How to knit neater rib stitches

Everything you need to know to make your ribbing neater and some important theory to improve your tension when knitting knit-purl combinations

Are you fighting a constant uphill battle against your ribbings? No matter what you try, they always look a bit wonky? Or is there a loose column of knit stitches you just can’t get rid of? Well, then look no further because this tutorial is all about how you can make your rib stitch neater.

a neat swatch knitted in a 2x2 rib stitch

You know, they say a 1×1 rib stitch or a 2×2 rib stitch, is a wonderful place to start when you are a beginner. But it’s my honest opinion that they are actually among the most difficult knitting stitch patterns of them all.

Sure, as long as you cast on an even number of stitches, it’s a simple 2-row repeat with only knits and purls. Easy to remember, easy to knit. But if you don’t pay attention, your stitch definition won’t look at all as on the pictures. In fact, I don’t think there is a single topic I receive more questions about than messy ribbings and how to fix them.

So, let’s show you the reason why this is happening and then some hands-on techniques for instant results.

Reading tip: Free Ribbed hat pattern for beginners & how to knit the tubular cast-on for an invisible edge for a 1×1 rib stitch

Why is your rib stitch messy or a bit wonky?

two swatches showing the differene between flat and when the stitches are still on the needle
Top: the loops lay more or less flat | Bottom: on the needles the stitches are twisted

The reason is quite simple: Your knitting is flat but the stitches on your needles are twisted and sit on the needles at a 45-90° angle. And as a result, the distance between a knit stitch, followed by a purl stitch is quite a lot longer than between your average knit stitches.

Huh? Have I lost you already? Let’s dive in a little deeper so you can truly understand what this means! And I promise you, once you figure it out, you will be able to take your knitting to a whole new level.

If you take a close look at the picture below, you can see a little strand between two purl stitches and two knit stitches. It’s nice and crisp and not very long. So, when you are knitting stockinette stitch, or garter stitch the problem does not occur (assuming you have an even tension) as you only knit one kind of stitch per row. So, the little strand between two stitches is always the same length in these patterns.

path the yarn has to travel between a knit and a purl stitch shown on a swatch with cunky yarn
Left: The little strand between to adjacent purl stitches | Right: the little strand connecting two knit stitches

Now, if you were to look at a flat project in a 2×2 rib stitch, you might be inclined to say that in normal knitting, the spacing between any given two stitches is the same. And I would agree, that more or less appears to be the case. However…

…when your stitches are still on the needle, meaning when you are knitting, they don’t lay flat. They are sitting on the needle twisted. So, if you look at the picture below, you can see what happens to the little strand between a knit stitch, followed by a purl stitch when you twist it.

illustrating difference between flat and on the needles and why there is so much slack when a purl stitch follows a knit stitch
Left: A knit stitch followed by a purl stitch flat | Right: A knit-purl combination when you twist them as if they were sitting on the needles; Red dots indicate the way the yarn travels between two stitches

As the yarn needs to exist a knit stitch from behind but has to enter the purl stitch from the front, the strand between a knit stitch followed by a purl stitch will describe an S-line. And the length of that bit of yarn will be defined by the diameter of your knitting needles.

illustrating the path the yarn has to take between a knit and a purl stitch - exaggerated on super big needles and super chunky yarn
The way the yarn has to travel when you transition from a knit stitch to a purl stitch

So, upon closer examination, the reason why your ribbings may look a bit messy has to do with the fact that the yarn has to travel quite a lot longer when you transition from a knit to a purl stitch. And the result will be loose stitches. But it gets even more problematic.

connection between purl stitch followed by a knit stitch when doing ribbing
A knit stitch followed by a purl stitch as if they were still sitting on the needles

When it comes to the distance between a purl stitch followed by a knit stitch, the opposite is true. The average slack you create between that combination is the shortest of all stitches as the yarn can exit the purl stitch through the front and enter the knit stitch right through the back.

To put things together. The repeat for a 2×2 rib stitch is: knit, knit, purl, purl, knit, knit, purl, purl…

I highlighted the problematic combinations. Essentially this means, you always create a pair with an with an extra-long connection followed by a pair with a super short connection. And the result will be a double column of knit stitches where one appears to be tight and the other super loose.

How to knit neater rib stitches – 6 tips

close-up of a swatch knitted in a 2x2 rib stitch very neatly in green cotton yarn

With this essential knowledge, which you can apply to any other knit-purl combination as well (so maybe a moss stitch), it’s possible to fix your ribbings. All you have to do is reduce the extra slack you create between a knit stitch followed by a purl stitch. Let’s show you some options.

1. Pull tight after every first purl stitch

The probably most obvious solution is working on your tension. So, whenever you knit a purl stitch after a knit stitch, simply give your working yarn a good tug to close the slack between the two stitches as much as possible. But only that one stitch!

pulling on the tail to close a purl stitch after a knit stitch for neater ribbings
Tug at the working yarn to reduce the slack

You can knit all other stitches with your normal tension. So the repeat for a 2×2 rib would be:

  • Step 1: Knit one stitch
  • Step 2: Knit another stitch
  • Step 3: Bring the yarn to the front
  • Step 4: Purl one stitch but keep it on the needles
  • Step 5: Pull on the working yarn to take away as much of the slack as possible & then drop the stitch
  • Step 6: Purl one stitch as normal

Now, as I showed you above, the length of that strand will be defined by your needle size. But if you give it a good tug, you can take out a lot of it and in most cases that’s enough.

2. Knit on small needle size

I’m aware that this tutorial is a bit more academic but I hope you can see how understanding the concept will help you find the proper remedies. In the previous paragraph I said that no matter how much you tighten up that first purl stitch, you will always create a bit of slack simply because the barrel of your knitting needles is in your way.

Well, if the mountain will not come to Mohammed… then you can simply pick a smaller needle size. Again, the length of that slack is defined by the diagonal between a knit and a purl stitch. And the smaller your knitting needles are, the shorter that diagonal is.

Comparing ribbing knit on different knitting needle sizes

As a rule of thumb, I recommend knitting any knit-purl knitting stitch pattern on relatively small knitting needles.

3. Purl or knit through the back loop

Another viable option to create neater rib stitches is purling every first purl stitch through the back loop. Why? Well, here’s a bit more knitting theory. The swatch below shows the way the yarn has to travel between a twisted knit stitch and a purl stitch. And since the base stitch of the KTBL is twisted, the yarn only has to travel only a half-s. The distance is shorter compared to a regular knit-purl combination.

schematics showing why twisted rib stitch is neater as the yarn has to travel less of a distance

In the swatch below, I knit a regular 1×1 rib stitch for the first couple of rows, then I knit 2 rows of stockinette stitch as a divider, and then I knit a half-twisted rib stitch (R1:*k1, ptbl*; R2: ktbl, p1*). And I hope you can see how this improved the stitch definition a bit despite the super rustic sheep wool yarn.

tension difference between rib stitch and twisted rib stitch as illustrated on a swatch

Now, obviously, you will see a column of twisted stitches on one side. But on the other side, those twisted stitches are hidden in between the ridges – so barely noticeable.

Don’t expect this to solve all your problems. But when you combine two or three strategies (I intentionally didn’t for this swatch), the results will be much more noticeable.

4. Change yarn

ribbings in a rather rustic wool yarn - as there is more friction it appears less neat

But this brings me directly to my next tip: Sometimes the culprit is the yarn itself and not your technique at all. Since this is quite a wide topic and deserves its very own book (yes, you heard me!) I can only give you a couple of pointers.

A) Fuzzy yarn with high friction

The above swatch was knitted with an organic plant-dyed non-superwash regional sheep wool DK yarn. Quite lovely from a sustainable point of view but the yarn itself is very sturdy and has a lot of friction.

And this means, pulling tight after each first purl stitch consistently is very very difficult. The working yarn just doesn’t slip as smoothly across your fingers as your standard merino sock yarn. Now, this is not to say you should only use slick yarn. It’s to say, with some yarns a less than ideal stitch definition can be expected – especially if it’s a bit irregularly spun.

Often, switching to a different knitting stitch pattern or a twisted rib will be the only solution if you want it neat.

B) Yarn with a high twist/unbalanced yarn

a swatch knitted with a high s-twist yarn - the ribs appear a bit weird

Another problem can be yarn that has been spun in a way so it has either a lot of twist or is unbalanced (meaning it curls a lot). You may have observed this effect when knitting stockinette stitch and suddenly you don’t see rows of Vs but one continuous line with a couple of right-slanting supports on one side (see swatch above).

And this kind of effect can carry on to your ribbings as well. Some yarns have a bit of a bias or the stitches roll out away from each other and thereby opening up those knit stitch columns. As I said, this is a very complex topic but suffice to say that this is also something to keep in mind.

3. Your individual knitting technique

The last yarny issue when knitting ribbings has to do with your own knitting style. Ideally speaking, yarn should be balanced. Meaning, when you pull out a length from your skein it will rest more or less flat on your table without any curling. But then comes the knitter.

a centerpull done with a ribbon to show how it twists the yarn as you pull it out

A lot of knitters wind their yarn into yarn cakes or balls. But winding something around a central axis is nothing else but adding twist to something. Now, if you unwind it in the opposite direction, the outcome will of course be a balanced thread again. But a lot of people like to do center-pulls (meaning they don’t unwind from the outside and without the yarn cake being able to move around its own axis). So the twist will carry over straight to your knitting needles.

(Important note: In that respect it doesn’t matter if you pull from the center or from the outside; the problem is the yarn cake not being able to spin around its axis.)

But it gets even more complicated than that. Depending on your knitting style (meaning continental, English, Portuguese, Eastern, etc), you will add further twist to your yarn as you knit. E.g.you will wrap the yarn around the needle counter-clockwise to create a knit stitch.

And this may either balance out the twist you created by winding & unwinding, or overtwist the yarn or untwist it. Of course, we are talking about a smaller effect but you may have observed your working yarn becoming all curled after a couple of rows and that’s precisely what I’m talking about. Or when you do a longtail cast-on and the plies come apart after 100 stitches or so.

And when these kinds of effects are worked into your fabric, your ribbing may be less regular or have a weird bias. Here and now I won’t be able to tell you what you are doing. I can only tell you that you may be doing something. Use different yarns, wind them differently (clockwise, counter-clockwise, center-pull, ball, etc), and knit swatches to see which combination works best for you.

5. Slip stitches…and fix them later

Let’s revisit the fact that the main culprit for the messy ribbings are those loose knit/purl combinations. Well, what if you could circumvent the problem? Here’s another solution that may work for you. Instead of knitting that offending loose knit stitch, you just slip it. And in the return row, you fix the dropped stitch using the little float you created.

Step 1: Slip the last knit stitch purlwise instead of knitting it in the first row (yarn held in back).

slipping the offending stitch in the first row

Step 2: Use the float to fix the stitch in the next row and slip it in the process to create another float (which you will fix in the next row, and so on).

fixing the stitch by picking up the strand again

Why does this work? Because that float will be much shorter than the amount of yarn you would use for a typically knit stitch. So, when you fix it later on, you will steal a bit of yarn from the adjacent stitch and thereby you will tighten up the whole fabric.

This probably isn’t a viable option for a big ribbed scarf. But it can be quite a nice option to prevent ladders when knitting ribbing in the round or when knitting very small sections (like a cuff or so).

6. Compare flat with in the round

same pattern in the round compared to flat ribbing
Same yarn, same needle, same pattern – left: flat | right: in the round

My last little tip is more of notification and less of a true way to fix messy ribbings. Still, I want you to be aware that due to your individual knitting style and your tension, the same pattern may look better when knit in the round than flat (or vice versa).

In the above example, I used a cable spun cashmere yarn and you can see how the flat swatch looks a bit more balanced, while the swatch in the round has a tight column of knit stitches followed by a looser one. There’s a whole host of reasons for that but more to the point it means two things:

A) You may consider steeking to turn a tubular project into a flat one or mattress stitch to join a flat project in the round. And B) when you knit a flat swatch for a tubular project, you may be in for a surprise.

The reason for this discrepancy can be found somewhere in between different knit-purl tension and the fact that you create the slack one stitch removed every row, among other things. It will be very hard to pinpoint just one reason here. Still, if you know it exists, I feel it’s something you can work with.

At the very end of the day, you will have to realize that the perfect rib stitch does not exist. Or rather, that one column is a bit tighter and the other a bit looser is by design and nothing you can avoid 100%. It’s how knitting works and I feel, as long as it’s regular, it’s something you should embrace and not fight.

Anyway, that’s how to make ribbing neater. Comment below if you still have any questions

how to knit rib stitch neater a step by step tutorial

10 thoughts on “How to knit neater rib stitches”

  1. Thanks. Those are great suggestions. I have used the pull tight method but didn’t realize that it is important to only pull tight on the purl right after the knit stitch.

    Reply
    • Me too, Kristina!! I’m just beginning a new project that begins on a 2×2 rib, so will give that instruction in particular more attention.
      Thank you Norman. As always, you’re very helpful.

      Reply
  2. Thank you for this tutorial, rib knits are my favourite but loose stitches at the edges has always been an issue (annoying since I’m such a tight knitter). Really enjoying your site all round 🙂
    Could you do something on correcting mistakes in P1 K1B rib? Currently every time I make a mistake (that I could normally correct) I have to unravel to the start as I can’t even figure out how to rethread the stitches back onto the needle correctly. I daren’t start my sweater til I have this nailed!

    Reply
  3. Thank you Norman. I’ve always noticed my 2×2 ribbing looked goofy, but didn’t know why. You explained the problem well, can’t wait to try your suggestions.

    Reply
  4. I find that working the purl stitch by wrapping yarn clockwise shortens that gap between knit and purl stitches. (My style of knitting both knit and purl stitches are formed by wrapping yarn anti-clockwise). On the following row it is then necessary to knit into back loop of those stitches because wrapping yarn clockwise results in a twisted stitch.

    Reply
  5. Thanks for this tutorial, Norman.I must practice the various tips you have shown, and see which suits my knitting style best.

    Reply

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