Unraveling the Physics of Knitting

A woman wearing glasses and short sleeve pink sweater sit nexts to a commercial knitting machine.

Krishma Singal operates the knitting machine she used to create fabric samples for the study. Singal, the first author of the study, recently graduated from Georgia Tech with her Ph.D. Credit: Allison Carter.

Knitting, the age-old craft of looping and stitching natural fibers into fabrics, has received renewed attention for its potential applications in advanced manufacturing. Far beyond their use for garments, knitted textiles are ideal for designing and fabricating emerging technologies like wearable electronics or soft robotics — structures that need to move and bend. 

Knitting transforms one-dimensional yarn into two-dimensional fabrics that are flexible, durable, and highly customizable in shape and elasticity. But to create smart textile design techniques that engineers can use, understanding the mechanics behind knitted materials is crucial. 

Physicists from the Georgia Institute of Technology have taken the technical know-how of knitting and added mathematical backing to it. In a study led by Elisabetta Matsumoto, associate professor in the School of Physics, and Krishma Singal, a graduate researcher in Matsumoto’s lab, the team used experiments and simulations to quantify and predict how knit fabric response can be programmed. By establishing a mathematical theory of knitted materials, the researchers hope that knitting — and textiles in general — can be incorporated into more engineering applications.

Their research paper, “Programming Mechanics in Knitted Materials, Stitch by Stitch,” was published in the journal Nature Communications

“For centuries, hand knitters have used different types of stitches and stitch combinations to specify the geometry and ‘stretchiness’ of garments, and much of the technical knowledge surrounding knitting has been handed down by word of mouth,” said Matsumoto.

But while knitting has often been dismissed as unskilled, poorly paid “women’s work,” the properties of knits can be more complex than traditional engineering materials like rubbers or metals. 

For this project, the team wanted to decode the underlying principles that direct the elastic behavior of knitted fabrics. These principles are governed by the nuanced interplay of stitch patterns, geometry, and yarn topology — the undercrossings or overcrossings in a knot or stitch. "A lot of yarn isn’t very stretchy, yet once knit into a fabric, the fabric exhibits emergent elastic behavior," Singal said. 

“Experienced knitters can identify which fabrics are stretchier than others and have an intuition for its best application,” she added. “But by understanding how these fabrics can be programmed and how they behave, we can expand knitting’s application into a variety of fields beyond clothing.”

Through a combination of experiments and simulations, Matsumoto and Singal explored the relationships among yarn manipulation, stitch patterns, and fabric elasticity, and how these factors work together to affect bulk fabric behavior. They began with physical yarn and fabric stretching experiments to identify main parameters, such as how bendable or fluffy the yarn is, and the length and radius of yarn in a given stitch. 

They then used the experiment results to design simulations to examine the yarn inside a stitch, similar to an X-ray. It is difficult to see inside stitches during the physical measurements, so the simulations are used to see what parts of the yarn have interacted with other parts. The simulations are used to recreate the physical measurements as accurately as possible.

Through these experiments and simulations, Singal and Matsumoto showed the profound impact that design variations can have on fabric response and uncovered the remarkable programmability of knitting. "We discovered that by using simple adjustments in how you design a fabric pattern, you can change how stretchy or stiff the bulk fabric is," Singal said. "How the yarn is manipulated, what stitches are formed, and how the stitches are patterned completely alter the response of the final fabric."

Matsumoto envisions that the insights gleaned from their research will enable knitted textile design to become more commonly used in manufacturing and product design. Their discovery that simple stitch patterning can alter a fabric’s elasticity points to knitting’s potential for cutting-edge interactive technologies like soft robotics, wearables, and haptics.

“We think of knitting as an additive manufacturing technique — like 3D printing, and you can change the material properties just by picking the right stitch pattern,” Singal said.

Matsumoto and Singal plan to push the boundaries of knitted fabric science even further, as there are still numerous questions about knitted fabrics to be answered. 

"Textiles are ubiquitous and we use them everywhere in our lives," Matsumoto said. "Right now, the hard part is that designing them for specific properties relies on having a lot of experience and technical intuition. We hope our research helps make textiles a versatile tool for engineers and scientists too."


Note: Sarah Gonzalez (Georgia Tech) and Michael Dimitriyev (Texas A&M) are also co-first authors of the study. 

Citation: Singal, K., Dimitriyev, M.S., Gonzalez, S.E. et al. Programming mechanics in knitted materials, stitch by stitch. Nat Commun 15, 2622 (2024). 

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-024-46498-z

Funding: Research Corporation for Science Advancement, National Science Foundation, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation 

Four small samples of white fabric on a black background.

The team created their own fabric samples using a variety of stitch patterns. From left to right, the fabrics are stockinette, garter, rib, and seed. Each sample has the same number of stitch rows and columns, showing how stitch patterns can profoundly impact behavior, elasticity, and shape. Credit: Allison Carter

Hands stretching a small piece of white knit fabric to show its elasticity

Many types of yarn are not very stretchy, yet once knit into a fabric, the fabric exhibits emergent elastic behavior. Credit: Allison Carter

A woman wearing glasses and short sleeve pink sweater sit nexts to a commercial knitting machine.

Krishma Singal with the knitting machine she used to create fabric samples for the study. Credit: Allison Carter.

News Contact

Catherine Barzler, Senior Research Writer/Editor

Institute Communications