Q for You: Do you knit from patterns?

Q for You: Do you knit from patterns?

One of the most vivid memories I have from my first few months as a knitter, hungrily combing the internet for information and guidance and what all, was the moment I saw these mitts of Margaux Hufnagel’s. I asked her about them and she told me: Improvised. I’d knitted two or three pairs of mitts by then, but I hadn’t grasped the basics of construction or the true meaning of a gauge swatch — the magic carpet, as I like to say, that will set you free to go wherever you will as a knitter. So I literally could not fathom how a person could just make up something that specific and gorgeous and perfectly fitted. And it also made me completely nuts that there wasn’t a pattern, because I wanted those mitts desperately.

In the interim, I’ve definitely been known to pontificate about (what I perceive as) too great a dependence on patterns amongst the general knitting public. It’s so important to know the basics of construction and how to make and measure a gauge swatch so that you are in control of what you’re making — whether it’s improvising a pair of mitts or tinkering with a sweater pattern to make it fit your unique torso. But lately I hear myself spouting off more often about how important it is to knit from patterns.

For most of 2012 — the first year of my knitting life — I had a job I was not remotely creatively fulfilled by, but it was pretty 9-to-5, paid well, and left me my evenings to do with whatever I pleased. (After 11 years of working every waking moment — I didn’t even know what an evening was.) I was comfortable but bored, so knitting for me then was my creative outlet. After a long dull day, the last thing I wanted to do with my new-found free time was follow a pattern — I had to either heavily modify or totally improvise in order to feel that I was really creating. But because I was so new to knitting, I made tons of (valuable) mistakes and awkward choices, and wasted a lot of time doing things in more difficult ways than were necessary, not knowing any better or having anyone to teach me.

2013 was the exact opposite. Wanting to concentrate on Fringe, I had quit the job and taken up freelance again, meaning I was back to working non-stop, but on things I love. At the end of wildly hectic, high-pressure days, now knitting is my mental downtime. I don’t want to think much; I mostly just want to sit down with a good, solid pattern and move my fingers instead of my brain cells. And as a result, I’m learning. Learning, learning, learning.

I’ve always believed that a good pattern is the best teacher you can ask for. And as I’ve noted before, I read tons and tons of patterns — way more than I could ever knit. Have knitted hundreds of things in my head that would take years to knit with my fingers. And of course what you discover when you knit from a lot of different sources is that everyone has different ways of doing things — little details like what to do with a selvedge stitch, or how to make a more invisible increase or manage the change in volume from ribbing to stockinette. And those details are so enlightening! So I hope I’ll always read and knit from other people’s patterns, no matter how adept I might become at making my own. Plus geez, there are so many brilliant patterns in the world, and people who’ve done all the swatching and thinking and math to bring them into existence. Why not benefit from that? Especially when they charge only a few dollars for all of that creativity and hard work.

So I’m a proponent of both, but I want to know about you: Do you knit from patterns?

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QUICK SHOP NOTE: the dreamy cable needles and killer canvas-and-leather bags are back in stock.

46 thoughts on “Q for You: Do you knit from patterns?

  1. Helloooooooo…pattern-a-holic right here. I hoard patterns. Way more than I will ever knit in three lifetimes. My brain is too fried at the end of my workday (not that it ever ends) to try and improvise my own. I have so much respect for those who do! (Not to mention gratitude.)

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  2. Even though I write patterns most days either for True Brit knits or someone else I still buy and knit from patterns written by other people. I still have those ‘oh I want THAT’ moments (just this week for Ann Weaver’s Monomania cardigan) and sometimes I just want mindless knitting. Plus I can always learn something from how other people write their patterns, like you say, Karen.

    I can read patterns like some people read novels…

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  3. Thank you so much for your support of the pattern writer! Just the other day I had to explain to a customer the time, effort and MATH involved in writing a pattern after she exclaimed surprise that we didn’t give patterns away for free with a yarn purchase. You’re absolutely right. Patterns are like teachers. When you get a good one you remember it for the rest of your life!

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  4. I definitely do both! I love seeing how different designers think about garments, but I’m also starting to enjoy designing them myself. I also like having default formulas for basic things like plainsocks and plain hats that I can knit without really thinking about what I’m doing, but include some favorite design elements, like favorite heel types or crown decrease methods.

    I recently spun/knit a McIntosh, one of Gudrun Johnston’s patterns from a collection she produced with Quince & Co. Essentially it’s a top down raglan, open front cardi with narrow fronts. But all the little details made it a treat to knit. She used a subtle and pretty increase method for the raglans and it has a shirttail hem, invisibly shaped with wrapless short rows. Icord adds weight to the shirttail hem, making the lightish-weight sweater drape really nicely. And it’s striped. It’s a very thoughtful pattern that turned some pretty rustic handspun into a polished sweater that I’ve been wearing a lot. I learned a lot from knitting all those thoughtful details–

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    • Tracey, thanks for calling to my attention to this little beauty! Definitely a ‘go to’ with the lovely details mentioned by most knitters. And your knit with the handspuns is absolutely a WOW ! ;-)

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  5. Yes almost always, but I am also experimenting with creating my own pattern…creating as I go, doing the math, etc, and I’ve been really surprised by the results.

    Simple, but giving me the ability to work out the kinks and modify as needed.

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  6. I mostly knit from patterns. Very occasionally, I’ll wing it and knit a hat or arm warmers without a published pattern, but not much. If I’m going to spend that much time on something, I want to make sure it’s just right, and I like that patterns work out most of the fiddly math and detailing for me. Plus, I like learning new things, and patterns help me do that!

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  7. I usually knit from patterns – I am always interested in new construction, different ways to do things. I have been trying to cahnge patterns to make them more me – with varying degrees of success to be honest, but at least I am trying. But sometimes I also slows me down when all I want to do is knit and I am always thinking about the next project!

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  8. I’m starting to release myself from my holdover beginner’s pattern-only practice–I feel confident now that, for basic pieces, the yarn & gauge is the most important decision. So for pieces like a simple hat, cowl, etc., I’m off patterns for good, if I know I have a great ball or more of yarn and I’ve done my due diligence with sizing & gauge. I have yet to attempt your (or EZ’s) instructions for an improvised top-down (bottom-up) raglan, mostly because I fear my own impatience will lead me astray.

    With that said, however, I’ve been really happy with two patterns (BT, of course!) that I purchased of items I thought I *could* have easily improvised–the Eno hat and Hayes scarf. Both have careful details in them (really smart selvedge & brioche rib in the Hayes, and needle-sizing & brilliant crown decreases around the cabling in the Eno) that I wouldn’t have known to do myself. (And, as you write above–now I know! So the pattern-as-teacher is in full effect.)

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  9. I do both – sometimes I’ll look at a picture and have enough experience that I improvise something similar to what I saw or that will look nice in the yarn I have (hats, socks, mittens, scarves, some sweaters). Sometimes I’ll use a pattern – if it is important that the outcome is “right” or if it is something I don’t know how to make up (like lace, fancy scarves, sweaters for gifts). Also, I’ll knit patterns 2nd or more times, but from “memory” (either only checking the pattern a few times, or just inspired by the pattern). I work in an engineering field, and, like you, what I’m craving or have capacity for really depends on how much creativity I’m using in my day job. Sometimes I need the puzzle. Sometimes I don’t. I’ve been buying patterns lately and have definitely found that even with things where I understand the basics already, I’ll pick up a neat little trick here or there that becomes part of my general library.

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  10. A well-written pattern is a thing of beauty, and if it helps produce a lovely handknit, even better. Like many here, I do both: Purchase patterns to achieve a specific look or master particular design elements and create my own patterns for the same reasons. It’s like cooking: Some days you want to experiment, some days you want a predictable, desirable result and rely on a recipe.

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  11. I learned to knit in college, before Ravelry, and I was pretty broke and not very knowledgable about how to acquire patterns. So I made stuff up. I remember making hats before I knew about decreasing or knitting in the round: knit a rectangle and sew up the sides. I solved the shape issue by sewing the corners to make cat ears, or sticking huge pom-poms on each side. Now I tend to stick to patterns, partly because I knit to relax and partly because I enjoy all that I learn. In the past two or three years I’ve been very actively learning, and I’d like to improvise more. I love this craft: no matter how far I’ve come, there’s always a new challenge to explore.

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  12. I use patterns and as I grow in my knitting experience, I am learning a lot about well written patterns versus patterns that night lead you on wild goose chase. When I find a pattern that is reliable with clear construction, I will use it to help guide me in making my own custom changes. I really value the comments and tips that users leave on Ravelry as they knit projects. I read them when choosing patterns. Keep those comments coming, Ravelers. I did get an EZ book for Christmas and I hope to take some cues from her to try being more independent in my knitting.

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  13. Like Kate, I also took up knitting in college (had lots of free time somehow). Back in the stone ages, Ravelry and other resources didn’t exist. You couldn’t even check out the patterns in a book without having the physical book in your hands to see whether you wanted to make at least a few things in it. I now realize what a good thing that was, because it forced me to start off with some basic concepts at the time: knitting rectangles and sewing up the sides (drop sleeve sweater), picking up stitches for button bands, knitting tubes (on circs), increasing every ‘x’ rows for sleeves, etc. Once I learned how to gauge swatch, I was pretty much modifying patterns from a couple dog-eared issues of Vogue Knitting in order to create what I had in mind.

    Now I love and admire patterns for the reasons most people have mentioned here. But since I rarely use the recommended yarn, due to geographical and admittedly budget reasons, I do find I often have to make gauge adjustments and this can in the end often affect how the pattern is interpreted overall. Or really make or break it.

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  14. I knit from patterns but change little things all the time ( mostly because I’m small boned and usually have to subtract a couple of inches of sleeve & body length) On a side note, knitting to me is like risk-free creativity ….if I pick the right pattern and a pretty yarn ….I get a pretty reliable sense of satisfaction from the result. Knitting takes a ton of time & I haven’t been doing it long enough to trust myself to just whip something up that I will love. So…..patterns, patterns, patterns ! Haha

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  15. I have a really weird dichotomy going; I very much enjoy *reading* other people’s patterns, but I have a hard time *knitting* other people’s patterns. I think for me it’s one thing to see how someone else might approach or tackle something, but it’s another to put it into practice. Typically I make so many modifications to the pattern to make it “my way” that it’s no less an exercise in fabric manipulation than writing my own would be. I’d like at some point to achieve a bit more of a balance between “thinking knitting” and “following knitting”, but we’ll see how that goes. :)
    On another note, thank you for your notes on how your career has changed over the past few years. It takes a lot of courage to give up comfort for the sake of something you love, and I’m so glad you did. Fringe is such an amazing resource, and it’s all thanks to your hard work!

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  16. I went through a time when I wanted to prove to myself that I could construct a sweater on my own. Like you, I made a simple top-down. It came out fine, but I gained a new respect for pattern makers in the process. Very small details can take a lot of thought and time, two things I now try to reserve for my real work.

    I am also an unashamed pattern hoarder. I like supporting designers and feel that the few dollars they ask, is well worth it. And, I love test knitting for them, for the collaboration and satisfaction of tweaking and problem solving, and for what I learn from them, which has made me such a better knitter. All that said, I also love spontaneous projects that just come from a picture in my head. Most of those projects are crochet….because it is so forgiving of indecision and mistakes. ;-)

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  17. I am a pattern person. A two-year knitter (as well, Karen), and not confident enough to make any serious mods, but understand and value the process to do so; someday….. That well fitting garments are often my goal, I am an avid swatcher, learning early on the power of the “magic carpet.” Karen, I love the label and will be modifying my vocabulary, thank you (again, and agian, and agin).

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  18. I’m like you – I go in spurts of following patterns and making my own. I definitely would not be able to make my own patterns without reading and following hundreds others. I’ve learned soo so much from other peoples patterns, but I’ve also learned a lot from trying – and sometimes failing – to create my own. For example, I now realize just how important choosing your yarn is. You can have an idea in your head of what you want the FO to look like, but if the yarn is wrong then it could fit or look completely different. So when you knit your gauge swatch you also need to look at how the fabric lays, how flexible it is, how see through it is, and how it feels against the skin – as well as taking the measurements.

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  19. I do both. Definitely for the first type of something I make I follow a pattern, but after a pattern or two in something the artistic part of my brain kicks in and I want to start making my own. I definitely understand that feeling that if you are following a pattern you aren’t creating, and it is really important for me to feel like a creator, so I think sometimes I switch back and forth, from learning from others to making for myself.

    Right now, I’m really interested in colorwork, and that is a lot easier to create your own patterns than something lacework, so I’ve starting creating my own charts for basic patterns I’ve already made.

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  20. I’m way too new a knitter to not use patterns. There is so much still to learn. Also, there is so much great stuff out there, I can’t imagine having time to make up my own stuff.

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  21. Both. I love the techniques I learn using patterns. But, like many here, if I want to make a hat, well I just make a hat. I made up a pair of legwarmers for my daughter, using techniques I’d learned from patterns along the way. I knew I wanted a ruffle at the ankle, and I knew I needed them to be tighter at the ankle than at the knee. But, I am a new enough knitter that for anything complex, I really need the pattern. And, full disclosure, I’ve never knitted a sweater for a grown up…….I will say, I pretty much never use the “recommended” yarn. Somehow it’s never available in the color, the fiber or the care instructions I have in mind. Mostly that works out. Occasionally it’s “different” – but I’ve only had one situation where the yarn just wouldn’t work for the pattern I had chosen it for – and that was largely because I ordered the yarn online, and hadn’t worked with it before. ACTUALLY – I think the breadth of yarn experience is helpful too – because you begin to think about yarns you love when you see patterns.

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  22. so the answer is evident in my first thought: “Oh, that picture is of the acer cardigan pattern”. I do knit from patterns, mostly for sweaters becasue I’m too lazy to do the tailoring, etc. on my own, but I almost always modify. I don’t knit from patterns for basic things (baby sweaters, little kid raglans, hats, mittens, cowls, socks) unless there’s an interesting shape/stitch pattern I want to try.

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  23. I knit almost exclusively from patterns. While I’ve done a few minor experiments and loved them, I still like the security of sticking with a pattern. Especially since much of my recent knitting has been toy knitting, working with a pattern just makes more sense to me. I’m sure that as I get better at my knitting, I will find myself straying from patterns and improvising more and more, especially with garments.

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  24. I do knit from patterns, but I like to improvise the patterns (a bit like changing up the ingredients in a recipe). I think improvising a pattern is a great way to learn how your choices can look on a whole garment without having to plan too much, and if it looks terrible you can just rip it back and follow the pattern again, no loss (I don’t mind ripping back work, but some people might cringe at the idea). I like to buy really good basic patterns and then build on them (like Hannah Fettig’s Featherweight cardi – perfect staple!).

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  25. I was very fortunate to learn to knit from a friend who showed me how to swatch, take some measurements, do a bit of math, and go. I made many vests and sweaters, most pretty simple, though I did make a traditional-type Aran sweater – lots of cables I put together from a stitch dictionary. But this was 25 years ago, pre-internet. I think my first written pattern was for socks, which makes sense! But I’ve noticed that I’ve been leaning on others’ patterns, mostly because the web brings all of them to my home to ponder and drool over. So many very creative people out there, and so many gorgeous patterns. But right now I’m working on a colorwork hat of my own design, doing it the old way: swatch, measure, do the math, and cast on. Good to mix it up.

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  26. I knit from patterns – sort of. Sometimes I will follow a pattern to the tiniest detail and other times I make changes. I’ll also take pieces of patterns and make something new and different. To me the interest is more in the stitch design than the garment construction, so if, for instance, I start out with a plain stockinette sweater, it may end up with cables everywhere, or decorative stitches or parts that are lace. But the construction (stitch and row counts) remain the same. It’s just fun that way.

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  27. Both. Right now, my interests have taken me to unique constructions, so I’m drawn to patterns that go beyond my current understanding of how things can be constructed. I’ve almost got a pair of re-soleable socks knit from Interweave’s Favorite Socks. I also recently bought a pattern for a side-to-side sweater that has a neat construction (can’t remember the name of the pattern, but it was part of Harrisville Design’s launch of their Watershed yarn line. As an aside, the yarn is really beautiful and very wooly.) Also, a lot of what’s coming out of Brooklyn Tweed is very interesting, particularly the cable work.

    Most of my non-pattern pieces are pretty simple and driven by a utilitarian purpose…want a cowl that snugs up against the neck, want simple gloves that I can drive with, a pullover to wear around the house, etc. I usually test-drive stuff from stitch dictionaries with these items. (The newest pair of gloves are the ones that use the conductive thread. One strand of thread held with one strand of fingering wt yarn is working, but I think two strands of thread might work better.)

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  28. I buy and hoard a lot of patterns (as well as photographs of knits on Pinterest) but most are only for inspiration and to encourage those designers I admire most.
    When I do knit from a pattern, its because I absolutely love it and yet, I usually still modify something! :-)

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  29. I knit from patterns exactly if I like the look of something or if there are cables or colorwork, but I’ll often just use a basic pattern and modify it to my liking. I haven’t quite advanced to designing something completely on my own yet.

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  30. On your “Shop Note” – I have to say here that those “Dreamy Cable Needles” are truly DREAMY! As for pattern or improvising: for me, both. Because so many designers request that you not sell products made from their designs, its forced me to make up my own hat/scarf patterns. But doing it my way comes only after following patterns to learn the “feel” of hat structure and the various stitches. When I follow a pattern exactly so that I can learn new and more complex stitches, I give those as gifts. And I’m definitely like MJK – pattern hoarder. One of my most favorite “stop for coffee” rituals is to browse Ravelry patterns. And buy them for future reference. What fun!

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  31. I usually follow patterns to a T unless I fudged something to the point that I refuse to rip back. I tend to be too scared to modify something too much because I am still unsure what I am doing!

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  32. I like to use a pattern, because I feel pretty lost without one. But I almost never follow a pattern exactly. There’s inevitably some detail I don’t like or something I’m too lazy to do as described, so I change parts of it. Or I use two patterns – one as my general road map, and another to help me do a certain part a particular way. I recently did this with a pair of mittens, using one pattern for overall construction, while using the method from a different pattern to do the thumb. Actually, this reminds me of how I use recipes for cooking as well! They’re guidelines that provide orientation, but I never let myself become a slave to them!

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  33. It’s true that every now and then, I love the freedom of knitting a project solely from my head and hands. It can be incredibly liberating to simply let your imagination lead the design. BUT that said, knitting from a well-written and thoughtful pattern is one of my greatest pleasures as a knitter. I’m working directly from a beloved and trusted pattern right now and I can’t wait to return to it each night after a long day at work. It’s my respite, for sure.

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  34. Hi! I knit from patterns because I still feel like a new knitter and I have one of those work forever jobs and need to just zone out some nights! The other reason is because I’m really horrid at math and don’t trust my calculations to work out. Maybe some day I will just try it! Thank you for your blog, it’s really lovely and I get so much great information from it. Your writing is wonderful too, so thank you for taking the risk and returning to free lance. :)

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  35. I was just thinking about this recently. I have knit my own designs as well as modifying patters, and just following patterns. I have knitted long enough now that I have definite preferences in the way I do things- those little things you wrote about above, so I make those changes when necessary. Like you, I have far more patterns I would love to knit than I will ever have time for, so I read them to learn new ways of doing things.
    Hats and mitts are items that I frequently improvise, but sometimes I fall in love and knit from a pattern. I love sweaters, and I have designed a couple as well as heavily modifying, but I also follow patterns as closely as possible, changing only the neckline or length. I don’t like seaming, so I always change pieced sweaters to one piece sweaters. I really want to get comfortable with set-in sleeve seams though, because I love the way they look and the options for doing them seamlessly sometimes yield less than ideal results.
    I love knitting, and I am blown away by the genius and creativity of the designers that I have access to.

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  36. Your story sounds eerily familiar. I was addicted to mods when I first started knitting! Not only did I skip swatches, but I would actually *cast on without having read the pattern all the way to the end* (it cracks me up when people say they “don’t have the patience” to knit, considering I knit whole sweaters without having the patience to read three pages at once). It was a great learning experience that eventually led me to the same conclusion: when you find a great pattern, don’t mess with perfection. Nowadays I either make something up, or follow a pattern as close as I possibly can. If there’s something about a design I don’t like, I spend a little more time perusing patterns until I find just the right one.

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  37. I totally totally a proponent of both! I love the freedom of looking at yarn and knowing what I want it to be and then being able to make it so. But, equally, I love scanning Ravelry and seeing the creativity and the skill of others, and then harnessing that to make something I love.

    The nice thing about patterns is that they’re not be-all-end-all. I still feel creative because yarn choice and gauge can change so much. I almost always tweak or modify patterns a little to suit me and what I want, and sometimes that’s enough to feel creative.

    Mostly, though, when I knit without a pattern (or with my own pattern) it’s for something utilitarian. I need a pair of socks, or a pair of mitts, or a hat, or whatever. Even if those things involved colourwork or lace or something, often I’m knitting them for practical reasons. Looking at patterns and reading about other knitters’ techniques and experiences is such good inspiration. And especially with Ravelry and blogs, knitting from a pattern feels like joining a communal experience (in a way like joining a book club and then comparing notes every month or whatever).

    The best thing about knitting, and making in general, is that you can do whatever works for you. So liberating.

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  38. I most certainly do knit from patterns. I’ve been knitting all my life – learned to knit at school – and have made some really lovely fun things. I am in total awe of people who can design their own patterns, or even more amazingly, don’t even need a pattern.

    However, I’m so happy to buy into other people’s creativity as a way of expressing my own.

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  39. Pingback: Q for You: How much time do you have for knitting? | Fringe Association

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