By Deb Burger

Much has been written recently about issues of hand health, the tendency for fiber artists to experience hand or wrist pain or to develop tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, or arthritis. Crochet hooks with ergonomic handles are now available, and variations in the method of holding and moving the hook have also helped with these issues for the right, or hook holding hand. However, the left, or yarn holding hand also needs attention. Repetitive stress injuries can also occur in the yarn hand; and the yarn hand is also integral to the development of even tension, smooth working motion, and consistency in quality of work. As I teach crochet, it is important for each student to discover the method of holding and moving the yarn that will actually work in a sustainable and functional manner, for his or her particular set of hands.

I find that two factors generally determine what will really work. The first is effectiveness in controlling tension of the yarn; the second is long-term comfort and sustainability of movement for the hands. Many crocheters wanting to improve the quality of their work find that the comfortable, familiar way they have held and moved the yarn requires too much actual muscular effort, and causes cramping or injury when they crochet for longer sessions, or work on making more even fabric or fabric with more complex stitch patterns. Some find their speed impossible to improve, and have a real desire to crochet a bit faster. Others just wonder why they can’t seem to form evenly sized and spaced stitches across many rows. Many times, these students have already worked on improving the way they hold and move the hook, or have changed hook styles in effort to grow in their craft, and still find their skill level “stuck”. The answer may lie in discovering a more effective way of holding and moving the yarn.

Correct tension for even stitching requires that the yarn move easily when the hook is pulling it through a loop, and stay taut when the hook is grabbing a yarn over, prior to the pull through. Because there are two phases “yarn over and pull through” there are actually two different rates of tension needed in every stitch (and needed repeatedly in each taller stitch). If the yarn is being controlled with too much space between the hook and yarn-guiding finger, it will continually become too loose for the “taut” part of the stitch. When that happens, either the fingers clench more tightly (leading to stress injury), or the yarn hold must continually be adjusted or “re-wrapped” through the fingers. This process fatigues the hand, slows the work, and causes inconsistencies in the finished fabric. On the other hand, if the yarn is held so as to avoid movement, perhaps with a double wrap around a finger or palm, it stays put when needed, but won’t flow, and the hook continually fights this extra tension when “pulling through” the yarn hand must continually adjust and re-wrap the yarn. Either of these “single tensioning” methods is likely to lead to stress injuries, reduced quality of the finished work, unnecessarily slow the work, and impair the rhythm of the crochet.

However, if we can develop a system that provides two different points of partial tension, then much less muscular effort is needed to slow or speed up the flow of the yarn. A sewing machine, for instance, usually has two sets of tension discs, through which the thread passes before entering the needle. This allows the thread to be pulled very slightly more when more is needed, and to be very slightly slowed when less is needed. A similar “double partial tensioning” in the yarn hand is the answer for many crochet challenges.

How does a crocheter develop double partial tension? This will depend somewhat on observation and experimentation. Hands are shaped differently — longer or shorter fingers, wider or narrower palms, for instance. Some hands have more flexibility and movement between the bones than others; some stretch more easily than others; some perspire more than others. Some fingers naturally touch each other when the hand is held straight and fingers together, others touch only at the knuckles when the fingers are held straight and together! All of these physiological factors will affect the choice of yarn hold. For example, if the fingers meet, then yarn passed between two fingers has a partial tension from the friction of touching a finger on each side as it moves. Very little muscular tension is required to slow the yarn by pressing the fingers together. A person whose fingers naturally touch will probably find a hold that passes the yarn between fingers in two places is adequate. This person may weave the yarn over some fingers and under others, with the yarn ending up over either the index or middle finger for actual guidance into the stitch. However, a person with thin or bony fingers, or with arthritic knuckles, may find that passing the yarn between fingers adds no tension at all, because the yarn doesn’t actually touch either finger as it passes between them. In this case, it will require a LOT of muscular work, to tense the hand enough to press the fingers together tightly enough to slow the yarn! This person may need to wrap the yarn half way around a pinky and then let it flow across either the palm or the back of the hand before it goes round the index or middle finger. Likewise, hands that tend to perspire, or that are often moistened with lotion, tend to provide more friction as the yarn flows between fingers. Drier or more finely textured skin provides less friction, and can more easily be injured by the increased effort of tensioning by squeezing fingers together. This set of hands will also benefit from one or two partial wraps of the yarn.

Correct short distance between yarn finger and tip of hook

Space between fingers

Yarn woven between fingers for double partial tension

Hand flexibility, palm bent

Yarn guided by middle finger

Yarn wrapped around fingers for double partial tension

Finally, when the yarn is passing through the fingers in such a way that gentle, partial tension is applied appropriately at two places, it’s much easier to maintain a good working distance of the yarn from the actual hook. To create even stitches and consistent fabric, it’s important to keep the actual working section of the yarn quite short. Whether the yarn is guided by index or middle finger, there should be no more than an inch or so between the hook and the guiding finger of the yarn hand. This is because there is no more than an inch of yarn being used by the hook at a time. For tighter work, threadwork, or other work that needs even more control, the space should be even less. It is the amount of slack yarn between the guiding finger and the tip of the hook that creates the looseness of a stitch. Everything else that happens with yarn tension is about helping to keep a taut but movable inch (or less) of working yarn available to the hook at each moment for each hook movement.

So, start by observing your own hands. Hold your hand up with fingers straight, knuckles touching and palm facing you. For this observation the fingers should be straight but relaxed. Can you see space between your fingers? If so, you may need to wrap the yarn half way, or once around your pinky finger rather than clenching it in your fist, or simply weaving it. If you can’t see daylight between your fingers, then simply weaving the yarn between fingers, twice, will probably provide enough tension. Next, notice the texture of your skin. Are your hands often moist, or usually dry? Yarn flows faster over dry skin, which may mean that more muscular effort (or a half wrap around the pinky and half wrap around the pointer) is needed to slow the yarn and maintain tension. But if your hands are either naturally moist, or you apply lotion frequently, that moisture will automatically increase friction — you’ll need less wrapping or less muscular effort to keep the yarn taut. Thirdly, look at the flexibility of your hands. You’ll choose whether to use the index or middle finger for guiding the yarn, based on the amount of flexibility between the bones of your hand. Can you easily bend your palm inward so that the base of your thumb and base of your pinky touch each other? If so, you have flexible hands and will probably be able to maintain a good working yarn distance with your index finger, as shown in Photo #4. If not, then try guiding the yarn with your middle finger instead.

If you’ve been using one style of yarn hold for a long time, it will feel comfortable and familiar to you at the moment, whether it’s effective for you or not. Any change you decide to make will seem awkward and uncomfortable at first. But working through the learning curve and re-training the muscles of your yarn holding hand, may just be the key to painless crochet with more consistent stitch and fabric quality.

Deb Burger is a professional member of the CGOA. She teaches crochet in a LYS, at the John C. Campbell Folk School, and at various conferences and retreats. She designs and writes about crochet from her home in the southern Appalachian Mountains. She is currently working on a book of sequential crochet lessons and projects.