How to Knit a Poncho

Are you a novice knitter graduating from scarves and wanting to try something a little bigger? Or are you in the need for a little retro styling? Maybe you're an active person who tends to get chilled in the changing of the seasons? How about you know someone who’s always cold? Well, a knit poncho may be just what you’ve been looking for. It’s as warm as a shawl, but more carefree to wear. It’s less confining than a jacket, and is comfortable enough for around the house. And so easy to make!

You see, all a poncho is in this case is a flat piece of fabric with a hole in the middle for your head. I think they are great because there’s all that space to show off stitches, yarns, etc. If you are new to knitting, color changes can give it panache, or let a really gorgeous yarn shine in a simple stitch. If you are experienced and have been dying to try that all over pattern, consider this great flat canvas. The form is easy and predictable, and that means flexible. They can be as beautiful as your creativity can make them.

If you want to get a little fancier, you can add slits for your hands to go through, make a keyhole opening, add a shawl or other kind of collar. I’m not going to get into these permutations because they are difficult to describe without pictures. If you need some ideas about how to do them, msg me. Really, they are very simple, but there’s a certain diminishing return for describing these things in an unconfusing manner for the novice knitter. An experienced knitter, especially someone who’s made sweaters, will generally be able to figure it out for him or herself.

I’ve given two different, extremely simple instructions here. Version A is knit in the round and you can make a circular or square/diamond poncho with it. Version B is knit straight and is for square, rectangular, and diamond only. Both are easy, but they have different pros and cons. I’m currently working on a poncho using version A. Build on these basics to make exactly what you want, and change them however you see fit. It’s a forgiving form.

Caveat for the new knitters. You do need to know how to cast on, bind off, knit, purl, increase and decrease for these instructions. Well, actually, you need to know how to decrease only if you pick version B. It helps if you are comfortable with at least the concept behind circular knitting needles.

A) How to make a circular or square poncho with a circular neck opening:

This is essentially a flat circle (like a giant doily or a small tablecloth) with the center left out.* It is knit in the round on a circular knitting needle. Shaping it into a square is a neat bit of trickery. Both are easy.
To form a flat circle, increase 8 stitches evenly around the circumference every other row. You can vary the placement of the increases to create patterns, as long as they are always evenly spaced. To form a square, increase pairs of stitches every other row at 4 evenly spaced points. Separate the increases by a stitch or two, for a neat appearance. Return to the same spot each time you increase, and keep the same stitch or two between the pairs. The opening will form a square as well, although it may not stay square if your yarn has little memory. In both shapes, the increases can be made with a yarn over, which will leave an eyelet that can be considered part of the design, or with less obtrusive increases.
When you know what yarn you will be using, take a gauge of the yarn for the neck opening. Basically, decide how big you want the neck opening to be, and then do the math to figure out how many stitches that will take (# of stitches per inch x # of inches desired). Round up so that it is evenly divisible by 8 if you are making a circle, and 4 if you are making a square. 20 inches is a good mid-range opening size. Remember, it is easier to make the opening smaller, and extremely troublesome to make it bigger. Essentially, you’d need to cut the cast on, unravel it the necessary amount, and refinish the neck edge. It’s much easier to take a gauge and do the math!
Cast on the necessary number of stitches onto a circular needle, I’m using a 32 inch long needle, but use whatever fits the stitches comfortably. Remember, this project will get much larger, so have a needle waiting to scale up, or start with one which can handle hundreds of stitches, and if it’s too long, take a look at some shortening techniques.
Make sure there are no twists in the cast on row, place a stitch marker so you can find the first stitch again, and work a row in the round. Increase on the next, and every other row. Work until it is the desired length, and bind off. Try it on. If the neck opening is too big, you can: 1) Single crochet around the opening once and tighten it up. You can do this by evenly skipping stitches to crochet into. 2) knit applied I-cord around the opening with a smaller sized needle, which will cause the whole thing to tighten up. If you don’t know how to do applied I-cord, msg me and I’ll email you the instructions. 3) The easiest is to string a ribbon through and tie a bow! Or thread some yarn through, tie it off, and weave the ends in.
Add edging to the outside edge if desired. Wash and block.
Now, if you enjoy winging it, this is all you need know. If you would like a better idea of what the finished product will look like, consider design elements.

B) How to make a square, rectangular or diamond shaped poncho with a slit neck opening:

This one is even easier, although I strongly recommend still using a circular needle as this has a lot of stitches. One big difference in this one is how it drapes. Instead of all sides being the same, this poncho will have a definite preference for folding along certain lines.
Square or rectangle:
Note: This one will not drape as well on the bias. That and the neck opening are why it can’t be worn as a diamond. This one could be made relatively narrow and very long, and then worn belted together.
Cast on the front or back edge to the desired width. Work until the piece is half the desired length. On the next row, bind off the middle section of the row. This will become your neck opening, and should be at least 12-14 (I recommend 15-16) inches long. On the return row, when you get to the bound off stitches, cast on exactly the same number to refill the middle section and continue to knit to the end of the row. Work until the piece is the same length before and after the neck opening, and bind off.
If the neck opening turns out to be too big, sew the ends closed until it fits properly. Be careful not to make the opening too small or it may chafe. Wash and block.
Diamond:
Note: This one is knit on the bias, so drapes well on the bias. It is a little more complicated and requires a lot of increasing and decreasing. The neck opening is formed exactly as the others, but the square is made from the corner rather than the edge.
(k= knit; m= make, increase)
Cast on 3 stitches.
Row 1: k1, m1, k1, m1, k1.
Row 2: knit in pattern to end
Row 3: k1, m1, k3, m1, k1
Row 4: knit in pattern to end
Continue to increase 1 stitch on at the beginning and end of every other row until the triangle is the desired length. Then, on the next row, do not increase. Instead, bind off the middle section for a head opening. On the return row, do not increase again. Instead, cast on the middle section, and work to the end. On the next row, decrease 1 stitch at the beginning and ending of the row. Continue decreasing every other row until only 3 stitches remain. Bind off.
Alternately, you can start with 1 or 2 stitches and increase 1 stitch at the beginning of every row until the middle, and then decrease 1 stitch at the beginning of every row after the neck opening. They both result in a flat diamond shape.
If the neck opening turns out to be too big, sew the ends closed until it fits properly. Be careful not to make the opening too small or it may chafe. Wash and block.

Design elements:

Decide on what you want and then review what’s possible with the different techniques. Here are some things to consider.
You can vary textures with pattern stitches. Keep in mind that texture stitches often have different gauges. If you are working in the round and have rings of different texture stitches, the wider stitch may puff out a bit. If you are knitting straight, the edges may ripple in and out. Think about the whole look of the piece when worn. Also, texture stitches add complexity, especially when you are increasing or decreasing frequently. Make sure you can keep track of where you are in a pattern!
Also remember that some stitches, like stockinette, curl. If you don’t want the neck opening and the edge(s) to curl, you’ll need to add some flat pattern stitching in the first and last rows (circular) and first, last and sides (straight). Seed stitch is easy and doesn’t lose much width in comparison to stockinette. My new favorite is the 2x2 diagonal rib, but it takes at least 8 rows to look impressive. What’s nice about the diagonal rib is that it doesn’t pull in as much as a standard ribbing, creating less of a gathered effect. For the ultimate in ease, the entire poncho could be done in garter stitch!
When knitting a circle, how you space the increases can be made into an attractive feature. If you place the increase adjacent to the same side of the previous increase every time, then you will get a gentle spiral pattern as the increases all slant the same way. You can move the increases anywhere on the row, as long as they are evenly spaced from one another on that row (and don’t lose sight of the first stitch of the row!). When using eyelets to increase on an otherwise solid pattern, the effect can be dramatic.
You can easily make concentric bands of color in the ponchos knit in the round by changing yarn at the beginning of the row. Knitting in multiple colors per row is possible if you strand the unused color along the back of the fabric, carrying it along as you proceed. (do NOT do intarsia!) This will make for a much thicker garment that is less elastic. Good for winter!
Because the square, rectangular, and diamond ponchos (Version B) are straight knitting, you can have big color blocks using intarsia or indeed, utilize any other color technique. You can strand colors as well, or mosaic. Want a logo on the front and a pirate flag on the back? Go ahead!
Got lots of yarn scraps in lots of crazy colors? What are you waiting for? The crazier, the better! You don’t even need them to be the same thickness, just pick somewhere in the middle or go with the weight of the thickest yarn that you have a lot of. The thin yarns will be very open and lacy, and the stitches will be much longer than they are wide, so keep this in mind when considering the finished look of the poncho. When working with crazy yarns, make sure the neck edge has several rows, between 5 and 15, in a yarn that knits to the proper gauge on the needle you will be using. This gives the neck opening body and definition, which will let it hold up well to the fluctuations in gauge that come later.

Materials:

Now that you know what you want it to look like, collect the yarn you will need to make it happen. This figure is flexible, depending on the length of the finished garment. Since I don’t go into armholes, it’s probably a good idea for the circular, square, and diamond shaped ones to stay wrist length, which depends on where the neck opening falls on you. 22-24 inches is a good ball park figure, although it can range considerably.
As an example, I’m working in the round on a circular poncho. I’m currently using a worsted weight yarn (Brown Sheep Co. Lamb’s Pride Worsted) on a slightly large needle (US#9) for a more open, flexible stitch which will drape well with this dense single ply yarn. I’ve got 400 grams of it, and 200 grams of a green DK that I’m using doubled for accents in places. This should give me enough yarn for a poncho that is about 24 inches long from neck opening to edge, if I were to use all of it. However, I’m using several different colors in bands.
For a poncho knit in the round, each row uses more and more yarn as the poncho progresses. You can figure out exactly how much with a scale that’s accurate to 2 grams, and some fairly simple geometry involving your swatch and the area of a circle. I prefer to wing it. What, you want the math? Well, OK.
Math interlude: First, you have to know your gauge. Knit a good sized swatch in the yarn you will be using in whatever texture or pattern you’ve chosen. The larger it is, the more accurate this will be. Now, figure out stitches and rows per inch because you need that for other aspects of design. Then, measure the area of the whole swatch. Remove the knitting needle and weigh just the swatch. If your swatch is 4x4 inches, and it weighs 12 grams, you now know how much 16 square inches of knitting weighs. If you figure out the area of your intended shawl, you can figure out very accurately how much yarn you will need.
So, draw out your shawl on a piece of paper, marking all the colors you want to use: Area of a circle = πR2. Figure out the area of the entire circle formed by the finished poncho and subtract smaller and smaller circles to determine the area of the individual bands. If you are knitting a square, do the same, just figure out the area of the squares instead.
Once you know what the area of each color will be, divide by the area of your swatch, and multiply this by the weight of the swatch. This will give you how much yarn you will need in each color. Keep in mind that extra is always a good idea as this is not an exact measurement. Also fringe takes up an obscene amount of yarn that is not included in these calculations. Edging in general requires huge quantities of yarn. So, go get more if you don’t have enough. End Math interlude.
This math works the same way for a piece worked straight, except that there is no opening to subtract from the neck hole. It is only practical to do this for bands, stripes or color blocks, as stranding, etc, requires a great deal of yarn to be ‘wasted.’

Blocking

Blocking is when you stretch a damp knitted item out into the shape you want it to keep, pin it down or attach it to a frame, and let it air dry completely. For large items, I usually do this by placing several clean towels or sheets down on a carpet or a bed that won’t need to be used for a few days. I place the knitted item on the towels and then methodically pin it down every couple of inches. This is particularly important for lace, as the pattern won’t open up properly otherwise. Everything benefits from blocking, however. Be sure to use pins that won’t rust.
Feel free not to block your poncho. It’s your poncho, after all and this is meant to be a carefree experience. If it seems a bit short, you may wish to block it and get a little extra length by stretching. This, however, only works if you’ve an open stitch, or a lot of texture that may be bunching up.

* Note: According to Meg Swansen in The Best of Knitter's Magazine: Shawls and Scarves edited by Nancy J. Thomas (XRX, Inc., Sioux Falls, S. Dakota), a friend of hers says that this circular garment is traditional in parts of Mexico where it ranges from waist length to knee length. Known as a mañanita, I call it a poncho because no one knows what I'm talking about when I say mañanita!

Pon"cho (?), n.; pl. Ponchos (). [Sp.]

1.

A kind of cloak worn by the Spanish Americans, having the form of a blanket, with a slit in the middle for the head to pass through. A kind of poncho made of rubber or painted cloth is used by the mounted troops in the United States service.

2.

A trade name for camlets, or stout worsteds.

 

© Webster 1913.

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