Master Class: Understanding Brioche
Brioche is a wonderfully diverse, almost mesmerizing stitch that attracts attention for its beauty and is loved for its cozy, squishy properties. In this master class on brioche, my goal is to help you understand this style better and learn some key techniques to your brioche knitting look and behave its best.
Brioche is not one knitting stitch, but rather a category of slip stitch knitting. This class of knitting is a hybrid of 1x1 ribbing and double knitting. Brioche is also referred to as Shaker Knitting, English Rib, Shawl Stitch, and sometimes Fisherman's Rib but in the latter, the needle is inserted into the row below instead of making yarn over, which gives a similar but uneven look since you're opening up a stitch which distorts it and leaves the knitting looser.
Brioche creates a double-thick layer of fabric that is deeply texturized, warm, and spongy. The loose, fluffy stitch creates a lofty fabric. The fabric should hold its shape with no holes. When you go down a needle size or two, you are able to create a fabric that has some substance and springs back to shape when stretched. There’s nothing else in the world of knitting quite as distinct and dramatic. The ribs in basic brioche stitch are more dramatic and deeper than regular single ribbing. When worked in two colors, garments take on a deep, 3-D appearance. When the brioche ribs are stretched horizontally, a fishbone pattern emerges on each side of the rib. One of the main qualities of brioche is that ribbing, cables and colorworks are often reversible. In the case of two colors, each side will have a different dominant color which gives garments and scarves more versatility in the wardrobe.
During the process of knitting, colors are easier to work than most other forms of colorwork in knitting since only one color is being worked at a time. Many knitters trying brioche for the first time will find it easier to work with two colors since there is no confusion as to which stitch the yarn over belongs to. With syncopated colors, you can alternate from dark to light or vice versa for an interesting effect. It is truly one of the most versatile, interesting stitch patterns in knitting and can easily become addictive.
Since the fabric is extra thick, brioche is best suited for loose-fitting garments with plenty of ease. Allover brioche sweaters are gorgeous with the right weight of yarn and ease. When the look of brioche is desired, but ease and fit of sweaters is a concern, brioche can be combined with other stitches by working brioche panels into garments with less textured stitches. Capes, coats and hats are ideal as they benefit from the double layer and extra warmth. Cowls, scarves and baby blankets are great projects due to the reversible fabric.
POTENTIAL PROBLEMS & SOLUTIONS
Brioche will stretch a great deal, but there are ways to control this. Before you start knitting, select an untreated wool which sticks together and holds its shape better silky, slinky blends. Avoid heavy yarns like cotton and fibers that hang with gravity like alpaca and yak which really pull the already stretchy fabric downwards. You want to work with a light, airy, elastic yarn like wool. If you can find a woolen spun yarn, even better. Yarns that are woolen spun, as opposed to worsted spun, will be loftier and lighter which helps counter the effect of the extra yarn and weight. Divide the grams by yardage on the ball bands to find the weight per yard to compare yarns. Beyond yarn selection, to control the stretch you must use a needle several sizes smaller than you normally would for the weight of yarn you’ve selected. Brioche knitted with too large of needles will not spring back into shape, will have holes, look limp and misshaped. You will also need to cast on with a larger needle to prevent the cast on edge from being too tight. Use selvedge stitches to create a firm, neat edge. Lastly, for stability at the shoulder seams, you’ll want to bind off then seam since this is one bind off area that doesn’t need to match the give and stretch created by the brioche stitch.
Brioche uses 50-100% as much yarn as Stockinette so you’ll need to buy more yarn. Think about the total yardage needed before deciding on a yarn. Brioche takes more time to knit than other stitch patterns since each row is worked twice so don’t embark on a brioche project when you’re short on time.
The double thickness of brioche adds bulk to garments so they must have lots of ease. Since the fabric is extra thick, you want to allow more ease than normal when deciding on which size to make, so the garment still hangs freely instead of pulling tight against your skin. Consider the circumference of the inside of the sweater which will be tighter than the outside. Since sizes listed in patterns will be for the outside circumference, you will want to aim for a finished sweater size that is at least 4” larger than the actual circumference of your chest.
The stitch count of rows can change by mistake. If you’re working an even number of stitches without a selvedge stitch, the number of stitches can increase at the end of each row unless the last stitch and its yarn over are always worked together. If you’re working an odd number of stitches without a selvedge, the number of stitches can decrease at the end of each row unless you hold the yarn over in place as you turn the work so it doesn’t pop off. You can flip this last stitch around and place it half hitch style on the needle to better hold it in place. When starting out, take a stitch count at the end of every row until you’re confident.
Pieces made with selvedge stitches that are knitted or purled every row will have wavy edges since brioche uses more rows per inch than other stitch patterns. To solve this, always slip the selvedge stitch at the beginning of every row or with two color knitting, work the first and last stitch of every main color row and slip the first and last stitch of every contrasting color row.
Tension can be an issue. When you are on the brk or knitting row, since you’re knitting a stitch with the yarn held in the front, a yarn over forms automatically. When you knit the next st, it pulls the yarn tighter which can make the knit stitches smaller. When you are on the brp or purl row, you are taking the yarn from the front, over the needle and around the tip to the front again, then working the purl stitch. Since you have a yarn over lying on top of the needle, the tendency is not to tug when making the purl stitch, therefore the purl stitch can be a little looser. The best way to even out your tension is to be mindful of what’s happening and strive to create your knit and purl stitches with the same tension. This may mean loosening up the knit stitch a bit and giving a slight tug on the purl stitch.
There are many ways of working brioche. Some patterns cast on an even number of stitches, some cast on an odd number. Some use selvedges, some do not. Some begin with a brk and some with a brp. Some use one set up row and some use two. If you think of brioche as a category of double knitting/slipped stitches where the yarn is carried over, instead of in front or behind the work, you will begin to understand why there are so many variables. This is not one stitch with one way of working it. If you look at four books on how to work the 1x1 rib in two colors, you’ll probably see four different ways of working it. And they are all right. Brioche is fabulous in that it gives the creativity and flexibility to do what you want, within some parameters.
Some of these common rules, which must be present in all stitch patterns classified as brioche are:
you will work a stitch, then slip a stitch;
you will always treat the slipped stitch and its yarn over as one stitch;
each row or round is worked twice -first knitting one stitch and slipping the next and the second time knitting the stitches that were slipped the first time and slipping those that were worked;
increases and decreases need to be worked in pairs.
When measuring gauge, brioche will have fewer stitches and more rows than Stockinette. When counting stitches for your gauge swatch, count the slipped stitch and its yarn over as one stitch. When counting rows, count what you see, so each knit stitch running up a column is one row.
When working in the round, you’ll work two rounds for every visible round.
When blocking, you’ve got more yarn soaking in the water than you normally would. Squeeze out a much water as possible, carefully support it from the bottom and remove it from the basin. Press out as much water as you can between thick towels. Reshape and let it dry flat.
Terminology does vary with brioche. Nancy Marchant created the abbreviations brk for brioche knit which basically means to knit the next stitch with its yarn over, and brp for brioche purl which means to purl the next stitch with its yarn over. Prior to brk and brp, patterns simply said to k1 or p1 and when you work one brioche stitch, you’re always knitting or purling the next stitch together with its yarn over. It’s also written as k2tog or p2tog, which means to knit or purl the next stitch together with its yarn over. You may see this written as k1, k2tog or brk, and p1, p2tog or brp. The reason for brk and brp, is that when working on a garment there are times when you are working a decrease on a non-brioche part so you can see where k2tog can be confusing. Sometimes it means to knit the next stitch with its yarn over and sometimes it means to decrease 2 stitches to 1. And if you have selvedge edges, sometimes you really are just knitting 1 stitch when you see k1, but sometimes it means to knit the stitch with its yarn over. Therefore, using Marchant’s abbreviations of brk and brp help to clarify.
Charting is different in that each row is worked twice. Some of the most common abbreviations include:
brk – knit the st slipped in the previous row tog with its yo.
brp – purl the st slipped in the previous row tog with its yo.
yo – bring yarn over the needle.
yf – bring yarn forward, under the needle tip. Do not form a yo.
yof – a combination of the yo and yf.
yb – bring yarn to the back.
sl – slip st purlwise.
HOW TO WORK
Single Color Plain Brioche Stitch (without selvedge) [Photo 1]:
CO an even number of sts.
Set up Row: *Yf, sl1, yo, k1; rep from * to end.
Row 1: *Yf, sl1, yo, brk; rep from * to end.
Repeat Row 1.
A good pattern for try out Two Color Brioche Stitch (including selvedge) [Photo 2] is the Rainstorm Scarf pattern.
Decreases [Photo 3] allow two knit columns in the ribbing to become one. When you decrease three stitches to one, you eliminate one knit column and one purl column, which maintains the 1x1 ribbing after the decrease. With increases and decreases, it’s easier to start with row 1 or row 1(a).
To make a Left Leaning Decrease (brsssk or sometimes written as sssbrk): On the RS, work up to the st that is to be decreased. This is usually a slipped st with its yo. Slip the next 3 sts knitwise one at a time to the RH needle. Since you always treat the stitch and its yo as 1 st, you will slip the knit st and its yo, the purl st, and the next knit st and its yo, which is 5 strands on the needle. Slip all 3 sts (5 strands) back to the LH needle to reorient the sts then knit all 3 tog through the back loops. 2 sts dec’d.
To make a Right Leaning Decrease (brk3tog): On the RS, work up to the knit column before the knit column that you want to slant. Insert RH needle knitwise from left to right one at a time into the next 3 sts (the knit st, its yo, the purl st, and the next knit st and its yo). Knit the 3 stitches (5 strands) together. 2 sts dec’d.
Non Directional Increases [Photo 4] are most commonly made by using a 1-3 and 1-5 increase. When you increase you take a knit column and branch it into one knit column, one purl column and one knit column for a 1-3 increase and into one knit column, one purl column, one knit column, one purl column and one knit column for a 1-5 increase. This keeps the pattern balanced.
To make a 1-3 increase (brkyobrk): On the RS, work up to the st that is to be increased. This is usually a slipped st with its yo. Treating the st and its yo as one, (brk, yo, brk) into the st/yo. When working with 2 colors, after finishing this row, slide work to the other side of the needle and work the next color. When you get to the 3 sts that you increased, continue in pattern with sl1 (first st), yo, purl middle st, yo, sl1 (third st) yo, and cont.
To make a 1-5 increase (brkyobrkyobrk), work the same as above but brk, yo, brk, yo, brk into the st/yo to create 5 sts.
Below Left: Increases | Below Center: Plain Brioche Stitch | Below Right: Decreases
CAST ONS AND BIND OFFS
The best cast ons are those that stretch. You’ll want a stable edge for scarves and open edges of garments, but the cast on cannot interfere with the tension of the garment. Since brioche is a loose, spongy stitch, you want a cast on with a bit of give to it. Use larger needles to cast on than the rest of the piece.
For brioche worked in one color, Italian Cast On (also known as Two-Strand Tubular CO, Kitchener Rib CO, Invisible Cast On, Tubular Cast On, KP Case On, 1x1 Rib Cast On, Alternating Cast On) is a favorite, as evidenced by its many names used in different regions.
For brioche worked in 2 colors: Two-Color Italian Cast On (a/k/a Two-Strand Tubular Cast On, and Tubular Two-Color Cast on) allows you to cast on with both colors, maintains the different colored ribs all the way through to the end of the piece, and creates an invisible edge.
The best bind offs are those that stretch. Keep your tension loose while binding off. For shoulders that will be seamed, bind off these tightly to provide stability here and prevent too much stretch at the seam.
For brioche worked in one color: Tubular Bind Off, Kitchener Bind Off, (a/k/a Italian Bind Off, Invisible Weave Off), Kitchener Rib Bind off (a/k/a/ Invisible Ribbed Bind Off, K1P1 Bind Off, K1P1 Rib Bind Off), Suspended Bind Off (a/k/a Elastic Bind Off) when you want a straight edge, Stretchy Bind Off (good for 1x1 ribbings). Since the Italian Bind Off is a favorite for 1x1 ribbing, it makes sense that it’s also a favorite choice for binding off in simple brioche stitch. When binding off be sure to match the tension of the preceding rows and do not snug up the yarn tightly as you go.
For brioche worked in two colors: Simple Two-Color Bind Off is fast and similar to regular bind off but gives a pretty chain of alternating colors resting on the top of the bind off edge, that match the columns of colored stitches below.
BEYOND BASIC BRIOCHE
Thinking of brioche as its own category of stitches, allows you to see how many brioche patterns can exist. Taking the brioche principles and applying them to cables, increases, decreases, ribbing, colorwork, etc. opens up many different types of stitch patterns. Besides the striking basic brioche, double brioche, honeycomb brioche, and waffle brioche are just some of the stitch patterns that proudly lie under the brioche category.
Brioche can easily become addictive. Understanding its’ qualities, suitable garments, and potential pitfalls to avoid will increase your enjoyment when working brioche and lead to better finished projects. Since it can be worked successfully with any weight of yarn, using one, two or more colors either in contrast with one another or monochromatic, it’s easy to find yarn in your stash to begin swatching. Once you get into a rhythm, you’ll find that it is a stitch that can be committed to memory and can be worked without total concentration.
I hope you enjoy the fascinating world of brioche from the fundamentals, to the exciting knitting process and the dramatic finished projects.
Buss, Katharina. Big Book of Knitting. New York, NY: Sterling Publishing Co., 2001.
Editors of Vogue. Vogue Knitting. New York, NY: Sixth & Spring Books, 2018.
Forte, Mary. “Stitch Anatomy – Brioche Lesson.” Cast On Feb-Apr 2011.
Marchant, Nancy. Knitting Brioche. Cincinnati, OH: North Light Books, 2009.
Sease, Cap. Cast On, Bind Off. Bothell, WA: Martingale, 2012.
Tarasovich-Clark, Mercedes. Brioche Chic. Fort Collins, CO: Interweave. 2014.
Temple, Trudianne. “Brioche.” Cast On Nov 2014-Jan 2015.
Walker, Barbara. A Treasury of Knitting Patterns. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968.