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Mattress Stitch: A Knitter's Best Friend

Jun 7, 2010

  
Garter stitch selvage edge
"It's all in the finishing." How many times have you heard that? It's true, though, finishing can make all the difference.

My favorite technique for making beautiful finished garments and the one I use almost exclusively (that means "all the time" unless a pattern specifically recommends another method!) is the mattress stitch. I have no idea why this seaming process is called the "mattress stitch"; if any of you know, please leave a comment!

Preparing to Seam

It's important to have a good selvage edge. When I learned to knit, a smart, experienced knitter told me to always knit the first and last stitch of every row. This makes a garter stitch selvage edge which is easy to see when you're seaming. You don't have to add extra stitches, just knit the first and last stitch no matter what the pattern is. If I'm knitting a P2/K2 rib, I just knit the first stitch then knit 1, purl 2, knit 2, and so on.

Before you begin seaming, you should block all of your pieces so the selvage edge is easily accessible. I usually use a steamer to block my garments, but some folks swear by wet blocking, too, so use whichever method you like best.

I usually seam a garment with the same yarn I use to knit it. However, if the yarn used in the knitting is not quite suitable for seaming (like a novelty yarn, a yarn that pulls apart easily, or a bulky yarn) you might need to use something else. I find that Cascade 220 comes in a wide enough range of colors to suit. If you're working on a lightweight piece and need thinner yarn for seaming, try using embroidery thread. The color range is endless and the thread is really strong. Some folks also use one or two plies of the garment yarn to seam, which I think is a neat idea.

Mattress Stitch Made Easy

One of my favorite knitters, Kathy Veeza ( a.k.a "Grumperina"), wrote a wonderful article in the spring 2008 Knitscene (which you can get on CD now!), all about seaming. This is just the mattress stitch portion, so check out the entire article on the Knitscene 2007-2009 Collection CD. I took the photos—I think they're a good example of how mattress stitch works as well on ribbing and moss stitch as it does on stockinette stitch (and garter stitch, and seed stitch, and whatever stitch you're working with!).

  
Step 1 Step 2 Finished seam. To bring the seam together, simply pull gently on the yarn and the seam will tighten up and disappear.

 

With the right side of the knitting facing you, use a threaded needle to pick up 1 bar between the first 2 stitches on one piece, then the corresponding bar plus the bar above it on the other piece (Step 1). *Pick up the next 2 bars on the first piece, then the next 2 bars on the other (Step 2). Repeat from * to the end of the seam, finishing by picking up the last bar (or pair of bars) at the top of the first piece.

The secret to streamlined seams is always working mattress stitch from the same vertical column. Never veer to the right or left of the seaming line—the stitch adjacent to the seam should be fully visible from base to top along the whole seam. If you veer into that stitch or farther away from it as you seam, your seam will zigzag in a distracting way. When seaming a sleeve into an armhole, make sure to follow this rule on the body pieces.

The most important step to making perfect seams comes after the sewing is done. I know you're dying to show off your new sweater, but investing just a few more minutes will make everything look absolutely professional. After weaving in all the ends, you might notice that the seams of your sweater are a bit bulky, especially when compared to the smooth, sleek fabric of the stockinette portions. Reblocking the finished sweater for the sole purpose of flattening the seams is time consuming and unnecessary. Instead, moisten the seams by spraying them with a water bottle or by laying a damp towel on top of them and then smooth the fabric by patting it down with your fingers. You may also lightly steam the seams to achieve the same result, taking the utmost care if your sweater is wool.

Knitting finished, pieces seamed, and seams streamlined: now you're ready to show everyone your new sweater, proudly announcing that  yes, you knit it yourself—thoughtfully, methodically, lovingly, and with seams that will stand up to scrutiny every time you look in the mirror.

Kathy Veeza blogs and shares her knitting expertise online as Grumperina, at www.grumperina.com.


I hope this little tutorial helps you achieve the perfect seam!

Cheers,


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Comments

on Sep 29, 2010 12:29 PM

Kathleen, thank you for bringing up the mattress stitch seaming technique, while i have used it in sewing, I hadn't thought of using it for knitting! It makes almost invisible seams, and I will be using it from now on!

You mentioned that you didn't know why it was called 'mattress' stitch. That comes from the days when a mattress was a simple tube of canvas stuffed with feathers, or straw, or whatever the peasant had to hand. The only way to close the seam after stuffing it was with the stitch that bears the name.

It is still used to close the centre back seam after your teddy bear is stuffed, or anywhere you need to close a seam from the outside of a project.

Jean Morgan

Cwasin wrote
on Jul 12, 2010 8:50 AM

You wonderful woman.   I a self taught knitter.  I just follwed the instructions I found one time in a book, then taught myself how to read a pattern when I was about 8.  I have been knitting ever since and consider myself to be pretty experienced.  (I am now 53) but I have always dome my seams on the sewing machine. I didn't like the effect my own stitching had on the garments I made so I used my grandma's old Singer treadle when I was young and my own electric machine I bought when I was 21.  Sometimes the sewing teacher in school would let me use one of the school machines to put together a sweater or jumper whe I was in my teens.

All these years I have made a proper pig's biscuit  of mitts, gloves, anything I couldn't get under a presser foot.  Now I read your instructions for mattress stitch!

I am currently making a tunic type T shirt in a light cotton mix yarn.  I will give it my first ever go at hand stitching using mattress stitch.

Thank you in millions.  Cwasin.

EllenD wrote
on Jun 14, 2010 3:23 AM

selvage = "self-edge"

Writing "selvage edge" is like writing "self-edge edge".

Etymology is important.  Editors should be well-versed in it, even if writers are not.

From,

The department of redundancy department

on Jun 10, 2010 5:48 AM

You have been sadly misinformed all your life.  If you want a good selvedge, get into the habit of slipping the first stitch knitwise and knitting the last stitch through the back of the loop.

You do know how to do that, don't you?

krismort wrote
on Jun 9, 2010 11:28 AM

I've used this stitch in joining squares on afghans however I prefer patterns which you don't have to sew together or can crochet squares together. I'd like to point out how in the picture, the stitch is done in contrasting color but disappears as soon as it's tightened. It makes a great invisible seam.

bsmommy wrote
on Jun 8, 2010 12:42 PM

Loved this email!!  I completed my very first knit garment a few months ago and HATE the seam for many reasons.  I've already planned to rip it out and redo it with a different yarn.  Now, I will also switch to the mattress seam.  And thank you Kathy, now I will be knitting the first stitch of every row for my garments!!

JeannetteC wrote
on Jun 8, 2010 7:37 AM

Thanks to Kathleen Wagner for reminding me -- my Granny called it "blanket stitch" too and it's exactly what you describe.  I really like Grumperina's stitch, but I'm always in such a hurry to wear my creations I usually end up doing a simple back stitch and then pressing the seam.  It always looks great, but I can see where this more careful method would come in useful (my underarm seams are often less than pretty!)

Jeannette

on Jun 7, 2010 3:45 PM

Hi Eileen M: Check out Sandi Wiseheart's sleeve cap tutorial for some in-depth info on seaming shaped edges.

www.knittingdaily.com/.../seaming-a-sleeve-cap-tutorial.aspx

Hope this helps!

Kathleen

Dr. Stewy wrote
on Jun 7, 2010 3:14 PM

Another area where this pattern is commonly seen: This is specifically a continuous horizontal mattress stitch.  Mattress sutures are patterns that are used by surgeons in certain circumstances.  Mattress sutures are considered tension relieving sutures in that the tension is applied away from the wound or in terms of knitting not across the gap between the fabrics being joined.  They are also considered everting sutures such that the area near the gap puckers out slightly. You may notice this on the under side of the garment being sewn.  Variations include vertical mattress, continuous or interrupted patterns, but I don't think those are used in knitting........

on Jun 7, 2010 3:08 PM

The stitch JeannetteC describes is more generally called blanket stitch, and is very similar to buttonhole stitch.  Mattress stitch is so called because the final seam on a hand-made mattress had to be closed from the right side after filling, with the seam allowances of both pieces already turned under.

It's always seemed to me that the effort I would have to put into finishing a garment with dressmaker techniques is better devoted to constructing the garment seamlessly.  I've been sewing since I was twelve and I love it, but sewing is one thing and knitting is another.  Naturally a flat, woven, non-stretchy material has to be shaped and seamed if it's going to fit the body properly, but that isn't the case in knitting.  If you're going to create the very fabric of your garment, you might as well create it in such a way as to take advantage of the fitting opportunities inherent in the process, rather than making flat pieces and sewing them together.  Elizabeth Zimmermann's Knitting Without Tears and Barbara Walker's Knitting From the Top can teach you everything about seamless garment construction.

MarieK wrote
on Jun 7, 2010 12:22 PM

As a participant in historical re-enactment, I can tell you 2 likely origins of the name "mattress stitch".

1. If you have an old-style wooden or metal bedframe with no slats, you use rope in a pattern that looks like the mattress stitch to connect the sides of the bedframe in a crosswise manner giving you a place to set your mattress.

2. If you have a homemade mattress, you use the mattress stitch to close the opening between the top and bottom fabrics after you stuff the mattress.

In either case, you don't cut off the extra length of rope or thread. You tie it in a knot that can be untied later and tuck in the extra length.

In both applications, the mattress stitch can be tightened or loosened easily to allow re-positioning or re-stuffing with a minimum of fuss. Other, more complicated or more durable patterns of lacing or sewing were also used in mattress finishing and bedframe lacing but are not as practical because they are harder to tighten or loosen as needed.

ruthkasl wrote
on Jun 7, 2010 12:14 PM

been using the mattress stitch for years too but I always called it the ladder stitch (probably because I began with sewing at age 4 and taught myself every other fiber art later)

your tip to knit the first and last stitch of every row is good but I learned it a bit differently and have found that it makes seaming easier and I like the edge it creates ... always slip the first stitch and knit the last stitch of each row

GraceJ wrote
on Jun 7, 2010 11:06 AM

Yeah, there is a "mattress stitch" in hand sewing/embroidery/quilting.  This "mattress stitch" is different. It is used for seaming knitwear.  It's OK that there are similar/like/same terms for different things.

meadowlark3 wrote
on Jun 7, 2010 10:37 AM

Kathleen, the mattress stitch was originally used to make mattresses.  The stitch allowed for even tension along the seam when the mattress was in use.

AprilL wrote
on Jun 7, 2010 10:00 AM

A mattress stitch got its named because it was the stitch used to finish the last seam in a mattress after it was stuffed.

Back in the old days it was up to the lady of the house to change the padding inside the mattress, whether it was straw, reeds, or old fleece not good enough for spinning, or feathers. The mattress casing was like a giant pillow case that could be sewed inside out except for the final seam. That seam needed to be left open for the stuffing.

After it was stuffed the seam would be sewn shut with a mattress stitch which was very strong and fine enough to keep the stuffing in, but also very easy to cut apart to get the stuffing out. We have actually found mattresses from Egyptian tombs made this way, right up to Colonial times.

Cheers! April

JeannetteC wrote
on Jun 7, 2010 9:54 AM

Kathy's "mattress stitch" is nothing like the traditional mattress stitch I learned from my grandmother in Scotland, a bar-shaped stitch that was -- and is still -- used as edging on wool blankets.  It got its name from the homemade mattresses used by crofters (ticking stuffed with grass or horsehair) and it was used because it is sturdy enough to hold everything in.  It is also used as an edging on fabrics that fray easily.

I spoke to an American friend who agrees that Kathy's stitch isn't a traditional mattress stitch, so maybe different regions in America have their own version?

Jeannette

EileenM@14 wrote
on Jun 7, 2010 9:52 AM

How do you work from the same vertical column when you're seaming a shaped piece, like a sleeve with increases?  The edge of the sleeve keeps shifting from one vertical column to the next with every increase, no?  

GrammaJazz wrote
on Jun 7, 2010 9:46 AM

I have been knitting for 53 years and have more than 200 sweaters under my belt and I couldn't begin to count the mittens, hats, etc. etc.   The mattress stitch is great although the last few years I change most patterns to do on circular needles and with as few seams as possible.  The seam that makes me nuts is setting in a sleeve.  I use circular needles for all my sleeves from wrist to underarm and for raglan's  I  knit sweater body and sleeves simultaneously, but for set in sleeves, I wind up with that wretched seam that I hate.  Any ideas  on making that one smoother?

Gramma Jazz