A few years ago, when I was developing our lovely lambswool snoods with William Lockie – a brilliant company based in the Scottish Borders – I thought I’d visit their Hawick factory, to find out more about how they worked.
I was interested in the different processes and different kinds of labour that would be involved in producing a thing that I’d designed, and my visit certainly taught me a lot about that, but it also made me reflect on a whole lot more.
I was able to observe a lot of different kinds of skilled work that day, and one set of processes that particularly intrigued me was the fitting and application of the button bands to some beautiful, fine- gauge cashmere cardigans. The work of the women producing the cardigans was just as fine as the luxury yarns with which they were working: every action they took was careful, focused, and perfectly precise. Watching these women work really made me think about how much more – in both a hand-knitted and commercially-knitted context – goes into producing a cardigan than a pullover. You’ll know from knitting cardigans yourself that there are always more ends to weave in than a pullover: which is a good guide to the additional processes involved. There are a multitude of ways of handling cardigan buttonbands, buttonholes, collars and edgings: but all are fairly labour-intensive, and all require a certain level of precision and care.
It simply takes more time, more processes, and more skills to create a cardigan than a pullover, and I thought a lot, when I left Lockies that day, about why these differences in labour intensity seemed to be so rarely reflected in the retail prices of comparable commercially produced cardigans and pullovers (have a look yourself, and see). It’s something I still think about, today. Most consumers, perhaps, never think about the skilled work involved in creating a buttonband, and buttonholes. The way the market works means they never have to think about it.
There’s a lot more – from the design end – about developing a cardigan too. The application and finishing of collars, buttonbands and buttoholes are fiddly processes that must be clearly and carefully described in the pattern writing. And then, grading a cardigan proportionately across a range of sizes is a task that’s much more complex. Rather than a pullover’s simple front and back (generally easily divisible by 2), there are left and right fronts to consider – and a stitch count that’s divisible by 4, at the same time as allowing any patterning on the body to be centred (think about it). If you are working with a particular pattern repeat, how will its numbers work out with the balancing and centre-ing requirements of both fronts and the back throughout the size range? Can you mirror the pattern around the front opening? Can you retain this symmetry across the back? And if you have multiple pattern repeats, with different stitch counts to consider, how will these numbers then pan out across the different sizes? I love designing cardigans, but in terms of the work involved, there’s undoubtedly more to consider.
. . . which brings me to Serkinet. I have had a cardigan design with slightly puffed sleeves and textured panels reminiscent of early-modern embroidered or quilted bodices in the back of my mind for some considerable time. In my mind, the cardigan looked just great, but I knew that working on it would be quite involved. So the pattern just had to wait until I had enough head space for it.
I really enjoy the charting, spreadsheet and numbers tasks of pattern development. Many designers do not relish this part of the job at all, and prefer to sub-contract the work of grading in particular to the professional pattern writers or tech editors with whom they collaborate. Though I find grading fun and really interesting, it is undoubtedly also quite challenging – the numbers stuff perhaps comes least naturally to me of any element of designing – and so it definitely takes quite a bit of time and thought.
Grading a cardigan design like this for proportion and balance across a size range with multiple panels and repeats is particularly tricky. Each size needs to be looked at carefully, and (if you don’t want to write completely separate patterns for individual sizes) small compromises often have to be made in order to create instructions that read fluently, clearly, and concisely (my three key aims of pattern-writing!). When developing Serkinet, I found myself waking in the early hours musing about which methods of chart naming / identification would work best for the majority of knitters, and which elements of which chart panels were worth mirroring centrally, over the front and back.
Developing and grading Serkinet was very much like putting the pieces of a complex puzzle together. Odd and even sizes behaved differently with the panel numbers. I was able to mirror the twists – creating perfect vertical symmetry across the size range over the sleeves, back and both fronts – but there were minor shoulder-strap-related compromises to make too.
I mention all of this not because I feel I need some kind of congratulation (I do not: designing cardigans is something that I love to do!) but rather, because, much like the commercially-produced buttonbands whose additional human effort may not be reflected in a garment’s final price, I sometimes feel that there’s a particular kind of additional labour involved in the design and grading of cardigans that remains weirdly invisible (or at the very least under-discussed) in the knitting community. I’ve enjoyed Natalie Warner’s posts about designing and pattern development – and if you’d like to learn and think more about the different decisions and processes that can be involved in developing and grading garments for hand-knitters, Natalie’s blog is a great place to start.
Perhaps you are interested in the question of whether, with Serkinet, I feel that the additional labour involved was worth it?
Well, when this cardigan was finished and blocked, and I stitched its buttons on, I couldn’t quite believe it was something I’d designed.
So I suppose the answer’s a resounding YES!
I’ve absolutely loved the process – and the end result – of this particular cardigan design challenge – and I very much hope you enjoy Serkinet just as much in the making and the wearing!
. . and you’ll also, of course, find the pattern in SARK.
Happy cardigan knitting!