I’ve been reading Sally Melville’s guide to altering and drafting knitting patterns, called “Knitting Pattern Essentials”. It doesn’t cover the artistic elements of design, but rather the more practical aspects: how to write a pattern once you have decided on the essential style elements of your garment – basic shape, length, type of sleeve, body shaping, hem style, neckline, etc. I say “garment”, but in fact this book only covers bottom-up, knitted-flat jumpers and cardigans, although the principles it espouses will stand the reader in good stead if she decides to take things further.
There is plenty of explanation on why the author recommends certain approaches, and then she gets down to the necessary maths for working out the raglan decreases or whatever. Before this, she describes how to measure yourself, or your model, and take measurements from existing knitwear, to get a garment that will fit well. She also covers swatching, and how to rescue a garment that isn’t turning out the way you planned.
There are worksheets for each garment element to simplify the calculations and pattern drafting, and a useful table of which style elements go together well and which are best avoided. (For example, a saddle shoulder with a V-neck or a puffed sleeve is a no-no.) Any reasonably competent knitter should be able to copy an existing jumper or design one from scratch by following the steps in the book and combining all the required pattern elements into a single set of instructions. There are a handful of patterns at the back for those who don’t quite feel ready to take the plunge yet, including this dramatically patterned Escher-Inspired Vest.
I’d recommend Melville’s book to anyone who is frustrated by the constraints of following published knitting patterns and wants to learn how to tweak them to suit her better, perhaps by lowering a neckline or introducing some waist shaping, or a more radical overhaul such as swapping set-in sleeves for raglan ones. It will also suit those who have a favourite purchased sweater that they’d like to copy, as well as the adventurous knitter who has a design in her head that she’s struggling to get down on paper so that she can knit it. The book does have some limitations though, apart from the aforementioned restriction to bottom-up, knitted-flat garments for the upper body. Frustratingly, I cannot find any errata published anywhere, yet there are mistakes in the book that hinder its comprehensibility, as do the confusing picture captions on some pages.
The caption itself is in the same font as the main text, which makes for confusion.
To follow the main text (ending “… — up the”) you have to turn the page.
The author is quite dogmatic about certain things, and experienced knitters may not always agree with her – but I suppose it is an author’s prerogative to be controversial. An example of this is her total rejection of curved sleeve caps and armscyes for set-in sleeves; she prefers to rely on the inherent flexibility of knitted fabric to allow a straight edge to fit round that very curved part of the body. It certainly makes the maths easier, I’ll give her that.
I do take issue with the space devoted to remedying what I call “knitting gone bad” – in other words, garment pieces that have ended up too long, too wide or otherwise mis-shapen through careless measurement, dodgy calculations or inadequate swatching. Except for a few limited cases where the remedy is undetectable – shortening a stocking stitch sleeve or body piece by cutting it and then Kitchener-grafting it back together again comes to mind – I’d rather bite the bullet, rip out my knitting and then re-do it correctly. I certainly wouldn’t follow Melville’s advice for a too-wide back or front, which is basically to knit the other piece narrower to compensate and live with side seams that are somewhere other than down the sides. But maybe I’m just not adventurous enough; she explains at one point in the book that her knitting career started when everyone wanted a version of an asymmetric garment she’d made by accident.
There’s a lot in this book that is just common sense and/or that can be worked out with a little thought, plenty of knitting experience and reference to a stack of published patterns. For those who haven’t yet accumulated a few decades of experience and the pattern collection that goes with it, or who have never dared to deviate from a pattern but would like to, it’s invaluable. I think it deserves a place on any aspiring designer’s bookshelf. At the very least, it provides a shortcut for drafting a pretty comprehensive collection of style elements, some of which (bell sleeves?) haven’t seen the light of day for years but may yet come back into fashion.