This month marks two years since I learned to knit. The experience of being a new knitter is still really fresh in my mind, and I hope it always will be, because I want this blog always to be approachable and inspirational to people at all levels of knitting. Not to mention there’s still a world of stuff for me to learn. That said, I thought this month I’d do a handful of posts specifically for beginners — both guidance for getting going, and also for how to get beyond that beginner stage as quickly as possible. But I want to kick it off with a Q for You, which is: What are your best tips for beginning knitters?
I’m spelling out mine below — 10 tips! — but the things it occurs to me to say are likely different from what it will occur to you to say. And you may even take issue with some of mine, which is all sort of the point. When you’re taught to knit by a relative as a kid, you have the benefit of watching and knitting alongside that person (or persons) for potentially years, and you pick up all sorts of advice people don’t even know they’re giving — the sorts of invaluable tidbits that come up conversationally. When you’re a grown person learning to knit, like me, largely based on online videos and interactions, it’s much much harder to get those priceless asides. (Which is why I love Q for You in general.)
So these tips are what sprang to mind for me, things I had to mostly figure out for myself, but I’d like this to be a group effort. Anything and everything you think a beginner needs to know, or that you wish you’d been told when you were starting out, please post it in the comments!
OK, here goes—
1. Yarn matters. When you’re first knitting, it’s sort of like driving a car for the first time: Everything feels perilous, and like there are too many (awkward) things to remember to do all at once. The wrong yarn will compound that. Start off with a “sticky,” yarn — something tweedy and tactile — where the stitches are likely to stay in place even if you accidentally drop them off the needles, which you will. Also, nothing dark colored or fuzzy — you need to be able to see your stitches.
2. Needles matter. Lots of people have tried and given up on knitting, thinking they hated it, when really they just had the wrong needles. Like sticky yarn, you’re best off starting out with needles that offer some friction, meaning bamboo instead of metal. (Harder, pointier needles will make you faster and trickier once you’ve got the hang of it.) If you’re splitting your yarn a lot, your needles are too sharp for the yarn. If you can’t work a certain increase or decrease without a lot of effort, your needles may be too blunt. It’ll all make sense to you over time. But there’s also the matter of straight needles vs circular needles vs double-pointed needles. Everyone has their preferences, and most things can be accomplished a variety of ways. So if you aren’t digging straights (or they seem to hurt your wrists), give circulars a try, and vice versa. (You can knit flat and in-the-round things on “circular” needles.) Don’t give up before finding what works best for you.
3. Yarn stores can be overwhelming. Shopping for yarn takes practice. It comes in lots of different fibers and weights, among other variables. Don’t be shy about telling the nice people at your yarn store that you’re a beginner. They can steer you toward non-slippery yarns and needles, but they’ll also help you understand how the store is organized and even help you decipher the labels on the yarn. If you buy yarn that’s sold in a loosely twisted skein instead of a wound ball, most stores will wind it for you upon request. But once it’s wound, it can’t be returned. You can always wind it yourself when you’re ready to use it.
4. Labels are your friends. Patterns are generally written for a specific yarn, but you might not be able to find that exact yarn (or even want to). Understanding yarn labels is the key to substituting yarns. The label will tell you the yarn’s weight and fiber content, which are the two most important factors to match up when substituting. It also tells you how much yardage there is (given in both weight and approximate yards) and how to care for it. If you’re knitting socks, baby things, or a gift for a low-maintenance friend, for example, pay extra close attention to whether the yarn is machine washable.
5. Swatching is for winners. If you start out knitting scarves, washcloths or blankets, and you’re using the same yarn weight and needle size(s) called for in the pattern, you have my permission to not knit a “gauge swatch.” Anything else — a hat, gloves, socks, a sweater — needs to actually fit you. And that means you need to make sure your knitted fabric measures the same as the pattern writer’s. If your stitches are bigger than theirs, your garment will be bigger than theirs. And vice versa. So take the time to knit and measure a gauge swatch.
6. The internet is amazing, and so are real classes. I’ll expand on this in an upcoming post, but I did most of my learning in the first year by carefully choosing projects that each required me to learn one or two new skills (increase, decrease, pick up stitches, etc). And to learn how to perform each of those new skills, I watched videos at Knittinghelp.com or YouTube. But as I alluded to above, the real learning — the difference between knowing rote skills and really understanding what you’re doing — comes from conversations with real people. I’ve taken lots of classes for things I could easily have learned from watching a video, but all the best things I know I learned in the breaks and asides and conversation that happened during those classes. Check the class schedule at your local yarn store and/or watch for the big conventions like Stitches, Vogue Knitting Live and Knitting Lab (among countless others), which I refer to as Knitting College and where you can cram in a whole lot of learning in one weekend.
7. Free patterns are a blessing and a curse. The web is full of free patterns and some of them are extremely well and professionally crafted. See The Purl Bee, for instance. (And hopefully mine are in that camp!) But there’s also a ton of junk that will go badly if you try to knit it, because it’s error-filled or incomplete or poorly written, and you’ll get horribly frustrated and think you’re a terrible knitter — or worse, that knitting sucks! — when really it’s just that you’re knitting from a crappy pattern. A good pattern is a lesson unto itself, and they only cost a few dollars! So until you know enough to spot the errors or fill in the mistakes, stick with professional pattern sources, and check the ratings and comments on the pattern’s Ravelry page. (Side tip: If you haven’t already, join Ravelry — the database is invaluable.)
8. Starting out can be expensive but doesn’t have to break the bank. Like most hobbies, knitting requires gear. It would be difficult to spend as much on needles and notions as you would on a set of golf clubs or a full complement of backpacking gear. But in the beginning you’ll find that you have to go buy a new needle for nearly every new project. If you’re on a strict budget, here’s my suggestion: Buy a set of US7 (4.5mm) needles — a 16″ circular, a 36″ or 40″ circular, and a set of 8″ double-points — and stick to projects that call for worsted weight yarn. You could stay busy for years, knitting everything from hats to slippers to gloves to sweaters, and never need a different needle.
9. A kitchen scale is an excellent investment. When you finish a project and have a lump of yarn remaining, how do you know how much you used, or how much is left for another project? What if you need to wind off a skein into two equal sized balls? How could you tell how much yarn you need if you’re copying a friend’s hat or a 4-year-old vest in your closet? In these and countless other circumstances, the answer is: You weigh it. As noted above, the label will give you yards per ounce (or per gram, in some cases). And from that you can calculate anything. (If your 1-oz. skein started out at 140 yards, and the leftovers weigh .5 oz., 70 yards went into your project and another 70 remain.)
10. Bravery is rewarded. The most important thing is to try stuff. Every time you pull off something new, you’ll feel like a genius! I mean, don’t try to knit a cables-and-lace sweater right after you finish your first garter-stitch scarf, but push yourself to gradually expand your skills. As I always say, it’s just yarn — no harm will come to you if you try something outside your skill set and it doesn’t go right the first time. If you only take one knitting class your whole life, take it right away and make it a class on fixing mistakes. Nothing will make you a bolder or more confident knitter than feeling like you can try new stuff because you’ll know what to do when you mess up.
OK, your turn — whether you’ve been knitting a month or four decades. Share your best advice in the comments below. And if you’re a new knitter with questions, bring ’em on!
PREVIOUSLY in Q for You: What’s your ideal travel knitting?