Lisa’s List: 8 Ways to Knit and Why You’d Want To

Recently, I was sitting in a meeting with a bunch of editors, and Hannah Baker was to my right. As happens in many meetings at Interweave HQ, she was knitting. Now Hannah has a really interesting way of holding her yarn; she is a right-hand thrower and she wraps the working yarn several times around the base of her index finger, tensioning the yarn as she works. Her knitting is lovely—she designed and made the Harvey Pullover for the cover of Interweave Knits Fall, in fact. For me, I can’t get the yarn to slide smoothly and quickly enough around my finger for this position to work. I’m a thrower and I carry the yarn over my middle finger, which is also rather unusual—most throwers use the tip of their index fingers.

How do you knit? What are the basic methods of knitting? There are several standard ways of carrying the working yarn, and of course weirdoes like Hannah and I develop our own curious variations on those. Here’s an overview of the best positions for different needs; perhaps there’s something new you’d like to try tonight!

1. English Style/Right-Handed Throwing

This style of knitting calls for carrying the working yarn in the right hand and wrapping it around the right-hand needle, requiring some right-arm motion to get it in place (hence “throwing”). This method is common in the U.S.

What’s it Good For?

People who voted for Brexit. JK JK. It’s good for basic knitting with one color for people, English and otherwise, who are comfortable with right-handed dominance and aren’t entering speed-knitting contests.

2. Continental/Left-Hand Knitting

Cross the English Channel and, apparently, people do things backwards. Continental knitters or “pickers” carry the yarn in their left hands, keeping it consistently tensioned in the space between needle tips and forefinger, which allows them to pick the yarn with the right needle. Learn how to knit Continental style with this awesome video.

What’s it Good For?

Continental knitting is very efficient and requires little movement, so it’s generally considered the fastest method. It’s celebrated for its usefulness in stranded colorwork, for which you can carry both colors in the left hand (see #6), toggling them back and forth on separate fingers as you pick the color you need. Continental knitting does require using that bizarre appendage, the left hand, in a way right-handed people aren’t accustomed to, so it can be awkward to learn. Plus, between you and me, pickers can be a LITTLE SELF-RIGHTEOUS about their method.

3. Portuguese Knitting/Thumb Flicking

This one’s a hoot, because it requires carrying the yarn AROUND YOUR NECK. Or on a brooch pinned to your chest. The Portuguese apparently thought their Iberian neighbors weren’t innovative enough. This style isn’t common in Europe, but it is moreso in Brazil. Andrea Wong is Brazilian and is the foremost teacher of the method; check out her DVD and grab a Portuguese knitting pin while you’re at it. You’re in for a real entertaining evening, all alone in your house with your yarn on your head. Party animal.

What’s it Good For?

PURLING. Purling is easy and fast with Portuguese knitting because of the way you flick your thumb and pick the yarn from that flick, in front of the work. Watch editor Meghan Babin demo Portuguese purling in this rad video we made in the conference room.

knitting techniques

Click on the photo to watch Meghan explain the finer points of Portuguese knitting.

4. Look, Mom, Both Hands

knitting techniques

Using both hands to carry yarns in two-color knitting. Photo by Jennifer Stone.

So now we’re getting into methods specific to multi-color knitting. While knitting Fair Isle or stranded colorwork, you can carry one yarn in the right hand and one in the left hand, so you’re never dropping one color. The left-hand color will be picked as for Continental and the right, thrown as for English. This sort of English knitting might make you a more efficient thrower, as the picking in the left hand can train your brain to pick more and wrap less with the right (to the extent that this is physically possible).

What’s it Good For?

Two-color knitting for people who have trouble managing both colors in the left hand.

5. Two-Color Throwing

This might sound like some awesome ninja offensive move, but it just means holding two colors in the right hand, on separate fingers, and keeping them both in play as you knit English style (rather than dropping the color you’re not using).

What’s it Good For?

Two-color knitting for English knitters who just can’t go picker, either for reasons of ability or isolationist policies when it comes to their hands.

Two-color throwing (both yarns in right hand) and two-color picking (both yarns in left hand). Photos by Jennifer Stone.

6. Two-Color Picking

As mentioned above under Continental knitting, this is the method you should master if you knit a lot of Fair Isle. Hold both colors in the left hand, managed on separate fingers, and zoom across your work. The yarns don’t get twisted, you maintain color dominance, and there’s no dropping and picking up colors, or awkward shoulder gyrations as you try to manage both colors in the right hand. Consider two-color picking the Olympian level of knitting. And if that’s not enough for you, try three-color picking. You might need a thimble*. I don’t know, I haven’t tried it. I bow out here.

Using a thimble to manage two colors on the left index finger. Photo by Jennifer Stone.

*You can use a knitting thimble for colorwork knitting on any finger, which keeps the strands separate but only requires one finger. Learn the different ways to manage your yarns in colorwork knitting with Daniela Nii’s video or her step-by-tutorial in the Spring 2014 issue of Interweave Knits. You will notice she includes two more methods over what I’ve covered here—two-color throwing and two-color picking whereby you carry BOTH colors over just one finger, rather than separate fingers. So this is secretly a list of 10 knitting positions. Bonus.

7. Combination Knitting

Now this technique is more about how you form a stitch and less how you hold the yarn, but it is a style of knitting. Annie Modesitt explains the method here pretty well; the hallmark of the style is a twisted purl that needs to be righted on the return knit row.

What’s it Good For?

Proponents claim this is a fast method that produces very even stockinette fabric. When working in the round, you do have to remember not to work in the back of the knit stitches, which is required in flat knitting to correct the twisted purls, but in the round, there are no purls, so the knit stitches should be worked conventionally. Or, you end up with twisted stitches. Combination knitters are often accosted in public by crazy-eyed knitters shrieking “You’re doing it wrong!” so this method is GREAT for getting noticed and making new friends.

8. From the Hip

If you’ve ever gazed with wonder at an old photo or illustration of a Shetland woman knitting while standing in a field, you might have noticed that one needle protrudes from her belly. Traditional knitters of northern England and Scotland used a knitting belt, and some still do, today. You poke a needle (double-ended most likely) into the section of the knitting belt near the right hip, so the right hand is not burdened with supporting the needle, but free to manipulate the yarn. The knitting-belt style is less about how you manage the yarn and more about how you manage the work as it grows, but it does affect what your right hand is doing, so I’m including it.

What’s it Good For?

Keeping your hands busy while watching o’er your flock. Or knitting while standing, essentially. (You don’t have to stand to use one, though.) Proponents claim the knitting belt makes for faster knitting, less fatigue on the right appendage, and really fun conversations while waiting in line at the bank. June Hemmons Hiatt shows off some knitting belts and talks more about the method here.

There’s a good chance that there are other ways of managing yarn out there that I have missed—I have heard of someone who tensions the yarn with their toes, for instance. And people use wooden yarn tensioners, yarn bowls, and other tools to hold the yarn in place and manage its tension as it comes off the ball. There’s such a variety of knitting styles in the world and from person to person. To quote the slogan for my favorite candy, “there’s no wrong way to knit a stitch.”

Okay, the tech editors probably disagree with me there, but you get the idea. Find your groove, shake it up once in a while, and hey, maybe try to invent a whole new way of knitting. How would an astronaut knit? Zero-gravity knitting will require a whole different approach to yarn management. Get ready, it’s a long way to Mars, and you’re gunna need a project.

Pick & Throw and Flick, Y’all!


(Originally posted on February 2, 2017; updated on May 8, 2019.)

Try Something New!


  1. Helen K at 11:00 am February 7, 2017

    I’m a right handed thrower who uses the “pencil” position for speed and efficiency. I weave the yarn through my fingers, over index, under middle, over ring, under little. For two coloured knitting, which I struggle with, I use one strand in each hand. I try to weave the yarns in my left hand, but still have issues with tension. I originally learned picking from my Polish mother but was taught throwing at school in England. I pick on the rare occasions I use a crochet hook, I’ve seen people throwing with that.

  2. Christal S at 11:25 am February 9, 2017

    No one seems to take note that traditional British knitting uses the LEFT needle to place stitches over the right tip, so the yarn can efficiently be “thrown” with the right hand. The way I see Americans throw, they might as well be one-handed, doing the needle movement AND the yarn movement with the right hand. No wonder it’s so tiring! The British use both hands actively, just like the people who hold the yarn in the left hand (of which I am one). I have tensioned yarn in both hands, which is necessary for knitting two socks simultaneously, a la Tolstoy’s observation in “War and Peace.” ( One sock is knit inside the other; details were in Piecework, I believe.) In this case I was exclusively purling with the right hand and knitting with the left. Doing two color work with a yarn in each hand is too difficult for me to tension properly, and I routinely hold both colors in the left.

  3. Lonnie C at 6:17 pm March 18, 2017

    I tried Portuguese knitting. Though making a purl stitch becomes a piece of cake (just a thumb flick), making a knit stitch becomes more complicated. Any speed gained in simpler purling is lost in more complex knitting, so don’t change to Portuguese to become a faster knitter. The real real advantage of Portuguese appears to be in doing stranded color work.

    I tried Continental but discovered I knit right hand lever style faster than the top speed I was ever able to reach using Continental (It’s a myth that all Continental knitters knit faster than all English knitters). Since it wasn’t faster and I didn’t like it, I stopped using Continental.

    I do color work holding both yarns in my right hand, but not as shown in your picture. There’s a more efficient way to hold it, at least for me. I can do colorwork pretty fast, but make myself go slow because I often lose my place in a chart if I work too fast.

    It’s good to try more than one knitting style, though most of us will eventually settle on one that suits us. In the end it’s all about personal preference and what feels most comfortable. We’re more likely to reach our personal best knitting speed with whatever style is the best fit for each of us, no matter which one it is.

  4. Jenny C at 7:55 pm July 22, 2017

    My left-handed mother taught my left-handed self to be a thrower. I recently taught myself (after 50 years of throwing) continental knitting. It felt awkward at first but I gained speed so quickly, I wish I had learned this method as a child. Although I am VERY left-handed, my arthritis prevents me from holding my pointer finger straight. When I know, my hands sort of “rock” back and forth and I flick the yarn in my left hand over the needle in the right. When I purl I grab the yarn between my thumb and forefinger and work that way. It slows me down a little but keeps me a happy lefty.

Post a Comment