Knitting designer series: Creating a knitting pattern

by Admin on 18/09/2012

in Guest series Knitting 2012, knitting+crochet+yarn

Knitting designer series: I invited a few of my favourite knitwear designers to discuss their design process and inspiration and to share some tips and ideas too.

Hilary Smith Callis lives in San Francisco with her husband and toddler son. You can find her line of knitting patterns at theyarniad and find her on Ravelry as theyarniad. 

After I’ve published a new pattern, I often talk about my inspiration for the design, but I only focus on what it looks like. Rarely, if ever, do I get down into the details of how the pattern itself comes about. In my fantasies, after I have an idea for a design and make a little sketch, I just sit down one day and knit the whole thing. But the truth is that there is a whole lot of planning and math that makes a design what it is. So I thought I’d tell the story of a pattern, my Indicum Pullover, from start to finish, and include all the gory details, whether glamorous or not (because seriously, math is not very glamorous). [Pictured above]

The Idea

The idea for Indicum came from something I spotted on The Sartorialist some months ago. You couldn’t see much of the woman’s sweater (and I didn’t even save the photo), but it looked like a big pink crewneck pullover with some orange peeking through the ribbing at the sleeve cuffs and hem – and that orange ribbing really caught my eye. I jotted down “simple stockinette pullover with corrugated ribbing at hems” in my planner then just couldn’t get it out of my head.

The Sketching

Armed with inspiration and the seed of an idea, I got to work figuring out the details of the design – what specifically did I want this thing to look like? Now, I am not exactly skilled in the area of drawing, so unless I’m making a fashion-y sketch for a design submission, I don’t spend much time on this part. My sketches for self-published designs are more like schematics: two-dimensional representations of the finished piece, with construction notes and some measurements thrown in as well.

During this part of the process, I also spend some time standing in front of the mirror with a tape measure and a top with a similar fit to what I’m going for in my new design. I tug and measure, then tug and measure some more, noting at what depth I like the neckline best, and how long I want the sleeve to be (and, no, I will not be sharing a picture of this).

The Swatching

With Indicum, I immediately knew what yarn I wanted to use for the majority of the sweater. I’d had some lovely indigo-colored Malabrigo Sock in my stash just waiting for the right idea for a couple of years. To decide on the contrast color for the corrugated ribbing, I started sketching again, but this time in yarn.

The neon green Koigu KPM had more contrast than I wanted, and the ribbing with two colors was just a little too much. But I fell in love with the purple yarn alone. It’s Plucky Knitter Primo Fingering and is just variegated/semi-solid enough that the purl bumps show up slightly differently in different rows. This was it.

The Math

Now, the math part of designing and pattern writing is something I always dread but end up having a great time doing. After the sketching and playing around with yarn, it’s like a little workout for the other side of my brain. It also feels like solving a puzzle and is so gratifying when all the pieces fall into place.

The first step is to do a nice big swatch, wash it, block it, and get a good, accurate gauge (remember this). Next, I plug my gauge and my target measurements into a spreadsheet and start calculating stitches and rows for all the different sizes I’ll offer. Excel does the multiplication and addition, but I have to pay close attention to make sure I haven’t entered any funny formulas or have any incorrect cell references. I also really have to pay attention to things like multiples of stitches (e.g. multiple of 3 for the ribbing, multiple of 2 for the bust, since I need to be able to divide it by 2) and that I don’t have more decrease repeats than rows in which to do them, etc. The spreadsheet I use is based on one I downloaded from Marnie Maclean’s fantastic tutorial on grading/sizing using Excel and I’ve adapted it over the past couple of years to suit my needs.

If my design has a feature (like Indicum’s scoop neck created with short rows done at the same time as circular yoke shaping) that can’t just be plugged into Excel, sketching can help me visualize how the math works out.

(Don’t ask me what any of this means – it ceases to make sense the minute I start thinking about something else.)

The Knitting

This is the part I really love. Unfortunately, this is also the part where I find out if my math is wrong, my sizing is funky, or, in the case of Indicum, that my gauge swatch totally lied to me. Now, occasionally the stars align and a sample turns out perfectly the first time and doesn’t require any math adjusting or tinking back. But Indicum… oh, Indicum… I knit almost the entire sweater before realizing my gauge was off by a stitch (Gauge swatch? 22sts per 4”. Reality? 21sts per 4”. Just enough to make the sweater totally too big. UGH). So, the math was re-done, Indicum was ripped out, and I started knitting it a second time. But the second one worked out just like I’d planned. Yes!

The pattern-writing process could easily take up a book of its own, so I’ll stop here. But, suffice it to say, quite a bit goes into taking a design from a little spark of inspiration in your head to an actual knitted garment, and there’s nothing quite like seeing it all come together. I encourage everyone who is so inclined to give it a try. Just be sure to double-check your gauge.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jio September 18, 2012 at 8:01 am

Love the idea of this series focused on designers and the design process. Makes me appreciate all the creative and problem solving skills/work that go into a pattern.

Hilary, Thanks for sharing your process.


2 Suzanne September 18, 2012 at 2:27 pm

Hilary, this was super interesting. I wouldn’t know where to begin to create my own design at this point but I can reveal in the experience of others.


3 Seanna Lea September 18, 2012 at 3:51 pm

Awesome. It’s amazing that even something that is as simple looking as a stockinette pullover can be extra exciting to pull together into a working pattern!


4 Ana September 18, 2012 at 5:07 pm

Respect! What an amazing work! That’s why I keep away from writing patterns for wearables…
But I love designing my amigurumis and the process is similar but no need for tables or excel, thankfully.
Glad you posted about it, I think most people have no idea how much work it goes to write your own pattern.
I love your sweater! :)


5 Kathy September 18, 2012 at 9:17 pm

Very insightful! I’ve been trying to write my own patterns but I think I need to pick up some more techniques first. I really really dread gauging. I don’t know why. It’s simple to do and would make my life a lot easier but I just skip it and cry about it later. But I see the importance and I’ll do it next time.


6 meepitymeep September 18, 2012 at 9:32 pm

This is very informative and awesome! Thank you!


7 Redhedhels September 19, 2012 at 2:05 am

This is a great post. I’ve been considering designing patterns but used the fact that I’m a fairly new knitter as an excuse to give in to my fear. You’ve laid out the process in a straightforward way and made it seem possible. Thanks for inspiring me to give it a go. Kudos for all the hard work that goes into any pattern. Oh, and Indicum is beautiful – definitely worth the effort.


8 My Personal Estate Agent September 24, 2012 at 8:55 am

Wow I really like the navy blue jumper, it looks gorgeous! The maths bit looks super complicated though!


9 Leah October 22, 2012 at 10:55 pm

Love this – I once tried to make myself a knit tank top, but did not do all the math…luckily I got pregnant shortly after I finished it, because it fit perfectly during the third trimester of my pregnancy ;)


10 Rebekah Evelyn November 30, 2012 at 6:01 pm

I loved reading this, very educational!


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