The main problem I see in people just starting to knit or crochet is an amazing tendency to tightness. There are many reasons why this is completely self-defeating, and why it's worth it to try and squelch that awful habit before it's too late.
One of the main reasons not to knit like this is that you're of course tightening your hands, which cannot be good for them. Hand muscles are small, and thus more vulnerable to spasms. Hand joints are also delicate, and more likely to be crushed by tension (did you know the joint at the base of the dominant thumb is by far the likeliest to have arthritis?). Many of the people who are now learning crafty things have spent a lot of their life already tethered to a keyboard, whether for play or for work, and likely for both. This is a far cry from the 4-6-year-olds who used to play with yarn at first. No generation has ever brought such a baggage of incipient repetitive stress to the needles. It's important not to have knitting, which is supposed to be relaxing, turn into just another source of injury. Because it's a repetitive activity, it could naturally cause problems if done incorrectly/stressfully. I've personally seen people get tipped right into wrist braces with their first project, which is really heinous.
It's also much more technically difficult to knit tightly, which only increases the general stressfulness of the operation. Have you ever seen someone try desperately to get a needle through a stitch that just won't give? Do you get into those binds yourself? Hard, eh? And totally unnecessary. A good knit or crochet stitch should allow the needle to get in without the least hint of struggle. In fact, you should consider that a landmark of whether you're knitting loosely enough. Loose is also the only way you could manage if you tried something that tends to tighten the fabric like cables. And knitting loosely is actually faster, since you don't have to wrestle with every stitch.
Perhaps people are confused, and think that knitting tightly is somehow related to making a dense fabric? Not at all, the looseness of the fabric itself is only related to the size of the needles. If you use big enough needles, it's perfectly possible to produce sleazy fabric while making yourself miserable knitting tightly :-). Conversely, I routinely produce perfectly dense fabric for socks while knitting loosely and comfortably on size 0 needles. I would in general caution beginners about trying for too dense fabric, large objects like sweaters tend to need a bit of drape in the fabric to look really good, but how much drape is something that you will develop a feel for with experience. The only thing that matters is that fabric density can easily be manipulated with a change of needle, and that you can knit in the manner you wish no matter what the needle size or the result desired.
One reason that's frequently given for knitting tightly is that it gives a 'more even' result. It's sort of true, but only if you're knitting in plain stockinette with smooth yarn, which is not what many people do right now. The motivation for this emphasis on even-ness is also something that predated the industrial revolution, as it displayed skill born of long practice. It was continued somewhat later by the desire to look like one could afford machine-made, store-bought items, which used to be more expensive. But these days most of us who bother to make something by hand like to have it look at least a bit 'handmade', ie not perfectly even.
This tight knitting as a way to get evenness also overlooks an important fact: the real way to have even knitting is to wash it, plain and simple. In water, stitches relax, tension gets distributed better, and even a single wash can have a significant evening effect on a piece of knitting. So why stress about how evenly you knit right off? Chances are that whether you like it or not your stuff will end up fairly even with time, as it naturally gets washed over and over.
A different angle on this topic is that knitting tightly does not truly promote evenness. It might if you were using tight mercerized cotton, say if you were making some lace crochet item in a fine gauge. But on the whole we knit with stretchy materials, manufacturers go to a lot of trouble to introduce bounce in their yarns even if the fibers don't have a natural one. The good side of that is that a finished product like a sweater will keep its shape through hard wear. The bad side is that many of you are yanking on the poor yarn and stretching it to within a millimeter of its life with that tight knitting. Since the yarn is stretched on the needle to a point where you can't see how tight it is, it's not likely that you'll be able to do so evenly, you're probably just contributing to a more pronounced unevenness.
Worse, this has consequences for the whole finished product. Either you have not so resilient yarn and it'll end up limp and stretched out, not the effect desired, and your sweater will sag as if it was cotton. Or worse the good wool will snap right back, and given a bit of time you'll end up with a much smaller gauge than you thought, donating many new sweaters to your little sister. Either way, this is not a good thing. In fact, because of the stretchiness of yarn, as your tension tightens your chances of hitting a desired gauge diminishes drastically. Not a problem if you're concentrating on scarves, or this year's ubiquitous poncho. But it'll restrict your ability to make any garment that fits.
What really makes for accurate gauge is consistency. The repetitiveness of knitting means that it's easy to get into a groove of doing things with a very high degree of consistency, which is why anyone manages to knit evenly at all. Of course your first project will be a bit irregular, but stick to it and soon you'll be turning out perfectly creditable items, without all this tension in the process. You can achieve evenness through repetition alone, using the needles only as a guide rather than trying to force things to fit.
If you're knitting tightly now, do try to stop. You'll have a hard time at first, feel like you're losing control and you're back in those first few rows. But it's not that bad, you can adapt very quickly, an hour of attention should be more than enough to transition to more ease. Just try not to experiment in the middle of a sweater, it'd be ankward to get a single size :-).
Seriously, I've found that there is one place where it's easy to add a bit of ease to a stitch: after you catch the yarn and bring it back through, you can give a very small tug and get the new stitch as loose as it should be, then you can slip off the lower stitch from the left needle. If you don't introduce ease right then, it's ankward to do it later. And then the trick lies in resisting the urge to tighten before you go on to the next stitch... That's all!
Another frequent source of trouble is the tendency to yank the needles apart. We think of knitting at happening at the point of needles, whether straight or circular, and yes, the actual stitch making is happening right there. But when you're manipulating the needles you should actually never get them so the actual points are together, this never really happens in making a stitch. When you're putting the right point into a stitch, it's usually somewhat down the left needle, and when you slide off the previous stitch the work isn't at the very tip of the right needle any more. When resting between stitches, the stitches are pushed somewhat down both needles, to prevent them falling off. Often when people are peering at their work, they tend to force the needle points together, and so open them up further down, stressing the fabric because the stitches in process are actually separated. The result is at least 2 very tight stitches. Learn to keep needles together using the last-and-next stitches as the fulcrum, so you don't distort your fabric or stitches.
I should confess as I close that I too knitted tightly at first. That was my grandmother's approach, and I saw no reason to question it, especially since I didn't find knitting very pleasurable. But I later really learned to knit by reading Elizabeth Zimmermann, and was struck by her explanations of the benefits of looseness. Sure enough, as I loosened up I found that I enjoyed knitting much more. And since decades of typing have left my wrists constantly on the edge of carpal tunnel problems, I'd certainely have had to stop sooner if she hadn't influenced me early to spare them. You can definitely use other things like yoga techniques to stay relaxed in general, but I urge you to give loosening up a try...
First published: 9/17/04
Last updated: 3/12/06
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