How to Knit a Hat

You have yarn. You have needles. You have cold ears on a blustery day. (Or you’re having a bad hair day. It happens to the best of us.)

How do you make a hat out of thin air, without a pattern? How do you move from knitter to designer? How do you become the master of your hat destiny?

That’s easy. Let me explain.

First, you cast on. (Simple, right?) There are two ways to figure out how many stitches to cast on. The first one is very mathematical and by-the-book, and the second one might make you laugh — but hey! It worked for me for years, and it’s very fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, which can really come in handy sometimes. Right?

So, method one: Knit up a gauge swatch. If you’ll be knitting your hat in the round, you knit your gauge swatch in the round. If you want to knit your hat back and forth on straight needles, knit up your gauge swatch in the same manner. Once you know how many stitches per inch that particular yarn works up to on those particular needles, you simply measure the head you’re knitting for. If it’s 20 inches around, and your gauge is 5 stitches per inch, then that’s 20 X 5, which is 100 stitches. Easy peasy. To recap, multiply your head circumference by your stitches per inch gauge, and you have the number of stitches to cast on to fit that head with that yarn.

Now, the second method. (Don’t laugh!) I seriously used to just cast on my stitches, using either the long-tail method or the knitted-on method, then hold them up to my head to see if it looked about right. The only catch is, you have to know how that cast-on method will change once it’s been knitted for a few rows. I found that the long-tail method would give me a fairly accurate reading if I [somewhat] evenly spread the stitches out on the needle in a way that was not too stretched or too crowded. But with the knitted-on method, I had to stretch the stitches as far apart from each other as possible to see how long they’d be once knitted up. Then, I’d hold the needle up to my head and swing it around from a beginning point at the back, pivoting it around my head to see if half the stitches would reach to the centre of my forehead.

Yes, I really did that.

The next step, once you have about enough stitches on your needles, is to make sure they’re divisible by either 9, 10, or 11. If they’re not, fake it. Either drop a stitch or two off, or add a stitch or two on. You’re planning ahead right now for when you get to the decreases at the crown. (p.s. For adults, multiples of 10 or 11 are best, and babies’ or preemies’ hats are probably better with 9 or even 8. Kids are in between, so pick whatever you want.)

Once you have your cast-on number in a happy place, you’re ready to choose the edge. If you want a rolled edge, just start knitting in stocking stitch (knit the right-side rows, purl the wrong-side rows if you’re knitting flat, and just knit every row if you’re knitting in the round). If you want it stretchy, try some ribbing. (Just make sure the ribbing you choose divides evenly into your stitch count. One-by-one ribbing will work on any even number, and two-by-two will work on any even number which you can then divide a second time evenly, like 60 or 80.) If you want it a little loose, garter stitch will work. Or, you could just start into a lace repeat that goes with the number of stitches you cast on. Really, there are no limits.

You work in that edging until you’ve had enough, then you switch to something else if you so desire. Maybe you want ribbing for two inches, then stockinette for the rest of the hat. Or maybe you’d like a hat that’s ribbed right up to the top. Maybe you want to plan on your hat being really long so you can fold the bottom up, or maybe you’d prefer a hat that ends above your ears. It’s so completely up to you now! You don’t need no stinkin’ pattern anymore.

The only other thing you’ll need to do is decrease at the crown. Basically, when you’re about 2 inches away from the top of your head, start to decrease. Try the hat on to see if you’re there, or just eyeball it. If you’re making a baby-sized hat, you probably won’t even need 2 inches to decrease. My subconscious rule of thumb, which I’m just now realizing to myself for the first time in order to communicate “how I do this,” is to knit about 3/4 of the hat length, then use the final 1/4 for the decreasing. Knit stitches are such amazing, naturally proportioned things. Now matter what yarn I’m using, or what stitch count, or what size needles, that ratio seems to just work. Try it out. (And for goodness’ sake, tell me if I’m wrong! But I bet if I am, it’s just by a little bit.)

Here’s another tip: if it looks too short and fat, it probably is. Think about it. We are people who are constantly looking either in the mirror at our own heads or at other peoples’ heads. You know what a head should look like. If you think the hat doesn’t look like a head shape, you’re probably right. If you think it looks about normal, you’re also probably right.

Now, to the specifics of decreasing. Remember when you made sure your cast-on number was divisible by either 9, 10, or 11? Here’s where you take advantage of that. Let’s say you’ve chosen multiples of 11 (which are quite fool-proof, if you ask me). You’re going to *knit 9, k2tog* all the way around your hat. That’s right. If you’ve cast on 99 stitches (which is a perfectly normal adult-size number using worsted-weight yarn and size 6 or 7 US needles), you’ll repeat that decrease section 9 times because 99 divided by 11 is 9. Multiples of ten mean a *k8, k2tog* around strategy, and multiples of nine mean — you guessed it! — *k7, k2tog* around.

Do your decrease rounds every other round so they’re not all squashed together. (Unless, of course, you want to try something different and decrease really quickly in the last inch of your hat. Hey, you could call it a “design element.”) Every subsequent decrease round, you will, of course, be knitting fewer stitches between each k2tog. One fewer stitch per repeat, in fact. (Picture “k8, k2tog; k7, k2tog; k6, k2tog; k5, k2tog…” and so on, down to “k2tog” all around.) Once you’ve decreased down to your last *k2tog* around, don’t knit another round. Just stop, cut your yarn, thread the end through the rest of your stitches, and draw it tight. Wow. You just made up a hat. All by yourself.

(If your hat was knit in the round, you’re done. If you knit it flat, then add one more step: sew the seam. I use a flat stitch to sew my seams shut. Your best bet is to have a good knitting reference book around with a couple options in it so you can pick and choose which one will look best with the stitch pattern you’ve chosen.)

Now, since we’re being creative and rebellious by making up our own darn hats, feel free to fiddle with the decreases, too. Why not try ssk and have the decrease lean the other way? Or why not decrease in whatever pattern you’ve chosen? When I make a hat that’s ribbed right up to the top, I do my best to keep the flow of the ribs going for as long as I can. I still take about 2 inches to get the decreases done, but I might space them out in different ways. Really, yarn is pretty forgiving stuff. And if it’s not, then I’m the boss! I can just rip the stupid stuff out and do it over again. Who does this hat think it is, anyway?

Right. So, my late-night tantrums aside, I hope you’re starting to get the picture here. Hats are the perfect project on which to try out your designing skills. (Well, except for scarves. I mean, they don’t even have decreases, for goodness’ sake!) And once you get comfortable with the basic structure of a hat, you can start to really push the limits with stitch patterns and other random embellishments.

And now that you know all my secrets, I’ve probably put myself out of business before I’ve even really begun. But I am deciding not to care because knitting is just so darned awesome, and everyone should love it as much as I do.

So there.

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  • Amber Schwabe

    This is adorable! You make it so easy!!!

  • Breezy

    Thanks for the info! I have a few hat patterns I like until the decreases, they my projects go all wonky. This helps a lot.

  • Meegan

    Just found this site. Thanks so much for this posting. I love the simplicity of it. Have never trusted myself to know how NOT to use a pattern but now I’m inspired.

  • Kba

    Thank you! I appreciate instructions that show the big picture, so much help.

    • I’m so glad! I like to know the underlying constructions of things, too. 🙂

  • Cindy

    I quilt without patterns and generally do things in an intuitive seat of the pants way, so I was feeling a little frustrated with the patterns I kept seeing. Everything you said makes sense to me! Yes! Thank you so much.