I hate counting rows. Once a pattern is established, I can usually read it. “This cable goes left until it’s one stitch from bumping that border.”
What I hate is when it’s plain for three or more rows, and the yarn has different coloured singles. (Twitter has yet to tell me what that’s called.)
One trick is to take scrap yarn in a different colour, and weave it in and out of a column of stitches as you go. I pull it forward and trap it under the fresh yarn on odd or right-side rows, and push it out on the other. Or maybe it’s the other way around. It probably varies, but usually there’s an obvious row I can go back and check.
These are much nicer. I got the idea from a sample somewhere online.
You hang them on your needles, like a stitch marker, and pull beads down as you finish each row. At the end, you either pull them all up and reset, or change direction of pull. I prefer to pull them up and reset, since it’s easier to pull them down when knitting.
The core is a bead ladder. A column of beads form the rungs of the ladder, with a thread at each side. At each rung, the threads pass through the beads and change sides.
The model I first saw used pony beads on DK or KW wool. The wool has to be thick enough that the beads won’t slip, but not to thick. There are two threads in each bead, and the way the threads move against each other and the angles also hold the beads in place.
The image on the left is a desperate creation. Instead of beads, it’s 2-inch bits of yarn, with a lark’s-head around the “rung” of the ladder.
The middle one is my second attempt. It uses the only beads I could find — funky three-pronged things. It’s heavy, and I should have used a dark colour for every fifth, but it works. I’ve done a lot of 12-row patterns, so it has 15 beads.
The right one is my favourite. Cheap seed beads on embroidery floss. Four strands of floss go down each side. I alternated colours, with dark colours for the even rows, and put two beads on every fifth. It’s nice and light. This one is 20 rows long. I also learned that dollar-store seed beads are frustrating. Half of them had holes too small (and several were just small enough to catch the last bit of the sewing needle I used for threading them). Some were twice as fat as the others, making it look uneven. Putting on the engineering hat to look at time wasted sorting, and that I only got half as many usable as I paid for, if I started a production line I’d definitely invest in better materials.
If I wanted to count more than 20 rows I’d probably put ten beads, leave room to move them, tie a knot, and put ten more. The first group would be tens, the second singles.
Now for the controversial part:
I move the beads as I finish a row or round. That’s when I would gleefully scribble out the instructions for a row of complicated lace. (Working on a copy, of course.)
If end-of-round is between dpns, I put the counter a few stitches before the end, and don’t let anyone disturb me when I’m in the no-man’s land between the counter and actual end-of-round. For flat-work, I haven’t decided if it goes at the end of the right or wrong side. Thanks to the colours, I can tell at a glance whether the counter shows an even or odd row, and am a good enough knitter to tell whether the knitting is on an even or odd row, so if I reach the end without the counter, I don’t have to flip back and update it, but won’t get confused if I do.
You can use a similar method to make unique stitch markers. Cat Bordhi suggests markers with letters of the alphabet, so you can say, “Knit in pattern to marker B.” If you can’t find those markers, or don’t want to spend the time looking for a bag of beads with the complete alphabet, you can simply string the colours in different patterns. Morse code, with one colour for dots and another for dashes, would work. So would binary notation — threads 5 beads long can count up to 32. I think, though, I’d put on two groups of five beads. The lower would be 1-5, and the upper would be 5,10,15,20,25.