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Do Knitting Patterns Deserve Better Than PDF?

Image of a phone with a knitting pattern shown on the screen

The ancient craft of knitting originated from the Middle East around the 11th or 12th century, with the earliest record of written patterns being published around 1520. Today, knitting patterns come in various forms of print; books, magazines, pamphlets in the physical form and patterns can now be found published on websites and blogs or available as downloadable files. Although knitting remains a popular craft and is practised regularly all over the world, little traction has been gained by anyone looking to bring knitting patterns into the 21st century. These days, it feels like without technology and the internet the world wouldn’t go round . But would the knitting industry benefit from an injection of technology to bring it up to speed or is this ancient craft better left alone? After all, why try to fix something which isn’t broken..?

How PDF’s and Ravelry changed knitting…

Portable Document Files (PDF’s) were first invented in the 1990’s to allow users to view, comment, exchange and print documents easily. The PDF standardised digital documents ensuring a consistent viewing experience regardless of the software or operating system used to open it. The PDF is also useful for printing physical copies of a document in a predictable fashion.

I think many people would agree with me when I say that the creation of the popular knitting website, Ravelry, kick-started the online knitting community and in doing so revolutionised the hobby. It is, for sure, the largest knitting (and crochet) website in existence, with over 1 million patterns recorded in it’s database and 9 million registered users as of March 2020. This number is likely to be much higher now due to the boom in popularity of yarn crafts caused by a certain deadly virus that stopped the world. Ravelry created an online community through the use of groups, forums and messaging systems connecting like-minded yarn crafters around the world in a way that had never been possible before. Way back in 2012, Ravelry stated that 1.3 million patterns had been sold through it’s highly lucrative online marketplace since launch. Goodness knows what that number would be now, in 2024!

All patterns sold on Ravelry are PDF files. Before the PDF patterns were only widely available in more traditional forms of print publications, like those outlined at the beginning of this post. As such the breadth and variety of patterns available was limited to what publishing agents wanted to print. With the creation of the PDF pattern and subsequent popularity of platforms such as Ravelry making ‘everything knitting’ easily accessible a new generation of designers have entered the hobby. Anyone with a computer and a bit of knitting knowledge can now publish a knitting pattern and call themselves an ‘indie designer’, myself included.

It may sound like I am speaking about indie designers in a derogatory way but this isn’t my intention! More designers means more choice and variety at the touch of a button. This is a luxury and often I find myself paralysed by indecision of what to knit next. Knitting is an expression of creativity and creativity should have no bounds, right? I think it’s a common misconception to assume that patterns published in books or magazines by big publishing houses are more likely to be of a superior quality to those produced by ‘the little people’. Whether a pattern is produced by a major publication house or by a small independent designer has absolutely no bearing on the quality or accuracy of a pattern. I have written about this before and will probably write about again sometime, but lets not get distracted now.

The problem with PDF files…

A PDF is very much an electronic file, but it is designed to display information in a predictable manor, in the same way as information would displayed in a print format such as a book or magazine. Contents aren’t scaled or reorganised dynamically to fit different screen sizes like we see with many modern websites or e-book formats. In order to consume all of the information in a PDF the user is required to manually zoom and pan around the contents to make them readable on whatever device they are using. I never print off a PDF pattern these days. I download the pattern file to my phone or laptop and view it from there. When writing my own patterns I lay information out in 2 columns to make the contents more easily digestible on smaller portrait screens without having to constantly pan around but this isn’t necessarily best for a landscape screen or printed document. PDF and other document formats built around traditional paper size standards (e.g. A4) were not designed to carry content which can adapt to the constraints of various device screens which means the viewing experience will be somewhat compromised in a lot of situations.

Although there have been attempts to make ‘interactive’ PDF patterns I have always found the experience a bit clunky and they still aren’t able to scale their contents to fit any screen. The main objective for an interactive PDF pattern, in my experience, is to allow users to create a ‘custom fit’ garment (e.g. The Staple Tee from New Wave Knitting). This is pretty cool, but creating a PDF form in this way is complex and the user experience across PDF readers varies wildly which can be frustrating. It definitely feels like the “configurable pattern” experience could be better served by a more accommodating format…

There’s an app for that!

With technology being what it is these days, there have been a handful of apps that have tried to create a more interactive pattern reading experience. The biggest players I can think of right now are probably Tin Can Knits, KnitCompanion and Ribblr. Tin Can Knits have created an app to display their own patterns in an easy to follow format with interactive features such as project configuration so you only see relevant instructions, use of row and repeat counters and settings for layout optimisation like text size, light/dark mode and preferred units. The app experience is pretty good in my opinion, but it only supports their own patterns…

KnitCompanion has been around for a few years now and has gained many supporters. Their app offers many useful tools and features for the knitter including the ability to overlay and extract information from any PDF pattern to make them easier to follow. This can either be configured by the knitter prior to starting the project or they can pay for a pre-configured file if one is available. I haven’t used the app in several years and it has come on a long way since so I can’t really pass comment on how well it works but wouldn’t it be great if a pattern file just did all of this inherently?!

There are plenty of other apps out there but I don’t have much interest in comparing them all. Several have concentrated on simplifying patterns, removing complicated jargon and offering tutorial videos for each stitch or technique to make them more accessible for new knitters. The reality is nothing has yet come along which is as versatile or universally understood as the PDF or printed pattern. It’s a medium that people understand and doesn’t require a web browser or smartphone which is comforting to many… That said, it feels as if the knitting pattern has never had it’s ‘e-book’ moment. Most solutions have focused on fixing the limitations of the PDF or attempting to create a proprietary web or app based ecosystem which removes some of the convenience and flexibility provided by the trusty PDF. The PDF knitting pattern can be read on many devices and easily printed to make it readable by anyone, anywhere. You don’t have to be subscribed to a specific service or install a specific app which is why many attempting to bring knitting into the 21st century are struggling to gain traction.

Could a leaf be taken out of the e-book world?

The rise of the e-reader and associated e-book formats transformed the way we buy and consume books. The ability to carry a whole library in your pocket and customise the reading experience to your hearts desire was revolutionary at the time and life changing for those with disabilities making reading a conventional book difficult or impossible. Statistics show that e-book sales have declined in recent years as buying habits have swung back in favour of physical media but the e-book is nevertheless here to stay and offers some undeniable benefits.

Knitting patterns are functional documents. Although some will prefer to have a physical printed copy the desire to own a physical copy to put on the shelf in the same way that you might your favourite novel doesn’t exist. The rise of the PDF pattern shows that the knitting community are happy to buy patterns in a digital format however, unlike with e-books there is no file format dedicated to distributing a knitting pattern and all that this entails. There are many dedicated e-book formats both open such as ePub and proprietary such as the Kindle File Format (AZW). The file format is purely responsible for carrying the contents of the book in a consistent fashion which can then be interpreted by an app or device which can display the information based on your own preferences or device limitations. So why don’t we have something similar for knitting patterns?

A file format dedicated to carrying the information required to knit a garment would open up many possibilities beyond what a PDF can offer today. Instead of being a static document formatted to the designers tastes a dedicated knitting pattern file could be interactive and adaptable in every sense of the word…

Knitters…

Can you imagine a knitting pattern that could adapt to your specific viewing needs, preferences or language? A pattern which can omit all of the information not relevant to the project you have configured. Can you imagine a pattern that allows you to customise various elements? For example, input your gauge and custom component measurements and allow the knitting pattern to generate a bespoke project just for you. A pattern that can dynamically adjust to your screen or be configured and printed if you prefer. Imagine if a single pattern file could contain all of the information required to do all of the above and available to download in the same way we download a PDF today…

Designers…

Have you ever considered creating customisable or interactive patterns but don’t know where to start? Would you prefer spending your time knitting samples rather than wasting time formatting information to fit a specific space on a page. Speaking of time wasted, how long do you spend shifting through your work making sure every abbreviation or chart symbol has been documented? As a designer myself I feel it’s important to own my master pattern files so I have full control over where and how I sell them. Ideally I would not tie my patterns to a specific app or ecosystem and loose out on the benefits of using established outlets like Ravelry, LoveCrafts or Etsy just to gain interactive features. Does this resonate with you too?

It’s all possible, you know!

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