Everything I’ve learned about knitting continental style

About six weeks ago, I decided the time had come to teach myself to knit continental-style. I’ve been heavily, heavily resisting it for years, because I’m stubborn as all hell. It’s the same impulse that stopped me from watching the West Wing for years; loads of people told me I should try it, and so I flat refused.

Still, just as with the West Wing, I eventually caved. And having given continental knitting a fair old try, I thought it was time to share what I’ve learned in this adventure in changing my knitting style. Y’know, in case anyone else was considering doing the same.

But before we crack on with all that stuff, let’s have a little reminder about knitting styles.

What is continental knitting? And what have I been doing up until now?

To make a giant sweeping generalisation, there are two basic styles of knitting, and the difference is all in how you hold and tension your yarn.

Hands knitting a super chunky blanket English-style

In continental knitting, you tension your yarn in your left hand, and use the right needle to “pick” the yarn up and wrap it round. Your yarn is right where you need it to be, and you can in theory get some decent speed going because you’re minimising the movement you have to make.

The other main style is English-style knitting, where the yarn is held and tensioned in the right hand. This means you’re taking your yarn up to meet your needle and wrap it round to make a new stitch.

I’ve been knitting English-style, purely because it’s how I was taught. It’s also how I tend to teach people in my workshops; there’s less faffing around working out how to wrap your yarn to tension it properly, and it’s easier to get going with.

So why switch to continental knitting?

Before I say any more, I want to make one thing super clear;

I do not for a moment believe that there is a right or wrong way to knit. If you’re happy with the fabric you’re making and you’re not causing yourself a mischief, then you’re knitting the way that’s right for you.

Sure, I was knitting English-style until now, but even within that I was doing it differently from many other knitters I know. We all hold and tension our yarn differently, and you figure out what works best for you with practice. And that’s great.

You will never, ever get me telling someone their knitting style is wrong.

Having said all that though, I did think it was worth having a little adventure in continental style. Part of it was curiosity; was it really that much faster and more efficient? Part of it was for professional reasons, as it’s definitely helpful to be able to demonstrate continental knitting at workshops. And part of it was because, just like with the West Wing, I’d finally been worn down.

So what have I learned about continental knitting, and what’s my conclusion? Let me tell you…

It takes a fair old while to work out how to tension your yarn

Like, a long old while. I spent probably the first week of attempting continental just trying to figure this out, and wrapping my yarn round different combinations of fingers and at different distances from my needles.

I eventually found a setup that works for me; wrapped once round my ring finger, then back and over my index finger, and held pretty close to my needles. But for other knitters it’s totally different, and that’s all good.

(As a side note, I hear that working this tension thing out can be a lot easier if you’re a crocheter, as you’re used to tensioning yarn round your hand. But my crochet skills are pretty rudimentary, so that was not much help to me here.)

It’s easier to drop stitches when knitting continental

Oh my God, I’ve dropped so many stitches. SO many stitches. Probably three or four times as many as I do when using my standard English-style knitting. And annoyingly, I’m way less likely to notice that I’ve dropped a stitch until many rounds later – or perhaps not even until I’ve cast-off.

I’ve got very good at darning in dropped stitches at the end of my projects, and at picking them back up from several rows down. I’m sure this is something that could improve with time, but can I be arsed to put in the time to improve it? Not sure.

My tension is very different between continental and English style knitting

I first made the switch part way through a project, which is very much not a decision I would recommend. Turns out my tension is much tighter when knitting continental, and now that top will forever have a bit of a strange transition line in it where I switched from one to the other. I should probably have switched up my needle size, but I didn’t really notice the difference until quite a long way down. And yes, the worst of the difference has blocked out, but I’ll always know it’s there.

Continental purling is fiddly as all hell

We’re talking so fiddly that I can’t even be bothered trying to do it any more. The problem is you’re tensioning your yarn behind your needle, and to get it to the front to purl is just…well, it’s a right old ballache, really.

I know that the Norwegian purl is meant to be a superb solution to the continental purling problem, but I just don’t have the motivation to learn it. Perhaps one day, but not now. Definitely cannot be arsed now.

I have to look at my knitting again

Over the past few years I’ve got very used to knitting without looking – not for everything, but definitely for stocking stitch in the round. And with continental, I have to really look at it again. If I don’t, I have no idea if I’ve actually picked up the yarn or if I’m just knitting with air. As annoyances go, it’s a pretty minor one. But still. It’s annoying.

Continental style knitting does make colourwork a lot easier.

Colourwork knitting

I know, I’ve been pretty down on continental knitting so far. But I have to admit to one reason I’m very glad I’ve learnt; it’s going to make my colourwork knitting much easier.

Previously, I’ve been working a very inefficient method of picking up and dropping each yarn every time I switch colour when working in stranded colourwork. But now, I can have the contrast colour tensioned around my left hand and work those stitches continental, and can do classic English-style knitting with my main. And it has made things much smoother and quicker.

So am I a continental knitting convert?

No. No I am not. It has not grabbed my heart in the way that Josh Lyman did, and although I can see the advantages of it, I just…I like my old, clunky, inefficient English-style.

But, y’know, it was worth a shot.

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