Sunday, August 26, 2012

Intro To Knitting

In this lesson we will be hearing a tiny bit about what knitting is, as well as an overview of the materials and required to partake in such a glorious fiber art  adventure. I'm also going to suggest a few resources for budding knitters-to-be. Several are free, online sources. Others might cost you a few dollars on Amazon, or the gas money to get to a local library. Then, your assignment: visit a local crafting or hobby store (even Wal*Mart will do), and pick up some cheap supplies to get started. So hold onto your pants (whether they be made of natural fibers or some newfangled acrylic wonder), and let's begin.

Knitting: A Super Duper Brief History

Due to the rapid decomposition of natural fibers, very little is known about the history of knitting. Ancient yarn was all made from plant or animal fibers, which decompose pretty rapidly (historically speaking), so little remains of ancient knit items. There are a few old items that remain (mostly socks) made around the year 1000 CE. Knitting was an important skill back in the old days--- it made a very flexible fabric compared to the woven or felted clothing of yesteryear--- but in modern times is largely a hobby or cultural phenomenon. Machines now exist that can knit sweaters in minutes--- compared to the dozens, perhaps hundreds of hours it used to take. Different regions have developed different knitting styles or techniques, many of which are still practiced today.

An ancient cotton sock found in Egypt, made somewhere around 1000 CE.

Knitting comes from the word knot, though that's actually somewhat of a misnomer. Knitting is more a process of pulling loops through other loops, though the occasional knot is useful (for example, the slip knot used at the beginning of casting on). 

So What Is Knitting?

Knitting is the process of making a flexible fabric using two or more pointed sticks and some sort of string (or plastic, or wire. Really, anything flexible enough to be worked through the needles can be knit into fabric). In this class, we're going to focus almost exclusively with two needles and yarn. 

Two hands juggle both needless, the yarn, and the fabric that is attached to the needles.

As I stated above, knitting is basically done by forming yarn into loops, and then pulling yarn through those loops, repeating the process over and over and over and over until your fingers are raw and your mind is numb. Just kidding---- it's actually quite fun, and there's variation upon variation to keep things interesting. 

Knitting & Crocheting

Many uninformed fiber-art spectators commonly confuse the two most popular fiber arts--- crocheting and knitting. Crocheting is done with one hooked needle, and results in a much thicker, less-flexible material (though crocheted lace is also quite common). It also uses about 1/3 more yarn than knitting does. It's also much younger than knitting, being developed about 200 years ago. Crocheting does have a few advantages: it's typically faster, and mistakes can be fixed much more easily than knitting errors. There's also only one needle (or hook) involved, which can make things a bit easier. Personally though, I much prefer knitting--- the stretchy fabrics are much more flattering when made into clothing.

While it may be difficult at first, with some practice you will easily be able to tell the difference between knit and crocheted items. 

The tight, v-shaped stitches typical of knitting. This fabric is extremely flexible.

The denser, firmer fabric typical of crochet. This fabric is much stiffer than knitting.

The Tools of the Trade: Yarn, Needles, Oh My!

You could probably get started knitting with two sharpened pencils and an unraveled cassette tape if you wanted, but for the sake of making a nice finished product, it makes sense to invest in the right tools. There are lots of crazy tools and accessories, and an avid knitter could easily spend a few hundred dollars in a nice yarn store. Electric ball winders, stitch-marker charms, loom knitting machines---- the list goes on. For this course, you're going to need the bare bones basics: some yarn, some needles, and some scissors. I'll also recommend some optional accessories at the end, but if you don't have/can't afford them, don't worry about it! So lets get started.


There are tons and tons and tons and tons of different kinds of yarns, but they really all fall into three different camps: Plant-based fibers, animal based fibers, and synthetic fibers. 

Here's a basic rundown, pulled right from the wonderful world of Wikipedia. Keep in mind that there are MANY different yarns not included in the following list:

Plant-Based Fibers

 Animal-Based Fibers

 Synthetic Fibers

Not only are there lots of different kinds of fibers, they're spun together in all kinds of different ways, giving us thick yarns, thin yarns, uneven yarns, smooth yarns, fuzzy yarns, funky yarns, thread-weight yarn, etc. yarn could be almost thick and rope-like, or as fine as cobwebs. Each thickness has a name. The most common weight of yarn (and the weight we will be using in this course), is knows as "worsted weight". The majority of yarn you'll find in non-specialty shops is worsted weight yarn. 

You'll also notice in the picture above the measurements above each thickness of yarn. As you may have deduced on your own, different thicknesses of yarn yield different sized stitches, which result in more or few stitches to form the same amount of fabric. This difference in number of stitches per unit of fabric is known as the gauge. Lets take a look at the information you'll typically see on a skein of yarn (a skein is just another fancy word for a unit yarn is sold in--- the form you'll typically see at big-box stores. Specialty yarn stores tend to sell yarn in balls or hanks, which are a big coil of yarn wrapped twisted into itself).

The first square on the left tells us are thickness. This yarn is a worsted weight yarn, making it your typical, run-of-the-mill weight.

The second square tells us our approximate gauge. I say approximate because every knitter's gauge is different. If I handed you a ball of yarn and two needles, your stitches wouldn't be the exact same size as mine, even if I used the exact same yarn and needles. This will be very very important later on. We'll just take this at face value, and estimate that with this ball of worsted weight yarn, every 15 stitches with be about four inches wide, and every 22 rows will be about four inches tall. To knit a four-by-four square, you'll have to knit about 330 stitches. This square indicating our gauge also tells us which needle size to use (a 5 mm, or size 8 needle).

We can ignore the last few squares--- one indicates our approximate crochet gauge, and the others are our washing/drying/ironing instructions.

The best way to get familiar with different kinds of yarn is to visit your local hobby store, touch a bunch of yarn, and read each label closely.

Knitting Needles

Needles also come in an assortment of varieties and materials. Your main three types of needles are straight needles (the kind you typically see in pictures), double-pointed needles (short needles with a point on each end), and circular needles (two needles points attached to one another with a piece of wire). In this course, we'll start with straight needles, and advance to circular needles later. 

You can also choose from a variety of materials. Most needles are made from plastic, metal, or wood (though some are made from bone or other unique materials). Plastic needles are definitely cheapest, but you might find them slippery or sticky. I personally love bamboo needles, but keep in mind that they do cost a bit more.

These needles come in different sizes. Some will be as thick as a toothpick, others as thick as a broom handle. The width you'll most commonly use is about as thick as a pencil. There are typically two measurements given on a package of needles to indicate their size. There is the actually measurement given in millimeters, and the size. Kind of like how pants might have a 30-inch waist, but you could also just say they're a size eight (see the yarn label above to see how both measurements are given).

The combination of the thickness of your yarn and the size of your needle will determine the thickness of your fabric. Normally the yarn label will suggest a size, but you could go up or down a couple sizes if you wanted to, depending on the effect you were trying to achieve.

Now It's Your Turn

So now that you have a basic idea of what we're trying to do, it's your turn to go out and actually get some supplies. For your first project, you're going to need a skein (or ball, or hank) of yarn, and a pair of straight needles that are about a foot long (though you might consider circular needles instead. I'll explain below). 

If you're working on a tight budget, you might want to check your local dollar store or hobby store clearance section. You'll probably be working with an acrylic yarn and plastic needles. Some cheap yarns to consider: Red Heart is a super cheap acrylic yarn (on clearance, you can pick up a skein for a quarter), but it's not very soft. It's good for items you're not planning on wearing, like dish towels or decorative pillows. Caron Simply Soft is another cheap acrylic yarn, but it actually feels quite nice. Again, you can find this for just a dollar or two. 

There's a wide variety of mid-range yarns you can use that cost around $5 a skein. Some of my favorites: Paton's classic wool (be careful washing this though---- I'll explain later), Sugar 'n' Cream is a wonderful pure cotton yarn in nice colors, Lion Brand Wool-Ease is a nice blend as well. If you're looking to make an investment in needles, I would really recommend a nice pair of bamboo needles. Seriously, your stitches will be smoother, looser, and neater, and they really only cost $7 or $8.

If you want to spend a decent chunk of money, feel free to visit your local yarn store and ask some questions. Superwash merino is a wonderful fiber that feels soft and smooth and behaves like wool (cause it is), but it's treated with a chemical to keep it from shrinking in the wash. You could also buy a set of needles in different sizes, or a set of interchangeable circular needles. It'd be easy to spend $100 right off the bat if you really wanted to, but consider exercising some restraint until you figure out what you really need.

Some Tips for Everyone:

Please stick to worsted weight, standard yarn. I know there might be some really pretty angora laceweight yarns, or fun looking thick-and-thin bulky handspun. Trust me though, it's going to be very tricky to learn how to knit if you can't really see your individual stitches. If you really really really can't help yourself, aim on the side of thicker yarn rather than thinner. But trust me, you don't want a crazy looking yarn with lots of texture, bumps, sequins, or anything fancy. You won't be able to see your stitches, and you're going to get really frustrated.

I know I told you you want straight needles, but consider buying a pair of circulars. Why? Because you can actually use circular needles the same way you can use straight needles, but can't use straight needles the way you use circular ones. And bonus: they're attached to one another so you can't drop them! And, since you'd only be buying one pair of needles instead of two, you could maybe consider buying one nice pair instead of two cheap pairs. Worth every penny, I promise you. Circular needles have one other important measurement---- the length from tip to tip. Look for a 12 or 16 inch set.

If you're going to a big-box hobby store like Michael's, Jo-Ann's, or Hobby Lobby, look online for a coupon. You can easily save 40% on one item, which could save you a few bucks. Consider just buying one item at a time, and you could save that much on your whole purchase. Also, many stores accept competitors coupons, so trying bringing a few different ones and doubling up. 

If I were personally taking this class, I think I would buy a skein of Paton's Classic Wool yarn, and a set of size 8 Clover Bamboo circular needles. Don't take this as gospel though, folks. Buy what you want, and make sure it's something you personally like.

You might want to take a glance at the washing instructions before you buy your yarn. Lots of animal fiber yarns will felt when washed. What does this mean? Each hair has teeny tiny microscopic hooks along its' length (kind of like those spiky plastic drain cleaners you see in the Drain-O commercials). When you was these animal fibers, the friction from the washing machine combined with the soap opening up the hair's cuticle causes the fabric to mash together and get stuck that way. Your pretty knit scarves will just become dense, tiny, inflexible pieces of useless fabric. 

So For Next Week:

Make sure you have a pair of needles, a set of needles in an appropriate size (check your yarn label to make sure, or just get a worsted weight yarn at a set of size 8 needles), and some scissors. We'll get started doing some actual knitting and you'll have a nice scarf or dishtowel before you know it!

1 comment:

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