‘I’m not wrong, I’m just knit that way.’*
We learn from an early stage of knitting that one side of our fabric is the right and the other is wrong. This sounds strangely moralistic – as though one side is innately better in its qualities- when, in fact, the designations are simply a way to distinguish sides of knitting to enable knitters to keep track of stitch patterns, shaping etc.
Nevertheless, perhaps partly encouraged by the terminology, we do tend to carry expectations about the relative values of the sides of our work.
Looking at a piece of stocking stitch/stockinette, we immediately recognise the smooth, crisp v’s of the knit stitch as the smart, finished fabric that will be the public face of our knitted piece. The bumpy waves of purl on the other side appear less refined in comparison, and without much thought, most of us would turn this to the inside of a garment, hiding it away from the public gaze.
We have such assumptions of the relative smartness of the sides that it is common for knitters to move away from garter stitch – in which purl bump ridges on both sides are reminiscent of the purls of wrong side stocking stitch- considering it a less smart or less polished look once we have graduated to the smoother stocking stitch.
Reversible stitches are often attractive to knitters as they provide a uniform finish that means we can wear a piece in more ways, relaxed in the knowledge that we will not accidentally expose the wrong, less attractive side of our knitting.
These assumptions are by no means universal or unquestioned- many find their thoughts about their knitting evolve as they try out different yarns and patterns- but they can lead us to overlook and miss out on some of the beauty and potential of our knitting.
Wrong side right
Sometimes, things on the wrong side of the fabric are just more fun.
Stripes are a great example of this. While there can be a clean, crisp finish to stripes on the right side, the wrong side has far more going on. Little dots and dashes of colour – a kind of Morse code – form parallel tracks, like sewn running stitches either side of the solid line of the stripe. Each side offers a different mood: simple, graphic definition versus a busier surface that blurs and blends the colours from a distance.
The wrong side also reveals the evidence of our working: while the right side shows the end result, it is the wrong where we can see the transitions between one colour and the next, or the carried loops of yarn in stranded work or the little slanted twists of intarsia colour-work. The right side is the graceful swan gliding across the pond; the wrong side is the kicking legs and the displaced water.
Clockwise from top left: Sonia Rykiel Jacquard Knit Sweater with Ruffles (here), Stella McCartney (here), Mira Mikati Diamond Stitch Sweater (here).
This autumn/winter season, several fashion designers have used this visible working on the wrong side as a way to challenge traditional construction: they turned sweaters inside out to reveal dotted intarsia panels with hanging threads, or mixed visible strands of colour-work with the smooth right side finish. This trend seems to be part of an overall interest in textures and embellishment, but also the focus on deconstruction, subverting and rebelling against norms.
This subversion can be really effective in revealing interesting new textures and making us think again about fabrics we usually overlook. In some cases though, I have to admit that I was reminded of a teenager desperately trying to be edgy by wearing their clothes inside out, and I suspect that after wearing some of these looks, you may end up wanting to hold up a sign saying ‘yes, it’s supposed to be worn this way round!’
The wrong side of stranded colour work and strangely beautiful backwards writing.
There can be something a little magical about the wrong side- not only can it be unexpectedly pretty or striking, but it seems to almost form itself as the unintended consequence of what you wanted to achieve at the front. The wrong side is evidence of our creation and yet seems set apart from us. It reminds me of looking at handwriting through the back side of the paper on which it is written-seeing the letters become unrecognisable, transformed to a set of beautiful lines, loops and curves. In knitted fabrics, the effect is sometimes less immediately attractive- there are strange puckers on the back of yarn overs, muted distortions on the back of cables- but as with stripes above, many other stitches present an equally pretty surface as a kind of collateral impact of the right side effect.
A Walk on the Wrong Side: Patterns that play with right and wrong
Reverse Snowball Fight by Melissa Lambino (here) : worked in super chunky/bulky yarn, this hat is a super quick knit worked in reverse stocking stitch/stockinette to showcase the colours in variegated yarn.
Floats Cowl by Jake Canton for Purl Soho (here) : this understated cowl celebrates both the wrong and right sides of its fabric: you can wear it with the elegant columns of “floating” slip-stitched strands on show, or choose the simpler, smooth surface with subtle vertical columns. You can also find the pattern directly at their website- here.
Comfort Fade Cardi by Andrea Mowry (here) : This cosy, dk weight cardigan with a garter shawl collar is mainly worked in reverse stocking stitch/stockinette, which serves as a great canvas for the mixing of different coloured yarns in the fade effect for which the designer is so well known. Variegated yarns are particularly highlighted in the textured purl bumps.
Melli by Camille Roselle (here) : this sweet dk weight cardigan is worked from the bottom up and features a ‘bee’ stitch pattern that stands out from its reverse stocking stitch background. Buttonbands are worked as you go and the sleeves knitted flat afterwards before seaming to the body after blocking.
Over to you: do you enjoy the wrong side of knitting? I’ve found it quite hard to locate patterns with reverse stocking stitch/stockinette, so I’d love to hear any recommendations you have that contain that stitch or which celebrate or play with the different sides of knitting.
* in case you’re wondering, the quote at the top of the page is a paraphrasing of the line from the 1988 live action/animation film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, in which the cartoon Jessica Rabbit proclaims, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” This was one of my favourite films as a child and although I haven’t seen it in years, apparently some of it stayed with me, ready to pop up when I contemplated knitted fabric! (Luckily the nightmares about the terrifying villain played by Christopher Lloyd have remained in the past…)
4 thoughts on “When wrong is right: a celebration of the wrong side of knitting”
great post. so true too. my first cardigan was knit in “reverse stockinette” as it had cables on it and they needed to stand out. I love the “purl side” but have to say that I have a bit of a dislike for garter stitch!
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Thank you! It’s interesting that you like the purl side but are not so keen on garter stitch- I was perhaps over-simplifying when I suggested that their similar stitch appearance may account for the dislike/lack of enthusiasm some knitters seem to have for garter. But of course, it is quite different in other ways too-more dense and squishy texture, does not drape like stocking stitch/stockinette, uses more yarn, can be boring to knit… so I suspect you’re not alone in liking one and not the other!
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I’m sure everyone is different and your theory holds true for a lot of people. personally I thibk garter looks “messy” but the “purl side” looks cosy! haha! totally random reason I know!! 😂