- (noun): the state of being stretched or strained, i.e living through a pandemic – what I call TENSION
- (verb): to subject an object, i.e. your yarn while knitting, to tension for a specific purpose.
Like all things, tension differs with the context. In everyday life, tension (noun), or as I like to think of it, TENSION, is not a great thing – lots of health impacts & it doesn’t feel good.
But as a knitter, tension (verb) is a great thing. The correct tension will help you produce a beautiful knitted piece that drapes gracefully, displaying your glorious stitchwork for all to admire. Or maybe you’re making mittens sturdy enough to last a whole winter’s worth of snow shoveling. Either is a worthy goal. Both are dependent, in part, on getting your tension right.
Control Your Tension
This will become automatic, but it takes time and practice. For a beginning knitter, just learning to manage needles and yarn, getting your tension right can seem like one more thing out of too many. (What do you mean I have to pay attention to how I hold the yarn, too!) It’s worth it, I promise.
Tension is at the heart of your knitting gauge. It’s the reason you have to do a yarn swatch before you begin a project. Your tension will vary, and so will the size of your stitches.
English-style knitters typically tension their yarn by winding it though the fingers of their right hand. The index finger can be used to refine the tension as needed, as well as direct the yarn over the needle.
Continental style knitters tension their yarn through the fingers of their left hand, something I’ve never been able to get used to, but there are many continental-style knitters out there. Try it both ways and see which you prefer.
Peruvian knitting tension their yarn by wrapping it twice around the pinky of the right hand, and directing the yarn over the needle with the middle finger. I’ve heard that they also loop the yarn behind the neck for tension purposes in Peruvian knitting. This article talks about how to position your hands & wrap your yarn around your fingers in Peruvian knitting.
Continental and Peruvian-style knitting both claim to be faster than English style knitting. Each style is different enough that you’ll need to spend some time getting used to it.
You’ll have to decide what’s most important to you: reducing your TENSION or knitting as fast as you can.
Tension Hot Spots
I mentioned earlier that your tension will vary. It will vary with your mood and it will vary a the beginning and end of each row, if you’re knitting flat. You may also want to vary your tension at different points to create different shaping in your project, but that’s a very advanced technique.
There are 2 techniques for dealing with the much looser tension in the first and last couple of stitches in your rows:
Technique #1: Don’t knit the last stitch! (Or the first stitch, either works, but NOT both.) Instead, just slide the stitch knitwise, or purlwise if that’s what your pattern calls for, off the left hand needle onto the right hand needle. This will make the edge, aka selvedge, of your piece much more even and attractive.
Technique #2: Learn to knit (or purl) the last AND the first two or three stitches of every row more tightly. It’s more difficult to do and will require some practice.
Does the style of knitting affect the tension of these edge stitches? No. At least, it doesn’t make any difference with English and Continental style knitting. I’ve yet to try Peruvian style knitting, so I can’t give a definite answer, but I doubt it will make much difference. You’ll have to pay special attention to your selvedge stitches one way or the other.
I’ve knitted while angry. It changes my gauge, which is annoying. Anger isn’t the only mood that will change your tension, so pay attention to yourself before your begin knitting.
You’ll have to pay attention to your moods and watch what happens with your tension. It’s a good reason to have 2 projects going at once: one with a gauge that matters, one where the gauge doesn’t matter, the ubiquitous scarf or lapghan, for example. (Of course, if you’re playing yarn chicken and don’t have any yarn to spare, you should probably back away from the project on TENSION days.)
Cast on, Cast off:
These edge rows of your pattern are extremely important from a fit point of view. Don’t expect a tighter tension to save a project that is too loose, or a looser tension to save one that’s too tight. Instead, consistently use larger needles to cast on and cast off. Usually, a needle 2 sizes larger than the one you’ll be working with is a good choice.
Another trick is to cast on or off with two needles held together. This gives you more control over the tension since you can use two needles that are the same size or or use a smaller second needle to get the tension/gauge you desire.
There are exceptions. If you’re working with large needles, say size 15 or larger, you may want to use a needle one size larger or practice having a very relaxed tension and use the same size needle as you’ll be using for the project.
Do I have to?
For years, I ignored yarn tension altogether, letting my yarn flop around wherever it liked and paying no attention to how my projects turned out. This would be the ultimate in knitting for TENSION relief. If that’s your goal, go for it. Stress relief is a major benefit of knitting.
But for those who want an attractive and useful end result, tension is your friend. A knitted piece with even tension has even stitches, without any obvious unwanted holes or gaps. It doesn’t bunch up in odd places due to patches of tighter stitches either. It’s worth noting that the occasional tighter or looser stitch is not going to make a difference in your end product. Once you do the blocking, almost all small-ish tension variations will disappear, so don’t sweat over a few stitches here and there.
Remember, knitting is supposed to be enjoyable and TENSION-reducing, so always choose what works for you.
Choose yarn and needles you’ll enjoy working with.
Choose a project that suits your needs: mindful or mindless, easy or challenging, loose or dense.
Relax, have fun, and knit for your health!