People have been knitting for literally hundreds of years, and over that time innumerable patterns or instructions for various garments or objects have been created. I find it astonishing that despite knitting’s long history, there are still new innovations in construction being created and new versions of techniques evolving through the creation of new tools and modes of communication. Scientific advancements in the use of plastics brought us the circular needle, which gave way to the magic loop method. Although their stitches may be created in the same way, and they may actually be knitting the same pattern, a young woman knitting a stocking for a soldier during the American Revolution and a young man knitting a stocking for himself to endure this seemingly endless winter, might be using methods so dissimilar, that one might not think they are doing the same thing at all.
However, throughout the ages, certain shapes and construction methods have passed the test of time. After all, the foot shape of King Henry VIII is hardly unique when compared to that of George Clooney. The main differences between traditional top-down heels are in the stitch pattern used for the heel flap, and the number of stitches decreased over the heel turn. Before the advent of the printing press, patterns were passed down from parent or grandparent to child orally. Even after printed material became widespread, knitting patterns were often still passed from generation to generation through oral instruction. When literacy became more prevalent throughout every level society, printed knitting patterns found their way to markets, but it was a long time before knitting terms and abbreviations were standardized. I’ve even come across some patterns that have an instruction as vague as “turn heel in the usual manner”. Even a short-row heel can have only so many variations.
I like to think of these basic construction forms as base patterns. These are the patterns people could churn out in their sleep during the heyday of the cottage industry. Despite there being thousands of sweater patterns available to the modern knitter, most of them can be classified as one of four categories: drop-shoulder, yoked, set-in sleeve, and raglan. Most sweaters are knit either from the hem up or the neck down. Some are knit flat, others in the round. But up or down, is not as big of a difference as it might, at first seem. With a raglan or yoke, the knitter increases when knitting top-down, or decreases when knitting bottom up. All of the differences between patterns are design elements superimposed on one of the basic construction forms. When you are paying for a pattern, that is what you should be paying for.
The world would be pretty boring if everyone’s sweater was one of four options or if every sock looked like every other sock, except perhaps the color. Thus, we have knitwear designers who combine infinite stitch patterns and shaping calculations to create unique designs that are usually based on one of the basic construction forms. When you purchase a pattern, you are paying not only for that designer’s artist contribution, but for the necessary math and technical expertise that allowed them to transform the idea in their mind’s eye to the paper in a series of instructions clear enough for you to follow it and produce your very own recreation of the original design.
What about free patterns?
All throughout high school, and even to this day, I have always hated the phrase, “there is no such thing as a free lunch,” but in this case I shall amend that trite and overused saying to: There is no such thing as a free knitting pattern. The pattern is free for you to use because either the designer has sold their pattern to an online pattern database or magazine that generates revenue to pay the designers through advertising, such as knitty.com, or the designer has invested their time and expertise for your benefit for reasons of their own. In the case of the latter, the designer may just want to get their name out there on the internet as a pattern designer, they may do it for a hobby or as an experiment, or for pattern writing practice. Despite the reason, they have invested their time, time they could have used doing something else either lucrative or purely for their own enjoyment, to give you a pattern. They did not have to write up the instructions and post them where you might find them. In the case of the former, the online publication has already paid the designer for their artist and technical contribution with the revenue generated from the ads on their site. So go ahead, click on that beautiful yarn link at the bottom of the page, if only for drooling purposes. You never know, you might actually find a yarn or tool to put on your next birthday wish-list. But, do yourself a favor and look up reviews on a yarn you’ve never touched or seen in person before buying it online.
When you should not pay for a pattern (or when you shouldn’t pay that much for a pattern)
Remember when I said that there are basic construction forms that most knitted garments and items fall into? Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you should pay for a simple pattern whose originator lived and died in obscurity. If this is a pattern that has most likely been knitted by people for hundreds of years, passed down orally from generation to generation, you should probably be able to find a free version of it somewhere, or better yet purchase a knitting book that has a formula for creating whatever it is that you want to create with patterns based on that basic construction form. Examples of this kind of book would be Charlene Schurch’s book Sensational Knitted Socks, Knit, Swirl by Sandra McIver, or pull out the big guns with Debbie Stoller’s Stitch’n Bitch Superstar Knitting: go beyond the basics. Wait, what? I just said that you should not pay that much, if anything, for a basic pattern and then directed you to books to buy? Yes. These books have more than just the basic construction form. They have tools for you to create many items based on that basic construction form, and in some cases instruct you on how to go beyond what lies in the pages of the book. To go off pattern, if you will.
If you take anything away from this post, I hope it is this: KNOW what you are paying for and love your designers, because they’re not just artists or craftspeople, they are the technical writers of the knitting world, and they’ve already done the sizing math for you.