July 27, 2008

Knitting FAQ: Stitch Markers

Knitting FAQ index

"What are stitch markers and how do you use them?"

Stitch markers are a way to mark a point in your work for future reference. There are lots of things you can use for this. In a pinch, you can even use a piece of contrasting yarn, but markers made for the purpose are pretty cheap and a lot easier to use, so you may as well go ahead and get some.

There are two basic types of stitch markers -- open and closed. Open stitch markers have an opening, so you can hook them through a stitch to mark a point in your knitted fabric, or around your needle without moving the stitches that are on the needle. There are plastic loops, and coilless safety pins:

Then there are the closed type, which are simply a ring. These go around your needle, not around a stitch in the fabric. If you were to put them around a stitch, then once you knit past them, they'd be a permanent decoration. Which is pretty creative if you do it on purpose, I guess, but not much use as a marker. So the closed type is useful for marking a point in your knitting that recurs with each row. You can get cheap plastic ones, or fancy beaded metal ones:

There's one difference between the plastic circles and the beaded markers other than the fact that one is prettier (and more expensive) than the other: the bead hangs on one side of your fabric. This means that you can use the bead to keep track of which side is the right side on a reversible fabric like garter stitch, for instance. It also means that you have to keep an eye on which side your working yarn is on when you scoop the marker from one needle to the other, or you can end up tangling it around the bead.

Closed stitch markers can only be placed on your needle when there are no stitches in the way. That means that to use one, you need to knit to the place where you want it, slide it onto the needle, and then keep going. When you reach that point in the next row, you scoop the marker from one needle to the other, just like slipping a stitch.

Open markers are commonly used for things like marking the beginning of an increase or decrease, the turning point in a short row, or anything else that's hard to spot at a glance and which you'll want to find later. They mark a stationary point in your fabric. Of course, you can also use them like you'd use closed markers, by hooking them on your needle.

Closed markers are used to mark things like pattern repeats, the point where an increase or decrease happens on each row, the beginning of the row in a circular piece, or anything else that happens repeatedly as your knitting continues. Patterns will often instruct you where to place markers, and describe these repeating elements in terms of the markers. For instance, in my hat template, I tell you to place a marker at the center of each needle, and decrease right after it. You could do that hat well enough just by counting the stitches instead of using a marker, but the marker's just that little bit easier -- and when you're making a lace tablecloth with thirty repeats of a pattern that looks like ramen until you block it, stitch markers make the difference between ending up with a gorgeous heirloom, and ending up wearing a huggy coat in a padded room.

Since I make and sell beaded stitch markers, I'm sort of biased in their favor, so take my preference for them with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, I do think they're the nicest. The metal rings with a slight extra weight slide cleanly from one needle to the other, the dangling bead lets you keep track of the right side of the fabric (as long as you don't let it flip over when you set your knitting down for a second), and they're just plain nice to look at. Experiment with different kinds and find out what you like best.

To discuss this question and answer, please comment on this post. To ask other questions, please comment on the FAQ index post. Hope it's helpful, and have fun knitting!

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