Do you knit the English way, wrapping the thread around the needle with your right hand, and would like to try out Continental Knitting? The way of knitting where the thread runs through your left hand and the working needle picks it up. Continental knitting is said to be faster.
Here's a short how-to:
1. Pick up your knitting (a practice piece with at least a few rows, to avoid having to knit off the more rigid cast on row) and put the working thread any which way through the fingers of your left hand so that the thread comes over your left index finger towards your knitting.
2. Allow for an approximate one to two inches in length of this thread between your knitting and your index finger - make sure that the thread does not go slack. This is important.
3. Assuming you wish to knit (K1): put your right needle through the stitch to knit (from left to right) - as the tip of the needle comes up near the yarn, make a grab for it: from the top downwards or right to left: going from the right behind the thread towards the left/downwards depending on how you look at it.
4. This is my special tip: place the tip of your right index finger lightly on top of the thread wrapped round your right needle to help it through while you start to pull the yarn on the right needle back through the stitch on the left needle.
5. Continue the same motion (the motion of pulling the thread through the needle) into pulling the knitted stitch off the left needle.
With a bit of practice it can all become one motion: in, out, up, around, down, through and off the needle. I really like the fluidity of Continental knitting.
English knitting differs from Continental knitting in the number of steps needed: knitting the Continental way seems a little smoother to me because, as mentioned above, the motion of putting your working needle through the stitch goes straight up and into making a grab at the yarn and continues the same motion into pulling the yarn through the stitch as well as pulling it off the left needle.
In English knitting you place the right needle some way into and through the stitch, then the right hand wraps the yarn around the needle (unless you let go of your knitting, move your hand to pick up the thread, wrap it round your needle) before you go back to holding the right needle and prepare to pull the yarn through the stitch. I think of this as three steps (needle through, wrap thread, pull thread through) as opposed to the two steps of Continental knitting: put needle through and grab the yarn, second step: help the thread through the stitch (that tip of the finger does come in exceedingly handy! It's not strictly necessary though) and pull the knitted stitch off the left needle in one motion.
That's why it is meant to be quicker. It may also be more gentle on your hands because the movements of your hands are smaller.
You may try this and find it very difficult. One of the reasons I can think of is to do with how far you push the right needle through the stitch. I have seen some novice knitters hold the right needle clamped in their hand about half way down the shaft and push it about a quarter of its length through the stitch. I must admit that this gives a lot of room to play for wrapping your thread round the needle - but it also means that you have a helluva job on your hands to manoeuvre the needle back through the stitch without losing your yarn in the process. I would find this very fiddly and would therefore suggest that the needle tip has been poked through way too far.
Instead of thinking of your knitting needles as a set of two spears, try thinking of them as pens. You only use the tip of a pen to write with, in knitting you don't need all that much more of your needle than perhaps as much as two thirds of an inch - but this depends on the chunkiness of your yarn: If you're using rope give it a good inch, using 4 ply or even laceweight: make it half an inch. Use as little of the right needle as you can while still being able to wrap the needle round the working yarn and pull it through the stitch on the left needle. Using the tip of your finger to hold the yarn in place (around your right needle) really comes into its own when you try to use only the tip of your needle - this can become quite automatic very quickly and won't feel as fiddly as it sounds!
Helping a stitch through when purling:
I've also got a bit of a trick when purling: the tip of your left index finger won't be any help here, but what I noticed when I took a good look at what I do is that the nail on my right thumb comes up and touches the working yarn wrapped around your needle! Well, either the nail itself or otherwise the very tip of my thumb. It works wonders too.
The angle at which you hold your two needles to each other can also make a difference: don't put them at too steep an angle: 90 degrees or perpendicular is too much, but you don't want them aligned in one line either: there should be enough of an angle to allow you to easily poke the tip of your right needle through the stitch but not so steep as to make it difficult to pull the yarn through that same stitch. Experiment with a few different angles! See what works best for you. I suspect that this may be quite different for different knitters.
When purling you may start with the needles almost aligned in one line: much easier to poke your right needle through that way! When your thumb comes up to help keep the grabbed thread in place it also moves your needle into a different position and angle. Again: experiment with what works for you and what's the most comfortable.
There is another thing that I do that I never realised until I made myself watch how I actually knit: I have a funny little wobble going with my left hand. I move the thread on my hand a bit closer using a circular motion out of the wrist and rotating towards me while I grab the yarn with the right needle - the wobble is a bit different between knit and purl stitches but somewhat similar (if that makes any sense!). Isn't it funny what you get used to once you get into a rhythm? I guess that's also the secret of success with trying a different way of knitting: - once you have a rhythm going you know what you're doing and you can see how this may speed up your knitting and reduce the wear on your joints (maybe not, but I like to think so!).
The most important thing for successful Continental knitting is to not let the working thread between your knitting and your left index finger go slack. Many novice knitters are focussed on the right needle and the stitch and fish around for the yarn that's suddenly not in the space it's meant to be in. Your left index finger will have descended towards the left needle. Elizabeth Zimmermann writes about being self-taught (love that story!) and that she had the thread running over her index finger while it touched the left needle. Being naturally curious, I've tried to see how it would work: I cannot figure out how to make it work! Perhaps the thread ran across another finger, I don't know. My advice is to check your left index finger every so often to see if it's still in the right place. This wobble I was talking about above does happen to move your index finger quite a bit - there's the sort of action going on that your sideways overlocker/serger needles get into: not the up and down ones but those on the sides that go across the seam. It's not much of a twitch but it does seem to speed up my knitting a bit without me quite realising. At least I'm told that I am quite quick.
Holding your left index finger upright, which in turn stops the working thread from going slack, can have another advantage: if you knit quite loosely on a specific stitch (say knitting two stitches together), then your left index finger can help to pull the thread a little tighter. You want to avoid yanking the thread too much with every stitch because your tension will end up rather too tight. Allow your right needle to dictate the stitch size rather than pulling the thread so tight with every stitch that you have problems knitting those stitches off in the following row. If your stitches come out too loose, then pick a smaller needle size rather than tightening up your hands: it'll only give you cramps and will spoil your enjoyment of knitting.
I find that occasionally my tension goes a bit too loose on just a few stitches. It's a good idea to put the working thread through the fingers of your left hand so that it winds through twice. I start at the back of the little finger, put the thread between the little and the ring finger, let it go past both the ring and the middle finger, put it between middle and index finger so that it comes across the top of the index finger. At times I wrap the thread a second time around my index finger (forming one loop) - some yarns are so slippery that this might be advisable for the entire project. Other wool may be as clingy as a vine creeper that you want to avoid wrapping it round your index finger like the plague! If the thread slides through your finger at a manageable rate: you're doing absolutely fine!
As you try knitting in a way that you have never practiced before: your hands will start to clench quite a bit because you are trying to remember all the different bits at the same time. My tip is to let go every fifth stitch or so: it allows you to smooth out the stitches on your right needle that you just knitted and to move up those on the left needle ready to have a go at them. This will even out your tension across the row and avoid bunched up loose tension problems of too long runs before allowing stitches to move on the needles.
Don't be afraid of re-threading your left hand: you will want to experiment about how high up you want the thread to run through your fingers: too low down right at the bottom of your fingers and your yarn will not slide through your fingers and make the whole exercise very frustrating. Too high up and you run into the danger of losing your grip on the thread completely.
Readjusting your hands and also the thread on your left hand every so often also has another advantage: moving your fingers and hands a little bit will limber them up a bit and this will stop the very annoying 'this is not working very well so let's clench every single finger up' from happening. Because chances are that you are already holding your hands and fingers in a very stiff way and adding tension makes a not so effective circumstance only worse.
The other thing to look out for is how close the stitches on your left needle have pushed up towards the tip of the left needle: too close (meaning there are too many of them crowding towards tipping right off) and you can't keep up with knitting them off quickly enough, result: you drop some stitches. Too far down the needle means that you will pull the stitch open too much with your right needle and the tension of your knitted fabric is shot to pieces even if you work everything else really evenly. The stitches you just knitted off that are now sitting on your right needle: don't allow too many of them to gather there, sitting bunched up in front of and under the fingers holding the right needle - you want enough room to be able to use the tips of your right index finger or thumb without having to worry about dropping some stitches on that side.
I can only recommend that you let loose every so often, readjust your hands, check your index finger is holding the working thread straight (not slack) and looking back at the piece you knitted. You can check for tension problem (if you want to) and make sure you're not making life very much more difficult by knitting as if you're trying to produce a grid of knots. I've been there: when I started to knit my knitting needles would sometimes start to squeak! (I'm not lying: literally!) because I was trying to push them through stitches that were sitting way too tightly on the needles.
On second thoughts: seeing as you are only practising this other way of knitting: how about inserting a thinner needle into your knitted piece to use as your left hand needle, the one you're knitting from. The size of your left needle does not affect your stitches (the right needle does that) and you will find it much easier to knit the stitches off. Once you progress to knitting a 'proper' item in the Continental way (assuming that you liked the experience and want to take it a little further) then you may find that your practice has shown you how to knit loosely enough to make it an enjoyable experience. If you don't like the tension of the knitted fabric you could go down half a needle size - as long as you can knit as loosely as before. I can see the advantage in knitted fabric that is more tight: it won't distort as much as loose knitting, but I completely fail to see the advantage in tight, very tensed up knitting. I find it extremely frustrating, slow and perspiration inducing: which in turn serves to make things even worse! If your needles start making noises, then I would suggest you try to loosen up. It is very much worth it.
I am sorry that I have not included any pictures yet. I am not sure if I will manage any. I hope my descriptions are good enough to explain what I am trying to say, and not too wordy so as to become useless due to being annoying. I tried to stay somewhere between the two extremes.
If anything is not clear, then please ask in the comments - I will try to clarify. I also have some tips for how to make sure that your tension while purling is not a lot looser, but will leave this for another blog entry.
If you are interested in trying Continental knitting: do you find this blog post useful?