As knitters we all have preferences in needles, yarn, cast ons and bind offs. So I thought that I would share what I think are good tips for someone who is new to knitting. These tips are based on my experiences knitting. You get to benefit from my mistakes!
1. Your first project should be something small. Most beginner knitting classes I have seen are for a scarf. A scarf?! A project that is 5-6' long! Most of these projects are all garter stitch too! So all you learn with that is a cast on, knit stitch, a bind off, and that knitting is incredibly boring. Don't get me wrong, there are great scarf patterns out there, and I am even going to be knitting a 12' garter stitch scarf for a Christmas present. I just think that when you are learning something new that it should be something you can finish relatively quickly so you get to experience success early in your learning! So I recommend a washcloth. Not only is it small project, it is a functional item you can use all year long! A washcloth can use knit and purl stitches. Increases and decreases. You can even do lace work in a washcloth.
Another good option for a beginner project is a hat. You learn how to use circular needles (which you can use even when knitting flat), you learn how to knit in the round, knit, purl, decrease. You can learn how to cable right away, do lace. The sky is the limit!
2. I prefer smooth metal needles to wooden ones, but as a beginner wooden needles can be your best friends. Wooden needles are more "grippy" and make it harder for the yarn to just go sliding off the needles. It is that reason that I use metal more than wooden now, I feel like wooden needles slow me down. I also am a tight knitter so I tend to bend wooden needles. When working on my first hat I changed to smooth metal dpns (double pointed needles) near the crown. I was almost done with this cabled awesome hat! The next thing I knew one of the needles was in my lap, and the stitches were starting to drop! It was a knitting EMERGENCY. Luckily I was able to catch as many of those stitches as I could and a woman at the local knitting shop was able to get everything back on the needles. This traumatized me from metal needles, and dpns in general. I eventually got over those fears though :-)
Like Jen mentioned, wood/bamboo needles are perfect for a new knitter. I still use wood needles once in awhile, if I find myself working on a tricky pattern.
3. When you move on to projects beyond washcloths use yarn that you wouldn't mind wearing. You do not have to spend a fortune on yarn (I have spent over $30 on a skein of indie dyed sock yarn to make a pair of socks), but you should stay away from anything that is so inexpensive that it hurts your hands to knit with it. There are many companies that make great inexpensive acrylic yarn like Lion Brand Vanna's Choice, and Knit Pick's Brava. Once you want to make something that you want to be able to shape and stretch you need to use something that contains and natural fiber. Acrylic doesn't block like other fibers.
I would like to add that even while learning, you don't need to knit with something that feels awful in your hands. There are plenty of budget friendly, lower end yarns that are great for learning and that won't make you feel like you are knitting with steel wool. Use what you love and makes you happy.
4. The best tip I can offer is to join Ravelry. It is a fantastic community of knitters, crocheters, spinners, weavers, and other fiber artists. You can get access to thousands of patterns many of them are free. You can keep track of your yarn stash, your projects, your needles and more. You can find local knitting groups and groups of people who have similar interests like the HPKCHC (Harry Potter Knit/Crochet House Cup). We even have a group there where we can share our projects with each other and host giveaways :-) Find us there too, Jess is SameOldKnit and I am jpester.
Another great source if you get stuck with your knitting is knittinghelp.com They have a large variety of video tutorials that can help you with pretty much any knitting technique. I can't even count how many times I went there to learn how to do a specific cast-on or bind-off.
Tip from Sunblossom (a reader): I would also recommend starting with worsted weight or larger for the same reason as #1. Working with the smaller weights just takes longer. Also avoid any of the specialty yarn like furry ones where you can't see the stitches. And make sure you have the appropriate sized needles for your yarn, using the information on the yarn label as a guide until you know what you are doing.