Trying something new is a theme that runs through my life. Whether it’s a new knitting technique, unusual food, or a completely new craft, I love any kind of journey of discovery. And so it was that I decided to try to learn a new method of knitting around five years ago… I’d been struggling with wrist and finger pain following a project involving acres of 1×1 ribbing, and decided that a change in my normal knitting movements was in order. I had tried holding the yarn in my left hand a few times in the past, but never took to it quickly enough to overcome the frustration.
Jen learned how to knit continental style to knit her ‘Still Light’ tunic
This time, with motivation for learning, I took it slowly but surely, and gradually the movements became less alien. When you can already do a skill well, it’s harder to learn a new method for that same skill, since you know that you can already do it. It’s all too easy to swap back to the old, comfortable method. Don’t be discouraged though! There are some really good reasons to push past through the learning barrier, and to become comfortable in more than one way of knitting:
Reasons to learn continental style knitting
- Being able to knit with more than one method leads to more varied movements which decreases the chances of developing RSI or other related fatigue injuries.
- Some knitting techniques are particularly well suited to one method of knitting or another.
- Changing your knitting method can subtly affect the tension with which you hold your yarn. You may be able to put this effect to good use, and swap methods to fine-tune your gauge.
- The general brain-benefits in learning a new skill are well documented, and we could all use some extra neural pathways!
Mastering continental style knitting can make Fair Isle knitting in the round easier
What is continental knitting?
Without realising, I already knew two methods for knitting, but both involved holding the yarn in my right hand. The first was how I (and many others) learned – with the yarn between my thumb and forefinger, letting go of the right needle to wrap the yarn around each stitch. And the second developed over time as I looked to increase my knitting speed – with the yarn wrapped over just my forefinger, and flicking it over the needle tip without letting go of the needle. I was keen to add a third method to my battery of techniques, so I set out to teach myself to hold the yarn in my left hand.
This method is sometimes called Continental knitting, or picking (as opposed to the English method, or throwing, where the yarn is held in the right hand). These names aren’t necessarily geographically helpful, so I’ve stuck to referring to the hand used to control the yarn.
First, I needed a suitable project to work on – I didn’t want to learn a new method while working a complex lace or cable project! I chose my ‘Still Light’ tunic, a pattern by Veera Välimäki which involves rounds and rounds of stocking stitch – something that is particularly suited to knitting with the yarn in your left hand.
Having chosen my project, I took my time, and built up slowly. For the first week or so I concentrated on changing my technique for just 10-15 minutes at a time. I didn’t watch TV and knit, but instead focused on my movements and tried to remember that it would take a while to become second nature. It was a pleasant surprise that after a couple of weeks I would automatically pick up my work ready to knit in the new method.
As it happens, I’ve not become a total convert to holding the yarn on my left. I’m quite dominantly right-handed, and given the choice, I feel most comfortable knitting with the yarn on that side – I certainly prefer purling that way! The benefit comes when I have a lot of time to knit, or a deadline looming, and I can mix things up, switching to and fro to give my hands some variety. That said, a project with a large swathe of stocking stitch in the round is very pleasant to work the other way round, so it’s great to be able to mix and match.
Continental Knitting: how to hold yarn in your left hand
Hold the needles with your palms facing down over the top of the needles, just two or three centimetres from the tips. Use your right index finger to hold any stitches on your needle. The right needle tip does most of the movement, so stitches can slide around if not kept in check.
Tension the yarn in your left hand as you wish – many people wrap it around their ring and little fingers – and then it passes over the index finger to the stitches.
With the yarn held behind the work, insert the right needle tip into the first stitch knitwise.
Push the right needle tip across the yarn from right to left and pick up a loop.
Continue to pull the loop through the stitch.
And slip the stitch off the needle, catching the new stitch with your right index finger.
Your left thumb and middle finger can then move the next stitch along the left needle if required.
Purling with the yarn in your left hand
It is generally accepted that it’s easier to knit with the yarn in your left hand than it is to purl. The movement of yarn from front to back between the needles is less smooth than with the yarn held on the right, and it just requires more manipulation.
Added to that, the path taken by the yarn for a standard purl stitch with yarn on the left is noticeably longer than for a knit stitch, so there may be noticeable differences in tension between knit and purl stitches. For this reason, it’s worth experimenting with different techniques for purling.
The method demonstrated here is the one I use (and which was taught to me by Anniken Allis, a regular contributor to The Knitter): the Norwegian purl.
Try Norwegian Purling to speed up your knitting: pattern here is “Fallowfield” from The Knitter issue 96.
This is advantageous in that the yarn remains at the back of the fabric, so no swapping to and fro is required. This makes it a good technique for speeding up your work.
Continental knitting method: how to purl with the yarn in your left hand
Hold the needles and yarn as you did for knitting (steps 1 and 2 above).
Bring the right needle tip behind the working yarn (leaving the yarn behind the left needle). Insert the right needle tip into the first stitch purlwise.
Bring the right needle tip behind the left needle tip.
Bring the right needle tip over the yarn, and then pick up a loop from right to left.
Bring the right needle tip back in front of the left needle tip (without dropping the loop you’ve collected).
Pull the loop through the stitch. Slide the stitch off the needle, catching the new stitch with your right index finger. With practice, steps 9-12 will become one movement.
Find out more about continental knitting
KnittingHelp.com – a great source of tutorial videos for many techniques including knitting and purling with the yarn in your left hand (referred to as Continental knitting on this site)
- Anniken Allis runs an online course on learning to knit the Continental way, which includes the Norwegian purl www.yarnaddict.co.uk