Introduction to Knitting

I have never knitted a garment in my life. Well I made a few items for Esme, when she was a baby, using very simple patterns, the odd scarf and a granny squares blanket.

I know how to knit, but I don’t know how to shape fabric with yarn and knitting needles. And the thing is, cardigans and jumpers are a key part of my wardrobe. I love wearing something soft and snuggly, that keeps me warm. I love the texture of knitting, and I like the “home made”, vintage look often associated with it. I can remember wearing knitted items my mother made for me when I was young. When shopping in charity shops I still seek out handmade children’s jerseys, and Aran sweaters, partly from nostalgia, but also because I appreciate how much work has gone into a hand knitted top and feel sad to leave them in the shop.

Arran sweater and tartan scarf: John Davies
A long time ago
Photo: John Davies

As I begin to think about my casual wardrobe my mind has turned to knitting. I tried to knit a cardigan a couple of years ago, but got into a terrible mess. A French friend (French women, in general, appear to be competent knitters) told me I was mad to start with a cardigan. So this time I am planning to make a jumper.

Lorelle by Purl Alpaca
Lorelle by Purl Alpaca

It is knitted in the round and it is made from alpaca wool. I saw the jumper made up at an exhibition and it appealed to me as plain but with a little bit of detail. I also really liked the natural colours available.  I shared the details with my ace-knitter friend Stephanie in Ottawa. I am going to quote her at length (but slightly edited) as she is an expert. Steph is generous with her time and help, and she understands some of the issues I might have.

It looks like a nice pattern that is doable for someone new to larger knitting projects. The most important thing is spending the time before you start to make sure that you can get the tension right so that you can expect a reliable measurement for the final fabric! When I knit I spend a lot of time measuring as I go as well, to make sure that everything will line up neatly. I generally find that my tension is looser in the round, so it’s important to check tension knitting in the method that you are going to be using. Making swatches is a pain but at least when you start knitting the garment you are confident that you are on the right track. The other thing is that unfortunately the needle recommended in the pattern is sometimes not the one that will suit your own personal knitting tension, so it’s helpful to have a couple of needle sizes around the needle size recommended for the pattern, in case you need to switch. That said, for something knitted at 5mm you might have a bit of leeway. It’s worth making a few swatches on a few different days, blocking them, and doing a good measure to get a sense of what your tension will likely be when you knit the garment, particularly as you don’t knit often. After I’ve made one swatch these days I have a good idea of what my tension will be as my tension is pretty even after all of these years.

I had, naively, assumed that if you buy the right size it will more or less fit. It is after all jersey. If it is a little large or small does it really matter? I was interested to read how precise Steph is with her tension squares and continual monitoring. I bought traditional 5mm needles and was going to practice my tension on them rather than go out and buy the sort of needles that work when knitting in the round. Will it be good enough? (Remember, unlike Stephanie I am no perfectionist).

Also look on Ravelry to see other versions of the pattern made up. People sometimes offer useful tips about narrowing the neckline, for example, or issues they found with the pattern, as in sewing. I have to admit that I usually use Ravelry to see how many “bad” versions there are made up, i.e. to imagine the worst-case scenario or imagine improvements I could make, or to spot something that seems great in the professional photo but that might look less nice in person. That sounds terrible, as I am no guru of a knitter, but often there will be one nice one and fifty fairly so-so or awkward ones knitted up, even though the initial pattern seems great. If there is a higher success rate with the pattern, e.g. 10% nice ones, I get a better impression of the likely end result. That said, as in sewing, having a successful garment in the end depends so much on the yarn that is chosen, the colour, and whether or not the person decides to check tension (or knows what size will suit them), which many knitters don’t bother to do. 🙂 I think we all start out as that knitter and seamstress, me as much as anyone, and then hopefully evolve. I just checked for your pattern and there is only one set of photos of one being made up, but the knitted fabric looks very nice.

I checked too and wasn’t overwhelmed. I just want to complete one garment I can wear.

Check in with a friend who is an accomplished knitter if you run into issues. Most knitting shops abound in people who know their stuff so even going into a knitting shop is an option. Some people like to join a knit-a-long group where women go to the shop and knit their individual projects at the same time. I have never done that and I doubt that you have the time, but I think it probably helps projects to move along given that there is a regular commitment to knitting the project and others can troubleshoot for you.

This is obviously very good advice. I have put out a call at work in the hope of finding someone who can help me in my lunch hour.

I will let you know how I get on.

32 Responses

  1. Stephanie

    Eek! I never expected to be quoted at length. That does make me sound very uptight and I am not the greatest knitter out there. The answer in my view is that you can definitely get away with being a little bit off on your tension, and I have certainly made OK garments for which I wasn’t particularly careful or that ended up bigger or smaller than designed. Part of it is obviously that you want to have armholes and other elements that are a reasonable size and with wayward tension the geometry can change. Over time you learn how to shape things to fit your body and get the exact ease you want.

    One thing I didn’t mention is that a few designers have put out books that talk about fitting knitwear to your exact shape. I haven’t used any of them but I imagine your readers can advise. I know that Ysolda Teague is one. That said for your first project it is probably overkill.

    Others will have more moderate advice I am sure. Knitting takes a huge amount of time so I want to be sure it is time we’ll spent.

    • You don’t sound remotely uptight Steph and you are a great knitter. I really appreciated the time you took to go over the basics with me and felt they were worthy of sharing with others who are completely new to this wonderful craft. I have always been interested in knitting but have never mastered it. With your support I am going to give it a go. Thank you from the bottom of my heart and happy travels.

  2. Not terribly good news, but I have found that my tension in the round is different than if I knit on straight needles. Makes some sense – you are either just knitting or just purling instead of alternating the two. You can knit a swatch on circular needles, you just have to cut the yarn at each row and push it around to restart. Realistically, you aren’t going to reuse the swatch yarn again anyway (particularly if you try washing it to estimate shrinkage), so it’s not much of a difference .

    I found with knitted garments that the things that bother me or make me proud (after the “can I get it over my head” issue) involve the edges- is the cast-on neat and stretchy and does the collar bind-off feel and look good. That might be something you want to practice since sometimes the pattern suggests something that is easy but not necessarily appropriate to the garment. The online magazine knitty.com has some good examples and images of different, sometimes very stretchy, cast-on and bind-off approaches. I almost always use tubular ones, since I just think they look the most professional.

    That’s a really pretty pattern, by the way!

    • Stephanie

      Great points, Ro. I almost always use a tubular cast-on now too. Not sure that Kate will want to go there for her first project though!

      • I went and squinted at the pattern a bit, and it does look like they use one of the simpler cast/on/off approaches, with a couple rows of stockinette or reverse stockinette to counter the natural roll of the neighboring section of garment. Actually, it looks good to me in this case – the cast off has a ‘braided” look to it that I might not like with some garments but that fits in well with the braided look of the decreases and increases that are used to delineate the change from stockinette to reverse stockinette.

        Another note about the very good point that purling often takes longer, so that the reverse stockinette section will be slower. You could take the approach of reversing direction, so that you are essentially looking at the inside of the garment as you stitch and are continuing to knit instead of purl. You’d need to do some tweaking at the end of the very first row to avoid a small hole at that point, but it is at least an option to consider if you find you really dislike purling.

        • Good point Ro – I did wonder about this. I am doing the purling now and it is fun. Actually I like a bit of variety in my knitting!

      • Stephanie

        Yes, that was my conclusion in eyeballing the pattern, too.

      • No idea what you guys are discussing, but will find out eventually I guess….

    • I know this is invaluable and hard won advice Ro and I am so grateful for your feedback. I am at the “can I get it over my head stage”!

  3. Anne Frances

    If I may just add, that is quite a large project with an awful of plainish knitting that will just feel as if I goes on and on. It will take ages, which, of course, is fine if you are expecting that. At least in-the-round stockinette is knit stitch all the way, which usually goes faster, but there is also a lot of reverse stocking stitch in that pattern which will be purl all the way and may be slower. And I would also just add that while alpaca wool is wonderfully soft and light and warm, in my experience it pills a lot. Frequent very gentle hand washing may help, and otherwise one either has to wear the garment with the pills, or use some kind of cutter/shaver to get rid of the worst of them. This Purl alpaca yarn looks quite firmly spun and might be a lot better that what I have used. But bravo for being willing to try and I look forward to hearing how you get on. I am sure Ro is right about the casting on and off.

    • Thanks alot for your comments Anne. To be honest I was attracted to this project because the yarn seemed so soft and I don’t like the scratchiness of wool. I am used to pilling with my RTW cashmere, and while it does bother me, it bothers me less than itchiness.

  4. Joyce Latham

    I’m glad you are going to give knitting a go. I too am at the beginners project level, but want to invest the time and effort into something I could possibly wear. I’ve been away for a few days and haven’t posted my knitting update, but I have found a pattern that is recommended for a beginner, and it’s a cardigan. I’ll post what pattern it is soon. I also landed a deal at a thrift shop of pure virgin wool! Enough to make the cardi! Bonus as this wool was a dollar a ball, meaning I’m not investing a lot of money on my first sweater. ( my colours you will be happy to know)
    I have no advice, …but it will be fun to watch your progress. So far, I have wool and pattern. I’m still trying to find the right needles— I do believe I’m close.
    I am prepared rip out, rip out, rip out, ha ha… I did the same as you on Raverly..checking out the photos to see what the pattern looks like when different levelled knitters give it a go.
    Anyhow…best of luck to you, and I’ll be following closely. Steph has helped me as well, and I have a knitter across the street, and a lovely wool store where people also give help. I don’t expect my completed project go be perfect, but I do hope to learn as I go.
    Till the next time
    Joyce’s

  5. Joyce Latham

    My project will be, Ramona Cardigan by Elizabeth Smith on Ravelry.
    Joyce

  6. Well, good luck with that! The one cardigan I made was a big mess. The truth is I think I’d rather sew a sweater than knit one.

  7. Hello Kate. I followed a link on Mary Funt’s blog, Cloning Couture, to find you. I was interested in the Six Napoleon dress challenge, but landed on this sweater page. I, too, am a knitter. I taught myself during a long stretch away from my sewing machine. I recently made a cardigan and ripped out the sleeves twice! It’s now a vest. I decided from now on, I’m just going to knit fabric and use couture techniques to sew the darn sweaters together. I have a lovely cardigan pattern that I used to make a Missoni knit jacket that will work beautifully and I know it will fit. I’m curious if you — or anyone else out there — has come to the same conclusion.

    • Hello Jane – thanks so much for reading and commenting. I find this idea rather surprising as I didn’t even know it was possible. Are you saying you knit a piece of fabric (by hand?) and then cut it and sew it up? Do tell me more – it sounds very labourious.

  8. I will second Stephanie’s opinion that the tension swatch is important. Maybe more so to me because I am bigger. But if you think of the math, that little “only one stitch more per inch difference” multiplied by one’s circumference will be a notable difference in size! That said, it shouldn’t stress you, just follow Stephanie’s advice to measure and you will be good to go! Because I am both bigger and taller than most patterns imagine, I tend to just knit a swatch that I like the feel of and redo/recheck the math to make it my size.

    Because you really understand the drafting for patterning in sewing , you should be in a good place for working all of this out for knitting as well!

    • Well yes, now you mention it – a little extra or not on a 10cm square makes a massive difference overall. It is already looking a bit big.

  9. Fun! I am a terrible Revelry poster, but I do a huge amount of knitting while watching TV. Are you familiar with Cocoknits? http://store.cocoknits.com/patterns I think her patterns might be perfect for your casual wardrobe. I’ve made the Gisela as both a cardigan (with and without buttons) as well as a pullover with a bit of a sailor collar. It’s great in Louet’s linen sport weight yarn, and is a nice easy knit. I’m pretty rigorous about swatching, but then I always mix up the pattern.

    Cropped sweaters look awful on me, so I always add length to the torso. One thing I always change is adding a bunch of short rows in the back so that it hangs a little lower (otherwise the back tends to ride up, which I find annoying and unflattering). If you go in 20% on each side and add 2 short rows every inch or so, you end up with a much more graceful shape. If I were more ambitious, I’d turn that into a formal part of the design.

  10. I use one size up in needles when knitting in the round vs. back and forth to get the same tension with the same yarn. I knit continental style except when doing stranded knitting (in which I also throw w/ the R). I use eastern combined knitting when knitting back and forth. If I didn’t do combi knitting, I’d need to size down even more to get an even tension.

    That said, the sweater in the picture looks awfully ambitious for a beginner and alpaca is awfully hot in the lap for summer knitting. It looks like a 30-40 hour project for a fast knitter. It would take my intermediate knitter friend 4-5 times that time.

    Gauge is crucial. If your tension swatch is 17 vs 18 sts/10 cm, multiply by the circumference of the yoke, and that 6% difference could mean a droopy disaster. Make a tension/gauge swatch as you would knit the pattern (in round or flat?). Wash it as you would the sweater, lay it flat to dry and measure only when it is dry.

    Do buy the yarn and pattern in a full-service yarn shop that supports their customers. Then you can stop by for help when you need it.

  11. I highly recommend “Knitting in Plain English” and the Barbara Walker books.

  12. Christine

    As someone who has had to rip out 2 jumpers because they were too big to wear I would recommend swatching as you intend to knit including your pattern stitches and being sure to wash and block your swatch. I knit too big but somehow my swatches do not reflect this. I have learnt to knit with one size smaller needle than my swatch and this works for me. But it took years to figure this out. And to really get a feel for the yarn and pattern before starting

  13. That looks like a nice sweater – useful and warm. Not sure what I can add too all the other tips people have given you, but if you want a knitting buddy I’m happy to help.

  14. I love the jumper, alpaca wool is so beautiful to knit with, and it will be a perfect addition to your casual wardrobe. You have received some very good advice and support from fellow commentators.

    I currently have a beautiful cardigan (alpaca wool!) knitted in the round that is near to completion and here is what I have learned: knitting from the bottom up means you can accurately measure – as you knit – how long you want the item to be. By the time you get to the really fiddly bits, the arms and neckline (increasing/decreasing), you should have mastered knitting in the round enough to feel confident tackling this part. And make sure you have markers (line markers and stitch counters) on hand for when you need them, and also take notes of where you are up to in the pattern in case the project gets put aside for some time. I have every confidence that you will enjoy the mental challenge!

    • That was what I was thinking. I have made a start but got to the patterning bit and I am stuck. “Phone a friend”.

  15. Good luck! I’ve done hand and machine knitting, but tend to be too impatient to get to a finished garment. I like the pattern you’ve picked, it will be lovely in alpaca. The big plus with hand knitting, or home machine knitting for that matter, is that the garments seem to last much better than shop bought woollens. I can’t work out why this should be the case.

  16. I can’t claim to be an experienced knitter but have knitted four pairs of socks and a shawl recently. I have also over the years knitted lots of small projects.
    In the same way that constant pressing after sewing each seam can stop a garment from looking ” homemade”, I have been astounded at the difference between a blocked knitted garment and a non-blocked one. Once your work is finished it is well worth taking the time to do this carefully.
    All you have to do is knit it now!

  17. I second Jay’s comments. I’d also recommend that you investigate continental style knitting it’s ergonomic and once mastered, quicker. The Internet has opened my eyes to a lot of knitting techniques I’d never come across before, short rows are great for shaping and faciniate and confuse me in equal measure.

    Reading this nudged my conscience, I’ve had all the materials for a Carol Feller cardigan languishing for a few years, you’ve started me thinking.

  18. Hi Kate, your blog hasn’t been showing up in my wordpress reader the last few weeks – I only realised the last few days and have now been catching up on your posts. Although this isn’t a new post – I had to comment when I saw knitting mentioned!. Delighted to hear you’re trying out knitting again – I imagine that too much advice can be paralysing for a beginner so I’ll keep mine short !
    Knit-in -the-round is a good choice because of the ‘try as you go’ possibilities, a spare circular needle can be used to hold half the stitches so you can check the fit as you knit.
    My first thought was that the sweater looks to be a straight shape – as you have a definite curve between hip and waist you may find it too baggy at the waist. Some stitches can be decreased at the sides as you move up the sweater , ( I can find a post to explain this more if you like?) It wouldn’t be too difficult as the main body seems to be in stocking stitch ( knit and purl)
    One thing I suggest is that you take one of your own sweaters,( that you like the fit of ), and then measure it flat and compare to the finished sweater measurements on your pattern. This will help you to know if you’re knitting the correct size and also to compare to your work in progress – you can change the length to suit your preferences. I would be happy to help if I can at all. Best of luck:)

    • Oh thank you so much Chris. This is brilliant advice and I am so grateful that you have taken the time to post it. It all rings true. The pattern is very straight up and down – but then so are most of my jumpers, so I thought it would kind of ‘mould’ to the body. I am meeting Nat of Made In Home (she knits beautifully too) on Thursday to find out how to do the cble stitches – I didn’t realise these were involved. It’s really a learning project. Thanks again my dear.

      • You’re welcome, and you’re right to think it will mould to your shape somewhat – without seeing the yarn knitted or held a sample it’s difficult for me to have a ‘feel’ of how it behaves! Great idea getting help in person. I’m sure you won’t have any trouble with the cables, like alot of things in knitting, it looks more difficult than it is. In reality,everything is a variation of the knit and purl stitches 🙂

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