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Book Review: The Knitting Pattern Writing Handbook

The Knitting Pattern Writing Handbook (Storey Publishing 2023) by knitting technical editors Kristina McGrath and Sarah Walworth is small book that packs a big punch. Subtitled "How to Write Great Patterns that Knitters Will Love to Make", this handbook is full of detailed information about knitting pattern writing: from must-have elements of great patterns and how to express knitting instructions in an easy-to-follow way to understanding gauge, charts, and typical fit issues to avoid in sweater grading.


Disclaimer: I'm in no way affiliated with the book, its authors, or publisher. They didn't ask me to review the book; I'm doing it of my own interest and volition. Any opinions expressed in this post are purely my own.

The tech editing duo behind the book, Kristina McGrath and Sarah Walworth, host a monthly video podcast called Tech Tip Talk on which they interview designers about designing and pattern writing, grading and sizing, and the ins and outs of the knitting industry. They have years of tech editing experience and over a thousand of successfully edited patterns between them. This book is an amalgamation of their expertise on the subject of what makes a great knitting pattern.


And it couldn't be any more timely. At the same time as substantial global market changes are pushing long-standing knitting publications and established designers out of the business, a new generation of knitters, knitfluencers, and indie designers are stepping up to the fray. These newcomers often have to learn everything by trial and error without an experienced mentor (or magazine editor) to guide them over. While fresh ideas and new perspectives are always welcome, the knitting industry does have certain guidelines and common conventions that make both pattern writing (for designers) and pattern reading (for knitters) an easier, less error-prone process. This book will hopefully help in providing that much-needed mentorship for knitting designers just starting out.


Even if you're not interested in becoming a knitting pattern designer just now, don't click away yet. This book can be eye-opening for the lay-knitter in that it will help you understand all the decisions, big and small, a knitwear designer has to make when writing pattern instructions. It can also help you in evaluating knitting patterns from different sources — books, magazines, or indie designers — and to identify those patterns that fulfill the requirements of a great pattern you'll love to knit.


Let's take a closer look at the contents.


 

Chapter 1. Foundations of a Good Knitting Pattern introduces must-have attributes of every great knitting pattern: it should be correct, clear, concise, and consistent. The chapter also goes over creating a design style sheet and how that helps in working with a tech editor. (More on that in Chapter 7.)


Each chapter ends with a checklist that provides a quick summary of the contents. It helps the designer in going through their pattern before it's published so that none of the knitty gritty details are missed. At the end of each chapter is also a section called questions & answers, an FAQ of sorts. These are actual questions the authors have received over the years from their tech editing clients and other designers. If you had one pop into your head while reading the chapter, chances are it's answered here!


Chapter 2. Components of a Pattern goes through all the elements that should be included in a knitting pattern so that the knitter can produce the pictured item, be it something simple like a small shawl or quite complex like a sweater graded in multiple sizes. This includes things such as yarn and other materials, gauge, size options, measurements and schematics, abbreviations, and the written (or charted) instructions to knit the object in question.

Armhole shaping instructions in three pattern writing styles. Which one do you prefer?
Armhole shaping instructions in three pattern writing styles. Which one do you prefer?

Something the authors highlight here and a thing to keep in mind when reading knitting patterns is that, just like stitch pattern names or cable nomenclature are not standardized, there isn't one standard way to give instructions — see example above. Designers are allowed to use their own voice and writing style although some commonalities do exist across patterns. Sometimes a pattern may be difficult to follow because it's written in a format you're not used to. An old-school UK magazine style, still used by, for example, Rowan and Yarnspirations, is a pattern-writing convention that garners a lot of questions on reddit, for example.


The next four chapters (3 through 6) offer a lot of valuable information for every knitter, regardless of whether you're interested in designing or not. Chapter 3. Gauge highlights the importance of understanding gauge, how to knit (and block) a gauge swatch that provides reliable, trustworthy information, and what to do with that information once you've measured your swatch. The inclusion of this chapter in the book illustrates that designers are not superhumans: they struggle with gauge, too!


Chapter 4. Charts gives an overview on how to read, write, and draw knitting charts. It provides information on such details as reading direction, numbering stitches and rows/rounds, identifying repeats, how to indicate if the chart is to be worked flat or in the round, and what to include in a stitch key.


Grading is my favorite part of the pattern design process — I could play with spreadsheets all day! Chapter 5. Sizing gives an overview of what it means to grade a pattern, that is, how to create instructions for multiple sizes of the same object. While the book doesn't walk you through the actual grading math itself (there are classes for that), it does highlight the importance of having a reliable size chart with multiple key measurements (such as upper bust, waist, armscye depth) in a wide size range whether it's expressed in letters, numbers, inches, or centimeters. This chapter may help in dispelling a common grading misconception: grading doesn't happen by "mathing up" (or down) from a mythical sample size; instead it's all based on standard sizes.


There are a couple of important points to remember about size charts whether you're knitter or a designer. One, the numbers presented within size charts have been acquired by averaging over a large population. Real bodies come in all shapes and sizes which means your body will most likely not have the same measurements in all key measurement points on any given size chart. If you find that you always need to make the same adjustments to your hand-knit sweaters, be it by knitting the sleeves shorter or adding more room for the bust, know that it's the underlying data that's at fault — not you or your body.


Which leads to point number two: not all patterns are graded using the same size chart. In fact, McGrath and Walworth encourage designers to customize their size charts specifically for the body type they love to design for. Just like when buying ready-to-wear clothing, you, the knitter, may need to shop around to find a designer whose size chart represents your body type and whose patterns always give you a great fit.


The chapter concludes on the important subject of size inclusivity and the shift to using upper body rather than full bust circumference as the basis for garment sizing. It also briefly touches upon the concepts of fixed ease vs. relative ease (and the relative ease fallacy), all of which could be the subjects of their own blog posts.


As much as I enjoy reading and writing about grading, Chapter 6. Common Sweater Pitfalls was my favorite of the entire book! While the rest of the book applies to knitting patterns of all types, in this chapter the authors have compiled certain sweater-design and sweater-fitting issues they've encountered over and over again when tech editing knitting patterns.


For designers, these issues serve as great reminder of what aspects of the sweater design to pay extra special attention to, to ensure a great fit in all sizes. For knitters, this chapter provides a checklist of things to look out for when evaluating knitting patterns before buying, something Jen Parroccini has written about extensively. Specifically these include ill-fitting necklines that are either too small or too wide (illustrations B and C above), armhole depths that burrow into your armpit or hang at the waist, body and sleeve lengths (too long or too short), and upper-arm (often too tight) and cuff circumferences (often too wide) at the extreme ends of the size range.


The last one, Chapter 7. Working with a Tech Editor, is the most designer-focused of all the chapters in the book. It explains what tech editing is, what a tech editors does (and doesn't do), what to look for in a prospective tech editor, how to go about hiring one and collaborating with them, and — if need be — how to gracefully end the relationship with your tech editor.


At the end of the book there's a list of further reading and a few appendices, the most valuable of which are the very detailed, size-inclusive standard size charts for men, women, and children alike. These alone are worth the price of the book alone… which isn't that high to begin with! The authors have stated they want to provide designers with an affordable, yet comprehensive resource they wished they could refer to when tech editing patterns.


There are two size charts for each target group, one in inches and one in centimeters. The adult charts for men and women come in 5-cm or 2-inch increments. Women's size charts include 27 measurement points and 20 sizes with a chest circumference range of 70–165 cm or 28–66 inches. Men's size charts include 24 measurement points and 17 sizes with a chest circumference range of 80–160 cm or 32–64 inches. Kids' size charts, of which there are two, include 22 measurement points and are labeled by age: from preemie to 18 months (infants, 7 sizes) and from 2 to 14 years (children, also 7 sizes). With the availability of sizing information this thorough there really isn't any excuse not to design size-inclusive patterns.


 

The Knitting Pattern Writing Handbook is primarily intended for aspiring and established designers who want to improve their pattern writing skills. The book provides easy-to-implement guidelines for achieving accurate pattern instructions knitters love to knit from. It also addresses common pitfalls in pattern writing in general and sweater grading in particular, and explains how to avoid them. Improved pattern writing skills can benefit both designers and knitters in this quaint industry that is primarily made up of hobbyists, indies, and self-taught semi-professionals without formal training on the subjects they deal with every day.


But the book is a worthwhile read for knitters, too. It provides an explanation of gauge and its importance for achieving proper fit in your hand-knit items, explains how to read charts if you encounter them in knitting patterns, and offers insight into accurately interpreting sizing information so that you can make an informed decision on which size to knit and, ultimately, produce garments that you'll love to wear. The Knitting Pattern Writing Handbook will not only make better pattern writers but also better pattern readers.


 

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The Knitting Pattern Writing Handbook by Kristina McGrath and Sarah Walworth offers indispensable guidance for both knitwear designers and hobbyist knitters. From foundational principles to mastering gauge, charts, and sizing, the handbook empowers designers to write clear, accurate patterns that knitters love to make. For knitters, it provides insights into better understanding, interpreting, and evaluating knitting patterns. #knitting #bookreview #designing

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Susanna Winter is a knitwear designer, creating timeless and elegant pieces with clean lines. She has been knitting for over 20 years, knit blogging since 2007, and designing knitting patterns professionally since 2016.

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