Notes for new knitters, part 3: What you can do when you’ve got the basics

I’ll wind up this three-parter by exemplifying something that I always tell my students: once you’ve mastered the basics of knit and purl, the door is open to all other knitting techniques.  Very little is beyond the reach of a knitter capable of executing knit and purl stitches to a good standard.  By the time you’ve completed one or two projects, you’ll be at the stage where instinct and muscle memory take over and you don’t even have to think about how to form a knit or purl stitch: it will just happen, and you’ll know exactly how and why people can talk and knit at the same time without much concentration.  In fact, you probably catch yourself doing just that! – but occasionally need to check that your knitting hasn’t gone off on a tangent 😉  The rest is down to attitude and willingness to try.  People who are truly good at something, or strive to be so, never stop learning, never stop experimenting and never stop being interested.  This is creativity and passion par excellence.

My first adventure was into the world of lace, but I could’ve easily gone for cables – they’re an equally good next step.  My love of lace began early thanks to the clothes my mother and grandmother sewed and knitted for me respectively.  My grandma made me some cable knits too, but I was attracted to the charm of lace.

This experimentation took place about eight or nine years ago.  As per my last post, I’d discovered Rowan Yarns, but I’d also made friends with the staff in Liberty’s and realised the limitations of working with chunky yarns.  They’d given me the quick gratification I needed as a learner, but knowing that I could see a project through to the end made me braver about choosing finer yarns.  I chose Wool Cotton, which is still one of my all-time favourite yarns, and the now-defunct Calmer.  Too soon for Kidsilk Haze!

First up is the Bliss wrap cardigan, featured in Rowan mag 39:

PlumBliss PlumBlissDetailThen the Sadie cardigan, from Rowan mag 40:

Sadie1 Sadie3 Sadie4You can see in the second photo that there is a small pip or knot in the centre back on the inside of the cardigan.  I honestly can’t remember if I made the knot or if it came off the ball like that, but I can definitely tell you that I’d never place a knot in my knitting today, especially mid-row!  ALWAYS join in new balls of yarn at the side seams, especially if they’re cottons or cotton blends.  It is possible to felt ends together, but that only works on handwash yarns with a high wool (or any other animal fibre) content.  Manufacturers are allowed to place a maximum of three pips or knots in yarns, because a piece of string is only so long.  However, they won’t be in every ball of yarn – spinners do try to avoid them!  My advice to new knitters is to always pull a fair length of yarn out of the ball at a time, so that you can see if a pip is coming.  If you do see one, complete as many rows as possible before you reach it, cut it off and rejoin the yarn at the beginning of the next row.

These lace patterns might look complex or elaborate to the uninitiated, but I can promise you they aren’t, or they wouldn’t have been amongst the first lace items I knitted.  And you can see that they aren’t brand new, because the wear on the yarn is evident.  Eight-ish years and counting, don’t forget!  They’ve been in the machine on a gentle wool wash, using wool detergent.

One of knitting’s biggest deceptions is creating fabric and patterns that belie the simplicity of technique.  Or, they may look difficult to create, but are actually simple to make.  Knitting has been around for thousands of years – if it were that difficult, nobody would bother!  As ever, if in doubt, read through the pattern and note any abbreviations you don’t understand.  And ALWAYS ASK SOMEBODY.

For example, the lacy stripe on Sadie is nothing more than two subsequent rows of ‘K2tog (knit two stitches together), yfwd’ (yarn forward and over the top of the needle, to create the eyelets typical of lace).  The ridges bracketing these two rows are nothing more than a purl row preceding the first lace pattern row, and a knit row after the last lace pattern row.  If you want to try it for yourself, cast on an even number of stitches, say 24.  Row 1 as per the sequence below is the right side of the knitting, as presented in the photograph above.  The pattern repeat goes something like this:

Rows 1-6: Beginning with a knit row, work in stocking stitch (1 row knit, 1 row purl).
Row 7: Purl.
Row 8: K1, *yfwd, k2tog; repeat from * to last stitch, k1.
Row 9: As row 8.
Row 10: Knit.

So, within the context of the patterned fabric, there are only two new instructions for the uninitiated: ‘k2tog’ and ‘yfwd’.  Therefore, you can already execute 8 out of 10 rows of that lacy stripe pattern, or 80%.  Why not just try it if you’re 80% of the way there?  It’s well within reach and you have NOTHING to lose, but PLENTY to gain.  It’s a cliche, yes, but eminently true.  And again, ALWAYS ASK SOMEBODY.  You don’t have to learn alone if you don’t want to.

When I realised this fallacy about knitting, previously complex-looking textures became much more accessible and I became even braver about trying new things.  I learnt new techniques like dancers learn choreography and loved it.  Again, getting those new techniques programmed into the mind is to do with instinct and muscle memory: you’re just expanding your vocabulary.  You’ve struggled with grasping the basics, but have put in hours of practice to master them and are now reaping the rewards.  You might not have believe your teacher and/or mentor when they told you this would happen, but the adages about practice and putting the time and effort in are as true for knitting as they are for anything else you have a go at.  You just need to give yourself a proper chance.

I hope these three posts have helped and encouraged any beginner knitters who might be reading, if not been insightful for the experienced ones.  I’ll leave you with a list of 15 things I think a new knitter should remember – and feel free to chip in below with any additions!

  1. Learning and becoming good at something takes time and practice.
  2. Be patient and kind to yourself.  Negativity short-circuits development and progress.  Give yourself a chance.
  3. Accept that mistakes are part of the process.  Knitters of all skill levels make them.
  4. Find a mentor (or two!).
  5. Don’t be intimidated by experienced or proficient knitters, or fancy-looking knitting.  The only things between you are time, willingness and practice, and all of those things are within your control.
  6. Ask questions and do research.  At least 98% of knitters are helpful people.
  7. Look for nice knitting shops near you.  Befriend the staff and tell them about you as a knitter.
  8. Keep a notebook to scribble in when you’re engrossed in a project.
  9. Don’t be afraid to try new or unfamiliar things.  This builds experience.
  10. Be proud of your achievements.
  11. Invest in your tools.  Try out different needles: some knitters are better off using wood, some knitters prefer circular needles…we’re all different.  But avoid metal needles if arthritis is or might be an issue.
  12. Practice on cheaper yarn – but make sure it isn’t unpleasant to knit with.  Try cotton/acrylic or wool/acrylic blends.
  13. Knit in a way that suits you and produces consistent, even and efficient knitting.  We’re all different.  If tensioning the yarn around your fingers one way is uncomfortable, experiment and find another way.  If you don’t like the English way of knitting, try the Continental method instead.
  14. Don’t overuse the internet.  There are wonderful sites like YouTube, Ravelry and helpful bloggers (hello! 🙂 ), but there’s nothing like living, breathing people and seeing something demonstrated before your very eyes.
  15. ENJOY IT!

Notes for new knitters, part 2: The all-important second project

After making my first pink jumper in my late teens I stuck with the chunky yarns, but after graduating from university I had more time for knitting and, having got my first job, decided to (was able to!) make more of an investment in my then-hobby.  This involved buying Rowan Big Wool – then something like £6.00 a ball!  Infinitely better than Denim Ultra, which was by now showing signs of wear and becoming the mild exfoliator it is now.

I also discovered the wonderful, indomitable Mrs Jones of Honor Parry’s Wool Shop, Battersea.  She was a very special lady, and it was from her that I bought the goods to make the cardigan below.  They included six balls of Big Wool in a lovely burnt orange shade called Pip, which were destined for the Laura cardigan from the now-extinct Big It Up brochure:

K7927R_COVERMrs Jones and I hit it off straight away, and she became my very first mentor.  By this point my mum and I recognised that also having support and guidance from someone outside the family would be good for me: the difference of opinion and experience would be a positive influence.  And what experience and influence!  I must have spent hours in her shop, asking questions, listening eagerly as she scattered many pearls of wisdom, trying to gather them all up, hoping that I’d remember everything, and that anything that I didn’t fully understand now would make sense later.  It was from her that I first learnt about different types of fibre used for knitting yarn, how they could affect tension and the properties of knitted fabric; different types of knitting needle – circular, plastic, metal, wood; histories of knitting, how yarn was produced…  Mrs Jones was a font of knowledge, and looking back I think she must’ve seen just how keen and dedicated a novice I was!

So it was with pride that, some time after buying what I needed for my Laura cardigan, I got on the bus and arrived at the shop modelling my finished garment.  Here it is:

LauraCardigan1 LauraCardigan2It is fortunate that I even have photos of this cardigan to show you, because I was to experience heartbreak during my first attempt at washing it.  Yep, you’ve guessed it: I felted my beloved cardigan.  And yes, there were tears.  I’d accidentally made the water too hot, and coupled with handling the cardigan during handwashing (needless to say, I’m MUCH more careful these days and have NEVER felted anything else!), I sealed the cardigan’s fate.  It was over.

I then had the difficult task of telling Mrs Jones what had happened, and she listened and understood with sympathy.  “We’ve all been there dear.  It happens to just about everyone.”  And in short, she helped me back on my feet.

Even now, the loss still haunts me, but not primarily because of the felting mishap.  As I write, it would’ve been lovely to show you close-ups of my improved tension and my improved finishing; and I do invite you to zoom right in and take a good look at the right shoulder and side seams – my first attempts at mattress stitch, which I discovered thanks to Mrs Jones.  What really gets to me is the colour of that cardigan: I loved it!  As an aside, this reiterates the importance of making something that you truly want, in the best materials you can afford.  Any colour-loving knitter will understand how difficult it is to find a really good shade of orange, and even now, nearly ten years later, I haven’t seen anything quite as nice as Pip.  One day, maybe.  Currently, the closest contender is Manga in Erika Knight’s Maxi Wool.  You never know.

But here’s what I did in preparation for my second knitting project:

  • Spent a bit more money on good quality yarn – but only after MUCH practice, making sure I’d ironed out the kinks and creases highlighted by the all-important first project
  • Found a lovely, charming knitting shop
  • Found a lovely, charming lady running the knitting shop
  • Asked lots of questions, listened carefully and got the benefit of another experienced knitter’s help and advice.

It was another series of lessons learned, but the most important thing I took away from knitting my second major project (and first ever cardigan) was having created something that was good enough to earn compliments.  People told me how nice it was without knowing that I had made it myself, or that I knew how to knit.  The unsolicited praise meant that all the effort had been worth it, and I was buoyed by the fact that having done it once, I could do it again.  I now knew exactly what it took to make something lovely.  And in much the same way, your second project will be better the first: the improvement will be undeniable, and the experience more relaxed, fluid and enjoyable.  Then you’ll really begin to realise for yourself why other knitters enjoy it so much, and how they felt when making the things that inspired you to learn.  That, along with a gorgeous garment, is yours to keep.

Notes for new knitters, part 1: My first sweater

This is the first of a three-part series of posts dedicated to beginner knitters, inspired by my past and present students, but experienced knitters may also find it interesting to read.  I have been teaching people how to knit for a few years now, and there are inevitably questions about my life as a knitter.  Most are easily answered with a couple of words – “How long have you been knitting?” – but occasionally my students ask questions that aren’t possible to answer in the space of a few minutes.

There’s always a student or two in each group that takes an interest in my handknitted wardrobe, and the questions typically go from “Did you make the jumper you’re wearing?” to “What was the first thing you ever knitted?”  And every time, I am caught out by not having a photo in my bag of tricks!  Instead, my students are left wondering what on earth happens between learning how to knit and purl and being able to knit a lovely, eye-catching outfit.  I realised how important it is to catch the interim stages of learning and development – not just for my students, but to demonstrate that we all have to start somewhere, and work out how to progress from that somewhere.  Everyone.

Whenever you watch a professional, someone who’s proficient at something, or the work of such a person, you’re looking at hours, weeks, months, years of practice, courage and dedication.  Sometimes such people forget the learning stages; sometimes, unfortunately, they create the illusion of having always been an expert at what they do; and sometimes their enjoyment and dedication makes time and effort pale into insignificance.  If you’re a beginner or not-so-beginner reading this, don’t let anything throw you or make you feel that something isn’t within your reach.  Everyone starts in the same way.  Do your best to remain unintimidated and undaunted by experienced talent.  Anyone worthy of your admiration will be generous with their time and advice.  Mine is semi-autobiographical, but I hope that you can take something away from it nonetheless.

When I first took knitting seriously after many attempts in my childhood, I was determined to make my own clothes.  No baby things, no toys – proper stuff, in my eyes.  And I decided, being able to knit and purl, to get stuck in.  So without further ado, here is the very first sweater I ever made:

MyFirstSweater1I made this in my late teens, so 10-15 years ago.  My mother advised me to get a relatively cheap yarn, so I went for Sirdar Denim Ultra and one of the supporting pattern leaflets.  Chunky yarn turned out to be a great choice, not least because my earlier efforts involved DK yarn, impatience and frustration – “Why isn’t it GROWING??!!”  Denim Ultra is an acrylic/cotton blend, but after years of laundering it feels a bit like a loofah!  Anyway, look at these close-ups:

MyFirstSweater2 MyFirstSweater4 MyFirstSweater5See the finishing in the two photos on the left here?  I only knew how to oversew at the time.  I tried to be as neat as possible, but even then I knew there had to be another way of doing things.  And on a practical level, the seams did – and are still doing – their job extremely well.  No sign of falling apart yet!

My tension is quite loose too.  In fact, in the picture below, you can see clearly that not only is it loose overall, but that the tension varies from row to row.  My purl rows were always looser than my knit rows because I hadn’t quite got the hang of the different manoeuvres required, and the consequent tension adjustment I needed to make.  Of course, this doesn’t happen to everyone.  Practice, and adjusting the way the yarn was tensioned around my fingers, helped a lot, and eventually there was no difference between my knit and purl rows.

MyFirstSweater6At the end of the day, I wanted a jumper – and I got a jumper.  I was, and still am, extremely proud of it.  It proved that I could knit something identifiable, and it also highlights some important things that new knitters should know:

  • Don’t expect your first project to be a knockout.  But it will still be gorgeous and you’ll be proud of it nonetheless.
  • Imperfection is no detraction from achievement.
  • Learn from everything you make; practice self-evaluation.
  • Do ask for help and advice.  Don’t be on your own.

Nothing created or achieved is ever without courage or hiccups.  EVER!  Especially if you’re the type that want to keep learning and moving upwards.

I took some extremely important things away from my first sweater project.  For one, I’m glad I took it on and made something that I wanted, that meant something to me, because it enabled me to honestly appraise myself, my progress, my ability to follow instructions, and what I needed to do to improve.  These improvements included: sorting out my purl rows, getting better at sewing up, and improving my tension.

So I took heart from having completed something, sewn it together, and made it wearable.  That was the result of my first proper knitting project.  It wasn’t wonderful, but it wasn’t hopeless.  It wasn’t what I was aiming for, but that was no reason to adjust my target.  My goal was within reach, and I knew what I needed to do in order to improve.

I won’t pretend that this creative self-confrontation was a doddle; it was a bit harsh and humbling because the jumper wasn’t quite what I was aiming for.  But again, you have to find out what exactly where you are and be unafraid of discovering things about your abilities – or what you are made of.  If you don’t make a start, you definitely won’t go anywhere.  GO FOR IT! 🙂  I did, and you can find out what happened next later this week.