it's nice and slick too, it will pull out of your work pretty easily. I used waxed, unscented dental floss for the photos in this post. As you can see from the top picture, generic works just fine!

So how do I put this lifeline in anyway?

There are 3 ways to put a lifeline into your work. The easiest way is to put one in the row you're currently working on.

First, take a length of string longer than your work. Thread it onto a tapestry needle. Run it through the active stitches on your needle from one side to the other.

If you have a stitch marker in your work, DO NOT run your lifeline through the stitch marker! Go around it. Then continue on the other side. If you go through the stitch marker, you'll anchor it in place and will have to either go back and pull out your lifeline or cut out your stitch markers. Not pretty. Don't do it.

This is how your lifeline and stitch markers should look. Notice that the lifeline is on the OUTSIDE of the stitch marker. I cannot emphasize this enough.

I didn't put in a lifeline and now I'm in trouble!

This brings me to the second way you can put in lifelines. You can put them in after-the-fact. This is a bit more time consuming that the first method, but it's doable.

Start a couple rows under your blunder. Thread your tapestry needle the same way and start on one end or, if working in the round, at the beginning of the round if possible. Pick up the right leg of each stitch in that row with the tapestry needle and thread the lifeline through it. If you can't easily pick up the right leg, that's ok. (You can pick up the left leg, but be very careful later on that you twist those stitches back when you pick them up with your needles so that you don't twist the stitch when you knit it. If at all possible, stick with the right legs.)

This method takes awhile, but can be very helpful in a pinch.

What's the third way?

If you use interchangeable cable needles, they probably have a hole in the needle itself that you use to help you tighten the needle on the cable. You can thread this hole as if it's the tapestry needle. Then, knit your next row as usual and watch the lifeline almost magically insert itself into your row. When you're done with the row, unthread the needle and continue as usual.

A word of caution though: if you're using closed ring stitch markers, your lifeline will also go through them! As we've already discussed, this is bad. Options? Remove your SMs while working that row or use removeable stitch markers.

So what do I do when I make a mistake?

Well, first, try other methods to fix your mistake if possible. Ripping out your work should always be a last resort.

If you've exhausted all other possibilities, then take your needle(s) out of your work, and rip out your work to the row just above the lifeline. Then, with your knitting needle ready, slowly pull out this last row as well, catching the row with the lifeline as you go. Take your knitting needle and slowly pick up these stitches one by one, putting them back on the needle. For now, leave your lifeline in place.
Go all the way across. If possible, make sure the stitches are positioned correctly, with the right leg of the stitch to the front. Count your stitches to make sure you have them all.

Once you're sure that everything is positioned correctly and that you have all of your stitches, you can take out your lifeline. BUT you probably shouldn't! Why? Because you might need it again? If you goofed once, you may goof again. Leave the lifeline where it is, just in case.

When can I take out my lifelines?

Even if you have several lifelines in your project, leave the earlier ones in just in case you find an error below the newer lifelines.

When your project is completely done, you can safely remove your lifelines and block your project.


Sarah said...

THANK YOU!!! i am making a lace tam, it's my first lace anything, and i had to rip back several rows and really really didn't want to start all over but had lost the YOs. now i know how to put the lifeline in a few rows below what i've got and don't have to start over. THANKS!!

Sandra La Knitalian said...

Someone once mentioned "Lifelines" to me and it went right over my head, UNTIL NOW!
Thanks for sharing!

Bradie Sparrow said...

This is brilliant. Seriously. Oops, I am showing my rookie knitter status too openly? :)

Janey said...

BEST explanation & pictures of how to use lifelines. Believe me, I've been researching! thanks!

Anonymous said...

Terrific tips. Thanks for the help!

Anonymous said...

What helped me before frogging back to the lifeline was to insert a smaller knitting needle through the actual stitches, following the path of the lifeline. Then, and only then, after making sure each stitch on the lifeline row was safely on that smaller needle, I frogged back to the lifeline--where my stitches were safely on the temporary smaller needle. That way, the place where you need to start again never has the stitches "off" the needle. This was easier for me than trying to thread and position the lifeline stitches back on after frogging back. Just an extra measure of safety for a beginner like me.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic tutorial. Very helpful. Thanks!!

Unknown said...

I'm making socks with fingering wt. yarn and a #2 circ. needle. Does anyone know where I might find a tapestry type needle that has a very small eye for setting the lifeline? My regular size needle's eye stretches out my stitches a lot.

Thank you so much for this tutorial, its the clearest one I've found yet for doing a lifeline!

Anonymous said...

I'm a brand new knitter working on my 1st project & your tips above saved me from having to start over for the 7th time! THANK YOU! I think I may actually enjoy knitting now I know how to save my work & not rip it out every time I make a mistake!

Anonymous said...

Use a needle threader :)