As with many communities geared toward the discussion of a broad topic, there are threads in the knitting world that rise from time to time. Sometimes this is a seasonal manifestation – Christmas or Hanukkah gifts; wool, cotton, or linen for summer knitting – but more often it is a factor of new jointers in the community, people who were not there the first few times the topic was broached. Or maybe the word should be “breached.” Either one is fitting in its own metaphoric sense. One such question has to do with how instructions are presented, whether in charts or in words written line-by-line. The question has reared its head on another list.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that I am primarily a chart girl. This is an exploration of my rationale.
The debate of whether to present a pattern in chart or line-by-line form has many camps and takes on the emotional fervor of the burger wars, or the Mac vs. PC controversy. Some are content to leave it as a declaration of their preference, while others feel compelled to explain why their preference is the necessary strategy for them. Still others offer roadmaps for conversion, casting non-charters as just being stubborn, or believe that given enough information they will cheerfully leave their old ways behind. And there are those who demand one version or the other as their entitled right, holding up reduction of market share as the lure, or perhaps goad, to getting their own way. I see it as primarily a linguistic issue.
First, let’s be clear. To follow any knitting pattern requires learning a language that is not, strictly speaking English, or German, or Spanish, or Japanese, or whatever. (I’ll be using “English” as my reference point from here on out, but I’ve seen enough patterns to know my remarks will hold true for other languages as well.) A typical line-by-line instruction might be “k3, YO, k2tog, p4, ssk, YO, k3” or “k, ssk, k to 3 stitches remaining, k2tog, k every 4th row;” these are hardly straightforward English. In chart form the first might look more like this: while the second would probably not be charted at all. With either of these presentations there would be a key that would translate from either the abbreviations (k, k2tog, etc.) or the pictorial representation. It is also necessary for the knitter to be able to transfer the printed instructions, in whichever format, to actions that involve, as Kerry Ferguson (among, I’m sure, countless others) put it “two sticks and a string.” The first example might be found in a lace scarf patter, the second in the sleeve portion of a sweater pattern.
Second, the snarky part of me says if you can learn one set of cryptic terms, you can learn another. The teacher part of me understands that dyslexia exists and accommodations can (and should) be made. For me, they are all symbols, whether phonetic or pictorial. There are, however, some people who profess to be unable to read the pictures due to some sort of brain malfunction. How is it they can read and type and not understand that a box with a left leaning slash mark is the same as “ssk”? The only answer I can arrive at is that the malfunction, a stroke perhaps, or a whack on the head, occurred after they had already learned one method of reading patterns. That was well stored in long term memory and not subject to erasure through trauma. Some of these people are able to play tricks like color coding the symbols, and knitting from the colors rather than the symbols themselves. Some push the symbols through a variety of translation programs to get words. Some pattern software packages generate both charts and line-by-line patterns. But really, how different is this from learning to read music, understanding the Shaker shape note system rather than the standard note system, or learning the vocabulary associated with carpentry, auto-mechanics, brain surgery, or computer programming. Much of it, barring the brain damage, is about how much of a new language you want to learn, how much trouble it will be, and weighing your return on investment.
I learned how to knit from grandmothers, and followed patterns that were all written out. It was not until I was in my late twenties that I discovered there were charts. I was living overseas and discovered an Anna Magazine, in German, with a charted lace doily by Herbert Neibling. I had time on my hands, and the illustrations for each stitch were so clear that I fell in love. I recognized that I had broader access to other people’s designs if I could use charts than if I had to rely on figuring out knitting terms and abbreviations in other languages. I see the charting system as an alternate alphabet with a broad, but finite, set of characters. When I encounter a design element I want to include in something and it is written out in English, I will chart it before knitting. It is a way of proofing the pattern. It also lets me make adjustments to eyelets, slope of stitches, or arrangement of picots (etc. of course!). Charting also helps me see how stitches will line up vertically and lets me “read” my knitting more accurately. I now prefer charts for lace, cables, travelling stitches, and any other texture or color work. So, while I don’t turn up my nose at line-by-line patterns, I do think twice if charting will be worth it.
Third, and last, is the issue of whether people are entitled to have both charts and line-by-line patterns presented in the same package. I have witnessed a fair amount of nastiness toward designers who only present one mode of pattern. As a designer myself, I think in pictures which are most like charts. The charts let me see more nearly what the finished pattern will look like. I can also balance my increases and decreases more easily in a chart than in writing out a pattern in line-by-line format. While I am certainly capable of writing out each line of a pattern once charted, it is definitely tedious in the extreme. There are other things I’d rather be doing with my time. It is as if someone said to, say, JK Rowling, “You’ve had a good classical education and know quite a bit of French. Now that you’ve finished Harry Potter, The Sorceror’s Apprentice, how about translating it? And why don’t you have a go at putting it into Chinese, or German as well? This is a task that any publisher would hire out rather than impose on an author. And while many designers can use software to make a line-by-line translation of a chart, the resulting language is about as smooth as using Babelfish. Sometimes it works, sometimes you’ve got to do some serious interpretation to understand what is meant. As a reader, I accept that there are novels, short stories, and newspapers that I will never be able to read because they are in a language I neither possess nor am willing (or perhaps able, but really “willing” is the correct word for me) to put in the effort to learn. I would never dream of badgering an author who writes in Japanese to also provide a side-by-side translation into English. I suspect they will be OK with the loss of my custom. I believe designers are aware of who their audience is, and are OK with where they’ve placed the edges of their inclusion.