Knit up some light spring-to-summer dresses or vests with handkerchief hems! Sara Morris explains how to create these shapely hemlines whether you’re knitting flat or in the round. Originally published in knit.wear Spring 2013.
There’s more than one way to knit a draping, flowing hem. Though the current trend for handkerchief hemlines seems to have appeared suddenly, handkerchief hems go far back into fashion history and continue to be a favorite with modern designers. Named for its resemblance to a handkerchief held at its center point, the handkerchief hem drapes into an attractive, asymmetrical silhouette with natural pleats with points along the edge. Though handkerchief hems in woven fabrics are often limited to flirty skirts and bohemian blouses, knitters and knitwear designers have a variety of ways to insert handkerchief hems into their projects as they are being built.
The Basic Handkerchief Hem
The anatomy of the traditional handkerchief hem skirt is simple: in its most basic form, a handkerchief hem is just a square piece of fabric with a slit or hole at the center for the waist. Though originally developed in Ancient Greece as a means of conserving cloth and minimizing the necessity for seams, this construction also takes advantage of the natural structure of plain cloth and turns the pointed edges into biased inserts, allowing for maximum drape and fluidity.
For knitters, recreating a traditional handkerchief hem skirt is simple—knit a square and either steek a hole for the waist or place temporary stitches using waste yarn (see photos below). Pick up the stitches from the slit and continue as desired in the round. Although basic, the final shape is exactly the same as the same garment made of woven cloth would be, as is the resulting drape of the segments on the bias.
There are advantages and drawbacks to constructing a garment this way. Knitting a true square can be difficult in terms of gauge and stitch consistency, making the placement of temporary stitches in the center of the square before blocking problematic. For ideal results, multiple swatches and a little math will be necessary (see below, Calculating Flat Handkerchief Hems).
While basic, the square handkerchief hem can be used in a variety of ways and with a variety of knitting techniques and garments that don’t have to be limited to skirts. One popular method seen on the runway and used in the Die Cut Vest is turning a square piece of fabric into part of a cardigan (see below, Handkerchief Hems in the Round). Comprised of two slightly modified squares with armholes instead of waist slits, the Die Cut Vest still has four corners—one at the top and bottom of each lapel. Unclosed, the corners of the lapels will turn naturally into points, with a point on each side at hem and collar.
The Die Cut Vest is constructed from two pieces that are knit sideways with squared corners at both edges of the fronts and a three-needle bind off at the center back, joining the two pieces. The garment shaping is minimal and the handkerchief-like edge is created from corners of the lapel. In this case, instead of placing temporary stitches for an opening, the shoulder shaping and armholes were created through increasing and decreasing the number of stitches.
Knitters looking to incorporate this lapel construction into an existing design can do so easily by adding four to eight inches of fabric to the lapel edges of open garments such as cardigans, capelets, and ruanas. For more drape, simply add more fabric to the edge. On cardigans, a common sizing technique is to adjust the length or width of each front to meet the inside edge of the opposite armscye. It’s important to note that the knitted fabric must be lightweight and loosely knit to achieve a drapey effect. This isn’t a design element well suited to dense, bulky fabrics.
Handkerchief Hems In The Round
Unlike woven garment designers, knitters aren’t limited to working with a flat medium—we can knit in the round. Knitting in the round can make the construction of a garment much more flexible and open to easy and creative modifications.
As lace knitters know, it’s no great feat to create a square by knitting in the round. By increasing or decreasing stitches consistently in pattern, a knitter can create a mitered corner. Create four evenly spaced mitered corners you have a square—the basis of a handkerchief hem.
A handkerchief hem in the round is worked either from the hem upwards (from the outside of the square in to its center) or from the top down (from the center of the square to the hem). As with a flat-knitted traditional handkerchief hem, the size of the square is determined by the circumference of the center opening and the distance from the hem to the center (see below, Calculating Handkerchief Hems in the Round).
To make a 4-cornered handkerchief hemmed garment knit from the hem up, cast on the total number of hemline stitches and divide by four, placing a stitch marker to mark each quarter. Work a mitered decrease over each marker by decreasing one stitch on both sides of the marker, or working a centered double decrease over a center stitch, every other row until you have the total number of stitches needed for the center opening.
To make a 4-cornered handkerchief hemmed garment knit from the top down, cast on the waist stitches and divide by four, placing a stitch marker to mark each quarter. Work a mitered increase over each marker by increasing one stitch on both sides of the marker, every other row until you have the total number of stitches needed for the hemline.
There are benefits and limitations to working a handkerchief hem in the round as well. While the circular method allows for almost unlimited flexibility in terms of placing the mitered corners that would be difficult if not impossible when working flat, fabric knit this way will not have had the same drape as flat-knitted handkerchief hems because none of it will hang on the bias.
Over time, the handkerchief hem has evolved to include garments with more shaping and varying numbers of corners. A popular silhouette often seen during the Belle Époque and Art Deco periods had two mitered points, rather than the traditional four (see below).
While this shape would be fussy to recreate in flat knitting, it’s a snap in the round. Using the same formulas as for the 4-corner version, adjust the number of corners from four to two. The total number of hemline stitches will be the depth rounds doubled and then multiplied by two, plus the number of waist stitches. Now, with the number of stitches needed for both the center and the hem, a knitter can cast on and work from either direction, placing the mitered corners opposite each other.
Of course, handkerchief hems don’t have to be limited to skirts or dresses—knitted in the round or flat, handkerchief constructions can make for fantastically flamboyant cuffs and dramatic peplums. Consider a lacy empire-waisted blouse, or a textured tunic, or a colorwork capelet—with as many or few corners as you want! The options are only limited to your imagination and your tolerance for geometry.
Determined to become a well-rounded archaeologist, SARA MORRIS began studying traditional crafts during her first year at the University of Oregon. After a single weaving class, she developed an obsession for textiles that changed her life. She now spends her days dreaming of wool and nights working on her own pattern line, Rose City Knits (https://fyberduck.wordpress.com/category/rose-city-knits/ or http://www.ravelry.com/stores/rose-city-knits). In the future, she hopes to fulfill her goal of world domination through the clever use of fiber.