When I started knitting, patterns were very short, and often quite obtuse. They were sprinkled liberally with phrases like: “decrease x-number of stitches from each side every row, while keeping to established pattern”, “make raglan increases, while incorporating new stitches into lace pattern”, “decrease x-number stitches evenly across row”, and my favorite (usually in all caps) “AT THE SAME TIME”.
Every pattern had bits like this:
Work as for left front, reversing all shaping and placement of pat.
(from Vogue Knitting International, Holiday 1986, p 96)
Or, in a similar vein:
Right front shoulder
With right side facing, rejoin appropriate yarns and, keeping continuity of patt, work the 51/54/57 st of right shoulder, as for left, reversing neck shaping.
(from Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle Knitting, 1988, p, 121)
Knitters were expected to figure out how to incorporate increased stitches into a particular pattern, be it lace or mosaic or fair isle, and also how to decrease stitches in pattern. Furthermore, they were expected to be able to naturally reverse all pattern instructions and shapings.
My early knitting projects were always accompanied by loads of hand scribbled notes. If the pattern was complicated, I would notate each row, and specify how I incorporated increases, decreases, and other shapings. These scribblings were filled with math – most patterns did not include all of the necessary mathematical calculations – and a competent knitter needed to know a lot of practical math in order to complete the pattern.
Patterns were sold in print medium – in magazines or books – and I imagine that they were kept short in part to save on page length. Today, most of the patterns I use are downloaded PDF files, and one of the things that is quite obvious is that the patterns are getting longer and longer. In fact, there is a veritable explosion in pattern length happening right now. I used to photocopy a pattern from a knitting magazine and keep it in the project bag with my knitting; this was usually a single piece of paper, on which I would add scribbles like mad, front and back. Now, many of the patterns I use are 8, 10, 12 pages or even longer. Why is this?
Partly, it is because the patterns have become highly specific. Each technique is described in detail., often with photos. In fact, it is quite common now to have links to on-line tutorials within the pattern. One of the things I have noticed is that it is becoming rare to have instructions like “knit as for right sleeve, reversing all shapings”; instead we now have detailed instructions for both sides. Furthermore, instead of instructions like:
- Keeping stitches in established pattern, bind off 3 st each end every other row 6 (8, 10, 12) times at shoulder edge; AT THE SAME TIME, decrease 1 st every row at neck edge 4 (6, 4, 6) times, then every other row 5 (7, 10, 8) times.
patterns now will often have these instructions laid out row by row, so that each row of the knitting for the entire garment (or at least the parts where any shaping takes place) is given its own set of instructions. The thing I have found really striking lately is the tendency for designers to lay out instructions for each size separately. Jared Flood, of Brooklyn Tweed fame, recently wrote this about his design, Rift (you can find the full discussion here):
Pattern writing and grading on this piece was definitely a hard nut to crack! Since the shoulder details would have specific idiosyncrasies based on the size of the finished garment, no specific set of rules or written instructions worked very well. So I opted for the more “bespoke” route of charting out the front and back yokes for each individual size. The end result included 6 total sizes with finished chest measurements ranging from 39.25” to 59.25” [….] The pattern is quite long as a result, but don’t be fooled—most of the pages are charts for additional sizes and you’ll only need to print the two that pertain to yours.
I love Jared’s use of the term “bespoke” route for capturing this way of writing out patterns. While Rift is no doubt complicated and the pattern is bound to be extremely clear (Brooklyn Tweed patterns in my experience are excellent), this method – of writing detailed instructions for each size – is now being used frequently by designers, sometimes for rather straightforward designs where it is clearly unnecessary. My project bags now have pages and pages of pattern in them – I have to flip constantly from one page to the next. (This problem is not solved by having the pattern on an electronic device; you still have to scroll up and down through the scores of pages.) I also have little need for a pencil these days – since all of my scribblings and calculations have now all been done for me and charted in infinite detail, there is little for me to take note of.
There are many reasons behind this explosion of pattern length. Here are a few of them:
- Self-publishing. Designers used to mostly have their patterns published in a knitting magazine; these publications would have established formats for pattern writing which the designer would adhere to. Once self-publishing came to the fore, designers had the opportunity to establish their own formats and layouts. They also had to compete to stand out from all of the other designers. One way to do this was to provide lots of content – photos, tutorials, charts, schematics, etc. (I am a big fan of both charts and schematics.) If you are a designer, it is in your best interests to be as clear as possible on every front. Sometimes, this means being overly explicit about everything.
- Money. When you buy a single pattern download for much the same price as you can buy a knitting magazine with 30 patterns in it, you want to get your money’s worth. It’s human nature to feel that a 10-page pattern for $7.20 is a better deal than a 3-page pattern for the same price. (At least until you’ve read them.) Knitters want to feel as if the product justifies the price, and designers respond to that.
- Sizing. Another trend recently (and a very good one) is that knitting patterns now come in a much larger range of sizes. A pattern which is written in three sizes (S, M, L) will look much neater on the page and will be infinitely shorter and easier to read than a pattern which is written in 10 sizes. Many designers have started writing out separate instructions for different ranges of sizes for clarity’s sake and ease of reading. This can only be a good thing.
What do I think of all of this? I find I have rather ambiguous feelings about this trend. On the one hand, having detailed and explicit instructions makes it easier for beginners to take up their needles and tackle interesting projects. It saves us from hours of ripping and trial and error. Even the most experienced knitter doesn’t alway want to think out every step in detail. If it’s all worked out for me in advance, then I can multi-task – knitting while reading, watching TV, chatting, having a glass of wine, etc.. If I wanted to spend hours doing the math, I could just design everything myself, right?
On the other hand, I think I am a better knitter because of all of the intense thought and concentration some of those early patterns forced me into. I think I “read” my knitting better. I think I learned how to “fit” a garment better. I get a kick out of the intellectual challenge. (Don’t get me wrong – I am not talking about patterns which are full of mistakes and typos – I hate those! I am talking about the level of explicitness entailed in the pattern.) And although laying it all out makes it easier on many levels, flipping the pages back and forth can be annoying. In fact sometimes the sheer length of a pattern is so daunting that I can’t get past that to see how well-structured it may be.
I think that some of the ambiguity I feel derives from the grumbly professor in me: I believe that there is value in figuring some things out for yourself. I never want to give my students the answer; I want them to derive it for themselves. My job is to give them the tools they need, and also to make it interesting. Perhaps a great pattern has this in common with a great lecture – they should both inspire one to think. On the other hand, I can’t abide obtuseness – I love a pattern which is simultaneously explicit and concise.
I think that this discussion reflects the tension between the process knitter in me and the product knitter. As a process knitter, I enjoy “getting my hands dirty” so to speak. I like to figure things out. I don’t want it to be easy. When I am in full process mode, ripping gives me a little thrill (yes, I admit it, even if it is insane). I love the concentration, the endless calculations, the counting. On the other hand, as a product knitter, I want to make a garment that fits, and I want to wear it now, not some time next year after I get all the kinks worked out. When I am in full product mode, ripping is agony – it just slows me down. In this case what I want are very explicit instructions with no margin for error. I think most of us fit somewhere on the spectrum between process and product. However, I think we all tend to “bounce” a bit between the two ends – and where I sit on any one day determines how much detail I want in the pattern.
What about you? Have you noticed the explosion in pattern pages? Do you like it? Does it drive you crazy? Do you think I’m crazy? Inquiring knitters want to know…..