Today let's talk about left-handed knitting. Specifically, let's talk about what I'm going to call "mirrored" knitting, which is the type of knitting where stitches begin on the right needle and are worked off onto the left one.
"Mirrored" is a pretty good term for this, because it is exactly what you'd see if you help up a mirror to the work of a knitter who knits from the left needle onto the right one; in fact, many knitters who knit this way learn new techniques by holding a mirror up to a picture or video. I think calling it "left-handed" knitting is potentially confusing, because many people use that term for knitting in the majority direction using the Continental method, which is popular for left-handed knitters but also employed by many right-handed ones. Calling it "knitting backwards" is also potentially confusing, because many people use that term for the method used to purl back without turning the work, which is also done working from the right needle onto the left one, but forms the stitches slightly differently (I like to call this "knitting back backwards" myself, as I feel that's most evocative of how this method is used); it's also offensive to some, to the extent that "backwards" implies something wrong about the method. "Mirrored" lacks this connotation, and avoids ambiguity.
Let me preface the main discussion by stating that I am not left-handed. I'm a nearly-ambidextrous righty. I can knit mirror fashion, however, even though it's not my preferred style, and in any case I don't think my personal handedness is actually relevant to my ability to analyze the issues faced by mirrored knitters. I simply believe in full disclosure.
Many mirrored knitters feel somewhat attacked by other knitters, having been told at one time or another that they are knitting "backwards," or "wrong," or that they will have to reverse and re-write every single pattern ever, or some similar assault. These criticisms are just plain wrong. I very rarely say that about something in knitting, but I am saying it now. Mirrored knitting will occasionally require some slight adjustment to an unmirrored pattern, but frankly, lefties are used to adapting to a right-handed world; most of them can handle the challenge of adaptation very well, and all of them are entitled to choose whether they wish to take it on, without being insulted or ridiculed for the choice.
And that brings me to my main topic. I'm not going to show you how to do mirrored knitting; there are other resources for that. This page has some great illustrations of the steps for the basic knit and purl stitches, although she does call it "knitting backwards," which as we've already discussed, I think tends to be confusing. Boye produces a learn-to-knit book, called "I Taught Myself Knitting," which contains a good basic section on mirrored knitting; there are other books out there as well. And there is always the mirror method; holding a mirror up to videos, such as those on KnittingHelp, works fine if you learn well from videos. Instead of teaching you how to do the method, what I'm going to explain is the various adaptations that may be required when using unmirrored patterns.
Many patterns will require no modification at all. That's because many patterns, especially for garments, are symmetrical: armholes come in the same distance on each side, necklines are centered, sleeves are identical, and so on. Following the instructions stitch by stitch produces a garment that is technically reversed, but you can't tell, because everything on one side is balanced by the other side.
What about decreases? That seems to be a sticking point for the don't-knit-backwards crowd; I recently had someone respond to my advice to a mirrored knitter by vehemently insisting that all decreases needed to be reversed, under all circumstances. That just isn't true. If a pattern uses paired decreases, and is otherwise symmetrical, it can be knit without modification.
Let's look at why that is. As a hypothetical, we'll consider a stockinette sweater with feathered decreases at the armholes. A typical instruction for the upper front might thus be "k1, k2tog, k until 3 sts rem, ssk, k1." When an unmirrored knitter works this row, she begins at the right edge of the fabric, knits a single stitch, makes a right-leaning decrease, knits until three stitches are left, makes a left-leaning decrease, and then knits the final stitch at the left edge. What happens when a mirrored knitter knits the same row? Well, when a mirrored knitter makes a k2tog, it leans to the left, and when she makes a SSK, it leans to the right; I've already given you the tools to figure out why that is. Therefore, she starts at the left edge, knits a single stitch, makes a left-leaning decrease, knits until three stitches are left, makes a right-leaning decrease, and knits the final stitch at the right edge. Looky there -- both knitters have a right-leaning decrease on the right edge, and a left-leaning decrease on the left edge. Looks good to me.
What about unpaired decreases? Well, that doesn't fit the "otherwise symmetrical" criteria, and there you may wish to make a change. Let's consider a hat pattern, where evenly-spaced k2tog decreases are used to create a spiraling pattern at the crown. When an unmirrored knitter follows such a pattern, her hat top will spiral to the right; when a mirrored knitter follows it without modification, hers will spiral to the left. If she wants her hat to match that of the unmirrored knitter, she'll have to change each k2tog to SSK or another right-leaning (for her) decrease. On the other hand, does it necessarily make a difference which way the hat spirals? If you don't care, there's no need to make a change.
That's going to be the basic rule for anything that's asymmetrical: if the reverse shaping doesn't bother you, there's no need to change. For some things it's going to matter; cardigans with buttons, for instance, ought to button right-over-left for women, left-over-right for men, so you'll want to make sure you're putting the buttonholes on the correct side. If they're picked up and knitted after, that may be a very simple change; if they're knitted as a piece with the fronts, it may be more extensive.
The easiest way to reverse an asymmetrical pattern to match your direction of knitting is simply to go through and write out each line backwards, from the last instruction to the first. However, this will cause your decreases to be reversed as well, and as we saw from the symmetrical sweater example above, that's not desirable; therefore, you'll need to replace the unmirrored right-leaning decreases with one of the decreases that's right-leaning for you, and the same for the left-leaning decreases. The first time or two that you do this, or for very complicated pieces, it may be helpful to draw a couple of sketches; mark one with the shaping for the unaltered pattern, and then mark a second with where the shaping will fall with your alterations. This will help you to produce the intended effect.
A second area that's tricky for mirrored knitters is cables. In order to produce a cable where the stitches held in front slant to the left, an unmirrored knitter will hold the first-half stitches in front while knitting the second-half stitches. A mirrored knitter, however, approaches the cable from the left, so will need to hold the first-half stitches in back while the second-half stitches are knit, to produce the same slant. The reverse is true, of course, for cables that slant to the right. The general rule, then, is to hold the first-half stitches in the opposite direction of that given in the instructions. However, be careful about applying this too slavishly! Let's look, again, at the case of the symmetrical sweater, and this time we'll have a cable at each side, spiraling in opposite directions. Our directions might look like this: k12, p2, C6F, p2, k to marker, p2, C6B, p2, k12. As the unmirrored knitter follows this, her first cable, near the right edge, is held in front, and spirals to the left, while her second, near the left edge, is held in back, and spirals to the right. As the mirrored knitter follows it, and comes to the first cable, the general rule would say that she should hold her cable in back; however, keep in mind that she's coming from the other direction! The first cable she comes to is the one near the left edge, and she wants it to spiral to the right. Therefore, she's going to need to hold it in front, just as the unmirrored knitter did. The mirrored knitter working with cables needs to spend a few minutes thinking about what the pattern is calling for and why, and analyze whether adjustments are necessary to produce the same effect.
One more area that can be tricky for mirrored knitters is charts. On some level, charts are great for mirrored knitters; they show the design as it should appear when knitted, and can be followed in the direction of knitting, left to right on the RS rows, and right to left on the WS rows. This is true, up to a point, but there are a couple of potential pitfalls. First, if you're going to work in the direction of knitting, you'll want to adjust the key slightly. If the key shows a decrease symbol slanting to the right, calling for a k2tog, the mirrored knitter working in her direction of knitting will not want to do a k2tog there; for her, that slants to the left. Instead, she'll want to use a decrease that slants to the right for her, such as an SSK, wherever she encounters that symbol. The same is true for cables; the chart symbol corresponding to a C4F, for instance, should clearly show a cable that spirals to the left, and a mirrored knitter, who will approach that cable from the left, will wish to hold the stitches in back to produce that effect. The second pitfall is the use of patterns that are partially written out and partially charted. For both charts and written directions, it's possible to do either of two things: follow the directions in the order written for unmirrored knitters, or reverse the order and read them backwards/left-to-right. Either of these is fine, although as we've already discussed, adjustments may be needed in some cases. However, you should generally make the same choice on both the charted and the written part; if you're going to read the chart left-to-right, you should also read the written directions backward, with necessary adjustments, and if you're going to read the written directions forward, you should work the chart right-to-left as unmirrored knitters do.
As we've just seen, mirrored knitters do face a few challenges that unmirrored knitters don't. However, I don't think any of them are anywhere close to insurmountable. In fact, because they lead the knitter to analyze her work, and to understand what she's being asked to do and why, I think they ultimately lead to being a better knitter. And that can only be a good thing.