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Published on May 6th, 2015 | by Elizabeth Bagwell

11 comments

Why a scarf is a terrible first project…

The garter stitch scarf is a popular first project but Elizabeth Bagwell argues that it might be discouraging beginner knitters from sticking with their yarn.

Many beginner knitters cast on for a garter stitch scarf as their first project. After 10 years of teaching friends and strangers to knit, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a terrible idea. Here’s why.

There are typically 20,000 stitches in a scarf
Ballband tension on a DK yarn is typically around 22 stitches and 30 rows to make a 4in square. Assume a scarf that is at least 8in wide and as long as the wearer is tall (this is a very handy rough estimate). You’d have 44 stitches per row and 120 rows per foot. So that’s 3,960 stitches per foot of scarf – 19,800 for a 5 foot scarf or 23,760 for a 6 foot scarf.

Garter stitch is usually denser than the stocking stitch used for a ballband swatch, so this number may well be a low estimate. Asking a beginner knitter to do the exact same thing 20,000 times is a great way to ensure that they learn to do that thing well. It’s also really, really dull!

First yarns are often dreadful
It’s entirely normal, when you start a new hobby, to launch in cautiously. Most beginner knitters start with a cheap yarn and budget needles. If you want a cosy, fashionable scarf and are shopping at the bottom end of the market, you need to know your yarn. A beginner will be taking pot luck, and may well wind up with a washable acrylic that’s great for toys but a bit scratchy or a hard-wearing kitchen cotton that’s ideal for dishcloths but sags in a scarf.

Casting on is the fun bit
Starting a new project is great fun – that’s why so many knitters have lots of WIPs (works in progress) littering the house. Choosing a new yarn and matching it to a great pattern is one of the pleasurable bits. So why do we insist that new knitters slog through a marathon before they get to do another sprint?

There’s more to knitting than garter stitch
Few knitters are willing to start with a sampler scarf, where they try a new technique every few inches. As a result, a beginner working on a scarf can knit for their first hundred hours without learning to purl, never mind throwing in a cable or a deliberate yarn over.

It’s hard to fix mistakes
When you’re learning, you make mistakes. That’s as true in knitting as it is in skiing or chess. A garter stitch scarf preserves every mistake you’ve made. Many beginner mistakes aren’t easy to fix after the fact. You can sew in a dropped stitch, but you can’t alter the fact your tension changed somewhere between the first inch and the fifteenth, or that you increased for a while before casting off a chunk to get back to your original number of stitches. While some new knitters will embrace the chaos, the hobby attracts enough perfectionist and type-A personalities that a fair number will hide the project in the back of a cupboard and never speak of it again.

There are so many great beginner patterns
A garter stitch square is a good place to start, and it can be made into so many things. In kitchen cotton, it’s a pot holder or dishcloth. Fold it in half, sew up one side, leaving a hole for the thumb, and you have a fingerless mitt. Knit two squares (or a rectangle) and you can make a hat. Turn the hat upside down and add a handle, and you have a bag. Square’s bigger than you expected? Make a pair and stuff them and you’ve got a cushion. Smaller? Well, maybe you’ve always needed a pin cushion or a coaster…

Whether you’re a beginner or want to learn new techniques, explore our How-to section for inspiration!  We’ve got projects and tutorials, stitch guides and wisdom from experienced knitters who can show you how to knit from cast-on to entrelac and colourwork!

Why not try our Grandma’s Favourite Dishcloth tutorial to start off your knitting journey?  Follow easy steps with Amy Kaspar, and when you’ve tried this beginner dishcloth, work your way through Angie’s 4 free dishcloth patterns to introduce new stitches!

Grandma's favourite dishcloth pattern on the Loveknitting blog

What was your first project? Did it encourage you to keep going? Do you have a favourite pattern you use, when you help friends learn to knit? Tell us all about it in the comments!


About the Author

Elizabeth is a keen knitter, occasional designer, enthusiastic traveler and a professional freelance writer. She spent three years working for British knitting magazine, Simply Knitting, and has also written for The Knitter and other craft titles. She blogs at: www.elizabethbagwell.me.uk


Last updated: May 5th, 2015.

11 Responses to Why a scarf is a terrible first project…

  1. Jill says:

    I COMPLETELY agree.

    Everyone I have ever taught to knit starts with cotton yarn, variegated yarn, Suze 6-8 (US) needles, and we start a dish cloth.

    Cast on about 30 stitches, which is a reasonable number, and it doesn’t matter if there are dropped stitches or add ons….it is still a usable item when finished.

    I like variegated because it provides interest, and it is easy to see if a stitch has been skipped.

  2. Morven Ovenstone-Jones says:

    I am about to (attempt to) teach ten kids to knit at my son’s after school club. This is great advice. I thought about sewing their squares into a blanket or floor rug – but then I remembered that their tension would be all over the place and the squares would never match up! Dishcloths are both usable and saleable once they have mastered a few techniques!

  3. Jenny says:

    i couldn’t agree with this more!! I start everyone I teach on a garter stitch headband, but with slightly heavier yarn than DK so it works up quick, they learn the technique, and they (hopefully) still have an accessory they can wear which I think it why many people assume they have to make a scarf first go!

  4. Marianne says:

    Hi,
    I started knitting with a kids craft book and I knitted a pretty ugly rabbit, but my son loved it. This book taught be the basics knit, purl, increasing and decreasing. It even taught me some stitches combinations. Fortunately there was, and still is, youtube for help as I am far from being an experienced knitter. When I see a project I like I just go for it and go to you tube to figure out what I don’t know (I always have a square by the side to tests things out!)
    I teach year 4 and I taught my students to knit squares to stitch together to make a class coat of arms. I provided each student with a paper square to refer to for size and it woked perfectly! They loved it and are very proud. They have since made phone pouches, hair bows, cushions… Very proud of them!

  5. Rebecca Epp says:

    I did practice some stitches before, but my first project was a sweater (Chelsea Morning Sweater on ravelry). I also splurged and got some great merino wool for it, and even just staring at it made me happy, so that was a huge help. I suggest to people learning to knit to choose a project that is simple enough to learn, but complicated enough to get you interested and teach you things. My sweater taught me lots, but I was pretty invested in learning. I would suggest a hat with ribbing and decreases to start.

  6. M A Berkowitz says:

    My first project was a Chanel jacket with raglan bracelet-length sleeves. I made it with two strands, one a fuzzy mohair, the other a regular 4-ply wool. The color was a fabulous cobalt blue, and it came out beautifully. I wore it until it wore out. Some of the five pieces had to be redone more than once, but I learned to do everything including casting on and making a gauge to blocking and sewing the pieces together to make a beautiful, fashionable, and wearable garment, that I enjoyed for years. My mother even borrowed it a couple of times!

  7. Amazed by some of these adventurous first projects. One of my friends has only ever knit a cashmere dress (looks great). My first project was a garter stitch scarf, exactly as long as my first ball of yarn, and abandoned in a drawer ever since.

  8. Lesley says:

    I think I was taught by both my grandmas and my mum, but as with reading, I have no memory of a time when I couldn’t t do it.
    I can’t remember my first project , it was a long time ago, but I know I used to knit a lot of clothes for my dolls

  9. My mum taught me to knit when I was 6. The first thing I made was a jumper for my baby sister. I’ve always loved knitting but HATE sewing up garments, probably due to my mum doing that for me for years!

  10. Renee says:

    My first project was when I was 9 yrs old. I made a V-neck pullover vest for my 18″ doll.

  11. Kirsty says:

    My first project was a shrug for my daughter (15 months) that had a mix of knit and purl in rows and cable thrown in for some fun!

    I completed it, it fits her, it’s a lovely yarn (sublime merino and cashmere – I was making it to wear to a wedding we ended up not going to!). Yes I made mistakes – realised about an inch on that I had purled a row that wasn’t supposed to but wasn’t feeling brave enough to rip out an inches worth of rows! Increased by one somewhere at the end of cable and rectified that a couple of rows later and had to rip out 2 rows (80 stitches a row) to stop me purling another non purl row….. Lesson – don’t knit when tired!

    I had used the wrong yarn for the pattern really but I loved the feel and colour; but on the plus side I made it work and learned lessons! Now hunting for the ‘wrong’ yarn for another project (this time it’s for her twin brother) 🙂

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