Friday, January 22, 2010

The Deconstruction

I was watching a preview today for a knitting dvd, and the clip was showing the basics of knitting. The directions were pretty standard, so I don't mean to be calling out this video in particular, which is why I haven't named it. The problem I spotted was that all of the directions were framed in "knit-speak". You know, "insert the needle from the front to the back, pick up the yarn and pull it through." Some variation of these words are told to every novice knitter, but the directions make no sense to people who do not already knit. People who do not already knit could not tell you what the front of the stitch is - it could be the leg facing them, the hole facing the opposite needle, the side of the knitted fabric facing them, the right side of the fabric, etc. Things we as knitters could not possibly fathom being interpreted as "the front". I doubt that many new knitters would recognize that the right answer is the left side of the leg closest to the opposite needle. This confusion continues for each and every sentence in the directions.

This was hard for me as a new knitter. My mom showed me how to knit a bit as a child, but mostly I learned from books or videos on the web once good yarn became available again. I constantly ran up against the underlying assumptions, as we all do. I've only shown a few other people how to knit, but as with math, programming, English, and all other things that people think are hard to both teach and learn, the more ways you know how to explain it, the more likely you are to reach the a-ha moment where it all clicks. I thought I'd share what I'd learned so that you could pass it on. It's all just a matter of breaking down what we are doing into explicit instructions. So here it is, my (slightly cerebral) explanation of how to do the knit stitch.

Note: I am just showing the knit stitch here, so this isn't a complete starting-to-knit guide. I haven't included instructions on how to get stitches on the needle in the first place. If you need help with that, I can certainly do that, or I can point you to some great videos for casting on at

How to Make a Knit Stitch ( (mostly) Continental Style)

In the interest of making this as simple as possible to explain, I am going to assume that we are all working right to left, with stitch orientation common to the dominant teaching styles in American knitting. It's not necessary, but since I don't have any experience with other styles, it makes it easier for me. Also, generality sometimes adds complexity. ;-) And to illustrate that, here is my general explanation of how knitting works:

General stitches: Each stitch is part of a continuous stretch of yarn that goes from one side of the row to the other. You have to pick at it a bit to see it while it's on the needles, but it's true. The stitch itself is a loop around the needle, then that yarn continues on either side to connect with the rest of its row. Yarn is brought through the center of this loop to create a new loop, and the old loop is dropped off the needle. When this is done for an entire row, the fabric grows in length. (As a complete aside, in the knit stitch the old stitch falls away from you; in the purl stitch the old stitch falls toward you.)

Here's the reason I gave you that explanation: take a look at the stitch you are about to knit. It might look a little less like a loop and a little more like a horseshoe, and the bottoms of the horseshoe are called "legs". If you are in the center of the row, one leg will connect with the rest of the unworked stitches, and the other will continue between your needles. If you are at the beginning of the row, one leg will connect with the rest of the stitches, and the other will connect with your ball of yarn. To start the stitch, insert your right needle below your left needle from the left side, into the middle of the loop, so that the leg that connects with the stitches on the left stays on the left, and the leg that connects with the stitches on the right (or the ball), stays on the right.


Yay! You have gotten the hardest part done, if you can believe it. The next step is to start constructing that new loop. This involves wrapping the yarn clockwise around the right-hand needle. If you are knitting continental, as I am in the pictures, you can take a look at how I do it. Also in the pictures you can see a piece of yarn that spans both needles in front of the working yarn. This is the old loop.


Since the yarn is starting from either the previous stitch or the row below, you can see that you are wrapping the yarn clockwise around the right-hand needle from about 6 o'clock to around 1 o'clock. (Any additional work gets done for you in the next steps.)


In the last two photos you could see that the old loop got pulled out quite a bit while we were manipulating the new loop around the right-hand needle. This was exaggerated for the photos, but useful for illustration purposes, since that hole is where the new loop is going to go. You want to pull the right-hand needle through that old loop. You are essentially pulling the right-hand needle back the way it came, with the addition of the new loop of yarn. Here is how it looks after you pull the yarn through:


The only thing left to do is to pull the old stitch off the left-hand needle. Slip your right hand and needle up the left needle until the old stitch falls off the needle. The result is that the new stitch is on the right needle, the old stitch is below and wrapped around it, the working yarn is coming from the left side (leg) of the new stitch, and the right leg of the new stitch is connected to the rest of the row you are creating.


There are a lot of refinements you can (and will) make to this if you continue. You will want to work out your own way of holding your yarn. There are adjustments to make on how you move your stitches around on your needles. There are *lots* of variations on these stitches, both basic and fancy. There are multitudes of clever ways to go about making knitted fabric, and there is always going to be someone out there that thinks that the way you are doing it is wrong. Find what feels comfortable.

<rant>And remember, there may be times that what you are knitting is wrong for a particular project, but that doesn't make it "wrong". </rant>