The Limits of Unlimited Knitting Patterns

Sunday’s Knit Tea Live: English vs Continental Knitting was full of great conversation. We discussed English vs. Continental knitting and finally got Pattern Spotlight going, even if not in the way I planned. Near the end of Knit Tea Live, I started down a road I hadn’t planned to travel. My thoughts were not organized or well thought out.  But, it was a topic that had been rolling around the old noggin – well not that old noggin. 
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As often happens lately, it all started on Twitter. Someone asked, “Do we really want to go back to life before Ravelry?”  It is wise to not assume a tone when reading a tweet. But, the conversation that followed made clear some think without Ravelry, knitting would return to a primordial world where we knit by candlelight and have to rely on knitting magazines for patterns.​

My knee jerk reaction was, “What is wrong with life without Ravelry?” Setting aside NuRav and ableism for a moment, Ravelry is helpful for many things.  Personally, I think the best thing is seeing other knitters and crocheters finished objects so you can see what a pattern looks like in the wild.  It is also very useful for yarn substitution. 

But, the fact is, lots of people right now are living their best knit life without Ravelry. It might be by choice or by necessity – cause you know the migraines and vertigo.  Also, there are still yarnies who do not know about Ravelry. (Yes, there are lots of knitters and crocheters who have never heard of Ravelry.)

Now I have to again confess my own relationship with Ravelry. I am not longer on the website. Even when I was a member, I was a casual user and it was never the center of my knitting universe.  I am way more active on Facebook knitting groups. (It is the primary reason I do not just leave that hell site.)​

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KNITTING IN THE DARK AGES, IE THE 20TH CENTURY

Medieval Painting, depicting female saint knitting

Master Bertram. The Buxtehude Altar – Visit of the Angel, from the right wing. circa 1400-1410. Current location: Kunsthalle, Hamburg Source: Wikimedia Commons
When I was a new knitter at the end of the last century, the internet was not considered a basic necessity. I moved to Los Angeles right after college to pursue a career in production. While trying to break in I worked temp office jobs and was Universal Studio Guide for a time. Extra money for knitting supplies was carefully saved and budgeted for.  

I could go to the library to get on Al Gore’s internet, which I did to look for work, but there was nothing like Ravelry. For new patterns, I relied on books and magazines. A pattern database was bookshelves and magazine racks at the library, bookstore, or LYS. ​


I spent many happy Saturdays at Borders (long gone now, sigh) looking through the shelves. I would grab 5-10 books, find a chair, and flip through them.  I would write down any books that had patterns I liked.  After dropping the books off on a table so a poor struggling actor earning minimum wage could return them to their shelf. Then it was off to the magazine stand.  If I was flush with cash that day I might splurge on Vogue Knitting. 

The next time I was at the Library I would check if one of the books I hoped to one day afford was in the catalog.  If it was, and bonus at my branch, it was off to the copy machine. I violated copyright many, many times.

If I went to an LYS it was for yarn. Sometimes the shop owner would take pity on me and give me a free pattern, and most likely violated copyright to do it.

​ And that is what I did before the internet.  

Loop-d-Loop by Teva Durham is one of the first knitting pattern books I splurged on.  Released 15 years ago, this book created so much buzz when it was released. 

The patterns were fresh and innovative, and for a 20 something knitter this book did not feel like my Grandmother’s knitting patterns.  I still love flipping through tLoop-d-Loop just to look at the beautiful photos and feel inspired to push what I can do in knitting. No google search required.

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MODERN KNIT LIFE

In 2005 my knitting life changed when a friend told me about knitty.com. Knitty is an online knitting magazine and offers free knitting patterns. This was a game changer. Suddenly exciting, new patterns were easily within reach. I even had a computer and internet at this point.  

I loved going to the bookstore to look at knitting books and magazines. But, as more single patterns became available on the internet, I bought fewer pattern books choosing to purchase reference books instead. (By the way, the Knitty.com pattern database is alive, kicking, and still free. Check it out if you have not.)

Then, of course, Ravelry came along.  At this point in my life, I had an established career, good cash flow, and could afford my knitting habit. I will be the first one to admit having so many patterns to easily search and look at in one place was…amazing. But, here is the weird thing about it. I found myself buying fewer patterns on Ravelry than I downloaded from Knitty. True, everything on Knitty is free and not so on Ravelry. But, even free patterns on Ravelry I was less likely to bother downloading than Knitty. 

Nope, I think having fewer choices on Knitty made me more decisive. And, there is science to back me up.

THE SCIENCE OF TOO MANY CHOICES

​In 1995 Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Univerity, and her team conducted the Jam Experiment. Customers at a California gourmet market were invited to sample a selection of jams and were given a $1 off coupon to buy a jar.
​During certain times customers had a choice of 24 jams to taste.  At other times, a smaller group of six jams was available. The larger selection drew more customers to sample the preserves, but only 3% of customers purchased the product. 30% of the people who tasted from the 6 jam assortment made a purchase. In short, even though fewer people stopped to look at the smaller selection, the fewer number of choices resulted in higher sales. 

​This and other studies have shown that not only does a larger selection of products result in fewer sales, but customers who do make a purchase are also less satisfied. 

Painting of Jam in jars covered with cloth

WILL MORE CHOICES REALLY LEAD YOU TO MORE VARIETY?

​I think there is a belief that access to a wider variety of patterns leads knitters to work a wider variety of projects from a wider variety of designers. I am not convinced this is true. Admittedly, this is anecdotal so take it for what it is worth, but in Facebook knitting groups I see a revolving door of the same patterns: flax sweater, find your fade, 10 stitch blanket, the Vanilla Sock, etc.

If you have been knitting for any length of time, you may have your own memory of a knitting craze sweeping across knitting groups: Baa-ble hat, Pink Pussy Hat, Papillon Shawl…the list goes on and on.  

However, Raverly did not invent the knitting craze. I have fond memories of Clapotis and all of us at the West Hollywood Stitch n’ Bitch feeling like fiber rebels because we were purposely dropping our stitches. And before the internet, knitters passed along photocopies of patterns that managed to work their way all around the country, most definitely violating copyright.

My point is, I am not so sure Raverly changed how we approach choosing what patterns to work. I think it has changed how we find them. Maybe for the better, but also maybe for the worst.

America’s consumer based economy has taught us that more choice is better. We will be happier in the end when more is available to us. But, science shows us something different. I know for myself, choice paralysis is real. Too many options and I throw up my hands and walk away. I am more likely to buy a magazine with one pattern in it I like than I am to buy a single pattern on Ravelry with its endless number of tam hat patterns.

There is something to be said for curation. Because all the websites do it.

CURATION: IT HAPPENS EVERYWHERE

​Internet algorithms make it easy to forget how much content is curated for us online.  Ravelry’s Hot Right Now (HRN) is a curated list.  This choice limitation helps you make a purchase rather than drown in a sea of options. But, it also means there are many independent designers you never see because they never make it onto the HRN. 

And really is an algorithm curating patterns for you to look at any better than an editor at a knitting magazine? 

I think there is another reason curation matters. When you have a limited number of choices, I suspect you are also more likely to try something new. It is easy to get in a knitting rut. With everything available to you, the easiest thing to do is find a new pattern to knit the same thing again. A curated selection by someone else can lead you to a knitting adventure and push your skills.

And there is a good chance an editor is going to put well written patterns in front of your eyes.  There are many, many, many poorly written patterns out there on Elizabeth Zimmerman’s internet.

Looking for a place to look at pretty things made with the pretty string? Knit Picks* has a wide selection of free knitting Patterns. You can pick a pattern, and if need be, buy your yarn at the same time.  

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Finding Your Curator

Sometimes you just want to look at all the pretty things and there are lots of places to go: Instagram, Pinterest, Ravelry, Lovecrafts, Etsy, even Twitter. If all you want to do is window shop, all the patterns at your fingertips is satisfying. But, if you are looking for the pretty things to make with pretty string, consider looking at more curated sources. 

Fiber Happenings is in its infancy. Currently, it is focused on new Pattern releases, KAL/CAL, and designer sales. But, a list of four or five pretty things on a Friday afternoon, that’s when it’s updated, can be quite satisfying.  You can find more curated choices on my Lovecrafts* community page and Etsy Page*

Did I mention Knitty.com is alive and kicking? Knitty publishes every four months. 2020 being 2020 it’s schedule has been adjusted to deal with the pandemic. But, a surprise edition with new patterns will be released any day now.

And many online yarn retailers have pages for free knitting patterns includin yarn.comKnit Picks*, Interweave Magazine, and many other sources. Just Google Knitting Patterns and tons of websites come up with curated lists of knitting patterns. Check them out. You may find your next great project and feel more satisfied in the end. 

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