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Dear Everybody,

When we first met this co-author of a book called Drop-Dead Easy Knits, we knew Mary Lou Egan would be our soul mate in the appreciation of simple, beautiful knitting. Mary Lou’s open, straightforward, and uplifting approach to making new knitters is as contagious as it is inspiring. Welcome to MDK, Mary Lou!

—Ann and Kay

As adults, we’re so accustomed to knowing how to do things well that we (mostly) don’t remember learning how to drive, type, write, ride a bike or cook. Officially setting out to learn something new puts us in the precarious position of being an “adult beginner.” If this phrase makes you shudder, don’t worry. As I repeat in every lesson to the nervous newbie, It’s only knitting. Learning how to read and write was much harder.”

I personally aspire to teach knitting the way Laurie Colwin taught cooking. “Competence was a goal, but confidence was the real point,” she wrote. I love to create confident knitters. You can too.

The Right Project

First, help the knitter-to-be choose a project that will build confidence. Not a scarf—they will die of boredom before it is finished. Researchers on boredom found that adding immediate feedback tools such as progress bars, speed indicators, and ranking systems on otherwise repetitive tasks reduces boredom. In knitting, this immediate feedback is right there on the needles. A scarf is like a page-loading progress bar that never seems to change.

Seeing progress is one reason I love to knit small projects like hats in meetings. Instead of thinking “Those are a few hours of my life I won’t get back,” I can look at my knitting and think “Hah, look what I accomplished!”

The Right Stuff

Next, a new knitter needs decent materials and the right tools for the job. Heavy old aluminum needles from someone’s Aunt Myrtle and the ancient Wintuk Orlon that came with them will not be inspiring. It isn’t necessary to drop a bundle for a first knitting project, but using materials that are pleasing to handle is a good place to start.

Oh, Myrtle. there may be better needles and yarns to learn with nowadays, but yours are loaded with memories and ambience.

Help the knitter-to-be ask helpful needle-quest questions: Does wood or bamboo feel good? Does the slickness of shiny stainless steel appeal? Straights or circulars? Let them try several. There is no one right way. 

Help choose a yarn that won’t make it hard to see the stitches. A smooth, lighter-colored wool is the way to go for the first foray. If you are lucky enough to have a local yarn shop, take your student there and smile to yourself at the reaction. If not, hold their hands as they browse online and don’t let them max out the credit card! Choosing beautiful yarn for a beautiful project builds confident knitters.

Skill Set welcomes new knitters to the Yarnery.

The Right Words

Help newbies with the vocabulary. Knitting language is like recipe language. Does “mix by hand” mean up -to-your-elbow-in-cookie-dough, as my sister once thought? And how do you fold in the cheese? Cast on, bind off, work-even-as-established—these are the knitterly equivalents.

The Right Support

Lastly, provide a resource for extra help when the need arises and being in-person isn’t an option. As the teaching buddy, you may be OK with texting and FaceTiming at all hours, however, a good book and/or video resource is an excellent supplement. We often forget the details of things recently learned.

Research suggests if you find yourself struggling to recall some tidbit of information, you are better off simply looking up the correct answer. One such handy resource is Skill Set: Beginning Knitting. The book is excellent, clearly written and a friendly upgrade to Aunt Myrtle’s booklet.

Fun is in scare quotes.

And hey, “There’s an app for that!”  The Skill Set: Beginning Knitting app for Apple iOS and Android is the digital equivalent of the book—and then some!  It’s packed with quick, clear video demonstrations. You can even send the app to a friend as a gift.

One of my students keeps the Skill Set app on her Apple Watch. I had to remind her that she didn’t need to use it in class, as she was paying for in-person instruction. She replied, “I know, but it’s so cool!” 

Something special

For MDK readers, Mary Lou is offering a discount on her Kiandra hat pattern that takes two skeins of Atlas (Seaglass pictured here)! Enter code ATLAS when you check the pattern out at Ravelry for 50% off. Sassy cable motif, chewy garter stitch. We love this beanie. Thanks, Mary Lou!

Images © Gale Zucker

About The Author

Mary Lou Egan has been teaching knitting and designing for a long time. Teaching all levels has given her insight in ways to address the challenges knitters face—and the chance to practice tips and tricks on unsuspecting knitters.


  • Thanks, Mary Lou! I think that hat will be great, knitted to match my Escalator Scarf. 🙂

  • So wonderful to welcome your knitting wisdom to MDK. I have made several projects from Drop-Dead Easy Knits and look forward to this new hat pattern.

  • Those old aluminum needles are not the least bit heavy. I’ve been using them for blanket squares lately and I would definitely use them to teach someone to knit. They are the original Boye (made in the USA) from the 1960’s and the bonus is they are in fabulous colors which are very inspiring.

    • Dish cloths or face cloths or “warsh rags” ( that always makes me smile). So many possibilities.
      Do it!! Kate

    • I completely agree with you about the quality of old aluminum needles! It’s the acrylic yarn that’s to be avoided.

      • I am sure that there are some totally terrible needles out there in our world. I know a delightful woman who learned to knit using twigs! She is an amazing knitter! When I am doing a swatch , I try several different needles. Often the square wood ones are my intended and I end up with carbon ones or birch or ? Sometimes one type needle feels better in my hands…. Or another ? The yarn just slides dreamily along and the next is just enough to make me take up yodeling!
        I don’t think I have any hot pink aluminums, but I have some oddballs for sure. We were on a cruise and I used some bamboo hors d’oeuvres skewers and made socks! Follow your heart and your hands… don’t purchase cheap junk yarn because it is your first project! Don’t go overboard, buy something appropriate that you love. Kate

  • Oh this article seems so appropriate. My 8 year old granddaughter asked me to teach her to knit on Saturday. We spent the afternoon knitting together. She caught on right away and made a coaster,

  • Very charming hat! Yes I am planning ahead for next winter (or I didn’t knit the hats I had in mind for this past winter).

  • So much good advice!! Love it.

  • When I started teaching knitting at our library many years ago, I’ll admit to starting new knitters with a scarf – now I’m worried about how many people I bored to death, lol! Great article!

  • What else could a first-timer make besides a scarf though? Wouldn’t adding shaping or having to knit in the round be too difficult? How or where do I find a project like that?

    • I started both my new knitters & crocheters with dish cloths & the Lily Sugar ‘n Cream 100% cotton yarn. It teaches them to feel their yarn tension from the start. If your hands are getting tired you’re pulling too tight & it’s time to rest. Plus they are quick projects & even if you make a mistake the dirty dishes or countertops won’t care. Your dishcloths will still perform their job just the same.

    • When I’ve taught knitting, I usually start with a dishcloth, showing continental and English style. And sometimes the student realizes they already knew how to knit…they just had forgotten. After the dishcloth I start them on a hat from The Knit Stitch book. It starts out flat garter stitch for a few rows, then joined in the round. It allows the knitter to use circular needles and then use double points at the end. A very satisfying project.

    • Sometimes going a little way into the deep end is an amazing learning experience. I made a pair of socks in two days and just did what the pattern said. That was about 18 years ago.. I still wear them ! I am not brave enough to swim out to steek land…..yet!

    • Coasters are what I recommend— it’s what I did when I was teaching myself to knit. With worsted or aran wool they are relatively quick to do, and it’s a great way to practice casting on and binding off several times in close succession so that skill sinks in.

      Plus if you do a different stitch pattern with each coaster, you can start with garter, then learn to purl and do stockinette, ribbing, seed stitch, then learn yarn overs and simple decreases to make eyelets.

      At that point, the only thing new you’d be doing in a hat is either knitting in the round or seaming.

    • simple fingerless mitts. Skacel has a super simple pattern, 2 flat rectangles. seam up the sides leaving a thumb hole.

    • A stockinette cowl in the round is, I think, easier than knitting back and forth. And knitting two stitches together is something a beginner can easily do. And probably has by mistake!

    • Mittens are the first things I learned to knit. Ribbing, stockingnet, increases, decreases, seams. Small project.Instant gratification. I still use my aluminum needles from decades ago

    • I like to help beginners knit a hat. It can be flat and then seamed up. or I cast on 16″ circular needles and do the first few rows for them, then hand it over. Or super easy fingerless mitts, knit a flat rectangle, leave a space for the thumb when seaming up. (heh I’m not a partner in Drop Dead Easy for nothin’) – Anything but a scarf!

    • A couple of garter squares can be folded in half and stitched up into fingerless mitts. Just leave a thumb hole. Fast and useful!

    • Potholders are excellent. Heavier wool, garter stitch a square a bit bigger than you think you’ll need, make a little hanger loop, toss in washer to felt. I have knit potholders over 15 years old and they are still going strong. And the wool won’t burn if put down on a hot burner (guess how I know…). Make one square, then the next one start with one stitch to learn increasing and decreasing.

      • I still have the aluminum needles I learned to knit with, and all of the others my mom and grandmas had…I love the colors! The yarn I learned with was harvest gold Orlon…that may be why It took me a few years before I picked knitting back up again. Excellent tips in this article!

    • Maybe a simple cowl knit flat then seamed up the back?

  • I’ve started a few new knitters on a scarf but rethinking that given the analogy about learning to drive. We learn to start the car, signal, pull out, drive straight, turn left and turn right and park all in ONE lesson. Certainly our students can knit and purl and k2tog over the first 6 inches.

  • My friend and I lead a group at our local library. We teach beginners to make a dishcloth. It’s quick, nice size needles, and you can use it no matter how many mistakes there are!

  • I love teaching others to knit – when someone says ‘I’d love to learn to knit’, I slide right over and pat the seat next to me.
    My biggest lesson as a non-official knitting teacher is not to get discouraged if your student doesn’t continue knit. My mother and aunt taught me knit and crochet when I was 6, but I didn’t really start up again until I was 40. When some of my students have continued enthusiastically, however, it is the best thing ever in my knitters heart.

  • I cannot count the number of times I’ve said “there is no one right way.”

  • Luv that you included the clip to “fold in the cheese”! lmao

  • My 7 year old grandson is ready but wants to knit a Slytherin scarf from Tanis Gray’s book. What’s a Grammy to do?

    • The changing colors of the stripes may keep him interested.

    • I say “go for it.” My grandmother taught me to knit when I was six. I know she had her doubts about my capabilities and level of commitment.

      The first thing I wanted to make was a very long blue scarf. I know it had holes and mistakes. But I had made something myself and I was very proud of it. The Slytherin scarf, from the pictures, looks like green and gray stripes in solid color, medium weight yarns. Which means the level of technical difficulty would be right for a beginner. I would knit along with him at the beginning-in the sense that you are knitting something and he is working on his scarf. That way you can stop and check his work occasionally. I definitely could have benefitted from someone making sure I had good knitting habits and showing me how to manage dropped stitches.

      I recently taught my adult daughter to knit. She asked me to help her fix a dropped stitch and I discovered that all of her purl stitches were twisted. It did not make much difference to the pattern and to visual difference was lost in the variegated colors of the yarn. But I did catch what she was doing wrong and showed her how to purl without twisting stitches.

  • I’m a new knitter. I love making scarfs. I’m on my second, learning new stitches. My LYS turned me on to birch needles, love them although there is no beating the Boyes my mother has . I started a sweater, too much in 5 months of knitting but a poncho on round needles is just enough challenge. Sticktoitness is my mantra. I love my LYS!

  • Great article! When I learned to knit over — more than I can count– years ago we made slippers and hats…I learned in Girl Scouts…my mom ended up teaching all the boys in our neighborhood also…wonder if they still knit? I knit every day now !

  • Perfect timing! I am teaching two friends to knit on Wednesday through Friday on a little handwork getaway. I am as excited to teach as they are to learn!

  • I took a beginners’ class recently with a friend. I went for moral support. The project was a Rowan Big Wool hat on 15″ circular bamboo needles. A nice combination. The hardest part about working in the round is not twisting the first row.

    For knitting and purling in the round I recommend the LTYC Super Bulky Cowl. It is a knit/purl rib worked over an odd number of stitches. This creates a nice spiral effect. It is a very sophisticated look. As a more advanced knitter, I love doing these as gifts. One skein of wool. One night of knitting. My daughter made one as a first project. She posted it online and immediately had a request for one from a friend in France. It could be that little pop of color, like the green gloves.

  • I can’t believe my eyes!!! That “Fun” Way to Learn Knitting booklet was my 1st, at 8 years old when I learned to knit. And I still have it!! It is a keepsake I stow in the front sleeve of a notebook of patterns I made. Such memories it holds! The owner of the LYS in Morristown NJ on the town square was my coach and I can still hear her saying to my Mom, “She’s a natural.”, and the glow I felt kept me going. (Until I stopped…)
    Kudos to my Mom who took me there and took me back 2 more times. She hated the idea of girls/women knitting, seeing it as the oppression of women. ( She felt that way well into her 90s!)
    Thank you for this wonderful letter, Mary Lou! ❤

    • But you got back at it! Hi from a fellow Jersey Girl!

    • Hello fellow Jersey Girl!

  • I have the Skill Set app myself and am trying to gift to a friend. When I open the app, I have an “open” icon only on my iPhone. There is no “forward” icon to purchase in gift format. I went into the app itself to see if there was another way to gift, but cannot find anything. Some tech help please. Thanks! ☺️

  • To new knitters I alway suggest starting with a square. Potholder, washcloth, dishcloth or hand mitts, whatever you want to call it. The potholder et al is for personal use and you never ever have to show it to anyone until you get your confidence and skill up and running. After that – most items are still dishcloths – a scarf is a long dishcloth, a blanket is a big dishcloth, etc just to break it up into small parts.

  • Such a lovely way to start this week with your fun, helpful, and sensible article! I look forward to reading more form you. I loved the links and the photos. I do miss the Yarnery!

    • They have a beautiful new store on Selby Ave in St. Paul!

  • Great article, agree completely, it’s so much easier to teach someone about fiber arts if they have nice materials and beautiful tools with which to create their first project. Love your book btw Mary Lou

  • Nice hat pattern! Good words of wisdom, but that “slingshot” method of casting on has made more than one person quit right up front! That would be me. I am a bit 3-D challenged, and couldn’t figure it out. Fortunately someone taught me the “grandma’s thumb” method which is so much easier.

    • There are so many ways to cast on! I learned to knit the stitches on, and didn’t learn long tail for many years.

  • I had learned the very basics of knitting while spending time with my grandmother but I never finished anything because the yarn was cheap and the project was boring
    When I took my first knitting class it was taught by knitting in the round and that was in 1983. But I have a sweater that my grandmother knit for me in 1975 that I will never give up although she used cheap yarn it’s a complex Aran pullover. My only sibling had died on November 6,1974 and on my birthday in February 19, 1975 I received this sweater in the mail and it was a big hug and because of the yarn it’s indestructible ❤️

    • I loved Sundays after being taught by my mother and grandmother to knit,Sunday afternoon was our time to knit together,after lunch, I treasethose times spent,I had boys,not interested, so I’m a lone knitter,daughter in law and granddaughter not interested i did try alas not to be .I am knitting jumpers for next winter and crocheting blankets and a sweater on the go ,keeps me busy and the love of my hobbies im in my mid eighties and not lost the love of making things, I enjoy it so much, more so because I can do my hobbies whenever I want, one very happy lady.

  • I love my Skill Set app! Even though I am not a new knitter, there are “basics” that I have rarely or infrequently used. Skill Set will have the answer for me. The videos are clear and to the point. It’s also the best thing to recommend to newbie knitters, as the app goes anywhere with them on their phone, so they can keep their hard copy Skill Set book safe at home.

  • Hi Mary Lou! You made me laugh. When my friend Kate approached me to teach her to knit, and showed me her garter stitch swatch, still on a dpn, knit with Malabrigo Rios, I knew she was off to a very good start indeed. She’s since knit a few hats in the round, a cowl from a Yarnery kit, and last I heard, wanted my help with grafting for another cowl from a Yarnery kit (striped). You, me, and Kate, we #shoplocal.

    No Aunt Myrtles, Orlon, or aluminum straights in this saga. I think she’s going to keep knitting!

  • This is so much fun. Thanks for your tips, Mary Lou! I find teaching someone to knit very intimidating. This helps!

  • I was introduced to knitting by my grandmother but learned from a book my sister gifted me. I have passed this on to my granddaughters.
    My first knit was A scarf and decades later I’m not bored and still find it a fun first knit.

  • I have got this but can’t access the site

  • How wonderful to get this validation! These methods and ideas mirror mine completely. I’ve been teaching knitting for almost 40 years and each of these suggestions are so spot on! One more thing, I also do, is I save casting on for a second or third lesson. I prefer my new knitters to spend their time actually knitting. They will learn to cast on much more quickly once they’ve mastered the knit stitch!

  • Woot! Mary Lou!!! Just the person I’d like at my side if I needed to learn to knit.

  • Don’t do what I did 60 years ago and use navy blue yarn! I think synthetic yarn, metal needles(large size), a garter stitch potholder are the easiest to begin with. SAnd after 3 years l started all over again learning continental. Next project, simple ribbed hat ,maybe mittens 3rd. Very important to learn sewing together so final product looks good.

  • Do you have patterns for knit, top down, cardigan sweaters?

  • Oh memories! I learned on size 11 wooden needles with Red Heart yarn from a tiny old lady on a stage yards away with at least 50 other kids on the 4th floor of the May Co. department store in Cleveland OH. In other words I pretty much taught myself from the kit we had to buy. My first project was, no kidding, a garter stitch babushka! Hot pink. It was an 8″ square with I-cord ties. The other choice was a length of garter with pointed ends for ear flaps also tied on with I-cord. How I stretched and pulled on that babushka impatiently trying to make the length. I graduated to striped stocking caps using Woolworth yarn. At least it was all wool back then. I’m a lefty and never realized there was any difference until I began to teach my righty sister. Still knitting after a long absence and getting a kick out of the new gear and material. I’m mining your website like it’s the Comstock Lode! Love it!

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