Lifeline – What? Why? How?

If there were a Noble Prize in Knitting, it should go to the person who invented a lifeline. This little tool saves hours of tedious work and helps us avoid stress and frustration if we need to unravel our knitting. 

Let’s see what is called a lifeline, why it’s good to use it, when it’s not wise not to use it, and how to add it to your knitting (there are three ways to do it).

WHAT

Lifeline is a piece of yarn or thread that runs through every stitch of one row. It’s a preventive measure that keeps stitches safe in case you need to unravel your knitting later on for one reason or another.

If that happens, you can fearlessly unravel your work up to the lifeline, and easily pick up all of your stitches without losing any of them and without worrying that some of your stitches will be twisted. They won’t. Lifeline mimics a knitting needle and keeps stitches in a correct position. 

WHY

There are two main reasons when a lifeline helps us save our stitches:

1. When we make a mistake that can’t easily be fixed. In this case, we have to unravel a few rows of the work.

2. When we drop a stitch (accidentally or intentionally to repair a mistake), the lifeline will keep it from going to the very bottom of the work. 

In both possible scenarios a lifeline gives us peace of mind, and that is the main benefit of this tool.

It is especially important when:

a) we work in a complicated stitch pattern like lace or brioche. These patterns are beautiful, but not forgiving. Even a small mistake messes up the pattern and is not easy to fix. If you’ve ever tried to pick up a dropped stitch in brioche, you know what I mean…

b) when we knit with furry yarns that make it very hard to see the stitches. Any dropped stitch could easily lead to unravelling the whole project when we deal with fun fur, eyelash or similar novelty yarns.

c) when we work on a large project and have many stitches on the needles. In such cases, mistakes tend to happen more often, and we tend to catch them not as fast as we do when we work with fewer stitches.

HOW

If you follow a pattern repeat, it makes sense to insert the lifeline after the last row of the repeat. This way if you do need to unravel your work and pick up stitches from the lifeline, you will remember to resume your work from the first row of the pattern repeat.

Lifeline acts like a keeper of your work. Before adding it, make sure the number of stitches on your needles is correct, and there are no mistakes in your work (at least no mistakes that need to be fixed).

Normally any piece of smooth yarn will make a nice lifeline. For best results, choose a yarn that is not thicker than your working yarn and is in a contrasting colour. Some knitters use dental floss to make lifelines. Even though I personally never used dental floss for this purpose, I don’t see any reason why it can’t work as a lifeline – it’s thin and strong, and is quite easy to see even in a light-coloured project.

Once you find the yarn you will use as a lifeline, cut a piece of it that is at least twice as long as the width of your project.

There are three ways you can add a lifeline to your knitting:

1. The most common “no frills” way. 

a) Thread the lifeline (the piece of yarn we’ve just discussed in the previous paragraph) into a wool needle. If you are working on smaller knitting needles, use the thinnest wool needle you have.

b) Starting from the beginning of the row (or round, if you work in the round), run the wool needle through every stitch that’s sitting on your knitting needle. 

It is usually easier to do if you insert the wool needle at the bottom of each stitch. If you are using circular needles, move all stitches to the cord between the needles. That will make the stitches looser and easier to work with.

c) Shift the lifeline inside the row so that both ends are of about the same length. Then tie a bow at each end of the lifeline (we don’t want it to accidentally slip from the work, right?)

d) Continue knitting as usual. Be careful not to knit the lifeline inside your work in the first row. The lifeline should always stay at the bottom of the stitches, as it is shown in the photo below.

2. This way is simpler and takes less time, but it is only possible if you use interchangeable needles that have little holes in them (some of those needles are made by HiyaHiya brand).

With a knitting needle like that there is no need for a wool needle. Simply thread the lifeline into the hole in your right needle and work the row as usual. The lifeline will be threaded through every stitch as you work through the row. 

At the end of the row, pull the needle out of the work just enough to reach the hole. Then carefully take the lifeline from the hole (make sure the longer end of the lifeline stays inside the row), shift it inside the row to even out the ends, and tie a bow at each end of the lifeline.

3. The third option is a mix between the first two. I learned this trick from Michelle (aka KnitPurlHunter )

This way helps if you don’t have the needles with holes, but you don’t want to spend a few extra minutes of your time to thread the lifeline through each stitch with a wool needle.

What do we do in this case? We attach the lifeline to the right needle with a piece of tape!

Michelle recommends taping the yarn closer to the tip of the needle, but this way you feel the snag every time you work a stitch. I find that if you tape the yarn about 10cm (4″) away from the tip of the right needle, you can comfortably work for some time, then stop and move the stitches through the snagging part.

Make sure to use a tape that doesn’t leave a sticky residue on the needle. Otherwise, you can easily ruin your needles 🙁

When you finish the row, pull the needle slightly out of the work, remove the tape, pull the lifeline inside the row to even out the ends, and make a bow at each end. 

WHAT TO DO IF YOU USE STITCH MARKERS IN THE PROJECT

That’s a tricky question. The general guideline is – don’t thread the lifeline through the stitch markers. If you do,  your stitches will get trapped between the lifeline and the knitting needle. As you work more and more rows, your knitting will look more and more like a Victorian curtain.

On the other hand, if you ignore the markers, but will need to unravel a few rows later on, you will have to re-insert every marker to its proper spot. And that’s NOT a pleasant task!

What to do? I see two possible options. Both options can work only if you insert the lifeline using a wool needle (the first way described in the HOW section).

Option 1. If you have 1 or 2 markers in your work, and you can easily find their spot if you do need to re-insert them later on, don’t thread the lifeline through those markers. Go around them, as I did in this video (watch from the beginning till 02:08).

Option 2. If you have several (or many) stitch markers in your knitting, you will need an extra set of them to leave on the lifeline. The additional stitch markers can be any tiny rubber bands, pieces of contrasting colour yarn tied in loops, or odd sized stitch markers you never use. Have those stitch markers close by, and thread them on the lifeline instead of the stitch markers you have in your knitting.

Watch how to do in in this video (this part starts at 02:11)

Now that you have the lifeline keeping your stitches safe, you can confidently continue knitting. If you need to unravel a few rows later on, simply take the needle out of your work, unravel the rows to the row with the lifeline, and pick up all stitches from the lifeline with your knitting needle. Continue knitting starting from the first row of the pattern repeat. Easy!

If you worked next several rows without any need for unravelling (it happens in most cases), remove the lifeline from your work. Then follow the same steps we used to add the lifeline to our knitting and move the lifeline up to your current row. Do it after the last row of the pattern repeat and after you counted the stitches and checked your work for mistakes. 

Depending on the complexity of the pattern, it’s a good idea to move the lifeline every 5-10 cm (2-4″) of your work.

Keep your stitches safe 🙂


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Happy knitting 🙂


How to use a lifeline in knitting | 10 rows a day
Why we need a lifeline in knitting | 10 rows a day
3 ways to add a lifeline to knitting | 10 rows a day
How to add a lifeline when you have stitch markers in your knitting | 10 rows a day
How to add a lifeline without a wool needle | 10 rows a day