Thursday, December 02, 2010

Being Rude Again/A Victim of Geography

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.


Bonnie said...

The discussion is made even more difficult by the fact that we all learn differently. Some are better with charts, some with words, some with a lot of words, etc. The way one pattern is written might be perfect for me and really cumbersome for someone else.

knitinsage said...

wow, what a clear explanation of the difference between the typical pattern-writing styles! and you're absolutely right about beginners being attracted to the debbie bliss patterns. i have taught a drop-in "help with your project" class at my lys, and i'll bet 50% of my students were newer knitters who required some translation of their debbie bliss patterns.

you're not cranky, imhoツ

back to lurking...

Annamari said...

As a European, I do not consider that European patterns are written in multiple languages. They might be translated, but it is not the same thing.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Annamari, being European I haven't seen them in multiple languages. I have to say that the best knitting instructions are in German magazines, they are concise, they don't use useless abbreviations where there is no need, and you can follow their charts without a problem. I can't say the same of the American instructions. I am not German but I do speak multiple languages and use them when knitting.

Dina-Purls said...

Interesting explanation of the differences between American and European knitting instructions.

I remember when I first got back into knitting and tried my hand at some Debbie Bliss toy patterns. I cursed and cursed . . . and then I promised never to touch another Bliss pattern. Ever.

Kelli said...

I'm just finishing a Debbie Bliss bathrobe from the 2010 Fall/Winter Magazine and Kate, you are exactly right about not giving enough information. The instructions for the short rows in the collar and sewing the sleeve into the armhole read as if they were missing whole sentences. I just went on alone and did what I thought made sense.
I always thought this was an cultural problem. *sigh*

Pam Larsen said...

I have to echo Kelli's comments. I have been knitting Debbie Bliss patterns for years and have always had issues with them. I just filled in what worked best for me.

Although, I always blamed my dyslexia!

Back to lurking...