Knitting: A beginner’s guide

6 Feb

Franklin Habit creates hilarious knitting cartoons and posts them to his blog: http://the-panopticon.blogspot.com/

So, you want to learn how to knit?

Your knitter friends parading about in their handmade hats, socks and sweaters has finally gotten to you, and just like teenagers drawn in by the pure sex appeal of cigarettes, you too are about to embark down a road toward addiction. You are about to pick up for first set of needles, your first ball of yarn, and learn how to knit.

Speaking as a yarn addict, I can’t whole-heartedly caution you away from this lifestyle. The idea of having another person to chat to about new patterns and seek emotional support from when the same patterns take a horrible turn is irresistible, but it seems only fair to warn you that your life will likely take a turn for the fuzzy in the coming months. Here are some things to look forward to as you begin your descent down the knitter’s path:

  1. You may begin to lay awake at night, trying to decide between succumbing to much-needed sleep, or trying to bang out a few more rows on that washcloth you’re practicing with.
  2. You will begin to notice just how many things in your life are knitted. Suddenly the careful examination of your favorite T-shirts, sweaters and curtains will have people around you convinced that you must be trying to find microscopic bugs on your clothes.
  3. Once you understand the stitch-work behind all of your own clothes, you will begin to grab the clothing of the same people who thought you were covered in bugs. On the plus side, when you encounter another knitter, they won’t mind at all that you stroke their sweater while you talk. Everyone else will likely have a problem with this habit.
  4. You’ll begin to lose a bit of control with your beginner yarn/supply budget. The worst thing about learning to knit is accumulating all of the necessary supplies. Once you have the right stockpile you can tackle just about any project, but in the first year it will seem you are constantly buying yet another pair of slightly different needles (or your fifth measuring tape).
  5. Your significant other will announce a moratorium on yarn-speak at the dinner table. They aren’t doing this because they don’t love you, they’re doing it because they have no idea what you’re talking about and they really just wanted to know about your day at work.

Knitting will gradually begin to invade different parts of your life. You’ll find yourself knitting while watching television, knitting while waiting at the doctor’s office, knitting while waiting for the water to boil even though you should actually be chopping vegetables.

This initial push may seem like a bit much, and there will be plenty of times when you want to just put down your damn needles and declare knitting a failed experiment. But I entreat you, don’t. The reason you want to knit all of the time is because you are excited. You’re excited that your fingers are developing the muscle memory associated with each stitch. You’re excited because you are investing hours of your life into something, and you have an item to show for it! You’re excited because with every stitch you’re a fraction of an inch closer to being that girl (or guy) that knits her own hats, and they look so much cooler than everyone else’s store-bought hats.

Getting started with knitting is a big undertaking. You can launch off like a rocket straight into garment making, or you can be like me and take two years to master the knit and purl stitches, then snowball out of control into advanced techniques.

As you embark on this exciting and dangerous path, here are some items I think you’ll need to get started properly:

  • One set of size US 8 bamboo straight knitting needles (yarn fibers cling to bamboo, making your stitches less likely to slip off the needle as you learn the proper hand motions. As you gain more control, you can graduate to metal needles for speed, or stick with wood.)
  • A couple of skeins (or balls) of worsted-weight yarn. This is the most common weight of yarn and what many beginner projects require. Wool is a very forgiving fiber and a favorite of beginners. Cotton is not as flexible, though it is softer on your hands. As a vegan, I would recommend Berroco Comfort. This is a nylon/acrylic blend that is stretchy, affordable, soft and machine washable.
  • Scissors (any kind will do, but small crafting pairs are very convenient)
  • A knitting bag. There are many companies that produce bags specifically for knitters. I personally have a Namaste Vintage Knitting Bag (discontinued), along with many other small project bags and some large handmade bags from my mom. What’s important in a bag is that you can hold a variety of items in it. Until you know exactly what you need in a bag, consider using a simple canvas tote.
  • Tapestry needles. These look like large sewing needles, and are used to weave in loose yarn ends when you finish a project.
  • A stitch dictionary with visual aids. I recommend Super Stitches Knitting, but there are many stitch dictionaries available and they will all be helpful as you get started and expand into new techniques.
  • A ruler. Any ruler will do to begin with, but eventually you will need to buy a 60-inch measuring tape to track your progress on projects.

With your supplies compiled, you’re ready to begin. There are many ways to learn how to knit. I tried using books and videos, but it took sitting down with a friend to really wrap my head around the basic techniques. You may have friends who would be willing to teach you for a small bribe of yarn or some beer. Check into your local yarn shop (LYS) as well. It’s important to support these local businesses, because they offer a lot of personal assistance, classes, and camaraderie in the knitting community that you can’t get at a big-box crafting store. This is also where you’ll find the good yarn, needles and other supplies as you expand your collection. (Keep in mind that there are two ways to knit: English and Continental. This all has to do with which hand you hold your yarn in, and if you learn some techniques from one person, there’s no guarantee the next knitter you talk to will knit the same way. I personally knit in the Continental method and I love it, but you hear compelling arguments for both techniques.)

Cotton washcloths are a popular beginner's project. You can practice your new techniques with inexpensive yarn and gift washcloths to your friends and loved ones.

Another invaluable tool for the new knitter is the Internet. There are more websites offering patterns, assistance, tutorials and support than you can imagine. Here are some of my essential knitting-related websites:

  • Ravelry. This amazing, free, social-networking site offers personal profiles, the ability to connect with friends, thousands of patterns (free and paid), forums and so much more. I use Ravelry for every knitting project I start, and I’ve learned a lot from the new friends I’ve found there.
  • KnitPicks. KnitPicks is a shopping website that offers quality, affordable yarn, books and knitting supplies. I bought my interchangeable circular needle set from KnitPicks, which is an essential item for any knitter these days. KnitPicks also offers a great podcast with reviews of books, yarns, supplies and tips on techniques.
  • Knitty. Knitty.com is a free online knitting magazine. You’d be amazed at the quality of some of the patterns on this site, and you can also explore technique tutorials and read articles and product reviews.
  • The Yarn Harlot’s blog. Stephanie Pearl-McPhee (The Yarn Harlot) writes knitting- and feminism-themed humor essays. She is a knitter extraordinaire and pattern designer in her own right, who has put out several New York Times Bestseller essay collections and other knitting books. You can keep track of her exploits many days of the week on her blog.
  • Knitting Daily. This site offers great eBooks, patterns and a useful newsletter.
  • YouTube. Just about any knitting technique I’ve had trouble with has a video tutorial posted on YouTube. This is such a great tool to use when you hit a rough patch in a pattern.

These lists may seem overwhelming, but keep in mind that there’s about $50 worth of supplies that will help you get started, and all of those websites are free! As you expand into more complicated patterns and techniques, you’ll certainly need to pick up more supplies, like my interchangeable needle set. But for now, you’ll have everything you need to make some awesome garter-stitch scarves.

As you start down this path toward yarn addiction and good fashion sense, don’t forget to check your local library to find knitting books and other materials.

It can be hard to get going at first, but learning to knit is a series of baby steps toward a very steep hill. Once you hit that downslope there will be no turning back, but I’ll be waiting for you at the bottom, all tangled up in my yarn.

This post is dedicated to my good friend, Courtney. See you at the bottom.

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2 Responses to “Knitting: A beginner’s guide”

  1. MaMa 02/07/2012 at 8:07 AM #

    Bess you knit as well as you write! If I did not have enough hobbies this would have encouraged me. I remember a girl who once said to me ” Why should I learn to sew when I have you!” Courtney, You go girl!!!!!

    • Courtney 02/07/2012 at 1:13 PM #

      I’m so excited to start knitting! Bess has been the inspiration for this new desire 100%. However, she’s had this effect on me before and the results of my effort, or rather lack of effort, were pretty horrendous. I flunked Latin class my senior year trying to keep up with this girl! I hope I’ll be better at knitting than I was at learning Latin. There is only one phrase I remember from that class and I repeat it to myself when life is overwhelming, “Vita es dura in Sicilia.” Translation: Life is hard in Sicily! Bess, this is an awesome post and I know I’ll be referencing this as I start down the path of knitting. Thank you so much for the great info!

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