Monday, July 30, 2007


I was looking through a new knitting book the other day, and I came across this in the introduction:

Although I have been designing machineknitting for some years, I am not the world's greatest handknitter, so the patterns in this book are all for people like me -- who like beautiful designs, but are a little lacking in handknitting skills....

Later, in the notes, the author thanks So-and-So for "pattern writing."

Now apart from the fact that I'd love to get me one of these gigs -- I think up the designs and let someone else struggle with the patterns -- this struck me as a bit odd. From a common-sense standpoint, wouldn't you think that a book of handknitting patterns would of necessity be written by someone who is an experienced and excellent handknitter? And if you were a publisher, wouldn't you want to hire only good handknitters to write books on handknitting?

I thought about it further, and wondered if maybe "fashion" is different. Maybe if you are a designer of certain prominence, it is considered enough to have a vision or design style that you can sketch out, letting someone else worry about the logistics of how to make it. For example, if you're Isaac Mizrahi, is your name brand recognition sufficient ("This is an Isaac Mizrahi design!") even if you don't know a lot about how handknitting works?

I also wondered whether machineknitting is so closely related to handknitting that it doesn't matter. I've never done machineknitting, so it's hard for me to know. (On the other hand, I'd never try to write a book on machineknitting.) But if the distinction between machine- and handknitting doesn't matter, then why does the author go out of her way to point out that she is good at one but not the other?

When I think about all the things I've learned about handknitting over the years, and think about all the things I have yet to learn, this strikes me as very curious indeed.

What do you think?


Lynne E. said...

Which knitting book is that? To answer your question, it's my understanding that some--perhaps many--handknitting designers use machine knitting to test their designs, especially at the swatching stage. The speed of machine knitting tells you quickly whether or not a pattern is going to work.

There is a BIG difference in pattern writing for machine and hand knitting, but I don't think that it is particularly difficult for an experienced machine/hand knitter to translate a pattern from machine to hand, or vice versa. Because machine knitting produces knitted fabric, just like hand knitting, I wouldn't care whether a knitting designer was primarily a machine knitter or a hand knitter.

Kathy Merrick said...

What do I think?
I want to know whose "famous" book this is.
How can you not say?
I can see where machineknitting is of great use for miles of fairisle or jacquard knitting but am not at all sure that I'd want a handknitting book "authored" by someone who doesn't handknit.

Rachel said...

I know I will not buy that book, that's all!

mindy said...

Huh. I don't know that someone who professes not to be that great at hand-knitting would know if all the kinks were worked out of the patterns- though it sounds like they have someone else doing that for them. What was written leads me to think there may be problems with the patterns, even though the author may be a fantastic designer. Just speculating...

Sandy said...

Well, on the one hand I'd be more likely to spend money on a book by an expert, where I felt I could learn from their expertise.

On the other, the author seems to claim that she wasn't the greatest knitter, and that the book was for others with not-so-great skills. And I fall into that category. So if I were looking for simple, easy patterns (assuming they're nice looking!) I might borrow the book from someone or the library.

But the designs would have to be pretty clever or unique for me to buy it outright.

j. said...

1. I would venture to say that if you were a publisher, you would care that the "author" of a compilation of patterns was a good manager, and managed to obtain the patterns from all of the individual designers and secure the services of a tech editor in a timely fashion. Isn't that how the majority of publishers of knitting books are operating now? Outside of the very specialized publishers, how many of them employ editors who would know a well-written knitting pattern if they saw one?

In the case of a single-author book, again. You want designs that people want to buy, and you don't care how they turn into a pattern, as long as the author/tech editor takes care of it.

2. In apparel manufacture, designing and pattern making are two completely different roles. And pattern grading is a different role still, although a pattern maker may do it.

This site explains some of those jobs:

The hand knitting design field is generally not geared to that level of production. Off the top of my head, I do recall once that one indie publisher (and I cannot remember which; I want to say one name, but I don't think it's right) actually put out a call to "designers" for hand knitting -- they wanted, essentially, to buy sketches so that they could create the knitting patterns. They were looking for the people who did that "dream" designer job of sketching all day, and relying on others to magically turn them into clothes.

I don't know whether that project actually went through or not.

Cynthia said...

You know, this doesn't surprise me and I think the point you make about a designer is true. Do you think Michael Kors actually writes the patterns for his designs in Vogue Knitting? I don't and never did. I think there are a large number of book authors/designers that are more personalities than actually doing the work. Or they are re-doing someone else's work with a twist and calling it there own. (Or they are taking old designs from a well-known knitting relative).

It is all the same--read the fine print folks. Know what you are buying. Let's face it--you blog very well, but are a lawyer by training. Does that mean your book is going to be less excellent than a person trained in textile manufacture and design? Of course not.

Barbara-Kay said...

I think you should "call this shovel a spade" and tell us the name of the book, so we won't waste any time looking through it!

Kathy Merrick said...

J.-- we're not talking about the apparel manufacturing business here.
We're talking about a handknitting book for handknitters.
I don't think we need to know the specifications for rag trade pattern graders to judge a knitting book.
And what makes you so sure that Carol's readers need you to tell them what a pattern grader does?

nicole said...

I read this blog entry that discusses this very problem:

Apparently the designer she discusses is notorious for machine knitting and then having problematic handknitting patterns. Too bad because she definitely designs creative and unique pieces. I wouldn't have a problem with the machine knitting at all, except that many, many knitters have struggled with poorly written patterns in expensive books, and reflects really badly on the whole operation. Shouldn't good test knitting take care of these problems? Does that just not happen?

Sarah said...

I also feel puzzled at such statements. I would definitely want to study this book even more closely before deciding whether or not to purchase it.

Carol said...

I'm not sure the ready-to-wear industry is the right analogy. Instead of buying finished clothing, the knitting book purchaser is paying for the pattern with the express intent to make it herself. Presumably you'd want the person who writes the pattern to know something about how to construct it. Or would you?

I am not talking about a compilation book, in which each of the contributors is clearly attributed along with their pattern, either. This is a book that says something like "Simple Knitting Widgets" by Patsy Purl. The only attribution the pattern writer got was in the back, in the fine print of the acknowledgements. Plus I think the original point still is valid even w/r to compilations: why would we want to trust the job of selecting the patterns to someone who didn't know that much about how to make them?

Let's imagine beading, or quilting. Would an experienced beader or quilter be more likely to produce a better set of designs in a pattern book than someone who wasn't very skilled at it? Would there be some skills, some value to extensive experience, in creating the how-tos?

It may make a difference in this case that all the designs in this book are very basic and simple. And that may be the moral of the story.

Jennifer Dickinson said...

I don't think s/he has any business "authoring" a book of handknitting patterns intended for handknitters unless s/he's a fairly skilled handknitter.

If s/he conceived the designs and someone else wrote the patterns, then as far as I am concerned, they should be co-authors of the book, and the roles should be apparent. Coming up with innovative designs is hard. Writing a good pattern is hard. They should both get the credit for their work.

Even if you have a savvy tech editor and a whole whack of testknitters, there's no way for such an author her/himself to know for sure that the patterns work for the target audience. I would never put my name to something and sell it without knowing that it was a good product. It's a credibility issue.

Carol said...

I'm confused! ~snif~

Marilyn said...

I know the author of whom you speak. Let me say this: She was and is a very fine machine knitter. That said, would I buy her book even though she's not an experienced handknitter? Yes, if it had good designs. And here's why.

First of all, I machine knit for many years, taught computerized machine knitting as well, and edited a machine knitting magazine. So those are my bona fides. Second, whether handknitters like it or not, many techniques, such as mattress stitching, tubular cast-ons, using waste yarn for grafting, cut-and-sew aka steeking, and a bunch of other things, were used by machine knitters long before they were popularized in the handknitting press.

Is there a difference between hand knits and machine knits, patternwise? Yes, to some degree. However, it is not that difficult to translate machine-knitting patterns to hand, and vice versa. Schematics are the same. Charts for Fair Isle, particularly for computerized machines, are easily translated. Number of needles to use equals number of stitches to cast on. Machine knitters do a lot more shortrowing than handknitters, not a bad thing at all. If you can match the machine knitting gauge, which is certainly doable, then what's the problem? Gauge is what counts.

Let me ask you all this: Susanna Lewis, known primarily for her machine knitting, wrote a definitive book on handknitted lace. That book is now out of print and commands a big price on eBay. So you wouldn't buy it because Susanna was a machine knitter? Uh huh.

Carol said...

Okay, the link above to the blog entry -- thanks Nicole! -- gives a very concrete example of the kind of thing I'm trying to get at. The blogger makes a sweater and it says to increase and decrease in the same stitch which is commonly done (according to this blogger) in machine knitting but cannot be done in handknitting. So if you don't understand this, you've got a pattern that tells you to do something impossible. If you were an experienced handknitter, you might have known this and the error would have been avoided and not appeared in print, sure to confuse some knitters.

Another example, off the top of my head, would be matching up a pattern stitch so that it aligns without a break in the pattern where the left front, say, meets the back. As an inexperienced knitter, I wouldn't have known that, or thought to incorporate that in a pattern, but as a more experienced knitter, I would. Yet it is something which could make a big difference in the quality of the finished garment. A good tech editor will see these kinds of things, but even a really good tech editor may miss something from time to time. (Obviously this happened in the pattern the blogger was using.)

Anyway, this is an interesting conversation. I'm not suggesting that only people with particular backgrounds write books, but I guess it does make sense to think beyond just the eye candy aspect (what a cute pattern!) and consider the writer's qualifications. And there is something plain old common sense about the idea that someone who knows what they are talking about should be telling others how to do it.

I love the fact that y'all bring different backgrounds and perspectives to the discussion. Which is really why I started the topic in the first place. And I purposely didn't name of the book to keep the discussion focused on the topic rather than one particular person.

Who a lot of you will probably say "who?" about anyway.

j. said...

It appears that my second comment earlier this afternoon got eaten by the blogger monster. Drat.

When I went off on the RTW thing, it was because of the idea that the division of labour is different. (It was also because when I see Mizrahi's name, I don't think of hand knitting patterns, even though I know full well that patterns have been published by VK.) To bring it back to the hobbyist, that division would be something similar for sewing patterns, and the people writing books telling us how to sew and fit patterns at home do not necessarily know how to draft or grade a pattern in the first place.

Yet, in hand knitting, we expect that the designer should be the pattern writer, and usually the grader. I like the idea because of the integrity it seems to give to a pattern, but that's no guarantee that the pattern will be error-free, even with tech editing.

As someone who doesn't follow other people's patterns anymore, I'm only interested in books for the ideas in techniques and design that they present; I don't care if the pattern is flawed.

I agree with Jennifer, though, that if this particular author couldn't write a hand knitting pattern, it sounds like that so-and-so needed coauthor credit.

(I'm kind of confused about the increasing and decreasing into the same stitch. If this means the same loop on the needle, I understand; but if it just means to work an increase and a decrease at the position in the row defined by that stitch, I could imagine how to do something like that.)

Bridget said...


I'll get back to you as soon as I finish the book I'm writing about brain surgery.

M-H said...

There is a persistent rumour that Jo Sharp can't or doesn't knit - she does sketches and someone else converts the ideas into knitting patterns for publication. Kaffe Fasset doesn't write patterns, not line by line. He knits swatches and does sketches and hands them off to someone else. (I know because Brandon Mably told me this. :) ) Which is fine by me. Just because you have a wonderful sense of colour, shape and style doesn't mean that you'll know how to write clear, line-by-line instructions for someone else to follow. That's a different skill. It may even be that there are a few designers who would be better to leave that part of the process to someone else.

I'd buy the book if I wanted to make the garments.

Liza said...

Hey Carol,

I got me one of those gigs.

I would be out of a job if the primary author of our books knew how to machine sew and write patterns. YAY for collaboration.


Veronik said...

I'd like to clear something up quickly - the pattern used in this example was more than likely not knit on a knitting machine - knit/purl fabric requires an expensive set up consisting of a machine and ribber, and cables on a machine are nothing if not painful. Add biasing to the equation and only an S&M knitter would attempt it. The move that this blogger refers to is 'p-f&b', which is not only achievable by hand, it's much easier. Machines are best left to St st.

Lorraine said...

Never having used a knitting machine, I can't tell you from that perspective. I never was naive enough to think that Kaffe wrote his own patterns. He's all about the color, and he doesn't misrepresent himself.
However, take a tour through any large bookstore, and I can tell you- you can publish a book about ANYTHING- and not know what you're talking about.
So, it's a case of being aware. The number of errors that are in knitting instructions is mind-boggling.
But, like you- I do find it curious.

ChiaLea said...

I have to fall down on the side of it not necessarily mattering. I don't tend to actually follow patterns, unless they're for lace, but some patterns I'll take things from. (For example, I'm now knitting the Phylotaxis (sp?) Pullover from Knitting Nature in a very different yarn to a different pattern but using the stitch pattern for the top largely unchanged.)

However, as so many commenters have pointed out, there are certainly differences between machine and hand knitting. The important part is that the pattern designer understand the possibilities of the medium (and/or be able to stretch them). Without handknitting skills, I'm guessing that pattern designers won't do as well in this regard.

Gauss said...

My problem with the author's statement is that she or he admits to "lacking in handknitting skills". I couldn't trust the patterns in this book and frankly I see no reason to buy such a book. If the author admitted "I have some very skilled collaborators who helped me translate my wonderful design ideas into great working patterns" I would have a different opinion and appreciate the honesty. And I'd probably be looking for great design and good knitting.

It's like having a math textbook where the author confesses to not being very good at math. Then why write a book?

Sheila said...

It seems that handknitting might be like cookbooks. The people writing them often have an in with a publishing person to begin with. You know, like Martha Stewart did, and then you just keep writing and they publish it. Some people who design knitwear just use softwear to design it and have someone else knit it, then they get to the pattern editting part. No kidding . . . this is how it goes.