Knitting the Old Way & Design

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.”

KnittingInTheOldWayWhen 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.

PadenLastly, 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!


About sweatyknitter

Fiber art devotee, author, and amateur artisan bread baker.
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28 Responses to Knitting the Old Way & Design

  1. Yes, EZ has a much different – and welcoming – approach than Paden. But then EZ’s designs and style of knitting were so much different than Paden … a bit like apples & oranges. And EZ is always such a fun (re)read!


  2. Most definitely! Paden’s book is great but most definitely not for the newbie or the faint of heart!


  3. Pingback: progress and a book | not your average crochet

  4. reWOLLuzza says:

    Shirley Paden’s book is one of my go-to’s whenever I want to try out a new shape or way of construction. But it can be a little intimidating when you’re a relatively new knitter, even though she takes you through the process step by step.
    For “home-use” designing I still refer to “Knitting without tears” and other EZ books. She makes it sound all fun and natural and nothing to worry about at all. 🙂


  5. Pearl says:

    I absolutely love the Shirley Paden book, but you’re right…it is a huge time commitment and requires a certain amount of confidence.


  6. HannahDavis says:

    I was looking for the Gibson Roberts book, and I found a used paperback version for $12, including S&H. I’ll have to get the other one next!


  7. I think it is a great book to introduce knitters whose experience is pattern-based to freeing their creativity! Besides, newer knitters can be confused and frustrated by patterns that could have an error, skips a line in reasoning assuming it’s obvious to the reader, lacks a schematic so you are not sure where your knitting is going or where you might need to do some sizing, etc. Good luck – and, importantly, enjoy!


  8. Socioknit says:

    “Knitting in the Old Way” sounds like a book I would really enjoy. Because I am entirely self-taught in fiber arts, commercial patterns are all I have had to learn from and they have actually have begun to stymie my creative desires. I have been trying to break free of the reliable, safe, line-by-line patterns to express myself more, but have found myself feeling lost and frustrated. I return to the patterns, but then quickly feel unhappy with some design elements, sizing or something. Thanks for posting this Karen, I’m going to check this out. 😀


  9. I cook without recipes but not bake (except for 3 or so things) … Tough my grandmother was like yours – baking was easy for her. (Coming home to her kitchen after school was always a sensory delight!). I think the reason I prefer knitting on small needles (5 is a big size for me nowadays) is because I will be using thinner and lighter yarn. And I never knit with cotton or linen as they don’t have the springy qualities of protein fiber. Ahhh, the joys of aging. 🙂


  10. fibercrush says:

    Thanks for the tip!


  11. Yes, I’ll check that out. Thanks.


  12. Wow.. no pattern. My grandmothers baked without recipes but not knitting. I don’t think I’d ever attempt it except for little hats and cowls I’m making now- I’m experimenting with yarn sizes, stitches, etc. My favorite needle sizes now are US 6 & 8- smaller and larger due hurt my hands.
    I’ve had carpel tunnel surgery on both — and wear a craft sleeve when knitting.


  13. It was your designs that pushed me toward exploring sweater designs more critically. I am working my way through Paden right mow. While I prefer the abbreviated older Norwegian patterns, I like to see a drawing with measurements. It makes it so much easier to modify.


  14. Thank you for reading the post; I am glad you enjoyed it. And I am sure you will enjoy Priscilla’s book – it will probably go a long way to release you from following others’ patterns!


  15. Interesting … Maybe the generation skipping you refer to helps explain why newer knitters want detailed instructions? My daughter has decided to expand her knitting skills – technically she’s fine but squeezes in simple, small projects (she’s a busy woman!), but I am using the “old way” with her and her first sweater will be one that she designs. She will either be bitten by the knitting but or be very angry with me. 🙂


  16. I have that book – looked at it today, in fact, and have one of its projects on needles too – and agree it’s a treasure!


  17. I am still working my way through it – it’s on my bedside table so I read a bit every evening !


  18. Are you looking for the Gibson Roberts or Paden book? They’re both good, just very different.


  19. If you’re doing your first stab at designing, Priscilla’s book is probably the best start. I think it’s extraordinarily good in helping you see the proverbial forest instead of getting lost in the trees!


  20. If you get a chance to look at Priscilla’s book, it will probably clear up some knitting mysteries. 🙂


  21. This is very interesting. I always wondered how it used to be done. Especially those ladies that would knit their own “signature” in the Aran sweaters so they could identify their loved ones if need be if they washed ashore. Gruesome but so important.


  22. fibercrush says:

    I have both those books — each bought when they came out. Still haven’t tried any projects yet — so far just dreaming of possibilities! Your post reminds me to take another look!


  23. HannahDavis says:

    Thanks for that book recommendation — I’m off to try to buy it right now (AKA find the cheapest price and hopefully it will be cheap enough, haha).


  24. Northern Narratives says:

    I was also taught to knit “the old way”. I will definitely look up the Knitwear Design Workshop. It sounds like a book I would love 🙂


  25. Sandra Rhule says:

    Victorian Lace Today is good on the history of UK knitting patterns, another excellant book! But I think the latest innovation is the way charts are more common, and not just for colourwork, but lace and cables. This saves space,and paper, when printing ! I love the way the craft of knitting evolves.


  26. Really enjoyed your post, and being Norwegian I can relate to the concept of knitting “the old way”, though I´ve never really thought of it as the “old way” …more the only way. That is until I discovered the wonderful knitting-universe Ravelry, and decided to learn how to knit the “new way”. That´s been a journey I can tell you, a never ending one… Whereas a Norwegian knitting-pattern can be fitted into one page, an english one will fill at least 5 pages, depending. That said, -we´ve experienced a sort of knitting revival in Norway this past year, and these new consumers ask for very detailed pattern instructions. I can relate to what gentlestitches (above) says: It´s about being able to “knit by the eye” which I presume is easiest if you start at an early age. Traditionally the craft of knitting has been past on through the generations, but I think we´ve skipped a generation, or two. So I think the “new knitting” is here to stay!


  27. This was such an interesting post. Like music knitting is all about numbers. Most of us have to learn and then apply the formulas and some others (very few) get it and can play by ear or knit by eye. I seem to be able make amigurumis and crochet by eye but need patterns for knitting. I love that many techniques would have been handed down by demonstration and I just HAVE to have that book. Knitting in the Old Way.


  28. Marvelous blog post, and not only because I am mentioned in it, thank you so much, Karen! I am thrilled that you love my designs! And I am not familiar with the book Knitting in the Old Way, but have to look for it now! I find it interesting the way knitting pattern writing has changed too, now it includes a lot more details than previously. Even Norwegian patterns, that used to be extremely short and leave out shaping information for the knitter to figure out, do give a lot more detailed instructions these days.


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