4. Interview With Pattern Writer, Alice Sleight!

Alice is Pom Pom’s Retail Manager, which means that she looks after the online shop, the subscriptions, and the customer service emails, among other things! She is also Pom Pom’s Production Coordinator, so she’s involved in producing the magazines and books: everything from compiling all the features, patterns, and imagery, to liaising with graphic designers and the printers! In other words, Alice wears many (woolly) hats, and she wears them all well!

On top of all this, she writes patterns in her spare time! She began in 2016 having learned the basics at the Royal College of Art where she completed her MA in Knitted Textiles. Alice joined Pom Pom in mid-2017, and one of her favourite responsibilities is proof-reading all of the patterns in their various stages before they go to print. She says: “Although you never want to find errors, it’s always really satisfying when you catch one!” She has published many of her own designs on Ravelry (aisleight), but her Homeward Bound Mitts are available for free on Pom Pom’s blog! For much of 2020, though, she’s had the patterns from Ready Set Raglan on her mind…

How did you learn to pattern write?
I learnt the basics of pattern writing at university, where I studied knitted textiles. The kind of pattern writing we were taught wasn’t the the same as we’re used to in the hand-knit world, though. Some elements were familiar, for example translating body measurements into stitches, understanding gauge and working out increase/decrease patterns. However, we were not taught how to form this ‘pattern’ into instructions that someone else could follow. It turns out that it’s a different skill to write something in a way that’s understandable for lots of people, rather than just yourself! I learnt how to translate my calculations into a written set of instructions with a bit of help from The Beginner’s Guide to Writing Knitting Patterns by Kate Atherley, through Pom Pom’s own ‘Style Sheet’ which we supply to all of the designers we work with, and also through experience of knitting patterns from both indie designers and big brands.

Which comes first, the yarn or the design?
Either way is okay! The one thing you’ll need before you can start writing, though, is your gauge in the yarn you plan to use. This is what you’ll base all of your measurements on. Usually, I select a yarn and then swatch with different needle sizes until I get the type of fabric I want for the design. Then I write the pattern in the required sample size before casting on, but will make adjustments to the pattern as I create the sample, so it’s not an entirely straightforward process! I’ll often start grading before making the sample as it is important that the design looks the same no matter the size, and any considerable differences should be worked out before the sample is made.

The yarn you choose will affect the overall look and feel of a design, so it is not always possible to substitute a totally different yarn after you’ve written the pattern. For example, if you have written the pattern for a lightweight, woolly yarn with lots of grip, making the same pattern using a smoother, glossier, heavier yarn will significantly change things like the row gauge. The increased weight of the yarn will pull the garment and increase the drapeiness of the fabric. These are just some things to keep in mind!

For Ready Set Raglan, we had the initial Woodwardia pattern and the sample from Issue 28 (see Ready Set Raglan’s Origin Story’!), and these provided the base for the rest of the patterns in the book. We wanted all of the patterns to be as consistent as possible, so even though the samples were knit in a range of different yarns and fibres, they were all based on the same needle size & a worsted-weight gauge, like the original Woodwardia.

Can you explain the process of getting a pattern from idea to publication?
Sure! The first step in writing a pattern is the design. Our editors, Lydia and Meghan, designed the raglan stitch patterns before I started to write the instructions. I then wrote each pattern and graded them, based on the finished dimensions of Lydia’s existing Woodwardia design.

After I had written the pattern, we sent it to our amazing sample knitters to create the versions you see in the book and our wonderful test knitters. For the patterns in Ready Set Raglan, we had over 100 amazing test knitters who helped us perfect these patterns by checking the calculations, wording, and final fit. They also suggested places where an extra instruction might improve the whole knitting experience. We aimed to have at least one tester for each size of every pullover, but for some of the trickier patterns we had a couple of testers for knit the same sizes. Towards the end of the test knitting period, the patterns were sent to our incredible (and patient!) tech editors, Jemima and Laura, to make sure that all of the calculations worked, that the grading was accurate, and that the patterns were written in the same style as our other publications.

How can I learn to grade a pattern?
Grading can be a trial-and-error process, and the chances are that you won’t get it right first time, but there are definitely things you can do to learn! My advice is to always start small. One of the first patterns I graded by hand was my Homeward Bound Mitts! I wrote three sizes for these, and it was a great exercise in working out how to translate a stitch pattern into more than one size. A while later, I made a sock pattern called Gavl in five sizes, and again, this was really useful. So by the time I wrote a garment pattern, I was already confident with the process.

Usually, I select my size range using a widely available body measurement guide from the Craft Yarn Council, and then create my pattern from these. When it comes to grading for sizes that are different to your own or the sample size, it’s important to remember that you don’t apply the same ease all over the garment. For example, if your pattern has 10cm of positive ease at the chest, you may only want 4cm of positive ease at the bicep.

Take a garment that you already own, like the fit of, and is a similar shape to the pattern that you want to write. Take your own measurements and then compare these to the finished measurements of the garment, and this will give you an idea of the ease on different parts of your body. For sizes other than your own, take a look at the finished measurements of a similar fitting garment in other sizes. Compare (but don’t copy!) their finished measurements to your own. This is a little tip to spot if your numbers are dramatically different.

How do you decide how much detail to put into pattern instructions?
Good question! In short, it depends on the pattern. With a cabled pullover, for instance, I think it’s safe to assume that the knitter knows how to cast on and is well-versed in knit, purl, increase, and decrease stitches. However, if specific increase or decrease techniques are used, it’s worth including instructions for these in the pattern along with the cable design. If you regularly use abbreviations such as ‘patt’ instead of ‘pattern’, then it’s also good to include these in the abbreviations section. Breaking down the construction method or skills/techniques required at the beginning of the pattern is also useful for the knitter, so they won’t be surprised by a new technique halfway through! Also, test knitters are invaluable when it comes to making sure that your pattern can be read and understood by others! I always say that you can’t proof your own work, so having test knitters and tech editors take a look at a pattern before it’s released is crucial!

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These questions were inspired by a call we put out on Instagram, asking people to submit what they wanted to know about the art of pattern writing! Thank you to all those who responded!

You can order Ready Set Raglan here, and remember that it comes as part of our discounted Beginner’s Bundle – perfect for the gifting season ahead!

We hope you’ve enjoyed reading about how knitted patterns are born! Love, Pom Pom xx