Hats are a great way to begin designing your own knitwear, and you can make them as simple or as complex as you like. Whether you’re planning a stocking stitch beanie or something cabled and cosy, you’ll find that the design principles are generally the same. As a hat doesn’t get worn out quickly, unlike socks and gloves, you can afford to be more playful with the materials you might like to use. Yarns can be any weight from 4ply and chunky, and what you do with that is entirely up to you! The formula for a simple hat design is fairly straightforward - you measure your head, make a swatch in the pattern you would like to use, work out how many stitches you will need to go around your head and then alter it slightly so the pattern repeat fits into the stitch count. This process works for any size head, from a preemie to a large head with thick hair.
Most of my hat designs have been inspired by yarns. I like to play around with a few different stitch patterns to see what suits. Of course, this works just as well the other way around, and the great thing about hats is that you can make them out of virtually any yarn as they don’t necessarily need to be particularly durable.
If a stitch pattern is complicated, I prefer not to use a variegated yarn which might hide the pattern, so I lean towards solid colour yarns. Sock/4ply yarns are great for lightweight hats, and won’t limit your stitch choices much either.
I prefer to design slightly slouchy hats, and the beauty of these is that you just need to make sure your ribbing is going to retain its stretch after a few uses and actually keep the hat on your head. But it’s still important to swatch, both in ribbing and in pattern, and measure after blocking to be certain your hat won’t be too loose after it’s been washed.
The basic beanie hat construction works from the bottom up; using smaller needles, you work about 5cm of ribbing (or longer if you want a turn-up rim). You then change to larger needles and work in your chosen stitch pattern until the work measures 15-25cm, depending on the amount of slouch you want and the amount of rounds used to decrease over. Then you work your decreases gradually over the next few rounds before drawing the yarn through the remaining stitches and fastening off. If you’re making a tam or a beret, the rules here are slightly different. After you’ve finished ribbing, you then increase by a third of the stitches you cast on all along the next round, then work in a tube for about 15cm and then decrease gradually over the next 8cm until each pattern repeat is left with just one or two stitches, before pulling the yarn through.
The first part of the hat you will be knitting will be the ribbing, which is usually made on a set of needles one size smaller than those for the project. Different people like different sorts of rib, and this is something to consider when you are designing the pattern. Remember that the more stitches you have in each rib panel, the less stretchy it will become, so for instance K4, P4 rib will not be as snug around your head as K1, P1 rib. Twisted rib is always a neat option that helps to tighten stitches. Slouch hats and berets need a brim that is quite stretchy, as this will be doing most of the work to keep the hat on. It’s nice to flow your ribbing into your pattern if possible - make a small swatch of rib before your stitch pattern to see if the two work together nicely first. I am a sucker for 2x2 rib: I like how it looks and how it stretches.
Calculating for casting on
First you need to find a stitch pattern you like, and swatch it. Remember that if you’re making your hat in the round, ideally you should swatch in the round. You can do this in two ways.
One option is to cast on and join to work in the round. This will result in a swatch of a relatively small circumference. The disadvantage of this is that it will be hard to see your stitch pattern over such a small area when it’s a narrow tube.
Alternatively, you can knit the swatch flat, but instead of working back along the wrong side, loosely strand your yarn across the back and start from the right side of each row. If you do this you will need to add three to five selvedge stitches on each side worked in garter or stocking stitch, so that the very loose edges of the swatch don’t throw out your tension.
Block the swatch before measuring, and then calculate your tension over 10cm for accuracy. Divide this number by 10 to get your stitches per centimetre.
Measure around your head over the widest point; from your forehead, above your ears and around the back. Then take 2-5cm negative ease (depending on how snug you want the hat to be) away from this number and multiply it by your number of stitches per cm, to get your cast-on figure. This will probably need to be tweaked ever so slightly to incorporate your chosen stitch pattern into whole repeats, without any spare stitches left over. You will also need to take a measurement from the crown of your head to just below your ears, or where you want the hat to come down to. Of course, this process isn’t always so straightforward, and you may end up having to revisit your stitch pattern to add or remove a stitch or two so it will fit nicely into your cast-on, or else your hat might turn out too large or too small. Another way around this is to go up or down a needle size and swatch again, if you don’t want to alter the pattern. You may also decide to opt for a looser fit and not add negative ease at all, or compromise the number of stitches required.
Stitch pattern choice
Try to avoid choosing stitch patterns that are very wide, unless you are using sock yarn - I find if you can’t make at least five repeats around the hat it looks a little strange, unless you are intending to make something that doesn’t repeat at all. In my early days of hat design I made a lace and cable mixed pattern that only repeated four times, only to find when I tried it on I had four cables that crossed over my head, which looked odd! Also make sure your pattern suits your yarn choice – lace won’t really work so well with anything above worsted weight, and the thicker the yarn the less cable detail you will want, too.
Working flat or in the round
When designing your hat, one of the things you will need to decide is whether to work it flat or in the round. Personally, I like to make everything seamless where possible, but there are instances where this isn’t so suitable. Working intarsia, for instance, is far easier flat. If you have a coloured design you’d like to use on the front of your hat only, you want to be able to drop colours at the back and then pick them up again on the way back, but if you are going in circles you will find that the yarn will have been dropped at the wrong end, unless your colourwork is made up of very small pieces.
Some people really don’t get on with double-pointed needles, in which case they might want to look into trying the Magic Loop method (see here for our magic loop masterclass). In my opinion, it’s far easier than working with DPNS, plus you are much less likely to drop your needles all over the bus/café/wherever you happen to be knitting!
My top tip for joining stitches in the round is to cast on one stitch more than required, and then to move the last stitch so it sits next to the first (be careful not to twist!) and knit the two together. This makes a really neat join, and then you can just merrily knit in circles.
To be sure you are knitting right side facing, always knit from the needle(s) closest to you. If you work on the back needles, you will find when your knitting starts to grow that the right side is inside the tube and you’ll have to flip it out to see your work. moving markers Bear in mind with lace repeats that depending where you start in the pattern, you may find after a number of rounds you need to move your beginning of round marker. Ideally you want the round to start in a place that won’t be affected by yarnovers or K2togs that move across the round. This won’t affect the appearance of the pattern at all, but if you aren’t expecting it, it can be confusing at first. Take a look at Chart 1 (below) and imagine the red lines as the beginning of round marker at each end. If you look at the chart from top to bottom, you will see there is a decrease in every column of stitches. This won’t affect your stitch repeat as you go around, but it does mean that wherever the beginning of round marker goes, it will always end up being shifted around, because at some point the stitch before the marker will need to be worked with the stitch after it. Some patterns have an obvious place where to start the round (see Chart 2 below). If I were to start the repeat just one stitch earlier (see Chart 3 below), we’d find when we came to the end of round 5 we would need to work a K2tog with the first and last stitch, and the beginning of round marker would need to be moved. It is worth having a play with where the beginning of the round starts to avoid this happening. One way of checking this is to first chart out your pattern on graph paper, or using software such as Excel. Once you draw in where your repeat will go, you will see clearly if it is next to a decrease or an increase that is likely to affect it.
For a beanie or a slouch hat, after working your straight section you usually work one or two decreases into each pattern repeat, over a number of rows until you reach the desired stitch count.
I usually plan this out over a chart and then swatch to see how the pattern looks. For example, I like to work my decreases into the pattern, where possible, such as behind cables or by continuing lace patterns without the yarnovers, and then working matching SSKs and K2togs into each panel to equally decrease on both sides. I try to reduce each pattern repeat gradually up to a point - so that when the yarn tail is pulled through the remaining stitches at the top, a star or a flower shape is formed.
This is something worth playing about with, as how you decide to decrease will affect how the crown looks. If you decrease on just one side of the panel, for example, your crown will twist into a spiral at the top, which might be something you’d like to try.
Count how many rounds your decreases take up from your swatch or chart and divide this by your row gauge. Then deduct this from the length measurement you took earlier, and you will know how long your hat needs to be before you start working the decreases. If you want a slouchy hat, work an extra 6-8cm before you start decreasing. Any less than that and the hat won’t slouch, but will stick up strangely like an elf hat.
Some people choose not to block their hats when they’ve finished knitting them, but if you are using a lace pattern, or giving your hat as a gift, then you will want it to look its best. When you wash wool it relaxes, and you get a much better shape and stitch definition.
First fill a sink or bowl with lukewarm water and add a few drops of wool soak, and push the hat down until it sinks and is wet through. Leave your hat to soak for around 10 minutes, then drain the water away and refill with fresh water to rinse. Lift the knitting carefully out of the water and lay on a towel, and then roll it up as you would a garment to squeeze out any excess water.
I find the best way to block hats is over an inflated balloon. Blow one up to the approximately the size of your head (or the hat’s recipient’s) and gently stretch the hat over it to dry. You can also use an upturned bowl, if you have one that’s the right size, or a polystyrene mannequin head.
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