Gwen W. Steege, author of The Knitter’s Life List, has been a fiber fanatic for nearly 50 years, and she hasn’t yet tired of spending late nights with her knitting needles and a good ball of yarn, sometimes spun from the fleece of her own sheep. By day she edits books on knitting and other fiber crafts for Storey Publishing. She lives in western Massachusetts.
Few knitting projects are more satisfying than hats. Most are quick and easy to knit and, because they take a small amount of yarn, they are relatively inexpensive as well. Usually knitted all in one piece ("in the round"), a hat is really a three-dimensional sculpture - you can see the hat taking shape as you knit. And whether you wear your hat or give it away, your unique creation is right out there for all to admire.
For this collection of patterns from seven North American designers, we've chosen a variety of styles for sizes ranging from baby to adults. Some are just plain fun, others are glamorous - all are practical and warm. If you're only beginning to knit and want something easy, or if you're more experienced but need a project you can do in a hurry, notice the patterns marked "Easy!" If you're looking for more of a challenge, the headbands on page 66 are the ideal introduction to double-knitting. And if you haven't experimented with felted knitting, take a look at the "sherpa" helmets for babies or the shaped hats for little girls or women on pages 76, 82, and 86.
A Good Yarn
One of the best things about knitting these days is the wonderful variety of colors, textures, and weights of yarns that easily lure you into yarn shops. When you're deciding what kind of yarn to choose - wool, mohair, cashmere, angora, alpaca, silk, rayon, cotton, linen, synthetic, and various blends - consider how the hat will be used and what the wearer prefers. Will this hat be worn for fun, or does it need to be thick and warm and fit over the ears? Many knitters prefer natural fibers for their hand knits. Wool, for instance, is considered warmer than acrylic, even when wet, but some folks find wool itchy, or they may even be allergic to it. If you're knitting a baby hat, a good compromise is washable wool, which is soft and easy to care for.
For two-color knitting, choose yarns of the same fibers and weight. Different yarn fibers have different degrees of elasticity, or they may differ in the way they knit up, hold their shape, and wash.
In terms of yarn quality, as with most products, you are likely to get what you pay for. Very inexpensive yarns stretch easily and pill and, in general, don't hold up well. Knitting is a fun hobby, but when you're putting time and effort into a project, you'll want it to last. Following are some general yarn categories and their average gauges and needle sizes.
Baby or fingering yarn 6.5 to 8 stitches = 1 inch US 0-3
Sport weight yarn 5.5 to 6 stitches = 1 inch US 4-6
DK (double knit) yarn 5 to 6 stitches = 1 inch US 4-6
Worsted weight yarn 4 to 5 stitches = 1 inch US 6-9
Bulky weight yarn 2 to 3.5 stitches = 1 inch US 9-11
Chunky weight yarn 3.5 to 4 stitches = 1 inch US 9-101/2
If you're substituting a yarn for the one recommended in a pattern, make sure you purchase the correct amount of yardage. For instance, if a pattern calls for one skein of a certain yarn that is packaged 190 yards to a skein and you want to substitute it with a yarn packaged in 100-yard skeins, you'll need to buy two skeins of the substitute yarn. You can usually find this information right on the label, or ask the yarn shop. You'll find yarns come in circular skeins that must be wound into balls before use, as well as in pull-out skeins that don't need rewinding; for a smoother feed, take the yarn from the inside of these skeins.
It's always best to buy an extra skein or two to avoid running short. If you have to return for more yarn, you may find that the yarn shop is either out of it or that what they have is from a different dye lot, which means the colors may be slightly but noticeably different. Some yarn shops will set aside an additional skein for up to a month, just in case you need another; most shops will also accept unused skeins for cash or credit.
Need Some Needles?
Most knitters have strong preferences when it comes to selecting knitting needles, and the wide variety of choices can be confusing until you try them. Coated aluminum needles are durable but sometimes heavy in larger sizes. Plastic or similar materials are lighter, though they can bend or break. Bamboo needles have become increasingly popular: yarn moves smoothly along bamboo needles, even in hot, sticky weather, and they're comfortable and quiet to use.
Available in several lengths, straight needles are easy to work with. Some people find shorter needles easier to manage. For projects that don't fit easily onto short, straight needles, use circular needles. You'll also need circular or double-pointed needles to knit cylindrical shapes, such as mittens and hats. Most of the hats in this book are knit in the round on circular or double-pointed needles. Circular needles come in different lengths and have a flexible nylon or plastic center. The 16-inch length is usually most appropriate for adult-size hats.
Double-pointed needles are used for knitting in the round. You may need to switch from circular to double-pointed needles when you're decreasing a hat to make the top of the crown, and the stitches on the circular needle stretch too far apart to work. When possible, choose a set of double-pointed needles that comes five to a package. Some patterns require five needles, but even if not, it's always good to have the extra needle in case you lose one. You also need a set of crochet hooks for picking up dropped stitches, weaving in ends, and finishing some edges.
Needles come in numbered sizes, but it's important to note whether the size is US, UK, or metric - they're all different! You'll quickly notice that in the US system, 0 is very small; in the UK system, 0 is large. This book provides US and metric sizes in all the instructions.
Getting Gauge Right
It may seem like a nuisance, but, in the long run, knitting an accurate stitch gauge with the yarn and needles you'll be using for your project is one of the most important knitting techniques - no matter how experienced you are as a knitter. The stitch gauge (sometimes called tension) is the number of stitches per inch that you need to make to produce the right size. Obtaining the right gauge can make the difference between a hat that fits properly and one that is unwearable.
Always calculate your gauge over 4 inches (10cm). That's because counting stitches over 1 inch (2.5cm) can be misleading if your stitches are uneven or if the recommended stitches per inch contains a fraction. Here's an example of how to knit a swatch and figure out gauge:
Say a pattern lists the gauge as 16 stitches = 4 inches on size 7 needles. Use size 7 needles to cast on 20 stitches (this is the number of gauge stitches, plus a few extra so that you don't need to measure the edge stitches, which may be uneven).
Following the stitch pattern you'll be using for the main part of your project (unless the pattern indicates otherwise), knit a swatch about 4 inches long. Do not block the swatch.
Lay the swatch on a firm, flat surface. Take care not to stretch the swatch, and make sure the side edges are uncurled. Lay a flat ruler from one side of the swatch to the other. Count the number of stitches within 4 inches (10cm). There should be exactly 16.
If your swatch contains more than 16 stitches in 4 inches, use larger needles and knit another swatch. Repeat steps 1 through 3.
5. If your swatch contains fewer than 16 stitches in 4 inches, use smaller needles and knit another swatch. Repeat steps 1 through 3.
Note: Always use fresh yarn to make a swatch. Used yarn may be stretched and thus give an in-accurate measurement.
Also, two needle sizes are sometimes specified for a pattern, the larger for the main body of the hat, and the smaller for ribbing, for instance. If you change your larger-size needle to obtain the correct stitch gauge, adjust the size of the smaller needle to correspond.
It's Only Fitting
Most of the hats in this book can be knitted in several sizes. To obtain the best fit, measure the circumference of the wearer's head before you knit, and use the instructions for the size closest to that measurement. No one wants a hat to slip around, so the hat circumference may be smaller than the head it's designed to fit. The difference between head and hat size can vary, depending on the hat's "cuff" (for example, rolled stockinette stitch or ribbing) and the type of yarn (stretchy or firm).
To measure head size, begin at the top middle of the forehead just below the hairline. Run a tape measure in front of the ears, around the back of the neck, and back up to the forehead. Compare that to the average head sizes listed below. Unless otherwise noted in the pattern, refer to these measurements when you decide which size to knit.
Casting on with a long-tail cast on makes an especially neat, firm, but elastic edge for a hat cuff. If you tend to cast on tightly, you may want to switch to one needle size larger for this part.
1. Estimate how long to make the "tail" by wrapping the yarn around the needle one time for each cast-on stitch you need, then adding a few extra inches. Make a slip knot right here, and slide the knot over a single knitting needle. Hold that needle in your right hand; hold the tail and the working end of the yarn in your left hand. Insert needle through front loop of working yarn loop on your thumb. Wrap tail from back to front around needle.
2. Use needle to draw tail through the loop on your thumb.
3. Release loop on your thumb, place your thumb underneath the working thread, and draw both toward you while holding the working thread and tail firmly in your fingers.
Casting off is sometimes called binding off. If you tend to cast off tightly, you may want to switch to one needle size larger. The simplest way to cast off is to knit two stitches to the right-hand needle, then draw the first one over the second. Don't pull too tightly, or your edge will be puckered and inelastic. When you reach the last stitch, pull the working end through the stitch and weave it into the inside.