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by Laura Chau January 13, 2021 4 min read

three pieces of knitting laying on a flat surface, two of which are grey swatches and one is a project in the round with a grey ribbed brim.

Have you ever encountered these instructions in your knitting pattern? “Work stitches as they appear,” “knit the knits and purl the purls,” “work stitches opposite to how they present” - how exactly do you tell a knit stitch from a purl stitch? How do you tell if you’ve worked an increase or decrease already? “Reading” your knitting to identify your stitches is an important skill to help you understand how stitches are created and how they work together.

The Knit Stitch

working a knit stitch; right needle tip in stitch with yarn wrapped

The knit stitch is the first stitch we learn in knitting, and it’s the basis for almost all other stitches. When working a knit, the yarn is behind the work and the right needle tip enters the next stitch from front to back, crossing below the needle.

completed knit stitches on right needle
completed knit stitches tilted to show the purl bumps on the wrong side

When completed, a knit stitch looks like a flat smooth “V” shape (or heart shape) in front of the needle. The back of the stitch (behind the needle) appears as a horizontal bump.

The Purl Stitch

purl stitch in progress

A purl stitch is basically the front-to-back opposite of a knit stitch. The yarn is in front of the needles, and the right needle tip enters the next stitch from right to left through the front loop only.

completed purl stitch on right needle
purl stitches tilted to show the smooth side

When completed, a purl stitch looks like a horizontal bump in front of the needle. The back of the stitch (behind the needle) appears as a flat “V”.

Working Stitch Patterns

In practice, you mainly need to be able to identify whether the next stitch on your needles is a knit or a purl, and how many knits or purls you have worked in a row in order to maintain your stitch pattern.

a grey swatch in a ribbing pattern, showing the next stitch to be worked as labelled 'a 'V' or knit stitch'

“Work stitches as they appear”

  • most often used for ribbing or cable patterns, creates columns of the same stitch on top of each other
  • If the next stitch on the left needle is a V, it’s a knit stitch and should be knit.
  • If the next stitch on the left needle is a horizontal bar, it’s a purl stitch and should be purled.
a seed stitch swatch with the next purl stitch to be worked labelled as 'a horizontal bar, or purl stitch'
a grey seed stitch swatch on the needles

“Work stitches opposite to how they appear / present”

  • used for offset patterns like seed stitch
  • If the next stitch on the left needle is a V, it’s a knit stitch and should be purled.
  • If the next stitch on the left needle is a horizontal bar, it’s a purl stitch and should be knit.

Reading increases and decreases

knitted increases shown on a grey swatch
yarn over increases shown on a grey knitted swatch

Increases add stitches to your knitting, either by picking up a new stitch from the existing fabric or by using the working yarn to create a new stitch on the needles directly. Some increases are quite obvious visually, like yarn overs, while others are less visible, such as lifted increases (make 1, LLI, RLI).

decreases and bound off stitches

Decreases reduce the number of stitches on your needle by working stitches together, or by binding off (casting off) at the beginning of the row. Stitches that have been bound off will have a horizontal line of stitches that spans the top of them.

A good way to identify increases and decreases in your work are to identify a column of stitches and follow it up or down the fabric. Increases will create a new column of stitches between existing ones, or growing out of another column. Decreases will bring two or more columns of stitches together into one.

Placing locking stitch markers into increases and decreases as you work them is a great way to familiarise yourself with how they look when completed.

locking stitch markers shown marking increase on a grey knitted swatch

Keep in Mind: Knitting is Double Sided

Whether you’re knitting flat or in the round on circular needles, knitting always has 2 sides: the side of the fabric that faces you on the needles, and the opposite side. This is important to know, because a stitch that appears as a knit on one side of the piece will be a purl on the opposite side, and vice versa.

a garter stitch swatch folded over to show both sides

When knitting flat (aka back and forth), you turn the work at the end of each row by exchanging the empty needle with the full one. This is alternating which side of the fabric faces you each row. If you work all knit stitches and turn at the end of each row, the purl bumps also alternate which side of the work they appear on, creating reversible garter stitch.

stockinette in the round with the WS also showing

When knitting in the round (circularly), you are working in a spiral with the same side of the fabric always facing you. So when you work all knit stitches, all of the corresponding purl bumps are on the same side of the fabric, leaving you with one smooth side and one bumpy side (stockinette stitch).

Practice makes perfect, so keep on knitting and pay attention to how the stitches are formed for a stronger, deeper understanding of how your knitting works.

Further Help Looking for more tips and tricks?

Our website is full of tutorials whether you're looking to knit your first sweater, get started with colourwork, or try a new technique.

Laura Chau
Laura Chau



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