In the earlier half of the last millennium, those accused of crimes could prove their innocence through a trial of fire or water. Thus subjecting a person to either water or fire, usually represented in the form of hot metal rods or ploughshares (as the peasants would probably have more of these at their disposal), was a way to separate the guilty from the innocent.
Well, we can also use trial by fire and water to separate the wools from the cottons from the acrylics. Generally, most animal fibers will follow wool’s example, and most plant-based fibers will follow cotton’s example. Of course, it is always better to retain the ball band (the paper wrapped around the yarn to label it with the company, brand, fiber content, recommended needle size and washing instructions) to remember the fiber content of a particular skein, ball, or cake of yarn. However, who hasn’t pranced home from the yarn store, ripped off the ball band with fevered abandon, and wound their skein, telling themselves “I’m going to start something with this yarn right now!” only to have to abandon your newly wound skein to make dinner or walk the dog or fall into the internet hole? Then you return to your beautiful new yarn a week later only to discover you can’t find the ball band (psst! look under the couch cushions). Or maybe Great Auntie Mabel sent you some yarn she picked up at a church rummage sale, summing up the note with a, “I thought you would like this. See? You don’t have to spend all your money at that fancy yarn store!” Or maybe, you are a thrifty knitter who searches the Good Wills and second hand shops for old sweaters to unravel and knit anew. The point is, you will eventually end up with yarn whose fiber contents are entirely unknown to you. Time to separate the guilty from the innocent.
In knitting there are two and half basic stitches: knitting, purling, and yarn-overs. Every stitch pattern is a different combination of how these stitches are arranged in relation to each other within the same row and from row to row. As with almost anything in knitting, there are variations of these basic stitches that can allow us to create more complex patterns. You might knit through the back to twist a stitch or knit or purl twice into the same stitch, or double wrap a yarn-over to make it larger. But in the end we are always either knitting or purling or creating a yarn-over in our march from one side of the work to the other.
One of the beauties of knitting is that there is no wrong way to knit as long as the stitch comes off the needle looking the way it’s supposed to. Most people knit from right to left, as a relic of knitting’s Arabic origins, but it is not unheard of to come across the odd knitter who can knit from left to right and back again (and I meet you, my knitting wizard, you’ll know me because I’ll be the one with my jaw on the floor gurgling “teach me, master, teach me”). Most knitting methods can be divided into English and Continental. English knitters hold the working yarn in their right hand, while Continental knitters hold the working yarn in their left hand.
For whatever reason, purling, or creating purl stitches, is a rather disagreeable task for some knitters. As it is actually a backwards knit stitch, I can sort of understand. Not many people like to have to reverse their three dimensional understanding unless they really have to. This is why smartphones allow you to rotate the digital map so that straight ahead points to the top of your phone when using your device for GPS purposes. So, let’s take a look at some purling options.
People have been knitting for literally hundreds of years, and over that time innumerable patterns or instructions for various garments or objects have been created. I find it astonishing that despite knitting’s long history, there are still new innovations in construction being created and new versions of techniques evolving through the creation of new tools and modes of communication. Scientific advancements in the use of plastics brought us the circular needle, which gave way to the magic loop method. Although their stitches may be created in the same way, and they may actually be knitting the same pattern, a young woman knitting a stocking for a soldier during the American Revolution and a young man knitting a stocking for himself to endure this seemingly endless winter, might be using methods so dissimilar, that one might not think they are doing the same thing at all.
However, throughout the ages, certain shapes and construction methods have passed the test of time. After all, the foot shape of King Henry VIII is hardly unique when compared to that of George Clooney. The main differences between traditional top-down heels are in the stitch pattern used for the heel flap, and the number of stitches decreased over the heel turn. Before the advent of the printing press, patterns were passed down from parent or grandparent to child orally. Even after printed material became widespread, knitting patterns were often still passed from generation to generation through oral instruction. When literacy became more prevalent throughout every level society, printed knitting patterns found their way to markets, but it was a long time before knitting terms and abbreviations were standardized. I’ve even come across some patterns that have an instruction as vague as “turn heel in the usual manner”. Even a short-row heel can have only so many variations.