Building Blocks of Knitting Stitches

Have you ever wondered where twisted stitches come from, why there are two common ways to decrease a stitch instead of just one, or what the heck is “combination” knitting? Do you get confused when you pick up or transfer stitches and find that they seem somehow different from what you’re used to? Has anyone ever told you that you knit “the wrong way”? If so, keep reading—but let’s get one thing straight right up front—there is no wrong way to knit! (And I am not the only one to say so.) If your way is comfortable for you and produces fabric you like, it’s a good way.

No matter what combination of stitch orientation, wrapping direction, and yarn handling you use, there are certain basic elements of how knitting stitches form that are the same. These influence how you work your stitches as you knit, and how your finished stitches look. Once you understand these basics, you can gain the confidence to handle your stitches however the situation calls for, and maybe even the freedom to try out different ways to knit! If you have your own knitting handy, please get it and follow along looking at the live stitches, I think it will make more sense that way.

Knit stitch orientation drawing

Let’s start with the shape of a stitch: when you look at a piece of finished knitting (or the part of in-progress knitting below the needles) each knit stitch looks like a mostly-flat “V” shape, and each purl stitch looks like a horizontal bar. Both stitches are actually just loops of yarn, oriented differently to the ones below. (We’ve talked about that before, and it’s worth mentioning many times—in fact I recommend that you keep thinking about it until you can see it with your eyes closed).

We have knitting needles to hold all the loops we’re still working with until the next row/round, so that they don’t come un-looped. As soon as you put two stitch loops on a needle, they have an orientation, which can be one of only two ways: with the leading side of the stitch (the side which is closest to the tip of the needle holding it) either in front of the needle (closer to you) or in back of the needle (further from you). This is sometimes called stitch “mount,” and the sides of the stitches called “legs,” as if they were riding horses—visualize that if it’s helpful to you.

Leading side in front on the left, leading side in back on the right. We’ll get to the twisted stitches in a minute …

Most American knitters I know expect that the leading side of each stitch will be in front, and most pattern instructions I read assume that it is. With the leading side in front, if you reach the working needle (the needle which is making the stitches, usually the right hand one) into the front of the stitch to knit it, you can see that the stitch is pulled open, and it will make an open, “V” shaped stitch once it is knit. If you reach into the back of the stitch, it feels tighter (this difference is helpful, and noticeable to most knitters even if they’re beginners). If you look closely you can see that the two sides of the stitch are now twisted around each other, and they will remain twisted in the knitted fabric. (Sometimes you want a twisted stitch to tighten up part of your work, but most of the time it’s not the goal.)

Reaching into the front of a stitch with the leading side in front

Reaching into the back of a stitch with the leading side in front

Now look at what happens when the leading side of the stitch is in back. If you reach into the front of the stitch, it feels tight, and the sides of the stitch twist. If you reach into the back, the stitch is open, and will form an open (not twisted) stitch in the fabric. So, it behaves in the opposite way as a stitch with the leading side in front, but the open stitches will be absolutely identical in the fabric. (Side note: twisted stitches formed from these two setups twist in opposite directions.)

Reaching into the back of a stitch with the leading side in back

Reaching into the front of a stitch with the leading side in back

Twisted stitch in the fabric below the needle

We have now discovered a deep truth of knitting: there are only two ways that a stitch can “sit” on the needle, and no matter which way it is, if you knit (or purl) through the leading side, the stitch will be open, and if you knit through the trailing side it will be twisted.

Many knitters first think about these differences when they get to decreases. To Knit Two Together (k2tog),you reach your working needle into two stitches at once, from left to right, through the front of the stitches, and assuming that those stitches have the leading side in front, both stitches will be open,the left one will be on top of the right one, and the decrease will lean to the right.

Knitting two together through the front

If you want a decrease that leans the other way (so that, for example, the shoulders of your sweater will look symmetrical), you could knit two stitches together through the back, so that the right stitch will be on top of the left one. But if your stitches have the leading side in front, that would twist them both and pull the decreasing stitch really tight. This is the reason for the Slip, Slip, Knit (ssk) decrease—if you slip the two stitches (one at a time) to the working needle by reaching into the front (“as if to knit”), it flips them around so that the leading side is in back. Then you can pass them back onto the holding needle with the needles tip to tip (“as if to purl”), and then you are ready to knit them both through the back, so that both stitches will be open, the right one will be on top of the left one, and the decrease will lean to the left. (If you have knitting in front of you right now, you can see this happen before your eyes.)

Slipping a stitch to change its orientation

Knitting two together through the back

All of this works if you are making purl stitches rather than knit, it just may look and feel a little funky if you’re not used to it. You can absolutely purl a stitch through the back side. And you can flip purl stitches around bypassing them between needles. My golden rule for this is: if the needles tips are essentially (or could be) pointing them same way as you are picking up the stitch to transfer it, it will flip the stitch around. If the needle tips are pointing towards each other (tip to tip), you will transfer the stitch without changing its orientation.Note that if you reach into the trailing side of the stitch instead of the leading side to transfer it, you’ll twist it, just like when working it. Play around with it a little bit, you’ll see what I mean.

Setup to work a purl stitch through the back side

Ok, are you with me so far? To review: whether a stitch in knitted fabric is open or twisted depends on these two things: which way the stitch is oriented on the needle, and which way it is knit (through the front or the back). To get an open stitch, always knit or purl through the leading side of the stitch. It’s easy to re-orient the stitches to get the effect you want, by flipping them around with the needles.

Fair enough, you may think, but how do the stitches get to be oriented one way or another in the first place? Don’t they all just appear with the leading side in front? Excellent question. You may have noticed that there are also two (only two) directions in which you can wrap the yarn around the needle as you make a new stitch. If you’re reading this in the US, you were probably taught that the “right” way to knit is to wrap the yarn from under the needle to the front and over the top (counterclockwise if you are looking at the tip of the needle), and the right way to purl is to bring the yarn from the front up over the top of the needle and down (again counterclockwise).

The wrapping direction applies whether you knit by holding the yarn in your right hand and throwing (English style) or by holding it in your left and picking (Continental style). In the photos below, I’m holding the yarn on the left, but it works with either technique. Even in Portuguese knitting, it may look different, but there are still two ways to wrap the yarn!

Setup to knit a stitch, wrapping the yarn counterclockwise

Setup to knit a stitch, wrapping the yarn clockwise

Here is our second deep truth of knitting: if you wrap the yarn counterclockwise, your new stitches will come out with the leading side in front. If you wrap the yarn the other way (clockwise as you look at the needle tip) when knitting or purling, your stitches will come out with the leading side in back.

(If you had rows, or parts of rows, of mysterious twisted stitches as a beginner, inconsistent wrapping direction followed by not noticing that the stitches were different is probably why.)

Here is where combination knitting comes in. If you knit Continental style, by holding the yarn on the left and picking the stitches from the tensioned yarn, you may have noticed that it’s actually a lot easier to form purl stitches by bringing the working needle in front of the yarn and just pushing it away from you through the existing stitch. This wraps the yarn clockwise around the needle tip, meaning that your stitches for the next row will have the leading side in back. Which is no problem now, right? Just knit them through the back, and they will come out open just like you want them to.

Setup for Continental purl stitch, wrapping the yarn counterclockwise

Setup for Continental purl stitch, wrapping the yarn clockwise

I learned about all this not long after I started knitting, from reading the excellent book Knitting in the Old Way by Priscilla Gibson-Roberts and Deborah Robson. There’s an explanation and handy illustration in the Knitting Methods chapter which shows “Western” style (leading side of the stitch in front), “Eastern” style (leading side in back), and a combined style. The combined style made sense to me, so I used it. Later I learned about Annie Modesitt, probably this era’s biggest champion of combination knitting—and a vocal supporter of the fact that there’s no wrong way to knit. (According to Annie’s blog, it sounds like she’s having an awful time lately. I certainly wish her a quick-as-possible recovery and all the best.)

Knitting in the Old Way also gives a fairly elastic bind-off method which I used for just about everything when I started knitting. It’s easy, and I still like it! All you do is knit two stitches together, then pass the resulting one stitch back to the holding needle, knit it together with the next stitch, and repeat. What it took me a while to realize is that I particularly like the look of this bind-off when the stitches are oriented with the leading side in back and knit through the back—that way they lean gracefully in the direction the bind-off is progressing (towards the left, like an ssk decrease) and make a nice series of open “Vs” along the bound-off edge.

Knit-two-together bind-off, worked through the back

Pop quiz: say you are knitting along with the leading side of your stitches in front, and you want to make this bind-off with the leading side in back, what should you do? As usual, there’s more than one correct answer. You could flip the stitches around one by one with the needles as you come to them. Or, you could wrap the yarn clockwise as you work the stitches of the row/round before the bind-off, so that the stitches come out with the leading side in back already!

I’m guessing that all this still seems confusing if you’re new to it, but I promise it gets much more intuitive after you knit with these ideas in mind for a little while. At this point, I can honestly say that I don’t even consciously notice which way a stitch is oriented when I come to it, my hands just put the needle through the front or the back as needed.

Considering all the variations in knitting style that folks use, before we end here I want to put a vote in for patterns to say “twist the stitch” instead of “knit through back of loop” and “work a left-leaning decrease” instead of “ssk.” Really, it would be so much clearer, and more understandable for those who knit in different ways from the American “standard” way. I will try to follow this principle in my own pattern writing.

Speaking of which, have you seen my Cloudscape Hat pattern? It was in part the inspiration for writing this post. I’ve shared my approach to these fundamentals of knitting in various classes, tried unsuccessfully to get a couple of knitting magazines which you’ve heard of to publish it (Really! Can you believe it?), and finally decided just to put it out here.

As Michel Garcia says about natural dye knowledge, are we going to build a wall around what we know and keep it jealously for ourselves, or are we going to share it freely in the belief and hope that it will grow and flourish as more people are exposed to it? Certainly I think this knowledge is incredibly useful to anyone who knits. If you find this post worthwhile, please share it! Wouldn’t it be great if it got more notice here than it would have in a magazine …

Cheers, everybody!

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