FN2N, part 2 | The Case for Professional Pattern Grading

Last week I introduced the three lions of knitting patterns – the designer, technical editor and the grader – and how they work together to produce quality knitting patterns.  It’s an ideal trinity, and a model I see working for many years to come, but not without due investment on all sides. Grab a beverage and take a seat; this is another meaty post.

Professional standards have implications for everyone.  The chances are that things that you see as “not quite right” or discriminatory are the result of substandard practice.  In the case of grading, knitting patterns have suffered from what is now a cumulative lack of investment.  It isn’t necessarily that designers don’t care about having an accessible size range – but it costs time and money to invest in that expertise, and it is very rarely forthcoming.  I’ve heard through the grapevine that one publication no longer requires designers to grade their own patterns and has invested in employing specialist graders as well as technical editors.  If all industry players did this the difference would be remarkable!

But – and there’s always a but – with extra labour comes extra money.  I will never support any notion of cheapening someone’s labour, but that is precisely what has been happening to a LOT of knitwear designers, past and present.  It is impossible for the industry to move with the times and accommodate accessibility needs of any kind when the value of knitting patterns and the expertise of the production team behind them are regarded so cheaply.  Many designers grade their own patterns, especially if they publish in magazines or periodicals, and the fee for a garment (usually between £200-300 for monthly magazines; you can expect double that for quarterly or biannual publications) does not reflect the time and effort put into conceptualisation, design development, sample making and grading on top of all the design-related tasks.  And as knitters have rightly demanded more inclusive size ranges, the extra grading work and specialist knowledge needed to grade a pattern to at least 12 sizes has not been accounted for regarding periodicals’ commissioning fees or the price of knitting patterns.

In short, the vast majority of pattern grading is currently free labour that many hand knitting designers can neither bear nor afford.  Designers have been doing MORE work for LESS money.

It leaves a particularly nasty taste in the mouth when sewing folk have no problem paying around £15 for a digital pattern graded to sizes 6-30, but balk at the idea of paying an identical amount for a knitting pattern graded to the same size range.  Knitting patterns are consistently priced below £10.  Equivalent levels of expertise are required to produce both kinds of patterns, but somehow only one is worth the money – or can command a fair price.  As things stand, most independent designers are lucky to be able to cover their direct costs via pattern sales alone.

A grading stack from one of my cardigan patterns
A grading stack from one of my cardigan patterns. The lines for each size are colour coded for visibility and sanity.

Here are some other consequences of lack of investment in grading:

Silence

Designers are already overwhelmed and cannot sustain any more unpaid labour.  Bear in mind that indie designers also have to manage marketing tasks, pattern queries, community relationships and professional development on top of design tasks.  Throw in the fact that most hand knitting designers have at least one or two other jobs – sometimes unrelated to knitting – that they need to actually pay bills, plus family commitments and it all adds up to not having enough hours in the day.

Another form of silence is lack of representation: diversity and inclusion applies to designers too.  Some people cannot afford to be designers, and data on household income according to race can be found for the UK here and the USA here.  While you’re there, please feel free to look up information about people with disabilities and any other protected characteristics.  You’ll see a pattern emerging.

Increased batch grading

Producing double sizes reduces the workload.  For example, instead of creating a pattern with twelve sizes, labelled 1-12, you will get alternate sizes of 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12 – so six sizes in total.  More bodies are accommodated, but this can be at the expense of fit; batch grading is always skewed towards the larger size in the range, which is hard on people who are between sizes or need to blend sizes to get a good fit.  Batch grading is a common industry compromise.  It used to be reserved for looser fitting garments like sweatshirts, but has been applied to more fitted styles in recent years.

Fewer and less innovative knitting patterns

The more time designers spend on non-design work, the less time and inclination they have to spend on creating beautiful designs or trying out new ideas.  Time and energy they might spend on the thing they’re best at is taken away.  Meanwhile, their customers might wonder why they’re so quiet, why there’s little variation in style, why there are so many dropped shoulder/sleeve designs, or why there are so many grown-on cap sleeves…the list goes on.  Wonder no more!  Incidentally, these design details, whilst requiring less labour, don’t always work well for plus size knitters or those with larger busts because the excess underarm fabric is uncomfortable or unflattering.  A set-in sleeve would be a better choice, but that takes more time and expertise…about which, see above and below.  Do you see how the dots are connected?

Increased focus on accessory design

Another common solution to the grading problem is to avoid it entirely.  Hats, scarves, gloves, shawls – you name anything that isn’t a sweater or cardigan, and there will be plenty of designers who design accessories exclusively.  It’s a better money spinner too: knitters can more easily treat themselves to expensive yarn and a quicker project, the designer’s labour decreases, and they can more easily monetize their professional work.  The only problem is saturation: how many accessories does a knitter need?  For how long can a designer keep producing innovative accessories in a crowded field?  And for how long can both bury their heads in the sand?

By all means design accessories if that’s your thing, but don’t do it without sticking up for fellow garment designers who are struggling to conflate the roles of designing and grading.  If straight-sized folk can be called upon to advocate for plus-sized people, accessory designers can do the same for garment designers.  Walk the talk.

Another grading stack or nest from one of my designs.  This is for a top-down set in sleeve.  Again, note the colour-coding.
Another grading stack or nest from one of my designs. This is for a top-down set in sleeve. Again, note the color-coding.

So that’s a sketch of the situation.  It needs to change, but how?  I’d be more than delighted to hear others in the comments and on Instagram, but here are my ideas:

It should be widely recognised that currently too much pressure is put on designers, and more attention should be focused on the fact that industry players with the power to effect change are using designers as human shields.  For example, if you get your patterns from periodicals, ask them to invest in professional graders, or ask them if their commissioning fees are reflective of the designer’s production costs.

Related to the above, I feel that a price rise in patterns is inescapable.  Both customers and companies need to make the investment in better professional standards.

Designers can also employ professional grading services.  For example, Lightwork Collective offers a comprehensive technical editing, grading and pattern writing service; look at their website for more information.

More knitters need to become specialist graders so that it’s even easier for designers to find professional help with pattern production.  I’ll mention Tian Connaughton’s Pattern Grading Made Easy course and the Tech Editor Hub again for training and development if anyone is interested, particularly their Grading Masterclass, and also flag up the Fundamentals of Plus Sizes course offered by Motif Learning, which is good for anyone wanting to deepen their understanding of pattern drafting for all body types. You can also find a variety of sizing charts on the Alvanon website.

I say this not to bash anyone in particular, but because it needs to be said, because the dots need to be connected, and because I care deeply about the future of hand knitting patterns.  That future cannot be assured without due recognition of the professional work that goes into them.  I cannot, hand on heart, encourage knitters to get into design without telling at least some of the truth about what they’re in for.  The artistry and imagination of the design process is much more rewarding when you know you have the right support.  In the next post, I’ll lighten things up by beginning to talk about the design process and the many ways in which you can find inspiration.

15 Comments Add yours

  1. Sarah says:

    Natalie, this is all so true and we so badly need to shed this kind of light on the inner workings of the industry. Thank you so much for your leadership and clarity.

    1. Thank you very much Sarah! That means a lot.

  2. Belinda says:

    This is really interesting. Thank you for taking the time to outline it all so clearly.

    1. You’re welcome, Belinda – and thank you!

  3. Fiona BFiona says:

    Such an interesting and informative article. I hadn’t even considered the differences in costs between a dressmaking and knitting pattern, which is something I should have already been thinking.
    I agree, it’s inevitable that knitting patterns will cost more, and why not? If I was knitting a garment for someone I would expect to be paid for the work I have done so why shouldn’t designers be paid for their work too.
    Thank you for taking the time to explain.

    1. You’re welcome, Fiona – and thank you for your words! I appreciate your thoughts.

  4. Birdsong Sundstrom says:

    Thank you for being the brave pioneer in this moment, and opening a deeper conversation. I have been knitting since 1960, and can remember when pattern availability was limited to a few magazines and to booklets from a few large yarn companies- you have partly explained why. In that system, the designer’s name often wasn’t even acknowledged, but was part of a team to highlight the yarn. Today, the starting point is often the indie designer, who enlists an indie yarn company to support a new design.

    You make a very important point about grading being a separate set of skills, that need to be valued and incorporated into the pattern price point. The yarn companies seem better positioned to pay for this part of the process, though that could end up narrowing the designing options back down to a few large yarn companies.

    I have seen a new trend in the past few years, as designers have started to work to offer a wider range of sizes. The designer puts out a call for test knitters, but the test knitter has to carry the cost burden of the yarn. While understandably trying to keep the end pattern cost down, this now passes along devaluation from the designer for another part of the team.

    1. Thank you for your generous comment; you have seen a lot of change unfold in your knitting life, so I’m grateful for your perspective!

      There is a lot about our current knitting culture that needs to change, and it needs to happen on several fronts. I feel that part of the devaluation has a lot to do with yarn companies’ historic devaluation of designers and others involved in the pattern production process. Rather than do proper accounting for time and labour, they must have allocated a fixed budget and said something like “Make it work” – knowing that the margins on the yarn would bring in the real money. If my idea is true, it’s yet another example of how current systems devalue human labour (others being piece work, clocking in/out, zero hours contracts, for example). It’s a nasty legacy.

      My biggest wish is that, as this series continues, we all start thinking of ways to improve the way things are. It has to be a collective effort, whatever we do.

  5. Thank you for writing this and showing how things have evolved. I have thought about tech editing but didn’t know where I could find a quality class. I hadn’t thought about grading, something to think about.

    1. Thank you for reading – and for being a test knitter! I have a soft spot for test knitters; their input is incredibly helpful. Good luck with the classes; if I find any more resources I will update the post, so do check back if you can.

  6. Kath Andrews says:

    A brilliant and really interesting post – thank you. I shall be following up the links!

    1. You’re welcome Kath! I’m happy that you enjoyed reading it 😊

Leave a Reply to Sarah Cancel reply