Tuesday, September 02, 2014

On Holding of Hands and Not

This question on Twitter raised my blood pressure a bit today. Mostly in the good way... ;-).

This "debate" comes up reasonably often. The crux of it is this: Older patterns used to be more terse (concise?), and newer ones give more detail. Are we enabling knitters to be lazy/not encouraging thinking for themselves/hampering learning/etc. by giving that extra detail?

For example, you might see in an older pattern an instruction like:
Decrease 1 st each end of every foll alt row 10 times, then every 4th row 12 times.
There's nothing wrong with the first formulation, but it requires a fair bit of knowledge on the pattern of the knitter. What decrease to use, where to place them, and to be comfortable keeping track of the various rows, including knowing what we mean by "foll alt row".

A more "modern" pattern would be more likely to spell it out, e.g.
Next row, decrease (RS): K1, ssk, k to last 3 sts, k2tog, k1. 2 sts decreased.
Follow row (WS): Purl.
Repeat the last 2 rows 9 more times.
Work a decrease row followed by three even rows.
Repeat the last four rows 11 more times.
Both are equally correct, but they are very different.

I tend to tell designers that if they aren't certain a knitter will do it the way they want, or if it matters what decrease is used and where it's placed, then it's better to spell it out.

In my experience, it's mostly designers asking the question. I can see where they are coming from: it's much easier to write a pattern in that concise/terse way, absolutely. And as a designer, you've likely got the skill level to be comfortable with the concise version so you might not understand the need for the more explicit version.

But we're not all designers. We're not all experienced knitters. And we don't all innately know how to read and follow patterns. The traditional, concise pattern format isn't very friendly to newer knitters. Why not give knitters a bit of a helping hand?

I liked this answer to the question:
My answer to Rohn was in two tweets, since I had so much to say:
I've discussed this with Donna Druchunas on a couple of occasions, and she's very much a fan of the more concise style. Her position is that hand-holding can get ridiculous... that it shouldn't get to the point where every pattern is its own tutorial, and every pattern has to explain everything right from casting on. I agree with her on that point! But I do feel that there's room to help - to provide a helping hand for those who are just getting started, or who want it.

My answer is that we should be using some sort of skill level/techniques required/experience level required indicator in the pattern, and use that as a guide to how we write our patterns. If you want to write in the concise way, just tell people up front that you're expecting pattern reading experience! And if you to target your pattern to less experienced knitters, write in a more explicit manner, and then market it as such. Knitters will thank you.

After all, we all need a helping hand at first - let's offer that help to those who want it.

UPDATE: Angela (of the tweet above) has written a terrific blog post on this topic, from the end-user's perspective. Read it.


I wonder if this question wasn't prompted by this tweet of mine, from a little earlier...
This was in response to a great conversation I was having with a designer about how to represent some instructions in her patterns... I asked a question about why she chose to give gauge information over 1 inch, rather than four. Her reply was, in essence, "well, I assume most knitters know you have to check it over more than just one inch".

For her patterns, which are mostly aimed at more experienced knitters, this is probably ok. But my reply to her was simple: consider the experience level of your target knitter. (Although there's a separate discussion here to be had about going with commonly-used form. My biggest issue with specifying gauge over anything other than 4 inches, which is what most patterns and yarns do, is that it can be misread or confuse. If there's a commonly-used form, I like to use it. Makes it easier on everyone, IMHO.)


May said...

Hi Kate,

Depending on the pattern I can either figure out the concise instructions or get frustrated and give up. Agree with you that to some extent it depends on the pattern and skill level needed. Me, I prefer to have more instructions. It would interesting to see which are most popular patterns on Ravelry and the level of detail in the instructions. Could be informative.

Iris said...

Posts like this make me wish I was a tech editor too.

Purl Mary said...

If you look at patterns from 50 years ago, they assume that the knitter is literate and intelligent. I see some patterns now that assume mostly that knitters are illiterate and stupid. Where is the right medium? After all, 50 years ago, we succeeded in kinitting those 'things' by reading between the lines. When I look back on some of the things I achieved 50+ years ago (and there were some really great flubs among the achievements!), I, too, wonder if we are not holding the hands of people like those parents who walk their children to their first day of middle school -- way overprotective.

Abby Glassenberg said...

I'm linking to this post in my newsletter tomorrow. I'm interested to hear this debate from the sewist's perspective. Sewing patterns have radically changed over the last ten years. Indie designers often include far more diagrams, photos, and explanations (in plain English) than traditional Big 4 patterns ever did, assuming that new sewists don't already have the common knowledge of sewing that sewists of prior generations were assumed to have had. For me, in sewing, this is all positive, but perhaps sewing and knitting are different enough that the debate is really not relevant?

Anonymous said...

I liken this topic to the game of golf. Experts have noticed that golf is a dying sport, because it is too difficult to master. They are talking about making the holes much larger, the courses shorter, and par greater. I believe the same goes for knitting. If the patterns are too difficult for the beginning to average knitter, it could very easily become a lost art.

I have to sign this anonymous because I don't know what the other options are.

Nancy Davis

Wanderingcatstudio said...

To add a couple more more points to the concise vs spell it out argument

I think one of the things that has changed too is that with the wonder of Ravelry and the internet, it's much easier for a knitter to get a hold of a designer to ask questions. As an indy designer, I put my email address on all my patterns too. If I don't spell things out clearly, I know I'm going to get inundated with a lot of questions that could be avoided. And while it's nice to connect with people, and get feedback, constantly having to explain your pattern is frustrating.

The other reason older patterns were more concise is simply a matter of typography. They were in books (mostly) or little leaflets. Paper is expensive, and publishers were trying to keep costs down and profits up so pattern instructions were kept as short as possible. But now with ebooks and pdf patterns (and consumers being the ones who do the printing and pay for the paper) designers aren't so worried about how many pages the pattern will run.

MichL said...

I don't think its hand holding to specify techniques in patterns. I buy patterns because I need the designers expertise. The type of cast on, which decrease to use, where to place the decreases-- this is the type of information that I am paying for. On the other hand, if the type of decrease doesn't matter it's fine to say that (or say left leaning decrease) but if there is a right way to do it, why wouldn't you tell your customers?

Also, this encourages me to learn new techniques. Otherwise I might use k2tog (the only decrease in my learn to knit leaflet) for everything, never considering that there might be another way.

And one last thought--- what is wrong with hand holding? I know the patterns are more expensive to write, but if people are willing to pay more, what is the problem? Sometimes I play around and create my own designs. Sometimes I just want to knit something that I know will turn out. For most people knitting is a hobby- it should be fun.

Anonymous said...

Hand holding...Here's a thought. I have been a knitter and crocheter for over 45 years. Do I have experience....yes. I would rather use my "experience" to make the alterations required for the "perfect" fit since no pattern can do that. Also, there are SO many different techniques out there for construction. New ones are discovered all the time. I like to learn new things!!! I like designs that teach. The more detail the better.

Anonymous said...

I find it amusing that the disagreement is being phrased in terms of "less intelligent/less creative/less knowledgeable."

Does no one else knit in small bursts of time? LOL I love a good, detailed, line-by-line pattern because I can mark where I am on my pattern printout and pick it up without pause when I come back from sorting out the most recent interruption, whether it's "He/She is being mean to me!" or "Mom, I forgot to tell you I need cupcakes for school tomorrow!"

The concise patterns certainly save on paper and printer ink, but if you're interrupted mid-row...well, it takes a bit to figure out where you were and be able to pick it up again. :)