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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

The Scourge of Upside Down Knitting

When you grow up with a mother who is a knitter, there are certain facts in life that you simply have to accept.  Knitting all the time, everywhere, is the norm.  A bookshelf full of different kinds of yarn is not weird.  Fiber Fests are de rigeur and knowing the difference between a gossip wheel and a walking wheel (when talking spinning wheels) is par for the course.  Don’t even get me started on drop spindles and dying wool with Kool-Aid.  Not that I ever took to the craft myself.  Maybe it was just so prevalent in my home that I never felt the necessity to learn.  Also, why learn to knit when my children are amply provided for, not just by my always knitting mama, but by her friends and my knit-worthy co-workers as well (Alison Hendon shout out!)?

My mom, as it happens, is heavily involved in the knitting blogger community as a commenter.  I have honest-to-gosh had people say to me, “I saw that someone called Rams commented on your blog.  Is that the same Rams as the one on Ravelry?”  Mom be famous.  And like all knitters, she pays attention to how they are portrayed in children’s literature.

In a recent Harper Collins post the comment section suddenly got very interested in the subject of books in which knitting is accurately represented.  The talk started bring up book after book, so that I suddenly had the idea for this post.  You see, the portrayal of knitting by illustrators is very touch and go.  Artists are not particularly thrilled by the notion of the ends of knitting needles going down, in spite of the fact that that’s how one actually knits.  So as often as not you’ll see an image like this with the ends up:

Note the knitting needles to the right.

Rather than this:

Not sure what their fingers are supposed to be doing here, but at least the needles are down.

Here then, are a couple of our favorite artists, answering the “Does the illustrator care how to hold knitting needles?” question.  The answers may surprise you.


Penguin in Love by Salina Yoon – YES!

You’ll find that for some of these books I don’t have images of the knitters knitting, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.  A penguin is naturally going to have some difficulty knitting since it is without phalanges, but in spite of this impediment Yoon’s flightless waterfowl still knows the proper way to hold its needles.

Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett, ill. Jon Klassen – NO

When the Caldecott committee sat down and considered Barnett and Klassen’s fabulous book for an Honor, did the fact that its heroine didn’t know how to hold knitting needles ever come up?  Was there a knitter on the committee?  Or did they feel that in light of the lovely art and great storytelling that this wasn’t an issue?  It’s surprising, certainly, to find that for all his talent and charms, Mr. Barnett is unaware of how one knits.  However, knowing knitters I suspect he has been informed of this misdeed more than once, and shall continue to be told for years to come.

Swamp Angel by Anne Isaacs, ill. Paul O. Zelinsky – YES!

Interesting, is it not, that I can find images of people knitting incorrectly but never correctly?  What does that say, I wonder, about the state of knitting today?  If you know Zelinsky then you know he is meticulous in his research.  If someone is, say, spinning straw into gold as in his Rumpelstiltskin, then doggone it he’s going to create the world’s most accurate spinning wheel.  And if Swamp Angel is going to knit something gigantic using (as I recall) trees for needles then you can BET Paul will make that image as correct as he can.  Other award winning artists take note.

The Hueys in the New Sweater by Oliver Jeffers -NO

Nope.  Not even close.  Repeated several times over in the same book, too.

Nana in the City by Lauren Castillo – YES!

This one’s not out yet, but when it is you’ll have a chance to see some truly keen knitting on the part of Nana here.  Castillo, one suspects, actually knows from whence she draws.  Well done!

Lester’s Dreadful Sweaters by K.G. Campbell – NO

This one breaks my heart because I was a BIG fan of this book when it came out.  It’s delightful.  It just doesn’t know how to portray the act of knitting.  Doggone it.

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch – YES!

A rare graphic novel where knitting is not only important but the climax of the book hinges on it.  And you can BET that when it came to knitting, Barry studied precisely where the fingers are supposed to go.

This raises the question: Is it possible to knit with the ends of the needles pointed high to the sky?  I leave that to the knitters to answer.  In the meantime, what are some of your favorite knitting books for the kiddos?  How did those needles fare?  High to the sky or low and proud?

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. I’m a lapsed knitter (learned when I was six in Germany so one who doesn’t switch the yarn back and forth as Americans do:) and I’d say it would be mighty hard to knit with the needles up, not to mention pointless. You’d have to hunch up your shoulders, stick out your elbows….nope, can’t see it (well… we HAVE seen it, but you know what I mean:)

    I think this is interesting in terms of the broader issue of “getting it right” in books. I recall a discussion on Heavy Medal a few years ago about the geography of Oakland in One Crazy Summer — evidently it’s got a hill whereas the real place does not. Certainly, books often do …er.. interesting things.. with NYC. I guess knitting and an imaginary hill in a real place seem relatively benign whereas other things are less so. At the moment I don’t see this particular knitting error as culturally careless, but if it came to be so then I’d be more bothered.

  2. I humbly offer my own book, FEEDING THE SHEEP (FSG), illustrated by the wonderful Andrea U’Ren, in which the needles are held correctly (on p. 13), and in which there is a spinning wheel, sheep, a cat and dog, dyeing wool, and the whole kit and kaboodle. If I could paste in an image, I would do so. Darn.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      And as I recall the spinning wheel is dead on accurate in that book too. Well played, Leda and Andrea!

  3. I take the ostrich in the sand approach to knitting illustrations in books. I wonder if it might be a form of artists’s poetic license. It certainly looks more dramatic to have the needle ends pointing to the sky.

    Not a picture book, I offer up Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity. The young women of the ATA were all knitting and Verity’s sweater is a significant character in the story. It inspired me to knit one and Elizabeth Wein herself has blogged about the sweater she knit in homage to Verity.

  4. As an illustrator and a lapsed knitter myself, I had to get out the yarn and needles just last week to make sure the work in progress portrayed Grandma knitting accurately (Yes!). Bonus: I remembered how soothing an exercise knitting is, and have plunged back into it–family be warned: scarves and hats for Christmas!

    The issue of “getting it right” is one that drives me crazy. Little people PAY ATTENTION to illustrations. Some oversights are simply that, I’m sure, but some are deliberate misrepresentations. Early in my career, I was asked to design a new cover for a venerable classic to be reissued in a book club edition. In studying previous covers, one by an artist hero of mine, I was appalled to see that among other minor issues, one of the characters had been glaringly altered–as in wrong species! Yikes! That’s taking artistic license too far.

  5. And I just had a fan girl moment of ‘your MOM is Rams!!!!!’ knitting world is very small, library world is very small…when they collide …

  6. Oops. “…in which there ARE a spinning wheel, sheep, a cat and dog….” Must proofread before posting.

  7. I remember being slightly shocked and confused the first time I saw Rams leaving a comment on your blog!

    As a knitter and an editor, I’ve had to correct illustrators about how they’re depicting knitting on several occasions. It’s one of those funny moments where the book’s designer and I can have a very serious discussion about how accurate the knitting should look when it’s being done by, say, a cow. These imaginary words still have to have some sort of internal logic, after all!

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Carol, I think you were the one I alluded to in this post. You mentioned mom at a dinner we had in Minneapolis back in the day. My memory is long! Now going to go amuse myself by thinking about cows knitting.

  8. I am guessing that “a penguin is naturally going to have some difficulty knitting since it is without phalanges” is not a phrase you ever predicted you’d write.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      On the contrary, I have it cross-stitched into a pillow at the foot of my bed.

      …. okay, not really. I’m just relieved I was able to spell “phalanges” correctly.

  9. But, thanks to Amy Doyle, we have The Worst Case Ever in the witness box — women quilting by wiggling knitting needles:

  10. I love this post. There’s also a Wallace & Grommet video where knitting is done by essentially wiggling the knitting needles. In Extra Yarn, I was actually more bothered by the way the stitches all stay the same size whether you’re looking at them from near or far, and whether they’re covering a house or a mouse.

  11. Um… Been knitting since I was seven, and How Mirka Got Her Sword depicts knitting the way I was taught to do it – and how everyone I have ever known knits. I was making a sweater on the subway once a long time ago and a nun with her knitting bag was eyeing me from all the way down the other end of the subway car. Eventually she came to sit beside me and asked how I knit so fast, how I was holding the yarn, etc. I’ve been told our family knits by the so-called German Method. I have seen folks hold a needle against their abdomen and use both hands to wind the yarn around the needle for each stitch… and have heard that called the English Method. Once borrowed a book from the library that showed how to hold a different coloured yarn in each hand and how to loop each in turn over a needle when that colour was desired for the pattern. Not there yet, but I will figure out how to do that eventually… Great post, by the way. So many different ways to see illustrations, to learn about others through them.

  12. Sorry to break in here, but way back, people did knit with the needle ends up in the air. When I learned to knit as a young girl, some of the older people I met did knit that way, quite efficiently I might add. Luckily I was taught with the needle ends down!

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Ah HA! I knew that there had to be somebody somewhere that once knitted like this. The question is, why would you knit in a fashion that causes the stitches to fall down (gravity and all that)? There must be a reason but it seems inefficient.

      • Susan Curtis says:

        This style was known as “parlour knitting” and it was apparently considered by Victorian knitters to show off elegant hands while knitting lacy little somethings. The right hand needle is held like a pencil, underneath, which makes it point away from the elbow, I pinto the air. I was taught to knit this way, which is still current in instructional materials and blogs in Britain. It was very fast for narrow bands, which we knit without turning. Instead we just back from left to right. As for the knitting being awkwardly affected by gravity, there is no difference. The stitches are hanging off the needles in Ny case, and the only difference is whether the center of the fabric is higher than the edges or not. This style was common in illustrated storybooks and novels of the 1920s and 30s.

  13. Bonnie Abraham says:

    A little off topic, but this reminded me of the toilet paper commercial a few years back. The TP was “quilted” but the ladies in the commercial who were supposedly “quilting” it were —- KNITTING! I don’t remember if they were holding the needles correctly, but if the artist didn’t even know the difference between knitting and quilting….

  14. I have wondered about this awkward depeiction of knitting before, thinking perhaps it was some exotic form that I had not ever heard of or seen before.

    As for parents in social media, I am a mother and a grandma. what is the problem?-do we necessarily recluse and dim as we age? I think not. Also I work for a huge technolgy company-teaching, as it happens, people of all ages and to use their technology and teaching others to teach as well. And I am sensitive to agism.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      I meant no agism. I simply point out that it is sometimes uncommon to ALWAYS come to every form of technology after my mother.

  15. Chris VA says:

    Reading this wonderful discussion led me down a knitting rabbit hole from which I may never emerge, The Knitting Genealogist:
    is fascinating and the archives are a treasure trove of interesting stories.

  16. Sylvia Olsen’s Yetsa’s Sweater gets everything right, and is just generally wonderful 🙂

  17. Helena Georgette says:

    Neesha Hudson has it right in ‘Annie and the Swiss Cheese Scarf’ by knit designer Alana Dakos.

  18. My daughter (4) was given a picture book where the main character knits a very long scarf. The rhyme that the character chants as she is knitting is: “Knit one, purl one, knit two together”. Now this, as any knitter will know, is NOT going to create a long thin scarf, it will merely create a rather small triangle. My daughter is now very confused about her knitting 🙂

  19. Michele says:

    I can’t recall the movie or show it was on but they were “knitting” something and what they were holding in their hands was knitting needles but the item was obviously crocheted! That made me very angry. People call my knitting “crocheting” or even “sewing” enough without it being incorrectly portrayed on TV!

  20. I remember reading that, during one of knitting’s historical surges of popularity, ladies of leisure took up their needles to do their bit, but their intent was more to look beautiful and graceful and, well, ladylike than to actually make things. And so they made it fashionable to knit with the points facing down because it displayed their lily-white hands to best advantage–at which point, who cares about the possibility of dropping a stitch?

  21. I think needles with ends up is in the American consciousness because of the old lady in the Bugs Bunny cartoons, who knit that way. We all grew up on those cartoons and illustrators who’ve never seen actual knitting, or paid attention to it, may have that image in their minds.

    It drives me batty. Jan Brett’s The Mitten has lovely and accurate illustrations of both knitting and spinning, I believe.

    (Your mom is Rams?! Wow. Worlds colliding.)

  22. When the needles point up, it’s because the hands are UNDER the needles, not on top as they are in most current styles. One would hold the needles as one would a pencil (hence it sometimes being called “pencil style”). It’s not my own chosen method, but for illustrations, the needles held in more common ways would sort of “blend” with the forearms generally.

  23. I feel like a terrible knitter now. I never looked that closely at the books with knitting in them, though I was always happy to see them. I will admit that when I read the original post that kicked off this discussion, I ran to the shelves to get Extra Yarn and Penguin in Love to see for myself. Then I proceeded to take a pair of the needles from my Kids Can Knit program and see if I could find a way to knit with ends up, I didn’t see how it could be done. I most likely will now look more closely at the pictures of knitters depicted in books, though I think I will just be happy that knitting is being shown and possibly encouraging more kids to take up the needles…

  24. I kind of dislike the concept that there is a “right way.” I think most knitters will encourage someone to knit however feels right and correct to their own particular hands. In some cultures, people would knit with one needle tucked into their arm pit, and with a little practice it was actually very fast. I have a friend, a very talented knitter, who started out as a crocheter, and she holds her needles down. In fact, she holds the needles in her right hand like you would a pen. She’s never complained of stitches sliding off. It is just what feels right and comfortable to her hands, and she knits like the wind, making gorgeous things. At the end of the day, I’d argue that there is no “right way” as long as the knitter is comfortable. I’m considerably more offended by the representation of knit wear and finished items, like that hideous sweater. Knitwear, particularly modern knitwear, is often delicate and intricate and chic, not frumpy and dumpy and gawdy.

  25. Inaccurate illustrations have always bothered me. A few years ago Northern bathroom tissue, calling itself Quilted Northern, ran commercials with drawings of women sitting around, supposedly quilting the Northern tissue. The problem is that they were knitting! As both a knitter and a quilter, this drove me crazy!. I wrote the company, as did many others I guess since that ad series was soon dropped.

  26. Stephanie says:

    I never thought about it but now I remember the old lady from the cartoons! So I had to go back to our favorite knitting book Knitting Nell. She’s got her points down. I guess now it’s neither right or wrong but it’s an interesting historical topic.

  27. I would like to add Nancy Shaw’s books, illustrated by Margot Apple : Sheep in a Jeep, Sheep Out to Eat, Sheep in a Shop and Sheep on a ship. Knitting is in each book. One sheep has a purse with knitting needles in her bag and some knitted work. I love that it appears in the books and she takes it with her every where! I think she is only seen actually knitting in Sheep in a Jeep. I love the series!

  28. I had trouble teaching myself to knit because of illustrations like this. I kept thinking I was doing something wrong because my needles never turned that way. Finally I figured it was some other method or style or something because my knitting was turning out just fine.

  29. Thanks for the shout out, Betsy! As one who totally notices knitting needle position, I want to say thanks for this post. I was given the “parlour knitting” information from another source (Franklin Habit aka The Panopticon) but I find it rather difficult to believe that all these illustrators have discovered a little-known style of knitting and are reproducing it. Someone (you, Betsy?) once told me that points down is how they knit in Looney-Tunes??

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Yup. And actually, I encountered another instance of upside down knitting just today. I was reading my daughter The Lorax and The Onceler is seen knitting his Thneeds with the needles up up up. So you see, even Dr. Seuss wasn’t immune.