Tutorial Tuesday: Starting Guide to Hats

As the beautiful autumn weather begins to get more crisp, I notice a lot more knitters beginning to think about making hats. They are the perfect project: relatively quick, eminently portable, they can be knit out of just about any size of yarn, and they are always welcome as gifts.

Hats are generally constructed in one of three ways:  bottom up, top-down, and sideways.  Below, are some insights on each that may help make your choice of pattern, and knitting, go easier:

Bottom-Up Construction

Hats can be knit from just about any direction, but most patterns will start from the bottom up. This is probably the easiest way to knit a hat, so if you are just starting out, look for a good bottom-up hat pattern (see the bottom of this section for some of my favorites!) It is always important when knitting a hat this way to use a loose cast on -- if your pattern doesn't specify one, I highly recommend learning how to do the long-tail cast on, or its twisty cousin, the Old Norwegian (sometimes called the Twisted German cast-on). If you have trouble with these, another great way to make an edge more relaxed is to simply knit the first row after casting on, and then start your pattern. This also works great for cuffs on mittens, and necks for top-down sweaters.

It is sometimes difficult to tell when to start the decreases for the crown on a bottom-up hat. Some patterns will be very specific as to the length the crown starts at, while others are more vague. This will depend to some degree on the fit of the hat: a slouchy hat will be generally be knit a bit longer than a snug-fitting toque, but as a rule of thumb, I will try the hat on (needles and all!) and assume that the crown will not add much, if any, height to the hat. In lieu of any pattern guidance, when the hat fits about the way I want it to, that is when I start the crown decreases. There are exceptions to this, as there are in all things knitting, but it works about 90% of the time.

Some of my favourite hat patterns on Ravelry that are knit from the bottom up include:

Barley Hat (by Tin Can Knits)  This is a nice fast knit that uses about 100g of worsted weight yarn. I generally recommend this pattern to newer knitters venturing into their first circular knitting pattern, because it is quite straightforward without being boring.  Bonus: it's a free pattern!

Checkerwork Hat (by Vexy), which comes in a dk version as well as a fingering version .   These hats look great when knit in a self-striping yarn, the stitch pattern makes the stripes turn out in a neat checkerboard pattern.  The pattern itself is a 6-stitch repeat, so it is quite easy to memorize for taking to knitting meetups and family gatherings.  The pattern costs only $1, so it is a very inexpensive project as well.

And, of course, my own Ringwood Pixie Hat, which uses bulky weight yarn and is another repetitive and easy-to-predict pattern that is great for knitting while watching hockey or Netflix.

Top-Down Construction

Top-down hats start at the crown and are knit down to the brim. Knitting hats in this direction has the advantage of letting the knitter play yarn chicken more confidently: it is much more clear if you are about to run short and need to add a contrasting band of ribbing or stripes. This method also lets you get the "hard part" of the hat out of the way while your enthusiasm for a challenge is at its highest point.  

Since top-down hats end with a cast-off, it is important to use a method that leaves a stretchy edge. There are, fortunately, several that work well, but my favourite is probably the the following method combined with a deliberately loose tension or slightly larger needle (one size higher should do fine):

setup 1: knit 2 stitches
setup 2: slip both stitches back to the left needle, and knit them together through the back loop
step 1: knit 1 stitch.
step 2: slip 2 stitches from the right needle to the left and knit them together through the back loop.
Repeat step 1 and step 2 until all the stitches are bound off.

Some of my favourite top-down hats include the following:

Dylan's Beanie by Woolly Wormhead is probably the most straightforward top-down hat that is out there, and knits up fast in a worsted weight yarn. The ribbing ensures a cozy fit if you are not sure of the recipient's head size, and is fantastic for showing off a favourite yarn.

Thorpe by Kirsten Kapur is a great bulky-weight earflap hat that knits up quickly and is easy to customize if that's your thing (but it looks great knit to pattern as well) There is a wide variety of sizes in the pattern that are given by head size, which takes some of the guesswork out of things.

Wildwood by Valerie Johnson is very delicate looking, but is knit in a dk-weight yarn, so it works up relatively quickly. The charts are very clear and easy to follow, so if you'd like a small challenge it is a good introduction to lace, charts, and top-down hats.

Sideways Construction

Finally, there are some really neat patterns out there that use a side-to-side construction for hats. These predominantly use short rows to manage the crown shaping, and end up being grafted at the end to close the hat structure, so if you are not a fan of short rows or kitchener stitch, this method may not be for you. The result, however, is worth the challenge: some very unusual colourwork and patterning can be achieved this way.

My favourite sideways hat so far is Woolly Wormhead's Toph, which I enjoyed enough that I am offering a class on it. The pattern uses two colours in dk-weight yarn, and I found that about 50g of each was sufficient for an adult hat.  This designer, a self-described "hat architect" has done a whole series of hats in this style.  Her patterns tend to be extremely well written, so if you are looking for a challenge to how you think of hats, she is worth checking out.

A simpler hat, for those who just want to play with the construction, is the Vertigo Hat by Kerstin Michler,  Because of the way the hat is put together, it looks great done in a solid colour, or in a striped or gradient worsted weight yarn as well.