What does ‘knitterly’ mean?

At the moment I’m collecting, developing and sampling techniques for intervening in existing knitted fabrics – opening, unravelling, re-knitting and embellishing in every configuration I can muster. In my last post I showed one example of the step-by-step images I’m taking of each sample, which will show others how to do the same process. I’m aiming for these processes to be generic – able to be applied in many different ways, in different contexts.

But as I’m doing the samples, I’m realising how many decisions are involved in their making. I want to show a multitude of possibilities, but – by their very nature – each sample can only show one. For example, I have a sample of a piece which I’ve opened and knit down from the open stitches. What hem to knit? What cast off to use?

In a conversation with my PhD supervisor last week, I described these decisions to him, and explained that I was using the idea of ‘being knitterly’ as my guide. Where I have a choice of techniques, I choose the one which seems the most knitterly. But what does this mean? I suppose, for me, it’s about appealing to the sensibilities and preferences of an experienced knitter, and enjoying the full vocabulary of knitting – based on my own experience and the knowledge gained from discussing techniques with others.

I guess that I started using the term ‘knitterly’ with reference to the idea of ‘painterly’. My dictionary defines painterly as:

painterly adj

1. of, pertaining to, or characteristic of a painter

2. characterised by qualities of colour, stroke, or texture perceived as distinctive to the art of painting, especially the rendering of forms and images in terms of colour or tonal relations rather than of contour or line


knitterly adj

1. of, pertaining to, or characteristic of a knitter

2. characterised by elements perceived as distinctive to the craft of knitting, especially…

It’s the second of these definitions that I’m particularly interested in. Could it be developed? What are the elements perceived as being distinctive to the craft of knitting? I searched for others using the term in this way, and found a thread on the Knitter’s Review forums, and a mention in KnitKnit about the knitterly work of Teva Durham.

One person on the forum also made the link between knitterly and painterly:

“I view ‘knitterly’ much as I view ‘painterly.’ Or much as I view the concept of a ‘musician’s musician.’ Paintings that are considered ‘painterly’ often display techniques that may be difficult for a beginning painter to master but which add something beautiful to the work. Tom Waits is a classic musician’s musician–some folks without much of a musical background may not understand all of his work, but those who have studied or played a lot of music can hear musical quotes and techniques that are really exciting.” Lanea


On the hunt for the characteristics of knitterly-ness, I’ve gathered some ideas together, backed up by some of my own thoughts and the words of others (usernames refer to posters on the Knitter’s Review forum, which can be found here – I hope the original posters are happy for me to use their contributions, but please contact me if not)

Knitterly is about both design and execution

“I create designs to bring out this expressive quality, but in reproducing them, not every knitter has the touch. There are two levels, the design and the implementation or interpretation – like a Chopin nocturne needs a feeling pianist.” Teva Durham quoted by Sabrina Gschwandtner, KnitKnit: Profiles and Projects from Knitting’s New Wave, p60

Knitterly is about both process and product

“An attention to the craft – to the skill involved in making the item and not just in the item itself” fillyjonk

“[To] focus not only on patterns but also designing, technique, fibre, etc … because for me, knitting is more than just fashion.” MJM

Knitterly is being ‘absolute boss of your knitting’

“The technique will, I think, prove to you that you are the absolute boss of your knitting.” Elizabeth Zimmermann, Knitting Without Tears, p37

… by understanding the structure you’re creating 

I think of a knitterly approach as being able to read your knitting, to see a piece of knitting or a pattern and to understand the processes involved.

… and using the right technique, based on your own preferences

“It’s about knowing eighteen different ways to do an increase, and choosing the one you want, no matter what the pattern says, based on how you want the end-product to look.” honeybee33

Knitterly is attention to detail

“An attention to, and an appreciation for, detail. An unwillingness to sort of shrug and say, ‘Oh, that’s good enough, no one really knits any more so no one will notice the corners I cut.'” fillyjonk

Knitterly has a preference for in-the-round to flat knitting, for seamless finishes, and for knitting over sewing

“[The] traditional method of construction ‘in the round’ is more natural to knitting than the more modern method of knitting over two needles. Knitting pieces and sewing them together owes more to dressmaking and tailoring, than knitwear. The majority of old patterns were in the round. There is a piece of good advice for knitters that the Shetland Islanders mention over and over again. ‘Never, ever sew when you can knit’. After all, most people hate putting the knitted pieces together.” Michael Pearson, Traditional Knitting, p14

Knitterly is revelling in the cleverness of knitting …

“Perhaps many people share with me great pride in producing a piece of work which will cause their expert friends to exclaim, ‘How did you do it?'” Elizabeth Zimmermann, Knitter’s Almanac, p44 

… but being open about your techniques

“[I] gradually, with hints and winks, give out clues.” Elizabeth Zimmermann, Knitter’s Almanac, p44 

“The “wise knitting woman” who passes her skills and knowledge on to others.” fillyjonk

Knitterly doesn’t disguise its nature

“Being true to the craft….to me that means it should look like knitting.” kdcrowley

I surprised myself by realising how much I agree with this. I remember having a conversation with a machine knit designer, who tried (quite successfully) to disguise the fact that her fabric was knitted. Her work was accomplished and professional, but I don’t think I’d describe it as knitterly.

Knitterly is being prepared to experiment and ‘unvent’

“It’s about ferreting out how it could be possible to make a yarn-over-knit exactly the same size as a yarn-over-purl, even though you are the only one who would be able to tell.” honeybee33

“[To] look at a sock knit the same way for generations and come up with a different heel.” RobA

Knitterly engages with tradition yet pushes forward

“To me, knitterliness is not about tradition, or ‘the way they used to do things’. It’s not just about looking back, or moving forward. It’s about the drive for the craft that propels all of us ever outward, expanding *and* refining, preserving *and* inventing, no matter where that long drive takes you. Just because we can, and just because we care.” honeybee33


There were some proposed characteristics of knitterly-ness that I disagreed with:

Knitterly is about enthusiasm rather than skill or detail

“I think of someone as knitterly if they love knitting, and it has nothing to do with attention to detail. A grandmother who knits with Red Heart yarn because she loves the craft so much and can’t afford wool is a perfect example to me. I know people who knit tons of novelty scarves, and others who knit one exquisite sweater per year with every detail carefully planned out and executed. Yes, I think the latter is a better knitter (skillwise), but I think they are both equally knitterly.” knit_cookie

“If the work is done for the joy of knitting (product or process)  it is knitterly. If it is done for the participation in a trend alone, it’s not. So the most intricate knitted garment in the world could be non-knitterly – because it was done for the sake of a trend, and the rattiest scrap of garter stitch with dropped and split stitches, can be knitterly, because it was done for the joy of knitting. RoseByAny

I understand the sentiments of these contributors, but think it’s useful to define knitterly as something other than enthusiasm: otherwise we have no name for knitterly techniques.

Knitterly is about humility and lack of ego

“The old sage woman who’s made mittens and socks (and more) all her life for her loved ones. Without fluff, and without great praise…just the quiet doing.” knittingbaglady

I agree with the following response: “While I understand the feeling of roots that this image creates, I am not sure it represents knitterliness to me. It would depend on how you did that work, wouldn’t it? RobA

My gut feeling is also that a lack of ego or fanfare is more indicative of the status of women, and women’s craft, than a knitterly quality to aspire to. A lot of my work is about trying to get a little more fanfare around the knitting of others.


So, what do you think? Do you recognise my definitions of knitterly-ness? Disagree? Have any more to contribute? Who or what do you consider to be knitterly, and why?


10 responses to “What does ‘knitterly’ mean?

  1. i read the comments and thought about the word knitterly.
    The pleasure of knitting is i think very importend, but… if you have the skills to level up your skills it can be knitterly as well.
    Like when i was an art student and i had to knit some art work, i loved it to try out some other materials and to try out how you could use the same technic without losing the effect of knitting. When something like that was been a succes i felt it was knitterly as well.
    i don’t think others aren’t telling the truth but, you can’t disquality the one or the other.
    Like the fun and enjoyment of the knitting it self but as well the fun that you can have that you watch your skills are improving to a higher level;-D
    i’m a dutch girl so … my english isn’t sooo well, sorry for the mistakes i have made;-D

  2. Great blog post Amy, inspiring as always. I wonder if the definition as “elements perceived as distinctive to the craft of knitting” could be applied to something that is not actually knitted. For example, could Chae Young Kim’s knit effect digital wallpaper be described as knitterly?

  3. Thanks for the comments – there’s definitely an interesting dynamic between enjoyment and skill, and an issue around whether ‘knitterly’ requires ‘authentic’ materials, or even to be physically knitted!

    Food for thought…

  4. Since reading this post I’ve been thinking a long time about what ‘knitterly’ means to me. I think I broadly agree with you. For me, ‘knitterly’ means that you have an object that you could not perceive to be made in a different way. I think it would be interesting to explore the term ‘elements’ in the second definition of ‘knitterly’, rather than trying to finish it. There are some things you can only do by knitting, which I think makes something ‘knitterly’. The most obvious one is already mentioned: the ability to make a seamless tube (hence a sweater knit in the round is more knitterly than one knit in pieces). But another important one to me is that you can shape that tube whilst you are making it, unlike sewing, where you need to cut material, and then sew it together. There’s also a certain way of decoration that feels very knitterly to me, which is the textures you can create with knitting, which again, is something you do whilst making the fabric, rather than something you do afterwards (e.g. in pottery, you would generally first make a shape, and then you can create a surface texture afterwards). As for colour, stranded colourwork feels more knitterly to me than intarsia. All this is underpinned by intimate knowledge of technique, and an intuitive understanding on when to use them to achieve the exact effect you’re after.

    • i’m totally agree with tomofholland. But a step further , by example jusing the same idea of knitterly in the theatre you must think bigger to show the knitterly of the fabric.
      by using large rope or fabric to knit on your arms to get the same results. I have done that and it makes a very awesome result of knitterly work.XD
      Or i have worked with students to learn them knittings and i gave them the subject make a head weare thing that you can use in the theatre with knitting, so think big with what you make , use other materials . It helped them to think not off only i must learn to knit but to think of the knitting and knitterly work.

  5. Hi Tom – thanks for your contribution!
    Yes, I totally agree – I often bang on about designing for the capabilities of the structure, and celebrating those that are particular to the structure, e.g. the ability to shape three-dimensionally without sewing.
    Interesting point about decoration, and stranded colourwork versus intarsia – I think I agree. In colourwork, in a way you are more restricted because you have to design for the floats – and creating within that restriction is particularly knitterly, I think.

  6. I think any design element that works within the restricted framework of knitting and tries to push it to the very limit makes something knitterly. Again, using stranded colourwork as an example, I think Bohus designs are a good example of being very knitterly; or EZ, who limited herself to try and only use purl sts where absolutely necessary and thus finding very interesting ways of designing and constructing objects.

  7. I’m totallly agree with tomofholland.
    but a level further, or higher will be the same. and show you much better the meaning of knitterly.
    Like or by the way thinking of theatre. You must use to show the audiance bigger sized things of knitterly fabric by using bigger sized stiches and using bigger yarn, like thick rope or plastic tubes or … fabric that you can knit on your arms to get the same awesome knitterly meaning .
    I have done that, and when i had to learn students to knit i had given them the project knit a had to weare in the theatre and think big sized.
    It helped them to think why they knitted and to think on an other level to show the knitterly of their work.
    I was flabber gasthed at the end of which the had made, when i had given them an other subject to make they didn’t had thought of knitterly only of learning to knit.
    We often think to commen when we think of knitting and knitterly.
    I like both ways but it’s awesome to show people you can do sooooo much more with the term knitterly then just a piece of knitted fabric.XD

  8. A little late to the party, but I can totally relate to the idea of being ‘knitterly’ Amy, such a great term! I find it’s not until you try and teach someone else to do it that you realise how many little tricks and quirks you have to your own knitting technique – often with somewhat varying success in conveying these to others! Great post. Very thought provoking. Your research sounds very interesting, and has made me consider the idea of a Phd for the first time in my life!

  9. Thanks Sarah. Glad you enjoyed it…. and I’d recommend a PhD, I love it! (partly because I’m doing it in a ‘knitterly’ way).

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