Pattern, recipe or inspiration?

I have been thinking lately about how we use knitting patterns; they can be used as a pattern, a recipe or an inspiration.  These terms represent points on a continuum and thus can be rather fluid.  Two questions particularly interest me:

  1. What are the boundaries or tipping points?  For example, when does a pattern become an inspiration?  How much do you have to personalize a pattern before it becomes something else?
  2. How does one appropriately attribute those projects that fall on the boundaries?

Part of the reason I am thinking about this now is because of the project I am currently working on.  I am knitting a turtleneck pullover with Madelinetosh Tosh Merino Light in Tart.  I usually start a project by picking a pattern that appeals and then finding the yarn.  In this case, I started with the yarn – 4 skeins of the Tart – and a gap in my wardrobe.  Specifically, because I’ve put on some weight, all of my pullovers are too tight and too short.  I wanted a pullover that fit properly and that could be dressed up or down.  I wanted it to look good at the office with a pencil skirt or out hiking with my jeans and boots.  I spent some time (I will admit – I spent a lot of time) pouring over patterns and finally came up with the Lightweight Pullover by Hannah Fettig.  Here is the pattern photo:

copyright Quince & Co

copyright Quince & Co

It’s hard to tell from the photo but the waistband is ribbed as are the sleeve cuffs.  I am not quite finished with mine – the body is knit but one sleeve is about half done, and the other about a third done.  If you look at the most current progress photo below, you can see that mine doesn’t really look that much like the pattern photo.


Part of this is for obvious reasons – mine has less ease, more fitted sleeves, is longer, and the waistband is in seed stitch instead of rib.  The choice of yarn also changes the look of the sweater quite a bit – the Madelinetosh Light doesn’t have the halo of the angora blend called for in the pattern.  But as it turns out, the reasons for my pondering have more to do with how I used the pattern – namely, not much at all.

Let me be specific.  I choose the pattern and then I bought the pattern.  I decided which size to knit, looked at the pattern and it said to cast on x-many stitches and knit 9 inches for the turtleneck before starting raglan increases.  I cast on the stitches and knit 9 inches and started raglan increases.  But, here is the crucial bit – since looking at the pattern initially to see how the turtleneck was made, I have not looked at it again.  The truth is that the pattern is for a very basic raglan construction, and I don’t need a pattern to make a raglan sweater.  What I do is try the thing on frequently, look at it critically in the mirror and decide what needs to be done.  Is it the right length to divide off the sleeves?  Do I need more waist decreases?  Where is my natural waist?  Does it flare enough over the hips?  It doesn’t occur to me to check the pattern because I am making it to fit ME and to please ME and I have two eyes and can see how it fits and adjust it accordingly.

I am pretty sure that my sweater is between the sizes offered by the pattern though I haven’t checked.  The seed stitch, too, is an innovation.  When I was knitting the body of the sweater I was in South Africa.  I didn’t bring the pattern with me and had limited access to the internet.  I couldn’t recall what the original pattern looked like, but decided that I would make a turned hem because I wanted a neater, more professional look for the sweater – so that it had a bit more polish, like a blouse.  After agonizing over it for a while, I decided to knit an inch or two of seed stitch as an experiment and see what I thought.  As it turns out, I liked it so it stayed.  (Now that I’ve seen the progress photos, I’m thinking of going back and adding another inch of seed stitch at the hips.)

Hannah Fettig is a very popular designer whose patterns are extremely well-written. Hannah was at the leading end of a recent trend towards finer-gauged yarns in sweaters.  She has a perfect eye and many of her designs are on my wish list.  Some of them are very unique and clever, and others are extremely well-executed classics.  This one falls into the latter category and is why I felt confident doing it my way.

Now let’s look at the question of attribution.  On Ravelry, you link to the pattern page for any pattern you use.  At some point not too long ago, Ravelry realized that many people incorporated certain parts of patterns into a finished piece, or merged two or more patterns into one.  They introduced an option: one can either link to a pattern (thus essentially saying “I knit this pattern”) or one can say that the project “incorporates” a pattern (thus saying “I used bits or pieces of this pattern within another pattern”).  When I started the project entry for my turtleneck, I linked to Hannah’s pattern.  At some point, I started to think that perhaps my project deviates from the original enough to say that it “incorporates” the Lightweight Pullover pattern.  I actually changed the Ravelry entry, changing the Name of the project to “Turtle in Tart” and acknowledging Hannah’s pattern using the “incorporates” option.  I also included notes to outline how I made it, so that someone can replicate it if they wish.   To refer back to the title of this post, I essentially moved it from pattern, to either recipe or inspiration.  I must admit to being undecided about this – I have changed it back and forth a few times in the last few days, and it is likely to end up linked as pattern.

Let’s take another example, which I think contrasts quite well with this one.  In the spring of 2013, I knit the following sweater:



The pattern I used was called Livvy, designed by Tori Gurbisz.  Here is the pattern photo for Tori’s design:


As you can see, I changed this pattern as well.  I detailed all of the changes I made on this blog.   I made it much shorter, put in hems at the hip and cuffs, and made the sweater curvier, with more negative ease built in but also more pairs of waist decreases.  I think that my Livvy looks dramatically different from the pattern – much more so than my Lightweight Pullover looks from its pattern.  In fact, the types of changes I made are very similar in both sweaters – changing the length, the ease, and the sleeve cuffs and bottom edgings.   However, it would never have occurred to me to use an “incorporates” option in Tori’s pattern.  This is partly because Livvy has some very unique features, which I have utilized, which are instantly identifiable as Livvy.   So why have I wavered about the attribution of one and not the other?

On reflection, the underlying difference between these two cases has to do with the math.  To make the Livvy sweater, I used all of Tori’s numbers as a basis for my own calculations.  In knitting the Turtle in Tart, I didn’t use Hannah’s numbers, essentially ignoring all of the math and calculating my own numbers as I knit.  Thus the former “feels” like I followed a pattern and the latter doesn’t. Looking at the photos, you can see that the end results are very similar – a project based on a lovely pattern that has been “tweaked” to fit my curvier body and my style.  The only real difference is whether I used the numbers or not.   But perhaps this distinction is odd or outmoded.  Is it math that makes the pattern?  Or is it vision?  And, if it’s math, does it still “count” the same now that most numbers are generated by software?  I don’t think there is any right answer here.  (I suspect that both math and vision count, though, depending on the sweater, and perhaps on the knitter, one may be more dominant than the other.)   Many knitters are now using Amy Herzog’s CustomFit, in which they can basically input specifics of a pattern they like and it will generate the maths specifically for their body.  The resulting project is usually attributed to both the original pattern and the CustomFit programme.  (CustomFit also generates a selection of “classic” designs to fit.)   To me the important facts for my two projects discussed here are that (1) I paid for both patterns, and (2) I acknowledged both designers.

There are many related issues I haven’t even begun to get into here, and I have been trying to keep to the issue of how patterns are used, and where one draws the line between following a pattern, using it as a recipe, or being inspired by one.  (That said, I recently came across a funny case.  Someone had seen a sweater worn by a certain celebrity baby, and reverse-engineered it.  She then “published” the pattern.  Later, she became incensed that other knitters were knitting the sweater without attributing her pattern.  Someone asked, very reasonably and politely, why she believed that no one else would be able to reverse-engineer it as well.  After all, if she had done it, thousands of other knitters could have as well.  She responded – in an increasingly snippy and clueless way – that there was no need for anyone else to reverse-engineer it because she had already done so! She was completely unable to see that someone else could have knit it without using her pattern, or that someone might not have seen or had access to her pattern.  I must admit to finding the discussion fascinating.)

What do you think?  When is a pattern not a pattern?  Does it matter?  Is anyone else fascinated by these types of questions?  Have I been adversely affected by writing a philosophy grant this week?  Can I use British spelling conventions and still say “math”?  Maybe I should get to work on those sleeves…..

11 thoughts on “Pattern, recipe or inspiration?

  1. Here’s my two-cents: I think you used the original patterns as inspiration, followed a “Fit Me” recipe, and developed your own patterns. I love both of your sweaters!

  2. Interesting post! I do recipe development for work and have pondered some of the same issues. If I alter 3 ingredients and don’t copy the method verbatim, I can technically call it my own recipe. However, I typically say “with inspiration from” and link to the blog because it wasn’t my idea in the first place. Ran into the same situation today–made a carrot soup, that turned out so well it’s one of my all-time favorite soups–but I never would have made it unless I had seen the talented blogger’s recipe. That being said, I do call it my own if I heavily modify it.

    • Actually, recipe development is quite similar. Because I am allergic to gluten I alter recipes all of the time; so my cooking tends to be a mix of inspiration and modification. In fact, when I want to make something I normally read as many different recipes as I can for it, and then close all of the cookbooks and do what “feels” best. Thanks for the comments.

  3. That’s a tricky question. Almost everything we make (as knitters) is based on our experience and knowledge and that can be sourced to books, patterns, pictures, etc. It’s difficult to say when does this ‘inspiration’ end and patterns begin when one does not follow a pattern to the letter. If it’s only used to get an idea of a garment then maybe (?) it’s inspiration and not the ‘pattern itself’ (Turtle in Tart case). But I don’t think it matters a lot to distinguish this ‘difference’, it doesn’t even matter wether the knitter might acknowledge the source of inspiration(or pattern) or not. In the end, we knit for the pleasure of it all. And the main thing knitters do, is use the resources they have around them. Before Ravelry, I don’t think any knitter said: “oh, i just knitted an X’s pattern for the first time!”

    • Hi. Thanks for the thoughtful response. You are absolutely right about how Ravelry has changed the way I think about this. I am sure that I rarely said “oh, this is X’s pattern” back in the day when I got all of my patterns from knitting magazines. And, I changed those patterns all the time without ever thinking about it.

  4. Certainly, you’re treading in the depths of a massive creative gray zone. We have two friends who are artists, i.e. they earn their living from painting, and we often have discussions about inspiration and attribution and copyright of works of art. Some rules are cut and dried, and others are so dicey you’re playing with morality and philosophy. It makes for interesting dinner-time conversation (and yes, you probably have been adversely affected by writing that grant)!

    I don’t know if you can pinpoint a particular tipping scale, because it’s so subjective. Making 3/4 length sleeves instead of long sleeves is a question of taste or necessity (ooops, running of out wool!), but you’re still following a pattern. Likewise, being inspired by a certain type of wool and making a raglan that looks like every other raglan could require a tip of the hat to an original design. I like EZ’s raglan recipe, and if you’ve ever knit a few Icelandic Lopapeysas, you know they’re (intrinsically) the same, save for the charted yoke.

    For me, it comes to giving credit where credit is due. If you’ve been inspired, kindly share your source. If you cast-on following a pattern, attribute the pattern, and hopefully share your mods, in case anyone else is interested.

    The internet has created a new dimension regarding sharing and inspiring, creating and designing (and bitching and infighting, sadly!) I think you could write a thesis on differing viewpoints, but I think the common denominator remains an openness and willingness to share information.

    • Hi Ann, as always I can count on you for a thoughtful response. We actually have a family friend who is an artist, whose work was appropriated by an artist using a different medium. The case went to court, a long drawn-out process, and she won. Despite the win it was an unhappy affair for all involved. Her case was pretty clear, but in most instances, it is hard to see where the boundaries are. We are all inspired by everything we see, do, read, etc. These things are difficult in any medium – in science there are many cases of independent discoveries of the same thing. So much easier in knitting where it all boils down to knit and purl. I think you are right – being open is the important thing.

  5. Pingback: Turtleneck in Tart | Knitigating Circumstances

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