As we’ve eluded to in previous posts, winter on the homestead is the perfect time to engage in pursuits there’s no time to do during the busy summer months. Knitting is a pleasurable hobby but for the self-reliant homesteader it’s an invaluable skill that’s part of a well rounded basket of survival skills; one that you can draw upon in hard times to help keep the family clothed. Familiarizing yourself with basic knitting equipment increases your level of self-reliance and may give you an edge in the future.
While there’s a lot of paraphernalia available to any knitter, the fact remains that all that’s needed to get started are 2 things: needles and yarn.
There are 3 types of needles used in knitting: flat, double points and circular. Which is used depends on what is being made and in some instances how the item is being constructed. All 3 types come in a range of sizes from 0 (the thinnest diameter) up to size 10 or even larger. I have a pair of flat needles that are size 17 for example. I should mention there are various systems for categorizing needle sizes: the American system, metric and British. I’ve always used the American system where the smaller the number, the smaller the needle diameter.
To use flat needles, a needle is held in each hand and the knitter works back and forth. Assuming you’re right handed, the needle in the left hand has the stitches on it. The needle in the right hand is empty. As they are worked, the stitches are transferred from the left hand needle to the needle in the right hand. Once the left needle is empty and the right one is full, you have completed 1 row of knitting and the needles are switched such that the full one is now in the left hand and the empty needle is in the right hand ready to repeat the process. The end product is a flat piece of knitting. Note: if you’re left handed, the process would be reversed.
As the name implies, double pointed needles have points on both ends. They usually come in sets of 4. Stitches are placed on 3 of the needles and the empty one is used to start knitting once the stitches are “joined”. Once the stitches from the first full needle are knitted onto what was the empty needle, the needle that was full is now empty and it becomes the one you knit onto and so forth around and around. Double points are used to work items in the round meaning there is no back and forth as with flat needles but rather you go round and round in circles in the same direction. This creates a tube of sorts or round piece of work that is seamless. To create the same shaped tube with flat needles requires sewing a seam so the flat piece becomes round. Double points are used to make socks, hats, gloves and even sleeves that come out round so therefore don’t have to be seamed as sleeves worked on flat needles do.
Despite their name circular needles aren’t actually round but rather can be used to make circular items that are large, skirts and sweaters for example. They can also be used to finish the edging around the collar of a sweater. In essence they are 2 needles that are joined by a flexible piece of plastic which acts to extend the length of the needles. They can come in varying lengths. One good use for the shorter ones is to make hats.
In addition to being able to make large round pieces, you can also work back and forth on circular needles as if they were flat needles by not “joining” the stitches after they’re cast on. Why would you want to do that? Mostly to make large flat items such as afghans that require large numbers of stitches. No way would all the stitches required to make an afghan fit on a standard flat needle.
Yarns come in a mind boggling array of colors, textures, thicknesses, weight and composition. There are synthetic fibers derived from petroleum such as acrylic, nylon and polyester, natural fibers such as cotton and wool as well as man made fibers made from a cellulose base such as rayon and acetate. Selecting yarn for a project may seem an impossible task. Here’s some hints.
Cotton yarn is perfect for kitchen dishcloths. I make these all the time for myself, my family, as well as for gifts. Dishcloths make a good first project for the beginning knitter. They are small, but still allow for learning the basic mechanics of knitting. And hey, if you make mistakes, who cares. It’s a dishcloth, right? Cotton yarn can also be used to make clothing such as sweaters.
As far as I’m concerned, nothing beats wool for warmth. If you have sheep or angora rabbits or goats on your homestead you have a ready supply of natural fiber for spinning and knitting. But be aware different breeds of sheep produce wool with different characteristics. Some may produce wool that’s soft enough for baby items while others produce wool that’s coarse and suitable for making rugs only while others produce wool that’s somewhere in between.
If you don’t have any animals on your homestead that produce fiber, don’t despair. Fleece, the woolly covering on sheep and goats, can be purchased and in fact that is exactly what I did with the first fleece I ever spun into yarn. However, once it became known that I was a spinner, I had people gladly, and sometimes thankfully giving me sheared fleece from their critters that they didn’t want.
Wool yarn can be used to make everything from sweaters, skirts, hats, mittens, gloves, scarves and socks. Regarding socks, in my experience, socks I knit from 100% wool yarn that I hand spun do not have the same longevity as socks made from a yarn that’s a blend of wool and a synthetic fiber. Namely the heel wears out very quickly. To combat this, I sometimes work the heel of my homespun wool socks with an acrylic or nylon type yarn.
If you’d rather purchase wool yarn, you can buy wool yarn that is 100% wool or a blend with synthetic fibers making the yarn washable as well as more durable. A blend such as this would be good for socks. Read the label for washing information. Yarn that is 100% wool may have to be very carefully hand washed or perhaps dry cleaned. I carefully hand wash all our wool sweater and socks by letting them soak in warmish water, squeeze them gently with my hands, then run them through the wringer of my old fashioned wringer washer. To rinse I use the same temperature water as the items were washed in, gently squish them with my hands again and repeat the wringing operation. I don’t agitate the items with the agitator of the machine for fear I will felt the wool pieces.
Yarns that have a lot of texture or are variegated in color are best suited for items made in a plain, simple pattern so the yarn is the focus. For fancy, complicated patterns, use a plain yarn so the pattern stands out. Otherwise the fancy pattern and fancy yarn compete with each other and sort of cancel each other out.
Lastly think about the item you want to make. If it’s a piece of clothing, what type of garment will it be? A sweater, shawl, a fashion scarf or a utilitarian scarf, a vest, a pair of socks, etc.? What kind of yarn would be comfortable to wear? Is durability an issue as it would be for socks or not a concern since the item is basically decorative and won’t be subjected to hard use? Will the piece be worn next to the skin or will something such as a turtleneck be worn under it? The idea is you wouldn’t want to make a baby outfit out of thick and scratchy rug yarn.
Lastly you need to match the needle size to the yarn you’re using. For example, it would be impossible to knit thick, bulky yarn on size 1 needles. Patterns will indicate the size needle to use but this is only a guide, a starting point that is used to knit a sample gauge swatch which will be the subject of another post.
Other equipment that is useful is a tape measure or ruler, cable needles for working cables (not essential but it makes the job easier), stitch holders (they look like giant safety pins), markers (these round do dads slip on the needles to serve as reminders to perform a function at that location-increase, decrease, work a pattern repeat etc) and a gadget called a “Knit Check”.
I seldom use my Knit Check to check my gauge although a lot of knitters use it for that purpose but I do use it to check the size of needles particularly my double points and circular ones. The flat needles have a nubbin on the end that specifies the needle size but the other types do not. When in doubt the Knit Check comes to the rescue. It has holes in it that are labeled with needle sizes. To determine the size of a needle insert it in the holes. If it won’t go through keep working your way down the line until you come to the first hole the needle passes through. That is the needle size.
And the last bit of equipment that I always use is a pencil and a piece of scrap paper to keep track of the number of rows I’ve worked. For all I know, these days there may be an app for this but pencil and scrap paper work just fine.
As a self-reliant homesteader, consider arming yourself with the basic knitting equipment as given above. Doing so is another step to greater self-reliance.
Until next time, keep the dream alive! We wish you a great day!
Ron and Johanna
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