A Peek Into The Science Of Knitwear

A Peek Into The Science Of Knitwear

The process of creating a three-dimensional object using one-dimensional yarn and a series of interlocking knots is curious. It is remarkable how this created object then can fit a particular three-dimensional shape - and even have certain properties, such as elasticity. 

Image by Nynne Schrøder from Unsplash

Knitted fabric is desired for its elasticity, and yet yarn is not typically elastic at all. And the only tools used to take yarn through this transformative process are surprisingly simple: two sticks (a.k.a. knitting needles). Knitted fabric is also a metamaterial. A length of yarn does not have the property of elasticity, indeed, it is all but inelastic, yet when it is manipulated into slipknots, through its patterning, the emergent result is of varying degrees of elasticity

On the surface, knitting may seem like simply an arts and craft hobby, or a method that makes your favorite winter sweater. But another perspective sees it as a complex form of applied mathematics and physics.   

Image by Anastasia Zhenina from Unsplash


The process of using knitting needles and yarn to create a knitted fabric is a technique that requires the application of knot theory, which is based on complex mathematical rules.    

Image by Tara Evans from Unsplash

A knot is a tangled circle that cannot be untangled due to crossings. Knitted fabric comprises a series of these slipknots composed of a single thread looping back and forth on itself. The rows and columns of slipknots form a lattice pattern. Different patterns are created using varying methods of stitching - for example, a knitted stitch is made by pulling the slipknot through the front of the fabric, whereas it is pulled through the back in a purl stitch. By alternating between knit and purl stitches, you can create a seed stitch or a rib stitch which both offer different properties. A seed stitch results in a stiffer final product while a rib stitch is more elastic in a single direction, making it the better choice for necklines or socks. 


Dr. Elisabetta Matsumoto, an applied mathematician and physicist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, defines yarn as a programmable material and has stated that “knitting is coding”. 

This knitting “code” determines how different properties will arise from different stitch combinations. Physicists are attempting to uncover this code to further advancements in the fabric animation and manufacturing realms. 

Dr. Matsumoto and her team are working on a fabric behavior sorting code. Their theory is based on the fact that stitch patterns provide a code which in turn creates the program for the elasticity and geometry of a knitted item. One of their endeavors is that of working on a computer simulation of knitted fabrics, whereby yarn properties and stitch patterns are inputted, and the geometry and elasticity of the finished object are outputted. Once the computer simulation has been refined, the team will be able to extract equations and algorithms for knitted fabric behavior. This data can be translated into computer game graphics and animated movies to enhance fabric animations. 

Image by Sarah Claeys from Unsplash

Uncovering the science of knitwear could see advancements in the realm of additive manufacturing. The process of creating an object by building it one layer at a time, or additive manufacturing, typically refers to 3-D printing. While the innovation of 3-D printed fabrics is well underway, the full potential of knitting and the influence its unique code may bring is still being discovered. The overlap between the realms of arts and sciences is at a frontier with the additions of advances in technology and digitalization. The potential for the collaborative power between these realms is immense. 



Please note, comments must be approved before they are published