It’s useful to think of your knitting as a grid, especially when reading and writing charts. But as it turns out, knit stitches aren’t equally proportioned like the graph paper you used in math class. Knit stitches are typically wider than they are tall, and whether you’re working in stockinette stitch or garter stitch has a major impact on your stitch proportions too. Furthermore, stitch proportions can be affected accidentally by gravity, or intentionally by blocking.
In stockinette stitch, knitted stitches are typically 4/5 as tall as they are wide. That means that if you cast on a number of stitches, then knit the same number of rows, your knitted swatch will be about 4/5 as tall as it is wide (say 5 inches wide and 4 inches tall).
In garter stitch, knitted stitches are even squatter at 1/2 as tall as they are wide. Conveniently, if you count the ridges instead of the rows, you’ll typically find that an equal number of stitches and ridges will produce a nearly perfect square. That’s why modular knitting is typically worked in garter stitch and lays neat and flat when you pick up one stitch per ridge along the side!
We usually only measure the height and width of our stitches, but knit stitches live in a 3-dimensional world! It’s the depth of the stitches that explains why garter stitch requires more yarn to cover the same area. In garter stitch, your stitches are deeper. More yarn goes into making a thicker, stretchier fabric. The image on the left shows the same swatches as above with three rows of stockinette colored orange and three ridges of garter colored magenta.
Here’s when you want to keep stitch proportion in mind:
When you’re checking your stitch gauge and row gauge. Stitch gauge refers to stitches per inch measured horizontally. Row gauge refers to stitches per inch measured vertically. Many patterns only require matching a stitch gauge for sizing because they instruct you to knit for 10 inches as opposed to 50 rows, for example.
When you’re picking up stitches along a side edge. Skip every 5th stitch (or every 2nd for garter stitch) along the side for a smooth, unpuckered fabric.
When you’re seaming a cast on/bind off edge to a side edge. Skip every 5th stitch (or every 2nd for garter stitch) along the side edge for a neat seam.
When you’re designing a chart for colorwork or surface decoration. If you use regular graph paper (like a cross stitch chart), remember that the design will appear vertically squished.
There are some words in the fiber universe which can cause confusion between people from different geographical locations, different age groups, and practitioners of different fiber crafts. So, in order to aid your ability to properly communicate about yarn, let’s begin!
What Does “Worsted” Mean?
Most knitters today use the term “worsted” to refer to a medium-weight yarn with a gauge of 16-20 stitches per 4 inches, usually knit on size US 7-9 needles. But, guess what? It’s more complicated than that!
The term worsted originates from “Worstead”, the name of a village in Norfolk, England where woven textiles were crafted from the 1200s through the 1800s. The woven cloth produced in Worstead was known as worsted.
In the spinning world, worsted yarn is that which is smoothly spun from combed fiber. The fibers interlock in tight, parallel formation. Only long fibers are used, which typically come from breeds of sheep with longer fur. In contrast, woolen yarn is spun more loosely from carded fiber. Short fibers are retained. Woolen yarn could be described as more lofty, fluffy or “hairy”.
In the weaving world, worsted cloth is woven from worsted yarns, like the traditional worsted cloth from Worstead. It is smoother, tighter, and less warm but better for blocking the wind. Woolen cloth is thicker and warmer since the air trapped within the lofty strands acts as insulation. (Of course alternately, woolen cloth might just refer to any cloth made of wool). For example: sharkskin and serge are types of worsted cloth; tweed and boucle are types of woolen cloth.
In the knitting world, worsted is a yarn weight category like sport and chunky. Unfortunately, there aren’t worldwide standards for yarn weight categories. If you’re from England, you may be more likely to categorize yarn as DK weight (equivalent to light worsted) or Aran weight (equivalent to heavy worsted). And if you learned to knit in the olden days (not actually that long ago), you may be more likely to categorize yarn as 2-ply, 4-ply or 6-ply. These days, the number of plies in a strand of yarn has no relation to its weight.
Speaking of plies…
What Does “Ply” Mean?
Essentially, a ply is a strand of yarn which is created by spinning. One ply is called a single, or a single-ply yarn.
But, ply is also a verb which refers to the process of combining multiple plies into a single strand of yarn. Plies are combined to produce a yarn which is stronger, more durable, more consistent in width, and more balanced in twist. A ply has a natural tendency to curl up in a particular direction because it is produced by twisting fibers together all in the same direction. By plying two strands (plies) together, one can introduce twist in the opposite direction to produce a balanced yarn which does not curl up on itself. An infinite number of plies can be combined into a single strand. So, a 2-ply yarn is composed of two plies; a 4-ply yarn is composed of four plies; etc.
Once upon a time, commercial yarn manufacturers could only spin plies of one consistent width, so that adding more plies would increase the thickness of the yarn in a consistent, linear manner. 2-ply yarn was a very fine yarn suitable for lace; 4-ply was a fine yarn suitable for socks; and 8-ply was a thicker yarn suitable for sweaters.
Now that yarn manufacturers can produce plies in an infinite variety of sizes, the number of plies has no bearing on the thickness of the yarn, and the terms “lace weight”, “sport weight” and “worsted weight” are generally more useful for communicating about yarn weight.
Note: Many people still refer to finer yarn as 4-ply and thicker yarn as 8-ply even though the yarn they are referring to may not actually have that number of plies.
Weight can be a confusing term as well! Most knitters use the word “weight” to refer to the thickness of a strand of yarn. Like I mentioned above, there are different systems for categorizing yarn weights depending on where you’re from and when you learned.
It is important to note, though, that weight also refers to the put-up of a skein of yarn. A skein commonly contains 50 grams or 100 grams of fiber, but may contain any arbitrary amount. The weight of the yarn in grams is usually noted on the label, and the cost is generally based on the number of grams of fiber (not the number of yards). Some patterns also refer to the grams of fiber required rather than the number of yards or meters.
That’s all, folks. Maybe next time I’ll tell you about the meaning of skein and gauge.
So, you may have a worstedweight yarn which weighs 50 grams, which is plied from 4 plies of worsted spun wool. And now you know exactly what that means.
So, what’s the deal with English versus Continental knitting? It’s all to do with which hand you hold the working yarn in – left or right. There are infinite personal flavors of knitting style, but these are the two categories. One or the other knitting style tends to be predominant based on your geographical location. Most of us living in the United States are English-style knitters. Supposedly, (disclaimer: I learned this on the internet) Continental knitting fell out of favor in the United States during World War II due to its association with Germany.
English knitting is most common in North America and Western Europe. English knitters are often called “throwers” because they hold the working yarn in their right hand and “throw” it around the right needle in order to make a new stitch. Throwing requires a whole-hand movement, and typically involves letting go of the right needle for a brief second in order to throw the yarn.
These terms all mean the same thing:
Left: Kim knitting English-style at Maine’s Fastest Knitter Race. Right: Andi knitting Continental-style at Maine’s Fastest Knitter Race.
Continental knitting is most common in Eastern Europe, Northern Europe and South America. Continental knitters are often called “pickers” because they hold the working yarn in their left hand, and “pick” it with their right needle in order to make a new stitch. It requires more finger motion and less hand motion. Among masters of this technique, Continental knitting is often considered faster than English knitting because it requires smaller, more efficient hand movements. (It makes a certain logical sense, but the video below begs to differ.) Continental knitting also may be easier to learn for new knitters with crocheting experience because the motion is more similar to crochet.
These terms all mean the same thing:
Knowing both styles can be beneficial for several reasons:
If you ever suffer from hand and wrist fatigue, switching back and forth periodically will relieve the stress caused by the alternate technique.
If you’re doing stranded color work, you can use both techniques at one time by holding one color in each hand.
The two techniques will usually result in different levels of tension. You can use this to your advantage if you’re trying to achieve a specific stitch gauge!
Personal enlightenment – the more things you know, the better, right?
Now, let me clear up a few misconceptions about English and Continental knitting.
First, neither style is particularly better for left-handed knitters. Nor is there any reason for lefties to favor knitting backwards, as in moving stitches from the right needle to the left as they’re worked. If you like to knit that way, then I salute you – expect confusion over pattern comprehension and inter-knitter communication, but never feel constrained! Both English and Continental knitting styles and the usual left-to-right direction work just as well for people of either dominant hand persuasion. I promise. I’m a lefty and I’ve met and taught a lot of fellow lefties.
Second, some people believe that English or Continental knitting is the best way, the correct way, the fastest way, or otherwise objectively better than the other way, but of course there’s no wrong way when all paths lead to knitting satisfaction!
I’m sure you will enjoy this video – in 2008 Hazel Tindall, an English-style knitter, was declared the world’s fastest knitter by the Guinness Book of World Records!
If you want to learn whichever technique you don’t know yet, we’ve got a class coming up this Sunday! Mim is planning on teaching the English knitters how to knit Continental and the Continental knitters how to knit English. Just like when you were a brand new knitter, trying out the other method may feel completely awkward at first. Having a teacher to show you exactly what to do with your hands will probably help!