This week I have been contemplating whether knitting, as a two-handed activity, can be considered to have a right-handed and a left-handed technique or are we all potentially ambidextrous knitters?
As a teacher I consciously strive to teach others as they wish to learn rather than dictating a proscriptive formula – ‘this is how knitting can be done but also like this and like this, why don’t you practise the different methods and chose for yourself what suits you best?’ For ease of communication, some terms are defined: a knit stitch is called a knit stitch however it is made provided it appears to look like a defined knit stitch. Indeed it is called a knit stitch when looked at from the ‘right side’ of a piece even when formed by purling into the ‘wrong side’.
There are also some things that are genuinely wrong and can be taught to be avoided (such as twisting your stitches and getting too tight a knit when the pattern doesn’t call for it) but I would not state as adamantly that there was only one right way to do something – in knitting or in life! With that philosophy in mind I feel I have a responsibility to ensure that my own knitting expertise is as broad and proficient as possible when offering to teach others. The benefit to me is that, as I learn more techniques, I begin to understand better (or at least think that I understand) something of the integral nature of knitting. This in turn helps me to improve the speed and quality of finish of my knitting, as well as how effectively I can convert an idea in my head into a design.
It wasn’t until I was 26 that I discovered that I was working my knit rows in the English style (yarn held in my right hand) and my purl rows Continental (yarn held in my left hand). I had simply watched my gran and my mother when knitting and thought that I was doing as they had done. To me this was just knitting and without meeting other knitters I would have remained unaware that it could be done any differently. Once I did know more, I realised that swapping the yarn from hand to hand as I worked knit to a purl or vice versa was always going to be a rate-limiting-step and that it could only be overcome by pushing my muscles to come to terms with either an English purl or a Continental knit. It was arduous and when I’m not concentrating I still find that my hands slip back into their more familiar, comfortable (dare I say lazy?) habits, particularly for straight stocking stitch and knitting in-the-round. By learning another technique I have at least given myself another option, when my beastly hands behave themselves.
Almost every adult beginner I have taught has felt that same awkwardness of movement at the start. Until the muscle memory develops all new actions involving fine motor control seem contrived and difficult. This appears to be, in my experience, of an equal degree amongst those who are left or right-handed when learning classical knitting, whereby you create your new stitches over the right needle, moving the worked stitches off the left needle as you go (I will call this ‘forwards’ knitting from now on for the sake of brevity). Nevertheless I was prompted, by the memory of friends at school who were forced, when it was clearly uncomfortable and slower, to use their right hands’ to write, to consider what knitting ‘forwards’ would be like for the left-handed person.
These days we know that the right cerebral cortex (which controls the left-side of the body) is dominant for approximately 10% of the population* and therefore one-handed tasks are done more fluidly/ comfortably for those in this group when done with the left hand. We are sophisticated enough to see that this is normal, rather than an indication of witch craft, and most schools now allow children to write as comes most naturally to them. Would it also be easier for the left-handed person to knit ‘backwards’, using their left hand to move the dominant needle and bring stitches from the right to the left needle? Or do we all truly use both hands whilst knitting, whether we are English ‘throwers’ or Continental ‘pickers’? If it is easier for the left-handed person to knit ‘backwards’ then are they being disadvantaged by knitting teachers who only teach conventional ‘forwards’ knitting and by written patterns rather than charts, which can be automatically read from either direction? To challenge myself to experience knitting as it may be for a left-handed person I decided to teach myself to knit ‘backwards’, figuring that as a right-hand dominant individual I would find this of a similar level of difficulty as for a left-handed person knitting ‘forwards’.
*Hardyck C, Petrinovich LF (1977). “Left-handedness”. Psychol Bull 84 (3): 385–404.
My first surprise came in realising that I did not need to reverse every aspect of the process – the stitches still sat on the needle left ‘leg’ at the back, right leg at the front and I brought the empty left needle in through the stitch from left-to-right and front-to-back just as before.
Holding the yarn at the back in my right hand (as a Continental knitter would) I ‘caught’ it on the needle by bringing it from left-to-right over the top of the left needle tip and then lifted the worked stitch off the left needle with my right needle. This action actually felt very fluid and I was able to work the first row ‘backwards’ almost as fast as I could work it ‘forwards’. By keeping the yarn in my right hand now (as an English knitter) I was able to work the next row ‘forwards’ without either turning the work or swapping yarn hands. The speed that this achieved was fantastic! My tension felt and looked a little looser on the backwards rows and I put this down to the fact that I was working it Continentally, as I have always found my stocking stitch to be looser when I do both knit and purl with the yarn in my left hand. This is no bad thing as I have in the past been known to be a very tight knitter!
My next challenge was to have a go at purling to see if this would be any harder. I worked another row ‘backwards’ to the start and then turned the piece to the ‘wrong-side’. This gave me considerably more headache as I realised that working the front leg from right-to-left and back-to-front as usual would involve twisting my left needle and hand across at at an awkward angle and would leave the working yarn on the wrong side of the needles (the left, where it needed to be worked across to the right).
Finally inspiration struck and I worked the purl through the back loop from left-to-right and back-to-front thus untwisting the twist created by passing through the stitch in the wrong direction. This way I could easily hold the yarn at the front in my right hand, catching it from right-to-left over the left needle tip so that the stitches formed still sat with their legs on the correct side of the left needle.
At the end of the row I had the choice whether to turn and knit ‘backwards’ again or keep the ‘wrong-side’ up and purl forwards, either with the yarn still in my right hand (as an English knitter would) or swapping it to my left (for my more comfortable Continental technique). Eventually I was knitting and purling ‘backwards’ and ‘forwards’ as the whim took me but with every row appearing the same regardless.
My experiment would seem to indicate one of two possibilities – either I am unknowingly ambidextrous (a word that contains right-hand bias even as it includes both hands!) or with practise and hands well-tuned to the act of knitting it is as ‘hard’ or as ‘easy’ for me to work a piece with either hand taking responsibility for the needle movements and/ or the yarn. I can’t extrapolate from my sample of one to any significant conclusion about the entire population of knitters but I do have one piece of further (anecdotal) evidence to submit.
Just recently I taught a lady to cast on and knit and sent her away to do a garter stitch scarf as homework. When she returned the next week she was unhappy as she thought that she had done everything ‘right’ but her scarf no longer looker like garter stitch. What she had in fact achieved was a perfect piece of stocking stitch. ‘Did you already know how to purl?’ I asked. ‘What’s a purl?’ said she. I don’t know what this says about my teaching but it turned out that she had forgotten the ‘need’ to turn the piece and had instead, working from the basic principles I had taught her, automatically worked out how to knit ‘backwards’. I tease her now that she is a knitting savant but in truth I think it says more about the nature of knitting: that the only universal truth is that a knit stitch is “a loop, pulled through the loop below, from the back to the front” and a purl stitch is the reverse. For this reason I have been careful to place many terms in this article in inverted commas as I believe them to be interchangeable depending on your frame of reference.
So is it ambi-knitting worth the effort for knitters of any handedness? When I started this blog post I did a little research web-surfing and canvassed for opinions on Twitter. The majority feeling seemed to be that “Yes, knitting is hard when you start (regardless of handedness) but it gets easier with practise”. My friend AreSlinkysArt likened ‘backwards’ knitting to “writing mirrored like da Vinci – neat and useful ability maybe, but usually unnecessary.” In answer to that I have concocted this short list of slightly convoluted scenarios where ambi-knitting might be considered useful;
- If you just can’t stand purling – particularly useful when creating the heel flap of a sock when all other purls have been avoided by knitting in-the-round and choosing no-purl textures
- Similarly for purl avoidance when transitioning from in-the-round to flat knitting at the armhole of a bottom-up non-raglan jumper (as when using a flat pattern but working up to the arms in the round for whatever reason)
- Stranded knitting worked flat instead of in-the-round – especially for those who are intimidated by steeking.
- Scarves or other items with only a small stitch count, when turning becomes a frustration all by itself – I used this technique to great effect when knitting the very beautiful braided necklace s(hown below) from OlgaJazzy’s Blog which has a stitch count of just 9.
I’d love to hear how others use ambi-knitting or just the most far-fetched indications you can think of but for now I will leave you with the wise words of GingerKnits: “It’s a good idea to learn to knit with both hands as it’s good for cognitive skills and helps cut down on repetitive strain” Three cheers for less strain and more knitting!
Photo’s and text copyright ©onehandknits (Anna Richardson) 2011. Not for redistribution.