Friday, April 18, 2014

So you want to be a knitter...

Lately, I've been getting lots of requests from people who see all the fun I'm having with knitting (and knitting-related things), and want to know how to join in. So you've decided you want to learn to knit - how do you get started? I thought I'd put together a blog post, so I can point people to the same place and keep it updated. Here it is!

First Things First

Why do you want to learn how to knit?

This is an important question.

Like many learned skills, knitting can be easy, relaxing, and stress-relieving - once you know what you're doing. It is a wonderful creative outlet, which also has an air of practicality to it: I'm cold, and a store-bought wool sweater is quite expensive - if I knit it, it could be cheaper, will serve as hours of enjoyment, and produce wearable warmth with which I can clothe myself and my family.

Recent neuroscience research has studied how repetitive crafts like knitting can help individuals recover from trauma. It can reduce stress and improve recovery from eating disorders, improve cognitive function in elderly adults, and calm mothers of hospitalized children (summary here). It may produce a runner's high, and there's even a world record for running a marathon while knitting.

It can be as artful, practical, fast, slow, expensive, money-saving, public & communal, or private & reflective as you wish. However, like any learned skill, depending on your background and natural inclinations it may be more or less difficult to learn.

So, why do you want to learn? I won't go into my reasons; you need your own. Hold on to those reasons, and remember that this is supposed to be fun. Nobody's first knitted thing is perfect, so give it a go and see if you want to continue. If you try it and hate it, then don't fret. In the words of Elizabeth Zimmerman:

        "If you hate to knit, why, bless you, don't; follow your secret heart and take up something else." -- Knitting Without Tears

Learning styles are vital to understand here. I've arranged resources below by type. If you already know, for example, that you like learning from books, go straight to that section and skip the others. If you're not sure or you want a more balanced approach, give a bit in each section a try.

Knitting Books

"Knitting Without Tears", by Elizabeth Zimmerman
If you love a good line drawing (as I do), a hearty dose of sarcasm and wit, do not find old BBC shows dull, and have no patience for modern marketing, this is the book for you. This is very no-nonsense and has everything you need in it to get started. Originally published in 1973, it is no more out-of-date than Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." 

"Knitting for Dummies", by Pam Allen et al; latest edition updated in 2013
For a modern take on clear, no-nonsense instruction, the "For Dummies" series is a good place to start. Includes online resources. I used a previous version of this book that was quite good, and the authors on the latest edition are veritable giants in the industry today. 

"Stich 'n' B****", by Debbie Stoller. 
Published in 2004, this book launched a bit of a revitalization in knitting among young people. (Don't let current news articles sway you - the "knitting revolution" already happened.) It is quite rude and snarky and the use of profanity bothers me, but underneath all of that is actually a very good learning reference. It covers the basics of material & tool selection, hand positions, step-by-step stitch instructions, and works from a beginner's first scarf up to a knitted bikini and a hat with kitten ears or devil horns (your preference). 

Knitting Magazines

People tell me this is extremely odd, but I learned to crochet (which then lead to knitting) primarily through the instructional section at the back of craft magazines. Your nearest bookstore likely carries several of the titles below. Each will have a section at the back that goes through the basics of casting on and forming various stitches. For some, this may be enough instruction to get you started, and the patterns and articles in the main portion of the magazine are excellent for inspiration. 

KnitScene - my favorite of the bunch; fairly trendy. Great for beginners and seasoned knitters alike.

knit.wear - modern, minimalist knits designed to be worn today. I adore this magazine but it is probably geared towards more advanced knitters. Also one of the most expensive of the bunch.

Interweave Knits - classic & timeless patterns. 

Knit Simple - this is a great beginner's magazine.

Creative Knitting - also a good beginner's magazine.

Love of Knitting - feels out-dated to me usually, but check it out and see for yourself. 

You'll also see Vogue Knitting, but I can't recommend that publication. The patterns are usually fairly avant-garde, and (similar to their sewing pattern line) they publish very technically difficult patterns which can be hard to follow. 

Online Video Courses

Craftsy is a really neat platform. For each class, you get a "home-room" front page where you can track your progress. There are high-definition videos for each lesson, which you can reply and add notes to at any time. Video notes can be added at particular timestamps so you can bookmark pieces you want to review later. The homeroom also includes forums, where you and your class-mates can interact with the instructor directly. I've taken several Craftsy classes before and they were all fantastic. This one goes from basic how-to-knit all the way up to advanced stitch patterns and lace. 

Rather than a full class, here you can enroll in individual mini-lessons. Each individual class is $9.99, or you can buy a 'class pass' for a month of access to as many classes as you wish. NewStitchADay has a lot of free online resources as well, and hosts live "knit night" Google Hangouts. I have used a lot of their free materials, but have not purchased any classes. From the free materials I'd say the classes are likely of very high quality - if you try them, please let me know what you think!

Online Resources

There are tons of other resources to check out; so as to be not overwhelming I will highlight just a few things.

The Simple Collection by tincanknits
Tincanknits has put together an excellent (free!) compilation of tutorials, short videos, and highly annotated patterns that can walk you through a simple first pattern all the way up to a custom-fitted adult sweater. I made the Rye Socks from this collection (blogged here) and found it to be an excellently written pattern. Pattern PDF's contain links to instructional videos and tutorials related to the section at hand. I highly recommend this as a way to get started.

Begun in 2002, Knitty is a free online knitting magazine. They publish 4 seasonal issues each year, along with mini-issues here and there. Issues contain editorial articles and free patterns, ranging from beginner-friendly to highly advanced. They've also recently begun covering spinning. 

Begun in 2008, Twist Collective is a stunning online magazine that can be read for free. Patterns can be purchased individually. Issues are published quarterly and feature many excellent articles and inspiring photographs of beautiful knitwear. Patterns are usually advanced, but if you'd like to be inspired to further your craft definitely check it out. 

Local Yarn Shops (LYS)

Search Google maps for "Yarn shops near me" and you will likely find several in your area. These specialty shops are the place to go if you want hands-on instruction but don't know any local knitters (yet). Your LYS will offer regular classes and project nights, where fellow knitters gather to knit and socialize. 

These shops are an excellent resource for knitters, but as a new knitter I will offer two caveats:
  1. It is an unfortunate truth that small-shop owners may have poor attitudes towards new knitters, or anyone who asks for help. Popular media has tried to turn knitting into a fad, and seasoned knitters who "knit before it was cool" may look down on those trying to enter the craft for the first time. It's unwarranted and frankly, bad for business, so I don't know why this continues. Sadly, it does. Read online reviews, and engage the shop owner first thing when you walk in. Say hello, tell them you're new and would like to learn, and if they sneer at you try another LYS. 
  2. "Big-Box" chain stores such as Michaels, Jo-Anns, Hancock Fabrics, etc carry a very different selection of materials than an LYS. Items available at an LYS will be more expensive, which is assumed to be higher quality. This is not always the case, but you may encounter an attitude of "yarn snobbery" and be encouraged to spend more than you'd like. Understand that this is a very material-dependent craft. Working with poor materials can certainly degrade your experience as a learner, but that doesn't mean you have to learn to drive in a Rolls-Royce. Be firm about your budget. 
A quick note on materials
You will need two things to begin knitting: a pair of needles and a ball of yarn. 

Needles can be made of many materials, ranging from cheap to more expensive: metal, plastic, and bamboo are the most common. Go to a store and feel them in your hands. Needle material is a very personal preference and may change as you advance, but the key thing is that they feel comfortable when you pick them up. I suggest US size 6 or 8 needles for learning. If you have small hands, smaller-diameter needles may be more comfortable. 

The cheapest yarn is made of acrylic (basically, plastic). Big-Box stores carry a lot of these. It may be appealing to choose the cheapest material possible to learn, but (as you may have experienced in ready-to-wear clothing) synthetic materials behave very differently from natural ones. If you do not have a wool allergy, please begin your knitting journey with wool. Patons Classic Wool is available most everywhere, and is quite reasonably priced. Acrylic yarn does not stretch or breathe and can be uncomfortable to work with. Wool stretches and bounces back, making for a much better, more comfortable knitting experience. 


Last but certainly not least, is the social network for knitters, crocheters, spinners, and other fiber-crafters alike. They recently celebrated 4 million active users. You'll need to sign up for an account, but once you do so a whole world of wonder awaits. Ravelry hosts groups and forums, for connecting with other crafters; an extensive, searchable pattern database, cross-linking patterns with the knitters who have made them and the yarns they've used; searchable yarn database, including reviews and pattern recommendations; extensive documentation options for tracking your own work; and news. My username is AmandaLynA and I will happily connect with you if you'd like. When you join, a member of the Ravelry Welcome Squad will friend you right away and offer to help introduce you to the site. Check out their tutorials and explanations of what you can do on the site here

I hope this set of resources is helpful. If it is, I'd love to hear about it! If you have other resources to recommend please let me know and I can update this list. Best of luck to you as you begin your knitting journey!


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