The 3 R’s of Knitting: Essential Skills for Beginning Knitters

Nobody knows for sure how long knitting has been around.  The oldest known knitted item is a sock from Egypt that dates to between 300 and 500 CE.  That means the vast majority of our fore-knitters were illiterate.

Or were they?

All Knitters Read

Reading is an essential skill for knitters.  I’m not talking about the alphabet or any language other than the language of knitting.  Knitters read their stitches.  (Eyesight isn’t required, although it certainly makes it easier!)

When first beginning, almost all knitters produce uneven, um, objects, that are full of holes and strangely shaped.

Why?  The 3rd R, ‘rithmetic, plays a role, but the main culprit is reading.  Beginning knitters don’t know how to read their work.  This leads to all kind of mistakes.  Some of the most common are:

  • pulling the yarn over the needle instead of under it & knitting into this loop, also called a yarnover, on the next row
  • thinking one of the strands between the stitches is supposed to be a stitch that was somehow dropped off the needle
  • inserting the needle into more the just the loop of yarn on the needle

All of these mistakes are linked to not knowing how to read one’s knitting.

Understand the basic anatomy of your stitches.  Knitted stitches have their bump on the opposite side of your work when on your right hand needle. Purled stitches, or knitted stitches from the previous row, have their bumps on the side facing you.  Loops that look like stitches, from yarnovers, don’t have a bump anywhere.  The yarn goes in different directions on either side of the loop instead of being drawn together into one loop, or bump, from the previous row.

When you think that strand between the stitches is actually a dropped stitch.  Well, it could be, but if it is, it’s likely to “run” down several rows in your project.

Counting is your friend here.  Before you assume it’s a dropped stitch, count all your stitches.  If they’re all there, it’s probably not a dropped stitch.

As for inserting your needle into more than just the loop on the needle, there are a couple of possibilities.  First, slow down!  If you really want to become the Fastest Knitter in the West, you’re going to have to get the basics down first.  Slow down and pay attention to what you’re doing.

The second possibility is that your knitting is too tight and it’s just really difficult to get your needle into just the stitch on the needle.  Relax!  One of the reasons knitting is so beneficial is because it’s relaxing.  Yes, there’s a lot to learn in the beginning, but pulling your yarn as tight as possible doesn’t help – except with the first & last stitch of each row.

Have faith, new knitters.  You can learn to read your work.  It takes practice and experience.  Videos, books, and in-person teaching can all help, but none of these are a replacement for you working with your needles and yarn.

Written Knitting, or Understanding Your Pattern

Knitting patterns use a LOT of abbreviations.  At first, they can be overwhelming.  It’s a good idea to do a general read through to get a sense of how difficult the pattern is, and to make sure you have everything you need to complete it.  On this first quick read, don’t worry if all of the directions make sense.

Knitting patterns are completed one stitch, and one row, at a time.  

This means that as you work the pattern, it will usually make sense.  Experience helps a lot with this, and there’s only one way to get experience.  Just do it.

For beginners, stick to simple patterns that only use Garter Stitch (knit every row), or Stockinette Stitch, aka Stocking Stitch or St St, and one color of yarn at a time.

The other thing to look for is a key to any abbreviations.  Most are commonly used between patterns and publishers, but if a special technique is required it should be explained in detail towards the beginning of the pattern.  (If you’re the beginning-est of beginners, and you see a special technique described in the pattern, strongly consider switching to a simpler pattern.)

Commonly used knitting abbreviations are listed in glossaries in knitting reference books, knitting magazines, and knitting sites throughout the internet.  I’ve listed and explained some of the most common here.

Have Faith in the Process

Written instructions for many patterns are relatively simple when taken one row at a time.  Look for asterisks, which are used to indicate where you’ll start repeating things.  Follow the instructions, as you come to them, and you’ll likely do things exactly right.  Remember, though, patterns are written by people, and the occasional error does slip through.  In other words, the mistake may not be yours, so ask for help if you get stuck!

‘Rithmetic:  Adding, Subtracting and Counting, Counting, Counting.

As you may have guessed, counting is by far the most important knitting math.  Count your stitches at the end of every row.  Double or triple count your cast on stitches.  Get some, a lot, of stitch markers, and use them. 

  • Get off to the right start by placing a marker every 10 stitches you cast on.  This makes it easy to check that you’ve cast on the right number of stitches.
  • Use a different color or style of marker wherever you need to switch stitch patterns, or add or subtract stitches, or change colors.
  • Use a marker every 10 stitches, and count back to the previous marker every time you reach the next marker to make sure you aren’t adding or subtracting stitches, unless the pattern calls for you to do that.
  • In a pinch, make markers out of different colored yarn by tying a granny knot or a slip knot in a small piece of yarn so that you have a circle that will easily slip from one needle to the other.

Truth be told, there’s a lot of math that goes into knitting, including multiplication, division, and  remainders, but for the beginner,    counting is essential.  The rest can wait.

Concluding Thoughts

I’m always amazed when I think back to our fore-knitters.  They didn’t use written patterns.  They couldn’t read.  How much knowledge of numbers did they have?

But they could read their knitting.  They were able to make patterns and shape their work to fit heels, fingers, thumbs, shoulders, and thighs.

We have things so much easier now.  We know the 3 R’s.  Our patterns are printed or on our devices, always available.  We can go online to find videos and communities of helpful knitters.

Having trouble reading your knitting?  What are your biggest knitting challenges?  Let me know below!

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