Don’t know your knits from your purls? This beginner’s guide to knitting terms will help you understand the difference between them and so much more!
If you are trying to learn to knit, you may have noticed different words being used that you may have no idea what they mean. Sometimes it can feel like learning a completely new language.
I’ve created this handy guide to help you understand what everyone is talking about and kick-start your knitting journey.
If you are interested in learning about knitting you may also enjoy my post, What is knitting? which helps answer some basic questions about knitting for brand-new knitters.
What we’ll cover
- Casting on
- Provisional cast on
- Knit Stitch
- Purl Stitch
- Twisted Stitches
- Flat knitting
- Knitting in the round
- Casting off
- Weaving in ends
- Kitchener stitch
Styles of knitting
- Straight needles
- Circular needles
- Double pointed needles
- Stitch marker
- Stitch holder
- Tapestry needle
- Ball winder
- Yarn bowl
General knitting Terms
The right side of your knitting is the side that will show when your knitting is complete. This is usually the side of the knitting that shows more knit stitches than purl stitches, but not always. It will depend on your pattern. It is often abbreviated as RS in knitting patterns.
If you are knitting flat, you will see the right side on every other row. If you are knitting in the round you will either always be looking at the right side, or never looking at the right side.
The wrong side is the back or inside of your knitting. It is the side that won’t show in the final project. This could be the inside of a sweater or pair of socks, the back of a blanket, or the middle of a stuffed animal. It is often abbreviated WS in knitting patterns.
When you knit flat, every other row you knit will be the wrong side. If you are knitting in the round, you will usually see the right side, but some patterns have you knit with the wrong side out and then flip the knitting inside out later.
The working yarn is the yarn coming from your ball of yarn that you are actively using to knit stitches. This should be easy to pull on as you keep knitting and need more yarn.
The left knitting needle is held in the left hand. The stitch at the tip of the left needle is the next stitch to be worked.
The right knitting needle is held in the right hand. The stitch at the tip of the right needle is the last stitch that was worked.
Gauge refers to how many rows and columns of stitches you knit over a certain area. This is important to know if you are knitting something that needs to be a certain size.
Everyone knits a bit differently. Two knitters could use the exact same needles and yarn and knit the same number of stitches and rows but have different size fabrics at the end. If you are following a pattern it is more important to knit at the same gauge than it is to knit with the same materials.
Knitting patterns will have a gauge listed at the beginning telling you how many stitches and how many rows per how many inches or centimeters. It will also tell you which stitch to use to test this. Before knitting the pattern, knit up a square with the yarn and needles you want to use and see if it matches.
Blocking is a way of finishing your knitting with water so that it lays how you want it to and all the stitches are neatly arranged.
You can steam or soak your finished knits then lay it out to dry exactly how you want it to look. If you need to stretch it in any direction you can pin it out how you want it to lay. Lace knitting in particular benefits from a good blocking to open up the stitches.
Center pull ball
A ball of yarn has two ends, one on the outside and one in the center. The outside end is easy to get to but when you pull on that end it makes the ball of yarn roll around. If you can pull from the end at the center of the ball of yarn, the yarn won’t roll around.
You can pull from either end of most commercial balls or skeins of yarn. It can be a bit tricky to find the center end and you might end up pulling out some extra yarn at the beginning.
If you can’t find the middle you can wind your own ball of yarn so that you have a center pull ball either by hand, with a ball winder, or with a nostepinne.
The cast-on is how you start your knitting. It is how you put the first row of stitches on the left-hand knitting needle so you can keep knitting.
There are many different techniques for casting on stitches that all have different results. The backward loop cast on is the easiest one to make, but it is more difficult to knit the first row. Long tail cast-ons take a bit more skill to create but are much easier to knit from.
Some cast-ons will give more stretch, and some will be tighter. There are also specialty cast-ons for starting a sock toe.
Provisional cast on
Provisional cast-ons are a specific type of cast-on that is intended to be removed later in the knitting process. Using some scrap yarn you can cast on stitches a couple of different ways including crocheting a chain of stitches and then knitting as you usually would.
At some point, you will remove the scrap yarn and have a row of live stitches to knit from the cast-on edge to form a seamless join.
The knit stitch is the heart of knitting. It is pulling a loop of yarn through a loop on the left-hand needle, using the right-hand needle, so that it forms a V-shaped stitch.
A purl stitch is essentially a backward knit stitch. The right-hand needle is still used to pull yarn through a loop on the left-hand needle, but instead of a V-shaped stitch, it makes a bump.
If you knit the wrong way through the loop, instead of getting a flat V-shaped stitch there will be a twist at the bottom of the V. This is something that new knitters may struggle with at first. It can also be an intentional choice for knitting.
When you are knitting, each row has a set number of stitches. If that number never changes, your knitting will stay straight. To make certain shapes you have to increase the number of stitches you have in a row.
There are several ways you can increase the number of stitches. You can knit multiple times into the same stitch, you can make an extra stitch between stitches, or you make a decorative hole that also adds an extra stitch. This type of hole is called a yarn over and is used in lace knitting patterns.
Just like with increasing the number of stitches, sometimes you need to decrease the number of stitches you are working with to get the right shape for your knitting.
The most common way to decrease the number of stitches is to knit two stitches together. There are different ways to do this that give different effects, but they will all reduce the stitch count by one for each time two stitches are worked into one.
There are also decreases that combine three or more stitches together. Additionally, cast-offs can be used in the middle of knitting to create holes for fingers in mittens or for button holes.
Flat knitting is when you knit to the end of the row, stop, turn the work over, and knit back across in the opposite direction. This produces a flat piece of fabric.
Any style of knitting needle can be used to knit flat.
Knitting in the round
Knitting in the round is knitting so that each row connects seamlessly end to end, creating one long spiral.
In this method of knitting you do not stop and turn the work over but keep going around and around. This will create a tube of fabric. It is a very useful technique for socks, hats, and sleeves.
To knit in the round you will either need to use double pointed or circular knitting needles. A special technique for knitting in the round with long circular needles is called magic loop which knitters either love or hate.
Casting off (also called binding off) is the process of securing the last row of stitches so that your knitting does not unravel.
There are many different cast-off techniques that give different results. Some are very simple and are just enough to hold the edges. Some are extremely stretchy and some are decorative.
Weaving in ends
When you knit (or do any sort of fiber craft with yarn) there will be ends of yarn sticking out from every place you start and stop using a certain yarn. To make the finished knitted piece look neater and keep the work from unraveling, you can tuck the ends into the back of your knitting using a tapestry needle. This is called weaving in the ends.
This stitch is used to join two sets of active stitches seamlessly with a tapestry needle. It is most frequently used to close sock toes but it can be used in other places as well.
Frogging is a knitting term for taking the knitting off of the knitting needles completely and pulling on the working yarn. This rips back stitches to undo knitting.
The term comes from the “ribbit” sound of frogs sounding like “rip it.”
Like frogging, tinking is a way to undo knitting, but much more precise. Instead of taking everything off the needles and undoing rows of work at a time, you carefully unknit each stitch.
The work “tink” is “knit” backward. Therefore, tinking is knitting backward.
A lifeline is a piece of scrap yarn or extra circular needle cable you can thread through an entire row of stitches so that if you find a mistake later you can easily undo your work back to this row without worrying about the whole thing unraveling.
This can be useful for complicated patterns like lace, cables, or brioche.
Styles of knitting
For English-style knitting (also referred to as “throwing”) the working yarn is held in the right hand and thrown around the needle to make stitches.
This style of knitting can be easier for some beginners to learn. Many knitters feel this is a slower method of knitting than some others. It is one of the two most popular styles of knitting in the US.
To knit continental style (also known as “picking”) the working yarn is held in the left hand and the right needle picks up the yarn to make stitches.
Many US knitters prefer to knit continental style (and it is my preferred method).
Also referred to as Irish Cottage knitting, lever knitting is similar to the English style where the working yarn is manipulated with the right hand.
This technique is usually used with extra-long straight needles. The right needle is tucked under the knitter’s arm and stays stationary while knitting.
Many knitters find this to be a more ergonomic style of knitting. It is also a very fast technique. It is easier to do this style of knitting with long, straight knitting needles, but it can be done on circular needles as well.
Portuguese knitting tensions the yarn around the knitter’s neck or through a broach or necklace. This moves the angle of the yarn so it is easy to form stitches with a flick of the thumb.
This is another method that can be very ergonomic and fast! It is especially good for purling.
If you want to learn more about different knitting styles, be sure to check out this post.
Garter stitch is the first knitted fabric most new knitters will make. It is formed by alternating knit and purl rows.
When knitting flat, the flipping of the fabric will cause this stitch to form if you knit every stitch. If you are knitting in the round you would need to alternate knit rows with purl rows.
Stockinette stitch is arguably the most used knit fabric. It is created by having all knit stitches on the right side and all purl stitches on the wrong side.
Reverse stockinette stitch
Reverse stockinette stitch is just what it sounds like, stockinette stitch, but backward. You will knit all purls on the right side, and all knit stitches on the wrong side.
Ribbing makes a stretchy type of fabric that is great for cuffs of sweaters, socks, and mittens. To knit a rib stitch, you alternate columns of all knit stitches on top of each other with all purl stitches.
There are many variations on this stitch. The most basic is one column of knit stitches, then one column of purl stitches. This is often called a 1×1 rib stitch. But you can mix this up. You can knit two knit columns for every purl column, or have two of each!
Colorwork is a catch-all term that refers to knitting with two or more colors of yarn in the same knitted piece.
There are many different methods of colorwork. Alternating between colors every few rows to make stripes is a very basic form of colorwork. Stranded or Faire Isle colorwork alternates colors every few stitches to create patterns. Mosaic knitting is similar to stranded, but you only work with one color of yarn at a time. Intarsia makes blocks of different colors (but leaves a lot of ends to weave in).
There are so many ways you can play with color in your knits!
At some point, you’ve most likely seen a beautifully knit sweater in white or cream with an intricate, textured pattern all over. This kind of knitting is called cabling.
To make cables you actually change the position of stitches on your left-hand knitting needle, crossing them over each other to make all kinds of beautiful patterns.
There are special tools called cable needles that can help you create this type of fabric, or you can try this technique to cable without a cable needle.
Lace knitting is just about any knitted pattern that includes decorative holes. These patterns can be very simple, or extremely complex.
Yarn over increases are commonly used to create lace patterns. For each yarn over to create the holes for the lace, there is usually a corresponding decrease to keep the number of stitches even. How these increases and decreases are placed creates the final pattern.
Brioche knitting is a technique using two balls of yarn (either matching or contrasting) to go over each row twice with each yarn. This creates a thick, squishy, ribbed fabric that is perfect for cold-weather items.
The weight of the yarn is how thick the yarn is. Yarn can be as thin as a thread, as thick as a hose, or anywhere in between.
Some common names for different yarn weights from thinnest to thickest are lace, fingering, sport, DK, worsted, aran, and bulky.
Fiber is the material the yarn is made out of. This can be from an animal like sheep’s wool or alpaca fleece. It can be from a plant, like cotton, linen, or bamboo. There are also synthetic fibers like acrylic.
The ply of a yarn is how many individual strands make up the yarn. This can range from single-ply to about 6-ply. Mulit-plied yarn is generally stronger than single-plied yarn and less prone to pilling.
The colorway of the yarn is just a fancy name for the color combination for that specific yarn.
Since many yarns, particularly hand-dyed yarn, contain many colors, instead of calling a yarn that has blues and greens in it, “blue and green” it might have a colorway like “ocean” to really capture the character of the yarn. It is also a fun way to add personality to a yarn.
A ball of yarn is just what it sounds like, a long string of yarn wound over and over itself into a ball. Sometimes you can access either end of the yarn for a center pull ball, other times you can only get to the outer end.
A cake of yarn is like a ball of yarn, but in a short cylindrical shape, like a cake. These are usually made with a ball winder.
A skein of yarn is another variation on a ball of yarn. Instead of a round ball, it makes an oblong, football (or rugby ball for European sports fans) shape. It is a common shape for commercial yarn.
A hank of yarn is made by twisting a circle of yarn until it wraps back around itself. It is common to find specialty and hand-dyed yarn in hanks.
Unlike balls, cakes, and skeins, you cannot knit directly off of a hank. You need to carefully wind it up into one of the other forms before knitting.
If you would like to learn more about yarn characteristics, be sure to check out this post.
Straight knitting needles are the classic style of knitting needles that you likely picture in your head when you think of someone knitting.
They come as a pair. One end is pointed and one end has a stopper to prevent stitches from coming off the back of the needle.
Knitting needles can be made out of a variety of materials including wood, metals, acrylic, or even bone!
Circular needles have two pointed knitting needles, just like straight needles, but the two needles are connected by a flexible cable.
You can knit just about anything with circular knitting needles. They are particularly great for knitting big projects like blankets or sweaters and for knitting in the round.
Double pointed needles
Double-pointed needles are like straight needles, but both ends are pointed. They are most often used to knit in the round.
To knit in the round with double pointed needles you need at least four needles. Three to form a triangle of stitches plus one extra needle to serve as the right-hand needle to work the stitches.
Check out this post if you want to learn more about knittng needles.
Stitch markers are small rings that you put between stitches to mark a certain place in your knitting.
These can be simple circles of plastic or metal, locking stitch markers that look like small safety pins, and some stitch markers have decorations hanging off of them. There is an endless variety of stitch markers.
Stitch holders usually look like large, blunt safety pins. They are used to hold stitches while another part of your project is being knit on.
The place I have most frequently used a stitch holder is at the base of the thumb of a mitten.
If you don’t have a stitch holder you can always use a scrap piece of yarn to hold stitches instead.
Tapestry needles are an essential tool for knitting. They are large, blunted needles, sometimes with a bent tip.
These are used for weaving in the ends of yarn at the end of a project, joining the toe of socks with Kitchener stitch, or pulling the end of yarn through the last few stitches at the top of a hat.
A yarn swift is a helpful tool for turning a hank of yarn into a ball. It is a device that can hold the loop of yarn with a bit of tension and rotate to make ball winding easier.
There are a couple of common styles of swift. The umbrella swift is collapsible (like an umbrella) and usually will clamp to the end of a table. A tabletop swift has a cross with pegs to hold the yarn and stands on its own.
A ball winder is a tool to wind a ball or cake of yarn. Most models clamp to the edge of a table and have a hand crank to wind up the yarn so it is ready to knit.
Yarn bowls are decorative bowls, usually made of wood or ceramic, that have either spirals or holes or both cut into the side of the bowl. You can place a ball of yarn in the bowl and the working yarn can come out of the hole. It is a fun way to keep your yarn from tangling or running away from you while you knit.
I hope this guide will help you get your bearings as you start your knitting journey!
If you would like to learn more about knitting, click here.
Are there any knitting terms I forgot? Let me know in the comments below!