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What is Knitting? A Brief History and How to Get Started

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Have you ever admired a hand-knit scarf or a cozy winter sweater and wondered how it’s made? In this article, we’ll answer the question, “What is knitting?” by looking at its rich history, basic techniques, and tools. And if you’ve been inspired to pick up a pair of needles yourself, we’ll share a detailed guide on how to get started with knitting, including recommended materials for beginners, tips, and resources.

a swatch of garter stitch in blue yarn, with wooden knitting needles

What is knitting?

Knitting is a fiber technique for creating interconnected loops of yarn, producing a stretchy and flexible fabric. It’s a popular hobby used to make clothing, accessories, and home decor items.

Hand knitting is typically done using two needles and yarn to create stitches, which can form intricate patterns, textures, and designs when combined in various ways.

Types of Knitting

When we talk about knitting, it’s helpful to break it down into two main categories.

Hand knitting is a popular hobby and means of creative expression. In hand knitting, the knitter uses needles and yarn to make customized, well-fitted garments and unique handmade items.

Machine knitting is typically used in commercial applications, allowing for quick, consistent production of fabric used in the garment industry.

Knitting vs. Crochet

At this point, you might be wondering what the difference is between knitting and crochet. While both fiber crafts can be used to make a variety of projects, there are a few differences.

  • Knitting is worked with two knitting needles, while crochet is worked with one crochet hook.
  • Knitting moves sets of live stitches from needle to needle. Crochet works with one live stitch at a time.
  • Knitted fabric can be smoother and stretchier than crochet fabric. Crochet fabric is often highly textured, and a bit sturdier than knitted fabric.

For more details about these two fiber crafts (including which is easier for beginners) check out our Knitting vs Crochet article.

dark orange yarn and wooden knitting needles

Brief History of Knitting

Knitting is an age-old practice that’s been passed down through generations. Although the exact origins are uncertain, it’s generally agreed that knitting began in the Middle East in the 11th century and spread to Europe via trade routes. As knitting migrated across continents and made its way through Europe, each culture imbued the craft with its own character.

Archeological finds from the 14th century provide evidence of the prevalence of knitting in everyday life. Utilitarian items such as socks, gloves, and hats, as well as more decorative items like tapestries, were hand-knitted.

In the 16th century, the first knitting machines were invented, allowing for faster production of knitted items, particularly stockings. Despite the rise of machine knitting, hand knitting was an important cottage industry in the 17th and 18th centuries.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the industrial revolution was in full swing, and hand knitting as an industry was on the decline. However, hand knitting gained popularity as a hobby and leisure activity.

Understanding the Basics of Knitting

Now that you know a little about the definition and history of knitting, let’s talk about the tools and techniques you’ll need to know to start knitting.

Tools of the trade

Unlike other fiber crafts, like weaving, knitting requires only a few tools and supplies: knitting needles and yarn.

  • Needles come in different types and sizes. Straight needles are great for flat pieces like scarves, while circular needles are used for tubular pieces like hats or socks. Double-pointed needles are often used for smaller circular projects.
  • Yarn comes in a variety of materials like wool, cotton, silk, and synthetic fibers, each with its own unique characteristics. Yarn thickness ranges from very thin (lace weight) to very thick (super bulky).
balls of yarn on a white background

The Process of Knitting

As you progress in your knitting journey, you’ll learn a variety of stitches and techniques. 

Two Basic Stitches

In knitting, there are two basic stitches: the knit stitch and the purl stitch. All other stitches are variations or combinations of these two.

Knit stitch: The knit stitch is one of the most basic stitches in knitting, and it is often the first stitch that beginners learn. Read our tutorial on the knit stitch to learn how to knit it.

Purl stitch: Once you master the purl stitch, you’ll unlock a whole new set of knitting patterns, like stockinette stitch, ribbing, and seed stitch. Check out our tutorial on the purl stitch to see how it’s done.

Essential Knitting Techniques

Here are the other important techniques you’ll need to know to get started:

Casting on is how you create the initial stitches on your needle. 

Binding off (or casting off) is how you remove the stitches from the needle and secure your work when it’s complete. 

Increasing adds stitches, and decreasing removes them, allowing you to shape your work. 

Cable knitting, a more complex technique, creates textured twists and braids.

Lace knitting, which produces intricate, openwork patterns.

Colorwork, such as intarsia, fair isle, or mosaic knitting, is a way to add colorful patterns to your projects.

Patterns and Design in Knitting

Knitting patterns are like recipes for your knitting projects. The pattern designer will tell you which yarn and needles to use, how many stitches to cast on, and guide you through creating the design step-by-step. 

As you gain experience, you’ll learn to make gauge swatches and understand knitting patterns, opening up a world of possibilities for your next projects.

Knitting patterns are available for free or purchase online, or at your local yarn store.

knitting across a small swatch of garter stitch fabric

How to Get Started with Knitting

So how do you get started? We recommend that you begin with our comprehensive How to Knit Beginner’s Guide, which will cover all the basics you’ll need to know.

Then, you’ll need to get some supplies. Here’s my recommended shopping list for beginners:

  1. A pair of US size 8 (5mm) straight knitting needles. We recommend bamboo or wooden needles to start with, since they’re a little less slippery than metal needles.
  2. Medium-weight yarn (also known as worsted weight, or Category 4 weight): It’s thick enough to see your stitches easily, but not so thin that it’s hard to manage. Choose a smooth texture in a light color.
  3. A pair of scissors.
  4. A blunt tapestry needle for weaving in your ends.

Practice, practice, practice.

After you get your supplies, you’re ready to get knitting. Start by practicing casting on, then the knit stitch, then the purl stitch, then binding off. Once you’ve got these basics down, try an easy project like a beginner scarf pattern. Choose a simple pattern to start – don’t worry, there’s plenty of time to work up to more complex projects!

Keep Learning

There’s a wealth of resources available to help you learn. Our website is full of tutorials to guide you on your knitting journey:

What’s Next?

Pin this post: Save this tutorial to your Pinterest boards so that you can come back to it later.

Leave a comment: We love to hear your feedback. Tell me in the comments below!

Share on Instagram or Facebook: When you make this project, share it on social media and tag me @sarahmaker_. We love to see what you make!

Have questions? Join the Facebook Group!

We hope this article was useful for you! If you have any additional questions, feel free to join my Facebook Group. We created this group for you to share pictures, ask questions, and help each other out.


Wednesday 31st of May 2023

Since when has a size 8 needle been assigned to 5mm - a size 8 is a 4mm needle!

Sarah Stearns

Thursday 1st of June 2023

Yes, in the UK a size 8 is 4mm, but in the US a size 8 is 5mm.