How Designing a Knitting Pattern is Like Writing a Novel

Balls of Colored YarnAs many of you know, I write knit, crochet and jewelry patterns in addition to novels. Recently I started on a new knitting pattern and as I sat there, needles in hand, working on the first prototype of my pattern, it struck me that the process of creating this pattern was quite similar to the process for writing a book. Which may seem strange, given that the number of words in a pattern is only a tiny fraction of what you find in a novel. But it’s not the number of words that matter, it’s how you put the whole thing together. Let’s look at the process:

1. Start with a concept. All patterns start with a concept. So does a book. You have an idea. “I want to make/write something like BLANK.” In this case, I decided I wanted to make a pair of fingerless gloves. In my writing, I decided I wanted to write a ghost story, probably a mystery.

2. Next, you refine the concept. To do this, you define the specifics for your concept, look at the details more closely. For the gloves, I browsed through different cable styles until I found one I thought would look great for the visible portion of the glove that sits on the back of the hand. With my book, I delved into the characters, I expanded my idea in terms of what the main character wants, why she wants it and what’s stopping her from getting it. In other words, I chose the central “design” for the book just like I did for my gloves.

3. Experimenting and first drafts. For the pattern, I draw out what I want the piece to look like, then start thinking of the stitches required to get that look. I take measurements, check my knitting gauge to see how many stitches I get to an inch with different size needles. Finally I make a decision about what needles to use, what type of yarn and then I experiment to see if the stitches I wrote on paper come out the way I imagined they would. For the book, I start writing that first draft, which is like an experiment too. I’m not sure exactly what’s going to happen in the story ahead of time (I like to surprise myself), but I start with a general plan in my mind of how things will go. I’m pretty sure the story will “work” but won’t know for sure until I see more of it on the page, just like with the knitting.

4. Take notes. As I work on the knitted prototype, I make notes in a notebook about what stitches I used on each row, how many, and especially note any changes from what I thought I would be knitting when I started. Maybe on my original drawing the cable is starting too low and now that I’m at that point and can see the prototype in my hand, I realize I need to move something. My notebook keeps tracks of the changes I made to the original concept. Likewise, I make notes while writing. Something may occur to me as I’m writing that I need to remember for a future scene. Or something may come up that reminds me of a detail earlier in the book that needs changing.

5. Tearing out and starting again. If my initial calculations are wrong or something about the stitches I chose to work with aren’t looking right (maybe the cable I chose is just not right for this type of glove), I need to rip out what I’ve knitted and start again. With the book, this could happen too. If something about the story is feeling weak or the characters aren’t grabbing me, I may need to go back to the concept stage and look at my original idea again. Or it might be something minor that I just need to backtrack a little and re-think a direction the plot took that’s messing everything up. Part of experimenting means you may need to start at an earlier point again. I’ll admit, this is easier to do in knitting than in writing, but no less frustrating. 🙂

6. Finish the first draft. In knitting, I would finish the prototype and examine the results. Do I like how it ultimately came out? If so, it’s ready for the final step. If not, I need to start again and change what I don’t like. In writing, I finish my first draft and then I start reading it again from the beginning. Do I like what I’m reading? Probably some of it. Other parts are going to need to fixed. Why? Because by the time you get to the end of that first draft, you know so much more about your characters and your story. Inevitably, the beginning especially, needs some tweaking to make it sing.

7. Revisions. In knitting, once the prototype is complete, I write my pattern out. Then I take a new ball of yarn and create a second prototype following my written pattern. No experimenting now. I’m putting myself in the place of the reader, and I’m following the pattern as if I’m not the designer, but the customer. If there are any problems with the pattern, I’ll spot them and have time to correct them before publication. With the book, I do the same thing. Another read-through. Trying to look at the story with fresh eyes. I will also share my work with my critique partners or trusted beta readers to get their input. The result will more than likely be a few more changes, but that’s okay. This is now things get better.

8. The final polish. Depending on how the second prototype went, I may or may not make a third one as a final test. Sometimes I like to do another prototype to get another sample in a different color (for photography purposes) or because the perfectionist in me insists on “just one more” to triple check the pattern. Fortunately, I like to give knitting items as gifts, so this is the perfect excuse to make another pair of the gloves. Same goes for the book. After getting feedback from those I shared the work with and going through it again myself, I polish it for submission to a publisher and don’t let it leave my desk until I think it’s the best it can be.

So, as you can see, creating a knitting pattern is quite like writing a book when you look at the process and the number of steps. To its credit, though, a knitting pattern takes a lot less time, especially if your prototypes are small accessories. A sweater may be a different story. I haven’t tried to tackle that type of pattern yet, but I still bet it’s quicker than a writing a book. 🙂

One comment

  • Great tips! Refining that initial concept calls for a free mind. I really like how you talk about experimenting and watching a pattern unfold. 🙂

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