Six Tips for Designing Knitting Patterns

Balls of Debbie Bliss wool and notes page for Down in the Woods

I’m on a serious design jag at the moment – finishing Down in the Woods and starting the purple thing in the past week. I’ve been knitting my own designs for (good lord) twenty years now, and I was asking myself this evening, have I learned anything useful? One or two things. Here – have a handful.

1. Swatch, swatch, swatch

Swatch. You may (like me) be a bit adolescent about swatching for other people’s designs (oh, Muuuuum, do I haaaaave to?), but trust me, swatching is your friend. Swatch for gauge, certainly, but also:

  • Try out stitch and colour ideas.
  • Check whether the transitions you’re planning will work in practice.
  • Decide how you’ll cast on and off.
  • See what sort of fabric your chosen needles produce – you may want to shift up or down a size.

2. Try out textured stitches in cotton

If you’re wanting to use a complex stitch, try knitting up a swatch in cotton with your various options. Dig out your favourite stitch library, if you have one (I love the Harmony Guides – details at the end of the post), and knit an inch or two of anything that takes your fancy. It’s a fun way to spend an afternoon. You may end up using only one of the stitches you try out, but the exercise is useful for a couple of reasons.

  • Cotton has no loft to it, so you can really see the structure of the stitches and get a feel for how they might work in your garment.
  • Different stitch patterns yield different widths over the same number of stitches – forewarned is forearmed.

3. Borrow dimensions from an existing garment

No need to reinvent the wheel spindle whorl. Base your dimensions on a similar knitted garment whose fit you like. Knitted fabric is very forgiving, fit-wise, so you don’t need to be 100% precise – go with what fits your stitch count and overall design.

4. Use techniques that suit you

The legendary Elizabeth Zimmerman declared straight out in Knitting without Tearsthat the main reason she knitted so much in the round was that she hated purl. Hear this: you don’t get extra points for slogging through techniques that give you no joy.

So if holding teeny needles makes your hands ache, use bigger ones. Or if you hate seaming, don’t do seams. (Aside: Actually, if you hate seaming, get hold of The Knitter’s Book of Finishing Techniques. It changed my knitting life.)

On the other hand, if you do a mean tubular cast-on, adore beading, go all squishy at the thought of crocheted edgings, well, knock yourself out.

5. Count twice, knit once

Not as crucial as the sewing rule “measure twice, cut once”, since you can always rip out your knitting (unless the yarn’s really hairy, in which case you’re doomed). But if you’re anything like as impatient as I am, you’ll want to do the actual work as few times as possible – ideally once.

So take your gauge. Take your dimensions. Take your calculator. Sit with them in Zen-like communion (you know that means “do the sums”, yeah?), and then write down your magic numbers. (Incidentally, if you’re designing for an adult woman, this free sizing spreadsheet from Josi Hannon Madera looks pretty amazing, though I should note that I haven’t used it.) Work out row lengths, increases and decreases. Trust the numbers. Then take a deep breath, and start knitting.

6. Keep track like a fiend

Write everything down. Even if you’re not planning to make a fair copy of your pattern, you’ll at least need to know how many rows you knitted on the back before beginning the armhole shaping, or where your sleeve increases are. Also, for all but the simplest patterns, you’ll more than likely come to a point where the stitches on your needle don’t look like you thought they would, and you’ll have to tweak things. Keep a note of what you do – you’ll be glad of it.

Doing these things won’t turn you into Kim Hargreaves or Ysolda or Di Gilpin, of course, but they should help your designs to come out the way you’d planned.

If you’re interested in any of the books I mention in this post – enough to buy one, maybe – and if you like my blog at all, and if the stars are auspicious and the moon is in the right quarter, please buy after clicking on one of these links (I’ll earn a small percentage if you do):

Links to
The Harmony Guides: Knit & Purl Stitches: 250 Stitches to Knit
The Harmony Guides: Cable & Aran Stitches: 250 Stitches to Knit
The Harmony Guides: Lace & Eyelet Stitches: 250 Stitches to Knit
Knitting without Tears(Elizabeth Zimmerman)
The Knitter’s Book of Finishing Techniques(Nancie M. Wiseman)

Links to
The Harmony Guides: Knit & Purl: 250 Stitches to Knit
The Harmony Guides: Cables & Arans: 250 Stitches to Knit
The Harmony Guides: Lace & Eyelets: 250 Stitches to Knit
Knitting Without Tears(Elizabeth Zimmerman)
The Knitter’s Book of Finishing Techniques

9 thoughts on “Six Tips for Designing Knitting Patterns

    1. In a blog, can you disable comments for certain posts and leave them for others? you have setup yourself then you will get this option every time you create a new blog post. Instead of turning the option to reply off completely you can also install

  1. Just wanted to pop a comment on here and say that I found this through Pinterest — thank you for these tips! I have worked with yarn companies and designers for a few years now (mostly as a stylist, creative director, etc.) and have been playing with the idea of reworking a few beginner designs and starting to design seriously. These are great points that I feel like a lot of books skip over — the basics! Thank you for posting.

  2. Hi Lean Thank you for sharing. I usually mix and match knitting pattern and it has never struck me that it is a form of designing. I often find patterns impracticle

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