Getting Beyond Garter Stitch: Or, How to stop being a beginning knitter

Getting Beyond Garter Stitch: Or, How to stop being a knitting beginner

One of my favorite things about knitting is how remarkably little you need to know in order to broaden your horizons. For example, if all you know how to do is work the knit stitch back and forth in rows, then what you can make is garter-stitch squares or rectangles.* But if you simply cast your stitches onto a circular needle and knit in rounds instead of rows, and if you can stick your working needle into two stitches instead of one (i.e., k2tog), then suddenly you can shape those same knit stitches into a three-dimensional object — a hat. Another one: Move your yarn to the front of your work, insert your needle into a stitch from behind instead of from the front, and violà, you can purl. Each new microscopic skill like that opens up whole new realms of possibility in a completely amazing and magical way. And yet the thing I love most about knitting is that there is a bottomless well of skills and techniques that can be learned, refined and applied in endless new ways. So there’s a very short path to competency and then a potentially gloriously long path to being an actual expert.

I’m a lifetime away from being an expert but I’m also a long way from being a beginner, after having knitted for just two years. People always ask me how I got past beginnerhood so quickly — particularly how it is that I cast on my first sweater after just a few months. For one thing, I knitted a lot, like every night before bed. But as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, it was about very deliberately choosing my projects in such a way that each one expanded my skill set just a bit.

Project 1 for me was a pointy stockinette hat that I was coached through by my friend Meg, god bless her. Rounds and rounds of the knit stitch, until my fingers knew the motion by heart, then I learned to k2tog at increments, and eventually had to move onto double-pointed needles (DPNs), which was scary and thrilling and confidence building. Project 2 was a cowl worked flat, and the new skills I learned were to purl and kfb and graft, as well as to pay attention to right-side/wrong-side rows and my stitch count. The pattern was given to me by Meg and it was this: Every right-side row, kfb at the beginning of the row and k2tog at the end of it, which creates a bias in the fabric (that was fascinating!), and purl every stitch on the wrong-side rows. Also: count stitches constantly to make sure I hadn’t missed a kfb or k2tog and thus changed my stitch count. Meg had done a provisional cast-on for me, and when the strip of biased fabric was my desired length, I got to use Kitchener Stitch to graft it together. Sorcery! Project 3 was Joelle Hoverson’s Big Lace Scarf, which could be considered overambitious. I did not successfully maintain my stitch count, but it was a great lesson in yarnovers and passing stitches over each other,** as well as following a pattern that uses repeats — all very valuable skills. Failure is learning, you know. Project 4 (and a few thereafter) was probably mitts. I was eager to get back to DPNs, love fingerless gloves, and was curious about how thumbs were created. I’d noticed, reading through various free patterns on the web, that there were different ways of making thumbholes, some fancier than others, so I worked my way through them — peasant thumbs in Toasty and Fetching; thumb gussets in the likes of the 70-Yard Mitts. And in the process I learned to work mirrored m1L and m1r increases, to cast on new stitches in the middle of a project, to pick up stitches, and to work cables. And so on — a few slipped stitches here, a little lace there.

All I did was pick out patterns that appealed to me, read through them to see how much didn’t quite make sense but could probably be figured out, and checked the abbreviations list at the end of the patterns to see what skills were used and how many of them were new to me. I wanted there to be at least one or two new tricks but probably not more than three, lest it be more frustrating than fun. And then for each of those new skills (whether it was a new kind of cast-on or an ssk), I watched a video to see how it was done. As far as that first sweater, I had taken a one-day top-down sweater class, but wouldn’t have needed it in order to knit from the pattern I used, which was Jane Richmond’s Ladies’ Classic Raglan Pullover. At that point, I knew how to kfb, cast on stitches mid-project and pick up stitches. So there weren’t even any new skills involved, just new ways of putting them to use. (Although the class had taught me to modify the shaping where I wanted, among other things.) And from there I just kept going, always looking for new things to try.

At one time, I thought I’d turn this experience/approach into a book — even had a coffee date set with an editor who I planned to pitch it to — and then the talented ladies at Tin Can Knits beat me to it by launching their Simple Collection. It’s a set of patterns with beginner-level instructional detail, meant to be worked in a specific order and to gradually develop your skills. They appear to have executed the idea really well. And it’s all free!

So the very short version of this post is: If you want to get past garter-stitch scarves, go knit your way through The Simple Collection.

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See also: Advice for new knitters

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*I have nothing against garter-stitch, but it’s no wonder so many people find a garter-stitch scarf to be the dullest thing they’ve ever done and give up on knitting before they’ve even begun. I believe there would be more knitters in the world if everyone’s first project was a hat instead.

**Which I did with my fingers! Because there was nobody around to tell me otherwise, and because, as it happened, I still hadn’t done a bind-off, so hadn’t learned to use my left-hand needle to pass one stitch over another.

29 thoughts on “Getting Beyond Garter Stitch: Or, How to stop being a beginning knitter

  1. I love this article. You really only need to know two stitches to make everything in the world. My biggest advice for beginners is just like you said: Choose patterns that are interesting instead of feeling trapped by making “beginner” level knits. It’ll keep you learning and challenging yourself but most importantly you’ll be happy with what you end up with even if it’s not perfect!

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  2. Totally agree about garter stitch scarves being so dull. Whenever I hear someone tell me they want to learn to knit by making a scarf, I cringe a little inside and pray that they are at least choosing something with a bit of interest.
    A hat is always the first thing I recommend when people want to learn, it’s so simple and just challenging enough. :)

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  3. Great post! Very encouraging. I am amazed at how much you have learned about knitting in just two years.

    I started knitting a few years ago with a very long scarf, coached by mom. It was instructive but boring. I didn’t know enough about knitting to realize that I could get more creative with smaller projects, so my second project was more ambitious — a cardigan. The ladies at the LYS, bless their hearts, said, “Sure! You can knit a sweater! We’ll help!” Though there are parts I wish I could do over now, it looks pretty good and I still wear it. More than I ever wear that first scarf.

    Once you can do knit stitches and purl stitches, there’s no reason you can’t turn them into whatever you want to make.

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  4. I think of myself as a “two-year” knitter as well. Admittedly, I learned the (very) basics when I was young, but then mostly focused on crochet during my college years, in fact, made string bikinis and halter tops and sold them in a local surf shop. But I knit so seldom then, that I never really progressed.

    I remember making a scarf in my mid twenties….I was knitting away one day next to a Swedish friend, and she said, “ya know….you are purling wrong.” I was looping the yarn from the wrong direction! Anyhoo, about two years ago, I discovered Ravelry, picked up my first circulars, and re-committed. One of my first garments was a pieced cardi (Avocet) that was all garter stitch. Honestly, I still like it better than some of my more complicated projects. The same applies to the Baktus scarves that captivated me. They are still some of my favorite FOs.

    The thing about progressing is I find it kind of sneaks up on you. There are so many projects that used to intimidate me, and when I look at them now, I realize how much I’ve learned in the last two years. Still a lot to learn though. A lot.

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  5. I totally agree on selecting a different pattern when knitting your first project rather than a garter scarf. My first try at knitting, the garter scarf was all I tried. I made tons of scarves but did not have blogs or friends who were into knitting, hence my knitting when into hibernation – no inspiration to try other patterns.
    One year ago, I had a need to knit. My first project, leg warmers for my youngest daughter. An easy pattern was found on ravelry and a deadline was set. Took a trip to my LYS, picked out nice feeling yarn – a malabrigo- and started. I haven’t stopped knitting since!
    For the past year, my hands have cranked out numerous beanies, shawls and now a blanket. Learning new techniques with each new project has whetted my appetite to knit different things that I thought was daunting.
    My next project to conquer – sweaters!

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  6. Wow! I just realized I too am a ‘2 year knitter.’ Yes, I ‘learned’ as a teen, but found crochet more instantly gratifying, but not sticking with the craft as I progressed into Art School. 7 or 8 years ago I made some simple garter and stockinette scarves, but had never increased or decreased a stitch before setting down the needles, again. 2 years ago I found myself in self-induced retirement, in a new community, and was introduced to a ‘charity knit’ when walking into Michael’s one day. That was just about 2 years ago to the day!! What a life-changing experience!! I did not take a planned approach to advancing my skills, but quickly not wanting to create ‘another scarf,’ moved me into this wonderful medium of creative satisfaction that brings smiles to so many faces, and great tactile pleasure to most who have the benefit of petting what is produced. You can see knit-feced’s progression on Ravelry.

    Carolyn

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  7. I did two garter stitch scarves IN A ROW when I learned to knit. Both of them acrylic. In the same color. The first one was knit every row, the second one was purl every row. Ha ha I’m weird.

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  8. I have loved your beginner knitting series. And it just happens to be right where I am at each time I read your posts. I took a look at the link to the Simple Collection, but honestly if you are up for it, I think a book by you would be fantastic. I really think you should go for it! I have to say too that just after reading the first paragraph of this post I was impressed with your writing, and that was before I even knew you were considering a book. Thanks for sharing this! It is so tremendously helpful.

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  9. I love your ruminations! I still feel like a new-ish knitter, and can hardly believe that it is nine years last month since I fell down the glorious rabbit hole called “knitting.” I agree that the best thing about knitting “is that there is a bottomless well of skills and techniques that can be learned, refined and applied in endless new ways.” However, my way into knitting was endless Long Rectangles. (aka “dull” garter stitch scarves.) They were not at all dull for me. In fact, they were the best and gentlest way possible to learn about different yarns, needles and gauge, and I enjoyed that stage immensely. Others (more crafty and dexterous than I was) might have been better off starting with hats!

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    • Oh, sure — classic case of different strokes. If they made you happy, that’s all that matters! I am actually a big fan of garter stitch, both in the raw and as a design element, and would never deny anyone their right to knit garter scarves to their heart’s content. But I’m also amazed at how often I have the experience of someone telling me they know how to knit, used to knit, but never/rarely do it. And when probed a little, it turns out it’s because they never got beyond the rectangle and got bored.

      I think it’s awesome — and an excellent point — that you used garter scarves as a chance to explore yarns and needles and gauge. I wish I’d had the patience to do that.

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  10. Karen, this is an incredible post! I’ve spent the whole day taking breaks and reading it slowly, digesting, following the links, thinking it through. Even though I’ve been knitting a long time, sometimes I mess up so consistently that I just freeze and can’t seem to get going again for fear of more failures. I see that I can bring myself back to a simple pattern and follow it. (I tend to mess up because I go too fast and I’m making up my own directions.) Another gold nugget that I snagged is that you knitted every night. That’s how I taught myself to play the native flute. I figured if I played it even 10 minutes a day I’d eventually get good. I was right! Anyway, I could go on. Thank you!

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  11. Karen,
    No wonder you are such a good writer …. you are an accomplished one as well! Kudos, and thanks so much for sharing it with all of us. I have come to love my daily dose of Fringe Association.

    P.S. The string bikinis? I actually could wear them back in those long ago days. (sigh….) ;-)

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  12. This is such a good post! My first project was a hat too, then a cowl. Both on circulars. Actually, I just realized I’ve never knitted a project not on circular needles! What I haven’t done yet is knit a pair of socks…for some reason, they terrify me. All my sock yarn goes to lacey shawls and baby dresses for friends. But that is on my list for conquering this winter!!!

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    • You sound like me — I don’t even own any straight needles.

      I just made my first sock (singular!) a few months ago, being not much of a sock wearer. But it’s really not scary! In fact, I’m eager to make more. (Just not a mate for that first one because I hate dye job on that yarn.)

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  13. Hi Karen,
    Love your blog-truly the best I have found for knitting.
    I learned to knit 30 years ago in college in Eugene Oregon. My teacher sold her goods at the local farmers market. Our first project was a cardigan sweater out of Lopi yarn, of all things, by Penny Straker. We learned how to knit, purl, increase, decrease, make button holes etc. The point is we didn’t approach it like it was brain surgery. We didn’t know to be scared or intimidated or to knit something “easy” because our teacher never gave us an alternative. If we made a mistake-guess what? We pulled it out and redid it- no harm done.
    Obviously, some patterns are more complex than others, especially if one is new to knitting but my philosophy has always been that if my desire was great enough I could knit anything I wanted to. Enthusiasm and practice and just doing it are key.
    I have found over the years in running a yarn shop that there are in general two kinds of knitters. I call them process knitters and project knitters. Process knitters are more about the process.The end project however lovely is not as important as the joy of creation and all that that entails. On the other hand, project knitters tend to focus on the project and it’s completion as the ultimate goal. This is a noble value but I have to say I have to refrain from rolling my eyes when I hear the phrase “I can’t buy an new project until I’ve completed that shawl I started x number of years ago.”
    Obviously, I’m more of the process type-and have about 5 projects going at once. For me is is about experimenting, dreaming and doing it.
    (My husband watched me pull out a project once said to me”I don’t understand your hobby.”) HA!
    I love your ideas on how to progress as a knitter. Very clever and inspirational and probably a bit more user friendly for knitters today than when I learned in the dark ages.

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