Knitting 101: What do I Need?

Hello and welcome to your VERY FIRST Knitting lesson!

The goal of this lesson is to get you excited and educated about your upcoming project. Before I get too far, please know: you will not actually be doing anything involving needles or yarn in this lesson. I will be walking you through the different pieces that you will need to make a dishcloth and then explaining quite a bit about the how’s and the why’s of it all.

This is a very technical lesson, so for those of you who are more visual/step by step learners, skip to the bottom of this lesson to see the short list of what supplies you will need to gather. Or skip straight to the final lesson here which includes the pattern in full with materials you will need.

I would love to take some time to go into the history of knitting and give you a bit of an overview on what exactly it is, but I think that is well accomplished here if you are interested in that part of it. For now, suffice it to say, knitting is a form of advanced knot tying.

So, with that all said, what DO we need? Tension, material, weight, needle size, gauge, and stitch.

Tension

What is tension? The first definition of the noun tension is “the act of stretching or straining” (thank you Dictionary.com). In any kind of yarn art, the better part of what your hands will be doing is making sure the stretch you put on the yarn remains consistent.

Many times when people think of tension, they think of something being pulled extremely tight or (as the definition indicates) something that is strained. In this case, tension is a term used to indicate how tight (or loose) your yarn is. Just like in sewing, as you adjust the tension you change how the stitch comes out. The tighter the tension, the smaller the stitch, the looser the tension, the larger the stitch.

Be very careful though holding the yarn too tightly or too loosely can cause some big problems as you advance. Try to find a happy medium, if you’re leaving yarn lines in your finger, you’re probably holding it too tight. If your work is sagging off of the needle or you’re having trouble telling what should or shouldn’t be on the needle, you’re probably holding it too loose.

So, all this sounds great, but how do you KNOW? One of the best ways to practice tension is actually a children’s string game called “cat’s cradle” (instruction here). This game is all about tension. Too tight and your partner can’t move the strings to progress the game, too loose and things get tangled. It’s all about finding the balance.

Material

Sure, you’ll be using yarn, but what KIND of yarn? Perhaps a natural fiber like cotton, bamboo, or wool? What about something different like linen, cashmere, or silk? Maybe something recycled like old t-shirts or grocery bags? With so many choices, it’s a good idea to be informed about what kinds of yarn are out there and what really is a good idea to start with.

So here’s my usual advice, before you start your first “real” project: go to the mega-mart store or craft store nearest you and get a cheap brand, something around three dollars a skein for a 7oz skein. Starting your first project is not the time to get a yarn that you’ve fallen in love with. Many of the specialty yarns–things like wool, and cashmere–are not “forgiving” yarns. If you make a mistake and have to go back, many times the yarn is pinched to ruin or falls apart. The best choice for practicing is something called acrylic.

“But isn’t that what I get put on my nails at the salon!?”

Well, sort of. Acrylic is a label for just about anything derived from acrylic acid or a related compound. What you get put on your nails at the salon is generally a compound of Polymethyl methacrylate (learn more about that here) which is the same basic ingredient in acrylic “glass” panels, eyeglass lenses, paint, and part of black light reactive tattoo ink among other things.  The acrylic that yarn is made from is a polymer with at least 85% acrylonitrile monomer (in the US anyway). AKSA has some more information on that. So the massive oversimplification is, they’re both plastic, but they’re different kinds of plastic. Curious as to how all these chemicals become yarn? Check out this video for more information on how Red Heart does it.

As you get the basics down, you’ll be able to move on to different fibers. Don’t get down though, acrylic yarn doesn’t have to mean scratchy yarn. There are several brands and styles on the market at the big craft stores and even at some of the mega-mart that are very soft and nice to work with.

For the dishcloth, you’ll normally be using  100% cotton yarn which is durable and holds up well in the kitchen. If this is your VERY first project, I still recommend using acrylic for it. It won’t work well in the kitchen, but it will work well for helping you learn.

 Weight

Weight? Wait! Did I just suggest to get a 7oz skein of yarn?

I did, but this time, that’s not the weight we’re looking at. This time, the weight is talking about how thick the yarn is. The weight can range in size from the delicate US 0 or lace weight all the way up to US 7 or Jumbo. Recently it’s become popular to use Giant size yarn but that goes beyond needles, so we won’t go there right now.

This should be simple enough right? 0,1,2,3,4,…wait…not quite that easy.

There are TWO kinds of yarn that get labeled as 0 in the US and TWO kinds of yarn that get labeled as 1in the US. The good news is, unless you’re doing VERY tiny lace work or tatting, this probably won’t matter to you. However, in the US, both 1 ply and 2 ply yarns are considered 0 weight and 3ply and 4ply yarns are considered 1 weight. To make matters even more confusing, each weight of yarn has 4-5 OTHER names.

So, lets just make this easy: go to your favorite search engine and enter the term “yarn weight chart” in the images section, pick the one that makes the most sense to you and save it to your favorite device for reference later (or just use this one). Luckily in the US, most yarns are labeled with a standardized picture featured in most weight charts on the internet, so you can just match the size you need to the number.

Each weight has a recommended Needle Size to go with it. This is were the pieces start to come together. The thickness of the yarn will be partially responsible for determining the Gauge of the project.  If your yarn is thicker than your hook, you will probably have a hard time working with the yarn.

The cotton or acrylic you’ll be using for the dishcloth should be 4 weight or “worsted” weight.

Needle Size

There are three sorts of needles you’ll need to know about: Straight needles, circular needles, and double pointed needles.

Luckily for all of us, these three different types of needle are all sized the same. They have different functions, but when it comes to how thick they are, there’s a handy chart here to help us out.

So, what IS the difference between them? Well….

Straight Needles: As you might imagine from the name, straight needles are straight. They do not have a wire or a second point, they have a point on one end and a knob of sorts on the other. Most the the knitting you see on TV is with straight needles and most beginners start with them because they are used for everything from dishcloths to sweaters.

Circular Needles: These needles are not, in fact circular, but instead allow for easy creation of items that ARE circular (like shirt sleeves or socks). Circular needles have two pointed ends joined in the middle by a, usually, plastic wire.

Double Pointed Needles (DPN): Double pointed needles are something of a combination of straight and circular needles. They are straight like Straight Needles, but they have two points on them like Circular Needles. Double Pointed needles are used for making circular items that are too small for circular needles like socks (yeah they go either way), i-cords, finishing work, and some baby items.

When selecting a material for your needles the MOST important thing for you to consider is what works best for YOU. Everyone is different and has different preferences. If one style doesn’t work for you, get a different one. There is some great information on here about the MANY different styles of needle. Plastic needles are a good place to start if you’re new to knitting because they are fairly cheap and easy to work with, but it will always come down to what is comfortable for you.

For your first project, I recommend a set of plastic needles because they’re inexpensive and readily available at most mega-marts and craft stores as well as online. If you’re just practicing, I would suggest US size 9 (5.5mm), 10 (6.0mm), US 10.5 (6.5mm) needles. They are good upper-mid sized hooks that create good size stitch and are easy to work with.  For our dishcloth project, we’ll be using a plastic US 10(6.0mm) set of needles.

Gauge

To be completely honest, I didn’t know what a gauge swatch was when I started and once I did know I often thought “I don’t need to do that! I know how to crochet.” So far I have been fairly lucky. Only twice have I really gotten in trouble with gauge. Unfortunately BOTH times were sweaters I REALLY loved and really wanted to make. The first time I chalked it up to the pattern being from a vintage book and the sizes being “smaller back then” as a friend ‘wisely’ put it. The second time I had to question myself when working with a recently published pattern from a brand new book. The pattern said it was a “woman’s size 14” and it was coming out so small, it looked like it might fit a doll. This same lesson applies to knitting.

So, what is Gauge? Well, the most common definition is “a standard dimension, quantity, or capacity[…]” basically, it is the way you know that what you’re making is the same size as the pattern intended it to be. Gauge is the things that makes sure your dishcloth doesn’t become a baby blanket by accident.

Before you begin any pattern, it is a good idea to make what is known as a “gauge swatch.” While many advanced knitters will forgo this step, it is usually best to make a swatch until you are very comfortable with your tension and your stitching is more even than not. Really, you SHOULD always make a gauge swatch, but often times excitement trumps caution when starting a new project and the finer details and extra steps can get thrown sideways.

There is another VERY important piece that you need to think about when it comes to Gauge in your patterns: the size of both the yarn and the needles you are using. It is not at all uncommon for me to be walking through the yarn shop and stop at some beautiful yarn or another and pick it up saying “Wow, this would be so pretty as…..” only to get home and find that the yarn I picked out is the WRONG size for the pattern I’m making.

So I of course return the yarn immediately…..

HAHAHAHA! Yeah, right.

I think we all know that there is a thing that happens when you have found “THE YARN” for the project that throws all sense out the window and says “I don’t care what the pattern calls for.” Luckily, by understanding the Gauge called for, you can use that yarn you picked out WITHOUT having to adjust how many stitches you use or having the finished work come out too big or too small. To do that though, you MUST do a gauge swatch. I know, it’s a pain, but you will be glad you did it when you realize that you have saved yourself much heartache and expletives by just knowing your Gauge.

Stitch

Finally! We can pull all this together and start to stitch!

And the best part: the pattern tells you what stitch to pick! No more complicated decisions, no more science behind the scenes, and no more long winded blogger telling you more than you ever wanted to know!

BUT: before you can begin stitching, you have to get the yarn attached to the needle! There are many ways to accomplish this, but the best way I have found for beginners is a slip knot. There seem to be a couple of different ways to tie this knot, you can use your favorite, as long as you can slide the loop at the end to change the size. The resizable loop allows you to get your needle into and out of the loop easily and also lets the cast on slide a little so that you aren’t stuck with your first stitch being tighter than the rest. Need more help to tie a slip knot? Go to my entry Knitting 101: Lesson One

There are really four basic components you need to know about:

Cast On: Casting on is how you will start your knitting. Each pattern will call for a different amount of stitches to cast on at the beginning of the pattern. Generally speaking, the larger your work, the more stitches you will need to cast on. Of course there are patterns where this does not hold true (like hats), but generally with straight works like blankets, dishcloths and scarves it is the case. Casting On can also be used as a method for increasing stitches.

Knit and Purl : The knit stitch is the basic stitch needed to knit. The Purl stitch is the twin sister to the knit stitch. It is literally a backwards knit stitch. Together, they create a pattern known as Garter stitch. This stitch is the basic stitch for a LOT of projects. These two will combine with twists and slips and cable needles to make crazy intricate work, but ultimately all that craziness comes right back down to this pair of basic stitches.

Bind Off: Much like the Purl stitch is the knit stitch backwards, the Bind Off is the Cast On backwards. When you have finished your work, the pattern will call for you to bind off. Sometimes Binding Off is used as a method of decreasing stitches as well.

OK, so … What do I need?

For the upcoming lessons, you will need set of US 10 (6.0 mm) Needles, and a cheap skein of worsted weight (4) yarn. Remember, we’re going to be working on skill, not style. Save the nice yarn for your next project.

Now that you have everything gathered, let’s get on to the fun part: Knitting 101: Lesson One.

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