New Year’s Resolution: Improve Your Pattern Writing

Before January ends, I want to tell you about a new book, Pattern Writing for Knit Designers, by one of the best knitting tech editors in the world, Kate Atherly.

 If you are a new designer and new at pattern writing, you absolutely need this book to make sure you start out with the best patterns you can possibly write. But if you’ve been writing patterns for a long time like I have, you still need this book to find out what the trends are in the knitting world, what knitters are looking for in patterns today, and how you can improve what you’re already doing a good job with.

 A few weeks ago, I interviewed Kate to talk about her new book, and here’s our talk. Enjoy and then buy the book!

PatternWritingforKnitDesignersCoverDonna Druchunas> Hi Kate, I love your new book, Pattern Writing for Knit Designers! Thanks so much for sharing it with me and taking the time to talk with me about pattern writing and editing. For any readers who don’t know, we work together a lot! You usually are my pattern editor at Knitty and you’ve also tech edited the patterns for several volumes of Stories In Stitches as well as my forthcoming book on Lithuanian knitting. The process is always interesting and fun. I’m so glad you’ve captured all of your experience in writing and editing patterns in a book for new and experienced designers.

KA>Thanks! I always learn so much when I work with any designer, and in particular I’ve learned a lot from you. Your deep knowledge of historical and other cultures’’ knitting techniques is a fantastic resource for me. And I love that we both have strong opinions and are willing to listen to each other!

 DD> What I’ve noticed most with my pattern writing over the years, is that the style of writing and the amount of detail that knitters expect has changed a lot. What do you think has changed the most in knitting pattern styles over the past few years?

KA> We’re getting more explicit with patterns. We tend to spell out more. In the past, it would have been considered appropriate and sufficient to say “Decrease at each end of every foll all row until 10 sts rem”, but now, we’re leaning towards being specific about the decrease to be used, and the placement, and spelling out the repeats more clearly, e.g.

Row 1, decrease (RS): K2, ssk, k to last 4 sts, k2tog, k2. 2 sts decreased.

Row 2 (WS): Purl.

Repeat the last 2 rows 12 times, until 10 sts rem.

Although this takes more space, it’s more inclusive. It’s more helpful for less experienced knitters. It’s more helpful for knitters whose first language is not English. It’s more helpful for knitters from other parts of the world where techniques might vary.

There are some designers (and indeed, more experienced knitters) who feel that this is *too much* information. [Ed. note: ME!] That this approach doesn’t allow knitters to think and make decisions for themselves. (That is, a knitter might prefer to position or work the decreases differently.)

I don’t disagree. But I do also believe that there are more knitters who aren’t knowledgeable enough/ready to/looking to/willing to make those sorts of decisions. (It’s not about intelligence or skill; it’s about knowledge and experience and also, frankly, level of engagement. Some knitters – even experienced ones – are looking for a project that spells everything out so that they can knit without having to think or worry or make decisions.) Those that do have sufficient experience to have an opinion about decrease type and placement are likely to be experienced enough to be able to see the big picture and make those adjustments.

 There is, of course, a middle path: I’m a big fan of instructions that say something like

“Shape sleeve by decreasing each end of the row as follows:

Decrease row (RS): K2, ssk, k to last four sts, k2tog, k2.”

or whatever.

Letting knitters see the big picture as well as providing them the detail allows both: a knitter looking to or needing to follow verbatim can, but a knitter who wants to be able to make adjustments can.

DD> I think the best way to learn to write is to read a lot. And for knitting designers, that means reading knitting patterns. In one of my most popular blog posts, “How to Read a Knitting Book,” I wrote about all of the things you can learn from reading knitting instructions even when you don’t actually make the projects. But with all of the changes in pattern writing style lately, it’s important to keep up with what’s new. How can designers and pattern writers know what changes are good and what changes might not actually be good to follow?

 KA> Hmm… Good question! I don’t know that any designer (or even tech editor) can be the arbiter of “what’s good” – I think, ultimately, it’s the knitters who will tell us what is helpful to them and not.  This is why, for my book, I surveyed hundreds of knitters – online and in person – about what they do and don’t like to see in patterns, about what they find helpful and not. It was awfully illuminating.  This is why I’ll never give up teaching in-store classes. Every week I see first hand what works for knitters and what doesn’t. I’ve included lots of quotes direct from knitters on this topic in the book: “Don’t Just Take it from Me” sidebars.

 DD> I teach a lot of classes about knitting from charts and one of the biggest complaints my students have is that there is so much inconsistency in chart symbols used by different designers and publishers. Do you have any advice on how designers can choose the best symbols to use in their charts?

KA> Using a purpose-built charting tool can help a lot, as the symbols are set. I find that the most “creative” symbols come up when a knitter is building charts free-hand (whether on paper or in a tool with Excel or Illustrator). And go look at other charts and stitch libraries to see what symbols have been used for that particular stitch. Yup, if a symbol exists, use it!

 DD> What advice you have for old-timers and experienced designers who might think they already know how to write patterns? I know I leave out a lot of details that you make me add back in, especially on Knitty. What are younger knitters looking for that those of us who learned how to write patterns 10 years ago might overlook?

KA> Teach knitting classes, you’ll see very quickly what knitters find easy to understand and don’t. Stalk your patterns on Ravelry and Patternfish to read the comments. And I love looking at knitters’ patterns – examining the physical sheets. See what they’ve made notes on. See what they’ve had to rewrite. Ask them what they’ve had to look up. And you’re totally right about reading other patterns – look at other current publications to see what they’re doing.  And yes, of course, I would suggest to read my book! <grin>

DD> Where can people buy your book? Are signed copies going to be available?

KA> They can buy it as a PDF right now for $25 from my website, through Patternfish and WEBS. I hope to have physical copies by mid January [ed note: that’s NOW!], and I’ll be definitely offering signed ones!

DD> Are you taking on new tech editing clients? If so, how can people contact you?

KA> I have room for a couple of clients – I can be reached through my website at http://kateatherley.com/ – there’s a “contact me” form.

DD> Thanks again for spending some time with us! I can’t wait to watch pattern writing develop more in the future. In our Stories In Stitches book series, Ava and I have decided to start including a Skill Building section in every book as well as Beyond the Basics boxes to help newer knitters learn more about reading older-style patterns because we feel it’s easier than it looks and we have the background to share tips that will make everyone’s knitting more fun.

  1. If I had my choice, everyone in the world would use the Japanese knitting chart symbols. They are so elegant and logical — and every symbol is drawn to represent visually what the actual stitch being knitted is, with loads of info coded into the symbol so you can decode it if you learn the system. On the other hand, if we had a standard system that was locked into place, we would never see improvement or innovations like Stitch Maps. https://stitch-maps.com

    I don’t think this will ever happen though. What I think is more important is that both knitters and designers learn the language of chart symbols and how to use symbols that provide the most information possible to the knitter so they can be easily and intuitively memorized. Equally important is teaching knitters how to read their knitting. That way you don’t have to stop and look up a symbol every time you get to it. A good cable symbol, for example, makes it obvious how many stitches are involved and whether you hold them to the front or back. A good decrease symbol shows you how many stitches you begin with, how many stitches you end with, which stitch you manipulate first with the needle, and the slant of the final stitch.

  2. This is a wonderful and very informative interview! Thank you!

    Plus, I would like to add to the topic of chart symbol inconsistencies:
    These can be solved like in Computer Science, through the establishment of a (universally accepted, I hope) chart symbol Standard!
    This Standard can be achieved either with the creation of a body of specialists representing different regions of the world (ie different languages, knitting styles, etc), or through feedback from knitters with the use of an Internet platform or a combination of the two previous methods.

    I think such an establishment would enable knitters to follow patterns even without knowing how to read the pattern’s language!

    • There’s an old joke in computer science… the nice thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from!

      I agree 100% that standards for charting symbols would be very very helpful! And yes, I myself use Japanese patterns, which, once you’ve got the hang of the symbols are easy to follow. (I recently encountered some Korean patterns, which were more reliant on words, and therefore I wasn’t able to decipher them. I was disappointed.)

      I’d love if we could make it come true. I fear, however, that the challenge is less in establishing the symbols and more in getting designers to adhere to them….

      In particular, we’d need to make sure that newer designers who don’t have have access to the automated charting tools are easily able to make charts with these symbols. And for those unusual situations where a new symbol is needed, how do we get that added to the standard lexicon?

      Food for thought…

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