How-to: Purl

In the How-to: Knit tutorial I demonstrated that a purl (P) stitch (st) is formed at the back of a piece when knitting into the front. From this you should gather that by reverse engineering the knit (K) st we can create a P on the right-side (RS) directly. This will of course form a K on the wrong-side (WS) and by continuing to purl every row we will produce an identical looking strip of ridged knitting or garter st (G st) as we did when we knitted every row. By alternating rows of K and P instead we can produce the flat cloth called stockinette or stocking st (St st) which is the basis of so many basic patterns. In this tutorial I again cover the fundamentals of yarn and needle holding for those who have not needed my How-to: Knit tutorial but who may still find themselves confused with the differing styles of knitting.

  1. Cast-on the desired number of st (covered in another tutorial).
  2. Ensure your waste yarn is tied up out of the way so as not to be used by mistake.
  3. For people who are RIGHT-hand dominant: the needle with the cast-on is held in your left-hand (LH), the empty needle in your right-hand (RH) and the working yarn can be held in either hand:
    Continental Knitting –
    the working yarn is held loosely wrapped over the back of the non-dominant hand (index to little finger and back under) such that your hand can move easily away from the needle feeding out yarn as it is needed. The needle with the previously worked row is held in place with middle, ring and little fingers, the thumb pushes the st up the needle toward the tip ready to be knit, and the index finger varies its position under and pushing up on the working yarn to keep it taught when necessary. The dominant hand moves the empty needle through the st to ‘catch’ a loop of working yarn and draw it through.

    Positioning the needles for right-handed continental purling

    The benefits of this style are that both hands have a function which some people find smoother and faster. The tension tends to be on the tight side.
    English Knitting – the working yarn is held loosely wrapped around the dominant hand (under middle to little fingers, back over, then under the palm) such that your hand can move easily away from the needle feeding out yarn as it is needed. The empty needle is held with thumb and middle finger in and out of the stitches and the dominant index finger moves under the working yarn to ‘flick’ a loop over it. The second needle just rests in the non-dominant hand and thumb and index finger push the previous rows stitches up towards the tip.

    Positioning the needles for right-handed english purling

    This style can be found to be clumsy and is aided by letting go of the empty needle when it is held in a st and ‘throwing’ the whole hand with the working yarn around the tip to form the loop instead of ‘flicking’ it. This is slower but also loosens the tension.

  4. For people who are LEFT-hand dominant: the needle with the cast-on is held in your RH, the empty needle in your LH and the working yarn can be held in either, however, whilst the directions to follow for each stitch are the same it should be noted that this will require you to mentally reverse the shaping of all patterns and read charts from left to right instead of right to left. The rest of this tutorial is illustrated with the working needle in the RH – an illustrated left hand guide to both knit and purl stitches can be found under the heading ‘Ambi-knitting‘.
    [Note from the author: It is possible for left-handed people to knit as right-handed comfortably using the continental method described above and I would advise attempting all methods to determine which suits you best. If you are feeling particularly adventurous try purling one row right-handed and then without exchanging the needles from hand to hand purling the next row left-handed to produce a piece of flat Stocking st (S St) with all P stitches on the right-side (RS) without ever needing to learn how to knit!]
  5. With the working yarn held this time at the front slip the empty needle (A) into the first st from right to left and back to front so that the stitch is held open (demonstrated above).

    English purl: wrap yarn over left, under right

    Draw loop through st to back

  6. Wrap the yarn anti-clockwise around the needle and draw this loop through the st to the back.

    Continental purl: wrap under to right....

    ...then over to left

    Draw loop through to back and drop worked st

  7. Slip the worked st off needle B. The new st sits on needle A with it’s right leg at the front and it’s left leg (leading to the working yarn) at the back just as it did with the K st. If a st is accidentally dropped off the needle you should take care to ensure that it sits in the same manner when picking it up again or you will end up with an errant twisted st in your pattern (see instructions below).
  8. Repeat steps 5-7 to the end of the row.
  9. Transfer the full needle to the other hand, turning it so that the WS is face up. You will be looking at a row of ‘horseshoes’ under the needle. These are K stitches produced when you purl into the RS.

    WS horseshoe knits

    Depending on the method of cast-on (c/o) used they may appear as twisted st for this row only.

  10. Ensure the yarn is held at the front again before you position the empty needle, as with step 5. If you position the needle first then take the yarn forward you will create an extra stitch at the beginning of this row.
  11. Work steps 5-8 to the end of the row.
  12. You will now see a row of ‘bumps’ below the needle which are the P stitches.

    Purl bumps on WS

  13. Transfer the needle to your other hand and note that the row just worked appears now as K stitches on the RS.

    RS: first row purls, 2nd row knits

  14. Repeat steps 5-10 repeatedly until you have an adequate length for a scarf and cast-off (demonstrated in another tutorial).

    RS garter stitch

    WS garter stitch

Twisted Purl St
– a P will appear the same regardless of whether you work it through the back loop (tbl) or you loop the yarn clockwise instead of anti-clockwise however the K stitches produced on the reverse will have crossed legs that draw them tighter together. By being familiar with how they look and how they are produced at an early stage whilst learning to knit you can avoid creating them accidentally and making your garments tighter than the pattern originally intended.

Right-over-left (Ptbl)

  1. Follow steps 1-3 or 4 above as usual.
  2. With the working yarn held at the front slip the empty needle (A) into the first st from left to right and back to front.
  3. Follow steps 6-8 above as usual.
  4. The twisted stitch is created in the row below those positioned on the needle.

Left-over-right

  1. Follow steps 1-5 above as usual.
  2. Wrap the yarn clockwise around the needle and draw this loop through the st to the back.

    Wrap clockwise: (continental) over to the right.....

    ......then under to the left

  3. Slip the worked st off needle B. The new stitch sits on needle A with it’s left leg (leading to the working yarn) at the front and it’s right leg at the back.
  4. Repeat steps 1-3 until the end of the row.
  5. The twisted stitches will not appear until you have worked the next row as usual. They can therefore still be resolved by working each st in this row, either as a K or a P, through the back loop.

Photo’s and text copyright ©onehandknits (Anna Richardson) 2010. Not for redistribution.

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About Onehandknits

I am a former doctor now designing knitwear and teaching in SE London.
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