Monday, February 17, 2014

Musings on Different Knitting Techniques: right-hand yarn hold vs left-hand yarn hold

So much has been made of the split between knitters who hold their yarn in the right hand while knitting (frequently referred to as English style or throwing) versus those who hold their yarn in the left hand while knitting (frequently referred to as Continental style or picking). I have to admit to being someone who has followed this issue for a long time and to having read numerous blog post, articles, and writing about this in books. 

I was taught to knit with the yarn held in my right hand. Soon after I began knitting regularly, I was very lucky to have a master knitter who owned my LYS teach me how to tension my yarn a lot more effectively over my right index finger, under my middle finger, and over my index finger. Here is a link to a video of the way I tension my yarn: right-handed yarn hold (in the image to which I have linked, the knitter tensions in the same way that I do, except he adds one more tensioning point by wrapping the yarn around his pinkie in addition to tensioning over the index finger, under the middle finger and over the ring finger as I do).

My mentor was an extremely fast and effective knitter, so I was highly motivated to learn her technique. I found that with a little practice, I took to this method well and was very pleased with the results and the rhythm I was able to establish very quickly while knitting. This has been my primary mode of knitting for the last 20 years.

However, soon after this I began to encounter some knitters who knit with the yarn held in their left hands. Both of my friends with whom I first encountered this technique had learned to knit in other countries (one from Russia and another from Sweden). They both knitted in a similar manner in terms of how they held the yarn, but my friend from Russia actually created her purl stitches differently. I later learned she was knitting using a Combined method. It absolutely fascinated me that people could knit so differently and still produce very similar results. Even at the time, I had a small desire to learn what they were doing, but I was so used to my own method that it didn't really occur to me to do much more than giver their methods a half-hearted try in order to at least see what it was all about. I never seriously considered switching styles at that time.

Later, though, I began reading a lot about these different styles on knitting blogs, and I was fascinated to see how many knitters who held their yarn in the left hand were "coming out" to speak about the discriminatory comments they had faced over the years, being told they were "knitting wrong." I never understood that and always wondered why people were so quick to try to put those who do things differently into a category of "the other." I applauded these women for beginning to share their stories and for making these less well-known styles of knitting known to the general knitting public and for eventually making it so that these styles have become more than acceptable. In many instances, knitting with the yarn in the left hand has become more "normal" amongst the knitting community on the web than knitting with yarn in the right hand seems to be.

Which brings me to my own story.  Eventually, I began thinking that instead of half-heartedly trying to knit with the yarn in my left hand, maybe I should really try to switch. I had a few motivations to learn to do it well. First of all, I wanted to knit Fair Isle and wanted to use the two-handed method. In order to learn to do it well enough to make stranded knitting rhythmic, I figured I should really practice it alone first. I did this and became fairly proficient with the knit stitch. Of course, purl is another thing all-together when it comes to holding the yarn in the left-hand (one reason why I still prefer holding the yarn in my right hand for most knitting). No matter how proficient I have become holding the yarn in my left hand for the knit stitch and no matter how much I have practiced, I can't say I have ever become as comfortable with it as I am when holding the yarn in my right hand.

When I use my index finger to flick the yarn up over the needle, whether for the knit stitch or the purl stitch, I feel like my hand is a well-oiled machine. Everything just flows and it feel awesome. When I hold the yarn in my left hand, it feels a bit like work, and I find myself having to really concentrate. I can't take my eyes off the needles like I can when I use my right hand. I can't execute k2tog, ssk, yo, or m1 without thinking about it. I certainly can't execute the purl stitch without a lot of effort and concentration. And I still haven't found a really comfortable way to tension the yarn. I have tried them all, but none feels perfect in the way that my right-handed technique does. 

The one that I have found that works best for me when it comes to a left-handed yarn hold for the knit stitch is the one that I recently saw Elizabeth Zimmerman using on her dvds. She simply holds the yarn over her left index finger and tensions the yarn with her folded fingers against her palm. When I saw this a couple weeks back after purchasing her amazing dvds, I realized that she was tensioning her yarn in the same exact manner that I do when I crochet. This made me realize that maybe if it works for me for crochet, it would for knitting. Sure enough it does ... but only for the knit stitch. The problem for me comes into play when I try to purl and there doesn't seem to be enough tension to make it work. E.Z. seemed to manage, but she was famous for liking to knit a lot more than she liked to purl, which is one of the reasons she was so enamored with garter stitch and knitting in the round. Unfortunately, I am not quite as enamored with garter stitch or knitting in the round as she was, and I really want to continue to be able to purl comfortably. 

Lastly, knitting with the yarn in my right hand just feels right! I love the rhythm I get into when I do it this way, and even if I am not as fast as some who knit with the yarn held in their left hand are, who cares. First of all, I know plenty of knitters who hold the yarn in their right hand who are incredibly fast, my mentor being one of them. I am just not a speed demon at anything. However, I want to enjoy my knitting not win any speed contests. So much of my life needs to be lived in the fast lane as it is -- work, kids' schedules, etc. -- why should my knitting be a contest. I have decided that I will continue to use the right-handed hold as my primary method of knitting. I will continue to work on improving the rhythm of my left-handed hold for stranded knitting and for projects where it might be useful, such as something containing a lot of seed stitch. However, I don't think I will ever switch entirely.

It is nice to have more than one technique to depend upon, though, because we can never learn too much in life. Now I just wish that everyone would realize the value in all of the many ways that one can knit and be content to allow everyone to enjoy their own styles. Unfortunately, it seems that all too often one group or the other wants to make the other group feel like they are doing it "wrong." For far too long those who knit with yarn held in the left hand were the victims of that mentally; however, it is starting to seem like the tide has turned and now those who hold the yarn in their right hands are the ones who are all too often being criticized. This should not be. We all have different styles and sometimes those styles might correlate with how our bodies are designed. Isn't the most important thing that we do what makes us feel the most comfortable when it comes to our hobby?

By now you might be wondering why I have chosen to use the awkward phrasing of "knitters who hold the yarn in the right hand" and "knitters who hold the yarn in the left hand" instead of more common labels such as "Continental/English style" or "pickers/throwers." The reason for this is that after reading the excellent explanation that June Hemmons Hiatt gives in her book, The Principles of Knitting: Methods and Techniques of Hand Knitting, I became informed that the terms Continental and English-style were inappropriate. She points out the terms contain a Western bias since they exclude so many other parts of the world that have been knitting for as long if not longer than those in England and other parts of Europe, using these techniques as well as others that haven't even been discussed in this post (thumb knitting, sometimes called Portuguese knitting) (Hiatt 4). Hiatt uses specific labels for each method use with each of the larger categories, which she generally refers to as "right-hand methods" and "left-hand methods." However, when I have referred to them in this way when speaking with fellow fiber arts enthusiasts, I find that they sometimes think I am talking about which hand does most of the needle work rather than which hand holds the yarn.

The reason I don't like to use "throwers and pickers" is that I find those terms to be limiting. There is nothing about the way that I knit by tensioning my yarn over my right index finger that resembles a throwing motion in any way. Throwing also has a negative connotation to it since so many knitters who prefer to hold the yarn in their left hands seem to have a caricatured image of knitters who hold the yarn in their right hands: wildly out of control knitters, making exaggerated sweeping motions every time they complete a stitch. This in no way resembles the controlled, precise motions of my knitting mentor, nor of myself for that matter. On the other hand, "picker" has an inelegant sound to it that I feel does not capture the precise, efficient motions of many of the knitters who hold their yarn in the left hand that I have seen. Meg Swansen is an excellent example of someone who is not only incredibly quick when she knits, but who also makes knitting look beautiful as she performs it for the camera.

So, I choose to use the wordier phrases that refer to which hand holds the yarn when I categorize the two basic knitting styles that seem to be predominant in Western culture. I also think that by doing so, the two become more equalized and the emphasis is on a choice of how to hold something, not on a label that might contain connotations, even if they aren't intended by the speaker/writer.  I know that a lot has already been written about this topic, but I would love to hear from others out there who have wanted to weigh in on their own experiences. Feel free to share your own thoughts/ideas in the comment section below, but please remember to be respectful of everyone's style when commenting.

Remember that knitting isn't about speed unless you want it to be in order to knit for profit or for competition. If you are enjoying what you are doing no matter how you are doing it, you are doing it right!

Works Cited

Hiatt, June, and Jesse Hiatt. The Principles of Knitting: Methods and Techniques of Hand Knitting. New York: Touchstone, 2012. Print. 


  1. Thank you, Suzy! Thank you! OK, deep've inspired me to come out of the closet about my knitting form.

    I never thought I'd be able to learn to knit at all, I was so thoroughly dependent on my dominant hand and practically useless with the other. So at first, I didn't use the "other" hand at all. Surprise, surprise, I learned!--but I never really got comfortable with holding a needle in my "other" hand. The weird-handed habit stuck. Several years later, I knit pretty fast now and do maintain a consistent tension though I still tend to use the right hand to control the right needle, the left to hold and move the yarn...while the left needle itself if held not in any hand but balanced upright against my left wrist at the pointed end, against my ribs on the flat end!

    Needless to say, when I dared to pick up DPNs, I had to relearn, shifting my form to something closer to normal. But still--my automatic, go-to straight-needle form that I don't even think about is pretty strange to look at. And yet--as you said, the point is that I do enjoy knitting. So really, who cares what it looks like.

  2. Anonymous, thanks so much for responding. I love hearing descriptions of all the different ways people have found to comfortably knit. The diversity in this fiber community is one of the most appealing things about it to me. I am so glad that like me you have found what is most comfortable for you and that you are enjoying it. That is all that matters because most of us picked up this hobby for pleasure, not necessarily to turn it into work! Happy knitting.