The way we knit…

My ancient hand injury – shh, it may be coming back but I’m trying not to notice in the hope it won’t be there if it’s unobserved, the ‘Shroedinger’s Tendon’ approach – made me reassess my attitude to knitting needles. Some are just more comfortable than others. Intrigued, I’ve been doing some research into the history of knitting needles, but that will have to wait because I’ve been distracted by knitting methods instead.

My health bollocky-bollocks (ahem, I’m not the most patient person in the world and this has been going on for far too long) is also affecting my whole attitude to the way I knit. ‘Irish Peasant’, I like to call it – lots of flapping needles, a style taught to me by my mother when I couldn’t grasp her ‘tuck the right needle in your armpit’ method, and taught to her by her ma, and to her by her ma, and so on right back into the depths of the Celtic twilight, and to a time when everyone lived in turf-covered cottages and spun in the street:

village

(Typical Irish village scene with spinner, not remotely posed, oh dear no, about 1910. 
Photograph by R J Welch, from the collections of the National Library of Ireland)

OK, or at least to Dublin at the turn of the twentieth century. (I’ve had a good rant about stereotyping relatively recently, so I won’t repeat myself, though I will say that the above postcard is only missing the turf-cutter’s feckin’ donkey*.) I’ve given up on the armpit method, also handed down the maternal line and a style most likely adopted as a substitute for absent knitting sheaths or belts. However, I am hoping to try and channel the paternal side of my ancestry and try continental knitting, putting strain on a different part of my hands, but last night all I got was a horrible mess and an evil temper. And I even did a very good workshop on it a while back – boy, I wish I’d used it more promptly.

But this débâcle did make me stop and consider various knitting methods – not of continental knitting, because that’s comparatively straightforward, but the main styles of ‘yarn on the right’ knitting with straight needles, sometimes called English or American knitting. Essentially there are three: my Irish Peasant and the variations thereof; the supported needle method – my Ma’s preferred style, the one she failed to teach me – with one needle either under your arm or in a knitting sheath or belt of some kind; and elegant, refined, ‘drawing room’ knitting (aka ‘parlor’ knitting in the US):

Harold Knight

You know the sort of thing, holding your needles like the woman in Harold Knight’s painting.

I have to admit that I do not understand why people knit in this way, which is surprising given that several of my friends use it perfectly successfully. Richard Rutt is interesting on its history, saying (and he is supported) that by the start of Queen Victoria’s reign ‘ladies’ had abandoned the older, under the palm, way of holding needles. Not that the rest of the population did, at that point. People who depended – at least in part – on knitting for their livelihood, those such as Shetland knitters or the sock knitters of Barmouth, Bala or Dolgellau

knitterwent on using the older method. I’ll get on to why later…

Rutt is the one who dubbed this pen-like method of holding needles ‘drawing room knitting’. It was more elegant, and also distinguished a ‘lady’ knitter from her less respectable sisters – you can even hold your little finger up in an affected gesture while knitting, should you wish to do so, as you might when holding a teacup (absolutely none of my friends do this, thank heavens). After all, ‘no feminine employment is better calculated to display a pretty hand and graceful motions than knitting’ (Annie S Frost, Ladies’ Guide to Needlework, US, 1877).

See? Like this, from the illustrations to Mary Thomas‘s 1938 Knitting Book:

Mary T's

where it is the only method given. Love those nails, by the way; so useful for undoing any knots. Admittedly, Mary T does go on to say that ‘the position of the fingers is exaggerated to show the placing of the yarn’, but still… (Completely incidentally, this method was made fun of even in Victorian times.)

There’s been speculation that most of the original drawing-room knitters made small or light objects with fine yarn, and to me that seems likely. Firstly, these items were more elegant in themselves, and secondly the major disadvantage of this method only becomes evident when you’re trying to work on something large or heavy. The whole weight of the fabric is draped over your thumb or hand. June Hemmons Hiatt also points out, in The Principles of Knitting (2012 ed), that some of the fabric is also bunched up between thumb and needle, plus your hand is trapped under the needle which ‘…is bad for you, plus it restricts the flow of stitches down the needle’. She adds that ‘other methods present fewer problems’.

But it caught on, nonetheless, raising interesting questions about why people adopt something which is inefficient despite having an older and more effective alternative. Here’s Rutt again: ‘Before long, working-class knitters, especially in Southern England, began to emulate the new fashion, which is inefficient and limits the speed of knitting.’ Interestingly, one of my friends initially began knitting more like I do but was sharply corrected by, and I think I’m remembering correctly, a great aunt. And I had never seen anybody knit like this until I went to university in Cambridge, in the strange and foreign land of southern England…

So do I really knit like an Irish peasant? No, I don’t – I knit like people have been knitting for centuries:

Lorenzetti

with my right-hand needle under my hand. It may be known as the ‘English method’ in some places, but it was evidently quite common in Europe; the above detail is Italian; it’s by Lorenzetti. Not just employed by the Virgin Mary, but by many more of us. So there, nineteenth-century style police.

And my other not-quite-inherited style? Underarm, you hold the work quite high – perhaps that’s why I couldn’t get the hang of it; it was always slightly out of focus. More relevant nowadays is the fact that you can’t stick a circular needle under your armpit, either. You’re also restricting your movement in a way that you wouldn’t if you used a knitting belt, but knitting belts fell out of use in many places during the last century (it was lovely to see them being used so normally when I was in Shetland). Incidentally, the work’s at the optimal height with a belt, too.

For myself, I also hold the yarn along the right needle, with my right hand operating like a kind of shuttle and the yarn held between my thumb and forefinger, rather than would round my fingers. I used to think this was odd until I found it praised by Julia Hemmons Hiatt for its excellent tension control. I also used to think I was slow – admittedly I am now, as I have to be careful, but before that – and then I went to a few workshops and discovered I was one of the quickest knitters there. In view of my current circumstances, it’s interesting that JHH says it’s good for someone who ‘lacks dexterity’, because of ‘youth, age or disability’. Does this give me a Licence to Knit, then? OO7.5? (Sorry, I’ve just finally seen Skyfall. Fab. And I’m not really a James Bond fan.)

I’ll leave with a shot of our knitting group:

our knitting group (not)

Oh, all right, it isn’t – because some of our knitters do, after all and as I noted above, knit like ladies. So how do you knit? And have you ever tried to change?

* The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey by Patricia Lynch, 1934. This was one of my favourite books when I was growing up; I found it on my grandparents’ bookshelves. How my discovery escaped my mother’s ‘Celtic Bollocks’ sensor, I don’t know, given that it features two children called Seamus and Eileen, and they meet, among other things, a leprechaun and the salmon of knowledge…

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47 thoughts on “The way we knit…

  1. Pia

    What’s with the earmuffs on those little old ladies?

    I’ve only ever tried “continental”. Perhaps because I guess I am? Never seen anything else here. I once met an armpit lady on a train in New Zealand. She also knitted right to left instead of left to right. Fascinating to watch.

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      We’ve got a left-handed knitter in our group (well, we have two, but one knits right-handed). I find her equally fascinating to watch – it looks profoundly wrong, somehow. But boy is she fast…

      Reply
    2. kate Post author

      Oh, Pia, I forgot to add, I suspect (ho ho) the earmuffs are there to drown out the comments of people sneering at their knitting style, such as I experienced at the weekend: ‘look at you, with those flapping needles!’… Grrrrrr….

      Reply
  2. Pia

    Oh and btw I find that knitting tension tends to land in my elbows, nervus ulnaris to be precise. So you may at least be able to distribute your aches and pains a bit if you switch 😉

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      I did get knitter’s elbow once, after a marathon baby-beanie-for-craft-fair knitting session… whatever, I definitely need to switch the risk!

      Reply
        1. kate Post author

          Oh, it’s going… I hope. Intensive physiotherapy. Exercises which I keep forgetting to do (or avoiding)… thanks for asking!

  3. croftgarden

    Thank you this one really made me laugh. I’ve been frittering my time way trying to remember granny’s knitting style. According to genome it should have been Irish peasant style, but as her antecedents went straight from Irish bog to Midlands slum where the men were employed as frame knitters and the women did the mending, Did she have a different style and if so was it a case of nurture over nature? I got into such a nerdy tangle with this that in desperation I went in search of a pair of knitting needles to see what my style was (taught by granny), but I’d forgotten that I’d abandoned my last half-finished jumper over 30 years ago!
    So can I borrow a pair from one of my knitting friends and risk being abducted into the knitting cult or will some casual snooping on the style of local knitters (islanders and incomers) produce enlightenment.

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      Don’t tell me, should you have been weeding instead? I ought to have been… interesting, wonder what your granny picked up? I only know how my Irish grannie knitted because Ma told me; unfortunately she died quite young, about 20-odd years before I put in an appearance. My stepgran (posh, but with Northern grit) was a parlour knitter, but clearly had little influence.

      This could be the start of a slippery slope!

      BTW, I bet the older locals will use knitting belts or underarm, incomers probably drawing room. Round us the sweeping generalisation is locals and incomers from northern England and other Celtic countries use Irish peasant or underarm, while incomers from midlands and south go for posh and elegant. All the old records from here say that there was no tradition of knitting using a belt in Meirionydd, and sure enough the local style is a version of Irish Peasant.

      Reply
      1. croftgarden

        No guilty conscience it was damp and drizzly today, I was just taking a break from science and spreadsheets.
        I am now intrigued and I’ll carry out some research even though I risk being indoctrinated into the knitting cult. First I need a pair of needles to rediscover my style.

        Reply
  4. starproms

    I use the parlour method! and to help with any weight, I put cushions under my elbows. If the cushion is big enough and the cat isn’t sitting on it as well, I can place the pattern leaflet there so I can see it if I turn my head a little to the left. I sit on the settee so I have space on the left. My mother used to tuck her left hand needle under her arm and use the right hand needle almost like a dagger – poking it into the stitch on the left and swinging the wool round it. She was fast. I am fastish but use the other method. I hold the needles like pencils and get on just fine.

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      Now, if you knitted like an Irish peasant, you’d not need that cushion…

      Cats, though, are no respecters of historic knitting styles whatever they might be. I have knitted with a cat hanging off the end of each needle – happily they were the same age and rough weight, so the needles were balanced. If the ends were covered in cat dribble. Ergh.

      Reply
      1. Pia

        You must have a death grip on those needles, no wonder you get hand pains. When I have cats hanging of the end of a needle, I’m left with a handful of loose stitches.

        Reply
        1. kate Post author

          Death grip on the cats, eventually. Grrrrr.

          One cat from my past had a really bad wool fetish; he didn’t so much hang on the needles as kidnap the wool, take it behind the sofa and show it a good time. Bleagh.

      1. knithive

        All really interesting.Back in the day (I’m 64) my Mum taught me to knit in the elegant ‘parlour’ way…she was from Lowestoft…not sure where this sits in the North/ South divide. She was a great knitter and I happily used this method for decades. At some point( when I was 40) I was given Montse Stanley’s excellent book The Handknitters Handbook, which I read from cover to cover…..and was amazed to learn of all the different methods of holding the work, all of which are detailed in the book.Montse had learnt to knit in Barcelona, using the needle in palm of hand method and she very much promoted this as quicker, leading to a more even tension because of greater control etc. So, I unlearned the parlour method and adopted the needle in palm technique …and found it much better. Six months after doing this I broke my right wrist ….about 4 fractures..( ice skating with the kids at the time)….after 3 ops to reset everything, the wrist becme fairly flexible again but the elegant method would have been very difficult/impossible…..so…the goddess of knitting had been looking out for me when I had changed my technique a little before!

        Reply
        1. kate Post author

          I think Lowestoft probably counts as southern? Ish? I’ve come across people taught parlour knitting from as far north as the Wirral, and I’m sure there are many more. You’re very intrepid, learning another method – even the great JHH acknowledges that it’s very difficult once a method has become ‘set’, as it were, and recommends all new knitters to learn at least two methods from the start. How interesting that you’re an example of finding ‘our’ technique easier with injury… I’ve definitely got my licence to knit!

          BTW, Montse is another candidate for the misnaming of the ‘continental’ style, too. I’d forgotten about her book, so thank you for mentioning it – it’s absolutely brilliant!

  5. Marjolein

    I think I knit the same way you do – taught by my grandmother (I’m Dutch by the way). I do get compliments on my tension control, but never before really linked it to my way of knitting.

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      I’ve had those compliments too, and like you I’d not made the association… interesting that you knit in the same way as me and not the ‘continental’ style; I met another Dutch knitter recently who knitted like us too, also taught by her grandma. I actually think the continental style is more German than continental. I’ve no idea how the women from the older generation on the French side of my family knitted – I wonder??

      Reply
      1. Marjolein

        That would be interesting to find out.
        I don’t really know any Dutch knitters that knit continental style. I think it’s more a German thing.

        Reply
        1. kate Post author

          I think you’re right; I’ve found lots of knitters around Europe who knit like us and not continentally. Wonder how it came to be called ‘continental’ – possibly first in the US?

  6. MariaE

    Kate, reading your very enlightening post today has left me speechless, and that’s not easy. I knew there were English and Continental styles, my German mother-in-law knits continental, but I didn’t realise that English knitting also had different methods. As I have never been to any knitting groups and never really seen anyone other than my female relatives knit our way was the only way, right? 🙂 I knit in the ‘parlour’ method only with the wool over my little finger, not my ring finger as in the Mary Thomas picture, and yes, my little finger does stick out as if drinking tea from a china cup. Having been brought up in Kent and taught to knit about 35 years ago by my Grandmother in Herne Bay this would fit with your research. I am starting to teach my girls to knit, perhaps I should get my mother-in-law to teach them her way too.

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      That sounds incredibly elegant – and of course conforms with the suspected southern bias…

      I think you should definitely start your girls with another method as well – you can always cite me as a terrible example of what happens if you try and learn something later on when The Right and Only Way to Knit is firmly lodged in your conscious (and subconscious) mind. Let’s just say that I was possessed by Father Jack the other night, crying ‘Feck!!’ and ‘Drink’ (but missing out on ‘Gurrls’ and ‘that would be an ecumenical matter’). There was quite a bit of swearing in French too, just for variety.

      Reply
  7. Elizabeth

    Lets see, I was born and brought up just outside Cambridge, but my mum, who taught me to knit when I was a kid, is from Liverpool, and of mixed Irish peasant and German Jewish via the East End of London stock, so I’m a wee bit mixed up.

    I would guess I’m an English knitter – definitely yarn in the right hand, and wrapped around my middle finger, and needles held below the hand. I’m not a flappy knitter, as I tend to use very small movements, but I’m not a flcker or lever knitter.

    I mostly knit with circs or dpns, though my mum was most confused when she saw me knitting flat on circs because “she didn’t teach me to knit like that” – never mind that there was about 20 years between when she taught me to knit, and when I picked it up again as an adult.

    I have a friend who is a parlour knitter, and to me it looks slower and more awkward, but that may be my prejudice showing 😉

    And so here endeth the essay from me.

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      Needles below the palm = an Irish peasant version, despite the lack of flapping. Definitely. You can take someone to the flat lanscape of the east of England but true heritage shows in the knitting. (Mind you, I wonder what the Eastern Jewish element might possibly be? Continental maybe, if picked up in Germany and points to some degree east. My Jewish grandmother was Sephardi, from southern France, but to the best of my knowledge never knitted anything. So I can contribute zilch on the ‘knitting in the diaspora’ front. Someone must know something – I can’t believe people didn’t knit, ;-)…)

      I’m with you on the parlour knitting – watching one of my friends knit giant jumpers for her partner in this way has me just dying to interfere. It looks soooooo awkward and uncomfortable.

      Reply
  8. Lydia

    I hold my needles under my palms and the yarn is tensioned just by the pressure of my thumb and forefinger of my right hand as it winds the yarn around the tips. No wrapping around any fingers at all. I have just about perfect tension and can knit fairly fast this way. Now, my Mother used the pencil hold, completely different to me – she wrapped the yarn around her first finger a few times and tucked the needle under her armpit. She could knit, read and watch tv all at the same time and thereby drove my Father mad with the click, click, clicking! So, it seems to me that I did not learn from my Mother. How did I learn? Well, I must have taught myself and just let my hands do what they wanted. If I make a mistake my fingers just seem to know without my even looking. Very interesting to hear about everyone else’s chosen methods. Hope your hands are feeling a little better today.

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      Hooray, that’s me, that’s me, that’s me!

      I wish I could remember exactly what my mother did, but it sounds very similar; she was scarily fast, and could do all those things and infuriate anyone trying to concentrate, too. I’ve been asking lots of people and it often seems that those who ‘sort of picked it up’ knit like you and me. And, after all, it is strongly recommended my Julia HH, the guru. Maybe it’s instinctive because it puts less strain on your hands and is most accommodating to all abilities? Or vice versa…

      Hands not bad. I’m taking vitamin B6 every day; about 4 weeks ago my lovely doc said ‘it’s not supposed to work but you might as well give it a go’. It’s not working to such an extent that I’ve been able to put aside my brace and pick up my needles.

      Reply
  9. Liz

    I was a confirmed armpit knitter for years, self taught so don’t really know how this started though I am a Lancashire knitter. However after joining a group a few years ago, all of whom are now firm friends, I was converted to knit pro circular needles, the ones were you change the tips. Took a bit of getting used to but now I can’t go back and if I need to use a straight pair for anything it feels all wrong!

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      We had a dedicated armpit knitter in our group, from Stoke. Like you, she adapted to circulars though she did find it very odd at the start. Now she’s beating the lot of us – I must ask her if she ever feels tempted to go back…

      Reply
  10. knitsofacto

    I really had to think about this, but, to answer your question … I use long straights if at all possible – it’s one of the reasons I don’t like knitting socks – left needle tucked into my left palm for the most part and balanced by a pencil hold between thumb and forefinger, right needle below my hand and gripped by my thumb and middle finger, with the yarn hooked once (not wrapped) around my forefinger, which I use to throw the yarn, and my right needle mostly tucked under my right elbow. I lift my right hand off the needle with most stitches. It sounds inefficient but I’m fast (though not super speedy) and my tension is perfect. It’s how I was taught I think, but I was 5, I don’t really remember.

    That there are so many ways to hold the needles has always fascinated me, but I’ve never given much thought to the whys and wherefores or exactly what I did myself. Great post Kate 😀

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      Apart from the yarn hooking – I’ve just been sitting at the laptop knitting invisibly, which must have looked rather odd – I knit like you. I also take my right hand off the needle; it’s lightly supported by my left but it’s only for a second or so. I think it’s the JHH ‘efficient’ method, though it’s difficult to tell absolutely from her description. I never really noticed that flash of, er, unsupportedness (is that a word?) until recently. I’ve been struggling to remember where on earth I picked that up – it can’t have been my Ma; she would not have approved.

      Anyway, it doesn’t seem to matter – like you I have perfect tension… well, I did, before the hand horrors, but it does seem to be returning.

      Reply
      1. kate Post author

        I’ve just been knitting, really slowly, and really considering how big that ‘unsupported’ moment is, and it is TINY. I actually support the right needle slightly on the left finger when I lift the yarn with my right hand. I wonder if that’s a hangover from my Ma attempting to teach me the underarm method?

        Reply
  11. Sakiina سكينة

    It sounds as if I knit in a similar fashion to you… I also don’t wind the yarn around my fingers, I use my forefinger and thumb to hold the yarn and I think I get excellent tension. I am a wrapper though, and it is slow. I can manage about a stitch and a half per second (if that makes sense!), but I’ve seen people who knit continental go so much faster. I taught myself continental just to get faster, but I find my tension is not nearly as good, the yarn is constantly shifting around on my skinny, knobby fingers, and I am still not that much faster. Plus continental is much easier with metal needles, but I hate metal needles because they end up hurting my hands quite quickly. To think I wanted more speed with knitting stockinette, and now I have a slightly faster method with less even stitches and tension. Argh! Back to knitting English with yarn not wound around my fingers.

    As some Special Forces guys say, slow is smooth, and smooth is fast!

    Also, I think I’d die if I had to only support a needle with my thumb. Drawing room knitting elegance, pffft!

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      My attempts at continental knitting came to nothing, so I’m glad it’s not just me – it slowed me down considerably, but that was probably just because I was learning. But typical me, I couldn’t manage to persist until it became easier because it just felt so awkward. It does sound as though we knit in a similar fashion – it almost seems to be the instinctive way to do it. And the tension is so good and even, too…

      Reply
      1. thetinfoilhatsociety

        I just now found this blog post of yours – I think also if you were to seriously attempt to become proficient at Continental style you would damage your wrists in a much more serious way. Before I discovered circulars I knit with the end of my needle stuck in my waistband or in a pillow under my arm and my yarn held as you do – self taught, I don’t recall ever seeing anyone do it that way – but my grandparents emigrated from Ireland to the US so I may have seen my grandmother or aunt doing that and just don’t remember it. I have been doing a lot of color work and Fair Isle recently and have decided that, if I want good tension and any sort of speed, I’m going to have to invest in a knitting sheath and a decent set of double points in my preferred sizes. Trying to keep a decent tension on both sides of the work while knitting on circulars, even turning the work wrong side out so that my working side is across the circ from me, is quite maddening. I thought using circulars would eventually make me faster but I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that the traditional way is probably the fastest way. There’s a reason production knitters did it the way they did it.

        Reply
        1. thetinfoilhatsociety

          Oh, and knitting Continental with one hand and throwing with the other is causing wrist pain to both.

        2. kate Post author

          That’s really interesting – glad you found the post! I wonder if it really is an Irish way? I’d sort-of always thought of Ma describing it as ‘Irish peasant’ as a bit of a joke – you know, along with leprechauns and everyone wearing green while playing tin whistles, that sort of thing. I’m sure you’re right – production knitters would have found the best way. Good luck with the knitting belt. Have you seen videos of Hazel Tindall knitting? There’s a slowed down video on You Tube, and she seems to be holding the needles like us…

  12. Nancy

    Underarm all the way! Have been doing it that way ever since as a young teenager I saw a Danish friend knitting at lightning speed with the right needle clamped under her armpit. I found I couldn’t knit on a train in the usual flappy way as I always accidentally ended up in my seatmate’s space. With the underarm method, everything stays compact and stable and politically correct for public knitting. Oddly enough, when I was in my prime, my knitting needles always ended up with a funky curve in them to accommodate having to work around the shape of my bust. Sadly, as age and gravity have begun their gentle sag, my knitting needles no longer get so curvy. Now the work clamped on my underarm needle sits over top of my boob instead of alongside it. But it’s great for visibility! Thanks – loved your article!

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      Glad you enjoyed it. Ma was an underarm knitter all her life – seems that once you’ve mastered that style, it stays with you, and thanks to her I now have a huge selection of extra-long needles. Having said that, one of the members of our knitting group used to be an exclusively under-arm knitter, and has changed completely recently. She couldn’t knit socks that waynd it converted her!

      (Personally, I think that’s a great reason not to knit socks. I’m a total sock reusnik.)

      Reply
  13. Kelly Frost-Cook

    I have found out recently, after knitting for 40 some years, I knit in what the call the Scottish cottage style I think is what it’s called. I knit with the right needle under my armpit and hold the yarn in my right hand. I am left handed but don’t knit that way…lol I’ve been trying to find where this style came from. My great great grandmother in Holland knit this way hence why it was passed down. I get a lot of stares..lol

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      That is exactly the way my mother used to knit, and she’d been taught by her mother so, in consequence, it was known (ironically) as the ‘Irish peasant’ style. However, it’s quite common in northern Britain too. Not heard the specifically Scottish name for it before, though…

      Reply

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