I've been playing around with short rows lately. I swear, short-rowing is certifiable knitting magic.

In short, short rows are a way of adding length to portions of a garment by selectively inserting parts of rows. Folks use this to tailor the shape of knitted items without having to bulk it up with seams.

Think short rows play no part in your life at all? If you wear commercially made socks, I'm willing to bet a ball of yarn that you have at least one garment with short rows in your possession. If you have a pair of socks with a prominent seam above the toes, it's likely got a short row toe. And if it has a short row toe, it probably also has a short row heel. Gold Toe brand socks are good for this, but pretty much any athletic sock will have this too. Go on and grab one of the socks, I'll wait.

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*elevator muzak*

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*sounds of distant gunfire, then sirens*

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*remote sounds of television channels being rapidly changed*

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Ah, you're back! Excellent.

Now, look at the bottom of the sock toe. D'you see how it is a trapezoid of rows like this?:

8          vvvvvvvvvv
7         vvvvvvvvvvvv
6        vvvvvvvvvvvvvv
5       vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv
4      vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv
3     vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv
2    vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv
1   vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv
Good. Now, if you turn the sock inside out, you'll notice that unlike the spot at the top of the toes, there's no seam at the sides of the trapezoid. There will be a line of interlocked not-quite-stitches running the length of the side of the short row toe (or heel). These come from something called the "short row wrap" which helps prevent holes. More on that later.

Look at the outside of the sock again. You'll see that the top of the sock all the way up to the seam has the same trapezoid of stitches and rows, worked in the opposite order:

15  vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv
14   vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv
13    vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv
12     vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv
11      vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv
10       vvvvvvvvvvvvvv
9         vvvvvvvvvvvv
8          vvvvvvvvvv
Now, fold the toe open the other way, so it's rounded and you can see where the top and bottom of the sock meet. On the inside there will be that thin line of loops. On the outside, if you look very closely, you can see where the stitches turn. Each row has a stitch which at the meeting point turns 90°. This is why knitters refer to it as turning a heel or toe, because as you're working the rows you change the direction of the fabric.

How is this done? Essentially, every row is worked one stitch shorter than the last until it's deemed narrow enough. The unworked stitches are left live rather than bound off or decreased. Then every row is worked one stitch wider than the last, utilizing the the unworked stitches, until you're back to the same number of stitches you started at. Line by line instructions in stockinette would look like this if you start with 24 stitches and work down to 10:

1) knit 23, turn
2) purl 22, turn
3) knit 21, turn
4) purl 20, turn
etc. until 10 stitches remain
14) purl 10, turn
at which point it changes to:
15) slip 1, knit 10, turn
16) slip 1, purl 11, turn
17) slip 1, knit 12, turn
18) slip 1, purl 13, turn
19) slip 1, knit 14, turn
etc. until you're back at 24 stitches.

This is a total of 28 rows, which you'll notice is twice the number as the total number of stitches which needed to be short-rowed (24-10=14).

Now, if you follow this exactly you'll have a line of holes along the diagonal of the turn. To prevent the holes you can do the short row wrap. But more on that later.

In the meantime, it's been revealed that the original diagrams of the toe "trapezoids" are off. I'm not going to draw them again though as the "true" diagrams wouldn't reveal any grand truths about sock making. Instead, I shall proceed to give context for how this all works.

To really understand this, you have to remember that the toe or heel is worked from row 1 through row 28 using only half the available stitches on the sock and as a separate bit of knitting (even though it's attached). Confused? Let me further elucidate.

Take a look at your sock again and you'll see what I mean. Socks are worked as tubes and the top half of the sock continues as if nothing's happened. If you pull the sock so the top of the foot and the cuff form a straight line, you can see it's been worked in a continuous piece. However, look down and you can see that the bottom where the heel is bulges outward and the sole and cuff of the sock are separated by the "v" of the heel. The heel or toe gets worked on only half the stitches of the sock. The rest of the stitches are held on needles to wait until the heel or toe is finished before returning into play. Essentially all the rows of the toe or heel are still within the bounds of one row of the body of the sock. If you decide to add the heel after row 56 of the cuff, then the heel occurs entirely within row 57 of the main body of the sock. Once you finish turning the heel you continue working the sock as a tube as if the heel never happened. If you're working a toe, you actually end up with a slit at the top of the sock where your turned toe stitches are directly facing the stitches you'd been ignoring. Thus machine made socks with a short row toe have a seam on the top. Myself, I graft the two live edges together and it looks like the piece magically grew together.

Still not clear? How about this. There is such a thing called an afterthought heel. It's a heel worked separately from the rest of the sock after the body of the sock is completely finished. They are good because if you get holey heels they're easy to replace. Also, it's easy to work the sock because it's made as a tube sock which can mean it is much easier to pattern. Once you're ready to insert the heel, you clip the yarn where the heel should go and unravel half a row of stitches exposing a slit that is half the circumference of the sock. The heel gets placed in this slit. A short row heel is exactly the same except it's worked while the rest of the sock waits on hold. There's no going back later to graft or seam the heel into the sock.

Now, understanding how this works in a sock, spread your mind a little and imagine how it can be used for things other than a sock. For instance, you don't have to work them always in 1 stitch increments. You can soften the angle by working in two or three stitch increments. You also don't have to work both directions and "turn" a corner. You can add length to very specific portions without sticking to a trapezoid shape or even a triangle. I did this recently in conjunction with increasing to shape a bag, and it can also be used to add a bit of roominess in the bust of a sweater. It's like darts in sewing but works in reverse. Darts are where you start with a larger piece and selectively cut away extra fabric to allow the garment to conform closely while leaving enough length to accommodate one's anatomy. In knitting you can add the extra length without starting from a point of excess. You add the extra length where it's needed only. You can also make a ball by selectively short rowing over and over, like a beach ball. You can also use short rows to mitre a corner in a flat piece of knitting.

Another thing about short rows is that you don't even have to work whole sections of short rows at once. You can add a partial row here or there to gently modify a shape. I worked a stuffed animal face this way, working out from the nose using short rows and increasing to shape the majority of the face including the forehead while keeping the chin small. In this case imagine:

         ____6_____
        / ___5____ \
       / /___4____\ \
      / // __3___ \\ \    
     / // /__2___\ \\ \
    / // // _1__ \\ \\ \      
   / // // /    \ \\ \\ \   
  | || || |  O   | || || | 
   \ \\ \\ \x   / // // /
    \ \\ \\__1_/ // // /
     \ \\ \__2___V_// /   
      \_V____3_____/ / 

        
For this, the piece is worked from the "O" which was the nose. Starting clockwise at the "x" it's worked around once with increases until the first "v" is reached. Then, the direction is reversed and one goes around again until the second "v" is reached. If you count, you'll notice that the top has twice as many rows as the bottom. This shifts the nose downward into the lower third of the face and due to the increases it also changes the angle of the fabric if it's looked at in cross section.:
           nose
          __/\
       __/    |
 top _/       | bottom
Without the increases it would have made a curved arc, like a section of a doughnut. However, increasing allowed it to fan out fully.

The Short Row Wrap: Only knitters really need read this bit.

Remember the line instructions before? Well, to be complete they'd have the short row wrap and look more like this:

1) knit 23, slip 1 wrap and turn
2) purl 22, slip 1 wrap and turn
3) knit 21, slip 1 wrap and turn
4) purl 20, slip 1 wrap and turn
etc. until 10 stitches remain
14) purl 10, slip 1 wrap and turn
at which point it changes to:
15) knit 11 working wrap into last stitch, turn
16) slip 1, purl 11 working wrap into last stitch, turn
17) slip 1, knit 12 working wrap into last stitch, turn
18) slip 1, purl 13 working wrap into last stitch, turn
19) slip 1, knit 14 working wrap into last stitch, turn
etc. until you're back at 24 stitches.
Slip, wrap and turn translates to:
knit side - bring the yarn in front, slip the next stitch purl-wise, bring the yarn behind the slipped stitch and then place the slipped stitch back onto the left hand needle. Then turn your work and proceed to the next line.
purl side - bring the yarn in back, slip the next stitch knit-wise, bring the yarn in front of the slipped stitch and then place the slipped stitch back onto the left hand needle. Then turn your work and proceed to the next line. It is important to slip this stitch knit-wise so when they are worked together the stitch on top is not twisted.
This leaves a loop of yarn like a collar around the slipped stitch and the working yarn in the correct position to continue working (either in front or in back of the knitting). This wrap gets worked with the stitch it is looped around when that stitch is finally worked and helps close up any gaps. To work the wrap:
knit side - slip your right hand needle into the front of the wrap from below and then through the stitch. Bring the loop of yarn for the next stitch through both.
purl side - slip your right hand needle into the back of the wrap from below and through the stitch, essentially purling through the back of the loop. Bring the loop of yarn for the next stitch through both.
This causes the stitch to be made on top of the wrap so when you look at the front of the sock you only see the stitches. The wraps will be hidden on the inside of the sock (or other garment) and be visible only as a thin line of partial loops.

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