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Part I: Troubled Waters

Working in a knitting store, I assist knitters in understanding patterns on a regular basis. Industry research and my own antecdotal experience shows that the majority of yarn store customers are beginning knitters or knitters returning to knitting after a multi-year break. But patterns are not necessarily written for these knitters, or any knitter, for that matter!

Part of the problem is pattern format. Printed knitting magazines are trying to cram as many patterns into each issue as possible. Glossaries of techniques and abbreviations are often in separate sections at the back [or front] of the magazine. We instruct knitters to photocopy the pattern they are going to knit after they purchase the issue, cut up and lay out the pattern in a more usable format in order to make the garment. [This is legal, as it is photocopying for personal use only.] Most print knitting magazines have websites where they post errors; some publish corrections in later issues.

Yarn companies publish patterns to help sell their yarn. Some of these patterns are provided to yarn shops at extraordinarily low cost. To keep publication costs down, the patterns are crammed onto single sheets. Since yarn companies see patterns as a vehicle for selling yarn, they may not be as invested in creating well-written patterns as they are in the photography of the item.

Leaflets -- those multi-sheet patterns in sheet protectors usually shown in shops in binders -- vary in quality by brand and author. Although leaflet single patterns often have more space in which to lay out the pattern, sometimes authors lay out their patterns by squeezing as much as they can into the smallest space possible to minimize publication costs.

The minimal cost of posting one's own patterns to one's website or weblog has enabled countless potential pattern publishers. But not everyone can write a pattern that makes sense. I thank these sometimes-anonymous pattern creators, as I do earn a fee correcting and clarifying poorly written patterns for knitters.

Space constraints create the need for an abbreviated language for handknitting patterns. The problem is that many pattern writers assume that knitters know the exact same techniques as themselves. Inexperienced pattern writers often omit essential instructions in areas they feel competent in...without even realizing it. Assumptions like these make for the miscommunication that leads to knitters abandoning projects, and sometimes knitting, altogether.

Pattern layout can make the actual knitting unnecessarily difficult. Each handknitted item is cumulative, with sections of knitting building on other sections of knitting as the fabric grows and is shaped row by row. Line-by-line instruction makes the most sense. When a designer or publisher compresses all the text for a garment section with few line breaks or section headers, it is very easy for the knitter to lose their place.

To clarify the pattern, the writer may 'chunk' each section of instructions for each section of knitting. The knitter sees the logical breakdown of the pattern in sections as the knitting project proceeds through the edging, body, armhole, neckline, shoulder shaping. Strategic use of white space makes it easier for the knitter to understand the sections of the knitting. A side benefit is the sense of accomplishment the knitter gains as s/he works through each successive part of a large or complicated pattern.

Section breaks enable the pattern writer to inform the knitter of new techniques or challenges in the next section of the garment. That old foil 'AT THE SAME TIME' can be dealt with in a more constructive way. We've all run into it -- blissfully decreasing at the armhole edge and not reading ahead to see the pattern directs us to 'AT THE SAME TIME when armhole equals X[Y,Z] inches do this other thing for the neckline shaping'. In the armhole/neckline section of the garment, the pattern can forwarn the knitter to be mindful that "in the middle of this section, knitter will be both decreasing at the armhole AND the neckline edge".

Layout aside, I run into content issues each day working in the LYS. Here are three specific examples of poorly written patterns, and my solutions.

1. Pattern does not specify a specific technique, and that technique will affect the stitch count.

Example: the pattern does not specify how to increase.

Assumption: the knitter will use the lifted increase [pick up the running thread BETWEEN stitches].

Problem: the knitter ONLY knows how to increase by knitting into the front and back of the stitch.

Disconnection between knitter and pattern: the stitch count will be affected by employing an increase that uses a stitch from the row, instead of an increase that happens between stitches. When pattern says, "*k8, inc, rep from * to end of row ending k4" across 68 sts resulting in 76 sts, the knitter will instead have 75 sts and end the row with k5, no matter how s/he works it, sending her into the yarn shop tearing her hair out in frustration after a night of ripping and reknitting.

Solution: pattern writer should include a section of 'techniques & abbreviations' in the pattern, a glossary of sorts, before the pattern begins, specifying exactly which increase and decrease to use.

2. Pattern uses a stitch pattern without ever spelling it out. Additional complications happen when the way the pattern abbreviates the stitch pattern conflicts with the stitch count.

Example: Pattern reads: "Cast on 82 sts. Work k2,p2 rib for 2 in." There is no row-by-row description of k2,p2 rib in the techniques and abbreviation section of the pattern.

Assumption: Knitter knows that k2,p2 rib over a stitch count that is NOT a multiple of 4 sts will end k2 on the first row, and begin p2 on the second row.

Problem: Knitter casts on 82 sts. Knitter repeats the following row: *k2, p2, rep from * to end, row after row. Knitter gets something other than ribbing, since 82 is not a multiple of 4.

Disconnect: Not every knitter knows how to work a stitch pattern over a non-multiple.

A] Pattern reads: "Cast on 82 sts. Row 1: *k2, p2, rep from * to end of row, ending k2. Row 2: *p2, k2, rep from * to end of row. Rep these 2 rows until fabric measures 2 inches." Rowan brand patterns sets up its stitch patterns in this fashion, in the pattern itself as opposed to in a glossary.

B] Pattern includes stitch patts in the 'techniques and abbreviations' section so that knitter has the row-by-row direction available.

3. Pattern layout of written stitches and charts for different sections of fabric makes pattern difficult to use.

Example: A knit-flat hat with background of seed stitch and cables. Pattern starts with row-by-row directions, then says, "Work in patt as est for [#] sts, work 6 sts from chart A, work in patt as est for [#] sts, work 6 sts from chart B, work in patt to end of row."

A] Knitter knows what 'pattern as established' means for seed stitch [see #2 above].
B] Knitter will be comfortable looking for st patts in three places, as the cable charts are on a separate page.

Disconnect: How do I go across a row? And I read the charts in what direction when I'm on the back? Why did they put them on separate pages? What is the pattern as established? t doesn't define seed stitch anywhere...

A] Write out the stitch pattern for seed stitch somewhere on the pattern. Put it in the same place as the cable charts, laid out as if one was reading back and forth. Better yet, make a chart that includes the repeat of background fabric AND cables, so knitter is not jumping from chart to written directions and can see what one row of knitting will look like.

B] This was a four-row cable. A four-row pattern could easily be written out for the knitter to follow, so that the knitter can more easily figure out what one row of knitting will be like.

C] Direct the knitter to use markers on either side of the cable panel sections. Then, pattern can read, "*Work seed st to marker, work chart A, work seed st to marker, work chart B, rep from * to end of row", including the 2-row stitch-by-stitch definition of seed stitch.

Pattern writers, please remember your intended audience.
Pattern users, please remember Elizabeth Zimmermann's admonition that "patterns are only guidelines".

Happy knitting!