Understanding Knitting

How to read your knitting: knits and purls

Friday night I realized I had nothing to knit. It was late; I was tired. It had been an extremely stressful week (both for me, workwise, and on a global scale) and I needed yarn in my hands, but I had bound off the body of my cardigan and it was awaiting blocking. And the only other thing in progress was the purple top-down tutorial sweater, which was at the point where I needed to put the second sleeve back onto needles, pick up underarm stitches, and consult the markers I had left in the first sleeve to see how I had spaced the decreases. None of which sounded appealing right at that moment. I just wanted to sit down and knit. So I cast on another Bob hat.

As I sat there k2-ing and p2-ing just as naturally as breathing in and out, I realized this weekend marked six years since I learned to knit, and I thought (as I often do) about what it was like in those first months, when I didn’t know my knits from my purls.

I knew how to KNIT: with yarn in back, insert my right needle into the first loop on my left needle from front to back, wrap the yarn around it and pull that new loop through, dropping the previous one off the left needle.

And I knew how to PURL: with yarn in front, insert my right needle into the first loop on my left needle from back to front, wrap the yarn around it and pull that new loop through, dropping the previous one off the left needle.

It took me awhile to grasp that all I was doing in either case was pulling a loop through a loop, and that the only difference between a “knit” and “purl” was whether the new loop poked its head through the previous one from the back or the front. Or more to the point: was the top of the previous loop (what’s referred to as “the purl bump”) wrapped around the back (knit) or front (purl) of the new one.

In the months before I got that, all I could do was chant to myself whatever the pattern said to do and hope I didn’t get interrupted or lose my place. If that happened in the middle of a row, I would have no idea what I’d last done. I didn’t know how to read my work. And since I also didn’t know how to fix anything, anytime I lost my place or made a mistake, the only thing I could do was rip the whole thing out and start again. It’s a wonder I stuck with it!

Learning to identify a knit from a purl was so minor, so simple, and so entirely game-changing. I could not only see if I had purled where I was supposed to knit, but I could also understand that fixing it just meant popping it off the needle, tugging the loop out of the one below it, and pulling it back through from the other side. (And at the same time, I learned that the right leg of the stitch sits in front of the needle, as seen in my fancy drawing up there — which meant I also now knew how to take work off the needle and put it back on correctly. No more needless frogging!) More than that, though, being able to actually see my knitting meant I no longer had to keep anything in my head. Whatever I needed to know was right there on the needles in front of my face — all I had to do was look at it.

What I’ve learned in six years is that, mentally, it’s not far at all from k2/p2 to this fisherman pattern, and I will write that post soon, so think of this as the introduction for it. And going into next year, I’d like to write more about the fundamental building blocks of knitting, as well as pulling out some of the tips and techniques that are buried within past series and long posts. (Like this one!) But for today, in honor of six years of picking things up from others and passing them along, I want to point to the collection of posts I did awhile back that are collected on the Beginning to Knit page — a grab bag of how-to’s and pattern suggestions for anyone working to build their knitting skills. We all need knitting in our lives these days, right? The more successful and less stressful the better.


The yarn pictured is Cashmere Merino Bloom in Helix, sent to me by Purl Soho last year

32 thoughts on “Understanding Knitting

  1. Nice post. I identify with the portion of needing something in your hands to knit. Twenty years or more into this obsession, it is almost like meditation, a calming feeling that arrives as I repeat, with minor variations, the simple act of throwing a string of yarn over a stick. The mysteries have revealed themselves over time but the act itself still strikes me as almost miraculous, that someone hundreds of years ago realized they could make lovely useful items by this simple action repeated over and over again.

  2. I can’t not do it. I’m addicted. This worries me sometimes. An addiction is an addiction.

  3. I remember when I learned to identify the difference between purl and knit stitches. It was on my very first project a few stitches into my second row. I accidently purled when I should have knitted and it just looked wrong compared to the previous. I also figured out how to tink right then. I’m so glad I never went through months of ripping out all the hard work. When I teach knitting it is always on of the very first things my students learn the differences between knits and purls.

  4. I’m also addicted to the stress relief of knitting, but it wasn’t always that way. When I finally learned to ‘read’ my knitting, it became calming to me…..before that, knitting just added more stress to my life!
    Karen, the other day I went back and read your first few blog posts. You were already addicted to knitting and making Christmas gifts for family and friends. It was fun to see how you have progressed. I love your style and willingness to try and ultimately conquer everything!

  5. Congratulations on your 6th anniversary.

    I can’t remember a time when I did not have something in waiting to knit next, but sometimes the time is not quite right for what you have in wait. I always have a hat project going for those moments, but those hats all go to a local charity. It puts the yarn left over at the end of a project, and the time where “just regular” knitting is whats called for, to the best possible use.

  6. I think of the purl as a pearl and knit rhymes with slit, which I think a little knit V looks like. THat’s how I remembered early on..

  7. It has been such a joy to slowly understand knitting more and more. I tend to dive into projects/patterns/stitches, and just go for it without analyzing. It usually works, but I think that approach has slowed the processes of really understanding how knitting works a bit. Now my knowledge is derived from practice, slowly discovering for myself how patterns and stitches all work, not from a teacher or book. Not the most efficient path, but such a joyful one!

  8. The huge amount of “Ah Ha!” experiences I’ve had from reading this blog over the years have increased my love of knitting – and the knitting experience of pure joy – many times over. Thank you so much, Karen!

  9. A simple thing that was so game-changing. I so identify with that! My lovely friend who taught me to knit, and here I emphasize was NOT a knitting instructor, just knew how and had the patience and kindness to show me how, never really mentioned that the yarn had to be behind to knit and in front to Purl. I just watched her without noticing that and thought I copied. So when alone I would wonder why my project never looked as smooth and nice as hers. Utube to the rescue and when I realized placement of yarn, what a game-changer!! Have loved knitting passionately ever since.

  10. Oh yes, the first time knitting made sense! I was taught the combination knitting style and it was extremely confusing for a bit when I tried to move on from stockinette, so for me that moment was about the leading leg and how it didn’t matter if it was in the front or the back of the needle, as long as I knit into it and didn’t twist the stitch.

  11. Thank you for this post. It has made a few things clear to me as a beginner. Your picture helped!!

  12. Knitting is cast on, knit, purl bind off. Everything else is a riff on that. Some riffs are more challenging than others.

  13. I am right at your beginning phase and restarted so many times. On top of messing up myself, my 2 year old loves to pull out my needles and I can’t read it or fix it so I start over instead. I found this inspiring (and educational), I’ll get there one day :) Thanks!

  14. I’m so excited for the future posts on the fundamentals of knitting! I’m a patternmaker, and for me knitting is so much more mysterious than pattern drafting and sewing. I just cannot blindly follow a knitting pattern, I feel the need to understand every single thing I’m doing and be able to to fit it into a picture of the whole garment, and so I end up wanting to remake or draft the knitting pattern myself, which is beyond my skill level, which leads to paralysis. Although your top down improv has gotten me to knit two sweaters so far (albeit for babies – less intimidating!).

    One of the reasons I so appreciate this site is that knitting is explained and discussed in a way that I relate to – when I first read about your improv sweater my thought was “but how do we account for different shoulder slopes?” and then behold, a post on compound raglans! Thank you for investigating and questioning and going beyond the fundamentals!

  15. I have been knitting and crocheting for 50 years. It is my meditation. I have had a lot of illness in the past 6 years and I can tell when I’m beginning to heal as the urge to stitch returns. Love your posts.

  16. I’ve enjoyed reading all the top down post. I’m almost done knitting the body of top down sweater but was wondering if you have a favorite way to bind off. One that has enough stretch and looks good.

  17. Great post. I’ve only been knitting for a couple years, but I am finally at the point where when I mess up, I don’t have to frog the ENTIRE thing and start over. Like you said, it makes all the difference.

  18. it was a big moment when I learned to read the knitting. And what you write about is why I tell people all the time “of course you can knit lace. Can you knit, purl, yarn over, and knit or purl two together?” There is very little more to it than that.

  19. Love this, and love the idea of the fundamentals of knitting series! (also sounds like a book project….!!!)

  20. Oh, this is great! This is exactly the kind of thing I tell people who are trying to learn to knit. I will now refer them to this post. :)

  21. Thx! I’m not a beginner knitter anymore but close. I’ve been knitting for yrs but things like that take forever to click. This really helped me even though I could figure out how to frog and fix. I was more, trying things and seeing what looked right! Thank you!!!

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  24. Love this post! I understand exactly what you mean, I’ve been knitting for around 5years & its my ultimate relaxation tool. I didnt learn to identify my purl & knit stitches for months.. everything was ripped out as soon as i started, Oh & dropping a stitch is a whole different type of disaster! I remember the pride when i was about to cast off, then to discover i’ve dropped a stitch & there is a huge ladder.

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