Thursday, October 19, 2006

BoS’s Plain Knitting Patterns

I don’t buy a lot of patterns with cables and lattices and fancy colorwork. More often, if I buy a pattern it’s because I don’t have one in my library for the basic dimensions or approach to making a certain item. Over the years, I’ve found that works best for me – if I have the basic shape and size, I can adjust everything else according to my personal preferences at the time I make the item. I use gauge (after the all-important swatching), pick my own color or colors, my own texturizing stitches, my own yarn weight and fiber, and have at it. Most of the time that works out.

When I was a new knitter, I didn’t trust myself in the slightest, and rightly so. I hated swatching – it was hard enough just to knit, and I felt so successful when something came out and looked even with no obvious gaping holes or errors. I hated frogging stuff, too, since it had been such an accomplishment just to get it made, even if it was made with an error. And double-pointed needles, holy Moses! Circular needles, I could understand those, although they were a little unsatisfying and didn’t fit my mental image of what the act of knitting should look like, I didn’t have a problem using them.

Back then I needed a pattern for everything except potholders. And, as I’ve previously discussed, purchased patterns were, more often than not, really disappointing due to errors, omissions, and bad designing that had been cunningly camouflaged by good photography. Plus, if my gauge was off, I didn’t pay attention until the thing was finished and had either ape arms or an unwanted ruffly bit.

I cook that way, too. If I don’t have sage, I might smell my poultry seasoning and see if that smells like it’ll work, or if I’m short on buttermilk (and who other than my mother actually buys buttermilk for anything other than cooking!), I make my own with some regular milk and lemon juice. I like to substitute for what’s called for, in both patterns and recipes, with what I have on hand. Maybe that’s laziness, maybe it’s creativity, maybe it’s resourcefulness. Whatever it is, it’s part of who I am.

I started knitting when I was 16, during a long, boring, shut-in kind of summer in a new neighborhood where I didn’t know anyone, and we were the first people to move into our new development, so that there wasn’t anyone there to get to know anyway. My sister had had a knitting class in high school home ec, abandoned her needles and yarn and was in college and gadding about in general. So, I adopted the stuff and just started poking away, trying to make my stitches look like the ones already in existence on the needles. I already knew how to crochet, so I had some yarn sense.

It was pretty interesting, really, and a little bit of a challenge. I did learn, and I did finish a vest, in 1970’s loud pink, screaming green, and some modest gray. It was just broad stripes, but I was very proud of it and wore it gladly and with satisfaction. Later that year, I scraped a few bucks of my allowance together and bought a Coats and Clark “Learn to Knit” booklet. I found out I had been doing it wrong, according to them, but rather than change how I knit, I spent time understanding how to do what was in the book, but my own way, as long as the results were the same. It did help me learn how to do a long-tail cast on. Perhaps that was the genesis of my “substitution” mentality.

Anyway, now, thirty years later, I’m one of the old hands, experienced knitters that you see who watch TV while knitting, one of the ones who can fix a cable, a lace item, do Fairisle in my sleep, and design my own aran sweaters. If you’re new, this probably pisses you off. If you’re an old hand, you’re probably chuckling and going, “yeah, so what? It’s easy!” So, to get back to my original premise, I don’t buy a lot of patterns which are only re-hashes of stuff I already know or obvious plugs for overpriced yarn.

I’ve developed a lot of respect for designers and knitting authors who understand those of us with “substitution” minds. When I chose to buy a knitting book, I want one that is an actual resource, containing a wide variety of new information, or old information in a form that is accessible and practical. Lots of people admire Elizabeth Zimmerman, and as a creative, architectural knitter, she has no equal. I could live without the pontificating, though, and I will probably be struck down by her adoring fans, stabbed to death with circs and mummy-wrapped in merino wool, for saying so.

If I were starting out as a new knitter all over again, I’d still get that Coats and Clark booklet. Working my way through it was challenging without being impossible. I’d also pick up a couple of friendly stitch guides, like a BH&G guide which covers the technique of colorwork, some different techniques for finishing and joining, and enough fancy stitches so that I could embellish plain sweaters or even create a beginner’s aran.

What I’d add in this time, though, early on, are the pamphlets from Cottage Creations on “Community Knitting” – of which I think there are at least two. They have patterns that finish quickly (very satisfying for new knitters), are forgiving of a monstrous number of substitutions, not particularly gauge dependent, and which can be used over and over, revised, revisited, embellished, and used to finish up oddballs. They are useful, practical, straightforward patterns. They’re extremely affordable, too, and for those of us whose budgets tend more towards Red Heart than silk and cashmere, that’s a Good Thing.

And, with those three or four books, it would be a long time before I really felt I needed to move on the next level for knitting books. The next book I’d get would be Jacqueline Fee’s Sweater Workshop. I can’t tell you how much I wish I had had this book (probably before it was even written) after I had gotten more confident about my knitting, and faster, too. It would have saved me so much time and emotional energy AND actual cash that I feel, in retrospect, was wasted on buying unsatisfactory patterns and snotty books with more attitude than information. The Sweater Workshop is a gentle, friendly, methodical, well-illustrated guide that is so liberating, so enlightening, and so damned useful for those of us who will always have knitting in their lives, I just can’t say enough about it.

Oh, other good investments would be Ann Budd’s nice resource guides, although those are screamingly gauge-dependent basic patterns, and maybe a really excellent, comprehensive guide on Norwegian knitting, too. New knitters who are swatch-resistant, though, are going to have to get to the skill and speed level where swatching is no longer The Most Annoying Thing In The Universe before those books will do them any good. There are a lot of scarves and hats and drop shoulder sweaters in between being new and not minding swatching, though.

So, what really prompted all this was a little blog crawling I did the other day. There were a whomptillion variations on Fancy Stitch Scarves, Socks With Itchy Looking Texture Patterns, and Yet Another Not Quite Right Hat With Too Much Crap Going On. I started to feel a little inadequate, since all the free patterns I offer are straight up plain vanilla, until I realized I am not the only chronic substituter out there, and that lots of new knitters are like I was – looking for something basic that they can twist, turn, and make their very own, and another fancy stitch pattern is not what they are necessarily looking for, maybe they just want to know how to make a damned hat! So, I quit feeling inadequate and went for feeling content instead.

While I may show pix of loverly sweaters, intricate doilies or whatever that I make, I’m probably not going to put those up as patterns. For one thing, that’s too damned much typing, and for another, at a certain point in your knitting career, your creations need to be born within you and express your unique taste and creative choices, and the best I can hope for is to offer you a skeleton pattern upon which you may hang your magnificence.

Knit on – in whatever danged color and breath-taking combination you want!


Makeuprtista said...

I started knitting when almost all you could buy was acrylic yarn. All the new yarns with different colors, textures and fibers is astounding. It can turn a plain, vanilla pattern into a work of art. It can be so exciting to see how a particular yarn, or combination thereof, can work up into a design that you didn't see coming. That's one of my favorite things about knitting.


Anne on the Jersey Shore said...

Jackie Fee's book is great for guiding the knitter to an understanding of her/his knitting. She also published a newsletter for several years with info on using her plain vanilla raglan pattern to make it your own. Good stuff in those newsletters!
I'm a day or two late, but your post on voting your fears really struck a chord with me. I am sick about the direction in which the country has been (mis)led. I used to be proud of my country's principles. Now I'm embarrassed and disgusted.