Book Review: Kate Atherley's Pattern Writing for Knit Designers

atherleyI get a lot of emails. Some deal with my own work, but a surprising amount of messages comes from people wanting to write patterns. Maybe my epic Twitter rants about poorly written patterns are to blame; maybe it is because when I teach I go on about things like gauge and chart symbols. Who knows? What do you do if you didn't fluke a background in technical writing? Up to now you had to rely upon your knowledge of others' pattern writing skills and try to imitate their way of writing instructions. I understand why people do this, but it does not allow for reflection upon your own style and you may fall into adopting other people's bad habits without realising there are other options. Or you asked people like me who does have a background in technical writing (and who is horrifically busy) or you ask in Ravelry fora with somewhat mixed results.

Anyway, it's been really frustrating for me that I have had nowhere to send all these lovely people. There are some great pattern design books in the world (like Maggie Righetti's Sweater Design in Plain English) but no pattern writing books out there. With Kate Atherley's book, Pattern Writing for Knit Designers, that drought is now at an end. It is not a knitting book filled with patterns; it is a book telling designers how to write patterns that are clear, concise and easy to follow. Kate Atherley is one of the most highly regarded technical editors in the business and her wealth of experience shows.

The book is a master-class in how to think about pattern writing. She discusses everything from how to structure a pattern (and provides a pattern template), which abbreviations to use, how to think about communicating cables and deciding upon formatting to why a designer's relationship with their technical editor is so important, working with and defining style sheets, how to self-publish, how to work with publications (and what they expect of you as a designer) and how to making easy-to-follow charts.  It is an incredibly comprehensive book.


Kate's voice is authoritative, but never condescending. She assumes the reader is clever, resourceful and able to think for themselves. Look at the excerpt above: the three examples of a repeat within a row have an identical outcome (in terms of how many stitches you have at the end) but Kate goes through the examples one by one, and lets the reader work out why some formats are more effective than others.

And she makes you think about how writing patterns means communicating to someone who is not you. I find this is a pitfall for many designers who assume knitters work in the same way as themselves and find it hard to write for others. Writing for an audience is a real skill - and writing technical instructions for others to follow is even harder. I really like the way Kate makes you consider your audience before you begin writing.


In short, this book is a marvel. It is a technical and dry in places (which I obviously love), but after a dense paragraph about the taxonomy of cable stitches, Kate shows why you need to wrap your head about how to classify and name cable stitches - and she does so in a wonderfully down-to-earth manner. More importantly, she makes sure you will enjoy writing that cabled hat pattern of yours. Most importantly, Kate makes sure that your cabled hat pattern will make an enjoyable knit for knitters who will talk about your well-written pattern to others and keep coming back for more. Huzzah!

I should point out (in the name of full disclosure) that I am cited in the book and that I was asked to read an early draft of this book, but that does not alter my praise of this book. Whether you are an aspiring designer or an experienced designer/tech editor, this book will instruct and help you. I keep a copy next to me on my desk as it comes in handy on a daily basis. The book is full of great advice from other designers and technical editors - and has a great deal of links to useful resources. As Kate says, the book won't help you come up with designs but it will teach you how to write great patterns people will want to make again and again.

And happy knitters make for a happy knitting world.

You can buy the book here and it costs CAD$25. A real bargain for what you'll learn.

Knits For Little Scamps - A Review Of Sorts

I love visiting Copenhagen. I lived there during my twenties - my formative years in many ways - and so many of my good friends live there. Paradoxically I didn't know Signe Strømgaard when I actually lived in Copenhagen, yet whenever I visit we make sure we get to hang out. Signe is an incredible woman: funny, warm, down-to-earth and smart. I am so proud to call her my friend. And Signe is a fantastic knitting designer.

Her work has appeared in Knitty, Twist Collective and Petite Purls. Signe has also worked extensively with Danish yarn company Filcolana (you can find many of their patterns freely available on Ravelry). Signe's background in graphic design shows in her knitting designs: there is a modern, graphic quality to most of her work. Combined with Signe's ever-present sense of humour, it was perhaps inevitable that her first book would be one filled with modern, colourful children's patterns for kids aged 2 to 10. If you like Scandinavian children's clothes, I think you'll love Knits For Little Scamps.

I'm not even going to pretend to do a review because a) it'd be one long post of THIS IS AMAZING and b) I am totally biased but this is a great collection of modern kids' patterns. Cue picture spam of my favourites.


(Love this shows the design on both boys & girls, in a huge range of colour, and on a variety of ages. BOOM - design statement! )


(Love the simplicity and the bold stripes. And the jumper + trousers = YES. I'd wear this.)


(You cannot tell from the smallish photo, but that's an interesting cable detail)


(This girl takes no prisoners. Also, that hat is so cool that teenagers will secretly sulk that it's for their baby sister or brother)


(I totally love this cardigan. I want it for myself. Again, I love the styling. She looks kick-ass)


(Aksel gives good face. Incidentally this is knitted in one of my favourite Danish yarns - Håndværksgarn by Hjelholt)


(Work that pose! Again, totally wearable with clean lines)


(This is just Signe's design sensibilities in a nutshell)

Knits For Little Scamps is published as a hardback book in Danish - but is available in English on Ravelry as two e-books (KfLS 1 and KfLS 2 - the toy pattern in included in both ebooks).

Congratulations, Signe. You are awesome and I am so proud of you x

(all photos © Signe Strømgaard, 2014)

Reading 2011: Emma Donoghue - Room

For years I used to live inside my head. I think it is an occupational hazard if you are within academia: you get used to silently arguing with yourself; to constantly question and explore your own thoughts. My head was (and is) the biggest place I have ever lived. I do not think of myself as an author, but I do think of myself as a writer. My words and thoughts are the most tangible things I possess. Words matter. And I think that is why Emma Donoghue's Room makes me so damn angry.

A brief synopsis: Room is the story of a young girl who is kidnapped by a loner and kept in a tiny room in his back-garden. She gives birth to a boy and raises him within the small room where they are at the mercy of the loner. The story echoes recent real-life crime cases - Josef Fritzl and his daughter, Natascha Kampusch, and Jaycee Lee Dugard - but is a work of fiction detailing life within confinement and subsequent events. Room has been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and has won many major literary awards.

The subject matter is not the problem. Although it would be easy to step into "misery literature" territory, Room sidesteps this neatly by leaving out most of the actual abuse. Indeed, Donoghue is not preoccupied by the grisly details (which may disappoint some readers, I am sure) but instead she wants to explore how human beings respond to extraordinary situations and to each other. She employs the five-year-old boy, Jack, as the narrator of the story - undoubtedly to defamiliarise to an already unreal scenario.

And Jack as the narrator is the problem with Room.

I can understand the lure of using Jack as the narrator as it avoids a lot of sticky situations for Donoghue as a writer (as discussed above) but Jack the five-year-old narrator is wildly inconsistent. He uses abstract concepts like "sarcasm" in context and says "hippopotami" with correct declension - but Donoghue also has him saying "I finded him" and "I knowed." So, the five year old kid can wield correct Greek grammar, but not use standard English strong verbs?

Russian literary critics used to differ between fabula and syuzhet: fabula is what happens; syuzhet is how it is told. Emma Donoghue has a firm grasp on the fabula part of her story, but Jack-as-narrator is a structural (syuzhet) problem that messes up Room in a very big way. It is not just that his language usage is woefully all-over-the-place but the pacing is off, any characterisation is by necessity very flat, and the internal logic has extremely big flaws.

And, so yes, reading Room made me angry.

I thought it was awful.

I have been reading a lot lately, but I don't write much about the books I read for some reason. As always, feel free to catch up with my reads on GoodReads - the widget is to the right.

The Knitting Book by Patmore & Haffenden

You know silly words like "transparency" and "full disclosure"? I believe in them, so you should know this: I did some pattern checking/tech editing, some sample knitting, I am thanked in this book, and I received an advanced copy. But I am still going to tell you exactly what I think of this book.

You may know that my day job involves meeting lots of knitters and offering technical advice. As part of this day job I get often asked which book I would recommend for beginning knitters. I usually recommend Debbie Stoller's Stitch & Bitch because it gives a beginner information I think is vital: in-depth notes on needles, yarns, and patterns that understand different skill levels. However, S'n'B suffers from three flaws: the pattern styles are outmoded, the yarns used are rarely available to a UK knitter, and once you have graduate from being a beginner to a intermediate knitter, you won't find the book super-useful.

The Knitting Book (KB) ticks the boxes that S'n'B does not do - whilst still delivering the entry-level information that a beginner needs. KB is actually jaw-droppingly all-inclusive. You get a section on tools and materials that explains everything from needles, yarn weights and how to understand a ball band to colour theory, how to use blocking wires, and garment care.

The section on techniques had me reeling. The beginner gets a competent and assuring run-down of how to cast-on and how to do basic stitches. Intermediate knitters get tips on shaping, knitting in the round, and using colour. Advanced knitters? Oh heavens: cast-on methods I had never heard about, two-colour i-cord, ways of knitting backwards, clever buttonholes..

.. can you tell that I'm actually pretty shocked to have encountered a book that combines traditional tried-and-tested methods with trendy Ravelry-style techniques? I am so used to seeing knitting books that essentially just repeat what hundreds of older books say ("there are three ways of casting on, you pick up stitches this way, baby garments are only knitted in baby wool..") that I am honestly taken aback from the sheer knitterly joy and unbridled freedom that I see in KB. This book is clearly written by people who understand there has been a minor earthquake within knitting in the last ten years and who want to combine the sense of everything is possible with the UK's proud knitting heritage.

The pattern section is particularly strong on this point. Intelligently it picks up on techniques previously showcased and delivers accessible designs for knitters of all skill levels. The designers must be used to dealing with knitters on a daily basis because I can see so many of my usual queries being answered: easy accessories (also for men!), gift ideas, and baby items. Want to learn how to do fair isle? There is a small project idea for that! Fancy giving socks a go? Three different patterns are available at increasing difficulty. Every pattern has hints and tips - I wish all patterns came with these little features as they would make my life a tiny bit easier.

I have three patterns that I personally want to try: the cabled wrist warmers (I was just given the perfect yarn for them), the Jelly Fish scarf (which looks super cosy), and the Harlequin scarf which uses Kid Silk Haze in a colour-graduating fashion. Mmmm, Kid Silk Haze..

Are there any drawbacks to KB? Yes, of course there are. It is more expensive than, say, Stitch'n'Bitch. It is not particularly portable and will most likely become a reference book residing on your shelves rather than being dragged with you to knitting group. Some beginners will feel overwhelmed by its wealth of information and run away screaming. I am unsure about the stitch dictionary section: you first see it straight after the tools & materials section, but the actual instructions only appear sections later - this feels a bit random. It is not styled to within an inch of its life nor does it have beautiful people wearing the knitted samples in a stylish home. KB is much more utilitarian than that.

I am trying to be objective here - truly I am - but KB is a cracker. I see and get offered so many knitting books and I rarely come away feeling like I have uncovered a gem. I'm clearly not the only one to feel this way, though, as I have been told this title is already being translated for overseas markets. I am very, very glad to have this as part of my library. It is going right in next to Montse Stanley & I am going to use this for many years to come.

The Not So Gentle Art of Reviewing

I was asked by a publishing company if I wanted to review a knitting book. My only problem was that the publishing company has a back catalogue of, well, novelty knitting books and so I was sent Jane Brocket's The Gentle Art of Knitting when I showed a decided lack of interest in a Harry Hill knitting book. I think the Harry Hill book might have been better because the Brocket book confuses me. The Gentle Art of Knitting is pretty in a comfortable, yet aspiring way. The photography is lovely, the layout is stylish (but not dauntingly stylish) and the writing has a spring in its step. I was not surprised to find that Brocket is a blogger because her writing has a certain immediate, chatty style to it. I know I'm supposed to be charmed by her book and herself, but I have problems with the book.

I am well-educated middle-class woman who likes making things. I also like things with a story. And I appreciate aesthetically pleasing things. I am the target audience for this book but I feel condescended towards:  Reading The Gentle Art of Knitting I feel like I am not good enough because I have not chosen the right wine to go with my knitting (but Jane can help!); I am not good enough because I did not pick up 20 skeins of Cascade 220 on my last breezy weekend trip to New York (but Jane did!); And I am not fun and retro enough to have a knitted tea-cosy for my teapot (but Jane sure is!). There is a sense that my own life is slightly lacking but that Jane Brocket hovering behind me will gently correct all my tiny flaws.

I am not sure where this lingering sense of inferiority is coming from. Ms Brocket's designs are not exactly earth-shattering: a knitted apron, a bog-standard ripple crochet blanket, a chevron scarf.. There is exactly one pattern I like in this book - a pair of pillows - while the rest of the patterns feel nondescript. Designs do not need to be complicated, of course, but I somehow expected more from a book with such a heavy emphasis on aesthetics. I somehow expected a cohesive design strategy..

(There is even an strange bit devoted to "cult knitting patterns" which has her describing the Clapotis scarf and The February Lady Sweater. This section feels very odd, very tacked-on, and oddly dated.)

It is a UK book, yet most yarns used can only be bought in a handful of shops throughout the country. We are not even talking unicorn yarn here, just straightforward US workhorse yarns: Cascade 220 and Blue Sky Alpaca. If Jane Brocket wants to use yarns that is more exclusive than what you can find in your average UK yarn shop, why use quite plain US workhorse yarn? Why not track down The Natural Dye Studio? Fyberspates? The Knitting Goddess? If exclusivity is not her aim, why not promote UK companies? Rowan? Debbie Bliss? Sublime? Her readers will thank her for being able to buy the suggested yarns.

But then again it's a book for knitters that do not knit. It is lifestyle porn in the same way as Nigella's cooking shows, Kirstie Allsopp's TV crafting and the Sunday newspaper colour supplements are inviting you to buy into a lifestyle. As a knitter who does like to knit, I am not sure what to do with this book.

I have tried hard to think of The Gentle Art of Knitting's unique selling proposition but I cannot really find one. At the end of the day it is an aspirational lifestyle blog locked into a book. There are many knitting and lifestyle blogs out there - many of which are far better than this book - and I can read them for free. I can also buy far better pattern books at a fraction of the price.

I'm sure I wouldn't have spent nearly 700 words on the Harry Hill knitting book. I'm also sure I wouldn't have felt so disheartened either.

A Year in Books

2009's tally: 38 books. Not a patch on previous years (in particular the year of university degree and thus long-term unemployment) but a respectable amount nonetheless. However, sixteen of those books were fluffy Regency novels by one Ms Georgette Heyer, so I am slightly ashamed of myself. On the plus side, I managed to read some books I had been meaning to read for a long time..

Good reads: I discovered Andrew Crumey and I look forward to more books by him. Moebius Dick was my favourite out of the three Crumey novels I read in 2009. AS Byatt's The Children's Book was incredibly satisfying and I re-read the last twenty-five pages twice before finally closing the book. I finally read Donna Tartt's The Secret History and while I continue to struggle with North-American fiction (Atwood notwithstanding - long story) and I had a few quibbles with certain subplots, I enjoyed the read. The best read of the year was undoubtedly Michel Faber's Under the Skin. It was one of those "nasty little books" I love so much. An incredibly well-written, tightly plotted and genre-defying novel I know I will be revisiting in years to come. It's not often I find a new favourite read.

Uneven reads: I read Adam Roberts' Yellow Blue Tibia this holiday season and I wanted to love it. Its premise sounds like something I would like - Soviet Union, science fiction writers and the possibility of multiple realities - but I ended up being disappointed. Roberts' writing is sloppy (as is the editing), the tone is uneven and the book does not live up to its premise until fifty pages from the end when you get the feeling Roberts is finally writing the book he wants to write. I was very unimpressive with a running gag about a man with Asperger's Syndrome which was wholly unnecessary to the plot and jarred badly. Still, the last fifty pages or so redeemed the book from being merely a bad read. It was an uneven and occasionally interesting read. Flann O'Brien's minor classic The Dalkey Archive was also a comedic read but a more successful one. I was not entirely enthralled by it, though, but I am glad I finally read it. Junot Diaz' Oscar Wao was another book I thought I would love more than I did. I am still not sure why it did not work for me and it continues to nag me.

Bad reads: I really didn't like Ross Raisin's God's Own Country. It read like Raisin had read Iain Banks' vastly superior The Wasp Factory and felt the book needed sheep. Audrey Niffenegger's much-hyped The Time-Traveller's Wife was a huge disappointment to me. I thought it would be a genre-hopping, intelligent novel and instead it was chick-lit in disguise. Honestly, if I wanted romance or sheep-herding, I'd be reading Georgette Heyer. Wait a sec..

Goal for 2010: reading fewer Georgette Heyers, reading more from the unread pile(s), get hold of the latest books by Margaret Atwood and Colm Toibin.