Knits and Purls

This is part of a sometime series called Anatomy of a Knitted Stitch. This part is Knits and Purls.

Many beginner knitters that I have worked with do not seem to SEE their stitches.  I think that in their minds they just follow the steps laid out for them in patterns and are so pleased and relieved to see some sort of  knitted fabric form that they don’t spend any quality time figuring out how it works.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all about “black box” theory: my car, my computer, my iphone, my ipad, the refrigerator and on bad days even my sewing machine are all just magical boxes. You talk in one end and someone hears you at the other; you put in warm food, and it comes out cold;  I turn the key, and the engine starts.  I don’t know HOW this happens and even on the very best of days I am not at all curious about WHY it happens.  So I can sympathize.

But knitting is so much simpler than my car or my computer, it’s so right there in front of you, that it seems hard to imagine why anyone would not take a moment to figure out how it works.

So here, today, just for you (“Special price for you today only my friend”…oops, sorry, Bali flashback) I am going to start a sometime series on the dissecting and illumination of the knitted stitch so it will never be a mystery to you ever again. I hope.

These are things that I have had to explain to beginner knitters and even to some intermediate knitters (much to my surprise) because I don’t think these things are ever actually discussed in beginner knitter classes (Other than mine, I mean).  These are things that experienced knitters just assumed to be known, or are obvious or common knowledge.  But they aren’t.   I don’t think anyone ever actually told me these things, I don’t remember ever learning them, per say, but I think we should take them out of the shadows, out of the closets, and talk about them openly and honestly. Here we go, hold onto your needles!

Stitches Have Two Sides

Every knitted stitch is like a coin.  It has two sides.  

The “head” side of a knitted stitch is called a KNIT stitch, the “tail” side is called the PURL.

They are NOT two separate stitches, they are the SAME stitch.

Second Dishcloth

This is a simple dishcloth that uses knit and purl in easy ways. Find more free, simple patterns on my Student page.

Why then did your knitting teacher insist that you needed to learn TWO stitches, the knit and the purl?

Let’s use my favorite comparison: learning to drive a car. When you learned to drive did they teach you to turn right? Yes, I would imagine they did.  But didn’t they also teach you to turn left? Obviously!  You could probably get from Point A to Point B just by turning right, but would you really want to? It’s much easier, simpler, and quicker to be able to go either direction. Could you pass the drivers test and get your licence if you only knew how to turn right? I don’t think so. You need to know both to be considered a safe and useful driver.

Same with knitting.  When you first learn to knit you are taught the knit stitch.  But, just like driving, to be considered a safe and competent knitter you must learn to do the reverse of knitting, you must learn to turn left, or purl.  A purl is a knit stitch worked from the other side.  A purl is a backwards knit.  A knit is a backwards purl. Two sides, one coin.

I have always held a sort of internal “Dramatis personæ” for knitting in my head.  Scary, perhaps, but true.  Knitting to me has always been about GOOD vs. EVIL (Key dramatic music.)

Knits and Purls

Knits are the good guys in the  play, they are correct or good (usually on the right side of your knitting), they are flat and smooth, and they make us happy.


The purls are the bad guys, the ones we love to hate.  Purls are slower (I knit much faster than I purl).  They are bumpy, lumpy, and ugly.  They are usually on the “wrong” side of the work, they are only there, in my reality, to show off the beautiful and superiority of the knit stitches.


Pure hogwash, of course, but knowing the difference between the knit and the purl side of you knitting is pretty useful!  Not just whole sheets of stitches like in the pictures above, but each stitch by each stitch. Get someone to show you, look it up in a book, figure it out on your own, but however you do it, do it. Learning to be comfortable with which stitch is a knit and which is a purl will really improve your knitting. You wouldn’t want to drive without knowing the difference between the lever that changes your gears and the lever that turns on the windshield wipers.   Clearly in knitting it’s not as important as when you drive, but come on…it’s ALMOST that important!

Here are a few “mini facts” about knits and purls:

1.  Consider counting your rows on the PURL side.  Counting purl ridges is easier and quicker than working with those so smooth knit rows, especially with smaller stitches.

2.  Always pick up stitches on the KNIT side.  It is much easier and you can see the mistakes better from the knit side. (By “pick up stitches” here I mean if you drop a stitch and you need to work the stitch back up to the current row.)

3.  PURL stitches are a tiny, ittsy bit larger than knit stitches, so if you do stockinette stitch (all purl on one side, all knit on the other) the cloth will curl over the knit stitches, so all you see is purls. I know you know it does that, now you know why.

Click here to learn more about the Anatomy of Knitted Stitches!


  1. I’m here because I’d hoped for the answer to “what is the ‘front’ and where is the ‘back’ of the stitch I’m supposed to knit/purl into. As I look at the loop hanging off the needle, I’m interpreting the left side as the ‘front’ and the right side as the ‘back’. But it could easily be vice versa! After all, the direction I’m knitting in is right to left.
    And what happens to right/left , front/back when I need to knit/purl into a stitch on the back side of my work?

    I’m doing Cr2B & Cr2P (cannot find video for the latter).

  2. There are a lot of things that beginner knitting books forget to mention … For example …that slip knot you make to start Casting on …counts as one of the total cast on stitches, so cast on 28 really means cast on 27 after slip knot. And that is just the beginning ….don’t even get me started on joining/seaming methods.

    • Spinfoolish says:

      I know. I think the problem is that by the time you are good enough to write a book or a blog or do a video about a skill, you are so far removed from what it was like to learn the skill you can’t remember what you didn’t know… I have been absolutely amazed by how many people simply have no idea how to make a slip knot for example. The thing is, I have had fiber in some form as an integral part of my life since I was born, but if you don’t have yarn string or thread in your daily life why would you need a slip knot! LOL! When I write a how to blog I only do it after I have done it with some of my students, that way I (hopefully) find all the things that are soooo obvious to me, but aren’t to other people. By the way, regarding whether a slip not is a stitch or not: I teach my students that anytime yarn goes over the top of the needle it’s a stitch – so that includes slip knots, cast on stitches, yarn overs – does that help? Let me know if you have other questions – I ALWAYS have answers! 🙂

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