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Knitting Wisdom

Do you hate to purl? Or just hate the constant flip-flopping of a narrow project? Knitting back backwards may be just the technique for you!

Knitting back backwards is the technique of knitting from the left edge to the right edge of a piece of knitted fabric, in the reverse of the normal direction, as a replacement for turning and purling across the wrong side. It won't replace purling entirely, but it has a number of really useful applications:

  • In entrelac, where you work back and forth in small strips, there's a lot of turning, which can be unwieldy on large projects. Knitting back backwards lets you avoid that, in entrelac or any other project which involves narrow strips.
  • In charted designs, knitting back backwards keeps you facing the fabric surface shown on the chart, and may make it easier to see the design develop.
  • If you just plain don't like to purl, you may find this easier, especially if you're a Continental knitter and typically struggle with purling. You can't use it for mixed knits and purls on a single row, but you can definitely use it for purl rows in stockinette, and similar situations.

Knitting terminology isn't always perfectly settled, and some sources will refer to the same technique as purling back backwards. That makes some sense, as it replaces purling in the normal direction. However, because you are forming knit stitches, not purl stitches, on the side facing you, I prefer the knitting back backwards term, and reserve purling back backwards for the technique that produces purl stitches on the facing side of the fabric. I think this terminology especially makes sense if you are going to employ these techniques for charted designs, since usually the same symbol will indicate both stitches to be knit on the forward rows, and stitches to be knit back backwards on the reverse rows.

And before we get into the technique, a brief note on what knitting back backwards is not: it is not the same as left-handed knitting. True left-handed knitting is a mirror of right-handed knitting, with a mirrored stitch orientation. Knitting back backwards maintains the same stitch orientation, and requires a slightly different technique.


Let's first take a good look at how the yarn and needles move when you purl. As you can see in the photograph below, the right needle goes between the left needle and the front loop of the stitch, entering the stitch from right to left.

The working yarn comes up in front of the right needle, over the top of it, and then down between the right and left needles.

The right needle tip pulls the new stitch through the old stitch from front to back, and the stitch sits on the right needle with the working yarn extending from the back of the needle.

When you knit back backwards, you want the yarn and needles to move with each other in exactly the same way, except that you will be on the other side of the entire operation. Therefore, everything needs to be reversed.

Your stitches will begin on the right needle, and the left needle will be your working needle. The left needle goes between the right needle and the back loop of the stitch, entering the stitch from left to right.

The working yarn comes up behind the left needle, over the top of it, and then down between the left and right needles.

The left needle tip pulls the new stitch through the old stitch from back to front, and the stitch sits on the left needle with the working yarn extending from the front of the needle.

Be careful with your yarn wrapping! That's the easiest place to go wrong when knitting back backwards. Check your stitch orientation carefully, until you know you've got it down; the completed stitches should sit on the needle with their left legs in back and their right legs in front.

If you have difficulty making your left needle move properly, you can hold it still and move the right needle against it; what's important is making the yarn and needles go into the correct respective positions, not how you get them to do that.


Now that you understand the basic motions of knitting back backwards, it's time to integrate it with your usual knitting style. Continental knitters, who hold the yarn in their left hands and usually scoop, will be throwing the yarn around the left needle tip when knitting backwards. English knitters, who hold the yarn in their right hands and usually throw, will be scooping.


When you have your left needle inserted in the stitch, extend your left forefinger to bring the yarn over the left needle tip from the back, and down between the needles.

If you have sufficient dexterity, you can do this without letting go of the left needle. I usually grasp the needles where they cross with my right forefinger and thumb, so I can let go with my left hand (see below); it does slow me down a little, but it helps me maintain good tension, whereas if I flick the yarn over without dropping the needle, I tend to play out too much yarn, and have to adjust my hold before I can knit forward again. Play with it, and find what works for you.


English knitters knitting backwards face some of the same issues that Continental knitters face when purling, and for the same reason -- the direction of pull on the yarn tends to make it pop off the tip of the working needle. You'll deal with these issues in basically the same way that Continental knitters do.

When you have your left needle inserted in the stitch, bring the yarn from behind the left needle tip, and push it down between the needles; a firm downward pressure will help keep the yarn from popping off the needle tip.

Scoop the yarn through the old stitch with the tip of the left needle; holding tension on the yarn will make this easier to do.

If you find this motion too difficult to master, you may want to try knitting back backwards in combination style. To do this, you will wrap your yarn in the opposite direction, bringing it up between the needles.

It's much easier to pull the yarn through this way, but it will cause the stitches that you form to sit on the needle in the opposite orientation.

This will need to be addressed on the knitting-forward rows by working the stitches through the back loop.


Where a pattern calls for you to purl two stitches together on the WS, knitting back backwards requires you to knit the two stitches together backwards. This is actually quite easy; simply place the left needle into two stitches instead of one, and then proceed as usual.


Knitting back backwards is most commonly used on stockinette, replacing rows of plain purl stitches, but it's also possible to purl back backwards, where stitches would be knit on the WS rows. This is an extremely useful skill for charted designs which include both knits and purls on the WS rows, since you will always be working on the side shown by the chart. It's also useful for narrow strips of garter stitch.

To purl back backwards, the yarn must be brought to the front of the work, between the needles.

The left needle must be inserted between the back leg of the stitch and the right needle, from right to left.

The left needle is then twisted around so the tips of the needles point in opposite directions, and the yarn is brought up between the needles, over the top of the left needle, and down the front of it.

The left needle tip pulls the stitch through from the front to the back, and the new stitch sits on the left needle with the working yarn extending from the front of the needle.

Again, check your stitch orientation carefully, until you are sure you've gotten this down correctly.

It's common to experience some awkwardness with this technique at first, as your hands are picking up a new set of motions. A little practice, however, such as a small entrelac project, should have you clicking along in no time.



Sara lives in Houston, where she says it's never too hot to knit, but sometimes too hot to knit outside.

She likes talking about knitting almost as much as she likes doing it, and does so at length on her blog, Let Me ExplaiKnit.