Knitting styles - pick or throw?

Knitting in the US is afflicted with a dispute based on old geographic/cultural dividing lines. Proponents of both sides dismiss the other with a heat wholly unjustified by the scale of the issues at hand. The ultimate result, knitted fabric, can be achieved in many different ways, and how you get to that nice sweater is or should be irrelevant as long as no injury results to you or others. Knitting in public is fraught with almost as many pitfalls as breastfeeding these days, at any time some total stranger is liable to look over your shoulder and declare that "you're doing it all wrong" , slap your hands, proceed to rip your work out of your hands, and/or berate your grandma's teachings. This can be unnerving for the unweary beginner, to say the least. So let's first establish an important point: as long as what you're doing produces knitted fabric, you're doing it right, or well enough for you.

There are 2 general schools of knitting. One is generally called English, or more technically throwing, and involves holding the yarn in the right hand. The other is generally called continental, technically picking, and involves holding the yarn in the left hand. These names are just a remain of English insularity, since actually the throwing method is popular among all the Latin European countries, while la methode continentale rules mostly in Germany and Northern/Eastern Europe. And when I mean popular, I mean enforced by a cadre of ferocious old ladies, to the point where the other method is virtually unheard of in the countries concerned. The US seems to be the only real meeting point of both methods, and the ground of the associated conflicts. In fact the US was pretty much totally in the sway of English throwing, till in the early 60s the delightfully opinionated Elizabeth Zimmermann, an English woman, took it upon herself to spread the word on her German governess' superior (in her mind) continental method.

If you want to confuse the issue further, there are also many variations of how to hold the yarn and how to form the stitches. Western Europeans usually confine themselves to disputes over whether to wrap the yarn around a finger or to lace it between several as a tension device. But Greeks and some other Eastern Europeans wrap the yarn around their neck, which works just as well, it's all in how you get used to it. In addition, there are different methods of picking or throwing the yarn which result in stitches lying on the needle with different orientations (ie left or right side of the stich in front). Generally westerners end up with the right side of the stitch in front, while the old Ottoman Empire tends to work the other way. Now these variations can cause more trouble, if they are mixed between knit and purl the resulting stitches will be twisted. But let's not get too judgemental about this either - twisted stitches are just the ticket if you're trying to make a very firm edge, or to control some runaway fiber like cotton. The trick here is to do it all deliberately. And not to stress about what you're doing as long as it looks and functions fine off the needles.

But let's get back to the main division in the US, picking or throwing. At first glance, because of holding the yarn in the left hand, the continental picking method is often seen to be mostly good for pitiful left-handed knitters, who already have enough other problems to deal with. But this is a very superficial approach to the question. If nothing else, the hand that holds the yarn is not necessarily doing more of the actual work of forming a stitch. And handedness is not always as definite as it appears. Because of that, it's a really good idea for all knitters to try both methods, enough to decide which one really feels more comfortable for them, without prejudice.

On another level, there is good evidence that continental knitting is actually more efficient than English one. This is based loosely on the fact that, apart from the example of the early speed demons from the Shetland Islands, contemporary very fast knitters tend to be of the continental variety. But more scientifically it's clear that the continental method requires fewer and less emphatic hand motions, so it stand to reason that it would indeed be more efficient and lead to more speed. Not that we're in any way advocating speed as the ultimate goal, worth much in our contemporary relaxed approach, you understand...

We'd like to urge you to learn both methods for a more pragmatic reason. While both hands are engaged in any knitting, it's a rest and a good change to have the yarn in different hands at different times. We've met entirely too many people who come to knitting with borderline wrist and hand problems from other activities, and who with only a modest amount of knitting obsession fall right into severe RSI (repetitive stress) problems. Just as it's good to develop the skills to change your mouse side once in a while, it's advisable to be able to knit the other way when things get dicey on your usual side. Or even before you get in pain, just for good preventive hygiene. But in any case we think everyone should at least try the continental method, because it's more efficient it might be gentler on the hands in general.

And a final argument for learning both methods is that it makes color work much easier. We've seen people who're able to hold 2, 3, 4! colors at once, usually by wrapping them around different fingers, and just choose which one to knit each stitch with. That's admirable, but we certainely have never gotten the hang of it ourselves :-). And the classic beginner method of having to drop the yarn and pick up the other every time a stitch of a different color is wanted is heinously inefficient. Still not trying to obsess about speed here, but there is a limit to how slow you can go without wanting to scream. Not to mention that unless you're really careful that method often leads to tangles in the back, and that even without tangles it's harder to maintain even tension between the colors that way. So the easy solution is to hold one color in one hand and the other in the other hand, and to simply knit every stitch with the desired color without dropping anything. Sounds hard, but it's a piece of cake in practice. IF you know how to both pick and throw.

No matter what, your knitting method should not feel like you're running a marathon, you should not be sore by the time you finish, after the first few days it should be pretty much effortless. If you have one side down, try the other just for laughs. If you're horrified by the very idea, don't worry too much about it :-).

First published: 10/17/02

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