I’ve been thinking a lot these past few days about the way I knit.
As you probably know if you’re a knitter yourself, there is an infinity of ways in which to hold these two needles and yarn. The two commonest methods probably are English knitting and Continental knitting, in which each hand holds a needle and the yarn is wrapped by either by the right hand (English) or by the left (Continental).
I taught myself to knit from a book, and the way demonstrated there was Continental. (I think it was a French translation from a Debbie Bliss book, but I’m not quite sure.) When I showed off my new skills to my mother and grand-mother, both knitters, they at once commented on the “weird” way I was doing it — I discovered later that both were English knitters. (That is, that they knit English. They’re French English knitters.) As an aside, most people I have seen knitting here in Switzerland knit English too, and they assume I’m knitting “French”. An elderly lady who once watched me knit a sock in a café actually exclaimed : “You knit in such a funny way, you must be French !” (As an aside to the aside, if you Google “French knitting”, you will find links to a kind of loom knitting that produces tubes of fabric and that I knew as “tricotin” in my childhood. The one I had, almost exactly the same as the one you can see in the link, could only make long, thin straps of knitting similar to I-cord. The only difference is that I was taught to use a crochet hook instead of a knitting needle to operate it.)
I picked up speed as I knit on and on, and I achieved an average speed with knit stitches, but purling has always been slow and awkward for me. I have never really mastered the way you have to wrap the yarn around the needle when purling a stitch, so I developed my own way of doing it, which involved completely letting go of the left needle and wrapping the yarn, held between index and thumb, around the right needle tip before grabbing the left needle again to slide it off the new stitch. Believe me, this is just as slow as it sounds.
I am reasonably fast with knit stitches, at least I’m satisfied with how fast I knit. The issue here is of a different kind. In Continental knitting (or maybe the way I do it), when knitting, you insert the tip of the right-hand needle into the next stitch on the left-hand needle, then the tip of the right-hand needle goes and grabs, with a little twist, the yarn held at the back of the work by the left hand, and pulls it through. That little yarn-grabbing twist implies a swift movement from the wrist. In the past few weeks, something in my right wrist has taken to clicking every single time I perform this gesture. It’s not painful, I simply feel the “click” in the joint, but I very much doubt this would be good for my wrist in the long term. It’s probably my wrist’s way of telling me I’m straining it too much, and I do need a right wrist.
Two days ago, after much consideration and researching on the net, I decided to try and switch to lever knitting. There is not much you can find about how to do it, except for fascinating videos of the revered Yarn Harlot doing it at a supernatural speed and explaining it as she goes. (I find her movements so beautiful to watch that it played a big role in my decision. It reminds me of someone playing the harp.) This video from one of her lucky students seems very helpful too, but I haven’t attempted yet to lever-knit on circulars. Lever knitting, as its name aptly suggests, is a way of knitting where one needle, held stationary, acts as a lever, while one hand holds and wraps the yarn and the other, holding the second needle, slips the stitches one by one onto the stationary needle.
I’ve been trying that, both on straights (with the right needle stuck under the armpit) and on dpns (the Yarn Harlot also demonstrates how to do this), for the past two days. I’m not going to lie : right now, I find it hard. (That might be an understatement.) My biggest difficulty is that, having knit Continental all my knitting life, I have no clue about how to efficiently hold and wrap the yarn with the right hand. Seriously. I’m clumsy. I struggle. It takes me two or three tries to get the yarn wrapped around the needle tip. I keep changing positions, trying to tension the yarn differently over my fingers, not finding that “just right” balance between yarn feeding too easily and not feeding at all. Yesterday, I tried it, dpn stuck at the base of my right thumb, on a plain sock I’m knitting while working in the library. It took all the will I could muster not to utter huge strings of obscenities — because, well, a library is supposed to be a silent place — and I’m usually the kind of girl who never swears.
That sock was at the stage of the gusset decreases when I picked it up, and all of a sudden, I realized I had lost my usual visual reference points as well as my muscle memory. What I felt certain would make a k2tog turned out to make a ssk, and what I was sure would result in a ssk produced a k2tog. I thought I would go crazy before the end of the afternoon. I’m back to knitting so tight, as when I first took up the craft, that I more than once ripped four or five stitches off the left needle when trying to pull it away.
So why am I persevering ?
First, although I read people, on Ravelry’s Lever Knitting Group, writing that they had fully caught up with their initial speed after four hours of lever knitting, I didn’t believe that I would adapt quickly, mainly because I (rightly) anticipated that switching from Continental would mean building a whole new muscle memory. I’d expect it to take closer to four weeks than four hours ! Then, because I feel I have to change anyway, to spare my wrist. And, last but not least, because the swatch I’ve been knitting on my straights, from a cheap acrylic yarn, looks really amazing —dense, smooth, and incredibly even.
In the meantime, I feel like a beginner all over again. There are so many questions to which I don’t know the answer yet : can you knit with your needle under your armpit on a seat that hasn’t got a back ? How to you keep the needle from going backwards when there is no back on which you can rest the needle cap ? How do you do colourwork ? Should I buy different needles ? Should I think about investing in a knitting sheath ? Will I ever adapt to this and knit as if I had done it all my life ?
If you have successfully converted to lever knitting, I’d be very interested to hear from you, because this is what it feels like right now :
More scary than reassuring.