Saturday, November 26, 2011

Pick or Throw?

In my endless quest to knit better - which is to say more efficiently and more ergonomically and (ahem) more quickly - I've begun to look into different methodologies.

Those of you who don't knit might be bored out of your mind to learn that there are 2 predominant schools: picking (aka Continental or German or Left-Handed) and throwing (English aka British or Right-Handed).

Apparently, English knitting is the more popular North American style. Continental is the style most Europeans use (except some British, who learned from those who were quite political about using the English method, particularly during the War).

I learned the English method as a teenager, when I practiced the art for all of 3 weeks, and promptly forgot everything. When I began knitting again in April of this year, I automatically reverted to this method which, intriguingly, came back to me very quickly. I find my tension even and I am rather fast. Note: I'm a proficient typist and the kind of dextrous, obsessive compulsive sort who grooves easily with the handwork of knitting. I also get a shitload of practice.

As you know, this fall I've undertaken a stupid goal - the knitting or baking of all my Xmas items (or purchase of the odd few on Etsy). Mainly, I'm knitting, which means I spend every moment that's not earmarked for work or sleep doing some sort of project.

My back hurts. It's tight as a body-builder's and the tension is squeezing up into my neck and head. I am often in a lot of pain lately. I mean, I'm no stranger to headaches (which are the result of muscular tension), but this is out of control. I've actually done relatively little knitting this week because I just can't manage the pain I'm already in - never mind whether or not the knitting is actually contributing to the problem. I have to assume it is.

Note: I do yoga to assist me in staying limber and to undercut the pain, but it's barely scratching the surface at this point.

Long story short, I don't imagine I will be knitting in this volume again. But what to do about the 3 gift projects I've got left (and my own work, going forward)? It occurred to me I should learn Continental style.

Apparently Continental knitting is more ergonomic, more efficient (because it requires less broad movement), easier for lefties and the method that the fastest of all knitters use (except for wacky-ass Cottage knitting - scroll down to see the awesome video in Mardel's post).

I've spent the day learning and, so far, I have to say it's not so fabulous. No knitting is more left- than right-handed IMO, because knitting requires both hands and both sides of the brain. I'm an ambidextrous leftie - I do almost everything other than write, predominantly right-handedly - so maybe it's not surprising that "right-handed" knitting is easier for me. Of course, maybe it's just what I'm used to. Intriguingly, it's the left side of my back that's really struggling. And when one knits English-style, it's the right side that really gets the workout by "throwing" they yarn over the right needle in the action of creating the stitch. I should mention, there's a lot of fluidity to the action when you get into the groove. It's not all willy-nilly, as the term implies.

Today I also learned from Katy that one can knit English-style without actually throwing the yarn. I'm intrigued to learn more about this. Is it known as "lever-style" (something I found while digging around on the net for a few minutes earlier today)? Can anyone point me in the direction of a video that shows this style?

But enough about me. Whatch'all do when you knit? English? Continental? Some other fringe method I've never heard of? Any thoughts or feelings about pain when knitting? About the type of tension or speed you achieve when doing one method over another? Please share!


  1. I know we already had a twitter-conversation about this earlier, but I had a few more thoughts I wanted to share on the subject!

    First: for anyone else who is curious, I did find a video link that closely resembles the way I knit. It seems that it's most commonly referred to as "flicking" - English style knitting without dropping the needle and throwing the yarn. It's not "cottage" or "lever" knitting because those styles involve holding the needles in a rather specific way that I don't. (The Yarn Harlot is a famous lever knitter.)

    (It may be obvious that I don't subscribe to the old standard that continental is better/faster ;) )

    Some other thoughts...

    1. Tension. Not just the tension of your stitches, but the tension in your hands and body. It pays to take the time to make sure you're not gripping your needles too tightly, or hunching up your shoulders while you knit, or holding your hands too high in the air, etc. Making sure your whole body is relaxed is helpful.

    2. Variety. It's helpful to have more than one project on the go, preferably in a different weight of yarn and needle size. The more variety, the less repetitive the stress on your hands/body. So, when knitting socks, also knit a worsted weight hat. Or something like that.

    3. Don't neglect proper ergonomics for the rest of your body. In addition to relaxing, remember the rules for good workplace ergnomics... joints bent at 90 degree angles, feet flat on the floor, sitting straight up, etc. I confess, I'm usually curled up on the couch, but if I'm trying to recover from RSI I'll pay more attention to this.

    3. Don't forget about referred pain. Sometimes, if you feel the pain on your right side, it actually means the muscles on the left side are tight, or vice versa. (This is the exactly phenomenon I experienced with my back a few years ago. Horrible pain on the left side, caused by horrible tension on the right side.)

    4. Sometimes, you really can just knit too much. Ergonomics can help, but ultimately I think some people's bodies just have a threshold for repetitive movement. This may or may not be true for you, but something to keep in mind and be open to the possibility. And sometimes, the only cure to an RSI is to go cold-turkey for a while and let things heal.

    Of course, these are only my opinions based on my experience, research, and what makes sense to me... your mileage may vary!

  2. When I decided to start knitting I embarked on trying the english method as everywhere I read and everyone I knew told me it was the easier one and best for beginners. I tried for months and months and just couldn't make sense of it. I decided then to try the continental method and it worked straight on. My tension needed working but it's fine now and my wrist always hurt aster a while but I don't think it's because of the method I use. I am right handed so have no clue about why continental is easier to me but hey…maybe it's in the blood as I am continental (European, that is, loll)

  3. Awesome comment, K! You are so right about referred pain. I do understand it but, in light of my body work, I do think the pain is originating on the left side (the side that seems to have problems for me in all instances). Of course, the right side knitting activity isn't helping things. I also work hard to be ergonomic in my positioning and to be relaxed in the process of knitting. This is why, ironically, as I try to knit continentally and in your flicking style, I find myself more stressed and hunchy than ever :-) Of course, practice is perfect. I think I might need to just fool around with all kinds of different methods for the next little while. I love your idea of working on different projects. When I do that, I find that things are less tense because I'm not holding the same weight of needles or yarn (or doing the same exact motions) again and again. Thanks for your feedback. Can't wait to hear what others have to say.

  4. It also sort of reminds me of something we were taught when I took a running clinic last year. A guy came in to teach us the basic idea behind forefoot running, but made a point of telling us that the most injuries happen when you're trying to change your gait. I'm sure it isn't QUITE the same thing, but I imagine any time you try and teach your body a different way of doing something, there's just a certain amount of physical stress involved in that learning process. Ultimately I think "baby steps" is the best philosophy... at least, as you modify your English style (hard to do baby steps when switching hands entirely!)

  5. Wow, this was a learning moment for me. I wasn't aware of the various types of knitting styles. Interesting! I learned years ago as a girl and imagine it was the English style. I'm sorry you're experiencing so much pain connected to your knitting. I hope switching your style helps:)

  6. I learned the English style as a little girl. Fast ward a few years, I decided to learn to knit again in grad school and discovered all kinds of knitting and sewing communities on the web and discovered the continental style of knitting. I had to learn how of course because I was convinced I'd knit faster. For me the knit stitch is much faster when I'm knitting continental and the purl stitch is much slower. My preferred method is the continental style but I can and do use both methods depending on the project. I'm going to watched the lever video to see if this will help speed up my knitting.

    Thanks for introducing this topic :) Knitting is a lot like sewing. You always learn something new.

  7. I learned English from my grandmother, but discovered Continental a few years ago when I was looking to increase my speed. I find it lightyears faster now that I got the hang of it. And it's super easy to slip between k and p for ribbing. Way faster than throwing, at least for me...

    I have discovered that some people are VERY tied to their style however and act like it's heresy to try another way.. ;)

    Super impressed about your knitting/baking pledge. This year, I decided there's no one here I like well enough to make a present for, and the cost of shipping presents back home is prohibitive.. So I store up the gifts I make, knowing I'll go home again in the next few years and can take them then.

  8. I knit continental and always have - it's what I learned when I was growing up. I find it a lot more efficient: you don't have to form each loop and I can control the tension a lot better. However, lots of people knit English, so clearly it can be done just fine...

    One thing that might help avoid pain is taking regular breaks, stretching and moving your hands in various ways. Don't knit for too long at a time and try to relax your shoulders, arms and hands. There is such a thing as knitting too much! If the gifts are making you knit too much, well... the gifts can also be given in January or February!

  9. I’m an English knitter all the way. I tried continental when I learned colour work but just couldn’t get the hang of it… it went along the lines of the impossibility of teaching old dogs new tricks. I experience pain from knitting when I obsess about a project (and knit for more hours that is healthy!) and find the pain similar to the pain I experience when I sit in front of a computer for 8 hours straight with no breaks. Your pain is likely compounded by the volume of knitting you’ve undertaken. Once the Christmas presents are done and you go back to average volumes, the pain will likely ease IMO, provided you take regular breaks, pay attention to posture and remember to stretch.

  10. Suzy: I think it probably would be better for wrist pain to knit continental. You know, when I first started, I got a lot of hand/wrist pain. I think it was a learning curve thing.

    Katy: Last night I continued to do some rows of knit continental-style. And when it got irritating, I just went back to my old ways. I have tried the flicking, but that seems even less intuitive - so far :-)

    Victoria: Thank you. I'm sure I'm going to get a grip on it (hahahaha).

    Carla: It's so true - no matter what you know, there's something new - and maybe better - around the corner.

    Steph: The thing I just can't seem to get - though I have watched a couple of videos - is how to go from knit to purl and back again. If I could get the hang of that, I'm sure that moss stitch would be a veritable breeze by comparison with how it goes English-style. Any tips?

    Gauss: You are so right. I'm quite focused, some might say a little obsessive, and I have to remind myself to stop. I was doing that much more intuitively when I wasn't worried about getting zillions of gifts done. But Jan is just fine, if it has to be.

    Andrea: I think average volumes are fine for my style. It's just this crazy cottage industry I've got going that's throwing the balance off completely. Hmmmm...

  11. I have knitted since I was a child and I learned English from my grandmother. I have tried Continental in the last few years, but have found that I can't keep my tension as well. I know this is probably practice, but I went back to English. I can go pretty fast and that is good enough for me. I find the amount of pain I experience from a lot of knitting varies with the size of the needle and project. I have more problems with my hands, so I find socks more comfortable. They are small enough and I can "flick" the yarn. I think the key is to work in small spurts. I do alot of my knitting on the bus and the amount of time works well. This doesn't get all my Christmas presents done, but it does keep me free of pain. Good luck.

  12. I didn't know about these two different knitting styles, thank you for explaining.

    As you know I've had so many ergonomic issues. I'm totally religious about not getting into more trouble. I don't know which of the knitting styles is better but I've learned your body will tell you when something's out of whack.

    For what it's worth, my chiropractor told me that it's important not to let the head and shoulders roll forward.

  13. I'm a very new knitter - I only know Continental. It took a day or two for me to master what my hands and fingers were supposed to be doing, but I haven't had any tension problems at all.

    My teacher knits in what she calls the Eastern European method - this is her demonstrating it on Youtube -
    She is incredibly fast. The method she taught me for continental also uses the middle finger to guide the yarn.

    For your pain, have you considered switching things up regularly? Since it is probably caused by the hours of repetitive motion, maybe it will help to switch between methods and also between projects so that you are using different needle sizes and stitch patterns. I hope you find some relief!

  14. I'm not a knitter—I tried for a couple of weeks, then gave it up—but I do find this question interesting. I had no idea there were varying styles.

    I say go with what doesn't hurt, and commit to a different gift-giving technique next year.

  15. VictoriaR: I can't get my tension right with continental either?! I figure, no rush...

    Susan: Mine has told me the same thing - and my yoga teachers, and my massage therapist. Nonetheless, easier said than done - esp. when crafting and blogging!

    Clio: I have to check out that link. It may be another hybrid. I find my index finger on the left hand to be rather inflexible about helping me to move the yarn. I do try to switch it up but I'm too obsessive, is the truth. It's a hard concept for me.

    E: Oh yeah. This gift plan ain't happening again anytime soon :-)