Reading your knitting

This post is part of a series about the basics of the not-exactly-knitting parts of knitting.

Well, it’s been quite a while since I posted! I’d been intending to save this topic for one of the last posts, but it’s something I think is really important, and hopefully that will help give me a kick to get this started again.

Reading your knitting is perhaps not something that would be considered ‘basic,’ but I think it is one of the most important skills to change knitting from a finicky, frustrating process requiring extreme concentration to a fun hobby. Reading your knitting means using previous rows to figure out where you are and what you should be doing in this row, instead of thinking about every row in isolation and and figuring out what you should be doing now by just counting the stitches in the pattern. I’m a very visual person, so this works pretty well for me. If you’re perfectly happy counting, far be it from me to say you’re doing it wrong! But I personally enjoy knitting a lot more when I’m reading my knitting.

Essentially, reading your knitting requires that you know what the stitches look like after you’ve made them. This will take some experience, but you’ll learn faster if you pay attention to what’s coming off your needles. So as you go, stop occasionally and try to match up the stitches you’re making with the symbols on the pattern. Most charted patterns will use symbols that look at least a little bit like the stitches they make. Once you figure this out, you’ll be able to tell more quickly if you’ve make a mistake. You’ll be able to stop obsessively counting stitches and rows. You’ll be able to just knit.

You can read your knitting to determine relatively simple things:


Am I on a wrong-side row, or a right-side row? Right side – with the yarn on the right of my knitting, I’m looking at the right side of the work. Knit stitches look like Vs, purl stitches look like bumps. So I must be about to start a right-side row.

Or you can avoid counting:


These are 8-stitch repeats. But once I have the pattern established, I can just knit to one before the previous purl instead of counting to 7 over and over again.

You can avoid looking at the pattern every row:


Where is this cable is going? The cable is pretty obvious here. Since the cable moves over two stitches every right-side row, I must be cabling over two this row.

You can even avoid looking at the pattern every couple of rows:


When do I need to start moving this cable over? On previous repeats, it moves over on the 5th YO next to it. Since I have 4 in this repeat, I must need to cable this row (when I’ll make the 5th YO). If your pattern is predictable enough, you could eventually do without the pattern altogether, and just follow the previous repeats.

And (possibly most useful) you can even find mistakes. In the purple picture, if I’d done too many or too few stitches in any of the pattern repeats, the slant of the stitches would be off and I could notice by just looking back at what I’d done.

One thing that illustrated to me how important reading your knitting is was my one and only attempt at illusion knitting. This is a really interesting technique with an spectacular outcome, but not one I will do again. I never figured out how to read my knitting with this technique, so each row of the tiny project I made was constructed only through intense and precise counting, which I didn’t find enjoyable at all.

As a bonus, you can use this skill to try to figure out how finished objects were constructed, or to try to change patterns to fit your tastes better.

Happy knitting!

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Keeping tension, or how to hold your yarn

This post is part of a series about the basics of the not-exactly-knitting parts of knitting.

Once you start to get a little more comfortable with making stitches, tension will start to be important. This is the way you keep your working yarn consistently tight so that all your stitches come out the same size. Most knitters have some way or other they always hold their working yarn. (I’m not talking about picking vs. throwing here – which hand you use to hold the yarn. That’s a different post.) I use the same way as my mother, mostly because she was the one who first taught me about fiber crafting: over my index finger and then looped around my pinky. To move the yarn along, I do a little pinky-flick. But you can also wrap the yarn around your fingers in any number of other ways. If you have someone teaching you, they may have some specific method they showed you. But really, it doesn’t matter how you do it, as long as you have some way that works for you. So this is basically several example pictures of some ways to hold your yarn.


Don’t be afraid to modify your technique if you need to! As you gain experience, you’ll be able to tell if things feel a little loose or tight. I sometimes have to change based on the weather, or the kind of yarn I’m using. If things are feeling tight (humidity can do this to me), I sometimes drop my pinky wrap. If it’s feeling loose (especially if I’m using a really thin yarn), sometimes I double up.


Doubling up on the pinky wrap for thin yarn

It’s generally very hard to change your tension on purpose – to knit more tightly or more loosely than you generally do. For me at least, my hands have figured out how it works, and keep tension without any interference from my brain. If you need to change your tension for some reason, it’s much easier to change your needle size. You may need to experiment a tad to figure out exactly which size you need (this is called swatching, which will be the subject of another post), but it’s much less tedious than trying to remind yourself constantly to knit tighter or looser, and then ripping it out when you forget.

Happy knitting!

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Picking or Throwing?

This post is part of a series about the basics of the not-exactly-knitting parts of knitting.

Should you hold the yarn with your right hand, or with your left? If you use your right, you’re ‘throwing’, or using the English style. If you use your left, you’re ‘picking’, or using the Continental style.

I’m a picker by choice, but each method has its pros and cons. My recommendation is to learn both, and use whichever you like better.


With the yarn in your left hand, and held tight around your index finger, you make a knit stitch by wrapping the working needle around the yarn and pulling it through the loop (picking the yarn up with the right needle).

Pros: less hand movement. Cons: purling requires you to hold the working yarn down so it can be pulled through, which requires more movement, and is fiddly until you get used to it.


With the yarn in your right hand, index finger generally holding the needle, you use your finger loop the yarn around the right needle and pull it through the loop (throwing the yarn with your fingers).

Pros: purling is much simpler. Cons: more finger movement, which can be slower and tire out your hand.

That said, neither method is inherently better or worse. Try them out and pick which one you like better. I do recommend being able to do both, though, because there are times when it’s useful!


Knitting with two yarns (Fair Isle, double knitting, etc.) is easier if you don’t have to drop the yarn



Happy knitting!

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How do I knit from this?

This post is part of a series about the basics of the not-exactly-knitting parts of knitting.

Yarn can come in several different form factors. While it’s pretty self-explanatory how to use some of them, others can be a little more daunting.


Most yarn you might get from a hobby shop, and from a lot of other places, comes in a pretty standard ball. You can work from the outside or the inside with these. I prefer the inside, because I can leave the band on, and the ball doesn’t flop around as much while I’m working. To get the inside end, reach into the end of the ball and grab some yarn, as close to the center as you can. Pull out a few strands. Unless you’re supremely lucky, (I never am) you won’t get the end. Pull the loops you’ve grabbed until they come out. There will be yarn barf.

Hopefully you’ll have pulled out only a small chunk of the ball, and the end will be in it somewhere. (If there are an odd number of strands going from the ball to your chunk, you’ve got the end) Pull that apart until you find the end, and go at it. The messy pulled-out section will get used up pretty fast, and everything will be neat again.

You might also find cones or crochet-thread style balls:

Both of these should be worked from the outside. Leave the cardboard center where it is.

You’ll also probably get a skein of yarn at some point.

This is how people tend to store yarn after spinning or dyeing it. You can’t* knit straight from a skein, so it’ll require some preparation first. You’ll need to wind it into some sort of a ball. You’ll need two tools for this: something to hold the skein, and something to wind the ball.

Holding a skein

If you’ve got just you and no special equipment, you can hang the skein on something. Across the back of a chair works for an appropriately sized chair, or just hanging from a corner. You’ll have to pull each loop of yarn off individually, so it might get a bit acrobatic, but it’s doable.


If you have an extra pair of hands lying around, draft them into holding your skein. This takes less moving around on your part, but more on theirs, and will also take some experience to get the movement down right. I recommend a wide circle with both hands at the same time, so the strand of yarn can slip off each hand as the time is right.


Eventually, you might want to buy a swift. This is a piece of equipment specifically for holding skeins while you wind them. You can buy one, or make one yourself. Swifts can be a little expensive, and while the homemade one looks a little less sleek, and requires some woodshop skills, it works just as well and is much cheaper.


Once you’ve got your skein arrayed and ready to wind, you’ll need to remove the ties keeping it from becoming a mess. There are usually 1-4 of them. Sometimes one of them will actually be the ends of the skein, and other times you’ll have to find them – they’ll probably be loosely tied together somewhere.

Winding a ball

Now you need to do the winding part. You can make the traditional ball-of-yarn-that-cats-like-to-play-with. Start with a little back-and-forth bit of yarn, and then wrap around the center until you have a small bump. Now smush it into a sphere (more or less) and start wrapping. Gradually turn the ball to make it circular, and sometimes shift to a different angle.

You can also make your own center-pull balls, which won’t roll all over the place as you use them. You can use a tool called a nostepinne. I’m not going to tell you how, because there are lots of instruction videos, and I’m honestly not great at using it myself. Alternately, you can use a used toilet paper or paper towel tube in exactly the same way. A little less fancy, but way cheaper, more readily available, and the ball comes out just as good. To secure the end of your yarn, rip a tiny slit at the top of the tube and trap the end in that.


If you’re doing a lot of ball-winding, it could be worth it to buy a ball winder. This will make you a center-pull ball much more easily and cleanly. This is my whole setup, with ball-winder and swift:


Other advice

If you’re working with particularly fragile yarn, you may not be able to use a ball winder, or may need to use it very carefully to avoid breaking the yarn. A ball winder can put quite a bit of strain on the yarn. Winding by hand puts less stress on your yarn, and can keep your fragile or very thin (not necessarily the same thing) yarn from snapping.

Whatever your winding method, if the skein gets messy, stop IMMEDIATELY. It’s much easier to clean it up when it starts to misbehave than to keep going and hope it’ll work itself out, because it will invariably become a huge snarled mess.

If you’re making a center-pull ball and the end gets sucked in, stick your fingers into the center of the ball as you pull it off, before it collapses on itself. This way you’ll be able to pull out a little bit of the center of the ball, hopefully containing the end, without ruining the whole thing.

However you’re winding your ball, always keep going the same direction. Switching directions in the middle could unwind your ball, or it could make a mess in the middle of your ball when you get to it later.


Happy knitting!

*You can actually knit from a skein. But you have to be really really REALLY careful, and only work when you won’t be disturbed. If you drop the skein  while it’s loose, you will be very very unhappy.

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Which way was I going?

This post is part of a series about the basics of the not-exactly-knitting parts of knitting.

Say you’re knitting along, and you get interrupted in the middle of your row by something that can’t wait – your lab equipment dinged, the kid’s crying, your hot date is here, dinner’s burning, a pikachu just appeared a block away, anything. You come back to your knitting, and you’ve forgotten which way you were going. How do you figure it out?

Depending on exactly how you put down your knitting, and if you were on a purl or a knit row, it may look slightly different. But in every case, your working yarn (the yarn coming from the ball) will be looped over one of your needles, and not the other. That one should be your right hand needle. So the short answer is, follow the working yarn. But sometimes it can be a little hard to tell exactly where it’s going.

First you have to make sure the working yarn isn’t tangled around your needles and project. Especially if it’s been moved, my yarn tends to wrap itself around whatever it can find while I’m not looking. So your first step is to unwrap any of the working yarn that unwraps easily. Keep going until your working yarn actually goes through a loop that’s already part of the knitting.

From there, your knitting may be in one of three configurations. Generally, when I put down my knitting, I stop after having pulled the new stitch through the old one, but before slipping the old stitch off the left-hand needle. This leaves loops on both needles, and looks like this*:

This situation is possibly the most difficult to see what’s going on, but it’s also one of the safer ones to mess with. If you can’t figure it out just by looking, pull one of the needles out of its loop (JUST ONE loop). If you pulled out what should be the left-hand needle, you’ve completed the interrupted knit stitch, and your working-yarn loop should be clearly on the other needle. If you pull out what should be the right-hand needle, the working-yarn loop will come unsecured and a tug on the yarn will pull it out. But the old stitch will still be on the left-hand needle, and you’ll be ready to re-do the stitch.

The second possible configuration is if you finished the knit stitch entirely, giving you this:


This one’s a little easier to see. The working yarn should be pretty clearly going to one needle, and not to the other. That needle (the one the working yarn goes to) should be your right-hand needle.

The last place your knitting could find itself is after inserting your right-hand needle into the old stitch, but before pulling the new stitch through, which looks like so:

This one’s also kind of confusing – you’ve got both needles going through one stitch. Again, the trick here is to follow the working yarn. It should lead you to one needle, and not the other. Again, that needle should be your right-hand needle.

If you end up going the ‘wrong’ way, don’t despair! You can un-knit, or tink (which is ‘knit’ backwards, get it? Get it?) back to where you reversed direction. There will be a bump in your row there. If you don’t want to (personally, I hate tinking, and avoid it if at all possible), and you don’t mind a bit of a bump and a bit of a hole in your project, just ignore it! There will be a noticeable hole, but your knitting will still be perfectly stable. When you come back to that spot on the next row, just knit on like normal, and you’ll have just learned a more advanced shaping technique, called a ‘short row!’**

Happy knitting!

*Note about the picture captions: I’ve included pictures for doing a knit and a purl row of a stockinette stitch swatch, from the side in the correct orientation to keep going (what I’m calling the front side), and from the other side (what I’m calling the back side).

**Short rows generally have an extra step (called a ‘wrap and turn’) to hide that hole, but otherwise it’s exactly the same thing.

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Starting out – advice for your first attempt

This post is part of a series about the basics of the not-exactly-knitting parts of knitting.

So you’ve decided to start knitting! Maybe you have a handy friend to teach you the basics, or maybe you’re teaching yourself from videos and instructions online. Now you’re wondering exactly which of the various choices of yarn and needles to start with. Or maybe you’ve already tried, but it’s just not working! What to do?

Apart from how you’re learning, there are some things to do that can help you – namely, yarn and needle choice. For both, there are two things to think about: the thickness, and the type of material.

Yarn weight – you want something thick enough to see what you’re doing. Yarn comes in varying weights (or thicknesses), from cobweb (crazy thin) to super bulky (really thick).  I’d advise something in the DK/Aran area – thin enough so that the yarn itself doesn’t get in the way, but thick enough so you can easily see what you’re doing.

Yarn composition – the material your yarn is made of (or fiber) will make a big difference. To start out, a grippy yarn will serve you best. Wool is my choice, but acrylic* would work too, and is more easily available in a local hobby shop. Avoid slippery yarns. They’re harder to manage on the needles, and may slip off. If the stitches do fall off, slippery yarn has a bigger tendency to run away from you and unravel. A grippy yarn will probably stay where it is if you drop a stitch, unless you pull at it. So avoid silk, or anything that feels slick. Also avoid plant fibers for your first try. They naturally have less stretch to them, and so are a little less forgiving to work with.

More yarn composition – you want something with good stitch definition, meaning that you want to be able to see what’s going on with your stitches. Again, wool and acrylic are good choices. Avoid mohair or alpaca, or anything really fuzzy. These yarns have a ‘halo’, or a tendency to fuzz out, which makes seeing your stitches themselves very difficult.

The other part of knitting equation is your needles. You want needles that are the appropriate size for your yarn. Like yarn, standard needles also come in a range of sizes, from 0 (very thin) to ~15 (as big around as my pinky)**. (There are needles both thinner and thicker than this, but they’re more for novelty things.) You want something that goes with your yarn. Something in the 6-9 range will probably be just fine. Your yarn may have a recommended needle size on the band, and that will work too. If you have too big a needle, you’ll have loops everywhere and it’ll be hard to see what’s going on. Too small, and your fabric will be very tight, and again hard to see.

The material of the needles also matters. Again, you want something grippy, so the stitches don’t slide around when you don’t want them to. Bamboo or wood needles are a good choice. Avoid metal, it’s much slipperier.

With helpful choices of yarn and needle, hopefully that first knitted square will happen a little more easily!


Happy knitting!


*I never use acrylic if I can avoid it. I really don’t like how it feels to knit with. But it is easily available, cheap, machine washable, and pretty easy to work with.

**These are US sizes. UK sizes are specified in mm. 2.00mm needles are the same as US 0, and 10.00mm are US 15.

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Knitting or Crochet?

This is the first post in a series I’m doing on the basics of knitting. I’m not discussing the actual techniques of knitting – that has been covered much better and more thoroughly than I could. Instead I’ll be talking about some related-but-not-technically-knitting aspects of the craft.

“Is that knitting or crochet?” seems like a good way to start. With no experience with either, the fabric produced looks pretty similar. They’re both variously-looped yarn made into fabric. So when presented with a loopy fabric, how do you tell what you’ve got?

Well, here are some pictures.

Knitting is made up of columns of stitches. Each stitch is anchored by the stitches directly above and below it. There are two basic knit stitches – ‘knit’ and ‘purl’. They’re the opposite of each other – the front of a knit stitch is the back of a purl stitch. The ‘front’ side of a knit stitch looks like a V. The ‘back’ gives you kind of a bump.


Crochet always seems to be more row-oriented to me. Working crochet flat gives you fabric that’s the same on both sides.

That’s well and good if someone’s demanding that you identify the mode of construction of a sweater, but doesn’t help so much with deciding which one you want to try. So what are they actually?

Knitting is generally done with two needles. All of the stitches in the most recent row are ‘live’, or sitting as loops on your needle. Each stitch relies on the stitches above and below it. If something happens to one stitch, an entire column can unravel. This makes knitting a little more precarious than crochet. If you accidentally drop a stitch (let a loop fall off the needle somehow), it can run away and decimate an entire column of the fabric if you don’t stop it. There are lots of techniques for knitting – lace, cables, intarsia, fair-isle colorwork, to name a very few. Knitting is usually  pretty stretchy.


Crochet is done with a single hook. You only have one live stitch at a time. Crochet fabric is generally more secure than knitted fabric, but less stretchy. A hole in a crochet piece won’t expand like one in something knitted. An explanation I heard once for why old-time crafters would choose one over the other (I have no idea whether this is true) has to do with a balance of durability and reusability. If a crafter wanted something strong and stable that could deal with a few holes, go with crochet. If you needed something stretchy and wanted to be able to reuse the yarn, go with knitting.

In addition to equipment, there’s also aesthetics to think of, and how much you enjoy each process. I personally enjoy knitting much more, both the process and the finished product. I think a lot of crochet looks a little clunky, and maybe a little 80’s. Which is not to say that’s bad, or that there are not some absolutely breathtaking crochet patterns out there – my personal tendency is just for knitting. Crochet (specifically, tapestry crochet) is great for pixelated two-color pictures. There are a lot of traditional lace doilies that are crocheted. Crochet is also way better for amigurumi. Crochet increases and decreases just lend themselves better to shaping these kinds of projects. I’m not sure why.

Really, though, go for what seems interesting to you! If you don’t already, I strongly recommend getting an account on Ravelry (it’s free!) and browsing through some pictures. See what speaks to you, and go for it! Ravelry is also a great place to ask questions and get advice. My Ravelry username is eigenknitter, if you want to ask questions there. For instruction on how to do the various techniques, I highly recommend searching for youtube videos. There are a lot of them out there. Some terms to get you started: creating the first stitches of your project is called ‘casting on’. The basic stitches are ‘knit’ and ‘purl’. To finish, you’ll ‘cast off’ or ‘bind off’ (two terms for the same thing).

Hopefully this has helped you decide if you want to pick up knitting or crochet! My other posts will go into more detail on various helpful knitting techniques and ideas. If you think crochet is for you, you’ll have to look elsewhere – I’m just not a good enough crocheter to try to help with that!

Happy knitting!


(All of the knitting pictures I posted (but not the links) are done by me. Most of the crochet is done by my mother, who is a MUCH better crocheter than I.)

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