Knitwear Design 101: Introduction to Surface Pattern

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Feather lace, worked in The Fibre Co. Luma yarn.

“Pattern” is a loaded, confusing word.  It can serve as a model or aspirational figure – “If you follow the pattern, you’ll get a sweater like the one in the photo” – or, more likely in that situation, a recipe.  Instructions are received and, like cooking, they are used as a base for creation, with tweaks made at the knitter’s discretion.

The second understanding of “pattern” is more generative, calling on the fatherly or paternal qualities that speak of growth.  Pattern is “not merely the recurrence of similar forms, but their recurrence at regular intervals” (Day: 1939, p.4).  This consonance of pattern makes the ears happy when music is played, and the eyes happy when harmonious forms are seen on textiles and ceramics.

Most surface pattern design is aimed at weavers, or artists who design for fabric, tiles or wallpaper prints.  Specialisms like this are typically constrained by the dimensions of the canvas; print designers need to know the width of the fabric, sheet of wallpaper, or the size of the tile to make sure that the pattern fits perfectly.

Back view of me wearing the Hinterland dress by Sew Liberated. I used a cotton gauze fabric with a daisy print. Because fabric print designers can draw more freely, it can be trickier to identify exactly where the pattern repeats are, and they can be larger than you think. However, the eye knows they are there, and all patterns are built and repeated according to the same principles.

Knitters and crocheters don’t have quite the same problem.  Because the surface pattern is an intrinsic part of the fabric, and the fabric itself is a constructed textile, there’s no need to worry about fitting things into a predetermined space.  That said, this freedom only works if the pattern is centred – which the designer ensures – and if the knitter understands how the pattern repeat works.  To convey this information, it’s necessary to let knitters into the workings of pattern, so this part of Knitwear Design 101 might be enlightening for hobby knitters too.

Regardless of whether you’re knitting a pattern you’ve bought, designing surface textiles, or designing constructed textiles – knitwear designers do both by default – you need to know something about the unit of pattern and subsequently how the repeat is formed.  The communication of this information is what often confuses knitters, especially with lace.  Cables and Fair Isle style patterns work in exactly the same way as lace patterns, but are more readily understood because the visual reference is more immediate.  If your cable twists the wrong way, or if you accidentally knit a stitch or two in the wrong colour, you’ll often see it before too long.  For lace patterns, the scale and detail might mean that you aren’t aware until a few rows later.  It’s not that lace is more difficult, but it does mean that understanding more about the design principles of pattern repeats might help, if not switch on a few light bulbs.

A crochet blanket in a cluster and lace pattern, worked in a lemon yellow and abbreviated with white stripes. The edging is also in white and yellow, with the final yellow round finished in reverse double (US single) crochet. Also, more daisies on the cushion.

In my view, there are three tenets of surface pattern design that are especially important for knitting and crochet:

  1. All patterns have a geometric foundation or plan
    Geometry is especially important for knitting because stitches are discrete units.  Creating intricate detail as you would with fine art materials is impossible.  The line is a vector; the stitch is a pixel.  Geometric shapes are easy to form and identify because of the pixel stitches we know and love, but in truth the geometry goes much deeper than this.
  2. Turnovers are a VERY BIG DEAL
    In the same way that ‘yarnover’ is a generic term for creating a lace eyelet, so turnover is a generic term that describes the movement of a basic motif along an axis.  This movement can be radial, along a line of symmetry – or both. 
  3. Drop repeats are a VERY BIG DEAL
    These are crucial for knitting and crochet because they frequently resolve technical or structural problems within the fabric – never mind their place in artistic composition.  There are two main kinds of drop repeat: the kind that drop vertically, and the kind that drop or shift horizontally. 

In mathematical terms, 2 and 3 are types of translation, but I don’t want to say too much more about maths and geometry for point 1 at this stage! But if anyone reading this has used Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator, you’ll recognise this as the kind of thing you do under the Object > Transform menu.

These three tenets lead back to the fact that pattern is generative: there is a notion of increasing, mirroring, or multiplying in relation to the original alignment.  Next month, I’ll talk about drop repeats, how they work and why they are so important – complete with images, of course.  You might never look at stitch patterns in quite the same way again!

Knitwear Design 101: Introduction to Surface Pattern

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Natalie in Stitches

I design for confident knitters who are keen on getting their garments to fit well. My catalogue includes knitting patterns for lace sweaters, cable sweaters, shawls, cowls, and the occasional scarf. These designs are ideal for building or curating an inspiring wardrobe. I am also a qualified teacher and share my favourite tips, tricks and techniques on my blog, where you can also find advice on garment fitting, alterations, knitwear design and sewing pattern reviews. Courses are also coming soon - sign up to my newsletter for updates.

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