Saturday, December 16, 2006

Continental knitting, English knitting & handedness

In all of knittingdom, there are only 2 stitches: The KNIT (K) stitch and the PURL (P) stitch. (Well, perhaps there are 3? A yarn over (YO) is neither a knit nor a purl. On the other hand, a YO may not be a stitch at all, so maybe we are back to 2?)

As soon as you master these 2 (3?) stitches, you can make anything at all in all of knitting; cables, picots, stockinette fabric, garter-stitch fabric, lace. This all seems simple, and, in a zen-like sort of way, it is. However, the complications soon start cascading and obscuring all.

The first complication stems from the split between knitting's two main divisions: continental knitters who carry the working yarn on their left hands, and English knitters, who carry the yarn on their right hands.

Knitters argue about which method is "better." Speed records are set by both kinds of knitters. I believe the best way to knit is the way that you, personally, prefer. The next 4 posts will illustrate both continental and English knitting and purling--if you don't already know how to do these, you could try them and make up your own mind.

But before the how-to posts, THIS post is about how the continental style and English style differ, and why handedness (left-handed, right-handed) has only a little to do with which style will work better for YOU.

There is a lot of confusion about the difference between continental and English knitting. For me, learning to knit continental arose from this confusion.

I did not learn to knit until I was 24 years old--old enough to get my own way with my very stubborn mother. Before that, my mother refused to teach me because she thought she would teach me the "wrong" way--the continental way--which she had learned as a girl in Germany. She thought that I should learn "regular" (English) knitting so I could follow knitting patterns written in English--she thought continental knitting was "backwards" to English knitting.

My mom was confused (and did I mention? stubborn...). It is true that continental knitting and English knitting differ. However, the stitch which results--the loop on the needle--is the same (and the same knitting patterns work for both).

The difference between continental and English knitting arises ONLY from which hand holds the working yarn. In continental knitting, the working yarn is held on the left hand, so that the tip of the right needle "picks" the yarn to draw it through the loop. In English knitting, the working yarn is held on the right hand, and the working yarn is "thrown" around the tip of the right needle, then drawn through the loop.

If you ignore the hands supplying the yarn and watch only the needles, the ACT of drawing a new loop through the old loop is the same in continental and in English knitting:
click picture
forward loop
*the loop to be worked is held at the very tip of the left needle
*the tip of the right needle reaches through that loop, snags the standing yarn "up from under," and pulls that snag through the left loop.
*by this act, two things happen simultaneously: first, as the right needle draws the snag through the left (old) loop, the snag enlarges to become a new loop, second, the new loop is transferred to the right needle.


Some think that continental and English knitting have to do with handedness--left handedness, right handedness. That's only partly correct.
click picture
backwards loop
What some call "left- handed knitting" is actually BACKWARDS, a.k.a MIRROR-IMAGE knitting: using the left needle to draw a new loop through a stitch on the tip of the right needle. This transfers the new stitch onto the left needle and generally leaves the new stitch oriented backwards--that is, left arm forward. The act of supplying the yarn also changes hands, with the right hand carrying the standing yarn in continental knitting, and the left hand supplying the yarn in English knitting.

There are knitting teachers who go through a lot of trouble to teach the left handed to knit backwards--the most popular technique is to use a mirror. This approach probably stems from a time when there were fewer choices--when people only knew about one way to knit--and presumably thought it self-evident that lefties should knit differently than righties.

I myself would avoid this approach. Knitting is (usually, but not always) a two-handed activity--the right-handed have just as much trouble learning to control their left hands as the left-handed have controlling their rights, so the left-handed are (for once) at no disadvantage.

It may be that a left-handed person will be more comfortable with continental knitting--in that style the left hand gets to do more work than in English style. I'd certainly try that before I could be persuaded to teach even the most profoundly left-handed person to knit backwards.

Mirror-image knitters are doomed to a lifetime of transposing knitting patterns, not to mention confusing knitting teachers. Without transposing, mirror-image knitters' decreases and increases will slant the wrong way and everything'll be backwards--just what my mom feared when she (mistakenly) refused to teach me continental for fear that I'd never be able to follow a printed pattern.

To those of you who already knit mirror-image: you have my admiration for your perseverance and persistence in a knitting world which lies, for the most part, sdrawkcab * to you. To those of you who are left handed and have yet to learn to knit: the best way, IMHO, would be to learn the same way as right-handers do--and try continental first.

(Added 2-8-07-- a new final conclusion: I myself have taught at least a half-dozen different left handed people to knit "regular" over the years. I also know several additional left handed people who knit continental with no problem. It was based on this experience that I wrote this post. HOWEVER...dear readers, I have just heard from Jenny, a left-handed reader who posted below. She has had a different experience--she tried to learn regular knitting--English AND continental, and she STILL found mirror image knitting easier. Evidently, sometimes a left-handed person has to choose between mirror image knitting or no knitting. In that case the choice is easy--knitting is SO obviously more fun than not-knitting! Bottom line: I would certainly try to teach a left handed person to knit "regular" and would concentrate on the continental style. BUT, if you try and try, dear lefty, and still can't knit, not even continental, then we'll all have to swallow the fact that you're going to have to learn to transpose patterns, and learn to knit mirror image....)

*("backwards," spelled backwards)


li said...

i love this site, love the content and love the wonderfully clear (and time-consuming!!!) illustrations. thank you so much for doing this!

Lou said...

Hear hear! This is a great site! I love the simplicity of your illustrations - they are not over-elaborate, they are very easy to understand and see what's really happening. I had a book once, everything was very color-coded, and it was impossible to figure out.
Thank you!

Susanna in Seattle said...

Thanks for linking to my little eassy about my early knitting life.

LOVE your illustrations - very clear and elegant!

Dixie, Yellow Dog Knitting said...

Wow, you are amazing! Vicki of mentioned you so I had to check you out! I have a yarn shop in Eau Claire, and a shop blog I would love it if you could visit us sometime. I am very impressed with your blog and your knitting mind.

Wendy said...

yes! after christine of knttingontrial mentioned you i checked it out, and it's very cool. you knit well for someone who came to kitting so late (or for anyone really...)

Jenny said...

Cool site! I love it!

But I would like to point out something that bugs me about your post, and learning to knit left-handed. I may be 'profoundly' left-handed, maybe not. I had to teach myself knitting from a book, nearly fifteen years ago. I tried and tried to learn from the pictures, both English and Continental. My hands, and my mind, simpley *would not* do what I was trying to tell them to do. I tried for days, because of exactly what you said: knitting patterns and instructions (as well as the fifty bazillion images available) are all oriented for right-handed people. I was in tears! I finally gave in, sat myself down with my book and a mirror propped between my toes (I'm sure it looked brilliant; I was all hunched over and huddled and posture was probably about the worst you could imagine for knitting).

I had it sorted within three hours. It took a couple of days to figure out why my purl stitches always ended up twisted (I was pulling the yarn over the needle backwards) but darnitall, *I was making fabric* which put me ahead of days and days of work.

So, pretty pretty please don't make absolute assumptions on whether or not a lefty can make it work 'right way round' simply because it is a two-handed activity. Because I can't! I've tried; I figured, once I had it figured out, I would try and switch. I've given it a wing multiple times over the last fifteen years, and it has NEVER worked. EVER. I am far, far better off mentally flipping images in my head, than I am trying to make those stitches go the other way, and make my hands go backwards. :-p

Heck, maybe I am profoundly left-handed. But my mental ability to flip images has become exceedingly well-trained.

--TECHknitter said...

Jenny--thanks for sharing your experience. It must have been awful all hunched over by yourself with a mirror between your toes--a miracle of perseverance! I've added a new final conclusion to the text of the post to reflect your comment. Hey--if you try and try to learn "regular," and even continental style isn't clicking--if the choice is between mirror image knitting and not-knitting--then bring on the mirrors and transposition...

I meant what I said in my post--mirror image knitters have my admiration for their perseverance and persistence.

Thanks for your insightful comment.

Jenny said...

;-) And in one of those twisted weird things, I mirror-knit continental.

No one ever said I was sane.

Thank-you though; I find it cool that you responded!

andrea in nyc said...

Just got wise to your site in the past week or so, and it is fabulous - I would venture to say the best knitting technique illustrations I've come across. Keep on truckin'!

I have always knit continental-ly, and I learned as a 20-something from my mom, who was, in turn, taught to knit in her 20s by an old Polish lady. I have a feeling that my technique has become idiosyncratic over the years, but very comfortable. For one, I purl the 'bad' way, so that the left arm of the stitch is in front; this baffled me at first but I figured out how to keep my purls untwisted and it is absolutely second-nature now. Purling this way feels much smoother and natural to me.

Jessica said...

I just found your site last week and have enjoyed looking through all the posts. I am a self taught knitter as well in the continental style but am very right handed. In teaching myself and others I have found that interestingly enough continental is the easiest way to knit if you already know how to crochet. I believe this is becuase in both the working yarn is carried in the left hand. Not really a righty or lefty thing more or less is just that we are used to having the yarn in the left hand already.

ebroadhurst said...

The Zen of Knitting - in my world, there is only ONE stitch, as the purl is simply a backward knit. ;-)

Anonymous said...

I just found your site. I have knit since I was a child and am enjoying teaching others. One thing I have noticed is that handedness controls which stick one pokes with. Reading about knitting sheaths, which immobilizes the right needle, I show left handers to move the left needle with its stitch onto the right needle, catching the needle into the stitch. Combining continental fingering with this left needle movement puts most of the knitting movements on the left hand. The right hand does little more than hold the right needle and slide the stitches along.
When you consider back-knitting bobbles, and carrying a color in each hand doing fair-isle, I consider knitting the least "handed" of all the hand-fiber arts I know.

Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness, I feel so much better after reading your insight on teaching lefties. After having three students in my class today who are lefties, I managed to teach everyone to knit like a rightie. I felt a little bad because some were experiencing great difficulty, I even tried continental with some, and that didn't work. In the end though, I think everyone felt more comfortable working with their needles. It's always so awkward when you start.

dunv-i said...

I love love love your blog, and the straight-forwards structural way you approach knitting. But here you're wrong, and I know it's a old post, but as I see nothing addressing a change in opinion...

I'm reasonably ambidextrous - I'm not truly, but, for example, the other day I was eating from a bowl of peaches at the same time I was eating from a bowl of soup, with a spoon in my left hand and a fork in my right hand. So I'm very comfortable with both my hands - but I'm definitely left handed. So I could, and do, knit forwards quite a bit. I work short rows with forwards English, as opposed to my standard backwards continental. When my right thumb starts cramping, I might swap to English again. Just to shake things up, I've been known to knit entire projects forwards continental.

But I am fastest and most comfortable knitting backwards continental. When I started knitting just a year ago, I would switch constantly between knitting forwards and backwards to keep it open, and I found I was definitely more comfortable going left. It's like how, when I go to dining hall, all of my friends automatically turn to the right line, I find myself talking to air because I turned left. Or when I figure skate, I skate clockwise.

Thinking about skating, I can do my jumps and spins reasonably well counter-clockwise, which is the normal way, but I am definitely a clockwise spinner. Changing this would greatly hinder me - in fact, when I started skating, I was skating counter-clockwise. After five months, my teacher stopped and said, try that spin the other way - it was instantly better. I started advancing much faster, too. Similarly, when I knit "backwards", my knitting is faster, more even, and more comfortable. I can and did knit forwards a lot when I started, but it was overall easier and more pleasing to knit backwards

Further, the result is structurally the same. You are correct that knitting backwards will switch your decreases, but how many patterns are not symmetrical? Very, very few. Try charting out written directions as though knitting forwards and as though knitting backwards - you don't even need to switch the decreases! They'll turn out the right way, because although your ssk is leaning the way your k2tog should, they're on the opposite sides too so it comes out the same. Charts are even easier for many backwards knitters (not me, but that's something else) because you just follow from the opposite side of the chart, and you think about the decreases as left-leaning or right leaning.

I know you say that you have taught left-handers to knit "forwards" - but did they try knitting "backwards"? I played badminton for 5 years with the raquet in my right hand. One day I had the brilliant idea to switch hands, and suddenly I hit the birdie more than every other swing. I couldn't hit as hard, though - in fact, in volleyball, I choose to spike with my right hand because I spike stronger with it and I don't miss the same way I do with a long handled raquet. By mentioning this, I mean to say that there are many instances where a lefty will find it easier to go righty - I agree that there are plenty of lefties who will be fine going righty. But like another girl on that team, who couldn't spike at all with her right hand, not all are this way.

So I have to disagree with your post. There are few instances where knitting backwards might become a problem - actually, I am planning on embarking on such an instance very soon, by knitting the heart in the most recent Knitty. In that case, I will need to switch things up, to keep the heart anatomically correct. But I am planning on writing it back out and posting it in a left-handed-knitter's forum on Ravelry so we may all rejoice in this pattern, even those left-handed knitters who, unlike me, cannot easily just knit "forwards" (because most people cannot switch that easily).

I am sorry this comment got so long, and on such an old post too, but this is something I feel very strongly about - honestly, the only true difficulty I have encountered from knitting "backwards" is the discrimination trying to convince us all we should knit forwards.

(I'm sorry if this post is not as clear or coherant or clean as it could be, but my school turns off external internet in just a few minutes.)

--TECHknitter said...

My Dear Dunv-i:

I see you are very passionate about your method of knitting, and this is splendid. The world needs passionate knitters!

I did think, however, that your sister left-handed knitter, Jenny, had spoken well on behalf of lefties everywhere. After reading Jenny's comments, I acknowledged in my addendum of Feb. 8, 2007 that there are times when a left-handed knitter, and all those around him or her, are just going to have to acknowledge that the ordinary direction and method of knitting are not a good choice.

As you yourself acknowledge, this can lead to some difficulties in reading ordinary patterns, especially where shaping is concerned. Yet, obviously for you, the calculus of having to re-write patterns is less onerous that trying to re-wire your brain. This is certainly a reasonable choice, and one which which I have no argument.

I read with great interest your comments about knitting backwards, and think that the passion, length and detail you offer on this subject is sure to bring information and comfort to those similarly situated.

Thanks very much for writing,

nic the dig said...

As yet another left-handed knitter, I'd like to throw in my tuppence-worth for fun, even if this is an old post :)

I'm pretty stubbornly left-handed (for example, I struggle to even stir a spoon clockwise!) but I learnt to knit at a young age from my right-handed mum, and I knit English, forwards (I live in the UK).

When I picked up knitting again far more seriously as an adult, mainly using the internet to guide me, I was immediately comfortable with knitting English again. True, I often move the left needle more in transferring a completed stitch to the right needle, just using the right hand to throw the yarn.

Something else that interests me in this matter though, is the way my self-taught right-handed friends knit. Whilst I quite clearly "throw" the yarn over the needle with my right hand, they do not. Instead, they insert the right needle into their stitches, then kinda stop to pick up the working yarn with their right-hand fingers, and "place" it over the needle, since they don't hold the working yarn in their right hand as they work (if you can imagine what I mean). Personally, this method looks quite slow and, if I'm being really honest, clumsy to me. No offence to anyone else who knits this way! It's certainly just as effective.

I asked one friend about this, and showed them how I "throw" the yarn, keeping the working yarn running over my right index finger the whole time. After trying it she found it easier and faster. It seemed odd to me that a right-handed person would not have instinctively used their right-hand more actively in this way, but perhaps it's to do with how/from whom you learn?

Cheers, Nicole

Laura said...

I just found your site from a link on ravelry. I'm commenting on the left-handed issue because I am left handed and was taught to knit in the English way.

The world is right handed, and left handers from birth are used to transposing just about everything. This is a habit which is so ingrained we do it without realizing most of the time. For this reason, while "backwards knitting" and tranposing patterns may seem incredibly unwieldy to a right hander, to many left handers it will come almost naturally.

Many left handers who come to knitting having experience with crochet, something which I think happens fairly often, will already be used to holding yarn in their Right hand and moving the hook/needle with their Left. For this reason also they may prefer English knitting.

My knitting instructor taught me English knitting simply because that is what she knew. It was very easy for me to pick up, as having the yarn in my right hand was very natural for me.

Having said all that, lol, I find board knitting by hand the most enjoyable and relaxing form of knitting for me. I appreciate your posts on the technical side of knitting, as many of those concepts are universal to fabric knit in all the various ways.

Bluebird49 said...

You can'ty imagine how many times I have come to your blog for instructions on--oh, I don't remember how many things! It's better than having all the instructive books I have because it's right here, all in one place, and you explain things so well. Look at this--a post that's almost 3 years old, and people are still commenting on this 2007 post. This must be very satisfying to you--I hope so, because your blog has meant so much to me since I took up kniting around 6 years ago. There's still so much I don't know, I'm still learning so much, and you're so much a part of that! You and youtube have been my teachers.
Thanks ,

Jayne said...

I'm like Jenny I'm afraid... Mirror knitting is the only thing my head can get around. It's so easy for right-handers to say "just learn it right handed". We're right and left handed for a reason - our brains are made that way! Do you know of any pattern writers that write patterns for mirror knitters? That would be VERY helpful :)

TECHknitter said...

hi Jayne--I don't know of any mirror image pattern writers. However, I believe there is an active group on Ravelry called, I believe "on the other hand," and they would certainly know better than I whether/where such a thing could be found.

Best, TK

Suri said...

Reading the article and everyone's comments I just really need to add my thoughts. Jenny's experience was almost identical to mine- I was using a how-to-knit book and I tried hard to learn it, I gave up thinking I was just never going to be able to do something this complicated! A few years later I tried again, still feeling like a little kid trying to write, unlike Jenny my book had a page on left-handed knitting. It said try right first because most lefties can do it- then try this. Within the hour I was knitting and purling...Although I wish I had read the part on contienental knitting before the left-handed English instructions, being able to knit was such a joy- and a relief.

I really don't know why I couldn't learn to knit right-handed. Most people are too dominate to switch, but I am somewhat ambidextrous...if anything I am right-dominate, but for most things I do not switch very well. Different things I use right or left handed, some I can switch some I can't (I chop veggies right handed, I cut my food-and eat- left handed; I write on paper right-handed, I write on blackboards left...) The ice skating example was perfect! Some things are just awkward the wrong way... It is worth the adaptation to go with what feels better. (BTW, I throw left and usually bat right because it is more comfortable, but when I bat left I have more power and similar accuracy...go figure)

Okay, long post mostly just venting how I feel, but I do have one real thing to say. Knitting left-handed has forced me to actually understand what I'm doing...the more advanced patterns I try the more I have to understand what is going on in order to figure out if I need to switch things, if I don't, etc. Each time I try a new technique I realize there is something else going on that I hadn't even considered. For experienced knitters that have figured this stuff out it doesn't matter, of course. But looking at everything "backwards" has helped me understand the process instead of just following directions :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all the info on your site. I am most definitely right-handed, and I learned to knit (but not how to purl!) forwards English when I was a girl. The only cast-on I learned was the "backwards loop" cast-on, but according to another of your posts, it was actually the "forwards" style. However, when casting on, I have always held the needle in my left hand and the yarn in my right hand, and mostly keep the needle still while moving my right hand to put the yarn on the needle. After a bit of examination of your diagrams, I was able to do the backwards loop cast-on that you show, still holding the needle in my left hand, and moving the yarn with my right hand under and over my thumb. I would like to learn how to make a long-tail cast-on, holding the needle in my left hand and the yarn(s) in my right hand, but all the videos seem to show it the "regular" way, which seems way too awkward and unnatural to me. How much of this is the way I learned when I was young, and how much of it is my brain-wiring or handed-ness, I don't know. Do you know where I can find such instructions? Thanks.

TECHknitter said...

Hi Anon--I think nowadays, many printers can be set to print "mirror image," so you might like to print off the long tail instructions mirrored, and see if those make sense to you. If your printer does not have that capacity, you could try to get a screen grab from the long tail instructions, drop the screen grab into a graphics program, and flip the image in the graphics program--all the graphics programs l know of let you do that.

There are also several active groups on Ravelry which are specially for mirror-image knitters, and you may be able to find further resources there: here is the linky to one of those groups, called "on the other hand"--(cut and paste link into your browser window)

Best regards, TK

Anonymous said...

Thanks, TK,

I found a video on YouTube by Roxanne Richardson that was just what I was looking for:

Others just might find it helpful, too.

I didn't want to hold the yarn in my right hand and be moving my left hand, which is basically what the mirror method would have me doing.

Love your site, it is so technical, and that really helps me understand what I'm doing or trying to do when I knit.


K Leiter said...

I have just learned to knit in the past year at age 42. I have tried several times over the years to learn, always using the instructions/helpers that say "knitting uses both hands, so just learn the 'REGULAR' way". This has never worked. I have stopped "fighting" my lefty-ness and made it work for me.

I have loved your posts and pictures. They have been a great help to me. However, I have to disagree with this particular post. As Jenny and dunv-i already commented, lefties don't have to settle. Please don't immply otherwise.

There is a significant difference in handed-ness. Yes, my working needle is my left needle and the stitches are held on my right needle. However, this alone does NOT cause my stitches to sit on the needle backwards. It is caused by the direction I wrap the yarn around the needle (or the needle around the yarn). I knit a definite LEFT-Handed CONTINENTAL, holding the ball end of the yarn in my right hand as well.

I suggest to your readers who are left handed and are having trouble understanding the way stitches sit on the needle and which leg to knit (or purl) to look up information on Russian knitting. This method focused more on keeping your stitches OPEN rather than knitting the front or back leg of the stitch.

Marny CA said...

Glad to have found you and your site.

I am ambidextrous - actually a righthanded person but when tired I just switched hands -- on just about everything.

My mom thought all types of handwork were a waste of time and money - so it was good that I got a Big Sister who taught me to knit when I was close to 14 yo.

It wasn't until adulthood that I really realized about pickers and that I'm a thrower.

It was after entrelac that I sure wish I could knit backwards - although it really doesn't bother me to turn/turn/turn.

A rightie taught me to sew - but I do that left handed!! A leftie taught me to bowl - and I'm a leftie.

I golf rightie, tennis leftie.

Scissors are used leftie.

Using a palette knife and oils and broad strokes is rightie - however, tiny miniature strokes with a brush are leftie.

A few years ago I realized that I couldn't rock the needle for quilting ... but could do so right handed!! Weird, since regular sewing is always leftie.

How about the people who knit by holding the right needle UNDER their armpit!!

Dee said...

Love this site! The illustrations are some of the best I've seen. I had to comment on this posting even though it's ancient. I'm a lefty and I was taught to knit english style when I was a child. It was a challenge but thankfully I persevered. Congrats to the mirror knitters. That's pretty talented!

Docleather said...

I ADORE this site. And since I'm a lefty that learned to knit English AND learned how to knit backwards (sock heel flaps, entrelac anyone) I never have to turn my work. I don't even have a problem with tension since I keep the yarn in the same hand.