A handy little beginners guide to the difference between reverse stockinette stitch and garter stitch
So, your pattern calls for reverse stockinette stitch and you are wondering what’s the big deal? Why knit it at all, and why not just knit in garter stitch instead of this reverse business? Is reverse stockinette the same as garter stitch, or isn’t it?
First of all, those are two totally different stitch patterns that behave and look differently. They are also knit in a fundamentally different way. So, they are not the same and you cannot exchange them in most circumstances.
Reverse stockinette stitch does look somewhat similar to garter stitch at first sight. Both show the characteristic purl ridges on the right side. But that’s about all.
If you pull garter stitch a bit apart, you will see that there is a knit stitch between each ridge. Often, you cannot see it without stretching as it sort of hides in between. The fabric contracts a bit along these ridges.
In reverse stockinette stitch, on the other hand, these purl ridges are much closer together. The fabric looks and feels much denser. And there’s is another major difference is: it is totally smooth on the wrong side. Unlike garter stitch, it is not a reversible fabric and it curls in on all sides. This can be an intended effect (it’s a nice way to create the brim of a hat) or an undesired effect (e.g for a scarf).
Also, while both fabrics exhibit a lot of horizontal stretchiness, only garter stitch also has a lot of vertical give. Reverse stockinette stitch won’t move all that much if you pull cast-on and bind-off edge apart.
Different patterns to achieve different effects
First of all, we need to talk about all this reverse business. From a technical point of view, a knit stitch is a mirror-inverted purl stitch. As a result, you can knit almost every single knitting stitch pattern by exchanging every purl stitch with a knit stitch (and vice versa) and create the exact same pattern.
Why would you do that? Because sometimes it is easier to knit. Most Portuguese knitters find it much easier to purl, so for them, reverse garter stitch is much easier to create. And when knitting in the round, reverse stockinette stitch is also easier to knit as you do no have to switch between knit and purl rows as you would have to for garter stitch in the round.
In the case of reverse stockinette stitch (or other, non-reversible patterns), there is a second issue. These patterns have a right and a wrong side. And often, reverse just refers to the fact that what is usually perceived as the wrong side is actually what you want for the visible side.
Why would you want that? For example, plain vanilla socks are usually knit in stockinette stitch. And this means you end up with all those tiny little purl ridges on the inside of the sole. Some people have super sensitive feet and by knitting in reverse stockinette stitch instead, you get a super smooth fabric on the inside. This effect is commonly called “Princess sole or Princess foot”.
So, to put it in a nutshell. Reverse stockinette stitch and garter stitch are two different patterns with different uses and you cannot exchange one for the other in most circumstances. But as long as you are knitting stockinette stitch flat, reverse just alludes to the fact that you start on the wrong side. The repeat is exactly the same – you always knit one row and then purl one row. You just happen to start with a purl row.