How to knit a hat, part 1: Anatomy lessons

How to knit a hat (that fits)

Knitting a hat is momentous in a knitter’s life. The simple act of knitting in the round — creating a three-dimensional tube instead of a flat rectangle of fabric — is eye-opening. But then comes the crown, where you’re suddenly learning about shaping (in this case decrease stitches) and working small-circumference fabric either on double-pointed needles or via the Magic Loop method. By the time you weave in the two ends — only a few knitting hours later — your bag of tricks has grown exponentially.

Hats are a favorite among seasoned knitters for many reasons: 1) They’re relatively quick. 2) They’re an excellent blank canvas for all sorts of stitch patterns and thus 3) a small-scale way to get to do lots of different kinds of knitting. 4) They don’t require much yarn. 5) There’s almost zero finishing involved. And 6) just about everyone can use one. They’re also fairly straightforward, as knitting projects go, and if you simply follow a reasonably good pattern you’ll wind up with a hat! (And it will fit someone, if perhaps not the intended head.) No need to give it any more thought than that if you don’t want to.

But for any of you who do want to — to understand the steps and maybe exercise some control over the fit — let’s talk about the various parts of a hat, techniques employed, and decisions you might choose to make along the way—

PART ONE: The cast on

Most hats have a stretchy brim — which we’ll get to in a moment — but possibly the most important thing is for the cast-on to be stretchy. You don’t want your hat to either bag out or cut into your forehead. For that reason, hats generally call for the Long-Tail Cast On, which is nice and stretchy. And while there are patterns out there for hats knitted flat and seamed, most contemporary hat patterns are knitted in the round on a 16″ circular needle. (I’ll talk about the Magic Loop alternative below.) Working at one end of the circular needle, you’ll cast on the prescribed number of stitches, then the pattern will likely tell you to place a stitch marker (to keep track of the beginning of the round) plus some version of two things: “join in the round” and “be careful not to twist.”

“Join in the round” or “join for knitting in the round” means simply what’s pictured at the top of this post: spread your stitches around the circular needle with the working yarn dangling from the right needle (place the marker on your right needle) and insert the right needle tip into the first stitch on the left needle to begin knitting in the round. From here on out, every time you pick it up and put it down, you’ll always hold it with the working yarn coming off the right needle.

“Be careful not to twist” means making sure your stitches aren’t twisted around your needle. If they are, you’ll be knitting a mobius loop instead of a tube, and there’s no way to fix it other than to rip it out. So line up your stitches as pictured above, with the cast-on edge running along the inside of the curve of the needle, so you can see for sure that the stitches haven’t wrapped themselves around the needle.

PART TWO: The brim

Most hats have a stretchy brim so it will cling to your head and stay on. That typically takes the form of a couple of inches of ribbing, the stretchiest of knitted stitch patterns (and the ribbing is also often worked on smaller needles than the main fabric, so it’s tighter and stretchier). You aren’t beholden to the pattern, though. Maybe you only want an inch of ribbing and the pattern calls for two. Or maybe you want your ribbed brim to fold up so it’s double thick — you are welcome to knit four inches of ribbing instead of two (assuming you have enough yarn) and then roll it up. Maybe you want it to be 3×2 or 2×2 ribbing instead of 1×1, or vice versa. Or maybe you don’t like ribbing and want to use a different stitch pattern entirely. These are easy modifications to make — just be sure you’ve thought through any ramifications.

3×2 ribbing, for example, isn’t as stretchy as 1×1, so your hat might not be as snug. The hat’s main stitch pattern might be designed to flow organically from the ribbing, and changing the rib multiple would disrupt that. 3×2 ribbing is a repeat of 5 stitches (3 knits + 2 purls, repeated across the total stitch count) whereas 1×1 is a 2-stitch repeat. So your cast-on count would need to be a multiple of 5 instead of a multiple of 2. If the pattern’s cast-on count doesn’t divide evenly into your desired multiple, you’ll need to tweak the stitch count, and then also increase or decrease by the same amount on the last ribbing round in order to have the correct number of stitches to begin the body.

PART THREE: The body

With the most obvious exception being a beret, hats are generally knitted as a straight tube (no shaping) until you get to the crown, and the length of that tube is the primary factor in how tall (i.e., fitted or slouchy) a hat is. Any pattern worth its salt will tell you the finished height of the hat, and most patterns will specify in inches, within the instructions, how tall the body of the hat should be before you begin shaping the crown. Reading into the pattern, you’ll find a sentence something like “knit until the hat measures X inches from the cast-on edge.” If you prefer your hats longer or shorter than the finished dimensions given, the body is where you’ll want to make adjustments. Say the finished height of a hat is 9.5 inches and you prefer yours to be only 8 inches — you’ll want to eliminate 1.5 inches from the body. So if the pattern says to knit until 7.5 inches before beginning the crown shaping, you’ll subtract 1.5 inches from that and only knit to 6 inches. (If you’ve added extra fabric for a fold-up brim, make sure you’re measuring from the fold.)

In the above example — that is, a 9.5-inch hat that says to knit to 7.5 inches before the crown — we can infer that the crown rounds add up to 2 inches. But if your row gauge is different from the pattern’s row gauge, your whole hat, including that crown depth, will be different. So once you’ve got four inches of the body knitted, stop and measure your row gauge. If your gauge is bigger (fewer rows per inch) and you follow the pattern to a T, your hat will be taller, so again you might choose to adjust how many rounds you knit before the crown. Or vice versa — smaller row gauge (more rows per inch) means you’ll wind up with a shorter hat, so anticipate or adjust accordingly.

Of course, the body of a hat might be based on a chart or a repeat that requires a certain number of rounds to be worked. In that case, changing the height of the hat might mean working one more or fewer repeat, and having the final measurement be a difference of the height of that full repeat. (We’ll talk more about charts and repeats as we get into the Fringe Hatalong Series.)

PART FOUR: The crown

The crown is where things get really interesting from a knitting perspective — and the world is full of hat patterns with dazzlingly designed crowns. There are countless methods for shaping a crown, but all involve gradually decreasing the number of stitches in each row until you’re down to just a few — so the tube gets narrower and narrower until it meets in the middle. That means you’re eventually going to have too few stitches to stretch around the 16″ circular needle we started out on. Commonly, a pattern will call for you to switch to DPNs (double-pointed needles) once you reach that point. To do so (unless your pattern is more specific than this), you knit 1/3 of the stitches onto one DPN, the next 1/3 onto a second DPN, and the last 1/3 onto a third DPN, so your stitches are evenly divided between three needles — or as close as your stitch count will allow — and those needles form a triangle. Using a fourth DPN, you work across the first needle, which frees it up; use it to knit the stitches from the second needle; and so on, around and around and around. It looks wildly intimidating, but is actually quite simple, and a hat crown (where you already have a volume of fabric on the needles) is the easiest way to learn it. (There’s a good video here.)

The alternative is to knit the entire hat on one long circular needle using the Magic Loop method, for which there are countless video tutorials on the internet. (I’ll let you Google that since there isn’t one I’ve personally relied on — I’m not a Magic Looper.)

The pattern will always tell you how many decrease rounds to work — typically alternating between decrease rounds and straight rounds. Then it will tell you: once you have only X stitches remaining on the needles, break your yarn and thread it onto a tapestry needle, then pull it through the remaining stitches and cinch to close. Pass the end down through the center and weave it in on the inside, and voilà, a hat!


In case you missed the announcement, I’m launching the Fringe Hatalong Series of occasional hat knitalongs this week and the first pattern pick is suitable for your first hat. I hope you’ll join in — details to come on Thursday!


17 thoughts on “How to knit a hat, part 1: Anatomy lessons

  1. Excellent overview of the hat construction. I still remember my first hat, it is indeed a very satisfying, skill building project, with a quick result that will be worn again and again and again… And a perfect gift that does not require too many hours of knitting.

  2. Hi! there is something that puzzles and annoys me about hats… when is the right time to start decreasing for a hat?
    Let´s say that I want a plain hat, I don´t have or need a pattern because I know how to do the basics and how to distribute my decreases for the crown, but the crucial point of when to start decreasing is where my hats go wrong.

    • Start decreasing when the straight tube (without shaping) is the palm length of the intended wearer. Longer if you want to fold up the brim or want to block it into a slouchy shape.

  3. I love the Magic Loop method! It changed my relationship with sock knitting. I can whack out a pair of socks in about 10 days now. Whereas before they lingered for 2 months or longer. Now I use the Magic Loop method almost exclusively with all my circular knits. I highly encourage anyone to give it a try, it’s very easy to pick up.

  4. I’m with mjoxrieder — bringing my best beginner’s mind to this series, and excited for it. No matter what you know, there’s always something new to pick up.

    And I’ll toss in a couple tidbits:
    – If you “join being careful not to twist” and find that you twisted anyway, you actually have until the first stitch of the *second* round to fix it. Really! Try it! You can still untwist without ripping out anytime during the first round of knitting. (Doing so is hard to describe but easy to figure out by fiddling, and will likely involve moving one of your needle tips through the center of your little hoop of knitting).

    – In addition to Magic Loop, there’s the Two Circulars method of knitting small circumferences, which is another version of the same idea. Google and YouTube will lead you to a wealth of info. I personally find Magic Loop simpler (and DPNs are my overall fave), but every knitter is different and some fervently prefer Two Circs, so it’s worth an audition if you haven’t tried it.

  5. Your comment about untwisting is interesting – I’ll definitely try it. Because it is reiterated at the beginning of basically every circular knitting pattern, I assumed something horrifying and regrettable must happen if the stitches were twisted. And now I hear I can easily fix it! Another knock to conventional wisdom.

    I converted to two circular needles for most small round things and I super love it. I knit on the bus and have had some hazardous moments with DPNs, both for my knitting and my wellbeing. Two circulars provide a nice starting and stopping point and don’t stretch out the knitting like a single circular can. I’d say it’s worth a try for at least one project (though socks are a better choice than hats).

  6. This is a question mostly concerning your needles. I’ve only ever used DPNs when doing hats (all the way from brim to crown), because someone told me that my Dreamz needles wouldn’t connect to a 16” wire, so I never bothered getting one. Are you using shorter versions of the Dreamz needles to connect to a short wire, or can I connect my “normal-length” Dreamz to a short wire? (*desperately hoping for the latter*)

    • You can attach Dreamz tips to any length of cable, but you can’t knit a hat on the longer tips — they’re just too long to bend into a small circle. They do sell shorter interchangeable tips for that purpose, but I prefer to just use the 16″ fixed circs for hats, so I have them in several sizes.

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  10. This is perfect! I just learned how to knit less than a year ago, and I’ve never knit a hat before. (so far only scarves and things). I was just thinking the other day that I really want to knit a hat but I have no idea how to knit in the round. This is a great place to start, thanks!

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