The explosion in pattern length

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:

RIGHT FRONT

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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…..

29 thoughts on “The explosion in pattern length

  1. Yes I have, and it maddens me! And it’s not that I’m used to older patterns – I started my knitting addiction phase around 2008 – and a couple of sweaters later I was writing out my own shorthand for every pattern I worked because reading the chunks and chunks of text for really simple instructions was such a waste of time. A couple of garments after that, I had stopped following patterns altogether: I would read through to note key points (eg: the cable moves diagonally from the side of the garment towards the middle, and needs to reach the exact middle by the time the neck split occurs) and then would just swatch to get a fabric I liked and recalculate the sweater according to my measurements and swatch, ensuring I hit the key points of the pattern. This saved my from the tyranny of having to change endless needle sizes to match a designers gauge. Of course I had to do a bunch of calculations in the beginning, but they’re basically simple: It’s addition and division, not calculus! And yes, doing all that definitely made me a better knitter in terms of getting a garment that fit perfectly and understanding garment construction.

    Now I feel like a grumpy granny whenever I see knitters feeling “terrified” of having to reverse shaping for other side. I shake my (grumpy) head at them and mutter “too much spoon-feeding!”

    • Hi, it seems like I struck a chord with you. It sounds to me as if you are one of those knitters who prefer to treat a pattern more like a recipe (at least if you are my kind of cook who never measures anything). It also seems that you have a rather intuitive feeling for how a pattern is structured; this doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Thank you for your comments.

      • Absolutely! I wouldn’t expect a RTW garment to fit me off the rack, and similarly don’t expect a standard pattern to fit me well without tons of changes 🙂

  2. Well done, Kelly!

    What especially hit a note with me is that I, too, think I am a much better and more thoughtful knitter because old patterns were so sparse so we actually had to put our “problem solving skills” hats on! What I really hate is a pattern that is so wordy you don’t have any idea of basic construction, etc. At least the BT patterns include that in a great description of construction and pattern details.

    • Hi Susan, thanks. I’ve been worried that I was too grumpy when I wrote this post. The fact is that I’m conflicted. What would be perfect would be a happy medium, perhaps, that tried to balance explicitness with conciseness. I agree with your comments about the wordiness getting in the way of basic construction; this is why I really approve of the move to better schematics.

  3. While I started knitting while patterns were sparsely worded, there was always grandma, mother, or aunts around to answer the questions I had. Today’s new knitters probably don’t have an experienced knitter at hand to question. Yes, those old patterns made me a better knitter. I often ignore the wordiness of today’s indie published patterns. Provide me with a schematic and note any unusual construction techniques and I am off on my own with pencil and paper refiguring garment numbers to fit my shape and size.

    A well-written, thought out piece. Thanks for sharing this.

    • This is a very good point. Both my mother and grandmother were knitters. Today’s knitters often rely on youtube and the internet for help (both fabulous tools). It’s also true that pattern magazines have techniques sections where they explain the format and symbols used, so that that information doesn’t need to be included with each pattern.. A pattern in a PDF needs to deliver that information too which adds bulk. Nevertheless, I do sometimes feel as if the aim of many new patterns is to remove thinking from the equation. (See, being grumpy again!)

  4. Wow, I must have been lucky with the patters I have knitted! The longest were 8 pages and if you took out the pictures it was down to about four pages. And that inclouded written instructions as well as diagrams…

    • They are definitely getting longer. I pulled out some of those old Vogue Knitting magazines of mine from the 80s, and each had roughly 30-35 patterns printed on about 40 pages, including charts and schematics. When the pattern is really complicated, I don’t mind the length so much, but sometimes I see a very simple pattern, one that could be written in a paragraph or two, suddenly expanded to fit many pages. Thanks for commenting.

  5. Yes, over the years I have noticed that patterns are getting longer and longer. I especially have noticed recently when I’ve written a couple of my own patterns and tried to meet the demands of potential readers who would be more used to this new style of pattern writing.

    Being a professor myself (well, actually former) I totally agree with your philosophy that it helps to figure some things out for yourself. I also see another negative consequence of longer patterns: patterns are becoming less a kind of “suggestion” and more a kind of “do all these things and the project will look EXACTLY like the photo of the sample.” Combine this with the fact that Ravelry has pretty much made “quick,” “easy,” and “quick and easy” patterns more popular than ever thanks to its ranking of popular patterns (of course the easy ones are the most popular!) and we’ve got a world of patterns that are pretty much what I like to call “IKEA knitting.”

    Does this mean I hate to knit easy things? No, absolutely not. I also enjoy easy knits. I think I have benefitted from shorter written patterns in the sense that I’m not afraid to be creative and make my own alterations or use different techniques if I don’t care for the ones indicated in the pattern. I think I fear that maybe one day the human imagination will get totally annihilated if patterns (and other stuff in life) get that detailed and specific. But I don’t know, maybe my fear is just irrational. Knitters are still designing, so for now imagination is alive and well.

    • I had to laugh at your “IKEA knitting” comment. I know just what you mean. Although I agree that Ravelry has helped a lot of “quick and easy projects” gain in popularity, I also think that it has contributed to a growth of interest in knitting traditions, techniques and skills and to a sharing of expertise. I like to mix up the “quick and easy” with the “slow and complicated” myself. I think that most of the time I am quite optimistic about human imagination, but I certainly have my days where I despair! Thanks a lot for your comments.

  6. I have knit from both long and short patterns, and I don’t have much trouble with either, EXCEPT, that many of the longer patterns seem to have a lot of information that doesn’t actually help one knit it properly. This is not true of professional small house patterns like Brooklyn Tweed (which are fabulously produced) or Quince and Co, but it is often true of indie designers. I’ve seen multi-paragraph sections on choosing the correct yarn for appropriate drape or stitch definition, which I thought was a bit much.

    Where my problems happen is that as a generally smart (I’m a research biochemist) but not overly experienced knitter, I sometimes do better when I have to figure out something myself, as I can usually make that work, as then I have to understand what I am doing. I have had trouble a few times with very detailed patterns, where I think I am following the instructions properly, but I don’t get the result I should, and then I have trouble figuring out what I am doing wrong, or if there is an actual problem in the pattern. Lately, I have started not just modifying a pattern for a more personal fit (basically adding some room in the hip), but taking the design elements out of the pattern and making my own pattern nearly from scratch. Intuitively, that should be harder, but I’m finding it easier in many instances.

    It makes we wonder what you would find if you gave a pattern with minimal instructions, say a cardigan from a Vogue Knitting, to a dozen intermediate to accomplished knitters and had them knit the pattern “as is” as they each understand it. How would shaping and construction be done in each case?

    • I agree with all you’ve said here. I think that many of us, probably most of us, want to really understand the underlying mechanics of the pattern and the techniques and be able to “read” the knitting. It’s like the difference between learning chemical formulas by rote, and actually understanding the chemistry underlying them. This is why so many of us “deconstruct” patterns as you describe above. I like your proposed experiment; my guess is that knitters would allow their creative sides to fill in the gaps.

  7. I think the biggest reason is that, rather than assuming knitters will know a thing or two about knitting and are capable of figuring out things, pattern writers now assume (maybe by necessity?) that knitters don’t know how to do everything, and are not capable of figuring out anything. I also think that with a new generation of knitters having gotten used to patterns catered to them, there is an expectation that the pattern will tell you EVERYTHING. And if it doesn’t, the designer/pattern writer will get bombarded with questions about the simplest things (this is my experience…). So designers end up writing longer, more detailed instructions because there is a demand for it. On the other hand, I’ve had my share of struggles with the overly abbreviated and truncated instructions, so if I had to choose, I suppose I’d take the longer ones over the shorter ones.

    Also, I think twenty years ago, the tool kit of a knitter as well as a designer was much smaller, and most patterns were composed of the same basic stitches and techniques. Now, there are many new or previously obscure techniques that are commonly incorporated into patterns and require more detailed instructions. Rather than expecting the knitter to learn the technique somewhere else, the lesson is often written into the pattern.The incorporation of interesting techniques is something I definitely enjoy and don’t mind if a pattern gets longer because of it.

    • Thanks, Lotta, these are interesting points. In some ways, I think that designers can’t win these days. In order to sell patterns, you have to please your customers, and customers are definitely becoming more demanding. (At least, that is my take.) As to your second point, I don’t think that there are many “new” techniques, as knitting has been around for a very long time and not much is new; however, the internet has allowed a globalization of knitting culture which means that techniques that used to be local can now spread far and wide. This is good for us knitters, and I agree with you that I don’t mind if a pattern is longer because perhaps not-well-known techniques are demonstrated and incorporated.

  8. If a pattern is too long, I usually don’t buy it. Garnstudio and Drops have always relied on knitters to have some knowledge or to know how to get it. But some American or Indie patterns…. don’t get me started!

    • I haven’t used Garnstudio or Drops patterns yet, but they have been descirbed to me as of the “recipe” variety. There are lots in my “favorites” list, so I am sure to give one a try one of these days. I’m not convinced that the pattern length issue applies to any one nationality of designer, or to indie designers in pariticular; both styles seem to be fairly represented across the spectrum.

      • And if you ever do get to Garnstudio/drops patterns you need to keep an eye on things. I don’t know about the english versions but in the swedish ones there are problems with the patterns not beeing right every now and then…

  9. this is an interesting debate, I am a newish knitter(on my 5th sweater) and trying to get to grips with different techniques and sweater construction, so at this stage of my knitting addiction I need all the help I can get. My new project includes tubular cast on and short rows which were beautifully explained within the pattern which is Truss by Brooklyn Tweed. All the information I need is in one place and i don’t need to hunt anywhere else.( although I printed 12 pages) I would love to get to the stage where I could look at at a pattern and note the key points and get on with it using my preferred techniques. So maybe the solution would be if designers had two versions, a long one with detailed descriptions and a more concise one for experienced and confident knitters. How hard would that be?

    • Actually, Wendy, I think that is a great idea. That is what a lot of biotech companies do with their products that come as kits. There’s a whole booklet for the inexperienced user or when one needs to optimize or troubleshoot, and then there is the “at a glance” one page protocol for experienced users. BTW, lovely sweater in your avatar!

  10. Wendy, thanks so much for commenting; it is good to get the perspective of a new-ish knitter! I agree with Brenda that this is a great idea. My caveat would be that this may put even more work on to the designers, who I think are generally underpaid for the huge amount of work that goes into the design process. Truss is a great design by the way; good luck with your sweater!

    • ironically as i was doing the short row section on the back there was a mistake…knit on the WS, it took me an hour to work out whether it was me not understanding the pattern or it was wrong. It, then,it threw out the rest of the instructions. Enjoyed giving my brain cells a work out…onto three needle bind off??!11?
      In my ignorance I thought it may be a matter of cut and paste of the relevant sections of a long pattern for a concise pattern.

  11. I have noticed this and I, also, am of two minds, maybe three, about it! Sometimes explicit directions and mindless knitting are so relaxing — no thinking needed and almost meditative. On the other hand, since I am fortunate enough to have some expert knitters in the knit group I attend, I can often get expert advice on complicated patterns. And sometimes I do enjoy the challenge of figuring things out myself — I call it “Alzheimer’s Insurance!”

  12. I have noticed this trend mostly on crochet patterns, where designers tend to use step-by-step pictures for the WHOLE process! I have to admit, the first time I saw that, I was really baffled, I thought “don’t people that want to make this, know how to crochet already?”
    But again, the designers probably do that in lack of proper charts/schematics and a need to deliver crisp clear directions.

    I agree largely with most commenters above, from the side of ‘less explanations can be more beneficial to the knitter, intellectual-wise’. I believe that this trend takes place because there is a demand today for patterns that are catered to beginners. I have no idea what is the skill set of the ‘average’ majority of, let’s say of people active on Ravelry (hmm this would be an interesting academic research topic!), but I think this ‘demand’ and trend is a result of the feedback the designers get. It is a lot more likely that a beginner would ask the designer more questions or request a tutorial about a technique rather than an experienced one, that would just get to knitting. So designers, include detailed instructions in order to avoid multiple questions, that also take up a lot of precious time to answer!

    Something similar happened to a design I got tested last year, where some of my testers requested that I provide an intarsia tutorial. The design was rather simple and instarsia was the most ‘difficult’ technique used. I found it strange that they would expect to learn such a basic skill from a random designer like me, rather than from a book, or better a video, but in the end I ended up creating an introduction tutorial on my blog (not inside the pattern, as I thought that would be too much). The reason I did that was because, as my testers correctly noted, this was a design that would be more appealing to intarsia beginners.

    I don’t think it’s a bad idea to cater patterns for beginners, it’ probably a good thing that helps them improve their skill set.
    But I don’t like that experienced knitters are forced to read a pattern as a beginner. It can be an insult to their experience and intellect. (at times)
    And I don’t think that it is more work for a designer to write for experienced knitters: it is the exact opposite.

  13. I think where patterns have gotten really long is when lace is involved. Or cables for that matter. I know a lot of knitters don’t like reading charts, but sometimes the pattern is so intricate that when the rows are written out row by row, that can really extend a pattern. Personally, I could never knit like that – boggles the mind and much easier to forget a step or repeat, whereas I love the simplicity of following a chart where you can also see the rows below to help you read your knitting better. But it probably all comes down to a matter of taste. I usually have post-it notes all over a pattern with either row counts or my own modifications.

  14. Great post! BTW, I don’t think you sounded grumpy. I agree with the point that having the knitter work more things out made me a more skilled knitter in the long run. When behind closed doors, many long term designers deplore this shift in the market to such detailed instructions. It takes longer to write and costs more to have tech edited while compensation has been relatively static. It seems ironic to spell out every technique in an online pattern when the knitter has the resources of the Internet. However, not to do it risks negative online commentary which impacts pattern sales. I’ve also had knitters tell me they won’t consider knitting a pattern which is too long. (My longest patterns are the ones in which I give separate size instructions.) Designers are most definitely between a rock and a hard place on this issue. I’ve been teaching knitting classes for a long time but it has only been in the last 5 years that I started having venues say I need more easy classes. Sadly, I was told, knitters aren’t smart enough for my advanced classes. I totally disagree as I get knitters complaining about the rarity of advanced classes

    • It could be that knitters that are requesting more ‘easy’ classes during the last 5 years be people that started knitting because of the hype it enjoys recently and therefore not invested on the same level as someone that started knitting for knitting itself and not the trend? Just a thought.

  15. I also noted this growth and am not really content with that. On the other hand, I see the reasons for it just like you.
    The difference here (in Germany) is that the old patterns mostly included a chart (here charts were used really early on, even the old knitters today are not used to written instructions) and a sketch that showed the measurements of the finished pieces. The very old patterns then did not have any instructions on where to increase/decrease, you were supposed to figure that out for yourself by preparing a paper template and then laying your piece onto that template and the just to increase and decrease so that the piece fits the template.
    The newer patterns did have increase/decrease instructions, but very sparse, as you described above and it was assumed (rightly, I think) that everybody knew or could figure out how to mirror instructions for the other side.
    I do not like the paper template method too much, since this is too error-prone. But I am rather content with short instructions, and with charts, please! Written instructions drive me crazy, I just get lost in this “text desert”.
    What drives me crazy is stuff like the “make two” that is mentioned with sleeve instructions. When I read this, I always feel my intelligence insulted.

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