Technique Tuesday: "At the Same Time..."


On Technique Tuesdays, I’ll be tackling technique questions in knitting, questions about how to execute a particular thing rather than “how to think about executing a thing” (that’s for Thursdays). This fall, most of these questions will focus on sweater knitting.

Q: This section of the pattern says that I do X and Y (or X, Y, and Z) “at the same time.” What does that mean? What row do I start on? How do I work them together?

If I ranked the pattern support questions I receive, this question, or some form of it, is the second most common (after “how do I sew in these sleeves?”) , and by a country mile. And this makes perfect sense: working simultaneous instructions (those dread paragraphs that begin with “at the same time…”) is both a nearly-universal aspect of sweater knitting, and a somewhat daunting one. But, it doesn’t have to be, and once you figure out a method of keeping track that works well for you, you’ve solved the problem for all future sweaters (and other projects where you do something like working a stitch pattern and working shaping concurrently, like shawls).

So, why do we write patterns this way? I know many a knitter who feels like the answer is “for the purpose of driving me crazy,” but, I promise, it’s not: the issue is really about efficiency and (in the old days of magazine and book publication) print space. Designers are always trying to strike a balance between being as clear as possible and as succinct as possible; hopefully these two purposes align, but, sometimes there are trade-offs. A dear friend I met at Squam a couple of years ago teaches math to secondary school students and, when she teaches them about design thinking and writing code, uses knitting patterns as an example (since knitting patterns are, after all, a lot like computer programs—they use a series of abbreviations and shorthand to provide instructions to us, as knitters, to do things that will eventually produce something). And one of the same basic rules of writing computer code also applies to writing knitting patterns: we’re always trying to use the simplest, most efficient set of instructions we can to accomplish the same goal.

You’ll see these “at the same time…” paragraphs in a variety of ways, but in sweater knitting, they most occur in these cases:

  • when you need to work some kind of shaping (sleeve increases, waist shaping, etc.) while working the sweater’s major stitch pattern (an allover texture, or a particular cable panel),

  • when you need to work two kinds of shaping together (neck and armhole shaping, for example, are often worked at the same time for portions of v-neck sweaters),

  • or, when you need to do both of these things together (to do one or more kinds of shaping and to do something to or in a stitch pattern).

Simultaneous instructions take the same basic form in most sweater patterns, though the order may vary slightly. Usually, it looks something like this:

  1. Set-up instructions (any set-up rows you need to work), and what I call the “background instructions,” which are how you work the “even” rows where there’s no shaping to be worked. In most sweater patterns that are worked back and forth, this will read something like, “All RS Rows: k1, k to m, sm, work charted sts to m, sm, k to end of row. All WS Rows: k1, p to m, sm, work charted sts to m, p to last st, k1.”

  2. Description of what you’re going to work simultaneously. This is almost always a paragraph that starts something like NOTE: instructions for A-line shaping and cable pattern are worked AT THE SAME TIME, please read to the end of this section before continuing.” In my patterns, these are all indicated in bold, italicized type, and I try to always capitalize “AT THE SAME TIME.”

  3. Description of the “special” rows you’ll need to work (the shaping, etc.). Usually this will say something like, “Increase row (RS): k1, m1R, continue as established to last st, m1L, k1.” In the simple case, where you’re just working a cable pattern alongside, say, waist shaping, you’ll just have one “special” row specified; if you’re working more than one kind of shaping, they’ll all be specified.

  4. A description of how frequently you’ll work the special rows, usually of the form of “work increase row every X rows X more times.”

Let’s take a look at this in practice. Here’s a section of my Mapleshade pattern:

Mapleshade ATST.jpg.png

When we translate this from pattern-ese back to English, we learn the following:

  • Our baseline, or “normal” row, involves knitting around the sweater and working the cable charts between certain markers.

  • On “increase” rounds, we increase at certain markers, knit our way around the sweater, and work the cable charts between certain markers.

  • On “shift” rounds, we work paired increases and decreases that move the cable pattern towards the front of the sweater, and knit around the sweater, working the cable charts between certain markers.

  • When we’re not working a “shift” or “increase” round, we work a baseline round.

  • We start with a shift round, and then work an increase round on the next round. We then work shift and increase rounds at specified intervals.

So far, so good, right? Now, because we know we’re working different kinds of rounds at different times, and that they come at regular intervals, we need a means of keeping track of where we are. I’m a devotee of those green locking row counters, but I know knitters who use smartphone apps, other kinds of mechanical row counters, and tally marks to great effect, so as is often the case, what matters is that you have a method, not that you use mine. We also need a way of keeping track of what rounds we need to do something other than a baseline round on, I.e., where the shift and increase rounds occur. Here, they’re relatively straightforward multiples, so you can, in theory, keep track in your head. But, lots of people find that challenging, and for good reason. In this case, as with many others, I think a little bit of planning ahead can save you a ton of trouble down the road, so it’s worth spending a few extra minutes mapping out what you need to do so that you can do more of the actual knitting without too much arithmetic intervening.

My favorite method is to make a two-column spreadsheet with the numbers for all the rounds you’ll need to knit listed, and then a blank space where you can mark the rounds you’ll need to work a shift or an increase on. Trying to figure out how many rounds or rows you’ll need? Multiply the length you’re supposed to work to by your row/round gauge, and round to the nearest multiple of two. Here’s an excerpt of the one I prepared for my Mapleshade students at Uncommon Threads last month:

Screen Shot 2019-08-27 at 6.45.13 PM.png

(Note that in this example, I’ve also noted where the vertical repeats of the cable chart start, but that’s not really necessary.) As I worked through the shifts and increases in the body, I could either mark off rows as I went or cross-reference the round on my row counter with what my list indicated I should be doing on that particular round.

The need to know where you are in your knitting with some degree of precision is really one of the only things that separates the mechanics of knitting a sweater from, say, knitting a scarf or a cowl, and while it sometimes seems like an intimidating one, it’s fortunately a problem you only need to solve for yourself once, and it will unlock a whole range of sweater-knitting happiness in your future.

How do you like to keep track of your rows in your knitting? Do simultaneous instructions trip you up? What other sweater knitting questions do you have that you’d like to hear about during our fall sweater school series?