January 4, 2014

Knitting by Structure, Part 2: All About Stitches


As I stated in my series introductory post, the first step in learning how to knit by stitch structure is actually learning what stitch structure is.  After all, you need to know what you're aiming for before you learn how to do it.

Now, this isn't going to be an in-depth look at knitted fabric and how stitches behave in it.  I'll touch upon a few high-level items there, but that's not what we're really concerned about at the moment. What the student needs to get out of this is two things:
  1. A basic understanding on how yarn becomes stitches becomes knitted fabric, and
  2. The parts of a stitch, both active and in the fabric. 
For many people, a deeper understand will come with time and practice, so if you don't quite get it, it may be helpful to continue on and re-visit once you've gotten to the point where you have needles and yarn in your hand (or have knitted a thing or two after learning this, if you're already a knitter).

Fabric and Stitches

Simply put, knitted fabric is just a series of interlocked loops called stitches. This is easier pictured than described, so here's a diagram I found on Wikipedia (click to go to source):

Now, this happens to be the knit side of a piece of stockinette fabric, but it all works similarly (though looks different) so I'll ignore that for now.  Typical hand knitted fabric is produced by holding a set of 'active' or 'live' stitches on a needle, and using another needle to pull a piece of yarn (that is as continuous as you can make it) though the active stitch, creating a new active stitch.  You then drop the old active stitch and repeat the process on the next one.  What this does is what the red line above symbolizes: creates a row of stitches that is in reality a part of a piece of yarn looped through another part of the yarn to create a fabric.  These stitches remain active until you either create a new stitch through that stitch, or you complete a process called binding off.  To get the first set of active stitches, you complete a process called casting on.  Binding off and casting on are things you'll have to learn, but they're out of scope here.  The only thing you'll need to recognize with casting on is that it'll create a series of loops that you'll treat as normal stitches.

There are two major actions in hand knitting that one uses to produce a stitch, and unfortunately they're also called stitches (you'll find that there's a lot of things call stitches in knitting.  They are not all the same thing).  The knit stitch, as shown above, is when the working yarn is pulled through from the back to the front of the active stitch.  The purl stitch, on the other hand, is when the working yarn is pulled through the front of the stitch to the back..  You might notice something here, which is basically these actions are opposite sides of the same coin.  If you perform the action of a knit stitch on one side of the fabric, the stitch is a purl on the other side.  If you purl it, its a knit stitch on the other side.

And this is pretty much the whole basis of knitting.  Everything else is variation.  For example, I mentioned that the diagram showed a piece of stockinette fabric (which is also called stockinette stitch...yeah, I know).  Here's a real-life picture of it:

 Look at the diagram and/or the picture. Can you figure out how the stitches build to create that?  Basically, stockinette is just where you perform the knit action into another knit stitch for all the stitches (or a purl into a purl stitch, if that's what's facing you).  This causes all the knit sides of the stitch to face one way and the purl sides to face the other way.

Another common fabric type is called garter stitch, and it's the opposite of stockinette in a way.  Garter is produced by knitting into a purl stitch and vice versa, which creates rows of stitches that alternate which side is facing where:

Anything more complicated fabric type than this is the same way.  It's just an action creating a stitch where the knit and purl sides face specific directions in a repeated manner that creates a specific looking fabric. And even if you get away from that statement with, say, cables or decreases or some such, you'll still be preforming the same action in the end to complete them.  You either knit, or you purl.  You may switch direction and work through different loops, work through two or more stitches (or something that isn't a stitch), swap the order of the active loops, or whatever.  You still either pull the yarn through back to front, or front to back in the end.

Actually, there is one exception here.  It's call a yarn-over.  All a yarn-over is is an active stitch you created out of thin air with the working yarn by creating a loop without pulling it through anything.  It's works the same way as any other active stitch, and has the same parts.  Don't worry about it though until you get to increases or lace. 


The Anatomy of a Stitch

Every stitch you create, whether it's a knit or purl stitch, has four specific parts.  Let's take a stitch from that diagram above, shall we?

The first two parts are that the stitch has a front and a back.  The front of the stitch is the face of the stitch facing you (no matter what side of the fabric you are on...this is important.  The front of the stitch is not always its knit side) when it is lying flat within the fabric and open.  The back, of course, is the opposite side.

The second part is what we call the legs of the stitch.  The legs are the sides of the loop:

Well that's not the best quality there....but you get the point
They are named based on the front of the stitch, that is, the right leg is the leg of the stitch to the right when you are looking at the front of the stitch.  Same for left.

When the stitch is active, one of these legs is also called the working leg.  The working leg is the leg used to orient the needle you're putting the new stitches on. This has to do with the fact that when the stitch is active (that is, it's on a needle), the stitch doesn't lay flat and there's a needle going through the stitch.

To use an active stitch, we must guide the other needle on one side of the stitch or the other due to the holding needle.  The side used is the side with the working leg (in mechanical instructions, it's usually termed in terms like 'going x to y direction through the z side of the stitch').

This sounds complicated but it's not.  The rule to identifying the front side of the stitch and the working leg is thus: The working leg of the stitch is always the one closest to the needle tip, and the front of the stitch is always the side tilting towards you.  In this format, this does not rely on stitch orientation or style or stitch type.  For the sake of working a stitch, this also holds true if the active stitch below is twisted; that is, the stitch legs are crossed and therefore the faces of the twisted stitch is flipped in relation to what was shown above.  This is because that statement isn't in relation to the stitch itself, but the knitter working the stitch.


Wait, What's Stitch Orientation Mean?

I'll cover this a bit better in the next post as it's related to knitting styles, but the stitch orientation is simply the way the active stitch is sitting on the needle.  Different styles produce different orientations, but there are two main ones in use.  The important part about stitch orientation that you need to know is this: stitch orientation is dictated by what direction you wrap the yarn around the needle before pulling it through the stitch.  That's it. 

While most mechanical knitting instructions and patterns presume a certain stitch orientation, the whole point of this is that it doesn't.  So don't worry about orientation for now.


So there you have it; the basics of how stitches work and how they create knitted fabric.  If you don't take anything else away from this post before moving on, remember this:
  1. Stitches are loops and they have a front and back as well as a left and right leg.
  2. Fabric is created by pulling yarn through a previously created stitch in a specific manner.
  3. These manners of creating a new stitch are called 'knit stitch' and 'purl stitch' (or knitting and purling).
  4. A knit stitch and a purl stitch are opposite sides of the same 'stitch'.
  5. Active stitches are the ones on the needle that have not had a stitch pulled through them yet.
  6. On an active stitch, one of these legs is called the working leg.  It is used to guide the other needle.
  7. Stitch anatomy for all future instructions is based on the knitter's perspective, not the stitch's or fabric's.
  8. The working leg of an active stitch is always the one closer to the needle tip and the front is always tilted towards the knitter.
  9. Orientation is dictated by the direction you wrap your yarn to create a stitch.
Don't worry if it doesn't make complete sense now, especially if you've never knitted before; once we get to the actual knitting instructions, it'll come together. 

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