I had a Twitter conversation with a friend this morning, and N. pointed out it me that it looked from the outside like I was being rude about a designer. Specifically, I said that I thought the designs of Debbie Bliss are "gorgeous... her write-ups not so much".
I do have a bit of a big mouth - my opinions can be strong, and I sometimes type before I think. I don't take back my statement, but let me add some context.
I love love love the designs of Debbie Bliss. She has a genuine gift for simplicity and elegance. She understands that less is more in a way that few other designers do. I've knitted a number of her designs over the years, and I buy her magazine and her books.
But I have been known to grumble about her pattern writeups - and today I did. Her instructions are known to be fairly... shall we say... minimal. It's not about mistakes or problems, not at all. As a knitter and a teacher I've never encountered any actual mistakes or problems with any of them. The issue is always about the level of detail in the instructions.
I don't actually blame any of this on Debbie Bliss or her technical editors. I blame geography. And it's not just Debbie Bliss - the Rowan pattern books are similar in the way they are written.
I've recently been doing some technical editing for a yarn company, helping them convert some patterns published in Europe to a more North American standard.
The standards for pattern writing are wildly different between Europe and North America. And the UK patterns fall somewhere in between.
It's about space. European pattern books typically print their patterns in multiple language, and therefore where they can edit to be more concise, they do. And that conciseness results in patterns that require a little more knowledge and experience to successfully follow them, that's all.
Consider the following example, taken directly from a pattern published in Europe.
Cast on 117(129) sts, then work over the 39(45) sts at each outer edge as foll: edge st and st st, in pattern mix foll chart A over the 39 center sts, dec 4 sts evenly across as given = 113(125)sts. When work measures 32 cm, on 103rd row patt mix, bind off for armholes at each end 3(5) sts once, then on every 2nd row 2 sts once and 1st 3 times = 97(105) sts.
It's perfectly correct, and it's perfectly knittable, but there's a lot of information packed into those few words. And it's not just about denseness, it also requires a fair bit of experience. For example, it tells you to bind off sts for armholes "at each end... every 2nd row". Taken at face value, that instruction could be tricky... after all, it's not possible to bind off at the start and end of a row (without doing some "stitch gymnastics", anyway).
Re-written to a style more familiar to North American knitters, the instruction becomes:
Using 3.5mm (US 4) needles, cast on 117 (129) sts.
Row 1 (RS): K 39 (45), work Chart A row 1 across center 39 sts (including decreases as charted), k to end. 113 (125) sts.
Row 2 (WS): P 39 (45), work Chart A row 2 across center 35 sts, p to end.
Continue in pattern as established until pattern row 102 is complete.
Bind off 3(5) sts at the start next 2 rows, continuing to work Chart on center 35 sts as established. 107 (115) sts.
Bind off 2(2) at the start of the next 2 rows. 103 (111) sts.
Decrease 1 st at each end of the following 3 RS rows. 97(105) sts.
Compare a typical Debbie Bliss or Rowan pattern to this European example - it's positively voluble!
Patterns published in the UK don't necessarily have the same space constraints as other European patterns, as they are only publishing in one language, and therefore they do provide a fair bit more detail. It's just that it's not necessarily the level of detail that you see in typical modern North American patterns.
Really, the biggest issue with this is that because Ms. Bliss's gorgeous designs appeal to newer knitters in their simplicity, but the pattern instructions can challenging.
There's a longer discussion here about how much knowledge is appropriate to assume on the part of the knitter... I know that there have been, and there will always be, discussions about whether simplifying and adding more detail is "dumbing down".
Despite my somewhat cranky demeanor, I'm all about encouragement. I want knitters to feel confident and be successful with their projects - and if that means taking a few extra lines to explain something in more detail, then I'm all for it! After all, we knit for pleasure - we shouldn't make it any more difficult than it needs to be.