Hand Knitting: 6 interesting techniques

Hand knitting is frequently a pastime in the modern era; people make items for themselves or as gifts for family and friends. At one time, hand knitting was a necessity to make warm clothing, or to sell to generate an income. While it’s perfectly possible to create jumpers, hats and scarves in “good plain knitting”, or enhanced by stripes, there are various techniques available to create added interest, and 6 are highlighted here:

  • Cable
  • Fair Isle
  • Intarsia
  • Lace
  • Slip stitch colour work
  • Texture

This is not an exhaustive list! We’ll start by looking at the basics needed for hand knitting; knitting needles for creating the stitches, wool needles for sewing up, and the range of yarn available. The technique of blocking is also raised; although you might think “nobody has time for that!” it does make a difference to the finished appearance of your project.

1. Knitting needles

Knitting needles are sometimes known as “knitting pins” as they don’t have an “eye” like a needle used for sewing. They can be made from various materials such as from wood, metal, plastic or bamboo. Needles for hand knitting are produced in different sizes, with finer needles for finer yarn, and thicker needles for more chunky yarn. At one time there was a fashion for “oddpins” where one much larger knitting needle was used to create a lacy effect!

Knitting needles
Wool needles

2. Wool needles

Special needles are needed for sewing up seams and weaving in ends of knitted items; there should be a large eye (to hold the yarn) and a blunt end (in order to avoid splitting the ply). Wool needles can been purchased in your local yarn shop, or from many online outlets. It’s important after all the hours you have spent hand knitting that your project is finished carefully using the appropriate tools for the job. If you have been working in chunky yarn, you might find it gives a smoother finish to sew up the seams using a single ply or a finer yarn in a matching colour. The needles pictured are from Hobbycraft.

3. Yarn

The choice of yarn for hand knitting will have an effect on the finished item:

  • smooth, fluffy, velvety, textured
  • plain or variegated
  • synthetic, natural or mixed fibres
  • hand or machine washable

balls of yarn
balls of yarn

Natural fibres include wool, cotton, bamboo, mohair, alpaca, angora; or synthetic materials can be acrylic, nylon, polyester. Sometimes a mix of natural and synthetic fibres is spun to make a yarn more hardwearing (wool and nylon). Yarn can be in varying thicknesses (or weights) from very fine yarn for making lacy shawls to bulky chunky yarn used for outdoor wear. Not all knitting machines can cope with all yarn types — that’s another plus for hand knitting!

4. Blocking hand knitting

To counteract curling up edges, or reveal the detail of lace knitting, “blocking” is used. This means laying out an item in the shape and size it should be, misting (lightly spraying with water), and allowing to dry to retain its dimensions. Other methods are immersing the item in water before laying into shape, or with steam from a steam iron. Be careful not to flatten texture like cable stitches and ribbing. Read more: Interweave [image from Interweave].



Blocking knitting
Different types of knitting

5. Techniques

Now we are going to look at each of the following techniques in turn, with examples:

1. Cable
2. Fair Isle
3. Intarsia
4. Lace
5. Slip stitch colour work
6. Texture stitches


Cable and lace

Technique 1. Cables in hand knitting

Cable stitches can be used to add texture. A cable often looks like a plait or rope. To create this, some stitches are lifted to the front (or back) of the work on a cable needle before the following stitches are worked, next the stitches from the cable needle are worked, then the rest of the row is worked — which may have more cables!

Aside from technical jargon — how great does this pattern look! A trellis is created by interwoven cables, and then the usual rope-effect cable is topped off with a lacy diamond design. Stunning!


Technique 2. Fair Isle knitting

The technique of Fair Isle knitting involves working each row with only two colours, the colour not in use being carried across the wrong side of the work in “strands”, until it is swapped with the colour being worked. This does not mean that the whole item is only worked in two colours — far from it! — the patterns can boast a multitude of colours, but only two are worked in each row. See “The Royal Connection” below to learn more about Fair Isle knitting and the Prince of Wales in the 1920s.

This book shown carries a range of 70 patterns using traditional Fair Isle techniques.

Fair Isle knitting book
Jigsaw jumper

Technique 3. Intarsia

When working in blocks of colour in hand knitting, rather than strand colours across the wrong side of the work as with Fair Isle, individual balls of yarn are used (often wound on bobbins). Gyles Brandreth, a former MP, is well-known for his collection of unusual jumpers, and this jigsaw jumper and some others can be seen in this short clip from the BBC programme “Fabric of Britain: Knitting’s Golden Age”.



Technique 4. Lace knitting

Lace is created with hand knitting by balancing a “hole” created by a yarn forward, yarn over or yarn round needle with a corresponding decrease to maintain the correct number of stitches… usually, but not always, in the same row. So, basically, we are deliberately introducing “holes” into the knitting to create a lacy effect — why not wear a contrasting colour underneath to enhance the effect!


Lace knitting
Slipstitch colour work

Technique 5. Slip stitch colour work

Another technique for introducing different colours into hand knitting is slip stitch colour work (also known as mosaic knitting). In this case, only one colour is worked during a row, and the colour not in use is slipped from one needle to the other without being worked.  This creates the illusion of more than one colour in a row, and texture can be added by using knit or purl stitches to create a garter stitch or stocking stitch fabric.

Technique 6. Texture

The use of different combinations of knit and purl stitches can create a wide range of textures in hand knitting, from the smoothness of stocking stitch to the even structure of single rib and the granular surface of moss stitch. Further textures can be achieved with reversed stocking stitch and double moss stitch, by adding bobbles and even combining with lace. Another technique for creating an interesting texture is to work into the back of a stitch, this creates a “twist” in the stitch, which can be decorative in ribbing. So many patterns — so much yarn — so little time!

Knitting textures
Garter stitch pleated headband

Texture 1. Garter stitch

Garter stitch is usually the first pattern that a knitter learns, as it is made with knit stitches… but did you know that garter stitch can be made using only purl stitches as well? It’s true! There is a free Crafty Cavy design that puts this to good use in a pleated headband.

Crafty Cavy Pleated Headband Pattern


Texture 2. Stocking stitch

Once the knit stitch has been mastered, the purl stitch is then learned. This allows a wider range of designs to be worked. In the stocking (US stockinette) stitch pattern, all the stitches in one row are knitted; all the stitches in the next row are purled. This creates a smooth effect on the “right” side of the work — the side other people see when you are wearing something made in stocking stitch!

Stocking stitch
Reversed stocking stitch

Texture 3. Reversed stocking stitch

All the stitches in one row are purled; all the stitches in the net row are knitted.  This creates stocking stitch on the smooth side — and reversed stocking stitch on the “nubbly” side! To put it another way — sometimes we want the smooth side facing outwards, at other times we prefer the nubbly side to be facing outwards. Reversed stocking stitch is often used as the background for cable stitches as it really makes the cable stand out.

Texture 4. Single rib

In each row, the stitches alternate between knit and purl. As every row is worked, what looks like a knit stitch is knitted; what looks like a purl stitch is purled.  This creates the effect of columns of knit stitches on each side, and gives a stretchy effect, ideal for necklines, waistbands and cuffs. The dark green jumper in this image has ribbing worked into the back of the stitch, to create additional interest.

Moss stitch

Texture 5. Moss stitch

Moss stitch is also known as seed stitch. It is worked in a similar way to single ribbing in that each stitch is alternately work knit and then purl, but in subsequent rows, if it looks like a knit stitch it is purled, and if it looks like a purl stitch it is knitted.

Texture 6. Double moss stitch

Double moss stitch, also known as Irish moss stitch, is made using only knit and purl stitches, but these are offset creating a different texture from moss or seed stitch. Effectively we are working two rows of single ribbing, then two further rows of single ribbing offset by a single stitch. Double moss stitch is used in the yoke of this jumper, which also uses single rib, lace, cable and stocking stitch! No wonder it’s so effective!

Double moss stitch yoke
Edward Prince of Wales Fair Isle

6. The Royal connection

The image is Edward, Prince of Wales (before he became King Edward VIII) from the BBC series “Fabric of Britain: Knitting’s Golden Age”; you might like to watch this short clip about Fair Isle knitting. Edward, Prince of Wales, sported Fair Isle pullovers which created a demand that boosted the local economy.


7. What next for hand knitting and you?

“I can stop” — well, no actually, I can’t stop knitting — it’s too much fun!  If you are thinking about taking up a new hobby, why not try hand knitting?  There are many patterns available for you to try your hand at knitting (see what I did there?)

I can stop... knitting
knitting sample

8. New to hand knitting or a seasoned knitter?

Do you have a favourite hand knitting stitch? Let me know in the comments! Cables are a great favourite of mine. Please let me know if there is something in particular you’d like to see — send me an email or pop a note in the comments!

9. Browse Patterns

If you are looking for some hand knitting patterns, why not browse the Crafty Cavy pattern shop?  There are knitted fish – suitable as pram toys or story-telling props – and headbands. You might also be interested in joining the Crafty Cavy community on Facebook!


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