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Rank Newbie - Knitting

Updated on May 19, 2017

Why Should I Learn to Knit?

There is a thing called 'the cult of the expert.' For the full rant, you'll want to read the post I do someday. But for now, here's the idea... Learning on the internet is fantastic, but we are often learning from the top experts in that area. Those folks are likely to suggest the most expensive gear and try to teach us to be experts too. But what about those of us that just want the basics? What if you just want to get 'er done and you don't ever plan on being an expert? That's usually where I'm at; I don't want to be a top expert on anything, I just like trying new stuff. And so here goes...

There can be a lot of angst and intimidation that stops people from learning to knit. There's also all the other things like gender stereotypes and the impression that it is sure a whole lot easier to just go buy that blanket. So why in the world would you learn to knit?

One reason is that there's a lot of research on the psychological benefits of knitting. I would sum them up by saying that knitting is simple (once you get the hang of it) and repetitive; very much like meditation. It is easy to get into a flow state and to space out. This can make it a great way to empty your mind and let things sift and sort in there for a while. As for me, I kind of blank out. I've tried prayer during knitting, but I generally just wander around in my mind. That is to say, it helps you relax.

Another thing to consider is that many hobbies can be very expensive and take a great deal of gear and investment to get started. Not so with knitting! You can begin with one set of needles and one skein (see the glossary section later) of yarn, for a total investment of less than $10! You can give a try for next to nothing and drop the hobby there, or very slowly build a good collection of tools in quite small increments.

What is knitting?

There are a lot of different ways to go about knitting, but let's generalize it to say that you are using yarn or thread to make a fabric of your own design that can be made into flat pieces like scarves and dishcloths or shaped and tubular pieces like hats, gloves, sweaters and weenie warmers (don't look it up). If you mix your knitting with some of the other textile arts like crochet, sewing and embroidery, you can make a lot of stuff. One thing in particular you might want to know is that with crochet, you can make many of the same projects that you do with knitting. Crochet uses a single 'hook' instead of two 'needles' which might appeal to you if you are working in the car or something. I'd also say that basic crochet also includes a lot more patterns and types of stitches than knitting, but knitting is in most cases faster for large flat or tubular pieces. Internet knitting trolls will have a lot to say about that, but I think it is a useful generalization for the uninitiated.

Knitting is generally done by the use of two 'needles' that are sticks with pointed ends. You wrap the yarn around the needles just so and a stitch is created and linked to the previous stitch and the previous row. There are various types of needles such as circular needles and double pointed needles, they do the same thing, but they help you manage the size and shape of your project.

How do I learn to knit?

How do you learn to knit? Learning from a friend or mentor is probably the best, but the sidelining of the craft might make it difficult to find someone to help you learn. So what's second best? Learning online of course! Going to blogs and YouTube is one way to go, but I would suggest some kind of structured 'class.' I differentiate these because they provide a structure to your information along with specific goals to achieve. They usually also give some good introductory information and summaries on how to gather your stuff before just launching into it. The sheer volume of videos on YouTube can be overwhelming and you might land on one that is frustrating and doesn't help.

You'll find it super overwhelming to walk into a fabric or crafts store and to do your shopping if you don't have context, although you will find the employees at most such places to be extremely helpful. There are lots of choices for online classes, but I highly recommend the knitting class that I started with on the excellent website. It is taught by a very popular blogger and maker and provides a community with Q&A for helping you through the tough spots.

If you start something where they try to teach you to knit hats or gloves, a teddy bear or something else crazy first, run away! Don't get cocky and try those yourself because you 'always wanted to knit a stuffed Pikachu.' There's not really any reason to start with something other than a scarf, unless maybe they tell you to knit just a square, which would be even better. Don't be afraid to start stuff over, or throw your projects away. It's not fun to try and keep working on a disastrous looking piece of mangled yarn, or to finish it and have to look at it and pretend to be proud. You can start over with the same piece of yarn once or twice, but eventually it will get all squirrelly and you are better off cutting that part out and getting started again down the line on the yarn where it gets normal again. But don't worry if your first projects are really ugly, think of all those pictures your kids have on your fridge.

Also, don't set out to knit a newborn hat for your nephew that will be born in two weeks. You really don't want a deadline on this when you are getting started. You will need to take breaks mentally, as well as for your hands which will be using different muscles than usual and will hurt some. Take the learning easy and don't try to get fast too soon. Fixing mistakes in knitting isn't all that easy.

What is the Basic Terminology I Need to Know?

Take what I tell you here and then go learn more from one of the experts I talked about. I aim to give you a few terms and bits of info that will get you past the scary part.

  • Knitting needles - These come in all kinds of sizes. Their size, combined with the size of the yarn that you use determines the gauge of your project. You need particular sizes and types of needles for each project, so figure out your project before figuring out your needles!

  • Gauge - Technically speaking, gauge measures the numbers of stitches and number of rows in an inch. This determines whether the weave of your fabric is loose, or tight, whether it has holes or is solid, and to some extent, the flexibility of the end product.
  • Straight Needles - These are what you think of when you think of the little old ladies in a movie doing their knitting. Straight, with a rather sharp poointy end for getting the needle into a tight stitch, and a knob or something on the other end to keep your work from slipping off the back.
  • Circular Needles - You will sometimes need a circular needle for knitting in the round, that is, making tubular items like hats. These are two needle points connected by some kind of cord so that your work can loop around from one needle and appear on the other, making a circle. These are also sometimes used for larger things like blankets since you might not want a 30" single needle, but a circular need can do the same thing in a much more manageable way.

  • Double Pointed Needles - These are usually smaller and have points on both ends. You would use several of these together to do smaller tubular projects. It is awkward and I am told works well once you can do it. Steer clear of this for as long as you can, it is not for beginners.
  • Needle Materials - Knitting needles come made of three basic materials; plastic, metal or bamboo. You'll see a lot of talk about why one is better than the other, siting such things as weight, noise and temperature. But I will straight off recommend learning with bamboo needles. They are the most expensive of the materials, but can still be had cheaply. I think that you should start this way because the yarn kind of clings to the needle and makes learning a bit more friendly. When you use a slippery aluminum needle to learn with, you will keep accidentally losing stitches off the end of your needles. Which is super frustrating, and nearly impossible to fix as a beginner. Go to Michaels and use a 40% off coupon to buy your first set of bamboo needles. But make sure that pick the ones you want for your first project.

  • Skein (not balls) - When you get a big thing of yarn from a store, it comes in a large pill shaped thing called a skein, pronounced like 'vein'. These are not 'balls' of yarn. Most of the yarns you will start with have been wrapped in such a way that you can dig into the center of it and get out an end of the yarn to work with. Do this and don't use the end on the outside of the skein. Using the outside end makes the whole skein roll around when you knit. 'Center pull' skeins of yarn allow you to knit from the center of a nice stable bit. Yarn also comes in balls and 'hanks' which look like a big loaf of challah bread (see the picture). Avoid hanks for your first projects, you don't want to get wound up.

  • Yarn Materials - Yarn can be made from lots of different things. Cheaper yarns that you see in some hobby stores that don't specialize in knitting is probably 100% acrylic. There's a use for it, and you might start with this until you get the hang of it. You will find that a lot of your projects will be a mix of acrylic and wool. Acrylic is not soft, nor cozy, and so after your first couple of projects you will definitely want to move to a blend. From there, you can get weird yarns of all kinds with glitter or with frilly edges. You can get expensive hand made yarns from the chin of a Tibetan yak. You can get whatever you want.

  • Yarn Sizes - There are of course special terms for the thickness of a yarn that have both names and numbers. There are standardize pictures that you will see on the labels of most yarns that will tell you what size it is. Some of these terms are easy to understand, such as 'super bulky.' Others are not so easy, like 'worsted' or 'fingering.' I would say that your first projects should be using bulky yarns in a bright color, that will make it much easier to see your stitches and handle the yarn. You'll go crazy if you get a really small, black yarn and try to learn with that.

  • Yarn Labels - Pay attention to those labels! The yarns you will start with have a standard set of information on the label. Not all skeins have the same amount of yarn in them, so the label will include the number of yards of yarn in the skein. It will also have the yarn size in text as well as with a standardized picture. Lastly, it will give you some idea of the size of needle you will use and what gauge to expect from that yarn and that needle together.
  • Right side, wrong side - This is a general textiles term that is important in knitting too. The 'right side' is the side you want to see; the wrong side is the other side. If you do some kind of pattern or texture in your knitting, the side you want to see will be the right side.
  • k1, p1 - Knitting patterns use a weird code for telling you which stitches to use. Your first project will all be the knit stitch, or at least it should! You will next learn to purl (spelled with a 'u', that's not a typo). From there, there are ever more stitches and terminology the pattern lingo. The example I gave here 'k1, p1' is telling you to do one knit stitch and one purl stitch, it results in an archetypal knit look.
  • casting on - This is the process by which you get the yarn to stay on your needle so that you can begin putting on rows of stiches. There are lots of ways to do this, and you will learn this first in your class. Each project and pattern will begin with telling you how many stitches to cast on.
  • binding off - This is on the other end of your project and is how you get your stitches stabilized so that your project doesn't unravel when you take it off the needles.

  • stitch marker - If it gets hard to remember where you are in a project, you use stitch markers to keep track. For example, I was making a hat that had 88 stitches in each row, all knitted in "k1, p1" (see above) and i would space out and lose track of where I was. This would ruin the nice cabled looking pattern in the hat. So I put stitch markers every 10 stitches so that it was easier to count backwards to see whether I should be on a knit or a purl stitch. Advanced knitters that do a technique called 'intarsia' to put pictures in their knitting (think ugly Christmas sweater) need to use these to count out stiches so that each colored stitch in a picture goes in the right place as they build the picture up over successive rows. I started using loops of yarn in some bright color as my markers, but soon moved to plastic rings because they were easier. They were only a couple of dollar. But you won't need these right away, a scarf might be 30 stitches or so and it is easy enough to count the stitches.

Go For IT!

I hope that the basics terms above will get you past the very beginning stages that some videos and classes don't explain because they take it for granted that you already know a lot even though they are purporting to be for beginners. Get a couple of needles and a skein of yarn and give it a try!


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