Car Transmissions and Knitting Continental

I learned how to operate a manual car transmission at the same time I learned how to drive. I’m thankful for this nowโ€”โ€”especially having lived in Maine for ten years, where driving stick is a winter survival skillโ€”โ€”but at the time it was a pain in the butt. It was hard enough figuring out what to do about the fact that there were other cars on the road besides the one I was driving; having to wrestle with my own car added a layer of difficulty that almost made me swear eternal faith to my bicycle. I persevered, though, and now the only times I wish I drove automatic is when I’m stuck in traffic.

Knitting Continental is like driving stick. I wish I’d learned it at the same time that I learned to knit. Those of you who are skilled at Continental will probably disagree, but there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s more complicated than English. With Continental, the fingers of the hand that holds the yarn actually have separate, individual tasks (two to hold the yarn, one in between to keep the stitch in place), thus making a consistent gauge dependent on more factors than with English. Here’s a section of a sweater that I knit before I started making the switch to Continental:

And here’s a section from an uncompleted, post-switch sweater:

I know it’s all matter of practice, and with time my Continental knitting will be just as even as my English. The problem is that I didn’t have to practice for English. Consistent gauge was mystically bestowed upon me by the gods that watch over new knitters. Those gods have not been as generous towards my Continental. Maybe it’s a different set of gods altogether, and I just haven’t figured out how to appease them. Or maybe there are no gods for Continental at all, in which case I’m in for my first existential knitting crisis.

So tell me: did you learn Continental when you learned to knit? If not, how did it affect your gauge when you did learn?


  • Erika says:

    Oo! Oo! Me! I learned Continental when I learned to knit, and I am very glad I did.

    I actually use my left thumb to manage the stitches on the needle, guide the incoming (right-hand) needle to its spot, and push down the yarn in front when purling.

    I understand most people use their index finger for this (according to what I’ve seen personally), but the thumb works well for me. (Possibly because I have short, stubby little fingers, and they simply can’t reach.)

  • May says:

    I learned contintental very recently and it’s ages faster than english but my gauge still needs some work. However, it’s not very noticable. In fact, when I’m working on rib patterns, my tension is actually BETTER since there’s not all that yarn throwing.
    The only thing that seem to plague my knitting that’s cropped up is how I’m managing to twist stitches on occasion. But I’m not that much of a perfectionist and I’ll eventually figure it out and fix it. In the meantime, practise makes perfect. The last project I did, I couldn’t do increases continential but this project I could. It’s baby steps all over again but it’s well worth it in my opinion.

  • Ashley says:

    Oh, I’m SO with you. I learned to knit from my aunt, and when she sat down to teach me I remember her saying “I wish I had learned how to knit Continental when I learned to knit, because it’s so much faster, but it’s too late for me to learn now [she’s been knitting for 50+ years] so all I can teach you is English.” And now whenever I teach somebody, I say “I wish I had learned Contintental…”

    I’m practicing, but my gauge is still all wonky too, and it’s frustrating, because like you I had Magic Consistent Gauge from the git-go w/English. Sigh.

  • Laura says:

    I sort of learned Continental. I learned to knit by feeding the yarn from the left, but I was taught to stop and wrap it. I taught myself to knit Continental the way you’re “supposed to” not that long ago and it did mess up my gauge at first. But it really didn’t take that long for it to work itself out. Maybe one project.

    (Erika, I purl with my thumb too).

  • anne says:

    I learned quasi-continental by watching a friend who taught herself. Since my method is “wrong,” I wouldn’t comment, except my stitches are even. So with that caveat, this is what I do:
    Left hand holds yarn between pointer and middle fingers, with yarn draping over my palm to the yarn ball.
    Right hand inserts needle into knit stitch and dips needle down (not far). Left hand pointer and middle fingers lift slightly, right needle catches yarn and completes stitch.
    Tensioning controlled by the two fingers holding the yarn. I don’t wrap it anywhere else.
    Every few stitches, my right-hand pointer finger pulls the stitches down the right needle to keep things neat.
    I do have to stop to push more stitches up the left hand needle every 10 stitches or so (guessing there), so I’m not the fastest knitter around by a long shot.

    (newbie blogger here — I have great respect for what you do! still figuring out this html crap)

  • Rachel says:

    Im in the process of attempting to learn continental, and I, like you, had consistent gauge bestowed upon me by the knitting gods. Not so with continental. And, the yarn likes to stick on my pinky. A multitude of problems. Granted, I have 4 feet to practice (Im working on a Dr Who scarf and was about 50% done when I decided to try the switch)….but the process is knitting hell. Like…cheap acrylic hell.

  • Kourtney says:

    Okay, so I’ve just made the same conversion – it was even your blog that spurred me to it. I’m mudling my way through the tension, I think I’ve got it all set. A basket-weave scark helped a lot. And it’s fuzzy yarn, so you can’t see the wibbles. My question now (having just moved into lace knitting) is how, HOW will I ever do those increases & decreases?? Ack!!!

  • Sean Dilley says:

    I had spent a month or so teaching myself to knit English style, but then I took a knitting class with a really wonderful teacher (and professional knitting pattern editor), who insisted that everyone in the class at least *try* Continental style. At first I felt like I’d had a stroke–what was once easy now seemed impossible. Within a couple hours, I had the hang of it. Purling took more practice than knitting, but once I had that down, I’ve never looked back. Once you’re used to it, you’ll start to see that the movement of the needles is much more economical, and switching from knit to purl in the same row is much faster. Hang in there, I think you’ll grow to like it. -Sean

  • Lisa says:

    I started knitting YEARS (I won’t bother to age myself with exact numbers) after learning to crochet so Continental just made sense and I use the same technique. I have 2 ways of controling tension that might help. With the yarn over my left index, with most yarns the left over yarn just slides between my ring and pinky and the left needle…with a relaxed , normal grip, this should be enough. I slide the stitches up with my thumb. Think woman holding a cigarette – pinky and ring curled, middle and index straight and thumb flicks.) If the yarn is either slick or very thin, I will wrap the yarn around my pinky. I know this is common, but I find it creates too much tension for me with most yarn. With either method, when knitting, I don’t try to wrap with my left hand like you would with English, the whole movement is done with the left needle. I hope this helps. ~Lisa

  • Jan says:

    Although I wish I had learned continental, my real wish is that I had learned ANY style.
    I taught myself by watching my cranky old grandmother from across the room, so what I learned
    was (more or less) my own version of backwards continental, or Englandental(?) or just dumb
    hunky knitting. Over the next 40 years, I managed to do an almost English style, but sadly,
    it’s so far from proper that even though I adore knitting and am quite prolific, I will not
    attempt to teach anyone to knit, even my own child!

    Now I am learning to knit continental because I am told it will be even faster (although I am
    almost the fastest knitter around) but it is so stressful that it’s making me aggressive.

    Look out for the old woman with the double points!!!


  • Kim says:

    Hey, you lived in Maine! I grew up in Maine and managed to escape.

    I did not learn Continental but really wish I had. I just can’t seem to manage tension on the yarn while holding the needle because my left hand isn’t as strong as the right. Never learned a stick shift either.

  • rayleen says:

    I bought this silly “I can’t believe I’m knitting” book from Michaels when I wanted to learn to knit a few years ago. The book has instructions on one side for Continental and the other side for English. I compared the two and did a few practice stitches before I decided I liked Continental better. I suppose I can knit English, but it takes too long. Continental is definitley my style. ๐Ÿ™‚ Not long after buying the book I took a knitting class. Everyone else there knit English, I was an oddball. But I finished my projects a lot quicker. Now when I teach my friends to knit, I teach them Continental.

    I’ve only had 4 hours sleep in 2 days. I sure do hope this makes sense. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Leslie says:

    It’s so funny, because I had to actually get my knitting to figure out how I do it. I’m not sure still that I can explain it, but here goes. My left hand is holding the needle with the yarn looped over my index finger, under my middle finger and over my ring finger. That’s how I keep the tension. When I knit, my index finger is kind of straight out in the air, keeping the tension on the yarn, and I’m holding the left needle with my thumb on one side and my middle and ring finger on the other side, and my pinkie is kind of under the needle keeping the needle up by my palm. Sheesh, this is hard. Okay, Right hand: Thumb on one side and index and middle finger on other holding the needle, and my ring finger and pinkie are kind of under the needle, keeping it up by my palm. I insert the right needle into the stitch on the left, wrap the yarn from left to right over the needle(at this point my right index finger is holding the wrap in place and pulling it down) and I push it off the left needle with my left middle finger. A little German lady who owned a LYS said she would teach me to knit if I bought my yarn from her. I was so excited and I wanted to be a good pupil, she showed me once how to cast on, knit and purl, I took the yarn and needles home, and yeah, it wasn’t that pretty, but it didn’t take long before the tension was perfect. Hang in there. It’s much easier than English.

  • Elizabeth says:

    I started knitting a couple months ago and am in the process of switching to Continental now. While I do wish I had done it from the beginning, it’s probably a bit easier because I haven’t been knitting for very long. My biggest problem has been decreasing, or working wrapped short rows. I usually end up getting my right hand involved then.

  • Jen says:

    I’ve been knitting off and on for quite a few years now… and was taught English. I’ve tried Continental a couple of times but I always end up giving up because my tension isn’t great and I find it frustrating… maybe I’ll try again and see if I can figure it out (it’s holding the yarn that throws me off!), it seems as though it’s the way to go!

  • Anonymous says:

    i learned both ways, but when i learned continental, i actually stuck with knitting because it was faster and felt less awkward to me than throwing the yarn, which to me, throws off the rythm. i did get cramps in my left hand for the first month or so, but now i cant even knit english, it just feels weird- and slow. love your patten in knitty btw, i’ve been looking for the perfect hat pattern for a bald friend of mine, so thanks!

  • Amy says:

    Hey–congrats on making the switch–looking at your post-switch swatch (try saying that five times fast) it looks to me, not like your stitch gauge is inconsistent, but that you’re “rowing out,” (i.e. your purl rows are looser. You could correct this by using the norweigian purl. It is faster, uses less yarn, and gives you *very* even rows. I taught myself to knit this way before learning what it was called, but basically, with a standard continental purl, you’re still essentially wrapping the yarn around theneedle and pushing it through–with the norweigian purl, you’re flipping the yarn behind the needle and pushing it through in one smooth motion. This type of purling re-orients the way the stitch “hangs” on the needle, so on your knit row, your leading edge (the one closest to the point of the needle, and the one you’re supposed to knit) is now in the back–so on the knit side, you knit in the back (a bonus is, this is also faster!) Annie Modesitt has written tons about this, and her book Confessions of a Knitting Heretic has more detailed explanations. Good luck!

  • AidanM says:

    I taught myself Continental because it has the yarn in the same hand as when I crochet. English just felt too freaking weird and different from crocheting. I do use the Norwegian purl instead of the Continental purl because I can’t purl Continentally. The way I hold everything is just not accomodating for that. I found that from the very beginning I had very even, but very loose tension. I have to hold the yarn VERY tightly to achieve the same kind of gauge that other people experience with the same size needles.

  • Vallary says:

    I actually have the exact opposite problem as you. I learned to knit English originally, and my gauge was horrid, and almost always WAY too tight. I switched to Continental, and for some reason it just works for me. I think that some people were actually just meant to do things one way, rather than another.

  • susan says:

    hello! linked to you off knitty… I taught myself to drive stick 5 years after I learned to drive and I taught myself to knit continental a year after I learned to knit. both were painfully awkward in the beginning… unfortunately, I’d already bought the car and was stuck with it (of course now, I’d never go back to automatic!), but as for the continental thing, well, I was determined and ready to curse the knitting world if I couldn’t master it! it took me pretty much an entire clapotis to get it down, but I got it! and just like with the car, I don’t ever plan on going back, and I feel like a much more well rounded knitter being able to do both. ๐Ÿ˜‰ you can do it! I believe in you!

  • sarkasmo says:

    I learned to knit continental when I learned to knit. I *think* that’s what I do. I throw the yarn with my left hand. Anyway, I just followed the instructions in the book Kids Knitting (Melanie Falick).

    The pictures in your post are confusing to me, since the yarn is dark. Do you mean to say that knitting English caused a bunch of multicolored lint to show up on your stitches, and knitting continental made the lint go away? Because it’s never worked that way for me; the cats are expert lint-throwers. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • sarkasmo says:

    I changed my mind; not finished commenting. Learning to drive stick is something that my dad says everyone should at least KNOW HOW to do, even if they never own a car. It also comes in handy when you volunteer at the last minute to be a designated driver but didn’t drive your own car!

    Anyway, there was a link to your blog at the LJ knitting community, and that’s how I landed here, and now you’re in my google reader. Huzzah!

  • Becky says:

    I’m a right-hand thrower, all the way!

    The first car I ever learned how to drive was a stick. Something for which I’m grateful, as where I live now pretty much commands it. Hardly no one drives an automatic in France!

  • jo says:

    Hi there, found your blog via the new knitty, nice work with the use of raglan decreases. Never thought of using those in a hat but it totally makes sense.

    I, too, wonder if the problem you’re having with Continental is inconsistent row gauge rather than stitch gauge. I suppose it *could* be the latter, of course, but from the pic it looks more like a row gauge issue which is a common problem with us pickers. If it is indeed a row gauge issue, your stitch gauge should measure out fine over the piece but the RS will still look kind of lumpy and uneven, and on the WS you will see intermittent spaces or looseness between every two rows.

    You could try the Norwegian purl, might as well (I’ve never been able to figure it out.) Or you could simply break out your interchangeable needle set of choice and experiment with using different sizes for knitting and purling, e.g., use an 8 for knitting and a 7 for purling. I’ve read about Continental row gauge success using a larger needle for knitting, but I actually had more luck using a smaller needle (7 for knit, 8 for purl.) Try it and see if it works for you. Even if you can’t totally fix your in-progress row gauge, a good blocking should do wonders. HTH…

  • Jana says:

    I’m in love ๐Ÿ™‚ Your blog is great and I’m so happy to find this site, it impressed me.
    Greetings from Croatia!

  • Elizabeth says:

    The analogy between knitting & transmission is a fabulous one. I could never understand how an adult could get through life without knowing how to drive a stick shift.
    However, I learned to knit English as a little kid. In the 80’s I attempted to learn the Continental style, but found it too frustrating. Just this past year I perservered, and now am 90% Continental. When I come to something tricky, or really tight stiches, I have to go to my comfort zone. Initially after the switch, my gauge was all over the place. Now, after months of Continental, it’s settling down. Still, it’s not quite as nice as my English.
    That being said…Continental rocks. It’s so fast & natural. Hang in there. Your’s will get better too.
    So, as I teach my kids to knit, they will learn Continental, and stick shift first.

  • Elaine says:

    Jesse…I’m really impressed with your poetry. Lovely stuff.

    Continental knitting…my mother taught me how and then after she died, I had to teach myself all over again because it had been so long since I had knit. I do it a little differently than most. When I am working on straight needles, I always work into the back of the stitch – the right needle goes over the yarn and scoops it through and then off. Purling is also un-orthodox…right needle is inserted as for any purl stitch but the needle goes over the yarn and scoops it to the back and off the left needle. This will make your knitting lightning fast and your tension very even. When working in the round, knit stitches begin with the right needle going into the front of the stitch, just as in English style knitting.

    Try this…some people will object saying the stitches will be twisty, but I promise you they are wrong. You can see some of my knitting on my blog site. I’ve only been knitting 2 years. I have taught two beginners this method and they knit beautifully now with gorgeous tension and very even stitches.

    One caveat about continental, though, that I discovered…lace is done differently. I had to have a Bulgarian lady show me how. Yarn overs – the yarn wraps under the right needle and then over the top.

  • Lily says:

    I first learned to knit from online instructions for English style, but when I taught myself to purl I switched to Continental because it felt more natural – as several commenters have mentioned, I already knew how to crochet. I didn’t even know it was a style until someone told me, I just thought I was weird! As far as guage, I sometimes wrap the ball yarn twice around my ring finger (instead of letting it hang between the ring and pinky), especially if the yarn is too slippery. Otherwise, I think it’s just a matter of getting comfortable with the style and developing a tension you’re comfortable with. Good luck and happy knitting!

  • Scarlet says:

    I learned to knit continental when I first started (self-taught off some hand-drawn diagrams found on the internet). It was quite comfortable and speedy, so I loved it. Then one day the notion got into my head to try this “throwing” I was seeing on several knitting shows. It took several swatches to figure out what it was that they were doing, but I did eventually “get it”. I was amazed to see a much more consistant fabric fall from my fingers! My continental had been consistant within “sessions”, but you could look at the fabric and tell where I had left off and started again. I didn’t have this problem with English-style. Of course, the reverse of that is now, a few months later, I can’t seem to knit continental to save my life. I’ve been trying to make my hands remember how to knit continental, but they refuse. I’m scared that it’s a skill I may never get back.

  • Brenda says:

    I learned to knit from my Mom who learned from her mom… And I hold the yarn in my left hand, but I don’t hold it in the continental manner. My needles do all the work, I do no wrapping, and the yarn just feeds along beautifully. I took a knitting class to learn how to do appropriate increases, decreases and cables, as I had moved 2300 miles from Mom. There the knitting teacher let me knit like I was used to but said it was the strangest way to knit she had ever seen. I have never had a problem with gauge or tension, and I can knit pretty fast. I am starting to think I should get someone to video tape me knitting… My grandmother, who is now 95, still knits; she makes 3-4 dozen pairs of mittens a year which she donates to a charity that distributes them to the poor children in Appalachia. She recommends knitting as a “good, wholesome activity.”

  • Alexis says:

    Hmm, well I’m left-handed but I knit ambidexterously (is that a word?) and I also sometimes knit Continental and sometimes English. I would describe what I do but it will just sound backwards and confusing to you right-handeds. At any rate I find that I have no noticeable difference in my tension between the two, sometimes I switch back and forth in the same project, it keeps things interesting for my ADD ๐Ÿ™‚

    Good luck with continental, once you wrap your head around it it will just flow… I do wrap the yarn around my index finger to help with tension, FYI. My projects always turn out nicely but when I knit with other knitters they can’t get over how backwards it looks… I guess there’s more than one to skin a cat. Oh, and I’m impossibly slow, I really can’t stand how slow I knit… but I think I just have slow hands and there’s not too much to be done about it.

  • Lisa says:

    I learned continental out of books. I seemed to gravitate toward it naturally. I think maybe that’s because my grandmother did it that way and ages ago when she tried to teach me that’s what I remember doing with my hands. Throwers and people that do it the English way often ask me if I’m left-handed because of this.

  • anneland22 says:

    I just switched to continental two months ago. My guage didn’t change much and i figured that it is about 33% faster ;)…more knitting can be fit into this lifetime.

    However I am going to continue to teach my students throwing because I believe that in originally learning that it is better to be able to form the proper loops and understand how they interact without also complicating the flow by worrying over coordination.

    Like stick, I would rather learn it after establishing a knowledge base and banishing fear of making mistakes (like driving into walls or dropping stitches).

    Much luck.

  • Kim says:

    I’m a thrower. I took a class at my LYS and learned how to do continental. I love how much faster it is but my gauge is so much tighter and not as neat. It might take me longer to knit up something English but it’s second nature to me. My next project I SWEAR I will try Continental. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Mel says:

    When my grandmother taught me to knit at age 9, I’m pretty sure she taught me continental. At least, that’s what came naturally when I decided to pick up the pointy sticks again a few years ago. I find that I-cord is easier doing english, and I carry in both hands when doing Fair Isle work, but otherwise I’m a confirmed picker.

  • Chris says:

    I learned to knit continental as a wee girl, before I started school, from my German mother, who had a Scandanavian knitting instructor when she was a wee girl! I knit in the regular continental way, but I purl “Norwegian” which is a good way to control tension in purl rows. Check out my website for a link to see a video of Norwegian purl.

  • Joan says:

    I just taught myself to knit Continental after several decades of knitting English. (I learned to knit in the womb…) It took about three days to establish the neural pathways. I found a very helpful tutorial on Youtube. After that, I have practised by knitting several prayer shawls with simple stitches in Continental. My tension is looser and I go down one or two needle sizes to compensate. The Continental is good for speed. For precision, in complicated stitch patterns, I revert to English. The motivation to learn Continental was to be able to knit two-stranded colours, such as Fair Isle, with two hands. This is

  • Joan says:

    (continued) VERY FUN. Even more fun than the New York Times crossword or Sudoku.

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