A Beginner’s Guide to Knitting

I used to think that knitting was, in fact, magic. No matter what, I couldn’t understand how could people take two needles, some wool, and just… make things. I used to (and still do!) watch my mum in awe as she knitted up a storm. One of my best friends used to come into college wearing the most amazing sweaters, in pretty colours and with cute bobbles or lace detailing. They were hand-knitted with love by her grandmother, but they still had this timeless quality to them, unlike anything you could find in the shops. To this day, I aspire to make clothes as half as beautiful as those sweaters. Looking back, I can see that what I really needed was a beginner’s guide to knitting!

Baby steps

I tried to learn to knit several times, often to little avail. My first attempts at making things were, at best, ‘lacy’ and, at worst, a tangle of knots. Although I’ve always been quite a creative person, I’m incredibly cack-handed and clumsy. I really didn’t think I would ever be able to learn to knit, however much I wanted to. I had come to terms with this and accepted my fate as a non-knitter.

I’m not sure what changed, but in the midst of waiting to hear if I had won PhD funding and about the horror that is Brexit, my mum sat me down with some needles and told me to knit. This time, something stuck. I ended up making a little toy kitten that was meant for babies to hold but, naturally, the toy went to my cats instead.

I started to make other toys, and then hats, and then a sweater, and then a top, and then another… You get the picture! I therefore consider myself to be living proof that anyone can knit.

In hindsight, it was a perfect first project. It was mostly just consisted of knit stitches (also known as garter stitch), with a little bit of stocking stitch and shaping thrown in. Importantly, it was also very small. I firmly believe that a scarf is the worst thing you can make as a new knitter. As Alanna Okun writes, they are too overwhelming. To this day, scarves are my least favourite thing to make. Baby toys or hats are much better.

To hammer the point home, here’s one of my early attempts at a ‘scarf’. As you can see, it didn’t exactly go to plan… But, things got better. After the disappointment of my early efforts, I finally learnt how to knit.

So, how do you knit?

An excellent question.

At a most basic level, almost all knits consist of a combination of knit and purl stitches. Yes, things get more complicated as your skill level progresses but even the most complicated-looking stitch is usually as simple as a combination of knits and purls. When people ask me if something like a lace top is difficult to make, I usually tell them that if they can do these and learn how to make leaning increases and decreases, they can do anything. Indeed, sometimes a garment made entirely with knit stitches – AKA ‘garter stitch’ – is actually harder to make than knits that are more technically demanding.

Still, I hear you ask, how do you knit a stitch? Well, I’ve had a go at breaking it down into four (hopefully!) simple steps in the posts below.

This guide is by no means exhaustive. It’s something that I hope to add to over time, but it’s a start! With these foundations, you can really make most anything. Knitting gets interesting when you learn how to use these foundations in different ways. As I write above, even the most complicated piece of knitting is just a combination of knits and purls. When you think about it like that, intermediate and advanced patterns a bit less scary.

De-coding patterns

You will, in time, also need to learn how to read a pattern. Writing as someone who has learnt two new languages in adulthood, this terrified me when I was starting out as a knitter. What on earth did k2tog mean?! Don’t get me started on M1R..! (Or, actually, do! I’ve written a whole post about them here!)

I’m not going to go into a great amount of detail about what these mean here because I’m not sure I’m the best person to explain a lot of these techniques (more on which here) and also because I want to keep this simple. In any case, here’s a list of common abbreviations you will come across in patterns, as well as a basic definition for each of them.

K2togKnit two stitches together as if they were one to produce a right-leaning decrease
SSKSlip two stitches from your right needle to your left as if you were going to knit them. Move them back to the left needle and knit the stitches together to produce a left-leaning decrease
PSSOSlip one stitch as if you were going to purl it but holding your yarn behind your work; knit the next stitch and then pas the slipped stitch over the knitted stitch to make a left-leaning decrease
M1R Make one stitch that leans to the right. Pick up the strand of yarn that runs between the stitches, approaching this from the back of the work to the front. Knit into the front of this stitch.
M1LMake one stitch that leans to the left. Pick up the strand of yarn that runs between the stitches, approaching this from the front of the work to the back. Knit into the back of this stitch.
RSRight side of your work
WSWrong side of your work