7 Truths of Subway Knitting

In the past two months, I’ve started working at a yarn store which, combined with increasingly colder weather has motivated me to not abandon my knitting.  My 45 to an hour long commute has become my simple projects knitting time.  As I sit and knit away on the train, I find there are certain techniques and tools that are more useful than others, and how some people’s interest is welcome while others manifests itself in a much more unsettling way.

1.)  Circular Needles Are Your Friend

Most of what I have been knitting on the train have been socks and a simple, mostly stocking knit stitch triangle scarf – both of which I have been using my circular needles.  Circular needles are great because they don’t take up as much room, and can be squished into your bag without fear of the stitches falling off the needles.  They also have the advantage of being able to stop mid row, pull your needles through so all the stitches are on the cable, and dash from the local train and across the platform to catch the express train.  NYC subway commuters are used to the small confines of the commute, which often has people sitting hip to hip if they are lucky enough to get a seat.  Knitting with straight needles not only inconvenient in such close quarters but can be rather rude if you are accidentally bumping the end of your needle into someone’s bicep or side.  Circular needles keep even larger projects confined to just your personal space.  If you can’t work on it in a small arm chair, you shouldn’t work on it on the train.

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Comic from:  http://joyreactor.com/post/684719  (accessed 2 November 2014 at 9:39 am)

Remember the number one rule of the subway:  Keep your arms and legs and hands and feet and bags and smells and food to yourself.

2.)  Use a Knitted or Cable Cast-on When Beginning New Projects En Route

So, there comes a time when you are heading out the door, but you either have reached a place in your project where you need to concentrate, read a pattern, or what have you, and you have no subway knitting on the needles – but you do have a skein of sock yarn and an empty #1 40″ circular.  Trust me when I say that attempting the a long tail cast on while on the train is a bad idea.  The long tail will flop around everywhere and can get tangled or caught in your bag.  However, that should not stop you from grabbing that sock yarn and circular and starting a new pair of socks!  Behold!  The knitted and cabled cast-ons!


3.)  Simple Stitch Patterns Work Best

Keeping track of an 8 stitch, 12 row lace repeat with purl-three-togethers and double yarn overs may not be the best idea if you feel you might have to stop mid row to leap (or shuffle) across the platform.  The rocking and bumping of the train may also increase your chances of dropping a yarn over, getting distracted, or not being able to read the complicated lace pattern you’ve got going on.  Anything in which you need to count stitches frequently or won’t show a mistake blatantly is probably best reserved for home or coffee shop knitting.  Stitch markers can be lost on the subway very very easily.

4.)  Challenge Yourself to Go Sans Pattern

Once you ween yourself off needing a pattern for the object you’re making, your subway knitting will go a lot smoother.  Having to drag out and read a pattern without having a place to put it where you can see it while knitting, will be incredibly difficult, time consuming, and awkward.  You don’t want your loose pages to flutter on to the floor where they’ll get stepped on by a construction worker’s boot before a wheeled suitcase goes over it, ripping holes in the stitch pattern chart.  Keep the project as simple and minimal as possible.  If you are knitting something that is not a square, keep the shaping simple and predictable.  Ribbed or stocking knit stitch socks with easy to remember heel turns, triangular scarves where the shaping occurs on every right side row.  Boxy sweaters, and simple hats.  Whatever you feel you can do without looking at a pattern is best.

Even something like turning a heel with a traditional heel flap can be done as long as you break it down into numbers that are easy to remember.

  • heel flap over half the stitches of the cast on
  • number of stitches for heel flap = number of rows for heel flap
  • set up heel turn:  slip 1, purl half the number of heel flap stitches, P2tog, slip one, turn//slip one, K3, ssk, K1 turn
  • Knit heel turn:  slip 1, knit or purl to 1 stitch before gap, P2tog or ssk, Knit or Purl one more, turn, repeat until all stitches are worked.

5.)  Always Use A Center Pull

If you cannot find the center pull from the skein you purchased, rewind the yarn into a center pull.  If you purchased a hank, either have it wound at the store, or wind it at home into a center pull.  This will allow you to put your yarn in your bag or on your lap and pull the yarn out without having the skein or ball bounce around everywhere.  I learned how to do it from Debbie Stoller’s first Stitch ‘n Bitch book, but in case you don’t have the book (ahem, or the book is juuuust out of reach – no judgement), here is a handy link for how to wind yarn into a center pull by hand.

6.)  Posture is Important

Elbows in, project in front of you, hands as low to your lap as the project permits.  This not only is better for you, but helps keep your knitting contained in your personal space.  I will also mention here that it is a good idea to keep your bag on your lap, not next to you (taking up an additional seat, tsk tsk).  You can keep your center-pull yarn ball in your bag or just on top of it between your forearms.

7.)  Don’t be That Asshole

This should really be your mantra for everyday interactions of every variety, but when it comes to knitting on the subway, be courteous to others.  Don’t let your knitting invade other’s space, like putting your bag on the seat next to you or using needles that are so long, they jab anyone who sits next to you.  However, that does not mean that you should not knit for fear of bothering other people.  Sometimes people will stare at what you are doing as though catching someone churning butter like Laura Ingles Wilder.  Sometimes people will smile and start talking to their friend on how they have always wanted to do that.


Knitting on the subway is a great way to get some knitting time in and pass the time on your commute.  Especially if you have to take a train that has no signal for eight stops.  I love using it to get done with projects I started because I want the finished project but the actual knitting is a little boring or long.

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