I love the purl stitch. And I love to purl. My favorite pattern, both for knitting and for wearing, is stockinette. Nothing can be more elegant in its simplicity. Nothing allows to showcase the beauty of yarn, its drape and its sheen. Nothing can be more versatile – sweaters, coats, scarves, socks! - why do you think it is called stockinette? It is the reverse, the purl side, that makes it possible. No ridges, just perfectly fitting knits and purls.
Without the purl we would not have the most beautiful and complex patterns. It is the ‘rest row’ of purl stitches on the back that adds the depth and dimension to the most intricate lace patterns. Without the purl to separate them, the cables and honeycombs of Aran knitting would fade into the background. And of course the guernseys would just cease to exist both in the round and in flat. What about ribbing? I will just leave you here to ponder the universe without ribbing …… not possible? Exactly – the knitting world would stop if there were no purl. Imagine those floppy sleeves allowing gusts of wind to blow up to the armpits, those elephantine neck holes flapping in the wind. No turtlenecks, no snug cuffs on mittens. The world without ribbing would be a sad place.
So why the antipathy of the purl? Since I came onto the knitting scene in North America I have read multiple peans about the beauty and ease of knitting garter stitch or knitting in the round, with an equal, if not greater amount of hate mail to the purl stitch. The eminent and brilliant Elizabeth Zimmermann bears a great deal of responsibility for that. I have nothing against EZ – I love her irreverence, I admire her knitting and writing talent, I share her love for the craft and I envy her panache with patterns and color, but lay off the purl stitch, OK? After all, she practically invented knitting sweaters in the round to avoid purling! She called the purl her “bête noire”! Poor little purl.
Why, I ask, why belittle the little stitch? Even linguistically the purl is abused – it is often called the “wrong stitch”. In Polish the purl is called “the left stitch” (lewe oczko), while the knit – of course – is “the right stitch” (prawe oczko). In Polish the “left side” refers not only to the left side of the garment, but to the reverse side of a pattern, as well. Similarly in French: knit is « tricoter à l’endroit » (knit on the right side) or « tricoter à l’envers » (knit on wrong side).
I have not gone as far as knitting garter stitch using only purl stitches, but I may just do that to prove that the purl is just as lovely as the knit stitch.