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Build skills confidently

What makes knitting “hard?”

As an experienced knitter, I rarely consider any single technique difficult unless it’s physically tough for my hands. Hello, knitting a provisional picot cast-on together with my live stitches on a small garment in the round with a tight gauge! Everything else is just one stitch at a time, row-by-row... right?

Lilac pink linen knit washcloth with lace border, knitting needles, crystals and wax flowers
Washcloths: a fun way to demo new skills (pattern: Jacqui Cieslak).

Complexity can make a project feel difficult

I recently followed a sock pattern that had me track cable pattern A over an odd number of repeating rows, cable pattern B over an even number of repeating rows, and work decreases for the gusset - all at the same time.

No one part of that pattern was technically demanding, but I can’t say I enjoyed the project (or ahem, even finished the first sock). The more complexity in your project, the more challenging it will seem… and the more likely it is to get shoved in a box for a year.

Strategy: tackle new skills that don’t overlap

Pattern writers will declare with confidence ‘intermediate!’ ‘beginner!’ (although I’ve noticed, I assume in an attempt not to intimidate knitters, rarely are patterns labeled ‘expert’). Skip this declaration and go right to the techniques and construction sections. What’s new for you, and when in the project will you be using new skills?

If you’ve never knit cables before, and you’ve never made a sweater before, you might be overwhelmed if you jump right into working a cabled sweater with complicated concurrent shaping worked in the round.

But if you start with a seamed, drop-sleeve, cabled sweater knit straight from the hem to the shoulder, you’ll have an uncomplicated expanse to practice your cables. When you move to the sleeves, shaping will be the only new technique. Then, sweater construction all happens at the end, so grappling with that can be your sole focus. Ta-da: your first sweater was your first cable project!

Many knitting teachers frame learning to knit as a linear process, with one skill added at a time. I’d offer that you can confidently level up your skills in multiple areas in the same project as long as you don’t take on too many in the same skill tree. You can probably handle at least one from each of the following progressions:

Fabric progressions

  • Garter stitch (all knit)

  • Stockinette stitch

  • Knit/purl textured patterns

  • Yarnovers and lace, cables, colorwork

Finishing progressions

  • Basic cast-on and bind-off

  • Pick up and knit, three-needle bind-off

  • Buttonholes

  • Seaming and grafting

  • Fancy cast-on and bind-off

Object/Garment progressions

  • Scarves and washcloths

  • Shawls and wraps with shaping

  • Hats

  • Mittens and socks

  • Sweaters and shirts

Note - I find that baby and children's sweaters are the perfect entry point for sweater knitting. They're low stakes, usually very straightforward, and fast. If they're imperfect, well, kids wreck things anyway, right?

Construction progressions

  • Knit flat

  • Knit in the round

  • Drop-sleeve sweaters

  • Raglan sweaters

  • Set-in sleeves and saddle shoulders

Challenge multipliers

Some aspects of your project might make knitting every element more difficult. Consider taking on fewer new skills if you’re also:

  • Knitting with a yarn that’s slippery, fragile, or prone to splitting; knitting with a yarn that’s very dark,

  • Working with a gauge that’s unusual for your yarn’s weight, such as a very tight or very loose gauge,

  • Reading a clumsily translated pattern, or

  • Knitting while distracted, in chunks of 20 minutes or less

  • Knitting off gauge and re-calculating the stitches

  • Making substantive modifications to the pattern

Consider prerequisites

Finally, consider how difficult a new skill will be based on what you already know how to do. If you can only knit, then taking on your first cable project is much harder because you also have to learn to purl and to switch between knitting and purling. Likewise, your first lace pattern will be more manageable if you only work patterning on the right side. Choosing a cable sweater that only has twists or repeats over a short number of rows is less complicated than a pattern with a large traveling cable motif (more about easy cabling here).

Go Further

A small swatch, in slate peach DK yarn, with a tubular cast on a cabled pattern.
Herbalist will include optional instructions for a perfect swatch.

I'll be listing a testing call soon for a new design, Herbalist. This pattern is perfect for learning new skills without getting overwhelmed, and I'll be including optional instructions for the 'perfect' swatch - including a chance to practice the tubular cast-on. Sign up for my mailing list to be the first to know when that call goes out! I'll be looking for knitters of all experience levels.

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