Monday, May 14, 2012

For whom are patterns written?

While teaching, I often launch into what I call a "rant" against one of many common knitting practices that are clearly not in my repertoire (else I would not rant!). And I know I swim against current streams, but my list is looooooong, and my rant is pretty loud and strong. Here is a list of the practices I find myself railing against.
  • knitting in the round in anything other than fairisle or a garment with heavy cables
  • knitting top down
  • 3-needle-bind-off at shoulder seams with or without short rows
  • one-piece raglans
  • slip stitches as selvedge in anything other than garter stitch or scarves
  • slip stitches at the beginning of round neck bind-offs if a neck edging is to be applied
  • short rows and live stitches for round neck shaping
While explaining my reasoning for not liking one of these practices, a student wisely asked "So why are patterns written with these instructions?" And I answered "Because the pattern was written for the knitter, not for the sweater." 

"That's really good!" said the student. (Since I had given my reasoning, and since she was a wise woman, she agreed with my rant and thought the statement perfect!) Yes, I thought, that really is good. But what does it mean?

It means that sweater patterns are written in such a way that works for the knitter but not the sweater. It means that sweater patterns are written in such a way that the knitter can look at her knit pieces and say "Wow, that sure looks good!" But then the student is faced with finishing that is near impossible to make look good (in the case of the last 3 bullets), or a sweater that isn't often flattering (in the case of the 4th bullet), or a sweater that droops at the sides over time (in the case of the 1st bullet), or a sweater with a ditch rather than a tight shoulder seam (in the case of the 3rd bullet), or a sweater where all manner of shaping happens early in the knitting and before we get to really know our gauge and stitch pattern (in the case of the 2nd bullet).

Obviously, there are long explanations for each of my rants. And here's just one of them--against garments knit in the round. What are we trying to avoid? Side seams--the easiest and most invisible of our seams. Why would we do this? We don't own sewn garments without side seams (except for occasional T-shirts which skew after washing), so why would we knit them in our more flexible knitted fabric? Seams are the skeleton of our garment. Look in your closet, and you won't find a sewn garment without side seams. You'll also find dresses and coats with additional seams at center back. It is a rare knit fabric that does not benefit from this structure. 

And consider this. If you knit your garment in pieces and find that the front is too big, you can make the back smaller. (I have many garment with M fronts and S backs.) If you knit in the round, you cannot adjust as you go: what you get is what you get.

For these and other reasons, I stand by my statement that patterns should be written in such a way that gives the best possible result for the sweater itself. Because that's what will make a knitter feel really proficient and clever! And then she can happily and proudly satisfy my most common rant: knit what you wear, wear what you knit!

I know there are differences in opinion out there, and I truly look forward to a dialogue.


  1. Interesting...

    You've converted me to your thinking on bullet one.

    Knitting top down, well, since you try it on as you go, you've got time to develop your gauge and make adjustments if you need it. Knitter's preference I think for that one.

    I'm curious about the shoulder seams and want to do a comparison to see which I prefer...

    I don't knit raglans, but they fit with the seaming thing so I think you've converted me there too.

    A slip stitches though... I've had one practical application and that was when I knit the Urban Aran and I wanted the fronts to come together sharply. The slipped edge was enough for a zipper, and made the front look similar to the back. I loved the result.

    I entirely agree for the last two. The neck really needs as much structure as possible.

    Thanks for making me think through these items.

  2. How wonderful that you are such a thinking knitter!

    I understand your point about the top down. Yes, it might be okay for some to do all that shaping before they get their stitch pattern and gauge under their belt, but it's not my preference.

    As for those slip stitches . . . . I didn't have enough room to express that one fully. The proper caveat to that is that a) if the piece is a 2-rows-to-1-stitch gauge OR b) if the piece is not to be seamed or picked up and knit against, then the slip stitch works well. I had to use a short hand there. And as you might realize, these are rarer knitting events than not.

    As for those shoulder seams . . . we'll just have to meet some day! And maybe your 3-needle bind-off doesn't leave a ditch, but mine does. I prefer the tight seam I get when I simply sew bound-off edges together.

    Thanks again!

  3. I would love to know more about your preference for bound off shoulders rather than 3-needle bindoff. I've always believed that bound off shoulders were more sturdy and less-inclined to stretching over time. Recently I've read about other designers preferring 3-needle bind off for shoulders and when I questioned one, she told me they were stronger, which makes no sense to me. And one of the gurus of knitting, Alice Starmore, often has the 3-needle bindoff for her shoulders, especially in her fair-isle patterns.

    If you have written more about shoulders, I'd love to read that information. I've only recently started reading your blog so am not sure where to look for this information. Thanks in advance.

  4. So it's interesting that the same question has arisen--about my preference for bound-off and sewn-shut shoulders rather than the 3-needle bind-off.

    I cannot speak for everyone, but I do believe the sewn ones to be strong and tighter. I get a ditch when I use the bound-off method, and it seems to me that TWO bound-off rows are sturdier than one?

    But it does seem that this issue is the one with the most ambivalence.

    As for AS's preference, I do believe she does this with garments that have no shoulder shaping? It's certainly an easier thing to do, because it's problematic if one binds off TOO TIGHTLY across that one long row: that creates a pull at the top of the sleeve, where it meets the shoulder seam. The 3 needles eliminates this possibility. But I still don't think the seam is as tight or as strong.

  5. Is it only the 3-needle bind-off at the shoulder which you object to? Or do you also see problems with short-row shoulder shaping? I did hear one knit designer, who I know wasn't you, speak in favor of the sewn shoulder seams. And she had some sweaters with stretched out shoulders as evidence to show us.

    But the seamless, top-down, in the round garments do seem to be in vogue right now among many knitting designers. I'd think that the above problems would arise for those designers as they wore the garments. Or maybe, it's that during the designing process they're extensively swatching and getting very familiar with their gauge and stitch, thus avoiding the problems you cite. But after, anyone who picks up that pattern doesn't have any of that experience, and is likely using a different yarn to boot.

  6. I guess I don't love either the 3-needle bind-off OR the short row shaping. Don't get the best result with either one.

    And yes, if one is the designer and (like me) sometimes knits a piece FOUR TIMES to get it right, top down makes sense. But then there's all of you out there, trusting the pattern but not using the same yarn, never getting EXACTLY the same gauge (esp WRT row), and you really do need the flexibility to NOT FOLLOW THE PATTERN exactly as written . . . to adapt-as-you-go . . . which you can do if you knit pieces.

    I really don't understand this new "trend," but yarn shops tell me of it. Just goes to show you that trends aren't always to be followed . . . IMHO.

  7. Hi Sally,
    I appreciate you sharing your love of knitting and teaching to all us spongy learners, ready to soak it up!

    I am so glad I came across this blog post today. Two days ago, I did a three-needle bind-off on a shoulder seam, and was vaguely dissatisfied at the resulting look. I can't say it is my normal way to join shoulder seams, but on a fair isle sweater I knit last winter, I chose that option, because of the way the stitches and colors aligned. Haha! It also had shoulder row shaping. In fair isle with the neck decreases, it nearly drove me mad! What are your objections to shoulder shaping? Or is it short-row shoulder shaping? Do you see that as pulling at the fabric without stability as well?

    Well, today or tomorrow I'll pull out those shoulder seams and see how the alternative looks. Thanks!

  8. Sorry if I was unclear. I am SO a fan of shoulder shaping (else we get center back hike). It's just the short rows that I find unnecessary and the 3-needle bid-off that I find unsatisfactory!
    Glad to have shown up when you needed it!

    1. I keep thinking through your list and meditating on each point's downfalls. I don't want to read into them too much, though, so I have to ask: do you dislike the slipped stitches at the end of to-be-sewn seams because they are not as seamlessly joined? Then, with mattress stitch, one has to go in another stitch to have the join be every row? Do you despise this as much with edges slipped knit wise as well as purled?

      I keep thinking through projects to figure out where it might have made a difference. I'd be glad for your insight here -- thank you in advance!

    2. The slip stitch does not work if your piece is to be seamed and does not have a 1-to-2 stitch-to-gauge relationship. Garter is 5-to-10 but stockinette is 5-to-7.

      So let's just talk about stockinette, out most common stitch pattern.

      With stockinette at the edges you get a rather ugly stitch, BUT she behaves well: she gives you lots of spaces into which to sew and she then rolls around beautifully and hides to the back.

      Slip stitch (and it doesn't matter how we execute them) at the edge doesn't leave enough spaces into which to seam. And she's kind of like the pretty-but-nasty girl at the party who finds someone less attractive to stand next to so she can look good. She actually TRANSFERS the ugliness that usually occurs in the edge stockinette stitch to the stitch next door. The pretty one then goes into a less than perfect seam and the stitch next door--on view--is not attractive.

      Slip stitch is wonderful in a 1-to-2 stitch pattern OR if the edge is not to be seamed or picked up and knit against. Otherwise, the ugly one (stockinette) has the best personality!

    3. Understood. Thank you so much for explaining that. I try to read a lot about knitting, and there is a lot about intuitive knitting for the knitter (like you stated in the post), but not necessarily about for the sweater!

      So, then, by this rationale, garter is okay/better?

      I am currently knitting a Kauni garter stitch cardigan, slipping the edge knit wise to make the bumps along the edge. Most of the pattern asks me to pick these bumps up and knit off the edges, with the exception being the bottom hem and the sleeve cuff. All but one sleeve is done/has been cast on, and I'm not about to rip it out! But, in retrospect, I wonder if I should have slipped the exposed hem edges purl wise to make them smooth... Oh well! I'll probably do an attached i-cord or hem of some sort anyways!

  9. You are right that seamless construction is currently popular. Any tips for converting an in-the-round pattern to pieced. I would imagine you'd need to add a couple of extra stitches at the sides for the seam allowance?

  10. To change in-the-round to flat pieces, you add 1 selvedge stitch to each edge of each piece.

    You also have to look at your stitch pattern repeat, in case adjustments need to be made. BUT stitch patterns not matching across a side seam are not all that visible anyway.

    But you reminded me that knitting looks different in-the-round vs back and forth, so there's another reason not to love it in-the-round to the armpits and then back-and-forth above that!

    Thanks for asking!

  11. Your points seem to me to speak to the product versus the process of knitting. I will be honest and say that I have gotten to the point where I will no longer knit a sweater that is not in the round because I like the process for in-the-round more than I like the process for knitting in pieces. If it isn't written in the round, I will now convert it. Basically, I am a knitter through and through. I am not a seamstress. I still have some sweaters in pieces because I despise sewing. I just do. I cannot be talked into loving it.

    You can do some lovely shaping on sweaters knit in the round--at least good enough for me. For me knitting is about the doing of it in addition to the final product. And if the doing of it isn't fun for me, I won't do it.

    Also, I am fine with top down. It's a certain look and I like it. It's not good for every sweater type, but it's good for what I like to use it for. :)

  12. You are ABSOLUTELY right that this post speaks to the product.

    And while I love, love, LOVE the process of knitting, I also want to honour my craft by producing a good product. For me, that requires knitting bottom up with seams.

    Kudos to you if you achieve the same result top down or in the round. I just don't.

  13. I like minimizing seams, I'll be honest, and most of the time I wear cardigans, so I'm usually eliminating the side seams - with the weight of yarns I use, it's not a problem, since they're not silk!

    For shoulders, I often go with a sewn seam because that's the way I get a tight even seam there. But on my current sweater, using Rowan Summer Tweed, it would have been very bulky to do this, so I went with 3-needle bind-off and I think it was a good decision. The sweater has set-in sleeves, so now I'm trying to figure out the best solution - I think I will knit them flat (so they don't grow - I don't care on the body of the sweater), and sew with other thinner linen yarn that I think won't show. I might have done the same thing with the shoulders but I didn't think of it.

    The seamless approach has its uses, but they are not unlimited. I love me a baby sweater raglan top-down one piece because dang it, the baby doesn't care and neither will the Mom!

    One sweater that I did with "seamless" shoulders is lovely except for the shoulders that pull down and away - won't be doing that again!

    On necklines, I'm with you - on the whole, binding off and picking up is better, but you can do that little crochet thing that the Yarn Harlot shows on her blog, but that's about the same amount of work.

  14. I agree with some of your points, Sally, but strongly disagree on others.

    I agree about slipping edge stitches. I'd only recommend doing that on edges that will not be seamed or knitted from in any way.

    I agree up to a point on circular garments whichever way they're worked. I try to only use circular construction on fair isle garments because i refuse to work fair isle flat and i love the circular yoke construction for fair isle. I have done it on some other garments too. I think it's all about finding the construction method that looks best for the overall look of the garment, and works with the yarn and stitch pattern.

    I strongly disagree with your points about short row and 3 needle cast off at the shoulder. I much prefer a short row shoulder because of the smoother curve it creates rather than the stair step cast off method. I also usually do three needle cast off and for me it looks neat and strong. Most of my garments have all over stitch patterns and a three needle cast off means I can align stitches perfectly. But there may be times when it's not the best option.

    To me knitting is not just about the final product, it's also about the process. And enjoying the knitting process is just as important to a lot of knitters as the final product.

  15. Thanks for writing! I appreciate your thoughts.

    And I agree completely that it’s about both the product and the process—both in appropriate balance.

    For me, since I learned to purl with yarn around the neck, I like the process and the product of fairisle better when it is worked flat.

    And for me, I don’t get the best result with the 3-needle bind-off at the shoulders. Kudos to anyone who does!

    Thanks again!

  16. From reading the rest of the post, I figured out that the first bullet point was referring to garments - not other things like socks, hats, etc. But isn't not clear from the outset! :)

  17. Well, yes, how silly of me not to have made that clear! Garments--specifically to be worn on the upper body!
    Thanks for writing!

  18. Wow...I've been thinking of this for days (since first reading it) because I'm a huge fan of knitting in the round, and just discovered how fun knitting from the top down (a raglan, no less). I haven't noticed any negative draping or wearing issues. But it does give me lots to think about.

    One question, how do you shape your shoulders?


  19. I like your point of view on this. It makes perfect sense to me even though I have made some in the round pull over sweaters for young children, I have yet to make one for an adult. . . maybe in my innermost knitter I knew this truth. Hmmmm Thanks Sally

  20. Oh gosh, so true! In one of my classes I recently got ranting about how someone who decides to knit a sweater should adhere to the instructions and gauge, or not complain. It was all brought up by someone who was knitting a bottom up, pieced garment with set in sleeves. She chose to do it bottom up seamless with (gasp) top down set in sleeves (the kind you pick up and short row around). Then complaining of how it didn't fit, how the sleeve cap was saggy and how it didn't fit like the images. Well... here's why!!! :)

    I tend to rant lots on how row gauge DOES matter, regardless of what popular knitting culture thinks.

  21. I love you, Sally Melville!

  22. I found your blog recently, and have been reading backwards. I enjoy your writing. I agree with many of your points here- especially about three needle bind off leading to saggy shoulders. However, as an avid fan of knitting in the round, I wanted to say the reason I knit all of my sweaters that way is because I enjoy it much more. If a sweater never gets finished, it will never get worn. It is also easier for me to adjust length and shaping on all pieces at once instead of writing it down to remember later. Besides, if my sides start sagging, I can always add seams with some extra yarn and a crochet hook.

  23. Regards THREE NEEDLE BIND OFF: For me, the third needle is ALWAYS one side larger than the two that hold the live stitches. For a light-medium weight, or child's sweater I find this method does a really nice job! In fact, I also like the short rowed shoulder & then 3-needle BO---thus preventing those ugly 'holidays' in the shoulder seam.