I wanna hold your haaaaand…

Well, I’m not sure if I do, really, but is that what you want?

The familiar question of handholding in pattern writing came up again on Twitter this week. 

Dependency issues 

This conversation tends to provoke strong feelings, so I’m going to come out right now with my opinion. I say absolutely, definitely maybe.

No fence sitting for me. 

The thing is, I’ve actually been changing my mind about it this very afternoon, in the course of a mental conversation with myself. (Don’t judge. I have kids under 5. Most days I’m my own best company.) I’d dashed off a comment to Angela in which I started off saying, well, basically yes (and for the record, in my own patterns I certainly try for maximum clarity), but by the end of three paragraphs I was already questioning myself. And after hitting submit, I kept thinking about it, and, well…

I think knitters of the past were more “independent”. I think modern knitters do expect a lot more handholding. But I think that the handholding can actually promote more creativity, better skills and ultimately even more independence. Wow. I think I’m coming over all attachment parent-y on pattern writing.

Here’s my earlier comment:

The question about “dependent knitters” I think comes from comparing modern patterns with the kind that were published a few decades ago. The further back you go, the less detail the patterns contain (to the point of excessive mystification and frustration, if you read Franklin Habit’s columns!). But even back in the 1980s there was a LOT more expectation that knitters would basically know, or figure out, what was required. Things like “at the same time” or “repeat for other side, reversing shaping”. Those terms are still common enough, but increasingly avoided by designers because they make knitters cry.

There were probably a whole bunch of reasons for the higher level of expectation then, and reasons why pattern writers now are able (and increasingly expected) to give more instructions. Eg self-publishing designers don’t have to worry about magazine space constraints. That said, a lot of customers will complain if the pattern contains “too much” detail, making it longer and more expensive to print. Some may even be irritated by having every detail prescribed, eg which cast-on to use! (Seriously, do you expect that and BO method in every pattern? Do you actually spend time thinking about it for every project? I’m honestly curious about this because most knitters have their favoured, stand-by methods and only use something else when there’s a very specific reason, which would certainly be specified in the pattern. I wouldn’t expect a standard sweater for instance to start with “Cast on, using the cable or long-tail cast-on methods…”)

All of which is to say – there is of course a lot of benefit in providing plenty of detail. I know that I’ve learned a lot of new techniques from carefully written and detailed patterns. But it’s interesting to ponder how recently knitters were dealing with very different instructions, and must have been much more “independent” as a result. (But of course knitting was then a more common skill, *and* the techniques used were perhaps less varied…)

It’s this last bit that I’ve been chewing over. I’m not a knitting historian, but I’m pretty sure knitting techniques were far more regionally restricted in the past than they are in the glorious internet age. There’s a reason techniques are known by names like “Continental” or “English style”, for instance. I bet you can think of a few people you know who’ve been knitting for half a century or more and churned out FSM knows how many sweaters, but always use the same increase method. Whereas you can find a crowd of relative n00bs having a rollicking discussion about the relative merits of kfb, m1 and lifted increases.

People may learn new tricks because they go looking – or because they stumble upon them. If you are perfectly happy making sweaters the way you’ve always done it, and you’re used to patterns that assume you pretty much know how to do it, it probably isn’t going to occur to you to look for a different way. But if you find a pattern that says “Cast on 20sts using the Turkish cast-on”, welp, right away you’re going to be trying to figure out this particular Turkish delight. If you’re lucky, the pattern writer will have included a little tutorial. (Thank you, Ann Kingstone!) If not, hello Google. But either way, unless you read through the pattern, figure out that this is recommended because it’s a single-row provisional cast-on and you just so happen to already know a really awesome single-row provisional cast-on that will totally work instead, it’s upskilling time. 

Another point: while some nervous novices are careful to look for beginner-friendly patterns – especially when trying a new-to-them kind of project, eg socks – more cocky ambitious types are likely to try their hands at things that may be considered advanced, in the expectation that if they know their knit from their purl, they can follow instructions and get a decent result. Most times, they will. If, however, they happen to pick a lovely lace sock pattern that says at a crucial point simply “Work your favourite heel” (oh yes, I’ve seen this)… well, this is not ideal. Especially if, say, that lovely lace sock is the only knitting they’ve packed for a long train journey, with poor mobile and wifi reception. Not that I’m overthinking this.  

Since I started knitting back in the 80s, I do tend to have a bit of latent snobbery about being able to work with the more minimalist instructions. I do kind of think that everyone should be able to handle a bit of shaping on both sides of a piece at the same time, reversed from the first side, without breaking a sweat. I also think that everyone should be able to read their knitting, knit lace while watching TV, drop stitches (on purpose) and ladder them up again to fix errors 20 rows down, in cable patterns, in the dark. Ok. Maybe not that last bit. I think I have maybe got unrealistically high expectations, based on the fact that I grew up in a family that was all (Dad included) pretty handy with the sticks and string, and reading knitting patterns was considered about as basic as reading recipes. (Actually… thinking about my mother’s cooking… make that way, way, way more basic than reading recipes.)

There is perhaps a place for patterns that expect you to already have a certain framework on which to hang their specifics. But using patterns that spell it all out will actually equip knitters with a whole arsenal of frameworks. (That can’t be the right collective noun, but just go with it.) Those knitters will, soon enough, be tweaking patterns on the fly, using the techniques gleaned from all those handholding, dependence-inducing modern patterns: “Eh, no, I don’t like that method. The shadow wrap short rows are much neater and easier.” 

Think over-dependence on instruction is a bad thing? Want to breed confident, multi-skilled, independent knitters? Job done. 

7 thoughts on “I wanna hold your haaaaand…

  1. I would tend to agree – additionally, if the pattern-writer is using an unusual or variant technique, it’s going to give the photos of their finished product a really specific look that won’t necessarily show up in the knitter’s FO.

    To take it back to cooking, my mother’s chicken divan recipe was always in high demand. She handed it out a few times, only to have people tell her they didn’t get results as tasty as hers. She soon learned that, for instance, not everyone poaches their chicken with bay leaves, butter, and wine… and she annotated the recipe for future distribution.

  2. I’m a fairly new knitter but have found that knitting comes much more naturally to me than either sewing or crocheting.
    But, however natural knitting may come to me, I rely heavily on a detailed pattern to get me through as every pattern I attempt educates me.
    Rather than family members teaching me to knit I’ve sourced good websites, informative texts & occasionally forums (when I was banging head on a wall with crocheting in the round!).

    Handholding is very helpful in the beginning when everything is very new, and it is likely the case that once a knitter becomes experienced at their craft they forget how daunting the early stages can be.

    Great post 🙂

  3. when I learnt to knit/crochet when I was very small, and garter stitch was my only option, I needed to progress so I used to borrow my Mum’s knitting/crocheting books which had great visual instructions in them. So my knitting was basic but I could follow a pattern. My knitting then progressed through new pattern books with interesting techniques described within and oh how I love to learn new things. I cabled with a cable needle and was so pleased to get to the end of a complicated aran design….but then round about 2004 I became hooked to the internet and all the wonderful techniques and patterns that kept popping up. Then came Ravelry, oh my, it was like the best shop I had ever been in! Oh and you tube!! I can now cable without a cable needle, do all sorts of cast ons, work the magic loop, knit intarsia, knit backwards and so much more… I feel so liberated! haha…I needed help now and then with new techniques but me being me, I prefered to figure things out for myself if I can. Maybe new knitters/crocheters expect too much from a pattern these days. I’ve been writing patterns for machine knitting and find myself explaining the finer details that I learnt for myself over 30 years ago. I got lucky there, my friend’s mum went to lessons and then my friend would show me what her Mum had shown her. If a knitter doesn’t understand what the designer is asking, then surely the designer is failing? I never ever mind answering questions, I want everyone to feel as excited by their makes as I feel, that moment when the penny drops is wonderful! A message to knitters/crocheters might be to do a search for the information you need before you contact the designer, it is so much more satisfying to work things out for yourself…and a message to designers might be, to have your pattern checked by at least a couple of people… 🙂

  4. I too have been thinking about this subject recently, but more as regards medieval recipes. Friends of mine in Finland released a cookbook full of redacted medieval recipes, and I was showing it to some local friends and telling them how the redaction was necessary because most of today’s cooks would be unable to follow an original medieval recipe. Back then cooking was something you were taught from a young age, and serious cooks started apprenticeships with masters. There were lots of methods you were taught that never showed up in recipes, so the recipes were more like vague instructions that assumed lots of tacit knowledge. They were very scant with measurements too, assuming you knew how much of a particular ingredient to add (especially spices).

    I think knitting used to be the same. I did needlework in primary school and learned all the basics of knitting then, so I can follow a pattern with minimal instructions. That said, I do like patterns that introduce me to new methods, especially if they have a built-in tutorial. I think my generation was the last to do any sort of needlework in school, today it’s mostly taught at private girls’ schools (I know of only two schools in the CT area that still teach needlework, both snooty private girls’ schools). People younger than me taking up knitting nowadays wouldn’t have those basic skills and would need lots of hand holding. People saying there’s too much info in patterns these days are creating a barrier to entry for those not lucky enough to have grown up with needlework skills. People view knitting as a complicated eldritch craft, and we should be working damn hard to disabuse them of that notion, and I think fully-detailed patterns with tutorials are the perfect thing for that. Perhaps some people like being a part of an exclusive hobby, but I don’t have much time for snooty knitting hipsters :P.

    Sorry for the rambly comment, I find myself less able to express things clearly nowadays. Stupid meds.

  5. I like both kinds of patterns. A free pattern for a simple scarf, or a drapey waistcoat where the interest is a way of knitting a cool edge or something – I’ll probably fiddle with it anyway, and am mainly after that one idea. A garment that uses new ways of shaping (eg Åsa Tricosa’s ziggurat method) I want lots of info for the crucial parts – that’s the point.

    I think the problem is when people have unrealistic expectations of *all* patterns being chocka with detail. Choose your pattern and your designer according to your cloth, or experience and preference for handholding.

    An interesting subject, and I’d say I’ve learnt lots from having my heand held and from being thrown to the wolves of work-it-out-yourself!

  6. What an interesting question! I like your explanation. I admit, my least favourite instruction in a knitting pattern is “at the same time.”

    Why? Because I often knit in 15-20 minute intervals. In the evening, which is not the time of day I’m at my best and brightest. I find it impossible to keep track of those “at the same times” unless I pretty much write out that section of the pattern for myself in a separate notebook. That’s precious knitting time taken away!

    If it’s written out in a more “hand-holding” fashion, it’s also written in a format that makes it easy for me to mark on the printout where I am in the row and pick right up after locating-the-lost-thing/confiscating-the-thing-being-fought-over/unexpected-urgent-item-#427, etc. 😉

    1. Excellent point, Lanie. With a toddler and kindergartener interrupting me every dang minute, and my evenings also characterised by exhaustion and related serious inability to concentrate… well, I relate.

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