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Categorizing Knitting Styles

When you first learned to knit, did you think you were doing it following a certain knitting style? Probably not. With the help of YouTube and video tutorials it has become increasingly obvious that there are a bunch of different knitting styles all over the world. The way you or I knit might not be the same way everyone else does it.

What's your knitting style? Would you mind help quench my curiosity by filling out this short survey?

Categorizing knitting styles

First dimension: How do you hold your yarn?

The usual way to categorize knitting styles is to divide them into two camps: Continental or English style. That's not the whole truth, though, but let's start with the most common ones.

Continental (or European or German) knitting is a knitting style in which the working yarn is held in the hand opposite to the working needle. If you're a right-handed knitter, the right-hand needle is your working needle and the working yarn is in the left hand. To form a new stitch, you scoop the working yarn with the tip of the working needle.

Continental knitting is colloquially referred to as picking because the working yarn is just picked up with the needle. According to Wikipedia, continental knitting became widespread in Europe in the early 19th century but fell out of favor in English-speaking countries after World War II because of its association with Germany.

English knitting is generally considered the most common way of knitting in English-speaking countries, such as the UK, the US, and Australia. In the English style, working yarn is held in the same hand as the working needle. If you're a right-handed knitter, the working yarn is also in your right hand. A new stitch is formed by letting go of the working needle and, using that same hand, wrapping the working yarn around the needle tip.

English knitting is commonly referred to as throwing because of this motion of throwing the yarn around the needle. This is also the reason why English knitting is considered to be the slower method of the two main knitting styles.

The next two styles land somewhere between continental and English knitting. They are so similar they're sometimes clumped into one but I think they are ever so slightly different from each other.

Flicking is English knitting with one exception: you never let go of your grip on the working needle. Instead, you use the same hand to hold on to the needle while, simultaneously, flicking the working yarn around the needle tip using just the index finger.

Lever knitting, also known as pivot knitting or Irish Cottage knitting, uses the same flicking motion. This knitting style is often done on straight needles with the blunt end of the needle secured in the knitter's armpit. The needle can also be supported on the hook between the thumb and index finger, which acts as a pivot point (or lever, hence the name). For this, the needle is held in the pen grip (under the needle) rather than in the knife grip (over the needle) that's more common in other knitting styles. Lever knitting is considered to be one the fastest knitting styles, used among others by The Yarn Harlot.

Shetland knitting (also known as Scottish knitting, the Old Style, or from the hip knitting) is very similar to lever knitting. This knitting style is also done on straight needles. The knitter uses a special knitting belt on their hip into which the other end of needle is tucked, holding it in place and freeing hands for movement. Not that there's much movement required — speed knitting master Hazel Tindall uses the Shetland knitting style.

Portuguese knitting (thumb flicking or Bosnian/Balkan/Andean/Incan knitting) is common in Portugal. The same method can also be found in the Balkans in Eastern Europe. In Portuguese knitting the working yarn is tensioned by wrapping it around the back of the neck or on the lapel with a Portuguese knitting pin. The other end of the yarn going to the ball is held on the same hand as the working needle. Stitches are formed by flicking the yarn with the opposite thumb.

Portuguese knitting requires only minimal movements with the thumb which is why it's great in helping avoid repetitive stress injuries. The Portuguese purl is also considered one of the easiest ways to make a purl stitch.

Phew, that was quite a lot! Have you identified your knitting style yet? If not, keep reading.

What's your knitting style? Would you mind help quench my curiosity by filling out this short survey?

Second dimension: How are your stitches mounted?

But that's not all! How you hold your yarn is just one aspect of knitting style. Another is stitch orientation or stitch mount, that is, the position in which stitches sit on the needle. Stitch mount is independent of knitting style but some combinations are more common than others, as the table at the top of the post suggests.

In the Western mount stitches are oriented to the left, with right leg in front of needle and left leg behind.
In the Western mount stitches are oriented to the left, with right leg in front of needle and left leg behind.

A stitch has two legs so there are basically two stitch mount options. When your stitches are on the needle with the right leg in front and left leg behind, that's the Western mount. As the name would suggest, this is the most common stitch mount for knitters located in the Western Europe but also in areas with a history of Western European immigrants, such as North America and Australia. This is also sometimes called the counter-clockwise mount because that's the position your stitches end up in when the working yarn is wrapped around the needle counter-clockwise.

In the Eastern mount stitches are oriented to the right, with left leg in front of needle and right leg behind.
In the Eastern mount stitches are oriented to the right, with left leg in front of needle and right leg behind.

The other option is Eastern or clockwise mount. In the Eastern mount the left leg of the stitch is in front of the needle and the right leg behind. The stitches end up in this orientation when the working yarn is wrapped around the needle in the clockwise direction.

As this is the polar opposite to the Western mount, most Western-style knitters refer to this as the reverse mount. But for Eastern-style knitters, such as knitters in the Eastern Europe, Arab countries, Spain, and South America, it's just a regular mount. For Western-style knitters it looks as if Eastern-stylers are knitting into the back loop of the stitch when, in fact, stitches are formed by working into the leading leg. (It's just located behind the needle.) No stitches are twisted which is why Eastern style knitting is also known as the Eastern uncrossed method.

But wait! There's another option... or two. What if you mixed your stitch mounts? That's what combination knitting is: combining both Western and Eastern stitch mounts. The way stitches are oriented on the needle depends on which stitch — knit or purl — you're working.

Traditional combination knitters produce their knit stitches in the counter-clockwise direction, that is, their knit stitches are done using the Western mount. Purl stitches, however, are done in the clockwise direction, resulting in an Eastern mount on the needle. Combination knitters are therefore flipping back and forth in stitch mounts and must take this into account so that their stitches don't accidentally get twisted. Continental combination knitting is the usual way of knitting in Russia, which is why it's sometimes also referred to as Russian knitting.

Reverse combination knitting, which is much rarer, is the opposite of this. Stitches are mounted in the Eastern way (left leg in front) after knitting them and in the Western (right leg in front) after purling.

The lost dimension: Right- or left-handed knitting?

Most of the writings on knitting, knitting instructions and tutorials, even knitting patterns are written for right-handed knitters. It is not uncommon — at least in the past — that left-handed kids were not allowed to knit with their dominant hand leading, either because teachers didn't have the capabilities to teach them left-handed knitting or because right-hand dominant attitudes said they should just buck up and do it like everyone else.

If you're a left-handed knitter, you need to do everything as a mirror image to a right-handed person or to right-handed knitting patterns. In fact, left-handed knitting is sometimes also referred to as mirror knitting or reverse knitting. For example, if the pattern refers to making a M1L you need to flip this around in your head and do a M1R instead.

When patterns refer to working stitches off the left-hand needle and onto the right, left-handed knitters are obviously doing this in the other direction. That's why I like to use handedness-neutral terminology and refer to the needles as working needle and holding needle instead, to make pattern instructions universal for all knitters.

How common are different knitting styles?

Other than anecdotal evidence to suggest that picking is more common in Western and Northern Europe, throwing in the UK and the US, and Portuguese knitting in, well, Portugal, there really hasn't been research into the issue of knitting styles. We don't actually know whether this is true or just (knitting) wives' tales.

One thing that's certain is the prevalence of right-hand dominant people in the world. It's been long established that around 9 in 10 people are right handed. Of the remaining 10%, approximately 9% are left handed and the last 1% ambidextrous, that is, equally adept at using both hands. Does the same statistic apply to knitters, though?

That's what I want to find out! Will you help me? I've put together a short, 5-question survey on knitting styles, right- and left-hand dominance, stitch mounts, and knitting direction. It'll take just a couple of minutes to fill!

Me personally? I'm a right-handed Western-style continental knitter with a Norwegian purl.


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Categorizing knitting styles

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1 Comment

I think another aspect that you didn't touch on, but are aware of because you purl Norwegian style is that every stitch with every hold and every mount can be done with the yarn in the back or in the front. You can knit with the yarn in the front and purl with the yarn in the back. Like you, I like keeping the yarn in the back. But I do know that some knitters who usually purl in the front, while doing patterns that require many purls and few knits do their knits in the front to save time. But I don't do the Norwegian purl because my stitches are mounted Eastern style. I'm a right handed continental hold…

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Susanna Winter is a knitwear designer, creating timeless and elegant pieces with clean lines. She has been knitting for over 20 years, knit blogging since 2007, and designing knitting patterns professionally since 2016.

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