Under the fence
Catch the sheep
Back we come
Off we leap.
Each of the four lines represents one step in the process of making a knit stitch:
- Inserting the tip of the right needle into the loop on the left needle.
- Wrapping the yarn around the right needle.
- Inserting the tip of the right needle back into the loop on the left needle to create a new loop and pull it through the old one.
- Pulling the right needle up so that the stitch slides off the left needle.
Some people prefer to use this rhyme about the sheep to teach the purl stitch. However, it can be used for either.
The Tradition of Knitting to Verse
While we will probably never know just how old the tradition of knitting to verse is, knitting rhymes have been recorded as far back as the 1800s. The early rhymes appear to have been recited at least partly to amuse the knitters.
Verses used when knitting in 1800s England may have varied regionally. This rhyme was preferred in Northamptonshire:
Needle to needle, and stitch to stitch,
Pull the old woman out of the ditch;
If you ain’t out by the time I’m in,
I’ll rap your knuckles with my knitting-pin.
One song that comes from the dales of Lancashire and Yorkshire was used to count how many rounds had been knitted:
Bell-wether o’ Barking, cries baa, baa,
How many sheep have we lost today?
Nineteen we have lost, one we have fun,
Run Rockie, run Rockie, run, run, run.
In this song, “Bell-wether o’ Barking” is the name of a mountain, “one we have fun” means “one we have found,” and “Rockie” is the name of the sheepdog. The knitters who sang this song would alter the numbers as they worked. The next verse would say, “Eighteen we have lost, two we have fun,” for instance.
Verses for Teaching Children to Knit
Because each line of most knitting verses corresponds to a particular movement or position of the knitting needles, it is little surprise that knitting rhymes evolved to serve an instructional purpose.
The traditional and probably best-known verse used to teach children the knit stitch goes something like this:
In through the front door
Once around the back
Peek through the window
And off jumps Jack!
For very young children learning the knit stitch, we find this rhyme:
Into the bunny hole
Run around the tree
Out of the bunny hole
Away runs she.
(Or “away runs he,” if you prefer.)
Typically reserved for purling is this rather puzzling scenario:
In front of the fence
Catch the goat
Back we go
Jump off the boat!
As some have pointed out, it is rather unfathomable what a boat has to do with anything, but perhaps it is more memorable for that very reason.
Of course, as with all forms of folk verse, countless subtle variations on each of these little poems exist. The point is not so much the precise words used as the joy of sharing knitting and a funny verse.