It is possible to be a pretty competent knitter without understanding how to read your knitting, but knitting may be an entirely more frustrating experience than it has to be! If you know how to look at your knitting and determine whether the stitch you’re working into is a knit, a purl, a yarn-over, a knit-two-together or a make-one, you will be much less likely to make mistakes, and you will be able to easily “memorize” patterns. In reality, you don’t have to memorize anything or even mark your place in the pattern if you understand how stitches are constructed and can determine what stitch to make next based on those you see below.
Tip 1: Notice that when you knit a stitch, you’re actually altering the stitch below the new one you’re creating.
Here is your left needle at the beginning of a new row. The knit stitches are highlighted in yellow, and the purl stitches are highlighted in pink. The grey stitches on the needle are still indeterminate stitches. They will become knits or purls as you’re knitting the next row!
Now you’re halfway through the row. You decided that the indeterminate stitches from the photo above would become knit stitches, so I’ve highlighted the knit stitches and those that are about to become knit stitches in yellow.
Tip 2: Notice that knitting and purling are exactly the same thing, worked in reverse. Thus, a knit is a purl if you turn the fabric over, and vise versa.
This is the same swatch as above, flipped over. Again, knit stitches are highlighted in yellow and purl stitches are highlighted in pink.
Tip 3: Knitting means pulling the working yarn from back to front; purling means pulling the working yarn form front to back.
This is a knit stitch that you just popped off of your right needle. See how the yarn comes through the stitch below from the back to the front?
And this is a purl stitch that you just popped off of your left needle. (It’s actually the exact same stitch as in the previous photo, flipped over.) See how the yarn comes through the stitch from the front to the back?
Tip 4: If you’re working into a knit stitch, you will see a V shape below the loop you’re working into. If you’re working into a purl stitch, you will see a horizontal bump below the loop you’re working into.
You’ve introduced some purls alternating with knits in the previous row, and you’re knitting every stitch in the current row. I highlighted two rows this time: the current row and the previous row. The yellow stitches on the left needle aren’t knits yet, but they’re about to become knits. Notice how you’re about to work into a knit, then a purl, then a knit, then a purl…
Tip 5: The purl bump is actually the top of the stitch.
Now, you want to count how many rows you’ve completed in order to figure out whether you’re on a straight knitting row or a knit, purl row. You should pull the fabric taut because knit and purl stitches distort each other. Notice that there are two knit rows between the rows with the purl bumps, and also two knit rows above the previous row with the purl bumps. That means you’re ready to work a knit, purl row.
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.