Well, you’ve come to the right place. I’m practically an expert. Why, by the time I graduated from high school, I had learned four new languages: Spanish, French, Italian, and Knitting. I remember rien from French, next to nada in Spanish and almost niente in Italian—but luckily for you, the only language I’m still fluent in is Knitting!
Since you are just a beginner, let’s start off with a scarf. There will be less trouble that way for both of us.
When I made my first scarf, I bought a pair of spaghetti-thin bamboo needles and some skinny, frizzy black mohair yarn—a terrible choice of yarn for a beginner, as I learned many mistakes later. You couldn’t tell what was a knit and what was a purl. (Do you know the difference? It’s pretty important. Keep reading.)
Starting at the Beginning: Knits and Purls
Depending on how you poke through a stitch on the needle and wrap the yarn around it, you’ll either end up with a flat thing or a bumpy thing. Flat=knit, bumpy=purl, and despite what you may be thinking, PURL is the correct spelling. I am practically an expert, as I said, so you shouldn’t even be thinking “Oops, typo,” or something like that.
But first, before we get started, let me tell you an amusing story about my first knitting project. You’ll love this because you will make mistakes too, probably even worse ones than I made, even though I’m as good a teacher as my friend Marsha who taught me how to knit when we were in high school. Making mistakes is just part of the fun of knitting. I can laugh about it now, a mere four decades-plus later. My scarf was a skinny several-foot- long tail of trial and errors winding its miserable way over my lap and onto the floor as I struggled to figure out where things were supposed to go. It continued to grow on its own like a fuzzy python long after I
gave up finished it. You, too, will feel like an uncoordinated dolt at times. Learning a new skill is an adventure.
K2 P2 and the whole right to left thing
Marsha started me off on a simple pattern: Knit two, purl two— which in Knitting would read: K2 P2 followed by an asterisk, which would then be followed by a notation like this one: rep from * to last 2 st, meaning that you repeat these four stitches until you reach the end of the row or the end of your patience. This pattern is called “ribbing.” (No kidding.) Simple, right? To help me keep up with the pattern, Marsha taught me a simple mantra which I repeated to myself as I poked my needle into each stitch and wrestled with the caterpillar-like yarn. I’m happy to share this with you, since you may need to use this too: Knit Wit, Purl Curl; Knit Wit, Purl Curl—shit!—Knit Wit, Purl Curl, etc. Easy peasy.
As a beginning knitter— like a beginning reader— you start with learning the letters and then building words. In this case, you learn to knit, then you learn to purl, and then you make sentences, which in Knitting means “doing a pattern.” For some patterns, like fisherman’s knits with a bunch of fancy cables, the sentences are grouped into paragraphs, and you repeat that same paragraph over and over again to establish the pattern.
One peculiar thing about the language of knitting is that, although the instructions are written in English (unless you aren’t paying attention and inadvertently buy a German pattern, in which case good luck) and thus read from left to right on the page, the stitches go from right to left; that is, you begin a with a row of stitches on the needle in your left hand, which you then knit or purl one or two stitches at a time until they are all on the needle you hold in your right hand. When you have knitted all the stitches on the left needle, switch the needles around and start over: stitches on the left move to the needle on the right: reading forward, knitting backward. Confused? It makes sense when you see how it works.
You want complicated? we’ve got complicated
Most knitting patterns include a glossary of terms or a list of abbreviations, which is sometimes necessary to untangle the nonsensical way the words are strung together. I still have to consult my dictionary of Knitting when I come across an instruction I have never seen before, and I am, as I may have mentioned, practically an expert.
Here’s a word you won’t find in a dictionary of Knitting, but might find helpful: Boustrophedon.
This refers to the writing of alternate lines in opposite directions (as an ox would plow a field, to use an example we can all relate to), right to left, then left to right. If you look at a pattern that is basically written as x’s and o’s in tiny squares to form a pattern boustrophedonically, you’ll be following the instructions in this way. The chart will also indicate what color yarn to use for each stitch if you’re knitting a pattern, like this spacey number I made.
It’s a little crazy-making until you get the hang of it.
The Math Section
Some instructions remind me of math equations, in that you treat what is listed in parentheses as separate from what comes before and after. As in math, if you make a mistake at the beginning, the end, or in the middle, you will end up with the wrong number of stitches in your row, and your pattern will not look at all like the picture, and you will hate yourself and knitting, and swear at yourself for being an idiot and not noticing several rows back that your cable pattern does not look like a sheaf of wheat at all, but more like a marijuana plant. Hate math? Wait until you try knitting.
Full disclosure here, since I sense you are starting to wonder if knitting is really for you: I spent over six years of my life working on a sweater that should have brought me a great deal of luck had I been an Irish fisherman in the 18th century, but all it brought me was misery and grief. I made numerous mistakes, ripped out many, many rows and finally unraveled the son-of-a-bitch and gave the yarn away to some do-gooder group. Best decision I ever made.
But that’s me and not you. You’ll never have an experience like that if you follow my expert advice here and…wait a minute. I’ve got a better idea: YouTube.
It’s all there, without the swearing.