Needles at the ready! The knitting how-to guide for beginners learning the basics

Some may have previously scoffed at the mention of knitting, but this popular pastime has banished perceptions of being unfashionable and boring over the past few years. In fact,  it’s now a bona fide favourite in all age groups.

You may think its sudden rise in popularity is an unlikely renaissance, but with an entire community of knitting fanatics across the globe picking up their needles, it’s no surprise that this therapeutic, down-time activity has finally found the vibrant subculture it deserves.

But, knowing how to start knitting and the best ways to learn the basics can be tricky when you’re often inundated with stitch jargon and complicated techniques online. We’ve compiled a complete knitting how-to guide for beginners, featuring simple steps and top tips for getting those needles clicking, with help from real knitting enthusiasts!

The knitting basics: how to start knitting

To begin your journey on the path to knitting greatness, you’ll have to first master the three basic stages: learning how to cast on, knit stitch and cast off.

Step one: gather supplies

When starting knitting as a beginner, it’s best to begin with a medium weight (known as worsted weight), cheaper acrylic yarn, so any huge mistakes won’t seem like the end of the world!

To get those needles clicking, you’ll need exactly that – a pair of knitting needles. Opt for wooden or bamboo types which are typically less slippery than metal or plastic. When it comes to size, it’s often best to choose thicker needles for easier grip, although most yarn labels will include a recommended needle size in millimetres – stick to this as best you can to avoid your final knit being too tight or too loose.

A simplistic scarf in neutral tones is a great addition to any seasonal wardrobe.

Step two: how to cast on

  1. Ensuring you’ve left a generous yarn tail, create a slipknot by making a simple loop with the yarn and threading the tail behind and through the loop.
  2. Place the slipknot on one needle and gently pull the tail to tighten.
  3. Hold the yarn attached to the ball away with your right hand, before grabbing the dangling tail in a closed fist and resting your thumb behind the yarn.
  4. Hook the yarn around your thumb and slide the needle though this loop (without removing your thumb).
  5. Transfer the needle to your left hand and wrap the yarn around the from the back to the front, pulling the yarn down the needle so it crosses the loop still on your thumb.
  6. Pull the thumb loop gently over the top of the needle before pulling the yarn tail to tighten.
  7. Et voila – your first stitch! Repeat steps two to six until you have the desired number of stitches.

Step three: how to knit stitch

  1. Hold the needle with your cast-on stitches in your left hand and the empty one in your right.
  2. Insert the empty needle upwards and into the first stitch on the left needle, making a cross formation. The new needle is now behind the cast-on one.
  3. Wrap the yarn around the right needle from the back to the front and pull so it lays between the two needles.
  4. Slide the right needle downwards and back up in front of the left needle, making sure to catch the new loop of yarn on the way up.
  5. Slide the right-hand needle to the right, dropping the original stitch off the left needle and replacing it with the new one. Pull the yarn string to tighten and you have your first knit stitch!
  6. Repeat steps two to five until you have a full row. To keep knitting, you’ll need to spin the needle around each time you finish a row so that the needle with the working yarn faces from the left to the right.
A chunky, textured jumper is a stellar choice for those looking to master casual layering.

Step four: how to cast off

  1. To get your knitted work of art off the needles, start by knitting two stitches on the empty, right needle.
  2. Bring the second stitch (furthest away from the needle tip) over the first stitch and the tip of the needle, using the left needle to help you.
  3. Slide the right needle across to drop the stitch off, leaving you with one stitch.
  4. Knit one more stitch to make the number back up to two again and repeat the process until you’ve completed the entire edge.
  5. When a single stitch is left on your needle, cut a 10-inch tail to detach the yarn from the ball.
  6. Wrap this yarn tail around and over the needle, move the second stitch over the first as before and pull the needle towards you – this should flick the tail through the loop and secure the stitch.

Top knitting tips from the masters

If you’re tempted to take up knitting for yourself, it’s normal to feel a little bewildered about where to start. We’ve spoken to some avid knitters to find out their top tips for beginners:

Tip one: Don’t be put off by notoriously complicated knitting patterns

James McIntosh, award-winning food writer and inspirational author of Knit and Nibble, told us not to worry at first glance, as “knitting patterns are just a set of condensed abbreviations with numbers next to them for the various sizes. Each pattern should have a key to the abbreviations, all you need to do is work out the size you need and follow the key as you read the pattern.”

Aran knitted jumpers have a history of their own; this beige style is an invaluable classic.

Tip two: Boost your mental health with a spot of knititation

James shared his story on overcoming mental health obstacles and recent grief, and how he used a mindfulness technique of ‘knititation’ (knitting and meditation) to change his life completely, one stitch at a time. He’s now turned this inspirational experience into a free, downloadable guide to knitting and meditation for mental health, written in association with Knitting Magazine.

Dr Thomas Ernst (James’s partner), senior consultant physician specialising in mindfulness and Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, explained the technique:

In evolution, there were bodies first and then brains. It’s easy to live in our minds and not in our bodies. As you knit, say hello to your body by feeling the sensation of the knitted stitches, that way, you can spend time with your body, I call this ‘knititation’.

Tip three: Get to know your basic stitch types

James explained to us: “There are only two stitches in knitting; one is called the knit stitch and the other is the purl stitch – or K and P when reading a knitting pattern. It’s the combinations of these stitches that make various textured designs in an item:

  • Knit one, purl one (and repeat to end of row) makes a very elastic ‘rib’ for the bottom of sweaters, cuffs and collars
  • Just the knit stitch on every row makes a bumpy pattern (also called garter stitch)
  • One row knit, next row purl (and repeat) makes a smoother refinished item known as stocking-stitch”
For a finer weave that works wonders for spring/summer wear, this lambswool jumper is ideal.

Tip four: Take as much care of your body as you do the work you are creating

We also spoke to Karen J Gerrard, a hand expert who created her company SEAMS to help knitters protect their hands. She advised:

Stretch your arms and massage hands regularly – pay particular attention to the pressure point between your thumb and forefinger in the palm of your hand. Take regular breaks and change your position every hour, to avoid putting strain on your core muscle groups.”

She continued: “keep the temperature in the room comfortably warm, too high and you can dehydrate, too cold and the blood flowing into your hands will slow down and they will become less supple.”

We hope our knitting for beginners guide has given you the boost you need to give this fascinating hobby a try, but if it doesn’t quite go to plan, we have an outstanding range of stylish, high-quality knitwear right here at The Edinburgh Woollen Mill.