Sticks & String

A podcast by an Australian bloke who knits.

Go your own way

Yesterday I was at the Rubi + Lana knitting group and, as usual, there was an amazing amount of incredible knitting on show. Baby jumpers, a candle flame shawl, scarves and jumpers, all sorts of amazing projects. There was also the usual assortment of magazines and books to flip through.

I was looking around the table and realised that no one there was following a pattern exactly. Although we had a pile of patterns in all the books and magazines, and certainly some patterns had provided the inspiration for many the projects, none was exactly what the pattern had designed. To a greater or lesser extent we had all departed from what was written.

In my case, the departure was minor; I changed one of the colours in the pattern slightly because the exact colour was unavailable. I’ve made bigger changes on other patterns, the sleeveless cardigan that I am knitting for mum for Mother’s Day has some minor adjustments. My minor departures from the pattern are nothing compared with what some of the other knitters or the freelance mohair jumper that is nearing completion.

Now I’m not suggesting that you throw away your pattern book and just start knitting, we all know that even by carefully following a pattern disasters can happen and setting out without a plan is a bit like walking through a swamp, it will probably lead to frogs. That said, I still think there is a lot of room for knitters to be individuals.

One of the silliest criticisms I saw of a knitting pattern book was a comment that said the person wouldn’t make anything from the book because he (yes it was a man) didn’t like the choice of colours. Now, I’ve always thought that the colours given in a pattern (unless it’s a replica pattern) are just suggested and that the choice of a different colour in the same yarn was perhaps the safest form of substitution you can make. When it comes to colour, I treat it a bit like art, don’t ask me to explain what I want, but I know what I like when I see it.

One of the reasons we knit is to make unique items. Although we might all start with the same pattern, what we make of it is individual, even if we don’t plan changes, you can be sure that somewhere in the tens of thousands of stitches that make up a garment, at least one won’t be exactly what the designer planned, especially if that one departure from the plan was a good few rows back and only noticeable if you know where to look.

Departing from the plan in a more deliberate manner can create a garment that truly expresses your individuality, or the individuality of the person for whom it is made.

Mum’s cardigan is one example. Mum already has one in a dark blue lambs wool that she bought many years ago, it’s mainly for around the house, and she wears it when the evenings start to get chilly. Mum’s new place has complete climate control, but unless there are at least three windows and the sliding glass door open to the fresh air, she’s not happy. (It generally takes temperatures in the high thirties (90s) for her to close the door and start up the air-conditioning.) She showed me the cardigan she had and said she’d like one like it, but with bigger arm holes so it’s easier to get on and off. That was a minor change involving changing the row for the start of the armhole decreases and recalculating the number of stitches to pick up for the edging; or at least I think it’s minor so far.

The bigger change was the alteration in yarn, from the merino wool recommended in the pattern to a 100% baby alpaca yarn. For that I swatched, a couple of times until I was sure that I could match the pattern, and I’ve been carefully measuring as I go along to make sure that it doesn’t stretech too differently when there’s some weight on it. So far all seems good.

I really admire those people who can just look at a garment and work it out in their head. I suppose it comes with experience, but I’m also sure that it must come with a willingness to rip it all out and start again, multiple times if necessary. In then end though, you’d have a garment that was not only the product of your labours, but also of your artistic flair and eye for design. I’m not there yet, but I think there is a middle position.

My current two favourite knitting books are Victorian Lace Today by Jane Sowerby and The Art of Fair Isle Knitting by Ann Feitelson. Apart from the glorious photographs I found myself enjoying reading the books, as well as looking at the pictures. There are two things these books have in common, in addition to sections on the history of the knitting style, they also take you through design considerations and give you the information both on how the authors designed the garments and how to take the designs further on your own.

In Victorian Lace Jane explains the techniques needed to match centre and edge designs of the lace shawls, giving plenty of examples of both parts. In Fair Isle Ann explains in detail the colour theory and then the mathematics behind the design of Fair Isle style jumpers. In effect both books give you, not only the printed patterns, but also the information you need to head off and make your own.

So why not give it a go? Lots of people are. If you look around the internet there are hundreds of patterns designed by knitters just like us. Knitters who decided to try an idea and ended up with something lots of other people wanted too. Now I know that some of the designs come from people with formal design training, but that’s not how most designs appeared.

In the history sections, both books tell how knitters modified the orthodoxy to produce new patterns and designs, or how new materials and techniques led to the variety of lace and colour work we see today. Most of the designers were women, and this was in a time when formal education was often denied to them, their natural talents and their eye for possibilities led them to try what today we still admire as works of high art and design.

We see it all the time with sock designs. There are a few basic features to a sock, it has to have a toe and heel, and it should stay up and, if you’re going to go to all the trouble to knit it, it should be comfortable. I’d add that it should be personal too. Within these few constraints, the scope is wide open for knitters to experiment, to let their imaginations run wild safely. After all, it’s only one ball of yarn, usually, and even if you’re not happy with the result, you can still wear it inside your shoes and no one else will see.

So why not give it a go? There’s just one requirement, the willingness to give it a go, and not be afraid of getting it wrong. I’m sure that for every successful design there are lots of less glorious outcomes, but when the famous designers do that we just never hear about it. And when you do get it right, tell us all. There are many avenues to get your design out there, blog it and share it; then one day you may have the unexpected pleasure of bumping into someone proudly wearing your design because ‘they made it themself’… with a little help from you.

1 Comment »

  1. David,

    I am a new lurker. I discovered you from a friend when she found out that I am coming to Australia in June. My sons will be performing at the Opera House July 1-3.

    Anyway, this is a great article. I am looking forward to listening to the podcast. I am a hugh fan of Annie Modesit. Ever since I took her class, I have been unashamed of my inability to follow patterns. If it turns out okay, what is the harm in an extra stitch or yarn over or decrease?

    Thanks for this and also, any recommendations for a first-time visitor to Sydney and Cairns?

    Kindest Regards,


    Comment by Melissa | 2 May 2007

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