Writing Inclusive Knitting Patterns


The knitting community has been talking inclusivity since the beginning of 2019. Not only is it a long overdue discussion of how to make everybody — and every body — welcome in the community, but it also shows no signs of slowing down. I want to write a bit about how pattern writers can be more thoughtful in their work , how to think about inclusivity on the page, and how to avoid pitfalls when putting together a knitting pattern. I have taught technical writing at university, I mentor budding designers, I run courses on pattern writing, and I have worked both as a technical and a copy editor in the knitting industry for close to ten years.

First, an overview of what this blog post is not going to do:

• It is not going to talk about design aspects such as size inclusivity.

• It is not going to address visual aspects such as pattern photos or social media images.

• I am not going to talk about knitting patterns and pattern writing from a knitter point-of-view — this is squarely aimed at people who write patterns and want to think about broader societal implication of their work.

Let’s go.


The first rule of any technical writing is that you are not writing for yourself. This rule is usually used to highlight that we assume that everybody knows the same things as us. This leads to writers leaving out a lot of things assumed to be “common knowledge” and use shorthand instructions for things that might need to be explained in detail. A good example of this is something I came across the other day:

"If number of sts is not conducive to 2 x 2 ribbing +2, increase or decrease evenly across last row to get desired st count."

This was a free pattern on Ravelry promoted as a perfect beginner’s project, yet it is not written with a beginner in mind. This sort of knitting instruction is aimed at people who have a lot of knitting knowledge. There are no stitch counts, no mention of where to increase, and definitely no mention of which increase to use. Moreover, 2 x 2 ribbing is never explained anywhere in the text, and the phrase “ 2 x 2 ribbing + 2” is indecipherable unless you have worked several projects and feel confident working out your own stitch counts.

It’s pretty bad, in other words.

Any decent knitting pattern writer knows to think about their audience and tailor their writing for the perceived skill set of that particular audience. Knitting pattern writers need to think about skill levels as a baseline for any pattern they produce because, say it with me, we are not writing for ourselves.

Luckily there is a wealth of skill level guides out there: Vogue Knitting, KnittingGuru, SpruceCrafts etc that will help pattern writers figure out which skill level they are writing for and thus what kind of instructions they should be writing.

So, once we have established we are not writing for ourselves we should extend that thought to think about inclusivity.

"If number of sts is not conducive to 2 x 2 ribbing +2, increase or decrease evenly across last row to get desired st count."

There is something wrong here — apart from the lack of stitch counts, the lack of explanation of what “2 x 2 ribbing” means and so forth. Can you see what it is?

Using a word like conducive functions as a barrier. It is very formal and academic and it is a word that demands a very firm and specialised grasp of English. Conducive excludes people who are English language learners, people with a limited vocabulary (some teenagers, for instance), and people without a higher education. For some people, seeing a sociolinguistic prestige word such as conducive will be enough to provoke anxiety and an inability to continue with the project. It will make them feel inadequate and excluded.

If you want to promote inclusivity, make sure to use accessible language in your patterns. Think about how knitting patterns in English are used extensively by non-native speakers of English. How can you accommodate them?

Let us rewrite the example above (leaving out the fact that the pattern writer should have worked out stitch counts that work with the suggested rib):

If you do not get a stitch count that is divisible with 4 +2, increase or decrease evenly across the last row.

This is still not great. Let’s try again.

If you do not have a stitch count that works with 4 +2, adjust the number of stitches on the last row by increasing or decreasing evenly.

I still don’t like this, but we’ve avoided formal language. I’ve also used a direct form — “if you do not ..” — to lend a friendly air to instructions that are anything but friendly to the end user. (I would normally not use you in a pattern, but then again I would also provide stitch counts that work with a specified ribbing pattern!).

Your job as a pattern writer should be to ensure that the end user feels safe in your hands and relaxed that their project will turn out alright. Your language usage is part of that social contract.

August 2014 060.JPG

Cultural inclusivity. How can you make a knitting pattern feel more relevant to someone? Knitting is a global hobby, so write for a global audience.

A very easy thing would be to include both US and metric sizes and measurements in your instructions. Using a US size 6 needle? Make sure to specify it’s the same as a size 4mm. Does the yarn run 440 metres per skein? Make sure to include the 400 yds. Do you use words like “sport-weight” or “4-ply” — think about how different knitting cultures have different ways of thinking about yarn weights and help your end user make an informed decision.

Remember that clothes sizes differ from country to country. Europe has a size 40 that is roughly equivalent to a UK size 12, a US size 10, an Australian size 14, and a Japanese size 13. So, include as many measurements as you can in the pattern to help your end user select the right size.

In terms of yarn, give as many details as you can to help your end user select a suitable substitute if they live somewhere where your chosen yarn is unavailable or if they are economically unable to afford the yarn you have used. While the knitting world is global, the availability of yarn is still highly dependent upon where the end user lives. They should feel confident and happy using a different yarn to you.

Some notes on romance text and cultural assumptions:

  • Avoid value-loaded comments like “this hat would look best in cashmere or merino” — that has less to do with pattern instructions and more to do with wider societal pressure to regard certain fibres as “luxurious”. If you are recommending a particular fibre, make sure to explain why it is important from a technical point of view rather than a socio-economic one.

  • I’m not a fan of prescriptive phrases like “blue for a beautiful baby boy” or “pink for a princess girl” — to me, these phrases feel very exclusionary and limiting the appeal of a pattern. A more thoughtful text would read: “a beautiful baby blanket for the little treasure in your life”. This ensures the pattern caters to boys, girls, and parents who prefer a more gender-neutral option. Instead of limiting the pattern’s appeal, careful phrasing makes for a much wider audience. And, honestly, I don’t get the resistance to that.

  • Avoid loaded descriptors such as “skin-coloured” (whose skin colour?) and pattern names that are culturally insensitive (Irish Car Bomb is forever my golden standard of Woah, Don’t Do That ).

Again: you are not writing for yourself. Make sure you think beyond yourself and your circle of knitter friends.

There are other things to discuss: the different pattern writing conventions you find across the globe, socio-economic barriers such as the need for an iPad and WiFi to access tutorials (and the technical ability to work these tools), technical assumptions such as “work German short-rows here” and “join in the rnd to work Magic Loop”, and so forth.

My advice to you would be this: 1) you are not writing for yourself and 2) read as many different knitting patterns as you possibly can.

Knitting is a beautiful thing and it does not judge. Make sure your own pattern writing follows suit.

(PS. These days I am writing over on Patreon rather than blogging. Inclusivity in knitting patterns is just a discussion I felt needed to be thrown wider).