Posts from the Yarnologue

Knitting Tip: Lifelines

During sit and stitch at my local yarn store last night the store owner shared that she had made a mistake in the lace border on a shawl she was knitting and wasn’t looking forward to ripping it back again.

A second knitter and I simultaneously said, “Use a lifeline.” Which caused the LYS owner to smack herself in the forehead since she hadn’t thought of that.

Meanwhile, two other knitters asked, “A whatline?” at the same time.

You can pick up an entire row, or just the section you need to fix.

You can pick up an entire row, or just the section you need to fix.

It surprises me when knitters who have gotten out of the “beginner” phase don’t know what a lifeline is since it’s one of the tricks I learned early on in my knitting life.

My mother-in-law taught me the basics of cast on, knit, and purl then sent me on my merry way. At that time I didn’t know any other knitters (and we didn’t live near my in-laws), so I relied on library books and the internet to advance my knowledge. One of those library books from the 70s (or was it 80s?) explained the lifeline concept.

Sit and stitch turned into an impromptu lesson, complete with visual aids, as we explained the wonders of lifelines to the group.

I will now use pictures and text to explain it to you, my lovely readers. If you are unfamiliar with this technique, I suggest you grab a swatch and test it out. If you use lifelines, share a story of how a lifeline saved your sanity.

The Why

The purpose of a lifeline to create a stopping point in your knitted fabric below the point where you are working.

There are several reasons you might want to create a roadblock in your work.

If you are working with a slippery yarn, a lifeline will prevent a dropped stitch from running very far. It will only unravel to the lifeline and not beyond.

If you are working a complicated pattern (usually lace), a lifeline will make it easier to rip back if you discover a mistake. You’ll can rip back to the lifeline without worrying about introducing more errors below it. Generally, people will either move or insert additional lifelines as they go along. If your lifeline is 20 or 30 rows back it won’t be as helpful as one 5 or 10 rows back.

You can also use a lifeline to help correct mistakes in simple patterns or as a point of reference in your fabric, such as for measuring length.

The What

You want to use a smooth, contrasting color yarn or string. Usually it is a lighter or at least similar weight, to the main yarn in your project. You don’t want to use a thick yarn that will distort your stitches! And you want to be able to see the lifeline clearly so it’s easier to pick up the held stitches. A navy blue lifeline on a black project will be hard to see and use.

Do you have a stash of leftover sock yarn? Press it into use as a lifeline! I have an old spool of white kite string I like to use for lifelines and stitch holders. I’ve also used dental floss, in a pinch.

You can also use a knitting needle that is several sizes smaller than the one you are using, i.e, if you are knitting on a US6 needle then use a US3 as your lifeline. Generally, it is better to use a circular needle, rather than a straight needle, so you can work off either end. If you use a straight needle you might have to slip all the stitches to another needle before you can start knitting again.

The How

Edited to add: Please note, in the pictures I’ve just grabbed a few stitches for demonstration purposes. Usually a lifeline is inserted across the entire row, otherwise it’s not much help!

The goal when inserting your lifeline is to pick up one stitch all the way across your work.

Pick up half of each knit stitch across.

Pick up half of each knit stitch across.

I tell people to try to pick up the right hand leg of each knit stitch, which results in the stitches being properly seated to begin knitting again. If you pick up the left hand leg of the V all your stitches will be twisted.

But, really, the goal is to get each V on the lifeline and worry about correcting how the stitches are sitting later.

If you are using yarn or string, thread it through a darning needle and get to work. You’ll want to insert the lifeline in the row below your error.

Putting it another way, if your error is five rows back, you’ll insert the lifeline six or seven rows back.

Ta-Da! The lifeline is ready to go.

Ta-Da! The lifeline is ready to go.

Don’t worry if your life line wanders a row up or down, picking out half a row stitch by stitch isn’t as back as introducing additional errors because of dropped stitches!

Some newer sets of interchangable needles have a hole through which you can thread the lifeline yarn before you start a row and it gets carried along as you knit.

Oh, that reminds me, when inserting your lifeline, don’t pass it through your stitch markers or they’ll get trapped by the lifeline and you’ll have to abandon them and add new ones.

Once you’ve inserted your lifeline, and are sure you’ve captured each stitch, remove your knitting needle and rip with abandon!

Then use your needle to pick up each stitch from the lifeline yarn. Again, it might be easier to use a needle a few sizes smaller than your working needles.

If you used a circular needle as your lifeline you can rip, then skip right to slipping or knitting the stitches back onto your working needle.

After all the stitches have been moved from the lifeline back to your working needles you’ll want to take a few minutes to examine the active row. Are all the stitches properly seated and not twisted? Is your working yarn in the proper position to start knitting? Are there any floats on the wrong side of the fabric where you picked up a stitch in the row below?

The yarn has all right legs. The needle has a few left legs.

The yarn has all right legs. The needle has a few left legs.

Take a few minutes to check for and correct any of those errors before you start knitting again.

In the picture above, you can see that the stitches on the orange yarn are all facing the same direction with no skipped stitches. However, on the gold knitting needle the right leg was picked up on the first three stitches, but then the left leg was picked up on the fourth and sixth stitches. That’s fine for inserting the lifeline, but will need to be corrected later.

As you can see, a lifeline is a simple, but brilliant way, to make your knitting life easier.


Posted in: Tips

19 thoughts on “Knitting Tip: Lifelines

  1. Loreen says:

    You are making this too difficult. When knitting a lace or complicated pattern, insert the lifeline as you are knitting, note the pattern row number and if possible use a row that is plain, like a return purl row. If you use fishing line or cotton crochet thread you won’t have a “sticking” problem and the life line comes out easily. I tie round stitch markers to each end of the lifeline to prevent accidental removal.

    • Ann says:

      Doesn’t inserting the lifeline as you’re knitting the row slow you down?

      I have, occasionally, finished a row then run the lifeline while the stitches are still on the needle. That’s as close to real-time as I get.
      However, I don’t knit much lace, so I’m usually running a lifeline after the fact!

  2. Connie says:

    Which interchangeable needles have the ‘eye’ for a lifeline? I need those!

    • Ann says:

      I’m not sure, Connie. I’ve only heard about them and I can’t remember which brand it was.
      Your knitting friends might know!

    • Interchangable needles are circular needles where the needle ends can be swapped on and off the cable, so that you have one set of cables in different lengths, and one set of needle ends, rather than, for instance, a size 8 circ with a 12″ cable, and size 8 circ with a 18″ cable, and a size 8 circ with a 24″ cable. If you use interchangable needles for your lifeline, you put needles smaller than your project needles on a cable long enough to act as the lifeline itself. No additional yarn required.

      • Oh, went back and re-read. I see what you’re talking about. Don’t mind me! :)

        • Ann says:

          Good point. People using interchangable needles can swap tips and save a step. But it’s still important to remember to check for mistakes before starting to knit again.

          It’s a great option for immediate fixes, but I would be worried about leaving the spare cable in for an extended amount of time since I wouldn’t want a dent in my fabric from the thickness of the needle.

  3. Pam says:

    This is great to see. I have put my project on the rug and then started pulling it back to the error. So many times I’ll miss a stitch and end up going back further and further – so irritating. Looks like taking a minute every so often could save frustration in the long run,

  4. Tammy says:

    I had never used a lifeline before until I started knitting my second Estonian lace scarf. After ripping it out about 5 times, losing some really expensive, non-replaceable wool yarn, and enduring hours of frustration, I found out about life lines. My scarf is still in snooze mode, but not because I had to rip it out, just had other projects to do. Great tip and explanation!

  5. Kaitlan says:

    There are many companies that have interchangables. It just comes down to which you like. I have heard and you too probably have used them, the boyle are really stiff and a little thicker. Just look around. Many have trial sets so you can try them and find the one you like best. I personally use KnitPicks version, it is really good. The cables are flexible and thin.

  6. Jamy says:

    Connie, I use the tightening holes on the KnitPicks Harmony Interchangeable Needles as the “eye” for my lifeline.

  7. Jules says:

    So, can you put in a lifeline after the fact? I use them on lace projects including them as I go but can you add one later to go back and fix mistakes?

    • Ann says:

      Yes, Jules, you can indeed put them in after the fact.

      It’s tricky on lace, because of the YOs and decreases, but it can be done. Best bet would be to aim for a rest row (plain knit or purl) if you have one to make it easier to pick up stitches.
      Just check very carefully before you start ripping!

  8. Shireen says:

    Are you serious?!?! Where has this post been all my life!?! I’ve been knitting for quite a while and this is the first time I’ve heard this!!! Man, you have no idea how tears it could have saved me. Oh well, it will save me many more in the future! : )
    Thank you, thank you for posting what seems like I should have thought of on my own!

  9. Emma says:

    Unfortunately, I am to much in a hurry or too arrogant, and think I won’t need them and yet, time has proven that I always do. So with great humility, I must agree that lifelines would save much time and heartache resulting in more finished projects.

  10. Karen says:

    Dental floss works VERY well, also! I include lifelines as I knit.

  11. Kim says:

    I’ve never used lifelines either but I’ve also done very little lace. I was aware of their existence. I was fortunate enough to be present for this impromptu lesson. Thanks again. I now realize two things, how easy using a life line actually is and that I don’t have to be afraid of complicated patterns. I am planning to venture out and do more lacy patterns in the future after I tackle the huge mountain of baby presents. Everyone at the hospital is pregnant I think.

    Welcome to our little community of crazy knitters.

  12. Carol says:

    Thank you. I have been knitting for 40 years and never heard of the life line!

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