Knitting for left-handed people

Left-handed people in the western world, used to a scale of social interaction ranging from pity to contempt, and to a general ignorance of and indifference to their practical needs, are not surprised at the horror that their request to learn to knit often raises in otherwise competent teachers. But knitting is one activity that's strongly symmetrical, and can be easily handled by anyone, no matter how firmly one-sided they may be. If there is an initial problem, it usually has more to do with an adult trying to learn basic motor skills, and having forgotten the dogged trial and error approach that lets children master much more difficult tasks. Getting the person to relax is the most important part of teaching knitting, and that's as true for left-handed people as for others, but not because they have special difficulties. In fact, in our biased opinion, because they've come across so many more obstacles to basic function, left-handed people are more likely to pick up new skills without fuss.

All modern knitting involves holding the work with both hands. Some early variations particularly in the Shetland islands had people stick a long needle into a leather belt and knit with a single hand at blinding speed, moving only a second needle. But the Sheltlanders at that time had a very sparse economy where export of knitted goods was one of the few paying jobs, everyone participated from childhood, and we've all thankfully lost the poverty-fueled drive to such feats. Current tools are also perfectly symmetrical, except perhaps for the scissors used to cut yarn. Our holding the work with both hands is not an entirely passive function either, the knitting has to be subtly nudged along as stitches are worked on or it'll accumulate in unsightly and disruptive clumps, and become unbalanced, if one hand fails in that function. And while the position of the yarn varies, to some extent everyone uses both hands in the formation of every stitch. So all knitters have to exhibit some degree of coordinated ambidextrous activity, and that's probably one reason knitting is good for you.

Consider also that brain dominance is not as straightforward a topic as it seems. All those authoritative studies of sidedness were actually done on young wasp straight college (read: mostly rich) men, at representative places like Harvard. These people are notoriously mono-tasking, as well as rigidly mono-sided :-). One of the reason studies have concentrated on them, even beyond consciousness of the existence of many other groups, is that when those other groups are introduced most of those pronouncements all go to hell. Women in particular are not at all so definite in their division of labor between the cerebral lobes, as a nice side-effect they're likely to recover from strokes much better than men because they're much more versatile in how they use their brain to begin with.

In addition, we should not discount the way in which left-handed people have been terrorized from birth by society, including well-meaning parents and teachers, into using their less effective side. One of our mothers was clearly born left-handed, uses her left side for all spontaneous activities, and yet was forced into almost total disuse of it for all learned things like writing and sewing; she passed that on energetically to her offsprings, who show equal natural lefty tendencies. The other mother felt lifelong discomfort with the right-sided emphasis of everything, and spent years learning motor skills on both sides and adapting her environment to use both sides, also passing on that tendency. These were not people born in a previous century, and their cases are far from unusual.

In short, no matter what you think your hand dominance may seem to be, it's worth checking out knitting that emphasizes one side or the other, because the side you end up prefering may have nothing to do with what hand you write with. Particularly, there are many valid reasons why continental knitting might work better for you, in terms of ergonomics and efficiency. But it's a good idea to check it out simply because you may be more comfortable holding the yarn in your left hand in the long run.

Misguided attempts to reverse knitting entirely and have the poor left-handed victim try to knit from right to left (ie the stitches, the knitting going from left to right needle) in mirror image of everyone else won't help the natural coordination problems every beginner experiences. Worse, it will leave them with a bad case of knitting illiteracy, unable to benefit from the existing literature without going through a torturous translation process that no beginner can handle. Which is not to say that knitting in the other direction is bad, in fact it's a tremendous asset in things like little heel-turning triangles, entrelacs, or intarsia in the round, everyone should learn it. It's just not as suitable as a beginning method, or a default single one. Left-handers write from left to right in western cultures, no matter which hand they're using, and right-handers write from right to left in Arabic and Chinese, all without any ill effects. The same should go for knitting. One may emphasize the function of one hand or the other, but the basic mechanics should not be drastically different.

In conclusion, the main accomodation that could be tried with left-handed people is to teach them continental knitting first. But nothing else is necessary, just patience on both parts, and understanding that no handedness variation is a handicap in knitting.

First published: 10/17/02

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