The Language of Knitting

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: ChartDemo 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.

About Susacadia

I am a writer, fiber artist, and occasional raconteur. I've been around the block a time or two, but stuck to any career I ever had for at least 10 years. They have all morphed logically from one to another. But under it all I have eternally been a teacher and a learner.
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5 Responses to The Language of Knitting

  1. Sheila M. says:

    Susan, I feel you are missing the essential “personal preference” aspect of charts vs. written instructions. Some simply prefer one over the other. However, there are those that “need” one over the other. I am dyslexic. In some ways that effects reading, but mine is called an auditory sequencing problem. This means sounds get jumbled in processing and, for me, that means anything spoken sentence that doesn’t have a definitive “sense” can be very difficult for me. Therefore foreign languages are very hard for me to learn, spoken telephone numbers and addresses can be hard for me to “transcribe” if someone is telling them to me, etc. When I have written knitting instruction, and read them, I am actually silently saying the words to myself and that can create a confusion as my brain tries to process them.This is a brain wiring issue. I don’t consider it “brain damage” because it isn’t. It just is. (BTW, I am in the medical field and I don’t think you have a good understanding of brain injuries. Anything can be effected. Anything. Not just long term or short term memories. It all depends on what and where the injury is).

    Some people are very visual. I am and so are many of my relatives. We all happen to be artists, so maybe it’s a left brain.right brain thing. I also have relatives who are not visual and they can not “see” even if one color will go with another, or how the living room will look if the sofa was moved to the other wall. That is strange to me but only because I am not like that. There is nothing wrong with them either.

    To some extent we can just decide to learn something. I always say that if one person can do something so can I, but to another extent learning specific things might be very difficult and we have to decide if we want to tackle them and the frustration that might ensue. I love knitting charts for lace! It makes following the pattern very easy for me. But when I came across a Herbert Neibling pattern, in German, the chart symbols were totally different than those that I was familiar with. And they didn’t make sense to me so even with a key it was hard to follow. I ended up scanning the chart and replacing each symbol with the one I was used to. This was much easier for me and quicker than trying to memorize the symbols as they were.

    There is room in this vast universe for all different learning styles and preferences. None are wrong so we should not judge them. As for what, or how, designers offer their patterns I think that is up to them. We, as potential customers of theirs, get to decide if we want to purchase their patterns based on if they are charted or written. However, when it comes to charted lace knitting, I think there are times when the design is too complicated for words. Knitters get to choose if they want to work from those patterns. I don’t know an experienced lace knitter who can’t knit from charts. They might prefer words for some reason I can’t fathom, but they still can use charts.

    • Susacadia says:

      Hi Sheila,

      Thank you for your comments. I apologize if I sounded judgmental. My only intention was to explore some of the reasons for making a personal preference that goes beyond the whim of the moment. As you note, I am not a medical professional and did not mean to imply that there was only one sort of brain injury. I took anecdotal reporting by posters on other lists who offered that as a reason for not being able to read charts and tried to imagine how that might work. I know this has happened on both the lace and shawl knitters lists. A am a former English teacher (among other things) who has worked for years helping kids overcome obstacles to learning how to read.

  2. Jeri says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Susan. As a designer, I try to keep patterns concise and clear, but I love complexity in my knitting. Charts are the perfect way to squeeze maximum information into small space,so I offer charts only for most of my patterns. If I had to translate them into words, it would add many pages to a pattern, and make it impossible for me to proof knit, as I can’t knit from the words myself! Heck I can barely manage to put commas and parentheses in the right places! I have been disappointed to find patterns in word only format, so it works both ways.

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