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Five Ways to Purl a Stitch

"I love purling" is a phrase you don't get to hear often. Or ever. It's very common for knitters to dislike purling and go to great lengths to avoid doing it. Even if you're a devout knitter, purling might be the necessary evil you have to do 50% of the time in your craft.


In this blog I explore what makes purling so annoying and the tension issues associated with it. You'll also learn five methods for purling a stitch, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.


In the post I'll focus on right-hand knitters only — that's around 80% of all knitters. If you're looking for resources for left-handed or mirror knitting, check out NobleKnits' YouTube playlist on Left Handed Knitting.


 

Purls of Wisdom

Purling is the backside of knitting — literally and figuratively. To do a purl stitch you quite literally have to reverse the motions of a knit stitch. The working yarn travels a longer path around the needle in a purl stitch which can lead to tension issues such as rowing out, uneven or unbalanced stitches.


Rowing out is inconsistent tension in which every other row is looser than the one above or below it. It's very common for knitters to have looser purl stitches relative to knit stitches, and this is caused by the simple fact that purls use up more yarn than knits. The extra bit of yarn needs to go somewhere: it creates larger stitches.


This phenomenon is further intensified with ribbing. When you switch from a knit to a purl stitch, the working yarn needs to first move from the back to the front of the needle to get to the right position for purling. You'll introduce extra slack to the stitch twice: once by moving the yarn to the front, then by wrapping it over the needle to work the purl stitch itself.


The tension differences between knits and purls can lead to uneven ribbing that manifests in different ways. In 1x1 ribbing one of the sides can look pristine and the other a hot mess. Why is it that it's always the wrong side that's better? I personally avoid regular 1x1 ribbing at all costs and always opt for twisted ribbing instead.


The extra bit of looseness introduced to the stitches each time you switch from a knit to a purl — or vice versa — can also affect 2x2 ribbing: one edge of the two-stitch knit column can look larger than the other. In the example above, it's always the second (left) of the two knits that looks enlarged.


But there's a way to make things better. If you're not happy with the way your purl stitches look and feel, try some other method! Here are the five most common ways to purl a stitch.


1. English



If you hold the working yarn in your right hand and knit using the throwing, flicking, or lever-knitting style, this is most likely the purl stitch you're used to doing. To purl a stitch in the English style, move the working yarn to the front of the work between the needles, insert the needle into the next stitch from right to left, wrap the yarn counter-clockwise over the working needle, then push it through the stitch.



In the flicking style it's the same steps but you don't let go of the right-hand needle while maneuvering the working yarn.



In the lever-knitting style the working needle rests in the space between the index finger and thumb, freeing the rest of fingers of the right hand to move the yarn.


In addition to rowing out or uneven ribbing explained above, the English-style purl can also lead to another tension issue: unbalanced stitches. This is a phenomenon where one leg of the stitch is looser than the other, creating a look where the stitches seem to lean to one side. To the untrained eye this can sometimes resemble twisted stitches but the causes of these two phenomena are different: unbalanced stitches are a tension issue, twisted stitches are a structural issue.


As a remedy to loose purls, Patty Lyons suggests (page 159 in her Knitting Bag of Tricks) a hack called a "lazy purl" in which the working yarn takes a shorter path around the needle, making a tighter stitch. What this really is, is an Eastern purl.


2. Eastern

In the Russian or Eastern uncrossed knitting styles, stitches are mounted on the needles differently to English or Continental-style knitting. Whereas in Western-style knitting the right leg is in front of the needle and the left leg behind, in Eastern-style knitting the stitch mount is reversed: left leg in front, right leg behind. Combination knitting mixes Western- and Eastern-mounted stitches.


Want to learn more about different knitting styles and stitch mounts? Read this post: Categorizing Knitting Styles.



To do an Eastern-style purl, the working yarn is wrapped the shorter path, or clockwise, around the working needle. For many knitters this is an easier action to perform and, as said, it takes up less yarn which can result in neater, tighter purls.

Many beginning knitters automatically gravitate to the Eastern purl for its simplicity. But there's a catch: wrapping the working yarn clockwise (instead of counter-clockwise) results in a reverse-mounted stitch with the left leg in front and right leg behind. This can lead to twisted stitches if the stitches are not worked through the leading leg on the following row.


3. Continental



If you hold the working yarn in your left hand and are a Continental knitter, this is most likely the purl stitch you've been taught. Like in the English purl, the working yarn is moved to the front of the work, then wrapped around the needle counter-clockwise — except this motion is done with the left hand instead.


Continental purling can be faster for some knitters since there's less movement involved compared to the throwing, flicking, or lever methods. But the issue of the yarn traveling a longer path still remains.


English, Eastern, and Continental purls are all done by first moving the working yarn to the front. If you're doing any kind of stitch pattern that involves both knits and purls (such as ribbing, moss, or seed stitch), the repetitive movement of flipping the yarn back and forth can get tedious. The Norwegian purls solves this issue.


4. Norwegian

The Norwegian purl looks very convoluted and inefficient at first glance but once you master it, it becomes like second nature. It's the purling method I was taught as a youngling on third grade.



In the Norwegian purl, the working yarn stays at the back of the work the whole time, eliminating one step that adds extra slack to purl stitches. The yarn is first scooped with the right needle tip and the needle inserted into the stitch from right to left. The needle is pivoted to the back of the work to scoop the yarn a second time, then pivoted to the front again, and finally the pushed through the stitch to the back. It's a lot of steps!


For some people this method of purling can result in improved tension. In my opinion the biggest advantages of the Norwegian purl come into play when alternating between knit and purl stitches on the same row. It makes ribbing and brioche a lot faster!


5. Portuguese

This method of purling is the least like the other purling methods due to the unique way of tensioning yarn in the Portuguese knitting style. The working yarn is wrapped around the back of the neck or through a special knitting pin attached to the front of whatever you're wearing. Because of this, the working yarn is already at the front of the work.



To do a Portuguese purl, insert the working needle into the next stitch from right to left, flick the yarn with your left thumb over the needle, and push it to the back through the stitch. Once you get the hang of this purling method, the thumb movement is minimal and very fluid.


Portuguese knitting is considered the most hand-friendly and ergonomic of all knitting styles since it doesn't rely on tensioning the yarn with your hand and fingers. It minimizes repetitive strain which also allows for more consistent tension in your knitting. The Portuguese purl, in particular, can be an option worth exploring if you're faced with miles of reverse stockinette or if the other purling methods are hard on your fingers.


 

Some knitters spend the entire knitting careers unwilling to learn purling. They'll stick to garter stitch projects, always knitting in the round, or even resort to steeking to avoid knitting back and forth.


Exploring different purling techniques may not only improve your efficiency as a knitter but it can also add a new level of enjoyment to the process. My opinion is that if you dislike purling, you just haven't found the right method yet. Once you do, you may even learn to like it!


 

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Do you hate purling? Perhaps you just haven't found the right method yet! In this blog post I explore what makes purling so annoying and the tension issues associated with it: rowing out, uneven ribbing, and unbalanced stitches. You'll also learn five methods for purling a stitch: English, Eastern, Continental, Norwegian, and Portuguese. Embrace the purl! #knitting #purling #purl #purlstitch #knittingtechniques

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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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