The purl stitch is a foundational building block of knitting.
It may seem like a complicated stitch, but that’s simply not true. In fact, the purl is the exact opposite of the knit stitch.
In this in-depth tutorial you’ll learn how to knit the purl stitch step-by-step.
Then, we’ll go through the anatomy of a purl and discover it’s secret double identity as … a knit stitch! Intrigued? Let’s get started.
How to Purl Tutorial Video
Purl Stitch Step-by-Step
Purling Vs. Knitting
When knitting a purl as opposed to a knit stitch, there are differences in yarn placement (front vs. back) and in the direction of the yarn wrap (also front vs back).
Yarn and Needle Placement
When knitting, the needle enters the stitch from the bottom to the top and the working yarn is behind the right needle.
When purling, the needle enters from the top to the bottom and the working yarn is in front of the left needle. It always stays in the front.
When knitting, the working yarn wraps from the back of the right needle to the front.
When purling, the working yarn wraps from the front of the right needle to the back.
Notice a trend? The yarn placement and wrap of a purl stitch is always frontwards while the yarn placement and wrap of a knit stitch is backwards.
What Does a Purl Stitch Look Like?
Looks matter! A knit looks like a flat V-shape while a purl looks like a little bump – similar to a pearl found in an oyster.
Looking at your stitches and being able to tell a purl from a knit stitch is a great skill. It will come in handy in all your future knitting, so remember:
A knit stitch looks like a flat V-shape whereas a purl stitch looks like a raised bump. Or more concisely, knits are Vs and purls are bumps.
Purl Anatomy (and Secret Identity!)
All stitches are two-dimensional. This means that they have a front side and a back side.
A purl’s front side is the purl – the little bump. However, the back side of a purl may surprise you.
The back side of a purl is a … knit stitch. Mind blown!
Astute readers may deduce that if the back side of a purl is a knit … then the back side of a knit stitch must be a purl!
This is absolutely true. Like Siamese twins, the knit and purl stitches are joined together.
A purl stitch is the opposite of a knit stitch and vice versa.
When I first learned this fact I was in disbelief. It seemed like some kind of perverse magic.
If you’re skeptical, grab your needles and knit a few stitches. Turn the knitting around and you’ll see purl bumps staring back at you. Proof at your fingertips!
So remember: every stitch has two sides.
You can think of them as a right side (or a front-facing side) and a back side (or back-facing side).
The back side of a purl is a knit and the back side of a knit is a purl. The knit and purl are two sides of the same coin!
A Closer Look at Garter Stitch
The best stitch for illustrating the knit/purl duality is garter stitch.
Garter stitch is the result of knitting every stitch and every row.
However, if you look closer at garter stitch, you’ll notice that even though every row is knit, the resulting fabric is not a swathe of knit stitches.
Garter stitch is actually alternating rows of knits and purls!
This is because the backside of a knit is a purl. So a row of knits will have a backside of purls.
So, garter stitch is basically the front and back side of the knit stitch on display.
The above image highlights the alternating rows of knits and purls in a swatch of garter stitch.
What Happens if You Purl Every Row?
If you purl every row then you’ll end up with garter stitch.
If this sounds crazy, think about it:
Traditionally, garter stitch is done by knitting every row.
A purl stitch is also a knit stitch. So purling every row, like knitting every row, will result in garter stitch.
The reason why knitting is recommended for garter stitch instead of purling is because the knit stitch is faster than purling.
But both knitting and purling every row will result in garter stitch.
The purl stitch is one of the building blocks of knitting. With it, you have a multitude of knitting stitches at your fingertips.
Take the time to perfect it and you’ll have a solid knitting foundation.
Remember what it looks like (a bump!) and you’ll have an easy time knitting by sight instead of blindly following a written stitch pattern.
For a refresher on knitting basics, check out the How to Knit Beginner Series. It’s one of the most popular pages on the site and includes detailed videos and step-by-step photos!