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Learn to Knit Like A Boss: The Basics

When I floated the idea of writing about knitting to some Facebook friends, someone suggested I call it “Stitch n Bitch n Drink n Curse.” I’m not using the title, but the sentiment is pretty accurate. Just so you know what you’re getting into.

So you want to learn to knit. Or you know how to knit, sort of, and want to get better. Never fear, because I am here for you. I will guide you through the process, explain all the things you need to know and probably a few you don’t. I’ll help you figure out what you need to buy and what’s actually pretty useless.

Let’s get going. There’s a lot to cover, so no dilly-dallying.

A World War II era poster, courtesy of Wikipedia.

You’ll Definitely Need:
-Needles
-Yarn
-Scissors
-A tapestry needle

You May Need:
-Cable needles
-Stitch markers
-Stitch holders
-A stiff drink

You can get most of this at your local craft store or big box place like Michaels. Except the drink, but if you’re in New York, Michaels is right next to a wine shop, so that helps.

Who has wood? It doesn’t really matter if you use plastic, wood or metal needles. I personally like wood and use harmony needles from Knit Picks, but that’s after trial and error with several different kinds. Just try a few and see what you like. Different material may affect your gauge and tension, so keep that in mind.

Size matters: Both yarn and needles come in different sizes. Needles are marked by a number, either a U.S. size or a metric measurement. There are conversion charts all over the Internet. The metric measurements are in millimeters and the U.S. sizes are gradually increasing size with a corresponding number, if that makes sense. I can’t find any concrete reason why U.S. needles use that system as opposed to something with an actual measurement. I guess, like clothes, we like our sizes confusing and arbitrary.

I have entirely too many needles.

In addition to your basic straight needles there are also circulars (circs) and double-pointed needles (DPNs). For our purposes, your run-of-the-mill knitting needles are a good place to start. Circs are used for making hats, cowls, and other round things. You keep going in the round so that the item is seamless. DPNs are used similarly to circs, except they’re more for gloves, socks, and other smaller round items. You can knit back and forth on circs if you want, and in fact I find it more comfortable, but that’s another personal preference. But it’s still best to start with straights for the sake of not being too confusing.

Yarns have several thicknesses. The most common, from thinnest to widest, are fingering, DK, sport, worsted, aran, bulky and super bulky. Aside from bulky and super bulky, don’t ask me where the hell any of those names come from. Just learn them. Fingering is delicate and thin, mostly used for socks and gloves. DK and sport are a little thicker. Worsted is the most common size, it’s right in the middle. Most hats and scarves you’ll see are probably made with worsted or aran, which is just a tad thicker. Bulky and super bulky are exactly what they sound like. They make nice chunky knits, which are kind of trendy, and are good for instant gratification, because they work up really fast.

Yarn balls of different weights, from fingering on the left to super bulky on the right.

And there are different fibers, which are good for different purposes. Acrylic is the cheapest and is machine washable, but can be a little harsh feeling depending on the brand. There are animal fibers like wool and alpaca, which are soft as hell but more expensive and usually not machine washable. Also, many vegans won’t wear them. Then there are plant fibers like cotton and bamboo. Each kind of yarn has a different feel and look, which will affect the end product. Most patterns recommend a kind of yarn and even though you don’t have to use the exact same brand, it’s generally best to get as close as possible with the weight and fiber.

For learning purposes, you could probably just grab a cheap acrylic worsted like Red Heart or Caron, in a lighter color so you can see your stitches. Don’t get anything that’s too fuzzy or dark right now because you won’t be able to tell what they hell you’re doing. With that yarn, you’ll want to get something in the ballpark of a U.S. size 8 needle (5.0 mm), but it’s not that important since we’re just learning and practicing.

All this and we haven’t even gotten to the stitches yet. Now might be a good time to have a snack, but wipe your filthy hands before you touch the yarn.

Ready? Here we go.

Casting on:

There are several different cast-on methods, and I’ll show you a couple of the easiest ones.

Single Cast On (also known as backward loop) is the easiest, but it’s hard to get an even stitch out of. You start with a slip knot on the needle in your right hand*, and then, wrap the tail end of the yarn (not the end attached to the ball) around your left index finger, turn your finger counter-clockwise, and place the loop onto the needle. Like so:

Long-Tail Cast On seems more complicated, but it creates a more even row of stitches to work with and, once you get the hang of it, can actually be faster to do. This one is my favorite, and I grumble and curse when patterns specify a different one. Again, you start with a slip knot on the needle in your right hand. Grip the end that is attached to the ball in the last three fingers of your left hand, and let it hang over your index finger. Wrap the tail end around your thumb and loosely hold that in the last three fingers as well. Pull the needle down, and from the bottom pick up the outside of the loop around your thumb, then from the top, pick up the yarn running from your index finger to the needle. Pull that piece back under the thumb and drop it so there is one loop on the needle. Observe:

Stitches Be Crazy:

Knit Stitch can be done a few ways. I’m going to explain the way I do it, which is basically the English style. There is also Continental, which you can see at Knitting Help. The main difference is whether you hold the yarn in your right or left hand, which informs the way you’ll move the needles to create the stitch.

To knit, make sure the yarn tail is in the back. Hold the needle with the cast-on stitches in your left hand and the empty one in the right. Insert the right hand needle through the first loop, from front to back. Then, bring the yarn tail around the front of the right hand needle and pull it through the loop, moving the stitch from the left needle to the right. Ch-check it out:

The Purl Stitch is kind of a backwards knit. Kind of. The yarn should be in front of the needles, and again you’re holding the one with the stitches on it in your left hand and the free needle in your right. Stick the right hand one through the first loop from back to front, wrap the yarn counter-clockwise around the needle, and pull through, transferring the stitch from the left to the right. Like so:

Binding Off

Binding Off is what you do at the end of the piece. Usually this is done on a row of knit stitches, so that’s how I’ll explain it. It can, however, be done with purl stitch or even ribbing if that works better for the pattern. Those are a little more awkward, but not really any harder.

To bind off, you’ll knit the first two stitches, then pass the first stitch over the second one and off the needle. For the rest of the row, you’ll work one stitch at a time (with one already on the right needle), then pass the stitch over and off the needle. At the end, you’ll have one stitch left. Cut the yarn and pull it through the stitch to knot it.

Making Stuff

The two most common stitch patterns are stockinette and garter. On straight needles, stockinette stitch is what you get when you knit one row, then purl the next. It’s what you’ll commonly see on plain sweaters and other things. It rolls up at the edges, so you’ll usually want to make a border from ribbing or garter.

The front and back of stockinette stitch.

Garter stitch is what you get when, on straight needles, you knit every row. It lays nice and flat and is a little cushier feeling and stretchier than stockinette, though sometimes it looks messier.

Garter stitch.

Ribbing is what you get when you alternate knitting and purling on the same row. You have to cast on an even number of stitches to get a rib. You can do 1×1, 2×2, 3×3, and so on. If you cast on an odd number of stitches and do 1×1 you get a cool (but kind of tedious) effect known as seed stitch or moss stitch.

1x1 and 2x2 ribbing.

Project Time:

Make a scarf to practice. All you have to do is cast on 20 stitches, then work either garter stitch (knit every row) or 2×2 ribbing (knit 2, purl 2 every row) until it is long enough to be a scarf. Then bind off and weave in the ends**.

Resources:

First, feel free to ask me any questions in the comments. If you’d like to see other videos and written instructions, check out Knitting Help. I used the book Stitch N Bitch by Debbie Stoller when I was learning how to knit. I liked the images, which are line drawings, but some people prefer photographs. DomiKNITrix by Jennifer Stafford uses photos pretty well. The Lion Brand Yarn website has some pretty extensive instructions on how to knit and crochet***.

Happy knitting, Persephoneers. Try not to stab anything with your needles and remember that this takes practice. Your first project will suck. I promise. That’s OK.

*I am doing all instructions as a right-handed person. If you are left-handed, you may still be able to work this way without much trouble. But I have heard of people who reverse everything to work lefty style, and since I have no idea how to do it, I’ll refer you to this set of instructions.
**To weave in, you simply use a tapestry needle and run the yarn under some of the stitches so you can’t see it, then trim the end off.
***Don’t ask me how to crochet. I can’t do it. I’ve tried and it didn’t go well.

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[E] Liza

PhD student. Knitter. Brooklynite. Long-distance dog mom. Reluctant cat lady. Majestic unicorn whose hair changes color with the wind.

26 thoughts on “Learn to Knit Like A Boss: The Basics”

  1. I can’t tell you how often I’ve picked up the knitting needles and yarn that I bought, oh… 2 years ago? Maybe because it’s black, or maybe because it’s not the yarn I really wanted to work with, or maybe it’s because I am an instant gratification type of person, but I just can’t do it.

    I really, really want to though. Maybe I’ll pick up some different stuff and begin again. Sigh. I really just want to be perfect the first time out.

  2. I learned on Youtube how to knit- I’ve been crocheting since 5th grade, and it. was. time.

    One of my first “big” projects was the 4th doctor’s scarf. 15 feet of knit stitch. After that I could do ANYTHING it felt like. THen I knit a Dalek. Which was awesome, though new.

    Also: RAVELRY.

    My favorite needles are metal size 6 US DPNs. OM NOM NOM. I love DPNs. Though that might be because of all the things I can make with them that are not scarves.

    Current project: I’m trying to knit a Totoro plushie for my niece. It’s been. . . interesting. Especially since it’s winter and my hands don’t work so well in the winter. *shakes fist at joints.* Seriously, May is my usual knitting month.

    1. I have another one of these coming out tomorrow. I’d like to do more, though I haven’t talked to the ed team about it being anything official.

      Cables are on my list of things to cover before too long. I kind of hate them, but I’ve been working on this intricate cabled sweater for like a year and a half now. Because I’m a glutton for punishment, I guess.

  3. Yay! I am always amazed at how many people are actually interested in knitting, as back home no one ever seemed interested! I’ve now knit a cowl, fingerless mitts, and a hat with various stitch patterns, and am quite excited to move on to socks. Having kind of taught myself, with help from a friend, I find I’m constantly looking up terms and fixes (dropped a stitch down seven rows? whee!) online.

  4. Etymology of ‘aran’ is probably from Aran jumpers, which are named after the Aran Islands off Ireland.

    Why yes, Etymology Man is my new hero, why do you ask?

    Knitting is one of those things I learned when I was young so I have no idea how to explain how it’s done – I just do it. The videos are so helpful! I do prefer crochet, though… *ducks*

  5. YAY KNITTING! I need to finish my second-ever project in time for a baby shower next week and there’s a strong chance I’m going to run out of yarn. I haven’t even finished one pattern repeat out of 12 yet :( It’s a basketweave baby blanket and it forced me to learn how to purl finally.

    Anybody on Ravelry? I’m ‘sarahonetwofour’ over there. (Nope, real name’s not Martha, haha)

  6. I am back to knitting after doing a lot of crochet and getting bored with the patterns. Most awesomely, jimmy beans wool is down the street and it’s easier to get into if you have a kind of pre-built community, which I assume is common in locally owned yarn stores. I’ve basically replaced my straight needles with circulars, since they are easier to carry, not as likely to bend, and then you can use it on round or normal projects.

  7. Yay! I’m so trying this as soon as I find some knitting needles. I currently crochet, but I’ve been wanting to take up knitting for years now. I tried some YouTube tutorial once and failed miserably, but I have faith in you, Liza!

  8. I second Stitch N Bitch by Debbie Stoller. I love her directions – everything is very clear and easy to understand.

    My current nemesis is the Kitchner stitch. After much trial and error, and realizing that my original instructions were printed incorrectly, I have made it work, but it is not as smooth as it should be. After looking closer at some illustrations, I believe it is because I have been working it with my open stitch on the back needle and the Stoller instructions assume it will be on the front. I should be finished with this sock in a few hours, I’ll let you know if my hypotheses is correct then.

          1. Fantastic! Socks are the one things I’ve really never made. I’m kind of impatient so fingering weight on tiny needles sounds slightly torturous. But that’s why I don’t have any awesome socks like these.

            1. I was intimidated by the fingering weight thing, because I like more instant gratification projects, but when I started trying socks I found myself going smaller and smaller till I was working pretty happily with 2’s and 3’s. If you want to give them a try, Knit Picks has a free pattern on their website for worsted weight socks (Cushy Chroma Socks), which they say to do on DPs, but they are way easier on two sets of circs. I will go pretty far out of my way to avoid double points.

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