The Romance of Pattern Writing

I came across a funny little story recently in the book “No Idle Hands – The social history of American knitting” by Anne L. Macdonald.

The story tells of a well known bag maker from New England back in the 18th Century. Matilda Emerson, who had a bit of a thing for her widowed parson.

Matilda decided the way to snag the vicar was to become best friends with his sister (and housekeeper). She did this by offering one of her treasured knitted bag patterns to the sister in hopes of getting in with the family. The pattern was for a mourning bag, complete with willow tree, grave and urn images.

Well, it turns out Matilda wasn’t the only lady with eyes for the vicar. Her romantic rival, Ann Green, got wind of the situation and managed to get hold of the pattern. She changed some of the pencilled chart markings, enough not to be noticed, but to result in the bag turning into a bit of a mess.

Back then, patterns were highly guarded secrets so sharing the pattern with the ministers sister was a big deal. But when the sister realised the pattern she had was a dud she was annoyed. She went to Matilda and told her off for withholding the pattern. Then she went and told her minister/brother the whole sorry tale.

Eventually Ann’s puritan conscience make her confess what she had done, but it was too late. The minister had met a woman from another town and married her making both women lose out on their man.

If there was a moral to this story it might be to keep your patterns to yourself. 

It shows that for centuries we have considered questions of how open we should be about patterns and craft techniques. Matilda made her living from her knitted bags and was well-known and well-paid. Disclosing the pattern to one of her bags would open her up to copies being made and her livlihood being diminished.

I guess another moral might be that no man is worth your livlihood, but that’s just cynical spinster me talking.

I remember hearing a similar secrecy to patterns from the Irish crochet families, who kept guests waiting on the doorstep until all traces of the crochet was hidden away. 

Even today, I have a friend who writes her patterns in code that only she understands in the fear that someone might get her notebook and be able to steal her pattern ideas.

I don’t know when things changed, and patterns stopped being passed solely through word of mouth and secrecy and began being published, perhaps as I read the book further I may find out.

As a child watching my mum and others knit it seemed to be a different situation where knitters bought patterns from huge folders in  yarn shops and the idea of writing your own pattern was unheard of. If you liked something a fellow knitter had made you asked for the pattern number and went out and bought your own copy.

Today though it seems the world is filled with people having a go at writing patterns, me included. Websites like Ravelry allow people to have a go at pattern writing and self-publishing without the need of a magazine editor or a yarn supplier taking their cut. Online shops like Etsy and Folksy let you set up business in the comfort of your own home and even the government seem to be noticing the trend in micro businesses. 

This is a great time to try your hand at self employment or pattern writing and I’ve noticed a couple of books recently published not on pattern designing, but on how to write down the pattern. This might have come about from a frustration from knitters and crocheters at the different styles of writing down your pattern. 

In my local knitting group, during a time when we seemed to hit numerous badly written patterns,  I considered doing my final uni project on knitting mistakes and the strange ways people write patterns down.

None of this even covers the question of whether you should charge for a pattern or give it away for free.

One thing is certain though, thanks to the online resources available, more and more people are trying their hand at writing their own patterns, and this is a great thing.

I wonder, as I attend several knitting/crochet groups on different styles and techniques, will the pattern writing trend move into knitting groups and we’ll soon attend a ‘how to write your first pattern’ event. 

Will we eventually see a pattern writing weekend or a write in public day.

I wonder, if Matilda was around today, would she have got her man? Would the outcome be different?

I imagine the pattern would be on Ravelry at a small cost and the Parsons sister would have already downloaded it and kept a hard copy, free from meddling love rivals. I expect though, the outcome would still be the same, because I suspect the Parson already had his eye on the woman he married.

The moral here might actually be, a fancy bag won’t get your man if he’s looking the other way.

Published by bettyvirago

Betty Virago is an award winning textile designer. Based in Yorkshire, England, and known for her Northern Folk dolls and the Quilts of Hope project.

2 thoughts on “The Romance of Pattern Writing

  1. I enjoyed the story! I think Matilda forgot that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, not his sister :-) Anyway, it is interesting that the fear of revealing ones pattern secrets dates back so far. For me, sharing patterns encourages people to pick up a hook or needles, and this is much more fun.


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