Some thoughts on knitting and accessibility

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I had a few thoughts about knitters and knitting following some posts made on IG a few days ago and felt a different perspective could help.  I don’t mean any harm by writing this post, and apologise in advance for any upset, but I sincerely want to mention a few important things that could help all knitters, industry professionals and otherwise.  So here goes this opinion piece.

In general, the knitting industry has suffered from being under-resourced and undervalued.  Because it is not profitable by capitalist standards and criteria (high labour costs due to time taken, especially with techniques such as intarsia; high materials costs due to fibre quality or, more recently, fair trade and environmental costs due to fossil fuel usage), the handknitting industry in particular has been hit hard and been unable to keep up with technological developments such as digital pattern cutting and grading, for which fashion houses and sewing pattern companies use specialist software such as Gerber Accumark, Electra, Wild Ginger, or get enterprising with Adobe Illustrator.  Consequently, it is difficult to respond timely and adequately to knitters’ valid points and concerns about the patterns they buy.

Another point, connected to the first, is that the handknitting community partly functions as a repository for anyone who doesn’t fit heteronormative, able-bodied, affluent and racist ideals of capitalism.  It is a haven for people who are cut off from various walks of life, a nexus that largely succeeds in accommodating intersectionality and points of human difference that capitalism does not.  It isn’t perfect, but it is more comfortable than other arts and crafts that require large and/or specialist equipment, dedicated space or expensive lessons.  In short, it is accessible.

Handknitting’s accessibility is precisely why it is not mainstream, and also why it has been underfunded and under-resourced for decades upon decades.  It is clear that elite fashion and clothing brands do not want or need the money of lower income families, people with disabilities, BIPOC and LGBTQIA folk among others unless their ableism compensates for their Otherness.  Also, these businesses have noticed that the aforementioned people tend to be poorer anyway, so they hardly matter to the bottom line.  No loss.

Instead, knitters and knitting professionals of all kinds plough their limited time, energy and money into creating a safe space that is held for them and buffers the wider rejection of capitalist society.  The discussions that have taken place in the knitting community this past year – exoticism, racism, pricing, size inclusivity and accessibility (most poignantly with Ravelry, which was so valuable for so long) – are acute symptoms of the systemic problems caused by toxic capitalism and racism.  We cannot forget that we are all in the same boat, and that we never had much to begin with.

This lack also means that it is impossible for us to solve all of our problems.  We didn’t create them; nor did we devalue ourselves.  Pricing and making a living wage will be an issue until financial inequities are addressed on a global scale.  To an extent, racism, accessibility, othering and ableism can be countered with education, empathy and commitment to personal change.  In other words, we can choose and work to be nicer human beings and solve problems on an individual level.  Many individuals doing this makes it a collective and community effort from the bottom up.  Whatever we say about each other, whatever the constructive criticism, we have to keep punching up until we hit the people and structures responsible for keeping us all down.  It will take time, but baby steps forward are still stepping in the right direction.

I have an idea or two about the baby steps.

One thing that I would implement – and I will only make one suggestion, because I think that is all the handknitting industry can manage right now – is recognition and treatment of pattern grading as the specialism that it is.  As alluded to above, the wider fashion industry can respond quickly because the production processes of fashion businesses are industrialised, pattern cutting and grading is largely digitalised (there are numerous grading bureaus worldwide; grading isn’t usually done in-house), and specialist software saves an awful lot of time.  With handknitting, grading is largely the responsibility of the designer and the quality of the grade can vary according to background, training (accessibility again!), ingenuity and time available to develop the skills needed.  This variation in quality is due to the attrition of doing two jobs at once and reveals itself in clues such as limited size ranges; avoiding complex stitch patterns, e.g. hardcore Aran jumpers; near-exclusive use of simpler dropped sleeves over set-in and raglan sleeves; avoidance of colourwork designs (hi everyone!); and avoidance of more adventurous construction techniques OR experimenting with new things that would innovate and push creativity forward.  Designers would also have more time for artistry, CPD and research – and it’s abundantly clear from the comments I’ve seen that designers need more time for research and quality engagement with their fellow knitters.

In addition to grading, pattern graders also provide a much-needed extra pair of eyes and consequently quality control would improve.  There would be fewer errors because designers and technical editors (TEs) wouldn’t be under so much pressure to check their own work all the time.  Tricks like changing the font or background colour stop working after a while.  Some of my own patterns have nearly made me cry with frustration because I literally cannot see what the TE has pointed out or remember what on earth I was trying to do at that point in the grading.  The numbers start looking the same and I cannot make out my own work.  Equally, when TEs support new designers with little experience (and even if not), nobody is checking their work and they feel a similar pressure.

The third and final major benefit of specialist pattern graders is that everyone gets a chance to knit the pattern!  There is a full and inclusive size range overseen by a specialist who understands proportional ease, can confer with the designer about scaling the pattern panels of the hardcore Aran jumper they always wanted to design (the alternative is an unbalanced design that only looks good on a few sizes in the range), can provide input about how the fabric will behave in sizes across the entire range…so many benefits for everyone based on the addition of this much-needed person behind the scenes.

I touched on fabrication here to bring this essay back round to the most recent discussion of yarn substitution.  Yes, Google does exist, and there are helpful articles and websites such as YarnSub that knitters can use to help themselves.  In the dream team trinity above – designer, TE, grader – all could feed into this process.  The knowledge of three people is better than one, and apart from yarn support/sponsorship arrangements that can cause conflicts of interest, this is more likely to result in better information for knitters.  Speaking only for myself, I have no problem with detailing why I chose a certain yarn or fibre blend for a particular design – but overall, my knowledge of what’s available is weak.  I am too time poor to do this and tend to try new yarns only when I can afford to, just as some knitters have accessibility issues that might make internet research a trying task.  I certainly understand why and how specific recommendations are more reassuring than detailing the qualities of the yarn I used, but ethically speaking I can’t give them unless I’ve used the yarn in question.

As many others have pointed out, this is where test knitting comes in.  Test knitting is really a garment technologist job, or at least partly so in that the test knitters/technologists use various yarns and evaluate their cost effectiveness.  When the wider implications of yarn substitution are considered – representation, accessibility, not to mention the editing and problem solving in situ – test knitting is crucially important to the knitting community and test knitters should be paid.  I know that many knitters volunteer themselves for designers they admire and want to support, but like sample knitting it runs the risk of being exploitative.  As well as giving them the final pattern, I would want to (be able to afford to) pay test knitters or employ them on an ongoing basis – but that’s just me and I’m well aware that other arrangements exist and are agreeable all round.

So that’s it from me.  Again, we never had much to begin with, but we did not devalue ourselves; that was done for us without our consent.  We knitters are all in the same boat.


Any and all comments are welcome.  Thank you.  x


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24 Comments Add yours

  1. LaineeMakes says:

    I’ve picked up my knitting after a long time and I have to confess that I was unaware of many of these concerns regarding the production of quality patterns. Sewing took precedence over knitting simply because it is easier! I hadn’t considered the difficulty of designing, grading and quality assessing patterns and all of the issues you describe above. I hope that knitting designers, graders and testers can achieve a more equitable position in the crafting world.

    1. Thank you 😊 – and the funny thing is, sewing is easier for the fashion industry in terms of accessibility too! It is a nasty industry, but it deserves credit for clothing everyone at some level.

  2. Karin says:

    Thank you for your insightful and very informative essay!! I have a lot of thoughts, but will just say this:
    As a former yarn shop owner, I’d like to add that so often nowadays, knitters work in isolation. Lockdowns around the pandemic have of course exacerbated this. But I feel like on the whole, though we are digitally more connected, that person to person advice and support is going missing. I used to spend lots of time helping people find the right yarn for their project & budget, often keeping in mind how a garment would sit and wear if done in larger sizes with a particular yarn, etc.
    Because designer/TE/grader/yarn companies/ dyers/yarn shop owners all depend on the end consumers spending money to make their garment, the responsibility to bring them to a successful outcome is quite spread out. And because the end consumers ARE handing us money, they have expectations to make their spending worthwhile.
    There is so much to think about here… thank you so much for saying what you did. It will take all of us working together to improve the situation for everyone.
    -Karin at The Periwinkle Sheep

    1. Thank you Karin – I completely agree with you about person to person contact. Many responses I’ve seen have assumed that visiting a local yarn shop is an option, but that’s not necessarily the case. It’s definitely a missing link – thank you for highlighting it!

  3. Meredith Coelho says:

    Wow, thank you for such a kind take on this whole situation. I do feel like asking more from designers is too much, but including the yarn’s qualities would help a lot. I see what you’re saying about grading- I’ve only ever designed for myself, and I can only imagine what a specialized skill set this is. Thank you again.

    1. Thank you Meredith – I am glad you enjoyed reading it! I definitely agree with you about including the yarn’s qualities. It would fit in well with the fibre composition.

  4. Meriel Crawford says:

    This was a very interesting article. I have been a knitter most of my life. When I was younger and everyone knitted it was because of necessity and it was cheaper. You are correct about the sleeve issue though. I hate dropped sleeves because it always felt that there was too much material under the arms. Therefore I always stuck to the patterns for set sleeves and raglans meaning I always used the patterns that I had. The great thing about modern designers is that the sizes are now a much bigger range. I never knit for other folks because over the years I have found that they don’t even want to pay what it costs for the yarn never mind the time it took to knit the garment. Knitting with pure wool is one of the most rewarding things to do, but it makes the garment really expensive for some people and they can’t just throw it in the washer. Quick fashion has a lot to answer for because if you take a long time knitting the garment and it is not cheap yarn you want to look after it not like cheap bought garments that are thrown away after a few times of being worn. Until more young people decide that knitting their own garments is the way to go and use pure wool it will always be too expensive for most peoples pocket.
    I believe that both boys and girls should be taught to knit in school.

    1. Thank you Meriel, that’s a really good point about sustainability! I feel much the same about knitting jumpers, etc being an investment; the time it takes, the materials used and the skill needed all factor in. I think most knitters would agree with you, but I also think that lifestyle changes (like time available to do hand washing, disposable income) have moved the goalposts over the years. Thank you for reading too.

  5. Sarah Testa says:

    Very valid points Dear one 🙂 Sizing is the bain for many of us. Gauge to start and measuring, measuring, measuring, after that. It requires A LOT of math to adjust quirky patterns (Lace…) and ‘redo’s’ but it’s worth it to me. Do we need ‘test knitters?’ Can we count on the community to submit their finished pieces stipulating their size adjustments? Just a thought ❤

    1. Thank you Sarah 😊
      I definitely have a soft spot for test knitters, their input is so important and if they can also be counted on to make notes about any individual adjustments, so much the better. It definitely helped me when I had more time to look around on Ravelry and knit patterns. I would be happy to do tutorials on figure adjustments but I have a feeling it won’t be welcome until all sizes are catered for. That way as many knitters as possible have a place to start before making any tweaks.
      And thank you for reading!

  6. Christiane Levesque says:

    Thank you for this article. Sometimes it seems so difficult to pick out the right substitution, and I’ve learned a lot through test knitting, but I’ve avoided taking the plunge into design publication because of lack of knowledge when it comes to sizing. It would be so great to have the resources you mentioned.

    1. Wouldn’t it? I think they will arrive, but slowly; apart from my pattern cutting and sewing knowledge, I had to learn the rest on the job and work things out for myself.
      One course that was mentioning to me is here at Tech Editor Hub:
      I don’t know of anyone who’s taken it, but it looks like a good place to start. And I don’t mind answering any questions you might have if you take the plunge into publication – contact me anytime! Thank you for reading 😊

  7. CLAUDIA HALL says:

    Hello! As a mentor and teacher I would love to compile a list of ways to adapt knitting and crochet for disabilities (at least all the ones I have which I can speak to intimately). I don’t know how to get the ideas and suggestions out to the designers, however, because as you said it’s so spread out across the field. Any thoughts? Thank you so much for your article!

    1. Hi Claudia – goodness, that’s very kind of you! As designers, our backgrounds vary so much; some have teacher training, some have a more industrial background, some have neither. I have a few touchstones for dissemination but don’t want to put personal details out in the open; please could you email me using the form on the contact page? That would be ideal. Looking forward to your message, and thank you very much for reading the post and getting in touch! 😊

    2. Lynn says:

      As a blind knitter I find that a lot of digital patterns are delivered as pictures rather than text. My computer and phone can both read text to me, but they’re not good at processing images of text. This is something that I guess most people don’t think about, but it makes the difference between me and others being to knit something or not. I’ve given up paying for patterns that I can’t read.

  8. venge0 says:

    Thank you for this well written, and for me, very educational article. I am an older self- taught knitter. There are so many things I do not know how to do. I knit large, rectangular lace shawls and teddy bear sweaters because I do not trust myself to design anything shaped for humans. Silly, yes. Your article and your IG platform have really been teaching me why I don’t know things and, more importantly, the people who do know such things are essential to the knitting community. Thank again for the important work you do.

    1. 😊 thank you very much for reading! And there’s nothing silly about what you say…we have all felt like that when faced with the unknown. In a way, the more you know, the more you realise you don’t know – if that makes sense. And if you ever do want to dip your toes into clothes, you know where I am. See you back on Instagram 🥰

  9. saraashleymoore says:

    Thanks for sharing this! I’m a sociologist who studies inequality by training and I’ve been thinking a lot about how both sides of this discussion are making important points about their labor and contributions to the community. At the same time, both sides seem to think that it’s the other that is devaluing their labor and contributions – rather than the system itself. Blaming each other misses that the system never valued (and never will value) either! Thanks for putting this into words!

    1. You’re welcome Sara – and thank you for reading!

  10. RW says:

    Hi, just stumbled upon this article when researching writing accessible knitting patterns and I love your analysis, it is spot on! Thank you, very glad I found your blog.

    1. You’re welcome! Thank you very much for your words ☺️

  11. Carol says:

    Not really sure who has devalued us. I never choose to feel like a victim; it’s just so unhealthy. I started knitting in college in the late 1980s and can say that yarn shop owners in the southern California area were notoriously unfriendly, unhelpful, and generally grumpy. I am thrilled with where hand knitting is today. Since we don’t have true capitalism here in the US, (we have an economy mostly controlled by the “Federal Reserve, which is a privately held- for profit business), I don’t think we can blame that for much in the knitting world; except continued inflation due to endless printing of money.

    1. Hi Carol – thank you for commenting. I will expand on my point about ‘devaluation’ – this goes far beyond hobbies and often includes:

      – lack of funding available for artistic, enrichment or wellbeing-related activities such as knitting in adult education. The lack of public/govt financial support disproportionately affects women, those with young families, those on low incomes, those with disabilities, caring responsibilities and compromised mental health. In short, socially isolated people.

      – gender representation: knitting as a craft is heavily feminised, so it is less attractive to boys, who are less likely to take an interest whilst at school (assuming the provision is there). The knock-on effect is observed in the uptake of undergraduate fashion students (overwhelmingly female) and the workforce of the automotive and aeronautics industries, which are male-dominated and well-funded. However, in the latter two industries there is a skills shortage. Unless the company has an in-house team of specialists (Bentley, Aston Martin – think high-end car manufacturers), it is extremely difficult to find specialists in knitting, sewing and pattern cutting.

      – Both these factors negatively impact progression routes into further training and preserving the existing portfolio of specialist skills in the handknitting industry as well as automotives, aeronautics, and any other industry dependent on innovative engineering and fabrication.

      There is very little here that can be read from a stance of victimhood, so I do not understand your choice of words. It may be that you do not see what I see because knitting as a hobby is the last to feel the ‘trickle down’ effect of the inequities I’ve mentioned.

      Writing as an industry professional, qualified HE, FE and community learning teacher, I am informed and deeply invested in the continuance of knitting and its professional recognition. All examples cited in the article and this response has been witnessed and researched first-hand. If my life experience does not overlap with yours, and we have witnessed different things – fair enough. However, I can assure you that there is no victimhood here.

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