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Jobs in the Home, knitting, early-mid 20th Century


Traditionally, different countries have developed their own ways of knitting. This page is about the good and the bad of the British way.

Our grandparents and great grandparents always used the term 'wool' because man-made fibres had not been invented. The more inclusive term 'yarn' is used here.

Learn to knit like Granny without wasting time and energy

Start out right when learning to knit

I see too many people knitting in a cack-handed and inefficient way. By this I mean making hard work it, excessively moving shoulders and elbows and having to look down at the needles all the time - and then achieving a result much more slowly than if they had been knitting the way our ancestors used to do it, and how most older women still knit today. They knit effortlessly, only moving their arms very slightly and they are able to look around, read or watch television as they knit. Fortunately for me, this is how I was taught to knit in the 1940s.

The few times that I have pointed out to a child or teenager that they could be knitting more effortlessly, they just say it would be too difficult to change now - and they are probably right. That is why it is worth learning to knit the efficient way from the outset.

Below there is more about learning to knit the easy way, but first it is worth describing the slow and laborious way that is now so common. If you know what it is, you should be able to avoid right from the outset.

Do NOT start out this way when learning to knit

The slow and laborious way to knit involves taking one's right hand off the needle every time one makes a loop for a new stitch.

The slow and tedious way to knit, taking the hand off the needle for every stitch

The slow and laborious way to knit, taking the right-hand off the needle for every stitch.

So for every stitch, the right-hand needle has to be let go while the yarn is wound round the needle. Then the needle has to be picked up again. The whole process requires continuous eye contact and on-going shoulder and elbow movement. Some knitters who do a lot of knitting this way have even developed shoulder and elbow strains.

It is fair to say that I have seen some excellent work produced this inefficient way, but I am sad that the knitters concerned were never taught the old skill from the outset. They would have found it far, far better in the long run.

Never forget this while learning to knit

The efficient and effortless way of knitting involves working largely by feel, with perhaps only the odd glance downwards at the end of a row or for more complex stitches. Relaxing and chatting, reading or watching television at the same time comes naturally because, once learnt, the skill becomes second nature and effortless. This in turn involves the way of holding the needles and maintaining the tension in the yarn.

How to hold the needles and maintain the tension of the yarn

Holding the needles and maintaining the tension - i.e. how tightly or loosely you knit - need to be described together because they affect each other. The following photos and their captions should help.

Although the method works however many rows of stitching are on the needles, just a few rows, mid-row are shown in the first few photos to make it easier to see what the hands are doing. This is crucial whatever the type of stitch.

Tension depends on how you hold the yarn, and is controlled by winding it round the fingers of the right hand and altering how tightly or loosely they grip. Sizes of needles are considered on another page.

The first step to getting the correct tension when knitting

To pick up the yarn, start by linking the little finger of your right hand round the yarn, palm upwards.

The second step for getting the correct tension when knitting

Then move your hand, palm downwards, so that the yarn is wound round the little finger and over your first finger (or if you prefer, first and second finger).

Arrangement of hands on the knitting needles

Then move your hand, palm downwards, so that the yarn is wound round the little finger and over your first finger (or if you prefer, first and second finger etc).

Practise how you can make the yarn slide easily or keep taut simply by how tightly or loosely you hold your fingers together.

How to move the hands when knitting

To get used to the feel of knitting, try the following movements until they seem easy to you.

Starting to knit so that hands stay on the knitting needles

Move your thumb along to grasp the right-hand needle as shown.

Knitting without taking hands off the needles

Now slide your right hand towards your left-hand. As you do this, the angle between your thumb and index finger widens.

When you are ready, allow the needle in your right hand to catch the yarn.

How to make a simple stitch

With the right-hand needle catching the yarn, slide the left-hand needle away from you slightly so that the yarn forms a loop that is caught over the right-hand needle.

Making the stitch when knitting

Slide the loop off the left needle, so making a new stitch on the right-hand needle.

At the same time, move the finger of your right hand away while letting more yarn slide through the fingers of your right hand ready for making the next stitch.

This simple stitch is called a stocking stitch, but the procedure for not letting go of the needles and maintaining tension is valid whatever the stitch.

Get the feel for the knitting as it grows

As the knitting grows, make sure that you keep the grips shown above, so that you don't let go of the needles until the end of a row. Then turn the knitting round and repeat the above stages. You will have to hold it such that the thumb of your right hand grips the knitting as shown in the photo.

The position of the thumb hidden by rows of knitting

By never letting go of the needles, you work by feel which frees your eyes for looking at people as you talk together or watch television, etc. It becomes so effortless that women used to say that it felt wrong of an evening not to have "knitting on the needles".

With more rows, your right thumb becomes hidden behind the growing knitting, but it should still hold the needle the same way, but through the knitting.

More complex knitting

More complex stitches are either a matter of how the yarn is wound round the needle or how the stitches of the previous row are treated for each new stitch.

Detail of knitting a purl stitch, showing how the yarn is held in front of the knitting with right hand needle making the new stitch through the front of the old one.

The purl stitch showing how the yarn is held in front of the knitting with right-hand needle making the new stitch through the front of the old one.

How the right hand needle is held for most stitches

Plain knitting which is stocking stitch and purl stitches every alternate row. The photo shows the purl side. The reverse side, normally the front, is smooth.

Irrespective of what the pattern may be, what matters is that you still hold the yarn the same way and grip the right-hand needle through the knitting, not letting go of it until the end of a row, i.e. continuing to work by feel.

Casting on and casting off

Obviously you can't practise what you have learnt on this page without getting stitches onto the needles, but the aim of this page is to stress the importance of the best way of holding the needles and the yarn. So I suggest you use the excellent guides on the internet for how to cast on, and of course how to cast off at the completion of the knitting.

Do make sure, though, when following the guides that you don't fall into bad habits of holding the needles and yarn the wrong way. The right hand must never leave the right-hand needle mid-row.

Other knitting traditions

The continental way to knit, similar to crocheting

A way of knitting similar to crocheting with the yarn over the fingers of the left-hand.

When I was a child in the 1940s, there were immigrants from Europe settled in our area. They knitted even more quickly and easily, and I have wondered why their method didn't catch on widely in UK. The yarn was wound round the left-hand fingers, rather than the right-hand ones, and the right-hand needle dug into stitches on the left-hand needle, rather like crocheting with a crochet hook. This method, too, involved never letting go of the needles between rows.

In my experience this Continental way produces a tighter tension.

Guest contribution

In the USA we call your 'Continental way' the 'French style' of knitting. It was how my mother taught me to knit.

Jose Munoz

See also

Knitting yarn

Knitting patterns and needles in the past

The old wool shop

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, please contact the webmaster.

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