On Finishing

I haven’t undertaken a scientific study, but it doesn’t seem like finishing is very popular. Lots of people love to knit, but not so many people like to sew up what they’ve knit. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard about “. . . that sweater that’s sitting in the back of my closet, just waiting for me to put it together. Sigh. If only I didn’t hate seaming so much.” The number of inquiries I’ve received about whether Halfdome can be knit in the round seems to back this up.

Some of this is understandable. Weaving in yarn ends certainly isn’t very exciting; for me, it ranks somewhere between scooping out the cat box and flossing my teeth. I’ve even considered designing an H.P. Lovecraft-inspired sweater that achieves its tentacled effect by having all of its yarn ends left dangling. No, yarn ends are no fun at all.

Seaming, on the other hand, is a glorious activity. The pleasure of watching four (or five (or six)) pieces of knitting come together into a perfect whole is deep and lasting. And those pieces were flat! And now they’re a shaped garment! Holy crap! How much do I love seaming? Let us count the ways.

First, we have the tapestry needle. There aren’t a lot of wholly perfect objects in the world——well, not too many artificial ones——but the tapestry needle is one of them. Two inches of pure molded steel, the tapestry needle sits more comfortably between your thumb and index finger than any other piece of metal. It’s tapered just enough to pass between two strands of yarn, but not so much that it splits everything it touches. And it never pierces your skin.

Here it is doing my favorite finishing activity: mattress stitch. That strand of yarn is the bar between an edge stitch and its neighbor. Slipping that needle between those two stitches and teasing out that bar is strangely satisfying, like removing a splinter from underneath your fingernail. It’s always a little reticent at first, but once it’s out it’s out.And once you’ve pulled the needle through, what was once the bottom end of a mere knit stitch is now a link in the chain that will hold your sweater together. See what happens when we go back and forth a few times?

Now comes the really amazing part. See how I’m about to pull on that yarn there? Well, here I go:

Did you see that? That seam has disappeared! It’s, like, totally gone! And when you do mattress stitch, you get to do this over and over. Am I the only knitter who thinks this is fun? No way. Admit it: mattress stitch is a hoot and a half.

Like scrambled eggs, mattress stitch is one of those things that I wonder how anyone came up with. It’s not exactly obvious that if you work a strand of yarn between alternating edge stitches you get a seam that evaporates right before your eyes, but there it is. When two pieces of knitting are worked together this way, it’s like they were destined to be joined. Who knew?

Not all seaming is this mind-blowing, of course. Joining sleeve caps to their respective sleeve holes isn’t anywhere near as satisfying (or as easy), and shoulder seams call for a more subtle hand than side seams and sleeve seams . . . but have you ever tried grafting? Oh man! Any day I get to use kitchener stitch is a day that was worth getting out of bed for! When I do sock toes, I just——

Ahem. Right. I’m going to shut up now.

35 Comments

  • twig says:

    When the men come with the fashionable white jacket with the really long sleeves, you really should try it on.

  • Cara says:

    Right there with you on kitchener….

  • JulieT says:

    I have a love/hate relationship with finishing. Some of it is very satisfying, like mattress stitch seams (with you there) and grafted hems (love them) but like you said, putting sleeve caps in arm holes and darning in ends is the utter pits. What sucks most of all about it is, you can blow a hundred hours’ of perfection in knitting with fifteen minutes of bad finishing. So you HAVE to sit there and do it right, or wind up spending two months knitting a sweater that looks like it was knit by monkeys.

    So… yeah. Give me some of that mattress stitch, and who can I pay to do these sleeves? (Actually, I usually go seamless because I hate sleeve caps so bad.)

  • no-blog-rachel says:

    I’d read so many bad things about Kitchener stitch that I was scared as hell of it when I made my first socks. But now..I think it’s rather fun! And definitely cool.

    BTW, thanks for Avast – the first sweater pattern my husband has seen so far that he actually WANTS me to knit for him! Now, to find the perfect yarn….

  • Cathy in MN says:

    And I love to teach new knitters how to seam and graft before someone tells them that it is painful. It’s a joy to see their happiness in the whole process.

  • carole says:

    I have to agree. I love mattress stitch– it feels like pure magic!

  • michael says:

    I can’t agree more about the feel of the tapestry needle! As for “real seaming” I haven’t tackled anything that complex yet.

  • Sean Dilley says:

    You make it all sound so reasonable, non-threatening, and soothing.

    Why, then, do I picture myself dripping with sweat, squinting through glassy, crazed eyes as I try to seam up Halfdome 3 sometime this week?

    I think I should knit a few practice swatches to practice my seaming. That way I could stop worry about ruining something real if I mangle my mattress stitch.

    I notice you don’t use a Chibi needle for your seaming. Chibis appear to be all the rage amongst knitters here in MN. I always use one for weaving in ends.

  • wendy says:

    I think that is why I’ve decided to try set-in sleeves from the top down. I can’t stand the way I finish my sleeve caps and they are always a dead give-away to a “home-made” sweater. So far, so good, and they’re fun, too.

    But the mattress stitch. Gotta love that.

  • Aija says:

    I am a kitchener addict, too 🙂

  • Carla says:

    You never have to shut up about the mattress stitch or the kitchener stitch. I could read about those all day. I still don’t understand why people get so intimidated by the kitchener stitch – it definitely requires concentration, but it is SO worth it. Sigh… kitchener… sigh…

  • Way to go Yarn Boy! I’m with you all the way, and I’m forwarding this to a friend who’s in the middle of some serious finishing angst. Thanks. 😀

  • Darci says:

    I love this post…I have a wee sweater that needs seaming…It will be done by the end of today…pinkie promise.

  • Adam says:

    I do agree, there is something completely magical about the mattress stitch that just mystifies me everytime. Doing mattress stitch on garter stitch is just as amazing too. I still haven’t knit a sweater, so I haven’t done any really huge projects that have required a lot of finishing, but I don’t really mind it all that much. I suppose knitting a sweater could change my mind…

  • Stephanie says:

    I love mattress stitch. There is just something so unutterably fantastic about the simplicity and perfection of it. I am a dork.

  • Molly says:

    A friend and I came up with a great solution to finishing! We decided that there need to be “finishers for hire” standing outside of yarn stores, kind of like the guys who hang out in front of Home Depot. I would gladly pay someone to finish all of my UFO’s! Any takers??? Ha ha ha!

  • Sean says:

    Do your nails always look that perfect, by the way? Maybe you could become a hand model/writer/knitwear designer… A triple threat!

  • Lori says:

    I’m still not a huge fan of finishing (the whole ruining-countless-hours-of-work-in-twenty-minutes thing mentioned above), but I recently discovered that it is the perfect excuse to barricade myself in the bedroom and insist that I need hours of absolute peace and quiet. So there are definitely upsides.

  • Steph VW says:

    I am SOOOO with you on the love of a good mattress stitch or a kitchener stitch.

    I’ve been knitting all of my socks from the toe up so I don’t have to worry about running out of yarn before I get to the toe, HOWEVER, I do miss the kitchener stitch. It’s just so enthralling. *said without an ounce of sarcasm*

  • knittybitty says:

    I thought I was the only one. Whew! This is like finding your finishing soulmate! I teach customers at our LYS to seam, and I always make it sound just as magical as you do. By the time they’re done they feel like magicians! It’s not every day you get to make someone feel that special! They don’t even know it was supposed to be “scary”. Attitude is everything, my friend. Love yours!

  • Erika says:

    So glad to see mattress stitch finally get its due! When I pull the yarn end, I think “Zzzzzip!” as I watch it zip itself together and disappear. Best trick ever!

  • Nessa says:

    I tried this stitch for the first time today. OMG it is awesome!! I love the way it looks, and it actually makes me not dread the finishing process so much more!!

  • minijaxter says:

    i like kitchener stitch.
    i hate making socks but i like finishing them.
    i know im weird

  • debster says:

    pssst…yarnboy…are you getting my emails??

  • Jessy says:

    i hate grafting sock toes. it makes such an uncomfortable toe, or maybe its just me?

  • Harper says:

    I am a new knitter and not the greatest finisher (a striped bag I sweated over will never see the light of day thanks to a ropy scar of a seam) but recently finished a child’s three pointed hat with kitchener stitch and found once you caught the rhythm it was fun, cha cha cha.

  • Kurtis says:

    Before I became a knitter, I did needle point, so doing any kind of of work with a tapestry needle is fun for me! Also, kudos to you on Avast. Finally I’ve found a pattern that was desiged buy a male knitter for a guy. Now when I knit something for myself I don’t have to spend 10 minutes convincing people that I made it and not my girlfriend.

  • Faith says:

    I’ve always felt bad about blogging this somehow…but I agree with you 100%. Seaming and Kitchner are only bad because people make them out to be this Big Aweful Thing. If you’re dreading it as a new knitter, than yes, it will probably suck. But if you approach it as “a cool new thing to learn” just like a new knitting technique, it makes it fun. And very gratifying!

  • Glenna says:

    Aw, I wish I’d read your post a few days ago – no, a week and a half ago, because that’s the amount of time my cast-off sweater was sitting around waiting to be sewn together. It’s the longest I’ve ever left the cast-off pieces stew before doing the finishing. I think for me it’s just the fact that cast off = done, in my mind, so why do I now have to bother with the last step if I’ve got other things in the knitting queue to worry about? 😉

  • Kathleen says:

    I heart mattress stitch!

  • Jen says:

    Totally agree about the mattress stitch, way cool! Love your blog and your entrelac Knitty scarf!!

  • Elena says:

    Have tried grafting and apprechiate it a lot. This mattress stich thing sounds really exciting ;o) I m-u-s-t learn this technique as I can honestly say that I really hate joining parts together (except for when you can use grafting of course). Perhaps I can get myself to knit this cardigan and that sweater now… Thanks!

  • Belinda says:

    I love the mattress stitch. It’s so gratifying to watch the pieces just come together….INVISIBLY! Everytime I seam something I get a little giddy and show my husband every 3 minutes the “pulling together” phase. He’s seen it so much that I think he’d be able to do it now.

  • Gary says:

    love it love it love it. I agree it is so satisfying to see that seam disappear. And now for the gory bit, its great on wounds too – yes a medico who knits, or a knitter who medics??? (obviously talking about mattress stitch not kitchener stitch!)

  • mm says:

    What you need to make is the assymetrical corrugated rib v-neck from loop-d-loop. Not only is it a great and flattering pattern, but you get to seam in three different invisible stitch patterns every few rows. The result is really cool.

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