Mancrafted: a quick and foolish guide to crochet

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Those of you who follow me on feeds I still update may have noticed that I've been knotting some yarn.

For just over a year, I've been dabbling in crochet, a deliberate attempt to take up a hobby that was, unlike my first love (car maintenance) and my dream (welding and brazing), doable inside a small house, that would occupy my hands, and would keep me away from a video screen.

What follows is two things: a guide to some things I've learned about crochet that may help you learn it faster than me, and a brag collection of stuff I've made.

The Basics

Learn how to tie a slipknot (how you start most projects), chain stitch, and the "single crochet" stitch. There's lots of guides (I'm sure YouTube is great) showing you how to do these, but if possible, get a friend who crochets to show you them. Then hook away. If you need a project to get you going, the easiest thing in the world is to make something like a scarf or a trivet, where the pattern is pretty much "chain until it's long enough. Turn around, now single crochet". At this point, you're trying to learn muscle memory for the chain stitch and the single crochet, something that will require a few hundred to a few thousand stitches, which is probably a couple of hours.

Virtually all crochet falls out of that. You can do almost any basic crocheted object using only chain stitching and single crochet. The rest is details, and relatively easy to learn on a foundation of an adroit single crochet.

The Tips

Some of this is contingent on me: I'm easily distracted, bad at counting stitches and dropping stitches, and literally couldn't tell where I was supposed to hook in next for most of a year, and I have other bad habits, but here's stuff that I either did wrong for a long time, or that helped me get better fast.

-Especially at first, pick your yarn, hook size, and lighting to make it easy to see your work. This will vary, but I'd err on the larger side (think 5 mm hooks), and aim for yarn with a smooth texture that doesn't separate into threads easily. Also, I think light-coloured (but not white) yarn is good at first, because you can see the contours of the knots most easily. I spent a lot of time doing dumb things because I couldn't make out my own work in fuzzy dark blue yarn. (But that said, if you have a yearning to do amigurumi and nothing but, don't let me stop you, it's not that hard. Grab a 3.5 mm hook, some appropriate yarn, and go to town. I started out focusing on amigurumi myself, but feel like I got a lot better fast when I went through a phase of focusing on scarfs, which helped me practice away some bad habits).

-As a practice, don't be afraid to work in contrasting colours. It's easy to crochet with two colours at the same time, and working against a contrasting row of yarn can really illuminate what is going on with the work for a novice. Even today, I find it easiest to see what's going on when I'm working rows in different colours.

-Yarn tension: it's fairly important that you manage the yarn as you hook it onto the hook. Beginner's guides emphasize particular ways of holding the yarn between the fingers of your non-hooking hand, and if in doubt, follow those, but ensure that you're keeping your tension comfortable: not too tight, not too loose, and it will be far easier to make your knots.

-Work somewhat loose, especially at first. My initial instinct was to pull every knot as tight as humanly possible. This is dumb. A looser tension makes many things easier, especially getting your hook into the next row of work. I'm sure this can be taken too far, but as a baseline rule, don't be like me and make your work over-tight. (This is a rule for beginners and general projects; there are reasons some projects are worked tight, and for example I did a project where I messed with tension to partly compensate for using yarns of different weights).

-Relax: initial projects may look like garbage. You will likely drop stitches and pick up stitches and have gauge problems and make messes. I'd encourage you to avoid trying to correct every error: if you're like me, the forgiving nature of crochet is part of the charm. That said, unraveling failed projects is very easy, and in one unfortunate case involving some nice yarn, I literally unraveled an entire scarf because it was too big (and made it into several smaller scarfs). Give these early projects to your mom, or a dog, or something. You're learning.

-Work on what you want to work on: this is general advice for myself, it may not work for you, but I need to be making something I want to make in order to learn a skill. Fortunately, I was pretty happy making scarves, and those are both easy and educational, and with practice scarf patterns can be effectively executed with two drinks in you and one eye on the TV. Amigurumi require more of your attention, because stitch counts matter. One piece you won't see below is a tiny replica of my dog, lying half-done for months because I can't bear to pick it up, it's such a mess of missed stitches and other errors. I'll probably unravel and retry.

-I make up project bags that ideally consist of the yarn and tools for a single thing I'm working on, so I can grab and go when I think I might have a chance to get a hook in.

-I have a hard time keeping stitch counts, but I recently found it's easier if I count off the stitches in a second language (French or Greek for me). My guess is that the numbers in those languages don't flow quite as naturally for my brain, so I have to really think about the fact I'm on stitch "sept", and moving to stitch "huit" is a noticeable jump.

The Book

It has to be said that I was working in yarn for almost a year before I impulse-purchased a great book on crochet. Alas, it's not the book that has Christina Hendricks on the cover; I have no idea if that one is good or bad. But Stitch Encyclopedia: Crochet has clear figures showing how to execute the basic stitches of crochet in a slim, pricey volume that. I read three different descriptions of how to do a "magic circle" (a tidy way of starting crochet in the round), but it was the one in this book that actually taught me how to do it. Is it a translation of a Japanese text on the subject? Well of course it is.


Hooks aren't terribly expensive, and even the cheapest ones will work, but with smaller hooks, the ergonomic handles are a good idea. Clover Soft Touch hooks seem to be the gold standard here, though I found their blunt hooks hard to work with at first (as my technique improved, this became a non-issue, but I think Red Heart hooks have a much sharper edge, and that seems to keep the yarn in place better for me). I ended up buying hooks one at a time as I needed them, and that works fine, but if you know you're in whole hog, you might as well save yourself some money and trouble and buy a nice set like the one I just linked, and supplement with things like a big 10 mm hook so you can do fun stuff with stupid-big yarn.

For yarn...whatever. Buy whatever you need for your projects, and hook away. For stuff worn near the skin, there's some very interesting acrylic yarns with super-soft textures. I'd encourage you to experiment. Synthetic and wool both have merits depending on what you're making, but when in doubt, cheap acrylic is fine.

Aside from that, there's stitch markers and holders (useful, but I just use safety pins, they're fine) and yarn needles (These plastic Susan Bates ones are a dream: they cost a bit much, but work so well I could write a whole post about them). You'll need a cutting tool to snip yarn, but since anything will do, I recommend the most outrageous folding survival knife you can find, because it's funny.

I haven't needed anything else, equipment-wise.

The Results

These photos are roughly chronological. Most items were made with only loose reference to patterns, though I often consult patterns of similar items to get a rough idea of what should work. The key exceptions are Yoda and R2-D2, made (as best I could) to the stitch from detailed patterns.

My early ball-and-mess phase, working with only a minimalist amigurumi sphere pattern and lots of improvisation. You haven't lived until you're in a hard-bitten province-wide contract bargaining session, and one of your comrades asks you "what are you making?" and the answer is, technically, a stuffed turd:

My sis' dog admires my work, though:

An early bracelet, because bracelets are easy and amusing:

A fitted cap, we'll declare this a success and move on:

A scarf for my sis, not bad, I didn't like how the "fringe" came out:

Um, so this is an infinity scarf worked in crazy chunky wool that got out of hand. I later unraveled it:

Yoda's sweater, the only sweater I have done so far:

These amigurumi Star Wars figures are far from perfect, but I like how they look. The outer two are quite complex, and were both made from patterns. The BB-8 is simpler, but I conceived of him entirely from scratch, and deliberately made him to the same scale as R2-D2:

Knit vs. Crochet

I can't really say. I tried knitting before I tried crochet, and had issues, but a lot of those were likely the same problems I later had in crochet (I made everything too tight, for example). Regardless, knitting never caught me, while crochet was immediately fascinating. I expect I'll try knitting again at some point.

Crochet has a reputation for speed, but there are tools for doing very fast knitting. I think knitting, though correctable, is a bit less tolerant of faults than crochet, where I frequently find myself fixing prior faults in the work through minor tweaks in later rows.

Crochet has one singular advantage: it is very effective worked in the round, especially for 3-dimensional objects. This is why amigurumi is primarily a crocheted form. Knitting has techniques that allow it to work with 3-d forms, but I don't think they're as natural as what you can do in crochet.

Final Thoughts

Crochet is fun and worth learning. It has enough depth to be a good hobby, and progressive mastery is rewarding: you can do interesting things as a beginner, and more interesting things as you get better. Now that I'm reasonably competent, people seem to genuinely like the stuff I make for them.

If you're a guy and you do it, you'll also get major "dog walking on its hind legs" points: it's not that you do it well, but that you do it at all. I like it very much as a semi-creative outlet, and I see it as a tool that will let me fabricate interesting objects. I even have a half-done attempt at a crocheted charging station, I should really take that up again....