How many patterns do we need?

I really hope I won’t offend anyone with this post, but it’s been a while since I’ve written something essay-ish and I’ve actually asked myself this question recently. My point isn’t to criticize anybody or bash the design industry. My purpose in writing this is to simply ponder and perhaps begin an interesting dialogue with other bloggers about the subject. It’s sort of a navel-gazing type of exercise. Some of my readers may ask themselves from time to time, “How many pairs of shoes do I really need?” I know I’ve asked myself, “How many bags do I really need?” We all have our habits, right?

I was inspired to think about this because I was reading Barbara G. Walker’s book on knitting sweaters from the top down. I’ve had this book in my library for quite a long time and I have never used it. I think it’s because I get busy in my life and lose track of what I would like to do to take my knitting to the next level. In the end, I’ve recently felt inspired to design my own top-down raglan pullover based on a picture I saw so I started reviewing some of her directions.

First, I think I should digress and be totally upfront and honest about why I went to Walker’s top-down book instead of Ann Budd’s (I own both books). If anything, it might help someone in choosing books for their knitting library. Budd’s The Knitter’s Handy Book of Top-Down Sweaters is indeed very handy because it does all the math for you. For each typical sweater style there are charts for different knitting gauges. The idea here is to pick a stitch pattern you like and incorporate it into the knitting directions. Walker’s book is quite different in that it teaches you how to design your own sweater and leaves the math up to you. The benefits of Walker’s book is that it provides more information about different styles of constructing each sweater, the options for creating different shapes, and so on. For example, for the raglan sweater she provides an assortment of ways to shape the armholes and gives advice about which raglan seams go best with certain types of stitch patterns. I’ve chosen an unusual stitch pattern so I’ve decided to do the math myself and select from the better variety of options. I’ll definitely turn to Budd’s book again. It’s truly awesome and I love knitting with it.

Now that I’ve explained myself a bit, let’s get back on track. The text that made me ponder the need for patterns was this:

“The subject of knitwear design has been made to seem much more mysterious than it really is, perhaps because many designers are unwilling to share their ‘secrets’ with non-professional knitters. The truth is that to design your own knitwear you need only four basic tools: yarn, needles, a tape measure, and a brain fortified by a third-grade education; for it is usually in the third grade that we learn to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. There are no other arithmetical operations involved” (Walker 11).

I have to say that when I read this (or re-read it? I’m not sure) I just started laughing really hard and uncontrollably because it sounds so true. Isn’t it strange how sometimes the truth is hilarious? I believe that if anyone dared try to publish something similar now it would not be allowed by the publisher. Of course, maybe if an author went with Schoolhouse Press it would fly.

Of course, Interweave distinguishes itself for actually putting the Knitter’s Handy Book series out there. The only thing is, it is sort of representative of what Walker is talking about in the sense that it provides stitch-by-stitch directions. However, I think the intention of the book is clear: it seeks to simplify the design process so the knitter can just apply whatever signs of individuality are desired on a blank canvas. I, being a devotee of the Knitter’s Handy Books, have to say I am addicted to knitting things this way.

But, does this mean that we don’t need commercial patterns? Walker goes on to tell us: “Those who blindly follow commercial knitting directions may never have given themselves time to understand garment construction, so they remain always at the same level of untutored blindness. Such are the people who have been knitting for years and years, but still say, ‘Oh, I have to have stitch-by-stitch instructions, or I don’t know what to do.’ In fact the construction of a knitted garment is among the simpler things in life. Some of the world’s most magnificent knitting has been done in past centuries by uneducated European peasants, who never went to school and could not read nor write, and whose acquaintance with arithmetic was rudimentary at best. They knitted to clothe the body, not to strain the brain. If they could learn to approach knitting from this angle, so can we.” (10-11)

It’s true that there are knitters and crocheters who like to follow patterns exactly as they are written without adding any personal touches. It’s also true that there are plenty of yarn crafters who feel like they can’t do anything without directions written out for them. Whether we like it or not, knitting and crochet design and pattern publishing is a business and the entire reason why people do business is to make money. In order to make money, designers and publishers have to convince us somehow that we need their patterns. I suspect that some designers and publishers are more aggressive with their marketing tactics than others. I won’t name any names, but one in particular has a podcast that I stopped listening to because it was laying the marketing tactics on way too thick, to the point where I felt like I was being enveloped in a choking fog of smarminess. I don’t think everyone, or even the majority, of designers and publishers are this way, but they all have advertising that I find to be a bit exaggerated. Their mission is to convince us that we need them to help us make beautiful things so we feel like spending our money.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently evil about this but I do believe that knitting and crochet patterns have changed over the decades. Easy and simple patterns requiring little skill will sell to a wider audience of crafters and therefore the market has a glut of those types of books, magazines, PDFs, and leaflets. Instructions have gotten longer, too. What used to be a two-pager can easily become a five-pager. Older patterns, when they call for two of anything that are the reverse shape of each other, told us to “make another one and reverse the shaping.” Now, instructions often explain how to make each one with the shaping reversal written in. We might have reason to suspect that pattern publishers are on a mission to dumb us down and create generations of knitters and crocheters who can’t fathom following a pattern without each and every little detail and step explained to a “T.” On the other hand, these kinds of detailed patterns are educational for knitters and crocheters who are learning or who need extra guidance in trying out a new technique.

I actually have a gigantic pattern library and I will never make all the things for which my pattern collection could instruct me to do. I’d need, I don’t know, maybe 300 years and an independently wealthy lifestyle to knit all of them. So, maybe we don’t need so many patterns, but the funny thing is that without knitting and crochet patterns I wouldn’t feel as inspired as I do. If there isn’t a need for so many patterns, at the very least I want more patterns so I’m happy they’re out there and available.

What do you think?

Work Cited

Walker, Barbara G. Knitting from the Top. Pittsville, WI: Schoolhouse Press, 1996.


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