Saturday, March 12, 2016

I think I blame kids programming

Saturday Musings: my opinions on things I have seen or heard that made me think. Read at your own risk!

I have been thinking a lot about language in pattern writing the past few months, and apparently I am not alone because there have been several threads with discussions on the same types of things on Ravelry.

When I was really learning how to knit, and read patterns, the world was a different place.  I am dating myself a little here, but there was not google, there was no emailing the designer when you didn't understand something, and sometimes months after I had tried making something and hit a wall the magazine that published the pattern would release their next issue with all the errata from the prior issue and it would turn out that the wall I hit wasn't my lack of knowledge, but an actual error in the pattern.

Patterns were different then too. Not as abbreviated as the ones that Franklin Habit finds in old bookstores or gets given, where there is often not a picture or description of what you are knitting.  He blogged about one such adventure on the Skacel site here.  But it was usually taken for granted that the knitter was going to do some thinking on their own.  For example, words like "reversing the shaping" or "keeping the continuity of the pattern"  or "continue as established" were much more liberally used then than what I see in pdf pattern sales today.

I am sure that part of that is with a pdf file I can make my pattern as long as I want, give you as much instruction as I possibly can and the only person who pays the price in paper and ink is the purchaser.  But, there is still a fine line between pattern overload (did you really want a 27 page pattern on how to knit a basic cuff down sock with a slipped stitch heel flap and rounded toe?) and not enough information to duplicate the item that you saw in the picture. (cast on some stitches, work in the round to the heel, put in a heel, add a gusset, knit to toe.)

Taking a couple of those old fashioned concepts and diving a little deeper into them....

Reverse Shaping.  There is actually a lot of ambiguity here.  Let's say you are knitting a bottom up cardigan with set in sleeves, the left front is all spelled out for you, you reach the armholes and cast off a few stitches at the beginning of  a right side row, work some decreases (again at the beginning of your right side rows) and get to the shoulder where you cast off.  For the right front the instructions say to "reversing all shaping make right side to match left."  Obviously you will not be casting off at the beginning of your right side row, that would be the center opening, but if you just cast off at the end of that row, suddenly you no longer have your yarn attached to your knitting.  Do you work all the shaping on the wrong side rows, figuring out if that is a purl two together regularly or through the back loops to get a slanted decrease leaning in the right direction, or do you cast off purlwise but keep the decreases on the right hand side and replace any knit two togethers with an ssk and vise versa?  Or does it even matter?  You won't know until you knit it, or swatch it.

Keeping the Continuity of the Pattern.  Let's stay with our cardigan example, but lets add a fancy lace pattern stitch to it.  When you cast off those underarm stitches, suddenly that beautiful lace pattern no longer starts at stitch one, as in the instructions.  An 8 stitch pattern repeat that has lost it's first 6 stitches might not line up the way you think it should.  Every decrease in lace patterns (typically) needs an equal increase to maintain stitch counts, but do you know what to do with the "leftover" stitches, those pesky little increases or decreases that don't have a matching opposite?

Both of those examples would require that the knitter think it through before plunging headlong into the knitting, or be prepared to rip out what didn't work.

Not surprisingly the opinions vary vastly on what should be included in the pattern.  On one side of the spectrum you have knitters stating that they want every detail spelled out along with  a mini-project and tutorials for all "new concepts" *to be included, and the other you have knitters stating that they cross out all the information that they don't need to condense the pattern down to something manageable to them.

One of the most important things that I learned recently, as a pattern writer, during the test knits that I was running is this; I can't assume that as people are working from my pattern  are actually reading any of it!  So sometimes giving them all the information isn't really enough.

The specific case that comes to mind is for a sock pattern.

There are many different ways of knitting socks, starting from how many and what arrangement of needles you decide to use (one small cabled circular, a large cabled circular, double points varying in numbers from 4 to 5, two circulars) to toe up, cuff down, there are even patterns that have you start in the middle of the top of the foot and work around and up and down until you have a sock.

This particular sock is cuff down with a heel flap and rounded toe.  That is my comfort zone for knitting socks and creating patterns in a basic template that I know is easier for me.  I know what physical pieces (cuff, heel, gusset and toe) need to go where and can play with all the blank spaces in between to my hearts content!

I tell the knitter in the "romance story" or blurb at the beginning it is a cuff down sock with heel flap, I tell the knitter in the notes it is a cuff down sock with a heel flap, the pattern starts with the cuff....and the most popular question was.....wait for it...Is this a toe up sock?

I tell the knitter in the notes that they will repeat the chart two times in each round.  I tell them in the pattern instructions to knit the chart two times in each round.....most popular question....How many times around do I knit the chart?  (After that one I have gone to the "tell me three times" theory and tell knitters in the notes that I am going to tell them to knit the chart however many times in each round, in the pattern I tell them to knit the chart however many times in each round and under the chart I tell them that I told them to knit the chart however many times in each round!)

But each of the "tell me what you are going to tell me, tell me and tell me what you told me" instances  has a cost in terms of how long it makes the pattern appear.  As a picture tells the story, often times better than the written word, adding photo's helps but again adds pages to what could be a very simple pattern in terms of actual construction.  So I am adding one more thing to my notes, I tell you up front which pages you really need to print and keep the pictures and extra notes off them.  If the page has a picture on it you still need to read it, or look at it, in order to duplicate the item I am writing a pattern for, but I am going to try and save you some ink and paper by putting the "meat and potatoes" as purely text and charts.**

Now why, you ask, do I blame children's programming for this change?  When my kids were little, even when I was little, there were several "educational" programs on public broadcasting, that essentially spoon fed sound bites of education to kids in 30 second blasts.  Lots of bright colors, and catchy little jingles, but nothing that took over a minute to absorb and process.  I think, and this is me standing on my soapbox preaching here, that we have done everyone a disservice by teaching them little bits of things in 30 second bites instead of teaching them to pay attention, figure things out and try new things on their own.  Even with all the resources available to us, (google, youtube for video tutorials to name just two) it seems that people want all the answers right in front of them, all the time!  Unfortunately, sometimes even when those answers are there, people don't see them.

The thread in one of the designers forums on Ravelry that talked about some of this had several people chiming in with "I am a better designer because I had to figure things out for myself" along with "but when I am knitting other people's patterns I want it all spelled out for me, that is when I am doing my mindless knitting and don't want to think about what I am doing."  Which then begs the question, if we got better at designing by figuring things out, but we give everyone terribly explicit instructions so they don't have to think....where is the next generation of designers going to learn?

What do you think?  I'd love to hear what you have to say on the subject.

Leave me a comment letting me know what you like to see in patterns.  Do you want every move spelled out precisely?  Do you want everything in the pattern itself, or is my solution, of putting notes and pictures on different pages so you can print what you need, a good one?

~M

*Swatch!  That is your mini project.  It used to be that patterns told you to "Take time to swatch to save time later" more for matching gauge than anything else, but it can certainly save you time learning a new technique or stitch pattern.  Don't like giving the knitting god's their tithe of yarn and time?  Make your swatch in cotton and use it as a dish cloth.

**That changeover will be available in my next sock pattern, Follow that Stripe, coming soon.

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