Thursday, January 5, 2012

Learn to Knit

I've been absorbed in my knitting lately, so I've been doing a lot of it at work and people have noticed.  Quite a few said they wanted to learn, and I'd love to help them.  Hence this post.

It's hard to know where to start.  There are so many choices, so many methods, so many yarns, so many needles, and so many people who say their way is The Only Way.  It's all so overwhelming.  I hope what I write here will help guide you through the maze of choices and information to a place where you can be happy learning.  It's certainly not meant to be The Only Way.  It's definitely not going to be The Best for everybody.  But if you've never tried knitting, then you have no idea what's the best way for you.  Therefore, this will be a great jumping-off point for most people, and good enough for everyone.  After you get some experience, try different things.  Eventually you'll find out which is the best way for you.

First of all, you need yarn.  One skein will do for now. In a nutshell, pay the few extra bucks for a good quality, plain old, pure wool yarn; a plain, three or four plied, light-colored DK or worsted weight.  Things to avoid: eyelash "fun fur", lumpy homespun bits, itchy acrylic, hard cotton, single ply, five plies or anything other than 3 or 4 ply pure wool that feels soft and not a bit itchy.

Second of all, you need needles.  As for needles, get size US 6, 7 or 8 24" circulars.  Wooden ones or bamboo are good because they're grippy and don't let your stitches slip off, metal are good because they're slick and let your stitches slip off, and plastic are okay because they're a happy medium.  Get whichever ones you like.

Third of all, you need demonstrations:'s Tutorials

Fourth of all, you need a project and pattern for it:
A Simple Scarf
CO 30
Rows One through Twenty: Knit.
Row Twenty-One through Forty: Purl.
Keep alternating these blocks of rows until you think you have the hang of knitting, until the scarf is long enough, or until you almost run out of yarn.  Bind off and weave in ends.

And eventually patterns and camaraderie with and advice from other knitters: = Knitting Heaven.

And that's all you need to know.  Oh.  And booze is good.  Booze is very good.

If you want to know more, here's more (a lot more) on each subject:

More about yarn:
Fiber content (what it's made of): I would advise you to not get the cheapest you can find.  Most cheap yarn is acrylic, but you may find cotton or a scratchy wool blend.  Don't fall for it.  For just a couple bucks more you can get lovely, soft, squooshy, dreamy wool that has an inherent inner warmth and is a joy to play with.  A yarn so soft that you just want to rip your clothes off and roll in it.  DO EET!  (I mean buy it, not the getting naked part.  At least not yet.)  That extra two, three or even five bucks will be money SO well spent.  Think about it ~ when you're learning, you're already having to put up with your fingers doing all sorts of weird motions to make the needles go where you want them to go and the yarn to do what you want it to do.  At times it can seem a bit of a trial.  Why add to that discomfort with scratchy yarn that rubs your fingers raw?  You want something so lovely that you just can't wait to pick it up and get all wrapped up in it.  Just like a favorite blanket ~ soft, inviting, and squooshy.  I just love that word: squooshy.  I want to say it again and again and again: squooshy, squooshy, squooshy, squooshy, squooshy.

Some acrylic yarns are soft.  Some acrylic yarns are inviting.  But I have yet to meet an acrylic yarn that is squooshy.  Yes, acrylic yarn has come a loooong way since the seventies when your grandma would make those harvest gold and avacado green zig-zag afghans with it.  You know the ones: the ones that stayed firmly on the back of the couch because they were so itchy and cold you'd never actually want to cover yourself with it.  Nowadays, it's not always that bad.  Some modern acrylic yarns are actually soft, at least at first touch.  But no matter what they've done with it, it isn't as nice as a good quality pure wool yarn.  Go ahead, treat yourself.  You'll be glad you did.

A note about wool allergies: most people are actually allergic to the chemicals used in processing the wool, not the wool itself. And still others are actually sensitive to cheap wool, wool that hasn't been processed in such a way that it avoids sticky cut ends or stiff guard hairs.  Nowadays people are truly allergic to all sorts of unusual things, so it's not hard to believe that there are people out there who really and truly are allergic to wool.  But I'd bet that most of those who think they are really aren't, and it would be SO incredibly sad if you were one of those who avoided all animal fibers for years; then, one day, near the end of your life, you found out you really weren't allergic in the first place.  You'd have missed out on so many glorious years of knitting with wool, llama, cashmere, alpaca, and ... gasp ... qiviut.  Makes me want to cry.  And you don't want to make me cry, right?  SO, just humor me ~ if you've always thought you were allergic, try going to a specialty knitting shop instead of Michael's or Hobby Lobby and have them help you find a naturally processed wool yarn of good quality.  If that doesn't work, try alpaca or some other animal fiber.  If it still doesn't work, then you are one of those really and truly allergic people.  Get the softest acrylic you can find.  And know you have my deepest sympathies.

Type: Get a nice plain yarn, one without fancy bits, hairy "eyelashes", extra fur or knobby lumps.  You want a nice, plain yarn so you can see exactly what you're doing.  If you get a novelty yarn, those extra fun bits will obscure the stitches and you won't be able to see clearly what you're doing.  And you need to see clearly what you're doing.

Plies: Plies are the number of single strings twisted/spun together to make the individual yarn.  Generally speaking, the more the plies the stronger the yarn, and the fewer the plies the softer the yarn.  A single-ply yarn may be quite soft, but it pulls apart easier than a plied one, so avoid those.  A two ply would be okay, but some kinds of those make for an unevenly-sided yarn so make it harder to see your stitches.  A three or four ply yarn has nice, smooth "sides" to it, so make it much easier to see your stitches while still being quite soft.  Any more plies than that and it can be rather hard and definitely not squooshy.  Remember, squooshy is important.  You want squooshy.

Size: I'd get a DK or worsted weight one, though you may prefer a bulky.  This refers to the size of the yarn, how big around it is.  This is also so you can see what you're doing and actually be able to work with it.  Sport weight or fingering weight (those "baby" yarns) are many times too small and fiddly.  Even though they are my favorite to knit with, when I'm learning something new I prefer at least a DK size so I can see easily what I'm doing and so the stitches and associated "holes" where you put your needle are bigger.  Believe me, it's quite the pain in the ass to try to knit a tiny little stitch when using lace weight yarn.  That's just a step up from sewing thread.  You can hardly even see where to stick your needle.  Conversely, bulky yarns are just so big that it makes me feel like I'm holding one of those giant pencils we used to use in kindergarten.  It's so big that sometimes the yarn actually gets in the way of what I'm trying to do, and it tires my hands out holding all that weight.  But you may think differently, so if bulky works for you, go for it!

Color: get a light one.  Trying to see what you're doing when knitting with black is a nightmare.  You need to see those subtle shadows around the stitches since those are the holes and where you put your yarn.  When knitting with black yarn, everything is a shadow.  You can't tell a hole from the yarn itself and will end up trying to stick your needle through the yarn.

More about needles: 
Type: get circulars.  Most straight needles are a pain in the ass to knit with since they're so long.  For learning to knit, you'll only be using the first six or eight inches of the needles.  Most straights are much longer than that, so that leaves the ends out there flopping around. getting caught on things, and propping themselves on places like chair arms making the points of your needles where you're working have to sit at a weird angle forcing you to shift yourself into a weird position.  Not good.  Circulars are the first five or so inches of the pointy end of a knitting needle mounted on a "string" or cable, making them all bendy and stuff.  That's a good thing.

Length: The length of the cable isn't really important right now, but can be later, so get a 24" long one.  Those are easily used for a multitude of projects: flat knitting of most any size except a full-blown blanket, socks using the Magic Loop technique, or even a sweater knit in the round (yes, one day you WILL be able to knit a sweater! Trust me).  Shorter than that and it cuts out much flat knitting (pieces wider than a few inches, like a cardigan or sweater front) and circular knitting (like that aforementioned sweater body).  Longer than that and they can get tangled a lot, and that's a pita.

Material: I like metal because they're slick.  Most new knitters tend to knit tightly, so metal ones will be easier to force into those aforementioned holes.  But they're easier to drop stitches with (let them slide off the points of their needles accidentally).  New knitters tend to do this a lot and it always ends in tears, and not a little frustration.  Picking up those dropped stitches is a skill better learned later, after you've got the basics down pat, so it's really important to avoid dropping any now if you can.  Wooden or bamboo needles are grippy and help avoid that, but that grippiness works against you when you knit tightly ~ it's harder to slide the needle through a tight stitch.  Plastic can be a happy medium from what I've read.  I hate plastic in all it's shapes and forms since it just feels fake and dead to me, so I avoid it whenever I can (I'm funny that way).  Sometimes those cool looking, see-through, purple ones call to me, but I haven't fallen yet.  So I don't know much about plastic needles and can't tell you whether they're really good or bad except, like I said above, I've heard they are that "just right, in the middle" kind of grippyslick.

IMHO, wooden or bamboo is the best to learn with because you avoid those dropped stitches AND it forces you to learn to knit loosely.  So I'd say get those.  And a bottle of wine.  When you find yourself all a fluster because you're knitting so tightly that you can't get the needle through, put the knitting down and go drink a glass of wine.  Once you come back to the knitting and you'll miraculously find yourself relaxing enough to start knitting loosely again.  Trufax.

Size: Sometimes the needle size is crucial, but for learning it's not.  Whatever feels right to you when you're knitting is the right one, so if the needles you bought don't feel "right", go back and buy another size.  Once you start knitting in earnest, you'll use different sizes for different projects, so having many sizes is a good thing.  Plus, you'll likely have more than one project going, so having many sets of needles is a good thing that way, too.  I like a US 6 or 7 for DK yarn and a US 7 or 8 for worsted.  Look on the label of your yarn (the "ball band").  It should say the recommended needle size on there.  It's usually two numbers: one US and one metric ~ needles will also have both of those numbers listed, or usually do.  If they don't, you're up shit creek.

Nah, I'm kidding.  If you can't tell from the labels, for instance if the yarn only lists one kind of size and the needles only list the other (a rare occurrence), look for a something called a "needle sizer" in the knitting notions and tools section.  It's a little piece of plastic that looks like a fat ruler with holes in it.  Those will list both numbers of needle sizes and you'll be able to translate whatever your yarn and/or needle package says.

So, you've got your tools and you're raring to go.  Now for the good stuff: ~ knitting videos!!!11!!elebenty!  The most wonderful thing to ever happen to a beginning knitter.  These are so great because you don't have to feel like you're imposing for asking the teacher to repeat what they just did for the seventh time.  And you will have to ask.  For the seventh time, and the twelfth time, and the forty second time.  The video doesn't care.  You can also pause it right in the middle.  No feeling bad because you're asking the teacher and the entire class to wait on you while you catch up.  Again, the video doesn't care.

Which ones to watch: all of them.  Eventually.  For now, start with the casting-on videos.  Casting-on is simply getting started, making those first loops on the needles, the ones you'll eventually knit into.  Watch all the videos and pick which one looks easiest to you.  KnittingHelp recommends the Long Tail Cast-On for beginners.  I don't know if I agree.  It takes a while to learn that one, and you want to get knitting right away, right?  It's kind of like those old Cat's-in-the-Cradle string games we played as a kid, the ones where you take a piece of string knotted into a circle, wrap it around your fingers just so, get a friend to stick their finger in the middle, then let it loose and have it either trap or not the finger.  Took a while to learn that, didn't it?  If you were good at that, then try the Long Tail Cast-On.  If you weren't, try it anyway, but if that's taking too long, then try the Single Cast-On.  Like the website says, it's easier to do but trickier to knit from (to knit your first row after doing that).  If you just be absolutely sure to do the cast on loosely and then knit it loosely, it won't be as hard since you'll have more yarn there to move around.  But if you try that one and knitting that first round just frustrates the hell out of you, then try one of the Cable Cast-Ons.  I like those a lot.  But, there are two versions: English and Continental and you'll have to pick one.  Let's stop right here and discuss what those are.

There are many ways/methods to knit, but three are the most prevalent nowadays: English, Continental and Combined.  In all styles you hold one needle in each hand, but in each of the methods you hold the working yarn (the yarn feeding into your project) differently.

English is where you hold the working yarn in your right hand.  English is seemingly the most popular, but not necessarily the fastest or best.  It's the way I knit since it was the most prevalent 25 years ago when I was learning.  Those "I Taught Myself to Knit" books taught you English style.  That's probably why it's the most popular nowadays ~ most knitters who've been doing it for years didn't have the benefit of being taught by a grandma from the Old Country who knitted Continental, so learned the only way available at the time.

Continental is where you hold the working yarn in your left hand.  I wish Continental was more prevalent back when I was learning as I think I would like it better.  From everything I've seen and read about it, it seems easier and faster (so better for a beginner it seems).  But after so many years knitting English I'm having a hard time learning it. *sigh*

Then there's Combined, which is just what it says: a method that combines English and Continental.  I'm thinking I'll try to learn that one one day.  Might make the transition to Continental easier.

It would be good to learn or at least be familiar with all of them, but for now pick the one you're most comfortable with.  To do that, watch both English and Continental Knit Stitch and Purl Stitch videos, just watch not do, and see which one looks the best to you.  Later, if you find it's just not working, try the other.  But don't give up on your first pick too soon ~ it might not be working not because of the method but just because it's knitting, and knitting is just new to you.  So stick with it for a while at least.  Then try the other.  

If, after all this, you're still stuck, or if you just want more information, here is another place you can read up on knitting, see still pictures of each step, and watch more videos:'s Tutorials.  Those are really cool because they combine a text description and photos of each step with videos.

Now go forth and knit.  Start with that simple pattern above, more fully explained below.  ProTip: Never underestimate the power of booze for getting past a frustrating spot.  Seriously.  You wanted to take up knitting to help you relax?  Well, there's one way it'll do it.  It also not only loosens you up, but the knitting.  Most knitters knit quite tightly.  It's hard to not do that when you're grasping those needles and that yarn to keep it all from falling into your lap.  It takes a while to get the hang of doing that without hanging on to them for dear life.  Try to relax.  Really try.  If you just can't ... booze.

And don't give up.  Taking a break is different than giving up.  You may find that to preserve your sanity you must put the knitting down for a while.  Do it, go outside for a long walk, watch tv, go to work ~ then pick it up again tomorrow.  Just don't put it down only to never pick it up again.  Finding a friend who wants to learn and doing it together might help avoid that.  They can give you those constant reminders to pick it back up and keep going.  If you do this, try not to be upset if they seem to catch on quickly and zoom right on by while you sit in the slow lane and struggle.  People learn differently, and at different speeds.  Just imagine wrapping your yarn around their neck and pulling tightly, then go back to your own knitting (booze helps here, too).  So long as you don't give up, you'll get it eventually.  I promise.

 A Simple Scarf
Cast on 30 stitches, all onto one needle.  Watch the cast on video you picked as you do this.  Once you have the stitches cast on, hold that needle in your left hand with the point pointing to the right.  Grab the other needle in your right hand, with the point pointing to the left.

Row One: Knit.  You may also see this as "Knit across" or "Knit even" in some patterns.  This means knit every stitch, all the way across.  Watch the video as you do it.

When you finish this row, all the stitches will now be on your right needle.  At the end of the row, you'll turn your work (most patterns don't say this, but it's what you'll do at the end of every flat knitting row) ~ this means transfer the needle with all the stitches from your right hand to your left, with the point pointing to the right.  Put the empty needle in your right hand, point pointing to the left.  You're right back where you were when you started.

Row Two through Twenty: Same as Row One. Knit every stitch, all the way across.  Turn your work.

Row Twenty-One: Purl.  Just like that first Knit row, this means to Purl every stitch, all the way across.  Watch the video as you work.  Turn your work.

Row Twenty-Two through Forty: Same as Row Twenty-One.  Purl across.

Keep alternating these blocks of rows until you think you have the hang of knitting, until the scarf is long enough, or until you almost run out of yarn.  Then, Bind Off, aka Cast-Off ~ that's finishing off those stitches so that you can remove your needles and they don't unravel.   Just like with Casting-On, you'll need to look through all the Cast-Off videos and find one you like.

You're done!  And you have a scarf!  You are ah-MAY-zing!!!

One last note: try not to let what others say sway you.  If you knit in public, there will be people who will comment.  Period.  They can be lumped into three main groups: The Whiners, The Teachers and The Entitled Snots.  The Whiners are the ones who say, "Oh, that's sooo haaaaaaard/takes so much time! I could never find the time/learn that!"  Well, with that attitude, of course they can't.  And won't.  Don't let their attitude make you feel like it's not worth your time, or it's too hard.  If you want to do it, it IS worth your time.  And it's not that hard ~ they're just that dense.  Some of them may point out that you can buy socks at the store.  Just smile and nod, knowing that no, you can't buy These Socks at the store, socks you spent many a blissful hour knitting.  All the money in the world can't buy These Socks.

Some people you at first may think are Whiners are really just Commenters, people who just want to make conversation and use the unusual thing you're doing as the ice breaker.  You can tell the difference in the two by the presence or absence of That Annoying Tone.  In the absence of That Annoying Tone, you might want to ask them when it was that they tried, or mention something you tried and just couldn't get in to: you know, make conversation.  These people can sometimes be nice.

The Teachers are those sometimes kind souls (sometimes not) who only know of one way to knit and think that if you don't do it that way, you're doing it wrong.  They'll snatch your project out of your hands and cluck about how you're supposed to do it this way because this way is The Only Right Way.  What the hell ~ do they think that if you don't do it The One Right Way the freaking scarf you've already knit a beautiful foot of won't keep your warm?!  Just smile and nod, maybe thank them because most of them really are just trying to help (though those will usually ask for your knitting instead of snatching), and go back to knitting the way you were once they're gone.

Then there are The Entitled Snots.  Oh, sigh.  These are the ones who see you knitting and immediately put in orders: "Hey! You can knit me/my kid/my girlfriend a scarf/hat/socks/sweater. You'll do it for twenty bucks of course since you love doing it, and besides handmade is always so much cheaper.  And I'll expect it in a couple days, since knitting doesn't take any time at all!"  Sigh.  Just sigh.  These people would be entitled twats no matter what, but they seem to ramp it up when near handiwork of any kind.  I have a theory about that.  I call it The Grandma Principle: because their grandma loved knitting, did it all the time, had gobs of yarn everywhere, seemed to finish things really fast, and lovedlovedloved to give those things to them, they think that's The Reality of Knitting.  It's not.  The reality is that yes she loved knitting, and she also loved them (despite their twatty twuntiness), so was happy to give them things she spent untold hours making.  And they were kids, and kids don't pay that much attention to things that don't interest them, so what did they know about what yarn costs and how long it really took grandma to knit that blanket?  Sorry, asshole, but I don't love you that much.  What to do about them: nothing.  Really.  There's nothing that can be done.

Don't confuse Entitled Snots with Well-Meaning Sweethearts.  Well-Meaning Sweethearts are the non-knitters who mean well and love what you make, but just really don't have any idea of the time, effort and expense invested in even small knitted things (The Grandma Principle might apply to them, too, but the entitlement part is replaced by a heap of kindness and sincerity).  Even after you tell them the yarn for the scarf you're knitting that they want a copy of costs $32, they may offer to pay for that and your time because they admire your work so much and really think it'd be worth it.  Then they find out it took you eighteen hours to knit that scarf, so even at minimum wage that would set them back a really pretty penny.  They're probably shocked and might try to cover it by agreeing to pay whatever you say since they went on and on about how gorgeous your work was and how it's really worth a lot, so how can they NOT offer to pay what it's worth since they just kind of said they would?  Don't do it.  They really had no idea, and if you did agree to do it, thinking you'd make some extra cash doing something you love, it would be taking advantage of someone nice.  Or maybe you'd rather spend that eighteen hours knitting that hat and those fingerless mitts you've had your eye on.  If Well-Meaning Sweethearts knew this, along with how long it'd take, they'd have simply Ooooohed and Aaaaahed and that would be that.  This is what makes it so hard to turn them down ~ they really are well-meaning, and it is nice to hear that they think your project is so gorgeous they want one, even if it would be expensive.  Who doesn't like hearing something like that?  But, unless you really don't mind putting off other projects you want to make so you can knit for other people, you'll have to say no, maybe easing the blow by thanking them for the compliment and offering to help them learn.  Start practicing crafting that kind and friendly refusal now so when the time comes you can do it without inadvertently hurting their feelings.  They really don't deserve that.  Entitled Snots do, but certainly not Well-Meaning Sweethearts.

Now that I think about it, there is a fourth kind of Commenter who you should let sway you: the Warm and Fuzzy Reminiscer.  The these are the sweet old lady or kindly old man who, when you catch them longingly staring at your knitting, they tell you they used to sit at their grandma's feet when they were a kid and watch her knit, that they sure miss her, and they're sorry for staring but they just got lost in the memory for a bit. *sniff*  These people make me want to hug them.  What to do about them is obvious: ask them about their grandma.


  1. To learn more about breed specific sheep and their wool here is my contribution.

    “Know Your Wool” - a free class on Craftsy by Deborah Robson
    who is the author of “Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook”

    Quote from book: A wonderful fiber for lightweight, soft, and often
    delicate fabrics. Merino is a classic fiber for shawls,
    camisoles, and (with enough twist to wear well) baby garments

    Interesting article including the comments:
    The fifth paragraph down has a live link to a very
    useful chart that summarizes different breed specific

    Another helpful chart:

    Another useful group here: search for “The Knitter’s Book of Wool”

    1. Oh, wow, Karen! That's some great information right there. I've always wanted to learn a whole lot more about the different breeds of wool. I see two new books in my future...


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...