The Tip Jar: Rib Stitch
Some directions in knitting are taken for granted by the author of the pattern; it is a bit irritating to be a new knitter and encounter an instruction like “Work in 2×2 rib for twenty rows” and not know what it means. In fact, it is irritating as a seasoned knitter, too!
Rib stitch is great: it’s easy to follow and easy to ensure its perfection, it is versatile, and the best part is that it is a stretchy and forgiving finished fabric. Ribbing is basically just continuous columns of stocking stitch and reverse stocking stitch next to each other. If you see a break in the columns, you have made a mistake. And unlike complicated knit-and-purl, lace, or cable patterns, you can actually fix it with confidence by just unraveling to the one incorrect stitch and picking back up again. This is a lesson for another day, however.
To knit a test swatch, cast on 32 stitches. *(K1, P1) to the end. Turn and repeat, over and over until you you have a couple of inches of fabric on your needles. You will begin to feel how stretchy and supple 1×1 rib really is (“1×1” means one stitch knitted and one stitch purled). I cast on loosely so it could easily be seen in the photo, but rib starts to pull inward after a bit.
But watch: because you are swapping your yarn back and forth between every stitch, there is a tiny bit more yarn per stitch, making ribbing super-stretchy.
Look at the needle, where the stitches lie. Sometimes you will see rib stitch patterns written out as just the first row, and then for all subsequent rows, “knit the knits and purl the purls.” See how every other stitch has a purl bump? Every time you encounter a purl bump, you purl. How much more simple can it get?
Oh, and as long as you are knitting and purling the same number of stitches (2×2, 4×4, etc.), the pattern is reversible and identical from one side to the other. See?
One great quality of ribbing is that it prevents stocking stitch from curling up at the bottom; this is why it is such a popular stitch at the hems and cuffs of all of your favorite slipover patterns. The more stitches you make per panel, the less stretchy the rib becomes, but it still lies flat. I made one continuous swatch so it would be easier to see the difference. The top of the next swatch is 4×4 rib, or four knits and then four purls repeated. See how the 1×1 rib on the bottom pulls in from its flatter, fatter counterpart on the needle?
Hence why rib is so popular on hats and socks. Ribbing stretches over the largest part of your head (or, in the case of a sock, your calf) without strangling, so rib will ensure its fit. Across the top of the needle below, you can see four knits, four purls, four knits, four purls…the knit and purl stitches next to each other tend to buddy up, so the knit stitches are prominent no matter which side you see. Just like the stretchiness, this becomes less and less when your panels of knit and purl get wider.
The stocking-stitch-side prominence is more evident when you change things up a bit. The last piece of the swatch is 4×2 rib (K4, P2 on one side, and K2, P4 on the other side), so on the right side, the purl stitches are barely evident other than along the needle.
On the “wrong” side, or mostly purl side, the purl and knit columns look almost identical in size. In some cases, the side with more purl than knit may be more attractive, so the “right” side of ribbing is really a matter of preference.
So who cares about the inner workings of rib stitch? Well, rib does have its tricky moments. For instance, some patterns will tell you to do the rib portion of a pattern with a smaller needle, because of the extra slack created by swapping the yarn from the front to the back of the needle on every switch from knit to purl and back to knit. If you are a tighter knitter, switching needle sizes tends not to be necessary.
Also, rib stitch is knitted the same way seed stitch is knitted, except that with seed stitch, you knit the purls and purl the knits. If the knitter is not paying attention, ribbing can become seed stitch at a moment’s notice. If you find you have little dots across your fabric instead of columns of stocking stitch, you may have switched your knits for your purls.
In addition to preventing curl, the stretchiness of rib can be applied to a garment as a shaping technique. Do you want to show off your waist? Insert a panel of rib into an otherwise boxy top, about four to five inches below the armhole. Or, if you want almost no shaping at all, throw in a 6×6 rib to break up the monotony of stocking stitch. Rib allows for generous sizing, so winter hats and fingerless mitts can be made entirely in a rib pattern and fit a wide range of fellow chilly humans. It can be used to jazz up the tops of a pair of boots, give a generous neck opening on a jumper, and even make a great scarf because of its reversibility and density.
Look in your project bags and see if you have any projects that can benefit from a portion of the pattern being changed to a rib stitch. I bet you will be surprised.
Last updated: February 27th, 2014.