Knit vs purl

Explaining the difference between a knit stitch vs a purl stitch – including a diagram

Are you wondering what’s the difference between a knit stitch vs a purl stitch? What’s the key difference between knitting the two and is there an easy way to keep track of them? Well, this tutorial will show you the (maybe unexpected) answers and so much more.

What is the difference between knit and purl?

someone showing the difference between a knit and a purl stitch

A knit stitch is the most important stitch for the right side of a project, and a purl stitch is the most popular stitch for the wrong side. Together they form a mirror-inverted pair. You knit them in the exact opposite way. As a result, they will appear exactly the same on the other side. And that’s why stockinette stitch seems to show only one type of stitch on the right side and exclusively another kind of stitch on the wrong side – despite alternating between knit and purl rows.

A knit stitch is formed by pulling yarn through a loop from back to front. The resulting stitch looks a bit like the letter “V”. On the needles, you achieve this by inserting your needle from left to right with the yarn held in the back. I am showing you this flat and off the needles because, speaking from experience, things often look much more complicated while knitting than they really are.

anatomy of a single knit stitch - it looks a bit like the letter v
The knit side. See how these knit stitches form little Vs?

A purl stitch, on the other hand, is formed by pulling yarn through a loop from front to back. The resulting stitch appears to have a little bump at its base. On the needles, you will achieve this by keeping the yarn in front and inserting the working needle into the next stitch from right to left. As I said, a purl stitch is the exact opposite of a knit stitch.

the appearance of a single purl stitch as shown in a swatch
The purl side of a knitted fabric

If you turn any knit stitch around, you will see that it will have a bump at its base as well. It’s just on the other side. And the same applies to any purl stitch where you will be able to see a little V below it on the other side.

Now, you might wonder why you wrap the yarn around the needle counter-clockwise in each case. Didn’t I say they are mirror-inverted images and shouldn’t you, hence, wrap the yarn clockwise for a purl stitch? No. That’s because the stitches sit on the needle at an angle compared to their final position in the knitting.

difference between clockwise and counterclockwise wrapping knitting
The resulting loop on the needles after you purled a stitch; left by wrapping the yarn clockwise; right by wrapping the yarn counter-clockwise around the needle

And if you were to wrap the yarn clockwise for a purl stitch, the result would be a stitch where the leading leg of the stitch would be on the left instead of the right. So far that’s no problem. If you were to remove your knitting needles at this point, you would end up with the same loop in either case (maybe it would twist slightly differently because of the spin stored in the yarn itself).

But when you knit into that stitch in the next round and stick to your standard technique, meaning you enter it from left to right for a knit stitch, then you will twist that loop around and this will show you in your fabric.

difference between normal and twisted knit stitch - a diagram
Illustrating what happens when you knit into a purl stitch where you wrapped the yarn around clockwise vs counter-clockwise

Note: There’s a knitting style called combination knitting that makes use of this effect as a lot of people find purling by wrapping (or picking) the yarn clockwise easier. In the next round, they will knit that stitch through the back loop to untwist it again.

Knit vs purl diagram

I created a little diagram for you so you can keep track of these differences a bit more easily.

A knit vs purl diagram. All the differences and communalties shown with small little knitting pictures

How to tell a knit stitch apart from a purl stitch

Now that we settled the basics, we can use the knowledge to actually read your knitting. Just to recap: A knit stitch creates a V and a purl stitch creates a little bump. So when you are knitting a 2×2 rib stitch, you can look at the appearance of each next stitch instead of counting the repeat.

keeping track of knit vs purl stitches - rib stitch example

Just take a close look at the next stitch, and you will clearly see if it has a bump at its base or not. If it has, you purl it, and if there’s a little V visible, then you knit it.

And this principle works for any other knitting stitch pattern as well – no matter if it’s a moss stitch or the waffle stitch. In each of these cases, you can read your knitting and then knit the next stitch according to its appearance and the instructions in the pattern (for more complex repeats that span across multiple rows, you may have to look at a row or two further down).

You can also use this knowledge to count rows. Each little knit stitch forms a V. So if you want to know how many rows of stockinette stitch you already knitted, you simply have to count the number of Vs stacked upon each other.

counting rows stockinette stitch knitting with numbers indicating

This works for any other knitting stitch pattern in a similar way. For example, if you want to know how many purl rows you knitted, then you simply count the purl bumps stacked upon each other. You do have to be a bit careful, though. There are two kinds of bumps: One that looks a bit like a dome and the other a bit like a cup. And you have to focus on the dome-shaped bumps to count the rows.

counting purl rows in knitting with numbers to indicate each row
How to count purl rows

I have a full tutorial on how to count rows here on my blog for further details. But I promise, you, it’s really not a lot harder than finding little Vs and bumps.

Combining knit and purl stitch

So far, I only talked about the differences. But in reality, it might be the wrong approach to think in knit vs purl stitch. They are not truly opposites. Rather, they complete each other and form the backbone of all knitting stitch patterns.

But the concept goes much farther. If you would kindly take a look at my list of knitting increases, then you will quickly notice that for every increase on the right side, there is a corresponding decrease for the wrong side.

And the same applies to decreases – just take a look at my list of purl deceased. And for you, as a beginner, there are two very important takeaways here:

  1. Instead of knitting something on the right side, you can also purl something on the wrong side and it will look the exact same way. For example, if you find p2tog tbl too difficult, you could always decrease one row later with k2tog tbl.
  2. All these knit and purl decreases, while often much more difficult to knit, will leave a V or a bump behind. So, you will be able to count and read them in pretty much the same way.

So, in essence, understanding the difference between a knit and a purl stitch and what unites them, is not only your first step to becoming a master knitter. It is, I would hold, also the last step. If you truly understand that single little piece of knowledge, almost all other techniques and stitches are an afterthought. It will also help you to convert any pattern in the round to flat knitting.

Anyway, that’s the difference between knit vs purl stitches. Feel free to comment below if you have any other questions.

knit vs purl - a tutorial for beginners and how to keep track of these knitting stitches

2 thoughts on “Knit vs purl”

  1. If I seen anyone knit (?) It’s not me? I think I got my knits and purls mixed up. I have learn on my own, from do it yourself teaching books. And one or two classes in knitting. But still I think I’m knitting and purling the wrong way. But my knits come out as “v”. And my purls come out as a rounded off horizontal bar. But still I get a funny feeling I’m still not right. It looks like it but still it’s wrong. Well? It’s back to classes. I haven’t given up yet.

    Reply
    • From my very brief experience with knitting, there are several way to do everything and watching someone else is very different from looking at your own.

      I think that if you’re knitting “v”s and purling “bar”s then you’re doing it right 🙂

      Reply

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