How to Pick Up Stitches for a Neckband
Knitting the neckband is usually one of the final tasks of a sweater project, and it can feel like a juggling act to pick up the correct number of stitches, to distribute them evenly, and to keep the pick-up row neat—without gaps or waffling. Here are some tips to make those challenges easier.
A great result starts with a good foundation. Smooth edges make the process of picking up stitches easier and give the best result. There is no need to work the selvedge “in pattern”—a plain stockinette selvedge stitch will result in a perfectly smooth line of picked-up stitches along a vertical edge.
Avoid slipping the stitches along an edge where you plan to pick up stitches later. A slipped stitch spans two rows, so slipping the selvedge stitches results in fewer selvedge stitches and can complicate the pick-up process. It’s easier to pick up three stitches for every four rows when you actually have four selvedge stitches instead of just two.
Place decreases and increases at least one stitch away from the selvedge, keeping in mind that the shaping techniques will be visible after the neckband is added, so they should be mirrored to maintain symmetry. The V-neck in the photo shows a neckline with right-leaning k2tog decreases worked on the left front and left-leaning ssk decreases worked on the right front.
The Pick-Up Process
Once you’ve prepared the neckline edge stitches, it’s time to think about how stitches should be picked up along the selvedge.
Mark the Sections
Most necks that are worked from the bottom up will have a combination of horizontal bound-off sections, diagonal edges shaped with decreases, and vertical edges that are worked even. The neckband instructions may indicate a specific number of stitches to pick up for each section, or they may indicate how many stitches to pick up in total, with some suggested pick-up ratios in each section to help you hit the target number. Clipping a locking stitch marker at the transition points from one section to another will help you keep track of your stitch count as you pick up stitches (and will help you adjust your stitch count later, if necessary).
The next photo shows a swatch that simulates a right-front neckline before stitches have been picked up. A vertical edge at the top transitions to a short diagonal edge, then to a horizontal edge that consists of three stairstep bind-offs. A marker separates the horizontal center-front stitches from the vertical right-front stitches.
The stitches are bound off at the center-front neck—rather than being placed on a holder—to provide stability in the neck opening and prevent it from stretching out.
When working in stockinette or stockinette-like fabrics, you will typically pick up one stitch for every stitch along horizontal bind-off edges because you are extending the existing fabric stitch for stitch.
Some stitch patterns, such as cables, produce a very different stitch gauge than stockinette, so you will not pick up 1:1 along the bind-off edge. (See the tips at the end of the article.)
It isn’t possible to pick up stitches along vertical edges at a rate of 1:1, given the fact that a stitch is wider than it is tall and there will be more rows than stitches per inch. If no ratio is specified, pick up about two stitches for every three rows or three stitches for every four rows.
Inserting the Knitting Needle
For vertical edges and diagonal edges: Insert the knitting needle through the space between the selvedge stitch and the next stitch and wrap or pick the working yarn and pull it through to the front.
For horizontal edges: Insert the knitting needle through the center of a stitch below the bind-off chain, wrap or pick the working yarn, and pull it through the stitch to the front.
Picking up through the center of a stitch on horizontal edges creates continuity from the sweater body into the neckband ribbing. Picking up between stitches or directly under the bind-off chain will cause the columns of stitches forming the neck ribbing to have a half-stitch offset from the body stitches, as can be seen on the right side of the swatch in the photo below.
Continue inserting the needle through the center of each stitch directly below the bind-off chain, even as the bind-off edge steps up to a different row. (For sweaters worked top down, this is a cast-on edge.)
Correcting the Stitch Count in the First Round
Because you aren’t picking up 1:1 along vertical edges, getting the exact number of stitches called for can be hit or miss, especially if your row gauge differs from the pattern gauge. But don’t worry: You can adjust the stitch count while working the first round of ribbing by evenly increasing or decreasing in each section where adjustment is needed. Use k2tog or p2tog to decrease in the rib pattern, and use k1f&b to increase wherever a knit stitch will be immediately followed by a purl (because k1f&b results in a knit stitch followed by a purl stitch).
Some knitters notice that the pick-up round is looser than the subsequent rounds of ribbing. Using a needle several sizes smaller for the pick-up than the needle used to work the rest of the neckband may be helpful and will also minimize gaps.
Cabled fabric has more stitches per inch than stockinette, but the number of ribbed stitches needed for the neckband has to be the same as for stockinette. Picking up fewer stitches across a span where cables cross can cause gaps. You can either pick up more stitches than called for and work decreases on the first round, or you can decrease stitches while you bind off the cables. If a cable-crossing row coincides with the bind-off row, you can decrease while crossing the cable by working stitches on the front needle together with stitches on the back needle. As each decrease is worked, stitches are also bound off. The swatch in the photo below shows a pick-up in process across a bind-off row where cables were decreased as they were worked.
By planning ahead as you work the neckline shaping and adjusting stitch counts with increases and decreases where needed, picking up stitches and establishing the ribbing will seem less like a juggling act and more like . . . well, knitting!
Roxanne Richardson is a certified master handknitter who lives, designs, and teaches in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Find her weekly videos on YouTube.
Featured photo: Värma Pullover by Sloane Rosenthal, from Interweave Knits Fall 2019