Knitting Know-How

The first three most important steps you can take to improve your knitting skills are these:

  • Always make a tension square before starting to knit a project.
  • Always get to know the ‘personality’ of your yarn choice - learn to understand how it will ‘behave’ when knitted, and if it is the right yarn for your project.
  • Always have the right tools for the job - start collecting a good selection of knitting needles.
  • Tension

    Always test out the tension of a new yarn.

    Try and keep each tension square you make in a folder, clearly marked with a ball band and details of which needles you used.

    Other factors will influence your tension - different brands of knitting needles may vary slightly in size and will give slightly different tensions and you, yourself will knit differently depending on your mood and environment. If you are stressed and uncomfortable your tension will be different (tighter!) to when you are knitting comfortably in a relaxed mood. Sometimes different colours of the same yarn may give a different tension due to the dyeing process’s they have been put through - unbleached, natural shades may be slightly thicker than the dyed ones.

    How to make a Tension Square

    Always make a decent sized tension square - if you want a tension of 24 stitches and 30 rows measured over 10cm cast on at least 32 stitches and knit at least 38 rows.

    If your project is knitted in the round, knit your tension sample in the round - knitting backwards and forwards on two needles, alternating knit and purl rows, can give a different tension to knitting in the round when only knit stitches are made.

    Take the knitting off your needles, press it very lightly with a warm iron over a damp cloth and lay it down on a flat surface.
    Place two pins in the knitting exactly 10cm apart.
    Measure how many stitches you have, including every half stitch or fractions of stitches.
    This number of stitches will be your tension for the yarn and needle combination that you used to make your tension square.

    If you want to achieve more stitches per 10cm you will need to use smaller needles and if you want less stitches per 10cm you will need to use larger needles.

    You can now use this information to make simple calculations and make up simple patterns of your own.
    For example, if you have a tension of 20 stitches and 20 rows to 10cm and you want to knit a simple square cushion cover in stocking stitch which measures 40x40cm, you will need to cast on 80 stitches (4x20) and knit 80 rows (4x20).


    Always try to buy the best quality yarn that you can afford. Knit your project in high quality yarns and all your efforts will be rewarded with a beautiful and long lasting end product.
    Try to buy pure yarns, or yarns blended with other pure yarns such as wool and silk or wool and cotton. Sock yarns are the exception as often they are mixed with nylon for extra strength- an addition of 15 -20 % nylon is plenty.
    Wool, cotton, silk and linen have been used for centuries to knit with and there is a vast heritage of understanding behind their continued use.

    Consider the function of your yarn choice - are you looking for a fine, hard wearing sock yarn or do you want a soft, squishy yarn for a warm and cosy wrap or cardigan.
    Every yarn will have a different ‘personality’ and will ‘behave’ differently when knitted and will therefore be better suited to different functions.
    Knit up samples of any yarns that you particularly like to get a better understanding of how they feel, how they drape, how well stitches are defined, do they snag or split easily, are they easy to knit with.

    Chunky, woollen-spun yarns are characteristically thick, soft and lofty as they have only been minimally spun. They are usually very warm and insulating as air gets trapped in the fibers, but they are not very strong. A good example would be the Icelandic Lopi yarns.
    Double Knitting, or Worsted-spun yarns are characteristically smoother, crisper more ‘organised’ yarns as the fibers are combed before spinning making them all run in the same direction. They are then twisted as they are spun. They give good stitch definition, hold colour well, but as air can not be trapped so easily between the fibers they are less insulating.

    Before you buy your yarn have a really good look and feel of it, preferably in daylight, making sure it has the right texture, sheen and colour that you want. Also, if you are choosing a woollen yarn give it a good smell - a more natural and unprocessed yarn will have the distinctive smell of lanolin, a more commercial, processed yarn will have no smell at all.


    Start investing in a good assortment of knitting needles. Get different lengths of the same size needle so that you will always have the right needles to work with. Use the extra long needles for large projects with lots of stitches such as blankets, so that the stitches are not too bunched up, and use shorter needles for smaller projects.

    Try using wooden or bamboo needles whenever possible as they can be lighter to use, less slippery and quieter than metal or plastic ones.

    Experiment with which brands feel more comfortable and ‘work’ for you.

    Have a good selection of accessories such as needle gauges(they can all vary slightly!), darning needles, cable needles, crochet hooks (for picking up dropped stitches), scissors, a tape measure and calculator.


    If you are knitting from a chart and using two needles you read the chart from right to left on the knit rows (the right side of the knitting) and from the left to right on the purl rows (the wrong side of the knitting). If you are knitting in the round on a circular needle (or on four or five double pointed needles) you read the chart from right to left on every round.

    Each square on the chart represents one stitch.

    One row on the chart represents one row of knitting.
    Photocopy, or redraw the chart so that you can work from it more easily.
    Keep track of your knitting by drawing a pencil line across each row as you finish it.