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Knitting Basics Explained

Updated on August 22, 2015
PAINTDRIPS profile image

Denise was taught to knit by her grandmother, age10. She has been knitting and creating her own patterns ever since, and loving it.

My hands

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Enjoy knitting!

It is my hope that you will fall in love with the art of knit as much as I have. Travel with it. Knit when you are just watching TV or riding in a car. It is very relaxing and therapeutic. Many airlines will not allow scissors but will now allow knitting needles again. I find knit to be a great utilization of time that would otherwise be lost. And I am one of those multi-taskers that can’t stand wasted time. If you are like me, you will love learning to knit. So which is easier, knit or crochet? You will have to choose for yourself.

4th century Egyptian socks

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A life-long passion

People are always asking me which is easier; knit or crochet. It’s not that simple. I like them both. Knit has only two stitches to learn but you have two needles to manipulate so you are using both hands. Crochet has only one hook to manipulate but you have to learn 7 different stitches. However I love the soft smooth way that knit feels against your skin when you are done, as opposed to the rough, stiff feel of crochet. Although, I find crochet perfect for lace and jackets that you want to have a slightly stiff feel. I love to ware knit. It hangs and fits nicely and is soft and warm.

The creation of knitted garments, it is believed, goes back to the Stone Age. Bone or wood could be easily made into needles. Yarn was abundant with the twisting of animal hair, especially sheep. Unfortunately, fiber arts do not pass the test of time well and there are no knitted garments found to support the theory that they date back that far. The earliest evidence found is a knitted sock found in an Egyptian tomb dating around 1500 BC. That’s an old sock!


Knitting in Novels

Barbara Delinsky’s Family Tree relies heavily on knitting whenever the main character is stressed. The main character Dana, has given birth to a noticeably bi-racial baby but both she and her husband are Caucasian. Suspicions and distrust run high as they wait for the DNA test to come back and in the meantime, Dana, begins a search for her biological father whose heritage her mother never told her about. The knitting is only a side note really but is the calming influence in the story. Since this story has a lot of genealogy research as well as knitting, I really enjoyed it.

Spinning Yarn

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Yarn

Yarn is created by twisting fibers. Animal hair, cotton fibers, flax fibers, or any fibers long enough and kinky enough to twist. This can be done by hand but it is a slow process. So it was only a matter of time before someone invented devices to twist the fiber for them easily and efficiently. Drop spindles have been around for thousands of years. They are very efficient but require you to stand. With the invention of spinning wheels, the spinner was allowed to sit.

First, the fibers are combed with large, sharp “cards.” This is called carding the fleece. The cards pull the fibers in the same direction and then roll them into a long worm-like roll called a “rolag.” The rolag is then pulled and twisted into string. Two or more of these strands are twisted together (or plied) in the opposite direction, making yarn.

Sheep’s wool has natural oils called lanolin and this makes the hands of the spinner very soft. Many spinners prefer to card and spin the fleece without washing it first to get the full benefit of the lanolin. But there are some that wash the fleece first to eliminate any dirt and sticks, also removing the healthful lanolin.

Another Resource for Knitting

Annie's Attic has been a popular crafters and knitters magazine for decades. (My grandmother subscribed 50 years ago) Annie's Attic offers dozens of patterns and tips in each small magazine. There is also a website by that name with patterns and offers for the knitter.

Yarn Troubles

Did you knot how much trouble someone went through to make yarn so we could wear knitted socks?

See results

Ply

Most yarn is just fibers twisted together. The longer the fibers the stronger the yarn. However, even short fibers can be made strong by plying them together. The plying is done by taking at least two or more twisted threads and twisting them together in the opposite direction. This is called plying. Several threads plied together make the yarn thicker and stronger.

Baby Sweater

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Gauge

The gauge is a small knitted swatch with the number of stitches and rows that you work per inch. It is recommended that you work a sample swatch at least 4 inches square using the specified yarn and needles before you begin your project. If you have too many stitches and rows to the inch, you will know that the project will turn out larger than the pattern says. You could then use smaller needles or knit the project at a smaller size. For instance, if you wanted to knit a sweater at a size 16 but your gauge swatch turned out to be larger than you wanted, you could knit the sweater as a size 14 instead, or use smaller needles. If your gauge swatch turned out to be smaller than the pattern stated, you could use larger needles or a larger size.

In the front piece I knitted to the right, you can't really tell but I got so excited knitting the pattern that I didn't even notice that the piece was much larger than it should have been. I was knitting this for my daughter who is about a size 12. I am a size 18, and let's just say this finished piece could fit both myself and my daughter in it if I had finished the sweater. I could have ripped it all out but didn't have the heart to after all the work. Now I use it as a sample of what NOT to do when you are knitting.

Everyone is different and knits differently. Like a fingerprint or handwriting, knitters develop a particular style and rhythm. This is neither good nor bad. It is individual. Therefore the gauge helps you to be sure all your hours of work will be worthy effort and the pattern will come out as you want it.

Knitting Novels

The Blossom Street series by Debbie Macomber, begins with The Shop on Blossom Street, all about the yarn shop called A Good Yarn opened by Lydia Hoffman. The series takes many twists following several shops that open on Blossom Street, not just the yarn shop. However the books featuring Lydia’s yarn shop include knitting patterns, good for beginners, as she is teaching a class for beginner knitters throughout the story. It also is a lovely story knitting hearts and lives together as they learn to knit. In the first book they knit a prayer shawl, the next one is a baby blanket and the one following they learn to knit socks. Once you read the first one you will be hooked and want to read the whole series.

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How to Measure Gauge

Loosen Up

I knit rather loosely and therefore all my gauge swatches turn out to be larger than the pattern calls for. Knowing this, I simply use smaller needles than the pattern calls for. If the pattern says to use size 10 needles, I will usually use 9 or even 8 to make the gauge match the pattern size. Conversely, my mother knits very tight. She has to use larger needles than the pattern calls for to get her gauge to match. I think it is fascinating how we are all unique in everything we do. This is what makes us human. This is what makes your project made by “hand.”

One lady wanted to make a ribbed hat for her son, whose head measured 22 inches. She wanted to know exactly how many stitches to cast on. The best way to do this is to make a gauge. She cast on 10 stitches and knitted for about 5 rows, then measured. It turned out that the 10 stitches measured 2.5 inches. Dividing 22 inches by the 2.5 gave us 8.8. We multiplied that by the 10 stitches and she knew to cast on 88 stitches. Because the hat is stretchy, she made it slightly smaller by only casting on 80 stitches. Using a little math, the hat fit the head of the boy perfectly.

The gauge is hard to determine for the beginner. You have to learn with practice to hold the yarn with the same tightness throughout the project. Beginners may find that parts of their first few projects are very tight and parts pucker because they loosened up slightly. This is to be expected until you achieve a uniform rhythm that you will probably keep the rest of your life.

Help for Tight Knitters

Tight vs. Loose

Typically, beginners start by holding the yarn very tight, too tight even, and as they gain experience and confidence, they loosen up. Though you wanted a square piece, you may end up with a rhombus. Keep practicing. You will eventually get the right tension with the yarn.

My daughter wanted to knit a baby blanket during her pregnancy. Unfortunately, she had some complications with the pregnancy and began to knit tighter in the doctor’s waiting room on several occasions. Her blanket began looking like an hourglass shape. There was nothing she could do to fix it except rip it out and start over. You may find your emotional state will show in your work also. But I find knitting to be a relaxing and therapeutic way to take your mind off your troubles.

Fingering

The holding of the yarn and the needles are crucial to being able to knit easily and quickly. At first it may seem awkward and foreign to you but you will be able to master this with a little practice. Many people are able to knit in the dark or while watching something like TV. It only takes practice until it becomes second nature, rather like typing on a keyboard.

Fingering

Continental

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Continental Fingering

This is the fastest knitting method once it is mastered. If you have not already formed the habit of holding the yarn in the right hand, try this method. Once it is second nature, it becomes the fastest and smoothest of knitting methods. You can pick up speed and knit garments in no time.

The yarn is held in left hand, intertwined between your fingers to keep the tension tight and looped over the index finger for control. Some people add an extra loop around the little pinky finger for extra tension but I don’t find that is necessary. My last three fingers hold the yarn tight enough without an extra loop. The last three fingers are also holding the project and left needle.

American

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American Fingering

With the yarn held in the right hand, you must stop between each stitch in order to let go of the right needle and draw the yarn over the end of the needle’s point. This is time consuming and requires you to keep your eye on the project. You must pause between stitches. For beginners, this offers some control, but you will never be able to pick up real speed with this method.

Both methods are acceptable and both can be mastered with ease. The question is, which is best for you. Do you need the extra control of the American Fingering or would you like to develop the speed of the Continental Fingering? I prefer the Continental method because I can knit fast and smooth with little time spent looking at what I am doing.

With both methods, the needles must be held one in each hand. Usually the forefinger (either right or left) guides the yarn and holds the loops on the needle. The thumb and the last three fingers keep the project from sliding off the needles too soon while still keeping the loops near the points. This takes a certain amount of dexterity but will become second nature very quickly.

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Fibrous comments welcome

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    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 2 years ago from California

      I am a continental knitter--and that was how I learned as a child. I cannot imagine all that flipping of the yarn in the American style

    • Ann1Az2 profile image

      Ann1Az2 2 years ago from Orange, Texas

      This was great. I've been knitting since I was 8 and never knew the method I was using was called the American method! I can knit pretty fast but I've been doing it for years, too. The problem I have is getting the pattern I'm working on even. I tend to knit looser with the purl stitch, so I've learned to compensate by loosening up on the knit stitch and tightening the purl stitch - may not be the recommended way, but it has always worked for me. Well done and voted up.

    • sweetpikez profile image

      Pinky de Garcia 2 years ago

      I love knitted dress, socks and caps. I enjoy wearing those especially the colored ones. However, as much as I wanted to learn how knitting is done, I still find it hard to do. I don't know why. Perhaps, I'm not into knitting. I became frustrated in doing one. But the result was not that good. Maybe knitting is my sister's skill not mine. I admire how she made the mittens for her baby.

      Thanks for sharing this article. I'll try to make one soon.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
      Author

      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Sweetpikez,

      I know what you are saying. It might also be the person who taught you didn't really have patience and made you frustrated before you even started. I think once you get used to the stitches and movement of the yarn it becomes second nature and you can build up speed. Hope you can learn to like it as much as I do. Thanks for visiting.

    • sweetpikez profile image

      Pinky de Garcia 2 years ago

      Thanks also for the encouragement.

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image

      Stephanie Henkel 2 years ago from USA

      I learned to knit Continental style from a Norwegian lady who taught Norwegian style knitting of hats and sweaters using multiple colors and circular needles. I love the colorful patterns, especially for hats! My problem now is to be able to follow written patterns for more complex stitches...still working on cables and using double pointed needles.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
      Author

      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Stephanie Henkel,

      I will have to write an article about that soon. The interesting thing is the history. Long ago knitting was memorized and passed down through families. Patterns weren't written because most average people couldn't read, but as reading became more prevalent among women, patterns evolved, and because that was a time when there were knitters on several continents, it evolved independently. So the way American write and read a pattern is not the same as Europeans write and read a pattern. I find when women get stuck reading a pattern it is because the pattern is not written in their native learning language. English patterns refer to the same stitch we Americans call yo (yarn-over) as something else. I will have to write a helpful translation helper about this. Thanks for visiting. Good luck with cables.

    • Wednesday-Elf profile image

      Wednesday-Elf 2 years ago from Savannah, Georgia

      I knitted a few things many years ago, in particular a baby sweater that I began when expecting my daughter and finished nearly 5 years later when my son came along. I found knitting a sweater very difficult because I knit left-handed and ended up having to reverse the entire pattern row-by-row. I finally realized that knitting clothes was not for me and eventually switched to crochet and usually stick with creating little plush animals (they don't care if I do the left for the right side and vice versa...LOL). I still have my knitting needles and have been thinking of taking it up again as I'd love to make one of those potholders or washcloths with the knit-in design I've seen. Meanwhile, I wrote a page about knitting stitches and enjoyed the research. I learned a lot. I found your section on 'ply' particularly interesting because I never knew it was done by twisting fibers together. Thumbs up and interesting.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Wednesday-Elf, Thanks for visiting. I appreciate lefties, many genius types, presidents and creative thinkings were lefties. Being left-handed should have made knitting easier rather than harder. You have to use both hands in concert but all the work, carrying/fingering the yarn and bulk of the project are done on the left hand. When I teach knitting to beginners, it's the right-handed that have the most trouble with the continental fingering because you hold and manipulate it with the left hand. It is a smoother and faster method that seems ideal for lefties. Perhaps you tried learning with the American fingering on the right hand and it didn't appeal to you because of that. Good luck. You should be very proud that you finished your first project. Starting is not much trouble, it's following through to the end people have the most struggle with. Congrats!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

      I don't know anyone who knits but I would love to learn how. Where should I start? Any suggestions? I can do basic/intermediate crocheting, having learned as a child.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
      Author

      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Find a knitting group that meets in a local place like Starbucks. That's where I teach. Sometimes people teach the basics in local community education sites. Check the colleges to see if there is one meeting somewhere. It isn't easy, but I've heard of people learning by watching YouTube videos for beginners. Good luck.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 2 years ago from Oakley, CA

      An aunt of mine could knit at lightning speed without even watching what she was doing!! She'd be watching TV or even reading a book!!

      When I was about 12, a friend of my mother's attempted to teach me to knit. It was an abject failure. My mother did not knit; she was able to crochet, and I picked that up much more easily.

      With the knitting, I was unable to get the coordination to control the needles without them flapping all over the place, unless I clamped the back ends between my upper arms and my body. In the end, the stitches eventually got so tight I could not even force the point of the needle through.

      As I tend to be a somewhat impatient person, I found crochet works up faster, and gives me more visible results more quickly. That is not to say that I am expert at crochet, either; I am not. I can do squares & rectangles, and granny squares--though I usually forget how to start those, and have to look it up again--and any time I try to follow a pattern more complex than that, I'm in trouble.

      Needless to say, I don't do much crocheting. LOL

      Voted up, interesting and useful.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      DzyMsLizzy, try circular needles. You can't drop them or worry about them flopping around. They seem to be easier to keep control of. Still watch a YouTube video of the circular needles and see if you could handle that. Good luck.

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 2 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      Knitting is such an art form. It's entertaining to watch an experienced knitter, especially one like you who doesn't have to watch what they're doing. It's been years since I knitted, or I should say, finished anything I started knitting. I learned at the hands of my two aunts who owned a knit shop and I would spend the summer with them. Your article makes me want to dust off my needles and get going again.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      PegCole17, oh you should dust off your needles and get going again. You are right, to me it is an art form and I love to "create" with it often. Thanks for visiting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
      Author

      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Ann1Az2,

      Whatever works. It sounds like you have figured out your problem and compensated for it. That is perfect.

      Blessings,

      Denise

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