Skills beyond the Knit and Purl

Please note – when pattern names are linked with quote marks around them, they are linked to Ravelry site pages. If there are no quote marks, they are links to previous blog posts or elsewhere on the internet.

For over a week, I’ve watched conversations take place on Social Media about yarns, substitutions, and recommended yarns for a pattern. Mostly, I’ve been following along on Twitter, watching as designers and those who are far more knowledgeable at knitting than I delve into the topic. Watching it unfold got me thinking about the skills we learn along the way as knitters.

The first skill you learn, I would argue before the knit and purl is the cast on, at least, that was what I learned first. I taught myself how to knit using YouTube videos, and if I wanted to get to knitting, I needed to know how to cast on. After that, I learned how to knit, then I learned how to purl. My very first project was an e-reader cozy, and working on that project taught me how to recognise the Right Side of a project versus the Wrong Side – this cozy, for example, was never meant to have random garter ridges. Those ‘design features’ came from my inability to recognize right from wrong. But I learned.

Other technical skills came along the way – how to read a pattern, how to cable, how to work in the round (from which I’ve never looked back), how to read a pattern chart, the importance of making your gauge swatch. Heck, I’m still learning skills almost a decade later.

One valuable skill I’ve learned through the years, and I would argue is never FULLY mastered, is understanding yarn weights, fingering vs. worsted vs. DK, etc., what they mean for a pattern, and how to substitute yarns for patterns. As a newbie, it is confusing. Some skeins say weight name, like worsted or sock, some give the 1-6 number, some might give Wraps Per Inch (perhaps the one true standard), some might give gauge stitches, and some might not say anything at all. If you’re just starting out trying to understand all of this when there are so many different ways yarn can be classified is confusing and overwhelming. I can certainly see the appeal of simply using the yarn recommended by a designer.

Very rarely, however, have I knit a pattern with the designer recommended yarn – My Blue Brick Samwise Cowl is a notable exception (wanting a pattern that would best highlight this gradient yarn), as are the Briggs and Little Thrummed Mittens. My usual MO is looking at the weight of the yarn that the designer uses and finding my own yarn to suit the project. If they’ve used a fingering yarn, I’ll find my own fingering yarn that suits my tastes and budget. It took far longer than I care to admit to grasp the differences in weights, what it means, and how to choose the best yarn for a project, and even my understandings aren’t always 100% on the money.

As an example – my “Le Pouf” cardigan by Beata Jezek. I have a habit of buying single skeins at fibre festivals. They are pretty, and buying one or two at a festival is better for my budget than buying a sweater lot when I go. After a number of years, I realized a few of these one-off skeins all looked really good together, and I wanted some faded pattern to show them off together. The pattern calls for Hedgehog Fibres Sock to be used, a fingering weight, and here I had six skeins of fingering weight yarn. I knew that the yarn I had on hand could be substituted for the yarn being called for by the designer. I swatched, I got gauge, I cast on, and I knit.

One feature of Ravelry that I’ve found to be very helpful is that it tells you what weight of yarn the pattern is calling for; if you use the stash, you can know what weight your yarn is; you can take a look at others who have made the pattern to see what yarns they have used; you can use your stash to see pattern recommendations based on what others have made. These features of Ravelry helped me understand yarn weights and how to best use my stash – what I’ve bought with my budget. I can’t always use the yarns the designer recommends – perhaps it doesn’t fit in my budget, or perhaps it isn’t available in my corner of Canada. At this time, I’m not sure of other websites that offer such a feature and database of yarns.

If you’re unsure, your Local Yarn Shop is a great place to start. Owners understand yarns and can recommend a yarn that will suit your project. Many shops have a variety of yarns that can suit almost any budget. I made my Chateau sweater using yarn recommended by my LYS owner. I had the pattern, but using a super bulky alpaca yarn just wasn’t in my budget. With Tina’s help, she recommended the James C Brett Marble Chunky and gave me the guidance needed to make this sweater work with this yarn.

Let’s also not forget that LYS owners WANT you to succeed! They are small businesses in your community, and they want you to become the best knitter you can be. They will give you advise, many will offer lessons, and many, like I said, have a wide selection of yarn including the basic workhorse yarns to specialty hand dyed skeins of awesomeness. They want you to succeed because they want you to love the craft. They will support you because they want your support back.

Knitting skills start with casting on, knitting, purling, and casting off. However, knitting skills and knitting knowledge goes far beyond these basics. As a knitter, I’m always looking to learn, to expand my capabilities, helping me continue to make the lovely pieces I want to keep creating.

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