Thursday, September 13, 2007

How specific should a pattern be?

On an online knitting list the other day, someone posted asking why designers don't specify the type of cast-on or bind-off or other technique. Her complaint was that the finished object sometimes has problems with a too loose edge or too tight edge or didn't look exactly like the pictured finished object. I was going to post in response but I wasn't sure if it would be received appropriately by the list moderators, so I decided to blog about it.

When I write patterns for publication, I try to be as specific as possible about the techniques I used when it matters. For example, I might specify that a cast-on should be loose or elastic, or to bind off loosely or in pattern. I might even say that the cast-on should be done provisionally if it is going to be removed later. I also sometimes provide alternate methods e.g. I might say that the cast-on could be provisional or knitted on, both of which provide a mechanism to pick up and knit in the opposite direction.

However, unless there is a really good reason to use one technique and one technique only, I don't get more detailed than the above. Why? My teaching has shown me that what is loose for me might not yield the same results for someone else. My knitted-on cast-on has a loopy edge that I find useful for picking up and knitting. But I have had students for whom that very cast-on is tight. If you don't leave enough play in the sts you cast on, it becomes a very tight cast-on. If I specified the knitted-on cast on assuming that it would be loose and it isn't, that is even worse for the knitter.

An excellent example of this is the provisional cast-on where you crochet a chain and then pick up sts in the backs of the chains. When it is time to undo, you unzip the chain from the end and it comes right out. For me, it does. For my students, it does once they understand where to pick up the sts in the chain. But there are many people online who are certain they are picking up in the right spot but that the chain doesn't unzip for them. It won't unzip if you start from the beginning of the chain. But when we discuss this, they are quite certain that they followed the instructions. They prefer other forms of provisional cast-on that I think are quite fiddly.

So being too specific has its drawbacks. I think it is much more useful to the knitter if the pattern specifies the results that should be achieved (e.g. stating that the cast-on should be stretchy) and leaves it up to the knitter to determine which cast-on yields those results. This assumes that the knitter has experimented with different cast-on techniques and knows what results they get individually.

And that brings us to the crux of the problem: knitters don't seem to want to experiment to find techniques that work for them. They want to be told what to do. Unfortunately, this is not going to be satisfactory because we are all unique and our knitting reflects that diversity. I have to find what works for me and what I like. I can execute some techniques perfectly but I don't like them. My fingers don't like working them. My brain doesn't like working them. So I avoid them. There are others that have that perfect blend of visual appeal and kinetic appeal for me. I use them often. But that is me. What about you? What techniques have that perfect blend for you? You have to find that out for yourself.


Mary Lou said...

I'm with you, Jaya. I usually say a loose cast on etc. Sometimes I'll suggest a technique. In a recent lace pattern I described how to do a knitted cast on, because in my last class not one student knew how. It really surprised me. And they were all so excited about it. Go figure.

Anonymous said...

I think the level of specificity you generally provide is just about right. My experience has also been that some (many) knitters are less interested in learning various technique(s) than they are with simply achieving the finishing product -- the pretty [whatever] they bought a pattern for or the [whatever] on page six of the magazine -- and they want to know exactly how to get it without any more or less information than is necessary to achieve it. Not that there's anything wrong with that. People knit for a variety of reasons (not all of them to do with craft/technique) and I think the level of instruction desired is related to those differences.

Long winded today, aren't I!?