Resources for Knitting Newbies (and Wanna-Be’s): Dead Tree Edition

As a knitter and crocheter, I am entirely self-taught.  When I wanted to learn spinning and weaving, I went to my LYS and took a class, but the first time I picked up a hook or a pair of needles, a little voice in the back of my head went, “Hey, this can’t be that hard, right?  I’ll just go to the library.”

You know what?  I was right.  If you’re the sort of person who can learn from a book (or by watching a video), there are a wealth of resources available.  Recently, though, I’ve had a couple of beginning knitters ask for a few pointers to help wade through the sea of knitting books.  This is far from an exhaustive list – there are thousands of books out there, and many of them are very good.  These are just the ones that helped me – or, in a couple of cases, ones I wish I’d found earlier so I could have gotten help sooner.

Category 1:  Learning to Knit (the very basics)

The mechanics of knitting itself is fairly straightforward.  As a result, there are as many different ways to knit as there are knitters – no two people knit exactly the same way.  That said, there are two major “styles” of knitting, commonly referred to as “English” (also called “throwing”) and “Continental” (also called “picking”).  English knitters tension and manipulate the yarn with their right hand, and Continental knitters use their left hand.  (Because I am left-handed, started out a crocheter, and taught myself out of a book, I use English style but tension left-handed.  Recently I heard a podcast interview with Alana Dakos of Never Not Knitting, and she mentioned that she does the same thing. Alana, you are not alone!)

If you would like to start out knitting English, I suggest picking up Debbie Stoller’s Stitch ‘N Bitch. She’s built an empire of books around the theme, but the original is a great resource for the new knitter.  It starts with casting on, knitting and purling, and then moves on to a myriad of other useful things to know.  I’d list them off, but I gave my copy to a friend after I moved across the country two weeks after I taught her to knit.  Safe to say, it’s a great book.  (I still have three other Stoller books in my collection: Nation, Son of (which has great patterns for men), and Superstar Knitting (which is a great “okay, now what?” technique book).  Stoller has a breezy, friendly style that makes learning feel very possible.

In the category of “I didn’t have this when I was first learning, but I wish I had,” is the book I’d recommend if you want to learn Continental.  Okay, technically what I’m recommending is not a book at all, but a DVD series.  (There is a book version, but the DVD series is amazing.  I’m just saying.)  I found the series at the library, checked it out a whim, and wished I’d found it sooner.  Elizabeth Zimmerman’s Knitting Workshop ran on PBS in 1981 (according to Wikipedia), and though it’s visually a little dated, it’s chock-full of useful, practical information taught in a warm, friendly style.  If you wish your grandmother had taught you to knit (or that you had the kind of grandmother who could have taught you to knit), Elizabeth’s DVD will do nicely.

So now you’ve got the mechanics of knitting down – you can cast on, knit, purl, and bind off , and if you joined Elizabeth rather than Debbie, you can probably increase and decrease too.  So now what?

Now we branch out, and while I’m going to recommend a few specific titles, what I’m mostly going to suggest is types of books.

Category 2:  Knitting Philosophy

Okay, so “philosophy” may be a little strong for this, but that’s how it’s categorized in my head.  My favorite “knitting philosophy” book, the one I keep coming back to, is Stephanie Pearl-McPhee’s Knitting Rules!  Stephanie, commonly known as The Yarn Harlot, is a Canadian knitter and humor writer.  She’s on the list with EZ as one of my knitting heroes; I’d really like to be her when I grow up.  What Knitting Rules! will teach you (besides the obvious), is how to think like a knitter.  More, it’s like having a friend who’s a knitter to go to.  She talks about things like gauge and why it matters, yarn and what to do about it, and why you should have multiples of the same tool (and which tools to have multiples of – hey, Jack, where’s my tape measure?).  Once she gets past the basic “things a knitter needs to know,” she applies it to specific kinds of projects.  KR is not a pattern book – it’s a little bit like the informational sections of The Joy of Cooking.  With a little bit of basic information about yourself or your knit recipient, you can make hats, socks, scarves, shawls, and even sweaters without ever using a pattern.  Information organized like this also means that when you inevitably hit a poorly (or vaguely!) written pattern, you can pull Stephanie down off the shelf and have a clear, detailed description of how exactly you turn a sock heel again.  (“Knit in pattern until the leg measures 7″ and then turn the heel?  What kind of instruction is THAT?”)

Category 3:  The Knitting Encyclopedia

If you have a reliable internet connection, you might call this “Google.”  But don’t call me crying if your power goes out and you’re trying to figure out how to do a tubular cast-on.  (No, really, don’t.  I don’t know how to do it.)  There are a lot of these out there – serious, photo-heavy tomes suitable for dealing with intruders.  Mine, which wouldn’t make a bad coffee-table book, is a copy of Vogue Knitting: the Ultimate Knitting Book that I picked up used.  If you find a copy of this one, and you don’t mind “this is an instruction book” style (“Proper care is just as important to the life of your knit garments as the way you knit them in the first place,” [114]), and you’re really good with written instructions rather than pictures, you could skip Debbie and Elizabeth and move straight into Vogue.  (I do not recommend it.  But you could.)

A knitting encyclopedia is just an all-in-one source for a whole lot of information.  None of it is going to be particularly detailed, but if you run across a term you don’t know, or you just want a basic run-down on how to do something, or just need to brush up on a particular technique (how do you do Kitchener again?), a knitting encyclopedia is a great resource.  This one also has some knitting history and a small stitch dictionary, as well as some good information on knitwear-as-garments and the kind of finicky things you want to know to be able to put knit clothing together.  And if anybody’s going to know the finicky details about how clothing goes together well, it’s going to be the folks at Vogue, don’t you think?

There are other knitting encyclopedias I’m coveting – Clara Parkes’ Knitter’s Book trilogy (Yarn, Wool, and Socks), but one is sufficient for a beginner.

Category 4:  Putting it Together

This is a big one, and it will probably end up being served by multiple volumes in your knitting library.  Assuming, of course, that you’re a knitter of garments.  If all you tend to make are afghans or toys, then “fit” isn’t really an issue for you – but you might want to check this section out anyway.

I have a pair of books on fit that I love and would not soon be parted with, and those are Big Girl Knits by Jillian Moreno and Amy Singer, and Ysolda Teague’s Little Red in the City.  Now, both of these books are focused on sweater knitting in particular (a subject that awes and fascinates me), but what you learn about knitting sweaters that fit can easily be applied to other garments, or even things that are not garments.  The sections on measuring alone are worth the cost of admission.  Not a “big girl?”  Little Red shows sweaters on two very different body types,  and talks about fit in all kinds of ways.  I’m a curvy girl; obviously, YMMV.

The book I’d recommend even for toy afghan knitters is a book on finishing details.  Vogue Knitting has sections; I like Nancie Wiseman’s The Knitter’s Book of Finishing Techniques.  One of the things that turns an object from “That’s cute, did you make it?” to “That’s gorgeous, where did you get it?” is proper finishing work.  Smooth seams, solid buttonholes, invisibly attached zippers – all of these suggest quality craftsmanship, and all of these are possible with enough care and the right kind of information.

Category 5: Where to Next?

Last one, I promise.

I want you to answer a question for me:  why did you start knitting?  Sure, because it seemed relaxing or fun or you wanted to figure out why your best friend couldn’t put down her needles for five damn minutes, but why did you really start?

For me, it was because I love beautiful things.

There was more, of course – I like to make things, I like to work with my hands, textiles have always fascinated me – but hand-knit lace will catch my attention like nothing else, because it’s beautiful and impractical in a way that it is totally the opposite of how I live.

Once you’ve been knitting for a little while, you’ll figure out the things you like to do.  I have close to a dozen physical sock books, not counting individual patterns or e-books.  Many of them are technique books – making socks that fit, making socks two at a time (I have two of these). I love socks, fingerless gloves, and I’m starting to develop a true love for hats.  Your knitting library will develop in that direction, naturally.

Now, my chickadees, I have an assignment for you.  After you’ve been knitting long enough to be comfortable with it, however long that takes you – you can cast on and bind off without having to look it up, you know the difference between stockinette and garter, you probably have a preferred rib pattern, and you likely have an answer to “circular or double-points?”  – once you’ve reached this point, go to the bookstore, or your LYS with a good collection of books, or peruse the knitting section of Amazon.  Find a book that takes your breath away, that makes you go, “Oh, I’ll never be able to do that.”  Find that book, take it off the shelf, walk it to the cashier, and take it home with you.  Because category 5 is inspiration, and that’s just as important to have as a how-to book.  It doesn’t have to be a book, or limited to a book, but I like books because you can take them down and hold them.  I also have a pattern in my queue that I know is outside of my current abilities, but I have purchased it anyway, pattern and yarn both, because someday I will be able to do that.

My someday I will be able to do that book is Wrapped in Lace by Margaret Stove, and someday I will design a lace shawl.  Cables are fun, and colorwork is intriguing, but the thing that makes me go I WANT TO BE A KNITTER LIKE THAT is that kind of elaborate, elegant lace, knit on tiny little needles on super-fine yarn.  Yours may not be lace; yours may be an intarsia  swing coat with sixteen colors, or a Fair Isle cardigan for every member of your family, or knee-high argyle socks knit from your own handspun.  Maybe you want to knit an entire Rinoa costume.  You may be dreaming of a cashmere sweater knit in fingering-weight yarn.  Whatever it is, dream big, and know that if you keep at it, you’ll get there.  (And when you get there – there will be something else.  That’s how knitting works.)

I hope this helps!  If anyone has specific questions, feel free to leave a comment or drop me a line.

Up next: Online Resources!


~ by Amber on February 5, 2012.

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