This article is part of the Tools of the Trade series, sponsored by the Geek Girl Crafts Podcast. The author, Sandy Jacobs-Tolle describes the basics of handknitting.
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Tools of the Trade: Knitting
by Sandy Jacobs-Tolle
I’d like to start with a point of clarification: handknitting is the craft of creating fabric with two pointed needles. While loom knitting and machine knitting are definitely like handknitting in many ways, and produce similar fabric, please assume that I’m speaking of the process of handknitting with two active needles in this podcast.
What can you do with two pointed sticks and some string? Amazing things, really. I first got into knitting after half a lifetime of crochet, simply because I wanted to make Harry Potter scarves that looked like the ones in the movies. I’ve gone on to my main addictions: making lace and cable projects. I’ve discovered the coloring-book fun of stranded color work, and I take pleasure in the sculptural magic of turning the perfect sock heel.
Learning how to knit was a rocky road for me. My sister knew how to knit, but I never picked it up from her, so I started on my own with a book and gumption as an adult, as I had with crochet as a kid. A few sad swatches later, I asked for help from my coworker and I was properly on my way. In fact, I’m going to say that the most important tool in your knitting toolkit should be your tenacity and a willingness to make mistakes and learn from them. Since knitting is simply lifting free, unknotted loops of fiber up over other loops, a lot can go wrong. Don’t hesitate to ask for help along the way, it will make the process much less frustrating and a lot more fun. You won’t need to know crochet, as I did, but some elements of technique crossed over well, such as my knowing how to control yarn tension with my left hand.
Finding out what it is that I needed to get started turned out to be a little bit frustrating for me in particular. If I can advise one thing to any knitter starting out, it’s to get familiar with circular needles right away, and have a few standard sizes of them in your toolkit. Since I started in such an odd way, maybe I can get you going in the right direction with what I learned transitioning into knitting from crochet, and the way the craft has had some “tech” developments in the last decade or so.
Needle: Materials & Size
So, let’s start with the fundamental tools: needles. Needles can be made of lots of different materials, and each have a different property that helps you in your work. Wood or bamboo are very common, and can be a happy medium of smoothness to allow wool and acrylics to glide along their surfaces, but many knitters who work with plant fibers or silk appreciate that wood is just sticky enough to keep smooth fibers from sliding all over the place. Metal, most often aluminum or steel, is another popular material used for needles. If you’re knitting with mohair or are concerned that the acrylic you’re using is a bit stiff, highly-polished metal is what you need to help your fiber loops speed along. Plastic can keep the cost of your needles reasonable, but don’t skimp on quality-- cheap plastic needles can be maddeningly sticky and cost you a lot of hand fatigue when you have to shove stitches along. If you can pick up and touch needles at the store, it will go a long way to helping you choose. Rarer materials include:
- carbon fiber, which is smooth, light and warmer than working with metal,
- casein, which is a light and flexible material made of milk protein,
- and even very old-fashioned material like bone, which you might find at an antique shop, or online at sites like Fringe, check the show notes.
Needles and notions
Gauge size, or the circumference of a needle, is also important. Needles commonly come from the extremely thin size 0, which is 2 millimeters in width, all the way up to 50, which is 25 millimeters wide. I tend to use sizes 1-3 for plain socks in fingering, for example, and sizes 6-8 for sweaters in worsted. If you have a tool called a needle gauge, which is a plate with various sizes of holes drilled into it, you can check the size of your needle and make educated decisions about the kind of fabric you can create with your needles and yarn. My favorite needle gauge also has a tool called a tension gauge, which is a ruler with 4 inches marked off that I can use to determine how many stitches per inch and rows per inch I’ve made in a swatch.
Needles commonly come in three different types -- straight, circular, and double pointed. Straight needles, which are long, pointed needles with a button or similar “stop” on one end, can be of various lengths, depending on the size of the piece you want to knit, although 10 inches is a pretty common size, as is 14 inches for wider pieces. Now straights may be traditional, but for me, they were part of my pain and frustration starting out. I found them stiff and awkward, and they put weight and strain over a long period of time on an old bone break in my left hand. I bought most of my aluminum straights from a thrift store (sometimes a great place to find old crafty stuff), it wasn’t so bad to give them away to friends I still have a few very large ones in my collection, as they are pretty fun and don’t hurt as much for me to use.
Double pointed needles are needles that are pointed on both ends, usually made in the same materials and at the same gauges as straight single-point knitting needles. Double points commonly come in lengths set to the circumference of the tube they’re supposed to make: 4 to 6 inches for making things like socks, gloves and mittens, 8 inches for hats and sweater sleeves in the round. These needles are very commonly sold in sets of 5, and as a result, you’ll see that patterns in the round usually have a stitch count divisible by four-- four to hold the stitches, one as your working needle.
Knitting in the round is not a new thing at all, and as soon as people had the knitting flat and sewing it together concept down, they immediately set to work figuring out how to better clothe our tube-shaped bodies. Early attempts at knitting in the round in certain regions tried to simulate woven fabrics typically sewn into items like stockings, but soon people were off and running in letting the physical structure of the fabric dictate the shaping of their work.
I freely admit that I prefer knitting all my socks in the round on DPNS, as they’re colloquially known, so most of my collection is of short needles in small gauges. However, I got a strange windfall years ago, around the time when I was learning to knit and buying my straights from the thrift store. A Japanese variety store, Marukai, sold bamboo DPNS in 12” lengths and several gauges for $1.50 each! With these, I was able to easily learn how to make hats in the round with plenty of room for my hands to move and less chances of the yarn slipping off the needles. I still use these extra-long DPNS for some projects, and to hold live stitches in place in garment projects.
Circular needles are needles with a flexible cable of varying lengths. Common lengths are 24 inches, 32 inches, and 40 inches, but they can go up to 47 or 60 for things like blankets or shawls. You can knit flat back and forth on them, or knit in the round. They can be all of a piece with the needle fastened firmly to the cable, or part of an interchangeable set, where you can swap lengths of cable between needle gauges.
Some things to consider when using cable needles: choose a length of cable appropriate to the circumference of the piece, just as you would when using double points. It just makes it a lot easier. If you get into knitting socks on two circulars, or on one very long circular, this rule is of course not important. I have two big cautions for you when you select circular needles
- pick a type that has a flexible, not stiff, cable, so that you aren’t wrestling against a coiling cable as you knit,
- make sure the join of the cable to the needle is smooth and has no places for the yarn to snag as it passes from cable to needle. If the circular needle is of the interchangeable variety, make sure the attachment of the needle to the cable is secure-- it’s awful to have your needle fall off the cable while you’re working!
Circulars have seen a lot of improvements in durability and flexibility in the last ten or so years, as sock knitters demanded new ways to make socks in the round on one needle with the “magic loop” method, so you’ll find them pretty reliable if you do some research on the best kinds.
I find knitting with circulars gentle on my hands, and this is my go-to method for everything but socks. Commute knitters get a benefit from using circulars-- if you have to put your work down in a hurry to catch a bus, it’s easy to pull the needles forward and keep all the live stitches on the cables. Because they’re so versatile, I recommend giving interchangeable circular needles a try if you’re just starting out, and I think you’ll find them a convenient way to build your needle collection.
Where to buy your needles: Big-box stores like Joanns and Michaels used to carry mostly aluminum and plastic needles, but the rise in the popularity of knitting, Ravelry and the internet means that the big stores are catching up on quality, too. They carry Clover bamboo straights and circulars, circular interchangeables comparable to the inexpensive kind you’ll find on the Knit Picks website, and of course, good ol’ Boye aluminums if that is how you roll.
I picked up a set of Knit Picks interchangeable circulars as soon as I determined that was my preference. A full set on the site gets you needle sizes 4-11, two each of 24 and 32 inch cables, the hardware needed to lock the cables into place, and costs from about 50-56 dollars. When I first started using them, the cables used to pop out of their metal screw ends a lot, so I relied on their no-questions-asked return policy. Now they’ve improved so that I don’t have to, but since I’ve discovered even better circs, I don’t believe I will replace with the same brand. Stores like Webs and your local yarn store will carry specialized materials and come with reviews-- if you really want to pick the best, talk to experienced knitters in a yarn shop and maybe test-drive a needle or two!
My favorites: Chiao Goo makes a beautiful cable, simply the most flexible and fatigue-fighting one I’ve found. Amazon.com carries their metal needle interchangeable set, which goes from size 2 to 15, for 105 dollars. I recently picked up a Knitter’s Pride Nova Platina circular needle for my Gryffindor sweater, about $8 at my local yarn store. It’s an aluminum needle with a soft finish that addresses the too-slippery issue common with metal needles. I can knit for hours with this! But my absolute favorite needles in my stash are the Brittany size 4 double points I use for making the Hexipuff blanket.They’re feather-light ash wood, harder and less bendy than bamboo, and at 5 inches long, they fit exactly in my hands, as if they were a part of my fingers. I love them, and that makes them perfect for such a huge project.
The rest of the tools you need for knitting have a lot of crossover with the tools used for crochet-- things wander from project to project in my house. Here’s what I use.
- Stitch markers: I like the kind that open and shut like little locks (Clover, about $5.50) for marking shaping changes or things to note in my work. I use rings that I make myself out of beads and jewelry wire for my lace projects to indicate the start and end of a repeated pattern. For very little projects, I use a French earwire slipped into the work, since it won’t get stuck, is less bulky, and is easy to get if you have an orphan earring you can sacrifice. I tend not to use safety pins in knitting at all, unless I can find the kind that don’t have coils that get stuck in stitches.
- Tapestry needles are usually a couple of bucks. I buy metal ones with sharp points. When finishing my work, I split the yarn in places as I bury the thread end so that it won’t slip out.
- Scissors: most households have them, and you probably won’t need fancy ones. Smaller is nice if you can manage it.
- Tape measure.
- A row counter. I like the ones that can sit right on the knitting needle, but there are other kinds, like a hand-held clicker that requires you to press a button to count, and even a couple of apps for smartphones, where you tap the screen to count your work. I’ve used the County Plus app with some success. It tracks multiple processes and projects. I’ll link to it in the shownotes.
- Have a few crochet hooks on hand for repairs or finishing work-- pick one at a smaller gauge than your current work.
- Materials for blocking your work. These can be as simple as rust-proof pins and a towel on the floor, or as precise as blocking wires and a foam board with gridded lines. One cheap work-around for the foam board I’ve found is to use the foam play mats for children, which are occasionally sold at Walgreens or Target for very low prices. You can build these out like a jigsaw puzzle as big as you need to block even the largest lace shawl.
Here are some fun optional tools that can help you do new things or be more efficient when you knit.
- Cable needles are small double pointed needles with a curve in the center. They’re used in making cables in your work by pulling a few stitches in front or behind your piece as you knit.
- Stitch holders are tools you can use to hold live stitches in place while you work on other parts of a pattern. You can use a piece of smooth waste yarn to hold live stitches, or buy a tool that looks a bit like an extra-large safety pin that locks the stitches in place.
- Chart holders are boards you can attach your pattern to and track a design line by line. Handy for lace and colorwork patterns.
- Bobbins for colorwork. You can buy these, or you can do what I do, and reuse the square plastic clip that’s used to hold bread bags together. Wind your yarn on that, and lock it into place with the notched hole.
- Point protectors: these are great to protect delicate needle tips, or to keep your work from sliding off the points when you store it.
- End caps for interchangeable cables: if you need to store a project on its cable, remove the needles and twist some end-caps on the cable. You can then use the freed-up needles on another project!
Fiber for Knitting
After all of these tools I’ve listed, it’s time to talk about the real star of knitting-- fiber itself. Wool is the hands-down queen of the fibers for knitting, since it’s warm, affordable, durable, and stretchy, but it doesn’t have to be the only thing you work with-- you can experiment with expensive fibers like angora, silk, or buffalo or go inexpensive with acrylic. If you’ve got texture on your mind, the simplicity of knit stitches means that ribbon, fun-fur, or boucle’ yarns yield great results. Cotton and linen are fun choices for tops and tanks, and the stretch and bounce of fiber blends with manmade materials like acrylic makes for excellent close-fitting items like socks. Keep in mind that knitting stretches in all directions-- cotton and alpaca are two fibers that might stretch more than you want in some garments. If you’re transitioning from crochet, as I did, you’ll need to learn more about the elasticity of certain fibers in this hobby. Be careful with yarn substitutions in patterns until you get the hang of it.
Books and websites
As for knitting instruction, let me tell you about three books that got me off to a fine start, another book that helped me when I was more experienced, and then a whole host of websites for everything else.
Stitch and Bitch, The Knitter’s Handbook by Debbie Stoller. I’m willing to bet that this was the catalyst for a lot of the hobby knitting that took off at the beginning of the millennium. This book helped me teach myself to knit, and its friendly, informative style and very clear pictures should help you, too!
I was smart enough to go out and find Knitting in Plain English, by Maggie Righetti, for my next book. It is no-nonsense, explicit in detail and procedure even as it’s conversational, and so practical you’ll have half a finished baby sweater in your hands before you realize you even cast on. It made the idea of making garments approachable to me at a time when I was too timid to move beyond flat Harry Potter scarves. Her expertise with the design industry also taught me something very important-- pattern photos sometimes tell terrible lies. She’s probably saved me hundreds of dollars and hours with that advice alone!
Stitch and Bitch Nation, by Debbie Stoller, the sequel to The Knitter’s Handbook, has more advanced techniques, including my first detailed introduction to yarn substitutions and how to rework existing patterns. This book showed me that I can make patterns my own, and was my first guide into designing my own pieces from scratch.
Finally, the last book in my beginning phase was one I had to come back to. I tried reading Elizabeth Zimmermann's Knitting Without Tears right after Maggie Righetti’s Knitting in Plain English, as they sat side by side on the same library bookshelf. But while Righetti was easy for me to understand, Zimmerman wasn’t easy at that stage of my learning. As the old saying goes, when the student is ready, the master appears. Once I’d learned after a year of work that I COULD make knitting my own, EZ, as she’s lovingly called, taught me that I can do whatever I damn well please with my knitting, as long as I knew what I wanted and what dimensions to knit to. She’s all about using math and common sense to get results. She taught me that I could cut and sew my knitting if I was careful about it-- afterthought heels and pockets and thumbs and even sleeves became part of my skill set. Once you learn the basics, use your good sense to improvise, she teaches, and it will usually work out fine. This last book brought me the final elements I needed most as a beginner: confidence and curiosity. This was my jumping off point to absolute passion for the craft.
With all of these wonderful books, can websites bring the same benefit? Sure, especially if you don’t have someone to sit next to you. For straight-up tutorials, there’s nothing quite like the KnittingHelp.com website. It’s full of good-quality pictures and videos that show you how to cast on, knit, purl, increase, and decrease, as well as advanced techniques like stranded color work and intarsia, double knitting, short rows, making buttonholes, and more. If you want the awesome sauce, you can even buy premium content with really esoteric tutorials, or you can buy DVDs if you’d rather knit on the couch and get help on your TV.
Knitty.com was one of the first online only knitting magazines, still a go-to for articles on a variety of topics-- it also features one of my favorite knitters, Franklin Habit, who translates patterns from the 1800s for whimsical modern use. Every season, Knitty’s pattern lineup is a fun treat to look forward to, like the turning of the leaves in fall or the first buds of spring.
The Craft Yarn Council of America is my resource if I need reference for yarn weights, gauges, hook size to needle size conversions, and fashion size charts from baby to large adult.
Ravelry.com -- this site came along a few years after I learned how to knit. I cannot even begin to explain how much this site has helped me learn what to buy, how to do things. Of particular help are the ratings on yarn and tools and patterns, as well as pictures of people in finished garments-- It’s just so wonderful to see how people of my size and shape adapted a pattern to look its best! If you’re not already on Ravelry and you want to knit or crochet, go join NOW and learn along with us!
I hope I’ve given you the impetus to give knitting a try. As you can see, there’s a lot to it, and I’ve only just scratched the surface by going over the most common tools. It’s an ancient craft with a lot of history behind it, but it’s still flexible enough as an art form that new techniques are being invented every day to make pieces that are beautiful and practical. If you take knitting up as a hobby, you’re joining a huge and lively community of innovators and artists-- and the most important tool of the trade is one you already have-- your own initiative to learn. Happy knitting!
- The pattern that started it all: Lauren Kent’s Harry Potter scarf: http://www.the-leaky-cauldron.org/features/crafts/knitting/sspsstylehogwartsscarf
- Bone knitting needles from Fringe: http://www.fringesupplyco.com/product/bone-double-pointed-needles
- Craft Yarn Council of America: http://www.craftyarncouncil.com/