I never saw any woman in my family in Norway follow the kind of patterns we see today – at least here in the U.S. – and by that I refer to the patterns with detailed, line-by-line instructions. Consummate knitters that they were, those Norwegian farm women seemed to have an unending number of traditional patterns in their heads, ready to incorporate into sweaters. (No, the lady in the picture is not a relative of mine; source.)
I blame/credit this family tradition for my reluctance to follow a pattern. In fact, though I first learned to knit when I was 5 years old, I didn’t use a pattern until I bought one in my late 20s. It could have been written in Greek. Line-by-line pattern (lace or color work) instructions I graphed out, and I regularly ignored the written instructions choosing instead to emulate the women in my family by knitting the “old way.”
When I discovered Priscilla Gibson Robert’s Knitting in the Old Way (the first edition 1985, then published by Interweave Press – click here for a description of the first edition and for links to descriptions of later editions), I learned that there is a method behind every “old way” – not just the Norwegian. Gibson Roberts laid out the math behind several traditional knit garments and explained how armed with a few basic pieces of information, one could knit “in the old way,” free from commercial patterns and able to customize fit for varying recipients.
I have used the “old way” of knitting my whole knitting life, viewing written patterns as suggestions, save for the highly detailed, precise and tailored patterns - but as of late that has changed for a couple of reasons.
First, as I’ve gotten older, so have my hands, and I vastly prefer knitting finer weight yarns, perfect for showing off detail work.
Next, I fell in love with the meticulous designs and attention to detail evidenced in the creations of Norwegian designer Linda Marveng.
Third, I decided I wanted to design sweaters with more sophisticated tailoring (i.e., less the “old way”) for me.
Lastly, Linda urged me to take a peek at Shirley Paden‘s Knitwear Design Workshop. I didn’t really want to buy yet another knitting book, but I value Linda’s suggestions. So I popped by my favorite San Francisco LYS Artfibers for a couple of hours and browsed through the book. Wow – and what a lesson in humility. I knew I had to have that book!
Though Paden’s book lists for U.S. $40 (hard bound, spiral edition), I found numerous used copies for around $5. I use “used” loosely, as they were in perfect condition. This made me wonder if these copies were returned by knitters who were overwhelmed by its contents and incredible attention to detail and fit. (I think it could easily serve as the text book for a semester-long class on sweater design.)
Designing a sweater is a lot of work, depending on how complicated a schematic you’re drawing, the knit stitch, yarn weight, etc. - not to mention one’s own skill level. It also takes a lot of time (measuring, sketching out the design, knitting samples and swatches, documenting, etc.).
My suggestion for knitters who (1) have the time, and (2) want to expand their knitting skills and try some designing is to start with the “old way” as explained by Gibson Roberts. I think making a couple of sweaters in the “old way” will build both one’s skills and confidence. After that, Paden’s instructions probably won’t seem as intimidating!