The Knowth Shawl - Reflections Upon Writing Patterns

My first design post-This Thing of Paper has been released. Carol Feller has put together a stunning collection of patterns inspired by ancient Ireland, Echoes of Heather and Stone, and I was so delighted to be a part of her design collective. You can read about my design process and inspiration over on Carol's blog, but I want to delve deep into a part of the process that is rarely mentioned: the writing.

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Writing knitting patterns is a skill. It is a skill separate from designing or teaching, and yet designers are often expected to master all three. I am regularly approached by people who have a design idea but do not know how to write a pattern. While I used to teach a three-hour class on the topic, writing a knitting pattern is a skill that takes time to master. I recommend Kate Atherley's excellent The Beginner's Guide To Writing Knitting Patterns as a good starting point (and not just because she quotes me! It is genuinely very good) but I also recommend that people begin take general writing classes. As writers we have certain tools at our disposal β€” words, syntax, and punctuation β€” and we need to learn how to use these tools before we can refine our skills.

I come to writing knitting patterns with some useful knowledge in my pockets. I used to teach technical writing at university, and I specialised in Modernist Poetry and Critical Theory when I did my degrees. All of these things are oddly handy when it comes to writing patterns - at least how I do it. Let's break it down. 

Knitting patterns are short pieces of code detailing actions that need to be executed. I tend to bond over this aspect with my scientist friends who usually tell me that I'm a code compiler more than anything. Being able to read my knitting actions ("I am knitting two stitches together, then doing a yarn over, and I keep doing that to the end") and translate them into chunks of action (*k2tog, yo; rep from * to end") is an obvious skill I need to possess. Translating an action into its equivalent designation is a core skill. Beginner knitters learn this in reverse when they are to taught to read a designation and translate it into an action. As a knitting pattern writer, it is important to realise which side of this reading/translating process you are on.

Knitting patterns are short pieces of heavily condensed writing that relies on the reader understanding every word. I want to give a shout-out to Veronica Forrest-Thomson's Poetic Artifice which continues to influence me as both a reader and a writer. Much of Forrest-Thomson's book revolves around the importance of a slow reading eye and how poets make a reader slow down through the careful use of word choice, syntax, and punctuation. When I write patterns, I think carefully about what parts of the pattern are important, where I want the knitter to slow down, and how I can achieve this. I use punctuation very, very carefully, and tend to use commas, semi-colons, and full stops to differentiate between different layers of meaning. I consider the formatting of my patterns too: there is a hierarchy of typography within my patterns. Bold and italics mean something specific and are intended to carry information to the reader. 

Finally, knitting patterns are an agreement between writer and reader. If you use a pattern, you will make this particular object. I recently realised that much of my pattern writing is indebted to the German literary scholar Wolfgang Iser whose reader-response theories deal with where meaning is created. As a pattern writer I need to make sure that my intended meaning is understood by the reader. In critical theory terms, meaning is realised through the act of reading and how a reader connects the structures of the text to their own experience. In knitting terms, meaning is realised through the acts of reading (with an eye), translating the text in the knitter's head, and then actualising the meaning through the knitter's hands. I need to ensure that the correct meaning 'survives' this three-fold act of reading by connecting my writing with the knitter's skill-set and knowledge. 

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Knowth, then. It is a shawl inspired by a specific sun-dial stone found at the Knowth passage grave monument in Ireland. In the accompanying essay, I write about marking time, making time, and makers' time. 

The pattern is mostly very straightforward but there is a very, very lovely cable that is a bit unusual. Let's take all of the stuff above and apply it to how I ended up writing Knowth. 

Task One: How to translate a lot of At The Same Time instances that occur in the shawl?
Actually, at the same time is one of my pet peeves in pattern writing because nothing actually happens at the same time, unless you have more than two hands or can knit with your feet. There are actions you have to do parallel to other actions, but the actions are never simultaneous because time is linear.

Solution: This is one of those cases when knowing how to wield punctuation comes in handy. With Knowth I have a step-by-step instruction for a particular technical part, and within one of those steps, I set up two parallel actions using commas and semi-colons to aid the reader's eye. Commas denote a slight pause or a tiny break (k1, p2) while semi-colons lend equal weight to two independent clauses (do not be afraid of the semi-colon; it is most useful). 

Task Two: How To Set Up Multiple Repeats Within A Given Repeat? 
It is customary to use a selection of (round brackets) and [hard brackets] within asterisk-repeats, but this sort of punctuation can quickly become very clunky and confusing to the reading eye. It relies heavily upon the knitter remembering which bracket supersedes the other and how to work instructions within instructions within instructions. We don't want that in a knitting pattern. Remember, we are looking for an easy eye -> mind -> hands translation process. We want straight-forward, easy to follow instructions. 

Solution: I translated the knitting actions into straight-forward code. Instead of using nested repeats in Knowth, I identified that the repeats could be sorted into three categories (A, B, C) and then wrote instructions for each category. I then designated three types of markers (A, B, C) so the knitter could mark the repeat as belonging to a given category and only worry about those instructions. The written instructions then read: "Work to marker C, carry out this action, work to marker A, carry out this action" instead of "*(k17, [p1, yo, p1] twice, k2tog) 3 times (k17, yo, p2 [yo, k2tog] twice, p2) 3 times; rep from *" just to give a fictional and horrid example!

There was also something so very pleasing about using markers in a shawl about marking time!

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The end goal is a pattern where all the hard work on my part is absolutely invisible to the knitter. If I have done my job correctly, a knitter will never know that I spent three hours trying to find a way to explain something in a straight-forward way. One of the nicest things I hear from knitters is that I design patterns that look complicated, but are easy to knit. I choose to interpret that as knitters find their eye -> mind -> hands translation an easy and enjoyable process.

Knowth is the first pattern I wrote after writing This Thing of Paper. It was quite daunting to embark on pattern writing again, but Carol Feller and her team took very good care of me. Writing knitting patterns is one of my absolutely favourite things in the world, and I am so proud of this shawl. 

And you know what? There is more coming. And more blog posts too!