Shades of Grey

On Saturday morning I completely snapped, bailed on the autumn coloured project and went in search of a project that would scratch my spring colour itch. There’s a baby coming in my circle, and I was tickled to get the go ahead to start knitting, and frankly, it was the perfect excuse.  I took a cup of coffee up to the stash and pulled down my bin of baby yarn. Now, the bin of baby yarn is far from perfect. Truth be told, it’s mostly leftovers, and I quickly discovered that there wasn’t enough of one colour to do a whole sweater.

My go-to baby sweater in a pinch is a garter stitch top down sweater that I’ve been making for years.  I think that originally the pattern came from a Phildar baby magazine from the 80’s, but I’ve remade and revamped it so many times that I don’t even have instructions any more.  I cast on, I increase, I make sleeves… off I go.  Little Lou had a sweater like this when he was born, and I thought I’d just do the same thing. I had a ball of white, and several colours, and although one ball isn’t enough for a sweater, I sort of thought that adding the other colours would stretch it. Like adding more potatoes to a stew when company arrives.

After a few hours of knitting, I realized that there was a few things going on.
1. It was cute, but too busy.
2. The gauge I’d settled on meant that I was going to run out of white anyway.
3. It wasn’t at all what I thought it would be. 

The sweater start above was unceremoniously ripped of the needles and pitched back into the baby yarn bin, and I went to the yarn store.  I was back home a little later with balls of baby yarn in….

Grey.  I know, I know.  The whole other thing was dumped because I craved spring colour – I can’t explain myself, but I do know I was super excited to start, and start I did.  I decided to make Fanasaeter. It’s a pretty fussy baby jacket, knit at 32 stitches to the inch with lots of knit/purl decoration, and embroidery at the end.  I’m in love, and as it always goes with love…

It’s fast.  Time flies when you’re having fun, and by last night I had the body done to the armpits, and had flown up the front, and was ready to start the neck shaping.  There isn’t much, and it’s not that fussy through that bit, but like all Dale of Norway patterns, there’s not much in the way of directions.  Like most older patterns, or most non-North American patterns, the instructions for the first side you work has the shaping, and for the second side, it simply says "Reverse Shaping."  I had ignored the instructions for which side to work first, so I was starting with the side that was worked in reverse, and it was late and I couldn’t face even the simplest of things, and went to bed.  On my way up, I tweeted:

"Reverse shapings to match other side". Bad instructions for late on a Sunday night.

Now, let me be clear.  I don’t think that "reverse shapings" is a bad instruction. It was just bad for a tired lady who couldn’t have cared less at that moment. I’d say that almost every pattern I have upstairs (in print) includes that direction. Some of the older ones have directions that are even more vague. Hell, I’ve got a booklet of sock patterns from the 40’s that have instructions for the patterned leg, then the direction "MAKE HEEL".   It seems that back then, the onus was on the knitter to know how to do these things… and that’s what I’ve done all these years.  An instruction says "Work in seed stitch" but there’s no instruction for seed stitch? I go look it up in a reference book.  "Cast on, using German twisted cast-on"? Okay, back to the books. "Reverse shaping"? There was totally a time with that would have sent me to a reference to see what it meant.  My expectation has always been that knitting is a skill, and it’s totally okay for the designer to expect me to have some – or get some.  Now, twitter is only 140 characters, and it’s not a format that lends itself to a super-huge amount of clarity, so I’m often not surprised when people there say things I wasn’t expecting.  I figure my original wording wasn’t… well, wordy enough for clarity, but I still was surprised when a super large number of very reasonable people said that saying "reverse shapings" was lazy pattern writing.  They wanted it written out, they (very reasonably) thought a designer should do that for you.  A conversation ensued, and it was enlightening, and interesting. 

In the end, there were many people who felt into one of two camps. Either that it’s lazy pattern writing,  that knitting is meant to be fun and relaxing and there shouldn’t be figuring like that in it – and the opposition, who think that it’s reasonable to ask a knitter to do that, that it’s part of knitting, and increases skill and ability to do it.  I have no proof, but I suspect that this strong difference is personality.  There are knitters who find the challenge of that sort of thing super fun, and then there’s the opposite,  knitters who just don’t find it fun at all, and that means there’s not a right answer there, and I judge neither camp. It’s like whether or not you like cilantro, there’s no morals attached to it, but both sides aren’t going to come round to the same decision.

The interesting thing for me, is this. I think it is very normal to ask a knitter to seek further information, or gain information on a skill they might need to complete a pattern – to some degree.   It’s not like patterns tell us how to cast on.  It just says "cast on 161 stitches". It’s not like patterns tell you how to do a bind-off.  It will just say "bind off 6 stitches at the beginning of the next two rows." There’s an assumption there that you already know, or that you’ll go find out.  Over the last few years though, the degree to which this is up to the knitter seems to be changing.  Like I said, virtually ALL  the patterns I own (and let’s be clear, this would be thousands) that are in print, or books or leaflets, give the knitter a lot of responsibility for this stuff.  They assume that if they say "reverse shapings" that you’re going to know (or go find out) that the reverse of a k2tog is an SSK.  European and Japanese patterns go even farther. They often simply provide you with a schematic or chart and figure you’ll really, really do the figuring.   This seems to be changing.  With the advent of electronic patterns, where space, paper and ink are less of an issue, patterns can be wordier, more complete… a knitter can be catered to for a very great number of things.  Directions can easily be given for both sides of a sweater shaping. You can go on for four pages about how to do a German twisted bind-off… and I wonder if this is changing the expectations of knitters?

One person said (and she was unequivocally right) that assuming a skill (or the ability to go get one) is fine in patterns that are for experienced knitters, but that beginners can, and should expect more hand-holding.  She makes an excellent point, but how about this?

My Aunt Helen had been knitting for eighty years when she died.  She was a knitting machine.  Countless sweaters, hats, socks, scarves, mittens – what she knit in a lifetime would boggle your mind.  I think we can all agree that she was experienced.
How about this: Helen knew one cast-on.  She knew one bind-off. She knew one increase and two decreases. That’s it.   Now, I can right now direct you to many knitters I know who have way less "experience" than Helen. They’ve been knitting for way less time (like, seventy five years le
ss) and they’ve made way fewer things – but their knitting would knock you over with the beauty of it all. Lace shawls, complex colourwork, many different techniques and skills, all demonstrated absolutely skillfully – just like Helen’s.   Experience is subjective. Just because someone’s done a lot of something doesn’t mean that they’re experienced. It might mean they’re super experienced at just a few things, like Helen’s knitted-on cast-on.  The woman knit for seventy-five years and she only ever used that one, and never thought it reasonable to learn another. Experienced? Yup. At that – so I think that saying that "experienced knitters" would be fine with instructions that assume you have a skill is tricky.  If you’d have told Helen she wasn’t "experienced" she would have slapped you out of your chair and buried you in her handknit stuff for emphasis.  On the other hand, while she only knew one cast-on, she wouldn’t have balked for one second at the expectation that she reverse shapings.  Heck, she could have invented them, and conversely, some of the best knitters I know, willing to make heirloom shawls and ridiculously complex things want that totally spelled out for them.

This has gotten ridiculously long, and clearly we are talking shades of grey here, but I wonder a whole bunch of stuff, stuff like, where’s the line? How much should be spelled out in a pattern? How much should it be assumed that we know? Is the idea that you’d look something up in another book, and figure it out going away as (almost) unlimited room to explain things in patterns arrives?  What is it a designers responsibility to explain to you? If they don’t explain everything, should they, or is it just turning us into knitters who can’t/won’t/don’t skill build on our own? 

The whole thing reminds me of something else that Helen could do. She was a human calculator. Like everyone her age, she could do all her sums in her head, or at least on paper. Me, I have a calculator, and if you ask me to sum up three things, I’m going to go get it.  I don’t need to know how, and frankly, I don’t.  I couldn’t do long division on paper if there was a gun to my head.  I wonder if "reverse shapings" is like that.  If we don’t have to learn… will we? Does that even matter? It’s not like using a calculator has ruined my life, it’s just what I’ve replaced Helen’s skill at sums with.  I’m totally fine. So was she. 

I think it’s interesting to think about how this stuff shapes us as knitters, and to talk about our expectations of designers and their expectations of us.  Is the responsibility for knowing skills shifting to them?

Like with cilantro, I’m sure there’ll be lots of opinions. Like cilantro opinions, they’ll all most likely be right.