The beginner's guide to the greatest pastimes: Knitting

It’s good for you, and Ryan Gosling too!

It’s good for you, and Ryan Gosling too!

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

If the only thing knitting did was stop you from touching your smartphone for a few minutes a day, it would be worth it. Almost half of the world's population uses social media for an average of two hours per day, usually on their smartphones. While compulsively checking Instagram and Twitter can keep us occupied, it has also been shown to increase anxiety, depression, and disrupt our sleep. Knitting not only keeps your hands off your phone but it has basically the opposite effects. Where smartphones hurt, knitting heals. Knitters report effects similar to meditation, including calming and increased concentration. It has been used to help quit smoking, control weight, and has even been shown to stave off cognitive decline associated with aging. Knitting, in short, is good for you. What's better: it gives you an endless supply of one-of-a-kind gifts for your loved ones.

All of this is why knitting has been at the vanguard of the DIY craft revival in the 21st century. Grandmas still knit, but they've been joined increasingly by young women, men, and celebrities such as Winona Ryder, Julia Roberts, and Ryan Gosling. Here's everything you need to know to get started yourself.


The origins of knitting are shrouded in mystery, though most historians believe it originated in the middle east around the 10th or 11th century CE. The oldest surviving piece of knitwear are these socks, now housed at London's Victoria and Albert museum. They were made between the 11th and 13th centuries CE in Egypt, and their complex (and snazzy) design suggests that knitting had already been around a long time.

An example of true, or double-needle, cotton hand-knitted socks made in Egypt, about 1100–1300. Artist unknown. (Source: V&A's Collections, given by Mrs Russell)

Knitting techniques spread from the Middle East to Europe, where it became enormously popular in the middle ages. As you may know from paintings or movies, men in the Middle Ages, at least the classy ones, liked to wear stockings. Demand for fine stockings drove the knitting industry, causing the formation of knitting guilds which required six-year long apprenticeship to become a certified master knitter. The first knitting machine was invented in 1580 by William Lee. While mechanized knitwear was usually cheaper, hand-knitting produced much finer knitwear for a long time to come.

Over the past century or so, knitting revivals have usually occurred during periods of scarcity. During both World Wars, those on the home front were encouraged to dig up their unworn garments and use them to make new items for use on the front. Thus women and schoolchildren hand-knit socks, helmet liners, and other items for the soldiers in the field. It also became popular during the Great Depression, in order to make clothes last longer, and to make use of every scrap of yarn.

The most recent knitting revival, starting in the 1990s, was driven not by necessity, but by a general revival of interest in hand crafts. People in their 20s and 30s have been the largest growing group of knitters, and their presence has been felt online. Knitting has been the subject of leadings blog since the beginning of blogging, and the needle arts have spawned their own thriving social network with millions of users called Ravelry. Knitting has produced a form of street art called yarn bombing in which public objects are knitted in yarn, and even produced its own star comedian specializing in knitting humour

What you need to know to get started

Knitting vs. Crocheting: One of the first things to know is the distinction between the two main "needle arts": knitting and crocheting. Both are great hobbies that allow you to make pretty much anything you can imagine out of yarn. There are, however, some key differences. 

Crocheting uses a hook whereas knitting uses two needles. Knitting is a bit more versatile and is better for more intricate designs. Crocheting, however, is easier to learn and, very important for beginners, it's easier to correct your mistakes in crocheting. Therefore, we suggest starting with crochet and using it as a springboard into knitting as you gain confidence. This article covers knitting simply because it is the more popular hobby. 

For knitting, you'll need to know some basic techniques. To start, you'll need to know how to cast on (creating a starting row of stitches so you can start knitting), knit stitch, purl stitch, and cast off which creates a finished edge that will stop your stitches from unravelling. There are hundreds of step-by-step guides online, but this one does a good job of covering the basics.

What you need to have to get started

Yarn: pick a colour you like, and don't choose anything too fine. We recommend starting with medium weight or worsted weight yarn, as it will be easier to work with than thinner yarn. Also, choose a bright colour. This makes your stitches (and thus your mistakes) easier to spot.

Needles: Needles come in different shapes and sizes. The thickness of the needle is supposed to match the thickness of the yarn, so if you're starting with medium yarn, start with medium needles (sizes 6-8). Shorter needles are easier to work with whereas longer needles can hold more stitches which is necessary for larger items, so choose accordingly. Needles also come in many different materials, such as plastic, metal, wood, and bamboo. Ultimately, this is a matter of preference, but we recommend starting with wood or bamboo as the stitches won't slide off as easily as on plastic or metal.

Patterns: knitting patterns are a plan which explains how to make a given item. You want to start as simply as possible (usually with a scarf!), and can find plenty of free ones online. This blog entry at OMGheart not only explains all the equipment you need to start, it also provides a starting scarf pattern!

What you need to do to get started

If you've got the equipment, and know the basics, then all you really have to do is cast on and start stitching. However, in order to learn these things, it's usually helpful to have some instruction. We recommend joining a knitting group or taking a lesson since knitting is the kind of thing that is much easier learned by seeing than by reading. However, there are also of plenty of tips and communities online. You could join the Ravelry knitting social network to meet other people, find tips, and get inspired by al the cool projects that people post.

Top tips

  • Start small, supply-wise: Knitting equipment can get advanced as you progress. There are many different kinds of needles and an infinity of tempting yarns. You'll need these for different jobs, but it's best to acquire them as you need them to avoid going overboard.
  • Don't knit off the very tip of the needle: One of the biggest challenges for beginning knitters is that they wind up with stitches that are too tight. To get uniform size stitches, make sure you are knitting on the fat part of the needles rather than at the tapered tips.
  • Get online: there is a massive wealth of resources online. Knitting techniques, like many manual crafts are easier to show than to explain, so videos are especially helpful if you are getting stuck. Check out the iKnits and expression fiber arts YouTube channels for a start.
  • Finish your first project: it's easy to give up or change your mind before you finish your first project. Don't. Seeing it through will give you a sense of accomplishment, and it'll be a great memento for when you become an expert knitter. Think of it as a record of your baby steps (or stitches, as it were).
  • Correct needle grip: there is no single correct way to hold knitting needles. Just pick one that feels comfortable for you.
  • Take a break: knitting is relaxing, once you get the hang of it. At the beginning though, it can sometimes be frustrating. If you feel yourself getting impatient with a piece of knitting, put it down and come back to it later. This is not an art for the rushed.

Clifton Mark is a former academic with more interests than make sense in academia. He writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and pastimes. If it matters to you, his PhD is in political theory. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.