10 tips to avoid laddering – no matter if you use magic loop or knit with double-pointed knitting needles.
Are you constantly fighting those annoying ladders when knitting in the round? You have tried everything but you can still see the gaps where you changed from one needle to the next. Well, this tutorial will provide you with 10 tips to finally avoid this problem.
What are ladders?
In knitting, ladders are typically created when knitting a small-diameter project in the round with the help of double-pointed knitting needles or the magic loop technique. Instead of one continuous round, multiple gaps are intersecting the circle. Due to the individual constraints of these techniques, stitches that are bigger/looser than the rest of the fabric are created right at these gaps.
Since these gaps occur in the very same spot across many rows, the extra slack becomes visible in the form of something that resembles a ladder. The rungs are the little strands that interconnect each stitch in a round – just longer than usual.
How are ladders created when knitting in the round
If you want to fix ladders, you need to understand how they are created in the first place. This is quite vital because there are quite a couple of different reasons with similar outcomes. And the specific remedy for your problem will depend largely on what specific issue created these ladders.
1. Adding extra slack while bridging a gap
As you knit the first stitch on the next needle, the last stitch is being kept too far away. To bridge the distance, more yarn than usual is added to your fabric. This is often a big issue when knitting with circular needles since the stitches on the cable are prone to falling down – especially in the first couple of rows.
It’s less of a problem with double-pointed needles since you typically close shut the gap as you tighten the first stitch on the new needles. That being said, certain stitches may exaggerate the problem and can be a major cause for ladders. A purl stitch behaves drastically differently compared to a knit stitch. Once extra slack is added, it cannot be fixed later on. So, it’s vital to examine your knitting if this could be the case.
2. Stealing yarn from adjacent stitches one row below
Most knitters use the natural tension between the needle and the fabric to gain a bit of leverage to knit the next stitch. As you approach the last stitches on your needle, the force you exert will be distributed among fewer and fewer stitches. This will often cause the last stitch to wear out dramatically.
In this process, it will steal more yarn from the adjacent stitches than normal. When you continue knitting, some of that slack will be re-transferred to the next stitch. However, the previous stitches on the old stitches one row below will still be tighter than the last. This visible difference will be what you may notice as ladders.
Important: This is happening one row below. So no matter how hard you pull on your working yarn, it will not tighten up those stitches. In fact, the tighter you pull, the more you might distort those stitches.
3. Too much freedom of movement
No matter if you knit in the round with circular needles or the magic loop technique, the whole contraption is not a static affair. You are forcing a circle into the shape of a square (dpns) or a very shallow rectangle (circulars). This creates tension at the transition between these two different geometrical bodies. And the only place this tension can be relieved is at the gaps.
Whenever you move your project, you will put extra stress on these gaps. This will happen every time you switch needles, whenever you store your project, etc. These gaps want more freedom of movement. As a result, they will try to steal as much yarn from the adjacent stitches as possible to feed into the strand between the gaps.
The adjacent stitches get smaller, the strand in between longer, and your project a bit more mobile. Just like cause #2, existing yarn is being redistributed.
4. (optional) Using stitch markers that are too thick
If you use a stitch marker that is too wide, it will increase the distance between two stitches. As a result, you may see ladders in the middle of a round – even if you are knitting flat. A stitch marker should always be as thin as possible – especially when working with super-thin yarn.
How to prevent ladders
In essence, there are two types of ladders: You are adding too much yarn in the first place between the gaps or you are distorting the fabric further down below. Often it’s a concert of many different issues and here are a couple of different ways to fix them:
#1 Knit in one continuous round
The easiest way to prevent ladders is by using smaller needle tips and knitting in one continuous round. Many knitting needle manufacturers offer 3-inch needle tips. ChiaoGoo even has 2-inch and 1-inch needles. This will allow you to knit projects with a much smaller diameter in one continuous round without ever bridging a gap.
If you use 5-inch tips, the minimum circumference you can knit with is probably around 25 inches. In this case, the cable needs to be at least as long as both needles combined to knit in a circle. The smaller the tip, the shorter the cable can be.
If you have bigger hands, those teeny tiny needles may be a bit too fiddly to knit. Still, using 4-inch tips will probably still allow you to knit a hat or a cowl in one continuous round. No gaps = no ladders.
#2 Tighten up after the second stitch
As you bridge the gap, you are probably inclined to pull super tight after the first stitch. After all, you saw those ladders and want to avoid them, right? Although this might be a bit counter-intuitive, you should not tighten up after the first stitch:
First of all, each wrap around your needle creates friction. However, if you only have one stitch on your needle, that friction is very low. And as you knit the second stitch, you will probably observe how all the slack you thought you pulled tight, will ease right back into the stitch and the gap between the needles. There is simply not enough friction and you cannot help but feed more of your working yarn back into that first stitch.
That’s the very reason why you should pull tight after the second stitch. Now there are two stitches on your needle, two wraps of yarn. They create a lot more friction. So the natural knitting movements are much more unlikely to feed back yarn into the gap and that first stitch.
Secondly, if you pull super tight when you knit the first stitch, the full force of your hands can only be distributed through that single stitch. As a result, you will end up distorting the stitch one row below (the one you inserted your knitting needle). It will steal yarn from the adjacent stitches and possibly feed it back into the gap as you move your project the next time.
#3 Press the last stitch against the first stitch on the new needle
Whenever possible, try to keep the last needle very close to your first stitch. Use the fingers of your right hand to press the needle (or cable) closer to your new working needle. This will avoid creating too much slack between those stitches.
Important: the more slack you add during this process, the more freedom of movement you will give your project around the gap(s). And the more freedom of movement it has, the more yarn it will be able to steal from adjacent stitches whenever you shuffle around your needles.
#4 Avoid starting a new needle with a purl stitch
Unlike in machine knitting, stitches sit on your needles at an angle. They will lay flat in the final project but are slightly twisted by around 45-90° on your needles. As a result, the distance between a knit stitch followed by a purl stitch will be longer than between a purl stitch followed by a knit stitch.
That’s because the yarn has to exit the knit stitch through the back (you keep the yarn in the back, after all), and enter the purl stitch through the front (you bring the yarn to the front). When exaggerated as in the picture above, it looks a bit like the letter S.
The distance between a purl stitch followed by a knit stitch, on the other hand, will be even shorter than between two knit stitches or purl stitches. I talk about this issue a bit more in my article on knitting neater ribbings.
Due to these unique mechanics, you should always try to end your needles with a purl stitch and start your needle with a knit stitch when knitting any knitting pattern with a knit/purl combination. That way you place the shortest possible distance the strand between two stitches has to take right between the gap.
Since it’s even shorter than between two knit stitches (even if it’s just half a millimeter), you create a little buffer in case you wear out that gap a bit more due to other reasons later on or as you bridge the gap.
#5 Invert your project for purl heavy pattern
When you knit stockinette stitch in the round, you always keep the yarn in the back. When you knit reverse stockinette stitch, however, the yarn always stays in front. This can cause problems when you are knitting patterns with a lot of purl stitches, for example, cable stitch patterns. Since you cannot cable across the gap, you often will have purl stitches on either side of the gap. And this may create ladders!
Why? When seen from above, the thickness of your fabric and the distance between your stitches will create a peculiar effect. The inner circumference of a tube is always smaller than the outer circumference. This is basic geometry and the very reason why track and field runners will change towards the inner track as they run around the curve.
When you have two knit stitches on either side of the gap, the working yarn can take that inner lane, which is already shorter. But since there is a distance between stitches, the working yarn will actually take the diagonal shortcut on top of that.
Whenever you have purl stitches on either side of the gap, the yarn has to stay in front of your project. It has to take the outer lane and this is already the shortest possible distance since the natural barrier of the fabric will prevent it from taking any shortcut. As a result, the strand you create between those two purl stitches will be decidedly longer than normal. If you do this in every row, ladders will be visible.
As a remedy (and when shuffling stitches around is not possible), you can invert your project and purl from the inside. Simply pull your tube through to the inside and purl the inner diameter. While your yarn stays in front, relative to your tube, it is on the inside, it can take the inner lane, it can take the short cut and you avoid ladders.
#6 Avoid complicated stitches at the beginning or end
A lot of complicated stitches put a lot of stress on adjacent stitches – simply because it’s that much harder for you to knit them. Think about what you do when you knit an SSK. You slip one stitch (i.e. you wear it out), you slip another stitch knitwise (i.e. you wear it out), you enter both stitches at the same time (i.e. you wear them out even further), and then you knit them together through the back loop (i.e. you probably need additional leverage and wear them out yet more).
That is one of many reasons why your left-leaning decreases might look a bit sloppy. However, since you cannot help but wear out that last stitch on a needle anyway, the laddering issues will be even more pronounced if you knit a decrease (or increase) at the end of your needle.
Essentially, you wear out that stitch three times as much as a normal stitch. To fix that, shuffle stitches around to avoid knitting a complicated stitch at the beginning or the end of a needle. You will notice that it’s not only neater but also easier to knit.
#7 Keep an equal number of stitches on each needle
Before, I talked about the problem with purl stitches. The length of the strand between two stitches is defined by two things: The angle between your knitting needle and whether the yarn can take the inner or the outer lane. The steeper the angle, the bigger the distance between two purl stitches, and the shorter the diagonal between two knit stitches bridging the gap.
If you have one needle that has significantly more stitches than the rest, you will deviate from a square or a symmetrical rectangle. This will automatically create different angles between the various needles and may cause ladders. As you knit across, some strands will be longer while others will be shorter. Knitted fabric is all about regularity. A single purl stitch among a sea of knit stitches will be visible from 10 miles away.
A lot of people notice laddering when they pick up stitches from the gusset of socks. Suddenly there are two needles with significantly more stitches.
This difference also creates an imbalance in terms of how the force of your hands is distributed as you knit across. Instead of evenly, some gaps will experience more stress than others. These stitches will steal more yarn from the adjacent stitches and ladders may occur.
It’s so easy to fix: Whenever possible try to keep an equal number of stitches on each needle.
#8 Use the traveling stitches method
Gaps cause ladders. It’s actually that simple. If there’s no gap, there is typically no ladder. Using the traveling magic loop technique, you can fake the absence of gaps. Instead of starting with an empty needle where you have to bridge a gap, you pull out the cable three stitches in. A flexible cable helps and prevents stretching out the stitches too much in that spot.
If you do this whenever you finish a needle, you will never run across any gaps and thus never create ladders. The technique is even more ingenious, insofar as it also protects the old stitches. Normally, you risk pulling tight the last stitch on the last needle. After all, it is no longer protected by the barrel of your knitting needle. If you pull too tightly, it will close down to the diameter of your cable. With the traveling magic loop technique, that will never happen.
You can do a similar thing when knitting with double-pointed knitting needles. Whenever you start a new needle, slip back the last three stitches – the ones that you’ve knitted a couple of seconds ago – over to your new needle. That, too, prevents gaps and actually helps to relieve the tension from the gaps if you are just knitting with 3 dpns (+1 working needle).
It might be a bit more cumbersome but worth it if you knit a bigger project. Before the invention of circular needles, sweaters, too, had to be knitted on dpns. Each needle may have held as much as 100 stitches. Slipping back three stitches for a neater finish is a worthwhile exercise in that context – especially since it also helps you to manage floats when knitting Fair Isle patterns.
#9 Shuffle stitches around
Another frequently quoted technique to fix ladders is shuffling around stitches – but this time in the other direction. Whenever you finish a needle, you may elect to continue using the current working needle to knit. Knit two more stitches and only then start using the new/free needle.
If you do this every time you come across a gap (and remember to place a stitch marker for the beginning of your round), this technique may not avoid ladders but it will disguise them. Since the gaps constantly move, there are no loose strands stacked upon each other anymore. And it’s typically those stacks that make ladders so visible and not a slightly looser strand here and there.
Personally speaking, I’d say this is only a technique of last resort. HOWEVER, if I notice ladders, I ALWAYS shuffle around stitches once. Why? Because ladders do have a peculiar dynamic: since these gaps have so much more freedom of movement, your whole project is a lot more unstable and you will put much more stress on the stitches bordering the gaps of the current row.
It always reminds me of plastic. Super durable but once you have one little kink, it will wear out in seconds and break. In many aspects, ladders are similar.
As a result, even if you stick to all the little tricks I showed you in this post, you may still continue to see ladders. Only by shuffling around stitches once, you get away from these weak links and can start anew. It has helped me quite well in the past.
#10 Try out a different needle position
Most tutorials showing you how to knit in the round on double-pointed knitting needles tell you to perform a little dance whenever you switch needles. Typically you shuffle around needles until the new working needle rests on top. This ensures you get enough mobility to knit more complicated stitches with ease.
However, every time you shuffle stitches around, you put stress on the gaps. But even worse, since the needle rests on top, the full force you exert is transferred to your stitches. Since there is nothing to anchor your working needle, you often end up pulling out the first and last stitch.
If you keep the working needle on top of the previous needle but below the next needle, you can fix both problems. First of all, you will never have to shuffle needles around. As you switch to the next needle, they will already be in the perfect position.
And secondly, as you come to the last stitches on the needle, the most problematic ones, the next needle acts as a guard. Suddenly, there is something to press your current working needle against and you don’t wear out the stitch as much. It may be a bit more difficult to knit but since you shouldn’t knit any complicated stitches in this spot to begin with, I do feel it’s okay.
Further tips and tricks
If you ask me, the best remedy against laddering is practice. The more comfortable you feel with your knitting and your needles, the neater your finished projects are. That’s because ladders are typically a result of distorting the fabric one row below.
So, whenever you fuss around, you exaggerate the problem. This can be obvious things like needing to fix a dropped stitch, dropping a needle, etc. But also less obvious factors like gripping the needle too tightly, etc. Every time you put a little bit more stress on those gaps than usual, you create a bigger ladder.
Personally speaking, I only knit magic loop (or traveling magic loop to be quite precise) for colorwork projects. It’s so much easier and less annoying to manage the floats using circular needles. For socks or toys, I prefer dpns. Both techniques have their place and I urge you to learn both.
Especially dpns have a longer learning curve since you suddenly have to manage 5 instead of just two needles. So, be patient. But if you still find them a bit cumbersome after two or three projects, it might just mean that you are a magic loop kind of person. Just like I like prefer dpns.
98% of all projects in the round can be finished on both. It’s all about preference. And if you find where you are at ease, that’s where ladders stop being a problem.