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How to Shape Up Your Knitting - The Techniques Every Beginner Should Know

You’ve knit a few scarves and some dishcloths, and now you’re ready to move on to something more complex like a hat, sweater or pair of socks. How can you be sure you’ll get the shape just right?
Simple shaping techniques change the structure of knitted fabric to form slants and curves exactly where you need them. Armholes, necklines, sock toes and the crowns of hats all rely on properly placed shaping to achieve an even look and a comfortable fit.
Are you ready to tackle your first shaped garment? Study these tips and techniques for knitting success.

The Elusive Concept of Gauge

You’re probably sick of people hammering home the importance of gauge for knitting projects, but it bears mentioning in relation to garment shape. Those little squares of fabric we all force ourselves to make before starting a new pattern have a big impact on the fit of the finished piece.

Why is gauge so important for shape? If you’re working from a pattern where length is measured in the number of rows or pattern repeats instead of inches and your gauge isn’t correct, you’ll wind up with something too short or too tight. Having too few rows per inch can make, and it can throw off the ratio between the length of the garment and the increases or decreases in shaped sections.

You have several options if you find your initial gauge swatch stubbornly refuses to match the stitch count, row count or both:

  • Experiment with different needle sizes
  • Try switching to a different needle material
  • Swap the needles for another brand
  • Get comfortable with the math required to redistribute shaping across your gauge instead of the pattern gauge
Because gauge can even change from day to day, make sure you always finish the row or round you’re on before putting your knitting away. A shift in tension halfway across the garment will have an obvious effect on shape.

Basic Shaping Stitches for Knitters

The majority of shaping in knitted fabric is achieved with the use of left- and right-leaning increases and decreases. Using the appropriate combinations creates even sloping on both sides, such as when decreasing for a sock toe or increasing to form the upper part of a sweater sleeve.
Some patterns state which stitches to use for shaping, but others leave it up to the discretion of the knitter. Familiarizing yourself with a few basics leaves you free to choose any project you want regardless of the level of detail in the instructions.


To make your increases lean to the right, try:

  • Make one right (m1R) – Insert the left-hand needle from back to front under the strand of yarn between the stitch you just knit and the next stitch, and knit through the front of the resulting loop.
  • Right-leaning lifted increase (RLI) – Insert the right-hand needle through the back of the loop around the next stitch on the left. Place the loop on the left needle, and knit through the front.

Left-leaning increases include:

  • Make one left (m1L) – Insert the left-hand needle from front to back under the strand of yarn between the stitch you just knit and the next stitch, and knit through the back of this loop.
  • Left-leaning lifted increase (LLI) – Use the left-hand needle to pick up the loop around the bottom of the stitch you just worked on the right. Knit through the front of this loop.

For either side of the garment:

  • Knit front and back (kfb) – Knit into the front and back of the next stitch to create two stitches.
  • Yarn over (yo) – Wrap the yarn around the needle before knitting the next stitch. This leaves a hole and is usually used in lace or to create decorative edging.


Decrease to the right with:

  • Knit two together (k2tog) – Knit the next two stitches together.
  • Knit, return, pass, return (krpr) – Knit the next stitch, and return it to the left-hand needle. Pass the next stitch over the top. Return the original stitch to the right-hand needle.
Match your right-leaning decreases with these stitches:

  • Slip one, knit one, pass slipped stitch over (skp or sl, k1, psso) – Slip one stitch to the right-hand needle. Knit the next stitch on the left, and pass the slipped stitch over the top.
  • Knit two together through the back loop (k2tog tbl) – Insert the right-hand needle into the backs of the next two stitches, and knit them together.
  • Slip, slip, knit (ssk) – Slip the next two stitches from the left-hand needle to the right-hand needle as if to knit, insert the left-hand needle into the fronts of the stitches and knit them together.

Say Hello to Short Rows

Short rows are commonly found in sock patterns knit from the toe up. Also called turning, this technique adds rows to knitted fabric without increases or decreases. In addition to making soft, rounded sock toes, short rows are perfect for shaping earflaps, building up the back of a sweater near the neck to prevent sagging and experimenting with unique garment constructions.

Most short rows are created using the “wrap and turn†method to avoid holes in the fabric:

  • Knit or purl the desired number of stitches, stopping before you reach the end of the row
  • Slip the next stitch as if to purl
  • Bring the working yarn to the opposite side of the fabric
  • Turn the piece around
  • Slip the next stitch back to the right-hand needle
  • Bring the working yarn back to the correct side
  • Continue knitting or purling
When it comes time to knit the wrapped stitches, simply pick up the wrap along with its companion stitch, and knit or purl the two stitches together.

Oh, Dart!

Darts involve using a small number of short rows or closely spaced increases and decreases to change the shape of a garment for a more accurate fit around the bust, waist or hips. Short rows create horizontal darts, and increases and decreases make vertical darts.

Use darts to prevent sweaters from sagging or bunching in embarrassing places or to create a custom fit for a particular body shape. Adding darts can make a boxy, unattractive sweater into a curve-hugging garment or transform a slim shape into the perfect maternity top.


Blocking “sets†the final shape of a garment and smooths out any uneven spots in fabric made from natural fibers. Start by thoroughly soaking the piece in lukewarm water mixed with mild detergent or wool wash. Squeeze out the excess with your hands, roll the fabric up in a towel and squeeze again. Lay the damp fabric out on another towel or foam blocking boards, shape it to match the dimensions given in the pattern and use T-pins to hold it in place until completely dry.

The more you practice these shaping techniques, the easier it gets to create garments in the shapes and sizes you want. We’ve all felt the rush of excitement and relief when trying on a finished piece made to fit just right or watching a loved one settle comfortably into something we’ve made.

Don’t worry if your first few attempts are a little off. Over time, you’ll learn to perfect your technique and find the combinations of increases and decreases best for each type of garment. Start with patterns providing clear shaping directions before experimenting with your own shaping, and you’ll be zipping through hats, socks and sweaters before you know it.

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