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Master Class: Herringbone Stitch

Updated: Nov 17, 2023

Herringbone has a distinct, polished look and is easily recognized in the sewing, knitting, and fashion worlds. Visually, it looks like an arrangement of columns of short, parallel lines sloping the same direction, next to columns of short, parallel lines slopping in the opposite direction. The zig zag look resembles the bones of a fish or “herring” bones. It is synonymous with tailored suits and high fashion.

 

In knitting, herringbone is not one stitch pattern, but a group of stitch patterns that each create the appearance of herringbone. There are different ways to knit herringbone and depending on the method, it falls into either the slip stitch category, or the increase/decrease category.


 

Projects

When you return to the roots of Herringbone, you’ll understand why knitting suits, coats, close-fitting jackets all make ideal projects for this stitch. The traditionally firm fabric is excellent for pillows, bedspreads, handbags, and skirts. Since the tight weave of basic herringbone doesn’t allow for holes, small squares of herringbone make fantastic herbal drawer sachets and hold the dried herbs neatly inside. Herringbone is also an artistic choice for sleeve cuffs, hems, and collars on sweaters knit in a different stitch.

 

Yarn

When selecting yarn, any weight will work, but do consider the size of the project when deciding on a yarn weight. With slipped stitch methods, because of the snug nature and compressed rows of the finished fabric on the other herringbone patterns, it uses more yarn than a basic stockinette fabric of the same size. Elastic fibers like wool or wool blends make the increases and decreases easer to create. Wool stitches spring together to form a cohesive look without gaps.

 

Difficulties and Solutions

Seaming herringbone can be difficult if the first and last stitches are slipped. Before jumping into knitting a herringbone pattern, think about what happens after knitting. If it will be seamed, add selvedge stitches to make the task easier. If you’re using a herringbone stitch with slipped stitches, where rows are compressed, work the selvedge stitches in garter stitch to better match the row gauge of the herringbone.

 

One common problem with all herringbone stitches, is that if you’re off a stitch, the whole pattern looks off. This normally happens at the very beginning of a row. Use a system that helps you stay on track in your pattern, by using row counters, sticky notes, or another method that’s easy for you. Take frequent breaks and to hold your work at a distance to look at the overall pattern. It’s better to rip back and get it right than continue with a mis-matched pattern.

 

How to Work Herringbone Stitch

Below are instructions for working five different herringbone stitches, each with their own unique properties, difficulties, and solutions identified under each stitch pattern.

 

Option 1: Basic Herringbone

Worked over an even number of stitches. This is an increase/decrease method.

 

Row 1 (RS): K2togtbl, dropping only first loop off left needle, k2tog tbl (remaining loop and next st) again dropping only first loop off needle; rep from to end, then knit the last st tbl.

Row 2 (WS): P2tog, dropping only first loop off left needle, p2tog (rem loop and next st) again dropping only first loop off needle; rep from to end, then purl the last loop.

Rep Rows 1-2 for patt.

 

(tbl – through the back loop)

 

Qualities of Basic Herringbone

This produces a very firm, dense fabric, almost to the point of being rigid, so select your projects and needle size accordingly. If knitted firmly or with smaller needles and durable yarn, the result is a windproof, weatherproof, hard-wearing piece of fabric that will last for years. Since the rows are compressed, it will use more yarn than normal. The fabric becomes thick, almost like double knitting, and is squishy.

 

Difficulties and Solutions with Basic Herringbone

You will need to go up 2-3 needle sizes in order to work this. If you tend to be a tight knitter, concentrate on working this a little on the loose side. If knit tightly, it becomes almost impossible to work. The swatch above is worked on worsted weight yarn using a US #9 (5.5mm) needle and is still quite dense. Using pointy needles helps make working dense stitches easier.

 

This is an easy stitch to do. It’s not hard to keep your place. This method makes it very easy to count stitches and rows for gauge. The biggest issues are making sure you work with needles large enough so that you can work the stitches, and the extra yarn it uses.

 

Uneven stitches can cause wobbly lines or gaps. Practice working each stitch with even tension and resist the temptation to tighten up. The stitches should spring back and create an even fabric. If you hold the swatch on its side, both sides of the V should be of even lengths. If they are not, then look to see which side is smaller and loosen up tension on those rows.

 

Here’s what’s happening with the direction of stitches. As you work across the right-side row, the stitches that you are dropping form the left slant on the row below the needle. Those stitches were worked on the wrong side. When you work the wrong-side row, the stitches that you are dropping form a right slant when viewed from the right side. Those stitches were worked on the right side. When determining whether you need to adjust your tension on the right or wrong side rows, remember that stitches that lean to the right are formed on the right-side rows, and stitches that lean to the left are formed on the wrong-side rows.

 

When binding off, make sure you bind off in pattern. If binding off on right-side rows, K2togtbl, dropping only first loop off left needle, k2tog tbl (rem loop and next st) again dropping only first loop off needle, pass first st over second and off needle; rep from to end, then pull tail through last st.

 

Option 2: Herringbone

This worked over a multiple of 2 sts +2. It is another increase/decrease method.

 



Row 1 (WS): P2tog but do not drop sts from needle, then purl first st again, slipping both sts off needle tog; rep from to end.

Row 2 (RS): K1, skkp; rep from to last st, k1.

Rep Rows 1-2 for patt.

 

(skkp - Slip 1 st knitwise, k1, yo, pass slipped st over both sts.)

 

Qualities

This produces a fabric that is a little more flexible than Basic Herringbone, but still compresses the rows.

 

Difficulties and Solutions

This version has an easy rhythm to it. The stitches aren’t quite as tight as Basic Herringbone, so you don’t need to focus on working it loosely. It’s a simple stitch that is easy to memorize. Each row form pairs of two stitches separated by a gap. On every row you are working one stitch from each side of the gap to bring them together and form a new pair. If you begin the row by being off one stitch, you will have lacey holes that form instead of an even woven look. To prevent this, don’t forget to K1 at the beg of each RS row before starting the sequence.

 

If you purl looser than you knit (or vice versa), you’ll end up with long/short slanted lines. Concentrate on knitting and purling with even tension to keep each row of stitches the same size.

 

Cast On and Bind Offs

CO – standard long tail cast on works fine but you’ll want to start with a WS row in order for the cast on edge to blend into the stitch pattern.

 

BO – when binding off, make sure you bind off in pattern. On RS rows, k1, sl 1, k1, psso and off needle, pass first st over and off needle; rep from to last st, sl 1, psso and off.

 

The swatch above is worked with worsted weight yarn using a US #9 (5.5mm) needle and has a nice woven look, but is a little more flexible and larger than the Basic Herringbone swatch. If you’re having a hard time knitting the Basic Herringbone, you might like this one better.

 

Option 3: Big Herringbone or Woven Herringbone

This is worked over a multiple of 4sts + 2. It is a slip stitch method.

 



Row 1 (RS): K2, sl 2 wyif, k2; rep from to end.

Row 2 (WS): P1, sl 2 wyib, p2; rep from to last st, p1.

Row 3: Sl 2 wyif, k2, sl 2 wyif; rep from to end.

Row 4: P3, sl 2 wyib, p2; rep from to last 3 sts, sl 2 wyib, p1.

Rows 5-12: Rep Rows 1-4 twice more.

Row 13: Sl 2 wyif, k2, sl2 wyif; rep from to end.

Row 14: P1, sl 2 wyib, p2; rep from to last st, p1.

Row 15: K2, sl 2 wyif, k2; rep from to end.

Row 16: P3, sl 2 wyib, p2; rep from to last 3 sts, sl 2 wyib, p1.

Rows 17-24: Rep Rows 13-16 twice more.

 

(wyif – with yarn in front, wyib – with yarn in back)

 

Qualities

This produces the most flexible fabric of all of the herringbone stitch patterns and is good for sweaters or garments which need to move and stretch. The row gauge is changed very little which is probably the reason it is found in older gansey patterns. It gives the herringbone zig zag motif but can be used alongside stockinette or cable panels without affecting the row gauge of the entire garment. The cast on and bind off edges do not scallop so it’s a good choice when you want a straight edge.

 

Difficulties and Solutions

You will not need to go up a needle size for this method. You should be able to achieve a nice-looking swatch without any difficulty in the knitting process on the size needle you would normally use for the yarn weight you’re using. This swatch is worked with worsted weight yarn on a US #7 (4.5mm) needle and even though the needle is two sizes smaller than previous swatches, it looks the loosest of the three.

 

This method relies on the yarn lying in front to create the slanted look. The challenge here is giving the yarn the lies across the two slipped stitched enough give so it doesn’t pull in and pucker, but not so much yarn that you have droopy curves. When slipping two stitches at a time, make sure the yarn lies evenly across the slipped stitches before working the next stitch. If you tug before working the next stitch, you will tighten the yarn between each worked stitch which doesn’t leave enough room for the yarn to lie across both slipped stitches. This causes the fabric to pucker. If you need to stretch out your swatch for it to look good, then your horizontal lines are too loose, and you’ll need to re-work it. If this happens, keep a little more tension on the yarn during the slips.

 

Terminology can be confusing, especially on the wrong-side rows. On wrong-side rows, when you’re slipping stitches with the yarn in back, you will take the yarn to the back of your work as you’re looking at it, which makes the horizontal strand visible from the right side. This doesn’t mean with yarn at the back or wrong side of the garment.

 

Another problem with this method is that the edges can be wobbly and ugly. This is because on some rows, you are beginning or ending a row with two slipped stitches. To keep the edge even, hold the slipped stitches until you work the next stitch. This lets the yarn rest across them without pulling tight which can create curved, drawn in edges.

 

Since you’re working the same four rows three times, before changing to the next sequence, this is another pattern that is easy to lose your place. Use a row counter to keep on track.

 

This is an easy pattern to enlarge or shrink. This pattern calls for working twelve rows that create a slant in one direction, then twelve rows that create a slant in the opposite direction. To make larger, more dramatic horizontal V’s, try increasing the sequence to sixteen rows for each by working rows 1-4 four times, then the next four rows four times.

 

This method also creates an attractive nubby fabric, with the same herringbone pattern on the wrong side.



Option 4: Herringbone Stitch

Worked over a multiple of 7 sts + 1 st. This is another increase/decrease method.



Rows 1 and 3 (WS): Purl.

Row 2 (RS): K2tog, k2, inc, k2, rep from to last st, k1.

Row 4: K1, k2, inc, k2, k2tog, rep from .

Rep Rows 1–4 for patt.

 

(Inc – Increase by inserting the point of the right needle from top down through the purled head of the stitch below the next stitch on the left needle, knit this purled head, then knit the stitch above.)

 

Qualities

As with most of the increase/decrease methods, the fabric is firm. It’s not as dense as basic herringbone and is a good compromise.

 

Difficulties and Solutions

This stitch pattern is rather simple. All wrong-side rows are purled, and all right-side rows are worked the same, except that they begin at a different place in the sequence. For that reason, and because it is easy to commit to memory, it is easy to repeat the same right-side row back-to-back which causes the pattern to be off. This is one of the things that the Master Hand Knitting committee will look for. If something doesn’t look quite right with the pattern, it’s usually because you’ve either missed an increase at the beginning of a row, or accidentally repeated the same right-side row back-to-back.

 

To prevent this, I like to renumber the four rows to make it easier to follow. Since the wrong-side rows are all purled, there’s no need to number them. Number the first right-side row as 1 and the second right-side row as 2, like this:

 

Herringbone Stitch (Mult of 7sts + 1)

WS rows: Purl.

Row 1 (RS): K2tog, k2, inc, k2, rep from to last st, k1.

Row 2: K1, k2, inc, k2, k2tog, rep from .

 

Use a row counter and click on every right-side row. This way if you get lost or side-tracked, you’ll know that all odd rows are worked like Row 1 and all even rows are worked like Row 2.

 

Both the cast on and bind off edges will naturally scallop. The bind off edge can be blocked either straight or with the natural scallop to match the cast on edge. This stitch pattern looks best with a slightly firmer hand to the fabric. Wool is an excellent choice and will give the swatch some substance.


Option 5: Yet Another Option!  Two-Color Herringbone

Use two (or more) colors with any of the above stitches. It’s not a new stitch pattern, but a variation on the ones already covered. With Basic Herringbone stitch, if you alternate colors every two rows, you keep all left slants in one color and all right slants in a second color. If you’re working Big or Woven Herringbone, you may wish to work an entire sequence of twelve rows in one color, then the next twelve rows that slant the opposite way in a new color.



To cast on a herringbone project, Izzy Two-Tone Sweater uses herringbone at the bottom of the sweater and sleeves. Shown in Wonderland Yarns/Frabjous Fibers Alice DK.


Photos of Izzy by Shelby Louise Photography


References:

Forte, Mary. “Herringbone Lesson.”  Cast On Nov 2011 – Jan 2012: pp. 11-16.

 

Korleski, Alison. “Easy Herringbone. Really.”  Interweave.com. 07JUL2018.

 

Turner, Sharon. Knitting Stitches Visual Encyclopedia. Hoboken, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2011.

 

Pavilion Books. 750 knitting Stitches. The Ultimate Knit Stitch Bible.  New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2015.

 

Walker, Barbara. A Second Treasury of Knitting Patterns. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970, p. 124.


 

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