One cold Autumn day in the early 2000s, I was travelling on a pacer train between Hull and York. For those of you unfamiliar with UK train travel, pacers are notoriously slow, rickety, and chilly conveyances, and I was keeping myself warm with my new favourite hobby – knitting. I’d recently taken up my needles again after a very long hiatus, and had found myself enthusiastically casting on a number of quick-knit pullovers and cardigans in some lovely chunky yarn. The yarn was glorious to work with, and my new sweaters may have been swift to make, but designed in pieces, they took an awful long time for me to seam. And though I wore my handmade garments with considerable pride, their finished look was, by any standards, rather shonky. With a ball of yarn and a pair of needles I’d quickly felt like I could be a knitting natural, but a natural finisher I knew that I was not. As a constitutionally messy child, I’d always tried to finish things off neatly, but, whether it was the stitched hem of my school skirt or something I’d drawn and coloured, the edges of things had always proved my bugbear. While my classmates stitched precise and orderly rows of blanket stitch, or created perfectly painted trees and houses, my efforts were always blobby and uneven. Now as an untidy adult keen on making her own clothes, my wonky seams and messy edges had returned to haunt me once again.
That day on the train, I was knitting a pattern from a new American publication I’d found in a local bookshop. The pattern was for a pair of garter-stitch fingerless mitts, of the familiar type with a bound-off thumb gap, that are knitted from side to side. I’d already been startled by the ease and simplicity of the wrap-and-turn short rows that the pattern used to fit the first mitt neatly around the hand and wrist (I could add wee wedges into my knitting? What kind of shaping alchemy was this?!) but the designer had another trick up her sleeve. When I’d completed the hand shaping, rather than binding off as usual, I was instructed to find a third needle, and do things a little differently. I followed the pattern, holding my needle tips parallel to one another, working stitches from front and back together with my third needle, and passing each newly formed single stitch over the last. Something interesting was happening in my hands.
Outside the window, the flat fields of East Yorkshire stretched away in the autumn sun, some red-brown, bare and stubbled, some planted with green turnips, whose tops were grazed by hungry sheep. I generally enjoyed the turnip fields and my sheep friends, but I wasn’t too interested in looking at them today. Completely absorbed, I worked away with my three needles, bound off my last stitch, snipped the yarn end, and passed it through the final loop. And then I gazed down at the thing which I had made. A completed mitt! A mitt with no seam, but just this line of even stitches blending invisibly into the rhythm of the surrounding garter stitch! I examined the fabric of the mitt more closely, running my fingers along the bound-off ridge my third needle had produced. This edge was incredibly neat, and I’d just made it with my knitting—I’d not picked up a tapestry needle or sewn anything at all. So it was possible to make a neat seamed edge without actually seaming? How very, very nifty this knitting business was!
Back then, I spent a lot of time on chilly trains, and so I knit a lot of garter-stitch mitts that Autumn. I gifted many pairs, and to anyone who appeared remotely interested in my handiwork, I’d enthuse (while their eyes invariably glazed over) about the design’s firm, neat finish, and the seam that was not a seam at all. And though I loved the rhythmic knit, knit, knit of working garter stitch over a pattern whose construction had become so familiar it felt like a sort of second nature, I increasingly found that I liked finishing my mitts off most of all. Could this be right? Could I be someone who actually enjoyed finishing off edges? Apparently so, for I’d discovered a particular kind of joy in creating that seam-that-was-not-a-seam, and in the small thing in my hands that only needed a little blocking, rather than all that fiddling around with pins, tape measures, tapestry needles. Perhaps finishing off a project was more a matter of technique, and of approach, of simply finding the right way of doing things, a way that worked for me. Perhaps there might be different ways of finishing things off seamlessly, perhaps, if I read more and learnt more about knitting, I’d discover that there were other interesting, and more knitterly, types of seams. Perhaps the craft of knitting meant that I—a messy person—might find myself to be, in my own way, a neat finisher. And perhaps I’d find that edges could be fun, and not frustrating.
For me, the three needle bind off was transformative. The simple magic of knitting two stitches together, then passing one over the last, helped to completely change my attitude towards the edges of my work, towards finishing off my knitting. Over the years that followed, I went on to discover many other types of nifty bind offs, and the myriad different possibilities of joining one piece of knitted fabric neatly to another piece, but I’ll always have a special affection for 3NBO—and not least because its a technique I’ve featured frequently in my design work. It’s a technique whose firm and flexible characteristics gives a fabulous finish to modular blankets – such as the Sterrie, Shieling , or Let Glasgow Flourish blankets.
And it It’s a brilliantly simple method of joining shoulders, whether on pullovers such as Seavaiger or cardigans like St Catherines – where it’s possible to make a feature of the bind-off’s satisfyingly raised, ridged edge.
It always feels satisfying to complete a seamless garment with a finish that is so simple, so neat, and so knitterly.
Hurrah for 3NBO!
I wrote this piece for the 10 Years in the Making club, and was reminded of it when working a 3NBO yesterday. The “American Publication” I’d bought a copy of was Melanie Falick’s “Weekend Knitting” (2003), and the fingerless mitts which taught me about the wonders of the three needle bind off were designed by the brilliant Ann Budd. This is a great, simple, go-to mitt pattern, written for 3 different gauges.