logo - Join me in the 1900s early C20th
Florence Cole as a child

Basic knitting for beginners,
or how to knit like our ancestors

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Why not learn the right way to knit from the start?

I have seen too many young and even middle-aged people knitting the 'wrong way'. By this I mean making hard work it, excessively moving shoulders and elbows and having to look down at the needles all the time - and then achieving a result much more slowly than if they had been knitting the 'right way'. If I point this out they say it would be too difficult to change now - and they are probably right.

By the 'right way' to knit I mean how women used to knit in most of the last century and before and how women born before the middle of the last century still knit today. They knitted effortlessly, only moving their arms very slightly and were able to look around, chat or read as they knitted.

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If you are learning to knit, don't start by doing this

The slow and tedious way to knit, taking the hand off the needle for every stitch

The slow and laborious way to knit, taking the right hand off the needle for every stitch.

Below there is more on how women used to knit, but first it is worth explaining what I mean by the 'wrong way' and why you should learn from the outset not to do it.

Yarn or wool

Our grandparents always used wool because man-made fibres had not be invented. So the term 'wool' is used on this page. Think of it as 'yarn' if you prefer.

The wrong way to knit - as I am defining it - involves taking one's right hand off the needle every time one makes a loop for a new stitch. So for every stitch, the needle has to be let go while the wool is wound round the needle. Then the needle has to be picked up again. The whole process is slow, laborious, requires continuous eye contact and on-going shoulder and elbow movement. Some knitters who knit this way and do a lot of knitting have even developed shoulder and elbow strains.

It is fair to say that I have seen some excellent work produced this 'wrong way', but I am sad that the knitters concerned were never taught the old skills from the outset. They would have found it far, far better in the long run.

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How to knit the 'right way' - the old fashioned way

The right way of knitting involves working largely by feel, with perhaps only the odd glance downwards at the end of a row or for more complex stitches. Relaxing and chatting, reading or watching television at the same time comes naturally because, once learnt, the skill becomes second nature and effortless.

The photographs and their captions show how and what is involved. The method works however many rows of stitching are on the needles, but just a few rows, mid-row are shown in the first few photos to make it easier to see what the hands are doing. This is crucial whatever the type of stitch.

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How to pick up the wool to control the tension of the knitting

As a first step to knitting the 'right way', you need to learn to control how tightly or loosely you are going to knit. This is called controlling the tension of the wool, and is very important indeed in knitting. Tension is controlled by how you pick up the wool at the outset, by winding it round the fingers of the right hand and altering how tightly or loosely they grip. Sizes of needles are considered on another page.

The first step to getting the correct tension when knitting

To pick up the wool, start by linking the little finger of your right hand round the wool, palm upwards, as shown above.

The second step for getting the correct tension when knitting

Then move your hand, palm downwards, so that the wool is wound round the little finger and over your first finger (or if you prefer, first and second finger).

Arrangement of hands on the knitting needles

Then move your hand, palm downwards, so that the wool is wound round the little finger and over your first finger (or if you prefer, first and second finger).

Check how you can make the wool slide easily or keep it taut simply by how tightly or loosely you hold your fingers together.

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The movement of the hands for knitting

To get used to the feel of knitting the right way try the following movements until they seem easy to you.

Starting to knit so that hands stay on the knitting needles

Move your thumb down to grasp the right hand needle as shown.

Knitting without taking hands off the needles

Now slide your right hand towards your left hand. As you do this, the angle between your thumb and index finger widens.

When you are ready, allow the needle in your right hand to catch the wool.

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How to make a stitch

Making the stitch when knitting

With the right hand needle catching the wool, slide the left hand needle away from you slightly so that the wool forms a loop that is caught over the right hand needle.

Slide the loop off the left needle, so making a new stitch on the right hand needle.

At the same time, move the finger of your right hand away while letting more slide through the fingers of your right hand ready for making the next stitch.

This simple stitch is called a stocking stitch.

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How to get the feel for the knitting as it grows

As the knitting grows, make sure that you keep the grips shown above, so that you don't let go of the needles until the end of a row. Then turn the knitting round and repeat the above stages. You will have to hold it such that the thumb of your right hand grips the knitting as shown in the photo.

By never letting go of the needles, you work by feel which frees your eyes for looking at people as you talk together or watch television, etc. It becomes so effortless that women used to say that it felt wrong of an evening not to have "knitting on the needles".

The position of the thumb hidden by rows of knitting

With more rows, your right thumb becomes hidden behind the growing knitting, but it should still hold the needle the same way, but through the knitting.

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More complex knitting

More complex stitches are either a matter of how the wool is wound round the needle or how the stitches of the previous row are treated for each new stitch. Irrespective of what the pattern may be, what matters is that you still hold the wool the same way and grip the right hand needle through the knitting, not letting go of it until the end of a row, i.e. continuing to work by feel.

Detail of knitting a purl stitch, showing how the wool is held in front of the knitting with right hand needle making the new stitch through the front of the old one.

The purl stitch showing how the wool is held in front of the knitting with right hand needle making the new stitch through the front of the old one.

How the right hand needle is held for most stitches

Plain knitting which is stocking stitch and purl stitches every alternate row. The photo shows the purl side. The reverse side, normally the front, is smooth.

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Casting on and casting off

There are guides on the internet on what to do with the wool for casting on, casting off and knitting elaborate stitches. The aim of this page is to stress the importance of the right way of holding the needles. Do make sure when following the guides that you don't fall into bad habits of holding the needles the wrong way. The right hand must never leave the right hand needle.

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Knitting the Continental way

The continental way to knit, similar to crocheting

A way of knitting similar to crocheting with the wool over the fingers of the left hand.

When I was a child in the 1940s, there were immigrants from Europe settled in our area. They knitted even more quickly, and I have wondered why their way didn't catch on widely in UK. The wool was wound round the left hand fingers, rather than the right hand ones, and the right hand needle dug into stitches on the left hand needle, rather like crocheting with a crochet hook. This method, too, involved never letting go of the needles between rows.

In my experience this Continental way produces a tighter tension.

In the USA we call your 'continental way' the 'French style' of knitting. It was how my mother taught me to knit.

Jose Munoz

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