So you’ve decided to be a knitter

The other day I had a thoughtful question from a blog reader, along the lines of “how do I get past the beginner stage of knitting, now that I’m ready to move beyond plain scarves?” Which is a pretty good question, and one to which there are many possible answers. (Also, in case this bears observation, if nothing else Stephanie’s recent travails with her Doctor Who scarf are a good reminder that moving to beyond-beginner projects doesn’t mean you abandon scarves altogether. Also also: scarves might be technically simple but they can demand a mammoth-sized amount of patience and perseverance. Technical skill isn’t all that gets things done around here, just saying.)

Jan10-Swatching

So, let’s say you’re there – you’ve done some time with scarves or other forms of plain rectangles or squares and want to move on, but aren’t really sure how to do it yet. If you have the advantage of having access to a Local Yarn Shop (LYS), this is always a nice place to start because they often have project recommendations or classes to peruse, or shop samples of knitted items to stare at and think about what you’d like to make next. If you don’t have the luxury of a nice LYS nearby, though, and are left mostly with your wits and a vague multi-directional sense of “I WANT TO KNIT THINGS,” then you’ve got a lot of options. Almost too much choice, in fact.

I would start here by acknowledging to yourself that almost everything is going to feel new to you – therefore, there really is no wrong choice here for what kind of project you decide to work on. A lot of people will tell you that a specific kind of project is the right choice – hats, for example, are very popular (they teach you about working in the round and decreasing, plus are fairly small), others would say dive right into socks (hand knit socks are eminently satisfying and teach you many similar skills to hats as well as the heel turn or short rows), and they might be right. The thing is, those people are only right if they are recommending a project that you yourself want to make.

The best possible choice you can make is to pick a project that you really want to knit – if you desire the finished object enough, then that will give you motivational fuel and excitement to keep going and learn the things you need to learn to make it. It’s true that stockinette hats in the round are going to require you to learn fewer new skills all at once than, say, a cabled pullover, but there are no rules here about what you must do. Knit as pleases you and see what happens.

Jan8-Stash3

I have only one proviso to the above, which is DO make sure you are capable of doing the following: Knit, purl, and at least one kind of cast-on and one kind of bind-off method. Every knitting project out there will require you to know these things – although if you stick to garter stitch only you can happily avoid purl stitches for as long as you like. Definitions of “beginner” and “non-beginner” vary almost as much as knitters themselves, but as far as I am concerned, if you can do those 4 things I list above, you are ready to move on.

Another fairly specific recommendation I have is DO set yourself up with at least one knitting reference manual that explains a variety of knitting techniques, cast-on and bind-off methods, finishing techniques, and so on, with helpful photographs for reference. I mention a few of them in this blog post, which I would still recommend, but there is also Stephanie’s Knitting Rules book for fun and perspective, Kate has two ‘beginner and beyond’ style knitting books, there’s Margaret’s Knitting Answer Book, Leslie’s book is nothing but cast-ons and bind-offs, and so on and so on.

The reason I suggest acquiring a physical manual (or e-book form if you prefer, if you find one with electronic versions), is that it is one of the best ways I can think of to combat the “I don’t know what I don’t know” situation that most of us find ourselves in at the beginning of any new pursuit. You can certainly find a whole host of knitting information out there on the web, via YouTube videos, in various magazine or company websites – and the more you knit and explore the knitting internet, you will discover these things. The trick there is that it is much easier to find this kind of information when you already know what it is you are looking for. If you don’t know what you’re looking for to begin with, it helps to have a collection of that information at arm’s reach. (Also: I like books. Hurray for books!)

Jan10-NeedlesAndSuch

What do you want to make next? Find an answer (or five) to this question and you will be all set. You don’t need to worry about what you might be able to make in a few months or next year or after you’ve learned X, Y, and Z, just worry about what you want to make now. Once you know what that thing is, narrow down what yarn and supplies and skills you’ll need to do it, possibly also track down a knitterly friend via web or physical space (“hi! I’ll buy you a latte/lunch/whatever you want if you’ll show me how to read a chart! Love and kisses!”), and go ahead and make it.

If you don’t know what you want to make, there are a lot of ways you can start to narrow down an answer. For starters, if you’re a member of Ravelry (it’s free if you’re not), take a few minutes with yourself and peruse the Advanced Pattern Search feature. (I blogged about this feature previously in this post, if you are curious for more). The wonderful thing about this feature is that it allows you to target your search by item (show me all the hats!), weight of yarn, construction, fabric characteristics (show me all the hats in bulky yarn with cables on them knitted in the round!), and it will vastly narrow the number of patterns you are choosing from. The pattern listings will tell you where/how the pattern is available, for how much, and so on.

You could also get ideas just by perusing your local newsstand or magazine rack – publications like Interweave Knits, Knitscene, Knit Simple, and many more, are often available right there on the shelf and you can see physically on the page what the item is and how complex the written instructions are, before you start to make it. The nice thing about magazine publications is also that they give you a variety of kinds of items – most will include some accessories, some garments, and one or two items for the home. They will also highlight a few articles on technique and knitter stories, which are always interesting to have around when you’re soaking up knowledge.

Other ways you can narrow down what you want to make:
-Something you want to wear
-Something you want to make as a gift
-Something you saw another knitter making and you wanted to make it too
-Something you saw in a store/movie and you wanted to make something similar
-Something to teach you a new skill that you want to learn (I must learn to knit in the round! I will find something made in the round!)

(You get the idea.)

Jan10-Miscellaney

Once you start making new things (do not be surprised if that one cabled hat leads to matching mittens, and a sweater that you saw in that one magazine so you decided to try it out for the hell of it, and maybe a little baby cardi because your nephew/kid/child you met once would look cute in it), the biggest challenge will be managing the new skills. Things you will likely start encountering once you move towards projects beyond a basic scarf will likely include some subset of the following:

-Working in the round, on either circular needles, double-pointed needles, or Magic Loop with a long circular
-Working increases and decreases
-Working with a charted pattern
-Sewing seams, such as the shoulders or sides of a sweater
-Working button holes
-Picking up stitches
-Executing cables, with or without a cable needle; Or any of a number of other specialized techniques including lace knitting, colour-work knitting, entrelac, beaded knitting, and so on. Within a single technique there will be enormous variation in level of difficulty, so try to see past the technique itself and consider how much of it is used in that project and how comfortable you are with it going in.

Mostly, remember that everyone is a beginner at something; Nobody is a master at everything. Also, nobody is perfect at everything, and we all get frustrated with our knitting at some point or another. If you have a moment of confusion or frustration or tearfully showing up at your friend’s door/running to the yarn shop/throwing yourself into a knitting class/hugging your confused cat while you figure out what you were doing wrong: congratulations, you are doing knitting correctly. We’ve all been there, and we have t-shirts.

Go forth and knit things, knitter friends! If you have a favourite tip for “beginner” knitters out there, please feel free to leave one in the comments. Catch you next time!
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55 Comments

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55 responses to “So you’ve decided to be a knitter

  1. Peg Biever

    Glenna, that was a well written, thanks.

  2. Peg Biever

    Oops, I meant to say, that was well written advice……

  3. Tessa

    I agree with everything you said but would like to add this: If it doesn’t go right the first time, it’s no big deal! Just either rip back or start over. Even experienced knitters have to do this all the time. Don’t get discouraged.

  4. “The best possible choice you can make is to pick a project that you really want to knit – if you desire the finished object enough, then that will give you motivational fuel and excitement to keep going and learn the things you need to learn to make it.” – sums it up perfectly, and I completely agree.

  5. Thanks for the advice. I agree that if you can knit, purl, cast on, and bind off then you are already a knitter.The only advice I can give is don’t give up and don’t try to learn everything at once. Just learn one technique at a time

  6. Laura from beautiful West Michigan

    I agree with Tessa. Don’t be afraid to rip it back to nothing or stop using the yarn you picked because you just don’t like the way it handles or acts and choose another one, and never be afraid to ask for help or to ask a “stupid” question. Tinking (unknitting, frogging, etc.) is really good to learn, too.

  7. If you’re just starting to knit something more complicated than squares or rectangles, choose a simple smooth yarn in an easy to see colour. There’s nothing more discouraging than knitting in a splitty, fuzzy yarn in a dark colour! Also, start with a rather thick yarn, it will knit faster, the stitches will be easier to see and you’ll get results a lot sooner! :-)

  8. LauraSue

    Once I started knitting (2006), I did one scarf. Then, because I followed blogs, I took my cues there. The Red Scarf Project was just getting going, so I knit a red, cabled scarf in order to teach myself how to knit cables. I knit a few hats for the Dulaan Project in order to learn knitting in the round. I found charity knitting perfect for learning techniques and getting my feet wet before tackling “The Sweater.”

  9. I’ve crocheted for a while now, but have knitting on my must learn list. I have to agree that picking projects you love is the best way to learn new skills, because if you love it you’ll want to learn all the advanced skills you need to complete it.

    P.S. Found you through Emma Knitted today. :)

  10. Wow, I wish I had this kind of advice when I started out knitting. Thanks for sharing, Glenna!

  11. Daria

    Use yarn that you like! Nothing makes a project less appealing to work on than yarn you hate working with. If a project is worth your time it is worth good (however you choose to define that) yarn.

  12. Susan

    What a great article Glenna. Everything you sdaid is so true…..knitting(as in life) is an adventure. Enjoy the ride!!!

  13. liz

    The best advice I got when I was ready to move beyond simple scarves, baby blankets, etc. was to attempt a simple baby sweater. It’s a great way to learn a few techniques and to get a sense of how patterns are written that served in future knitting, but simple and small enough that ripping back, funny sizing, small mistakes, etc. weren’t too big a deal. I started with the Five Hour Baby Sweater – http://yarntootin.typepad.com/5hourbabysweater.pdf – (which took a lot longer than that, of course). It taught me a couple of new skills, and most importantly gave me a lot of confidence moving forward.

  14. Caitlyn

    “We’ve all been there, and we have t-shirts.”

    Or more likely, the sweater with too long/too short/mismatched sleeves, the scarf that mysteriously changes widths halfway through, or the sock that never had and never will have a mate.

    Thanks, Glenna, for being awesome, and for keeping up a blog that has created such a wonderful little community here in this patch of the knitting interwebs.

  15. Debbie

    “hugging your confused cat while you figure out what you were doing wrong:” THIS! Oh my gosh, this sums up how I was feeling last night. Inspired by a friend’s birthday, I sat down to knit a hat. I have knit so many hats in the last year, it should not be difficult. Within minutes, my yarn was all tangled up and my cat was in my lap and I could not get the yarn untangled and it just seemed to get worse and worse. And then my cat was pawing at the yarn and making it worse. I hugged her and put the yarn down. I’m heading to my knitting club for the first time in a month tonight because I realize I won’t be able to untangle the yarn and I need some help from a patience knitter. :-) Thanks for the advice and the laugh. I needed it.

  16. Debbie

    Errr patient knitter….

  17. Cara

    I have chosen to knit a hair band. Thought I’d finish it over Christmas but made an absolute mess of it and even my mother (an experienced knitter) couldn’t figure out what I’d done – and so the ripping back began. I decided to take a break for a week or so just to get my head back in the game before I start again. But your post has also given me an excellent pointer – today I am going to go onto YouTube and watch someone else do all the stitches I’m not sure about so I have the confidence to get it right thus time. I think I’m more nervous of getting it wrong because I have chosen an expensive but gorgeous yarn. So 10 deep breaths, some research and then begin. Thanks Glenna I can always count on your blog to put my knitting challenges in perspective.

  18. Using yarn you love is always good advice! :)

    G

  19. I’m so glad I could capture your thoughts as a knitter! I similarly have knitted for years but would like to learn more about crochet. Anything with yarn is worthwhile ;)

    G

  20. llsnitz@gmail.com

    I love your sample yarn (1st photo): I’m making a hat of that MadelineTosh Graphite! Am I correct that that is your yarn?

  21. Sharon

    What ever it is, just go for it! You can do more than you think you can, if you take it a stitch at a time. I used to work with a woman who taught herself to knit – by making an Aran sweater!

  22. Amanda

    I took a begin-to-knit class and knit 3 inches of a garter stitch scarf before I knew that the only way I was going to learn was my doing something I ‘wanted’ to knit. (The scarf did not qualify.) So I knit my daughter a sweater.

    From then on I pick something that I’ve never tried before and have at it. Every once in awhile I’ll find something that I can’t quite tackle (butterfly stitch – you just think you’re pretty ;>) but I certainly have a lot more fun than tackling it in some arbitrary order that doesn’t make my happy.

  23. Glenna, although I’m not a beginner anymore, I always find your posts so encouraging and motivating. And now maybe I’ll finally get around to casting on that Royale that I bought yarn for in October…

  24. Sage advice, esp the part about find something you really, really want to knit! My 6yo son has been bitten by the knitting bug. He made a scarf-cum-neckwarmer for himself (lost patience for a whole scarf…), then a hat (which was smashing) and he wanted to do mittens next. Are you sure? I asked him, because I wasn’t entirely confident about him knitting in the round with DPNs and I tried convincing him to make another hat so he could try knitting in the round on a circular first. No, he really wanted to make mittens. And you know what? He can use DPNs now. The mittens aren’t done, but he’s motivated and oh so very proud of himself.

    So if my 6yo can do it, anyone can!! You just have to WANT to.

  25. Debra

    No local yarn stores (lys) close by my house so I learned to knit through books and Internet alone. Knittinghelp.com has many many useful videos. My first books were “Teach Yourself Visually Knitting” and “The Knitting Answer Book”. I wish I had bought a book of Cast Ons and Cast Offs because all of my early knitting projects used the same cast ons (long tail) and offs when they would have been better had I learned others. After my first garter scarf (which is wider at one end), I knitted baby hats to learn knitting in the round. My first socks were from Antje Gillingham’s “Knitting Circles Around Socks”. She teaches you step by step to knit 2 socks at a time on 2 circular needles. I knit all my socks that way. No second sock syndrome here. I have also knitted mittens and sleeves 2 at a time on 2 circular needles thanks to Antje Gillingham’s book.

  26. Great blog post Glenna! I learned to knit from books and online sources. I started with a simple scarf and went from there. I didn’t really have a place to go and learn, so believe me I learned from trial and error :)

  27. Cyd

    All great info! One thing I would add is to consider also not just whether you CAN knit the project, but whether or not you should knit it NOW. What I mean is, consider the amount of focus you have for something at that particular time – knitting anything complex or that requires your full attention in the upright and locked position may not be a good choice for a Sit & Knit night with knitting buddies, but perhaps perfect for lazy Sunday afternoon of quiet uninterrupted knitting. Most patterns give clues about skills required in the abbreviations or notes section, so don’t forget to read those before you settle in with your needles. This is the rationalization for having several projects of varying “difficulty” rolling at any given time – my stockinette socks are perfect for odd moments waiting at the car wash, at the dentist, etc. The lace shawl doesn’t come out for less than 30 minutes of focus time. It’s all a learning curve and good news, there’s no freshness date on yarn – it takes as long as it takes! Happy knitting!

  28. As a knitter who is just starting to move past beginner-itis, I really found this post to be helpful, encouraging, and accurate! My favorite book that helped me get past the whole “I don’t know what don’t I know” thing is this one: http://knitscraplabs.com/2013/01/book-review-knitting-basics-by-melody-lord/

    Ravelry is the bomb, but the biggest thing I can’t stress enough when choosing a pattern is: ALWAYS PICK WHAT YOU WANT TO MAKE BEFORE YOU BUY THE YARN. I know that seems sort of obvious to some people, but as a new knitter with newbie enthusiasm, I bought up all the pretty yarns and didn’t know if I had enough (hint: three 150 yard balls is NOT enough, most of the time). So pick your pattern, then buy the same ply of yarn.

  29. Thanks for the great post! The thing that drives me to learn new things is to find a pattern I love and just go for it. There’s always help to be found in the Internet, even if you don’t have books at hand.

  30. Cheryl R.

    One of the toughest things for me to learn when I started knitting (I still struggle with it at times) is that everything looks wiggly and weird at the beginning-I used to constantly rip back and start over, until I realized that I just had to have faith and keep going, and sure enough, after a few inches on the needle it starts to take shape, the pattern emerges, and it looks great!

  31. TBH, I’ve never understood people who were stuck at this stage. When I first learned to knit, I made one doggy scarf and one garter stitch shawl and then after that I moved on to all manner of knitting, from lace to colourwork to cables. I don’t even look at the stage of difficulty when picking a project, I just pick a project I think I’ll love and/or have yarn for and go from there. I think it’s allowed me to advance to really advanced stages of knitting in only a year and half. There are now only a few things I haven’t done (steeking, brioche). I really suggest just picking a pattern and doing it, even if it contains techniques you’ve never done before. Learning along the way is the best way to get better.

  32. Wonderful motivational post! I’ve been knitting since before I can remember and I constantly find new things to try and new knitting challenges. Here’s to the journey never being over! And Tessa…you are SO right!

  33. Robin

    Hi
    My mom taught me to knit many years ago. I knit doll blankets- it seemed like forever- or that was the answer I always gave.
    I believe the next projects I did were baby clothes, just something very simple,easy to do and something I could finish-accomplish.
    Or simple tops for babys and I usually droppped them into a mission box for donations.
    I taught my son to knit just plain knitting- an afghan. I have just finished it.

  34. I made two new knitters over Christmas break, and I think this post is something they both need to read!

  35. What a great post, I needed this 18 months ago though!! I taught myself to knit by making dishcloths. They were small, useful, I learnt different patterns using knit and purl and even yo on one of them (whoo hoo!), easy to finish and if I made a small mistake that I couldn’t fix then it wasn’t the end of the world, I could still use them. I still get a kick out of my pile of homemade dishcloths on their dish by the kitchen sink! I decided I wanted to make socks after that, bought a book, that helped and just went for it. I would really advise when starting something completely new to pick a small project so even if you’re struggling a bit you should be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel pretty quickly, and once you’ve mastered that, your confidence level will be so much higher and you’ll be ready to move on. A big project can quickly become demoralizing and over whelming which will increase your chances of putting to to one side and not finishing it.

    My goal this year is to complete a small and simple lace project and a cable project.

  36. Deborah N

    I found your blog from Stephanie’s blog and now you are citing hers.;-)
    I would add two things. Don’t add too many new skills in one project and if it still take you a long time to knit a scarf, kept your next project small or in a bulky yarn. You don’t want to burn out like Stephanie almost did.

  37. One more skill I would add that, for me at least, helps you feel more confident in moving toward a larger project, is tinking (or unknitting). The first few things I did, I didn’t know how, so if I made a mistake somewhere, it either stayed, or the whole thing got ripped out and started again. Which is not such a big deal on that first pair of mitts or whatever, but for a nice sweater, you don’t want to end up with a weird bit right in the middle of the front — or to redo the whole thing because of one wonky stitch. Learning how to basically backspace a few stitches made me much more comfortable with tackling a larger project.

  38. Fantastic advice! I especially agree with a couple of the comments: 1) learning how to “undo” your knitting is critical, and 2) knittinghelp.com is extremely useful. After someone has been taught the longtail cast-on, they often go home from the class and realize that they’ve forgotten how to do it; having a mini-video tutorial can be really helpful. I also like the way everything is shown in continental and English styles of knitting.

  39. Beautiful post! My cat has often been the confused victim of frustrated hugging and weeping ;)

  40. woollyprimate

    “The best possible choice you can make is to pick a project that you really want to knit – if you desire the finished object enough, then that will give you motivational fuel and excitement to keep going and learn the things you need to learn to make it.”

    This is so true. I consider myself an intermediate knitter. I am purposely holding myself back from doing the hard stuff and becoming an advanced knitter, b/c I have in the past grown bored with some of my hobbies. I am afraid of that happening with knitting, so I want to always have something to look forward to to keep me interested. Also, I am a process knitter and I like the relaxation aspect of it.

    I taught a friend of mine to knit. She’s a clotheshorse, and her main interest was to make pretty things to wear. I taught her the basics, but she was so motivated that she learned more stuff on her own and would just touch base with me occasionally for questions. Once she asked me how to sew a set-in sleeve. I had never made a sweater in pieces before. I always do top-down sweaters. I told her to come over and we would check my books and DVD’s to see if we could find a good reference for her. She shows up at my house with a Central Park Hoodie in her knitting bag!

  41. Thanks for this great article! I’ve been knitting for a few months and have been having some trouble balancing staying interested and not getting in over my head. This gives me a good place to start. I also bought Principles of Knitting to use as a reference book so I don’t have to go searching all over the Internet whenever I have a question. Thanks again!

  42. Good luck to all the new knitters! It took me ages to learn purling but it is rather simple once you get the hang of it.

  43. Excellent advice Glenna:) i agree, just deciding what you want to knit is the best way to go about it…at least it was for me. My friend was haing a baby and I decided I wanted to pick up knitting again after about 15 years, because i saw the most beautiful bolero baby sweater. I had to relearn a few things, and learn new things like picking up sts, seaming, increasing and decreasing. Thank goodness for youtube! Knittinghelp.com was also very helpful

  44. I am a self-taught knitter. Here’s what I did when I was at the “I’m ready to move on” stage. I would look at a pattern to see what I already knew. If the pattern included one or two new things, then I would look them up in a book or watch a video online. I found it easier to handle just one or two new techniques. This was quite empowering as well as I learned to not be afraid of knitting new things.

  45. LizFM

    After I got past the dishcloth and scarf stage, my first project was a hat in the round (I screwed up the decreases). Then, after that, 2 pairs of those felted clogs everybody seems to have done. That didn’t teach me short rows, as such, because I didn’t understand what on earth I was doing, when I was doing them. I was terrified. I literally counted off each stitch (didn’t understand how to use stitch markers then). I really wanted them (actually I made a pair for DH and for me), and the nice ladies at my LYS said it wouldn’t matter too much if I messed up a little, due to the felting. After those, I felt like I could take on anything.

  46. Doris

    Another thoughtful article Glenna! It’s been a very long time since I was a “new knitter” (40+ years). Actually, one of my first projects after learning was a lace knit in crochet cotton doily (my grandmother wasted no time in launching me into lace knitting!). Then directly into sweater, the first being for my then bf/now dh. I have, in fact, just recently learned to knit socks and mittens. And in a couple of weeks, I’ll be learning stranded colour-work. Each knitter has their own path. Knit what you love and love what you knit. Kathi gives a great suggestion – pick a pattern that teaches you a couple of new skills. Back in the day before internet, I relied very heavily on my still favourite knitting technique book. My only regret is that I did not knit more for myself. :D

  47. Lindsay

    This is awesome advice! As a beginner myself, I found this website to be really helpful with a good selection of yarns & really cute patterns. http://www.knittingtoknowewe.com

  48. tonymarkp

    This is one of the best “beyond the scarf” explanations I’ve read and I’m certain beginners will feel encouraged. I’m not a beginner and still got something out of it (ravelry.com, for example, thanks for the great link!).

  49. The wonderful thing about knitting is that although it looks as if there are thousands of different stitches in all those beautiful patterns, there are really only two: knit and purl. I tell my less experienced friends that as long as they can knit and purl, they can knit anything if they really want to badly enough. I also tell them, “Everybody rips sometimes!”

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