A Love Knit Up

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Thinking as you knit

Historically, in many countries, knitting has been a way of providing quality clothing for your family. If there are no well-fitted and well-made clothes available the only way to get good clothing is to make it. For this purpose, simple patterns that one can work on without thinking about it are necessary, and patterns should be written so that they can be followed as mindlessly as possible. Today, however, most knitters knit for fun, not because they have to; it is often more expensive to knit something than to buy it in a store. Thus patterns have become more intricate and involved, requiring more attention and counting. However, patterns are still written to be followed as mindlessly as possible, and this leads to a problem.

A pattern should give the knitter an impression of what the finished garment is supposed to look like, and enable the knitter to create the garment. For this, row-by-row and charted patterns are very useful: even an inexperienced knitter can follow these, and they make it possible to follow a pattern even if you have no idea what is going on or why certain stitches are made. But this is not as useful for more experienced knitters! For a more experienced knitter, it is more important for a pattern to give a general overview of what is to be created than row-by-row instructions. Charts are very useful for this: they show approximately which stitches will be knit in which other stitches, and give an impression of what the fabric will look like when it is finished. But because of the variability in symbols and notation in charts, looking at a chart does not always make it clear what is happening in the fabric.

What would be even more helpful than a chart or row-by-row instructions would be a short paragraph explaining what is happening in the pattern. For instance, for seed stitch an example of such an explanation would be "knit in every purl bump, purl in every knit V." For 2x3 ribbing it could be something like "knit stockinette columns facing opposite directions with widths 2 and 3." These explanations could not replace charts or row-by-row, but they would make following a pattern much easier. The benefit of this would be that a knitter could look at the knitting and see whether they are knitting correctly or not. It would also make it easier for people to understand the mistakes they have made while knitting: if a knitter recognizes what certain stitches look like they are much more likely to be able to catch mistakes that they made earlier.

A couple of examples of patterns where these would help. In the winter 2004 issue of Knitty a scarf called Wavy appeared. This scarf was knitted in 3x3 rib, but instead of making the ribbing straight it shifted over by one stitch every 4 rows, so that the scarf seemed to wave back and forth. The scarf is very easy to knit, but the pattern is difficult to read: instead of a short explanation like "shift the ribbing one stitch to the left every 4 rows 6 times, knit straight for 8 rows, then shift the ribbing one stitch to the right every 4 rows 6 times", which would have made the row-by-rows easy to understand and implement, the pattern features only row-by-row instructions for 51 rows. After staring at the instructions for a while it is possible to understand what is required, but unless you want to use a row counter (and since I always forget to increment the counter I've never managed to use one properly) you have to squint at the pattern and draw a chart to figure out what is going on.

Another example is the "Backyard Leaves" pattern featured in Scarf Style. This is a beatiful scarf with leaves twining down the scarf on each side. It has a very difficult selvedge stitching and some intricate shaping around the leaves. Luckily, the pattern is not presented as row-by-row instructions (there are 20 rows to the basic pattern), but with a chart. However, the chart is incredibly complicated and difficult to read (fitting for such a complicated scarf), which largely turns out to be unnecessary: there are many recurring patterns in the scarf. The first of these is the selvedge: it is 5 stitches wide, and looks very complicated. However, after the establishing row it is actually a very simple pattern: you always slip the stitches that look like purl bumps(with the yarn towards the wrong side of the scarf), and knit the other ones. Similarly, the lacework on the leaves looks very complicated until you notice that the holes on the leaves need to be lined up properly, and that the background that the leaves are on is garter stitch. After this realization all that is necessary is to learn the shapes of the leaves, and the rest of the knitting is much simpler. However, instead of providing this explanation, the book simply prints the chart, leaving the thinking to the knitter.

Although I usually approve of measures that make people think, I think that such omission detracts heavily from the quality of the pattern. It makes the knitting unnecessarily difficult for beginners, and it requires either a lot of experience in chart reading or a few hours of painstaking knitting before the pattern is understood. The designer of the pattern should try and make duplication of the pattern as easy as possible (since that is, after all, the point of the pattern); thus they should make sure that patterns that they probably used while designing the pattern are at least pointed out to the knitter.


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