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11 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Knitting

I started knitting back in 2007 when I was in my first semester of law school. I was eager to find a healthy way to cope with stress and figured that knitting looked pretty relaxing.

A white knit shawl in progress piled next to a small basket of mini skeins of yarn and several antique books.

In the nearly 17 years since I first picked up my needles, I’ve been on quite the knitting journey. I no longer practice law, and now I design knitting patterns and create content for knitters who want to improve their skills.

Along the way, I’ve picked up a lot of knitting tips that I wish I’d known earlier. In hopes of saving you some stress and frustration, here are 11 things I wish I had known back when I was a beginner knitter.  

1. Yarn weight and fiber content matter.

I knit my first ever project–a garter stitch scarf, just like so many other new knitters–using Rowan Big Wool on US size 19 needles. The experience was so exciting that I immediately dove into knitting other things.

Mostly more garter stitch scarves using various wool yarns on various needle sizes. As one does.

But once I started knitting other things, I learned that the fiber content and weight of my yarn was really important. Unfortunately, I learned these things the hard way. I once bought a pattern that was meant for fingering-weight linen. I tried to knit it in a DK-weight cotton-acrylic blend. Things did not go well.

Nowadays, I take yarn substitution seriously. You don’t have to use the same yarn the designer used, but you do need to understand how using a different yarn will affect your final project.

2. Blocking solves a lot of problems.

Blocking is the process of exposing your final knit project to moisture, usually via water or steam, and shaping it so it can dry into a specific shape. If it doesn’t get water or steam, it hasn’t been blocked.

The reason it works so well for animal fibers and, to a lesser extent, plant fibers is that these materials have memory. That means if you get them wet and let them dry in a particular shape, they will be more likely to retain that shape and to return to that shape after stretching. Most synthetic fibers are less likely to do that.

It also allows the fibers to bloom, and this is where the magic happens. If your stitches are kind of uneven, which is common for knitters when they’re just starting out, blocking can help hide that unevenness. Blocked knits look smoother and more consistent.

A brown basket full of white and lavender yarn, a pair of light blue knit socks hanging over the side, and a pair of dark brown straight knitting needles sticking out to the right.

3. Wool isn’t just for winter.

For a long time, I thought wool was a winter-only fiber. It makes sense, really. People talk about cozy wool sweaters, but they never really talk about lightweight wool tshirts.

​Then I moved home to Southern California, and I quickly learned I needed to adjust my knitting preferences if I was going to survive and keep knitting here.

Now I love to knit tshirts from lightweight wool yarn. See, wool is sweat-wicking and has antimicrobial properties, which means it’s less likely to get stinky or stay stinky. Lightweight wool is great for summer wear.

4. Not all free patterns are equal.

When you’re just getting started out, it makes sense that you’d try to avoid spending too much money. After all, you’re still trying to figure out your preferred style of knitting and whether you like larger needles or smaller needles.

As a result, it’s common for a beginner knitter to start with free patterns. There’s just one problem: a lot of free patterns are free for a reason.

So how can you tell which free patterns are worth the time? Look for an established designer who offers one or two free patterns as a way to get to know their designs. Because the bulk of their income is from pattern sales, they’ll have gone to the effort to make sure this free pattern is also good so it can attract potential buyers.

You’ll probably also have good luck with designers who are established but publish many free patterns on their blog. These designers usually earn income from ad sales and collaborations with yarn companies, which means their work needs to be good to continue receiving traffic and sponsorship.

Many yarn companies offer free patterns to go with their yarn. These patterns can be hit or miss, so check forums for input. 

As for my free patterns? They’re tech edited just like my regular patterns to make sure they’re as error-free as possible.

5. Every knitter’s gauge is unique.

Gauge refers to how many stitches there are per horizontal and vertical inch in your work. The more stitches per inch, the tighter your gauge.

The thing is, two knitters could be using the exact same materials–say, worsted weight yarn on 4 mm straight needles–and yet end up with drastically different gauge. That’s because gauge is affected by your materials and needles, but it’s also affected by the way you hold your yarn, the way you make your stitches, the way you tug your yarn after making a stitch, etc.

So when you start a project from a new-to-you designer, it’s important not to assume your gauge will match theirs. Knit a gauge swatch. Save yourself the grief of spending 30 hours on a garment only for it to be much too big or way too small.

A dressmaker's form draped with a dark brown garter stitch scarf. In the background is a print of an old landscape painting in a wooden frame.
My first ever knitting project: a garter stitch scarf with many imperfections.

6. Mistakes aren’t the end of the world.

When I was a beginning knitter, I struggled a lot with perfectionism. Over the years, knitting helped me learn that a lot of mistakes really aren’t a big deal. In fact, most people don’t even notice the mistakes that seem really obvious to me.

When the mistakes really do need to be fixed, most of them can be fixed quite easiliy. I learned to fix dropped stitches, rip back a little bit and reknit, undo miscrossed cables, and more.

​Through all those mistakes, the most valuable lesson I learned is that even having to completely rip out a project and start over is okay. That’s because time spent knitting is never time wasted. If I have to start again, that just means I get to knit some more.

7. Learning something new with each project will help your skills snowball quickly.

With my very first project, I learned three crucial skills: the knitted cast-on, the knit stitch, and the knitted bind-off. I stuck to those three skills for a few more projects, but eventually, I knew I was ready to learn more.

So I adopted a policy: with each new project, I would learn one new skill. Doing this meant I quickly learned the purl stitch, increases, decreases, cables, basic lace, knitting in the round, and more. If you get stuck on a new technique, you can almost guarantee there will be some YouTube videos that can help explain it to you.

Most of the time, your new projects will also reinforce the skills you learned in earlier projects. This means you’ll keep practicing your existing skills while learning a new one. It’s a skill snowball!

A white sweater sleeve in progress on a pair of metal circular knitting needles.

8. Use circular needles to distribute the weight of heavy projects.

Most learn-to-knit kits come with a couple balls of yarn and a set of straight needles. Knitters on tv usually use straight needles, too, so a lot of new knitters think these are the most common and most useful way to knit.

But for heavy projects like garments and blankets, a circular needle with a long cable will be better for your ergonomically. You can knit flat on a circular needle, so you don’t have to worry about having to adjust the pattern you’re following.

Once you are comfortable enough as a knitter to know which needle tip shape and material you like, you can even invest in a set of interchangeable needles. I have some Addi Turbos that have been my treasures for 13 years now.

9. Stitch markers can help keep you from getting lost.

Stitch markers serve so many useful purposes. For one thing, they’re great for knowing when one round starts and the next begins so you know when to work which round of your pattern.

But they’re also helpful for knitting lace and for casting on large numbers of stitches. In both of these scenarios, if you place a stitch marker at consistent intervals (say, every three repeats of the lace or every 20 stitches of your cast-on), you’ll easily be able to see if your stitch count is off.

10. Know when you’re too tired to keep knitting.

I love knitting at night after the house is quiet, but sometimes, I’m just too dang tired. When you’re tired, you’re more likely to make mistakes or have uneven tension, and that means you’re more likely to have to rip back your work in the morning.

Now, I know I just said up above that time spent knitting is never wasted, but there’s a limit to even my patience. For that reason, I have a rule that if I make three significant mistakes within one episode of tv, it’s time to set aside the project and either pick up a vanilla sock or go to bed (because sometimes I’m tired but it’s too early to sleep).

​If you don’t want to knit for three hours only to have to rip it all out again the next day, keep an eye on how tired you are.

A grass basket full of mini skeins of yarn. The skeins are all pastel colors and spilll over the side like flowers in a bouquet. Blurred in the background are a white knit shawl on the needles and a blue and white lamp.

11. There’s always something more to learn.

Even the most experienced knitters know that there are always new things they can learn. For example, I’ve been knitting for 17 years and design patterns professionally and write extensively about knitting here on my blog, and yet, I’ve never quite gotten the hang of the magic loop method.

Maybe this year’s the year I’ll finally get it.

Whether it’s colorwork or new lace techniques or brioche or intarsia or or or, there’s always a new technique or skill to tackle. Think you’ve learned every skill there is? Cool, then you can try learning to knit those same skills in different ways (English style knitting, continental style, combination style, Portuguese style, Shetland style, you get the picture). 

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Jennie Van Heuit

Friday 12th of July 2024

I especially like the last one. I just did a MKAL with Romi Hill, and she used a number of interesting stitches and techniques I wasn’t aware of.

As for me, I have two knitting rules: 1. Don’t panic! What looks like a mistake (even a huge mistake) might not be one at all. Turn your work around, count stitches, put it down & come back to it later. If there is a mistake, it is fixable in some way. Deep breath; you’ve got this. 2. Read the pattern. Really read the pattern. Don’t assume you know what it says. Now read it again. (With 45 years of knitting experience, I break this rule a lot, to my detriment, most of the time!)

Denise Little

Wednesday 10th of July 2024

I'm 74, I was taught to knit when I was 6 by a male truck driving friend of my family. I have knitted extensively over the years and have recently picked up my needles again and have knitted three throw rugs in a row using sock yarn. I find knitting is a wonderful way of relaxing the mind, also it will keep my brain exercised. Keep up the knitting and help wonderful small businesses who sell quality wool survive.

Lauren Rad

Wednesday 10th of July 2024

What a neat trajectory you've been on! I'm so glad the stitches have kept you company.

Andrea Johnson

Wednesday 10th of July 2024

Another benefit of using circular needles is that, if you find yourself knitting in close quarters (like on the bus or at a popular s&b), you're not going to poke your neighbors with a needle. An elbow, maybe, but your needle choice can't help that. 😺

Lauren Rad

Wednesday 10th of July 2024

This is an excellent point (no pun intended!).

Kat

Wednesday 10th of July 2024

Cheers!

From one former lawyer turned fiber arts enthusiast to another!

Lauren Rad

Wednesday 10th of July 2024

I love how many of us there are in the fiber world! Glad to have you here.

Roger

Wednesday 10th of July 2024

I have just recently figured out number 10. Often I would set a goal for a certain amount to accomplish, only to find mistakes the next morning. I now find it best to do a self check and decide whether to continue or go to sleep. (I also never knit when I first wake up…the brain needs a little time to warm up hahaha).

Lauren Rad

Wednesday 10th of July 2024

It takes some wisdom and experience to know when we're just not in the right head space for knitting, and even after all these years, I still get it wrong sometimes! I ripped out the start of a new sweater twice over the last few days because I kept making silly mistakes.

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