Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Free Patterns - Buyer Beware

I've been knitting my own designs for a very long time. So learning to write good patterns has taken a lot of time in knitting research. I've looked at every major knitting magazine's pattern presentation. I've studied every one of my pattern books. I've taken hundreds of books out of the library and analyzed the pattern formatting and photography. I've read every thread I could find on Ravelry to see what Knitters like and what they don't like. I've read up on sizing standards. I've reviewed submissions standards to see what publishers expectations are. I've spent hours of time doing this.

Recently I was looking for something really simple to knit while taking a trip. The criteria included lace weight yarn (lots of knitting, very little weight and good yardage), being able to use my short plastic needles, and only a small stitch pattern reference or even better one that I could memorize.
So I did what many Knitters do. I went to Ravelry and searched for free and in my library patterns that would fit the bill.

The first free pattern was a lace pattern stitch I had always admired and included a chart, Yeah! Much smaller than the written version and I prefer charts. So I started my swatch and four rows in I realized that while the chart was correct it wasn't really a chart it was a chart version of row by row instructions. In other words it was
NOT as visual representation of the knitting. It was totally "knittable" but only if used row by row. The missing information was "No stitch" squares that would have kept everything lined up. Hummm, I guess that's something I want to avoid when I do my own charts.

Next I found a simple faggoting patterned scarf and cast on in the multiples of 4 the pattern indicated for a swatch. Oddly the basic stitch instruction had 8 stitches??? Well there's something else I better be careful with. The pattern won't work for 20 stitches but it will work for 24. Both numbers are divisible by 4 but 20 is not divisible by 8. At this point I gave up the idea of a free pattern pulled out my Barbara Walker's and started a simple scarf based on one of her stitches.

My friend Kate who teaches many project classes has told me she sees a lot of these problems in her classes. Kate also tech edits so she has high standards on what good patterns should include. We've talked about this issue several times so I know both of us spend a lot of time thinking about the minutia of pattern writing.

At my Thursday night knitting group the problem of free patterns has come up often. Knitting is amazing it is so simple on one level (just knit and purl) yet so complex on another. Once you start to vary the knit and purl combination's you can create a stunning amount of intricacy and sophistication. We've seen all sorts of problems in the free patterns from incorrect stitch pattern instructions to dimension measurements that make no sense at all.

As an experienced Knitter I see these errors and instruction variations very quickly but I do wonder how novice Knitters work their way through these problems. Both of the patterns were free on Ravelry and I definitely would not expect anyone to pay for Tech Editing on freebies but at the same time many new Knitters use free patterns exclusively and must become very frustrated. The good news for me is that I learned valuable lessons in the what not to do category that will help me when I'm teaching and when other Knitters come to me with questions. For you the lesson is buyer beware.


  1. Robin, this problem occurs in purchased patterns, too, from all sources (e.g., purchased individual patterns, patterns published in collection books, patterns published in magazines).

    My favorite example is a sweater in Knit Simple magazine I wanted to knit (an easy pattern) that was essentially all stockinette for the body with a pattern stitch yoke. The stitch gauge indicated and the number of body cast on stitches would have yielded a sweater for an elephant, not a woman.

    I have a Fiber Arts lace scarf pattern where the instruction for the number of stitches to cast on doesn't match the number of stitches in the chart (with no increases or decreases performed to change the stitch count before starting the chart).

    I would say that novice knitters have to be careful with any pattern from any source. I strongly suspect retail patterns are not test knitted in all sizes, and in some cases, may not be test knitted at all.

  2. I love the ad in your post. That cat sounds mighty appealing!

    I'm glad you brought up the issue of tech editing, and you make some good points about the pitfalls of pattern writing. Knitters who haven't tried writing patterns are shocked at how difficult it is (I still feel that way). When you add sizing for multiple sizes of sweaters, all needing shaping and working around a stitch repeat... well, it takes a ton of work.

    "Buyer Beware" is right! Still, most designers are happy to hear from knitters who find a mistake in their patterns. It's fairly simple to update pdf's on Ravelry, including corrections. Or a publisher may post corrections on their web sites.

  3. I can't believe how many patterns from Vogue have had errors. Yarn can be expensive but what is even more frustrating is the time invested into knitting a pattern that has an error.

    I do not knit items that haven't been knit by several people first because I know that being a fairly new knitter that I would not quickly catch an error.