Learn the Purl Stitch: a Comprehensive Guide

June 23, 2020

We are going to learn how to do the Purl Stitch in knitting. We need it to make our knitting more interesting. You can knit every single stitch in a project and it will look and feel amazing, it’s hand knit! Of course it will. Or you could learn the purl stitch and the possibilities will be limitless. But, we need to stop here and make sure you are in the right place. *If you know how to do the knit stitch, you are on your way to creating amazing knitting projects. If you have not learned the Knit Stitch, please stop what you are doing and go the comprehensive guide to the Knit Stitch.

This post is for the reader who has learned the Knit Stitch and wants to keep progressing in their knowledge of the craft of knitting.

There are three basic stitches in knitting on which pretty much everything else is based. We have already seen the Knit Stitch. The next stitch to learn today is the Purl Stitch. We have already talked about it a little bit here and here. The third is called the Yarn Over (YO) and we will learn how to use it properly at a later date.

Want to read this later? Pin to your favorite knitting board on Pinterest!

upclose view of knitting with blue yarn

Why Do We Need the Purl Stitch?

When using straight needles, knitting back and forth with all Knit Stitches you will create a Garter Stitch stitch pattern.

Bright pink yarn knit in the garter stitch pattern
The area between my fingers that is all bumpy and rustic is the Garter Stitch.

If you are knitting every stitch in the round with circular knitting needles or double pointed needles, you will only end up with Stockinette Stitch (we will learn this soon!).

upclose view of knitting with blue yarn
The Stockinette Stitch, looks like all smooth knit stitches.

Those are both rather lovely fabrics, right? But they are simple, and you really can’t do anything else unless you learn the purl stitch. The Purl Stitch adds interest and contrasts the Knit Stitch.

I Like to Call the Purl Stitch the Knit Stitch’s ‘Evil Twin’ – Let Me Explain…

The ‘evil’ part comes from the fact that it is slightly more difficult to make. It’s just a little slower and more awkward when you are learning to knit. Other than that it’s fine.

The ‘twin’ part comes from the fact that the back of the Purl Stitch looks and is exactly like the Knit Stitch. If you were to watch someone making the Purl Stitch, but were looking at them from across a table instead of looking down from their perspective, you would see the same needle motions and end up with the same result stitch wise (only difference is the motion and yarn is going left to right instead of right to left).

So, when you are purling a stitch on the side of the work facing you, you are actually knitting a stitch from the opposite side at the same time. This is one of the most difficult concepts for a beginner knitter. Don’t get frustrated if you do not understand what I’m trying to say now, you’ll see it when you have needles and yarn in your hands.

Please note *If you are coming here new, from Pinterest or Google, and have not read about the knit stitch, please read about the knit stitch first. That post has a lot of good general information for the beginner knitter. I will not be repeating all of it here.

VERY IMPORTANT Details to Keep in Mind

● There are two needles, one is held in the left hand and is called the left hand needle. Same goes for the right hand, it is called the right hand needle.
● Knit with the working yarn, the yarn that is connected to the skein/ball of yarn, not the short tail /end left over from casting on.
● Yarn will be hanging off the front of the left hand needle when doing only the purl stitch. If you set down your work, make sure you working yarn is on the right side of your stitches before proceeding. Only more advanced techniques might be different. This is a pretty important, but EASY rule, to follow so you do not get confused when resuming.
● We will be making the same movements for every stitch, the yarn winds around the needle COUNTERCLOCKWISE when looking down the needle tip. REMEMBER this always. (There are other ways of knitting where this rule does not apply, but for the sake of learning the basics, just REMEMBER COUNTERCLOCKWISE!)

Before We Start the Purl Stitch…

Imagine you are standing and you have this rod that you need to straddle. (Weird I know, but it helps you paint a crazy mental picture that you are less likely to forget.) You should always stand with your right foot forward and your left foot back behind you when straddling the rod. This is the correct way a stitch should look. This is what you want to end up with every time. See below:

Showing the way stitches lay on knitting needles
This is how it should always look when learning how to knit as a beginner. Pull gently on the yarn to open the stitch. Other more advanced techniques may result in a different leg position, but we’re not there yet…

To reiterate….

ONE OF THE *MOST IMPORTANT* THINGS TO KNOW AS A BEGINNER KNITTER:

Looking at the needle up close, at the stitch/loop on the far right of the needle:

The bottom of the ‘leg’ in the FRONT is leaning to the RIGHT.

The bottom of the ‘leg’ in the BACK is leaning to the LEFT.

If I could make this information jump out and smack you in the face, I would. It’s THAT IMPORTANT!

The yarn will be hanging down on the end of your cast on or set-up row. When we start purl stitches, we need the yarn to be in the front of the needle/work already on the left needle. This is another one of those things you MUST remember.

knitting needle with blue yarn
The yarn naturally wants to lay forward when picking it up to work the first purl stitch.

Starting the Purl Stitch – PURL

Insert the right hand needle in the triangular area, but this time the needle wants to go in from the back right to the front left of that first stitch. The opposite direction as the knit stitch. The needle wants to fit in there, the yarn is positioned so that it is easy and you do not need to bend your wrist in a weird way. The needle should have no hesitation going in that space.

image showing how to insert a needle into a purl stitch
The tip of the right hand needle follows the arrow. From the back right of the front leg through the opening towards the left and in front of the back leg of the stitch.
making a purl stitch with blue yarn
This is where the needle should be at the start of the purl stitch.

We are again going to make a mantra to remember how to do the purl stitch just like we did with the knit stitch. Say this mantra over and over to help you remember how to do the purl stitch. For this first part, I want you to remember the word PURL.


Just as a side note and a way to remember how to purl:

The word Purl sounds exactly like ‘pearl’…. and the way you are pointing your needle is from the back of your work toward you… towards the ‘pearls’ you are wearing. I know, not many of us wear pearls anymore but it helps A LOT in this case. This is a great way to remember where your needle should be facing and in the future it will come into play again. The Purl Stitch also creates a little bump on the front of your work, similar to the bumps of a strand of pearls.

upclose image of the purl bump
The BUMP! This is the bump we will refer to often.

Now that the needle is in the stitch properly, hold both needles with your left hand in a plus or cross shape using your thumb as shown in the photo sequence below. Snug the yarn up around the needles, you do not want a big gap. We are inserting the needle from the back towards the front.

Purl Stitch – AROUND

Here is where the COUNTERCLOCKWISE comes in, you are going to take the working yarn that is in your right hand and wind it around the needle that is vertical, going COUNTERCLOCKWISE. Same as the Knit Stitch. REMEMBER: The yarn goes COUNTERCLOCKWISE when you are pointing the needle towards your face and looking down the shaft of it. It takes some time to remember what way to go. So be kind with yourself and just work on it! You will make many, many mistakes, everyone does!

Here are a few photos to show it step-by-step, but it is more like quarter-step by quarter-step. Little movements between each photo:

knitting with blue yarn
Here the two needles are held together in the left hand so your right hand can do something with the yarn.
knitting with blue yarn
The yarn is wound around the right needle tip with the right hand and working yarn, going in a COUNTERCLOCKWISE direction.
upclose view of a purl stitch with blue yarn
Wrap the needle continuing in the COUNTERCLOCKWISE direction.
Learning where the needle goes inthe Purl stitch
The yarn has been wrapped counterclockwise. I’m saying it a lot to get it stuck in your head.

The counterclockwise can best be seen in the next two photos:

winding yarn around a knitting needle
Up close of the counterclockwise motion of the yarn.
super upclose view of knitting with blue yarn
Wrapped all the way AROUND the needle, COUNTERCLOCKWISE of course!

Now that the yarn is wrapped COUNTERCLOCKWISE around the right needle we can say AROUND. Get it?? We took the yarn all the way AROUND the needle.

So now we are at PURL & AROUND for our mantra.

Purl Stitch – OUT

Slowly pull the right needle down while keeping the counterclockwise wrapped yarn on the needle. We want that yarn to stay on the right needle for a while. Push the needle away from you, keeping the yarn on the right needle the whole time. We are coming OUT the way the needle went in. It started from the back side so we will move it back and away.

pulling a purl stitch loop through the knitting
The tip of the right knitting needle needs to hold onto the loop we just made around it.

The yarn is still on the right needle, exactly where we want it to stay.

purl stitch forming on knitting needle
Here is what the stitch looks like when we take the tip of the right needle and move it out and towards the back, while still holding onto the new loop.

We tell ourselves OUT – the third part of our mantra.

We are at PURL, AROUND & OUT with our mantra. Only one more step to go.

Purl Stitch – OFF

We want the loop that we put the needle into at the beginning of the purl stitch to fall off of the left needle. We worked that original stitch by drawing the newly looped yarn through it, it will not unravel/ravel and now the new stitch is moved over to the right needle. This is where we say OFF in our mantra.

Gently pull the right needle to the right to get the stitch that was just worked to fall off without pulling more stitches off.

Knitting with Blue yarn on metal knitting needles
One new stitch is created, on the right needle. The old stitch we entered to create the new stitch is still on the left needle, we needle to drop if OFF.

That is one stitch done completely. Now repeat the procedure everywhere that calls for a purl stitch. Use the mantra to help remember the steps.

one purl stitch completed at the beginning of a row
Here is one complete purl stitch. After the loop from the old stitch drops, it is hanging underneath and around the new stitch loop.
Two purl stitches on a knitting needle
Here are two completed purl stitches on the right needle. Just keep going, trying to be consistent!

PURL | AROUND| OUT | OFF

You can mutter it under your breath for as long as it takes to remember the technique. Just maybe not too loud so people don’t look at you funny but believe me, you’ll get used to getting a lot of looks if you are knitting in public. Either they think you’re weird, they are jealous that you know how to knit and they don’t or they are crafters themselves and are jealous they didn’t bring their project.

Now that you have seen the steps to make the purl stitch, it really is a simple maneuver to practice. We are adding a new row of stitches on top of the previous row.

We continue to build onto the row below, slowly making our way up. See the little “bumps” created by the purl stitch? See this post to help you remember later which is the purl stitch.

purl side of a knit project
See all the purls placed next to each other, look at all those purl bumps!

The image above has all purl rows on the bottom of the sample where it looks bumpy. If you keep purling all your stitches with no knits, it will not look that smooth like the image above shows right under the needles. The top part of the sample is knit in a stitch pattern called Stockinette Stitch, we are looking at the back of it to see all the purl bumps stacked on top of each other. Stockinette stitch is used in most knitting projects so we will be learning about it in the near future.

Not to confuse you, but rather to give all of the purl information in one place, if you purl all of your stitches, you will get the Garter Stitch!


If you want to remember what a purl stitch looks like, check out this post with a little ditty I came up with to remember this important info!

Did you see how the purl stitch is the evil twin of the knit stitch? They are so closely related that it sometimes confuses beginners. Let me know if you have any questions or if something in the post seems odd to you and you would like a clarification.

NOTE * There are so many different ways to hold knitting needles that you’ll see across various resources. I teach this way because 1) it was how I learned and I have since transitioned to other ways to see what I like the most 2) it is easy to see the stitches to learn them properly 3) I believe it is the simplest way and most likely to get good results from the beginning. The simple idea of getting it right from an early stage is a confidence booster and helps to motivate us to learn more and keep going and going and going. If you want to try other ways to hold a needle, I suggest you get the mechanics of the stitches correct and almost second nature, then go explore different ways of holding the needles. The goal is to 1) knit in a way that is comfortable and does not cause pain 2) knit at a speed you like 3) get accurate results 4) get consitent results.

Now that you have seen the Purl Stitch and the bump that it makes, can you see how adding this to the knit stitch can make so many more design opportunities?

In a rush and want to read this later? Save it to your knitting board on Pinterest!

Some pretty pink, orange and yellow yarn

Itching to get started? Don’ t know what you need for supplies and yarn? Click on the image below to get started.

A great place to start when you decide you want to start learning how to knit!

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