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.
See also: Advice for new knitters
*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.