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Designing knitwear patterns - 1 of 2

I’ve heard from so many of you. You’re lost in the sea of where to begin. You want to know how to get started designing and writing patterns. How do you turn your knits into a pattern?

The front of a sweater with a cabled pocket, and several paper dolls showing designs to be made.
... it starts with a sketch.

Designing knitwear (especially sweaters!)

There are four big topics we’re going to cover here. The first two apply to anyone who wants to bring a knit into the world. The second two are for folks who want to do so professionally. Here’s the process:

  1. Coming up with an idea, concept, sketch – the actual DESIGN

  2. Creating a technical product – stitches, rows, instructions – that add up to a garment that fit

  3. Grading your pattern to fit more than one person

  4. Taking an idea from concept to market – the concrete steps of designing

Before we get into it, I want to say a few things.

  1. There’s no one way. This is how I do it, but if you’re creating something you love, that’s the right way for you!

  2. Becoming a professional designer is not the top rung on the ladder of being a knitter. It’s a totally separate sport, and it’s mostly NOT knitting. I absolutely treasure those of you out there making things that are handknit masterpieces that are one of a kind, and that is a very, very important thing to have in of our public community spaces.

Going pro is a responsibility

If you enter the world of professional designing, you’re entering a community where your actions impact the livelihoods of other independent designers. You become an ambassador for the profession, and your actions can have several impacts, such as…

…increasing the trust that knitters have in indie pattern

Knitters deserve clearly-written, well-graded patterns that have been tech edited. When a knitter has this experience, they go on to knit not just more of your patterns but also to buy more patterns from all indie designers – and they’re willing to pay what they’re worth.

…growing the financial stability of other designers

Every designer comes up with a different mix of revenue to make this career work for them. When hobby designers don’t need the money from pattern sales, they sometimes release patterns that are priced below market or for free.

It’s a very weird quirk of the industry that many people working in it don’t necessarily need to make money. And some people make their money through blog traffic, and therefore give out patterns for free to drive traffic - it's not really 'free,' even though it looks like it from the outside. So it’s complicated and there’s no single right answer – but it’s worth considering how your pricing choices will affect others.

…including knitters who have been historically excluded

Y’all know I’m deeply passionate about size inclusion. So I can’t say this enough: every single knitter in every single size deserves an equal experience with your pattern. Even if the stitch repeats are difficult. Even if the shaping is totally different. Even if it’s hard, or expensive. If you’re going to release a pattern, it needs to be for everyone. If you need help grading, your tech editor can help you find someone who does that (or email me, I do this work!).

Enough manifesto, more how-to!

Coming up with the design

This is the part where you flex your creative skills! If you’re designing just for yourself, you probably have a problem you’re trying to solve or a need you’re trying to fill – so that’s easy.

But professionally, it can be more difficult. How many things make it special enough? Is it too much like something else on the market? Will it work for every size? Will people want it?

My rule of three things

Generally, I think a design is worth doing if it offers three special elements. More than that, knitters can start to think it looks a bit overwhelming. Less than that, and you’re going to have a nice basic wardrobe staple – and be in a very, very saturated corner of the market. A special stitch pattern, a unique silhouette, a showstopper neckline, a fancy finishing technique – these are some things that can be special elements.

Does it seems a bit like someone else’s design?

The short answer: If you're feeling squidgey about a similarity, don't do it. Change an element, use a different weight yarn, something. Make it more YOU. Not only will you sleep easier, but you'll have less competition for your design and it will stand out more.

When I first started, I looked carefully to ensure my designs weren’t too similar to anyone else’s. Over time though, I’ve become more confident in my voice as a designer. But I’ve also come to understand that there are only so many twists on ‘sweater.’ If I’m writing a pattern that wasn’t inspired by someone else’s work, it will be unique. While you're finding your voice, you might consider - and this is radical but it's what I did - unfollowing all other designers.

Is it grade-able?

If you’re a size 10 and you’ve designed a cable motif that fills the whole front of your sweater, you probably have a good idea that motif won’t fit on a size 1. Think ahead at this stage (you’ll think about this more when it comes to crunching numbers!), to see if you can anticipate any ways you’ll run into trouble. It can be helpful to sketch your design on croquis at different sizes, to see how it will play out.

Will it sell?

Ahh, this is the big one. Often we come to designing because we want a certain thing. And yes, at least one other person will share your tastes! But if you’re doing this professionally, it pays to think some about how hard it will be to make enough sales to meet your financial goals.

And I’ll be candid – I struggle with this. I relentlessly serve an advanced knitter who prefers lightweight yarns. That’s a tough market! I don’t sell as many patterns as I would if I served a different audience. But it’s a market I think deserves nice things, and over time, I’m reaching more and more knitters who, like me, run hot and are willing to put in the time.

Some other things to think about – what’s the yardage? Does this design require a specialty yardage that’s difficult to obtain and hard to substitute? Will the knitters in my audience be comfortable wearing this? Is this timeless enough/on trend enough? How will my colors photograph?

I’m not saying to give up your vision. I’m saying to be crystal clear about your vision, and crystal clear about your audience – and work in the overlap.

Where to get ideas

Get ideas from reviewing cross craft publications.

Recently, I’ve been loving both Selvedge and What Women Create.

‘Steal’ submission calls!

Get on some of those lists for submission calls, and save the briefs. You can return to that over and over again for inspiration. I once fell in love with a moodboard from Farmer’s Daughter (from their Wood and Smoke collection) and re-pinned most of the pins in it into my own moodboard. I can no longer find theirs, but you can see mine here.

Which leads me to – build your own submission call!

A blank page intimidates me and wears me out. I’m much better at solving a problem than I am at open-ended creativity. If that’s you, build your own parameters!

Turning it into a pattern

First things first. Learning to design is not the same as learning to grade.

You’ll learn some things about designing if you take a grading class, but for many designers I work with, coming up with that first schematic is the hardest part. How do you know how deep an armhole should be? What should the neckline do? And the one that stumped me the longest – for a skinny drop sleeve, how much ease in the body do I need if I want the armhole to be armsized and not armscye-sized?

It's time to assign some numbers

You’ve got your sketch, it’s time to start putting numbers on the page. You’ll need to determine how much ease you want at each fit point, or at least what measurement you want for each fit point.

(Fit point – these are the critical dimensions, like hip, bust & bicep circumference, total length, armhole depth, front and back neck depth, etc).

Pull from experience

You might know exactly how 4” of positive ease in DK feels on your body, or have a raglan sweater that feels just right under the arm. When you can, measure something you love!

Make a muslin

Make three muslins. Through trial and error, you can cut and pin stretchy fabric until it fits you just the way you like it. I do this by creating a starting schematic, and then drawing it on fabric with chalk and pinning or basting it together. Then I make changes, and do it again. I do this less and less with time.

Reverse engineer

If you have long admired how a designer handles fit, buy a few patterns and reverse engineer them to see how much ease they have. You’ll be using your size chart instead of theirs, but you’ll still learn SO MUCH.

Read books on fit.

If you read through the Palmer/Pletsch complete guide to fitting, you’ll learn SO MUCH about how a garment can go wrong on a body, and it’s packed with visuals on how adding a half inch here and moving a quarter inch there can revolutionize fit.

Read Amy Herzog’s Ultimate Sweater Book.

In this book, she walks through all major sweater construction, teaching a knitter how to design a sweater. There’s a lot of generalities and some of her formulas get a little sticky at the top of the range, but they’ll give you an excellent starting point.

Don’t be afraid to benchmark.

If you’ve got an idea of what you think you’d like to do, look at similar patterns and see how measurements in similar places compare. This is a bit of tricky advice, because not everyone who designs popular sweaters is doing A+ grading. I’d recommend looking at Ysolda, Meghan Babin, Samantha Guerin and Laura Penrose, to name a few.

Turning a schematic into a sweater

So at this point, you know the dimensions you’d like to knit to, and you have a schematic. The remaining steps are to turn it into stitches and rows for each fit point, and then to plan shaping to get from one measurement to another! You’ll write those numbers and instructions into a pattern (and if you don’t have a copy of Kate’s book The Beginning Guide to Writing Knitting Patterns: Learn to Write Patterns Others Can Knit, it will come in VERY handy here!).

Psst, if you'll be grading this design, this is a good time to create the schematic for ALL of the sizes. That will surface any design elements that might be ungradeable, so you can address them before you back yourself into a corner with a finished sample that won't work for every knitter!

I don't offer a design class, but...

If you’re still feeling a bit over your head, I have a class that might help. I teach a class called Replace Your Fast Fashion Fave, and in that class, we treat an existing garment like a template. We create a schematic, establish a construction plan, learn about swatching, gauge and estimating yardage, transform the schematic into stitches and rows, talk about shaping, and plan your trim and finishing techniques. Basically, all the steps except come up with the initial garment design.

I am teaching just one session of this class this fall, and it's an intimate group - I cap attendance at 6 people (and at the time of writing, 2 of them are full). The class is a workshop followed by three hour-long drop-in sessions, which you can use to pump me for information on your design! Interested in learning more? Click here to read on.

Next post we’ll talk a bit about grading (because we all know I can’t teach grading in a blog post), and I’ll walk you through the nuts and bolts of my process of going from an idea to a product!

Go Further & linkie-links

  • All my designer resources can be found here! (books, blogs, etc)

  • I've used photos of Bock to illustrate this blog post - you can learn more about the pattern here! This is a design from last spring, just as it got hot, and I was devastatingly sick when it came out (if you look at my pictures and wonder why I look so run down, that's why! fake it til you make it, baby!), so I feel like she's the middle sister that hasn't gotten enough love. I made mine a whole size too big so I could slouch around and be max cozy!

PS - if you find these posts helpful, I need you to know they're made possible by ko-fi supporters! My mission is to get knitters into sweaters that showcase their skills, reflect their identities, and get WORN. We're in this to take down the fast fashion industry, after all, and that means lots of amazing patterns and the tools knitters need to make them. I write patterns, teach and consult, and provide educational content for knitters and designers all in the service of this mission. And if you're reading this, I know this matters to you, too!

Here's the thing - I'm committed to keeping content like this paywall-free, which means I rely on ko-fi supporters to give me time off from designing so that I can write. If you're interested and able to leave me a tip, or you'd like to learn more about my membership tiers, you can read more here! There's no pressure, ever, of course!

Big thank you this week to Jen H and Leslie R - it means the world to have you in my corner!

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