May 4, 2014

Purl Bumps Ahead

Many knitters hate to purl, a phenomenon that’s always puzzled me.

I’m the opposite, of course. I find long stretches of purl stitches relaxing, speedy and easy to execute, but I suspect this has more to do with the way I hold the needles and throw the yarn than anything else.

The issue with purling isn’t so much the stitch itself, it’s that other thing: Change. 

For many of us, rhythm and pacing are a large part of what makes knitting so satisfying and enjoyable. The search for that rhythm and the pleasure we receive when we achieve it is what makes knitting so utterly addicting. Shifting the needles, repositioning the yarn, changing directions interrupts that rhythm even if only for a nanosecond.

Seed stitch is exquisitely beautiful in its simplicity, yet many knitters avoid it like the plague. I get it.

The stockinette stitch epitomizes the principle that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Seed stitch is the opposite, roughly comparable to deliberately choosing a zigzag path to travel the same distance. However, the investment of a bit more time, energy and yarn creates a naturally reversible fabric with texture, depth and dimension that often makes the journey worthwhile. T
he Oyster Bay shawl is just one example.

Like the stitch it describes, the word “purl” has a history with a few interesting twists and turns of its own.

In the 1300s, for example, it described a border, edging or frill added to clothes or fabric. Somewhere along the line, the meaning veered in a new direction undoubtedly reflecting evolving needlework tastes, trends and techniques.

That new direction can be seen in our modern word “purling,” which is believed to be related to the Middle English, pirlyng, a word of unknown origin describing revolving or twisting things. By the 1520s, purl work specified embroidery executed with twisted gold and silver threads, while purling referred to the act of working those threads.

It took 300 years, but by 1825 the word “purl” shifted again to describe the now-familiar and much broader concept of inverting stitches to create any knitted fabric with or without gold or silver thread.

The fascinating thing about knitting, of course, is we can avoid purling but we can't avoid purl bumps. Knitting in general often serves as the ideal metaphor for life, but perhaps the humble purl stitch with its twists, turns and quirky evolution should hold that distinction.

It offers us the opportunity to tackle things from a fresh perspective. To shift focus. Reduce speed. Adjust the rhythm.

Purl bumps ahead. It can be a very good thing.

If you love the seed stitch as I do, you might like this coaster pattern, Double Luck Mug Mats. The mitered squares feature centered increases and are fast, fun and easy to knit. It's my gift to you for Mother's Day.

For more fiber fun, check out Frontier Dreams, Small Things, Natural Suburbia, Wonder Why and Tami's Amis.


  1. Who knew how interesting purl bumps could be?! Am seeing them through fresh eyes.

  2. Your work looks very beautiful, pretty stitches!

  3. Amazing, who knew how interesting a purl bump could be!!!!!!

  4. The only thing I don't like about purling is that my gauge seems to loosen up a bit. I'm still working on that! Yours looks great - very consistent!

  5. I can't say I mind either stitch as I often like the change of pace that a different stitch brings. Love your knits.

  6. I love seed stitch - the knitting of it and the feeling of the 'bumpy' result! Your tale about the term 'purl' is very interesting and the coaster beautiful.

  7. That was a very interesting post, thanks for sharing the knowledge.

  8. I thought you were going to show us how you hold your needles and throw your yarn. ;-)

    I do think the issue is with change.... my first purl after knit is always looser than the rest... I'm working on it, but not there yet.

  9. I'm still knit loose when I purl (did that make sense?) but I am no longer frustrated with it like I used to be. I'm even complaining less about ribbing. I think finding the right pattern and yarn is most of the battle and, you are right, changing your perspective. Great post.


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