You will see a lot of opinionated, actually fanatical, ranting on this point, it's quite as bad as Mac and Windows people coming to blows about their favorite OS, and quite as silly. Some things like scarves and blankets are obviously best done flat, nobody disputes that. But much of the things that cover the human body (or the canine body for that matter, or the human head :-)) can be approximated by tubes or a series of connecting tubes. How to go about things like sweaters can bring knitters to froth at the mouth, but both approaches have their advantages.
It seems much folk knitting was originally done in a circular way, where the entire object gets done at once and seaming is minimal. This was particularly true since it seems a whole lot of early knitting was socks, and they seem most obviously close to tubes. The 20th century brought to western countries an almost exclusive switch to knitting flat pieces that get sewn together at the end. This may have been because early machines in mills could not handle knitting in the round? By the 1950s it seemed knitting in the round had retreated to the farthest reaches of the planet. But then a lovely woman named Elizabeth Zimmerman emigrated to the US in the 40s, and single-handedly reintroduced circular knitting to the US, having a profound influence on knitting design in recent times. The knitting press is very slowly and belatedly reintroducing concepts of knitting in the round and some patterns for it, while Elizabeth's torch is being quite ably kept on by her daughter Meg Swansen. Europe seems still largely oblivious to the concept.
Now why would one do the one or the other? As we mentioned before, some designs like socks or scarves seem to tilt obviously in one direction or the other. EZ got into circular knitting in part because she loathed purling, and one never has to purl to get stockinette stitch when knitting in the round. Also, some people like to knit and hate to finish, particularly hate to sew seams, or can't get the hang of them, these people should obviously try to knit in the round. A big sweater done in stockinette in the round can lead to a lot of 'idiot knitting', endless boring stretches of the same thing which some people hate while others are grateful for the opportunity knit without paying too much attention (meetings anyone?). One can also argue that not only are circular garments more organically in tune with the human body, but even more so seams are not a good thing in knit fabrics, it's hard to make them stretchy and unobtrusive enough. Barbara Walker's elaboration on Zimmerman techniques, knitting from the top, goes even further in providing reasons why if one has a limited amount of materials the round is the way to go, and allows you to more or less design as you go.
But if you're trying to make a garment from a sewing pattern, generally a rather fitted one, there's no doubt that it's easier to knit flat pieces to specs and sew them together later. Another important factor is that if you're making a large object such as an adult sweater, portability weights heavily in favor of smaller flat pieces. Also, its possible to make an entire garment in the flat with a single pair of needles, while something in the round can require several needles types. Another argument from scarce resources is that many designs for sweaters in the round include making and cutting a steek, which makes the wool impossible to recycle. There are many stories in my family of unraveling entire sweaters and reknitting them during teh Depression and then WWII, and surely that's not unreasonable to contemplate these days if you merely knit a lot and/or have growing kids.
There is no doubt that good fit can be achieved with either method. Any perusal of Schoolhouse Press publications (books of EZ and MS) shows many ingenious techniques for fitting the most eccentric of bodies, and liberating one from the tyranny of pattern following no matter what one's size. But we're more used to thinking of fit in a sewing vein, and most contemporary designs are published in the flat. That's another topic of fights among sewers too, since it's possible to not just design flat patterns but it's a time-honored method to drape a design on a body or a dressform. Many famous designers sneered at flat pattern-making (Vionnet, Dior), and many who claim to design by the flat-pattern method on paper actually refine their designs with a bit of sneaky draping. So there you have it - probably the biggest plus of flat design in knitting is that it's a skill that transfers well from sewing.
But is there an overwhelming reason to do one rather than the other? Clearly not. If you've only been introduced to one method, it'd probably be good for you to check out the other. You may find that you have more natural affinity for one method, not necessarily the first one you were taught, and use that one primarily, which is fine. But since there are times when one is obviously better than the other, you'll be a better knitter if you can choose according to that rather than to limited skills or imagination.
First published: 7/18/02
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