Join Janet on her adventures as a designer, writer, maker, and farmer in montana. no two days are ever the same. you might even see a bear or two.

How to Tie Your Shoes

How to Tie Your Shoes

One of my knitting mentors, Jean Lampe, gave me a great piece of advice when I started writing knitting patterns. She said that writing a knitting pattern is like trying to teach someone how to tie their shoes using only written directions. Try it sometime. It’s not easy. It requires putting yourself into a mindset where you can’t assume any base of knowledge whatsoever.

I’ve been thinking about pattern writing a lot lately as I continue to run into projects whose instructions could benefit from the shoe tying approach. I picked up a very simple pincushion kit the other day at the quilt store in an attempt to keep this fascination with wool penny embroidery at bay. “I will make this pincushion,” I thought—heaven knows I am always in need of pincushions—”and that will scratch this itch.” (I don’t think that’s going to work, by the way, but it was a good thought.) The kit contained everything I needed to make the pincushion: pattern, background wool, wool scraps for the pennies, a ball of cotton perle thread, button, and even a needle.

I had to do some prep work in order to get to the embroidery part of this project, so yesterday morning I took everything out of the bag and spread it out on my cutting table. The first thing I do, always, is to read over the pattern. The “pattern” consisted of one page, half of which was taken up by templates. There was one short run-on paragraph of instructions. The supply list sort of matched up with the contents of the kit, although I noticed that no fusible fleece had been included. I think the quilt store put this kit together—it’s hard to tell from the labeling—and I will mention that to them the next time I am in there. The pattern itself was from a third-party company.

Anticipating that the prep work would take an hour, at most, I launched into the project, cutting out the pieces of felt and fusing fleece to the pincushion base and adhesive to the pennies. The instructions contained a note to “cut the pennies 1/8” larger than templates 2 and 3 all the way around.” There was no explanation of why one might want to do that. It just so happens that the quilt store had this pincushion on display in both wool and batik versions. In the batik version, the pennies were cut out of fabric instead of felt. I surmised that the instruction for cutting the templates 1/8” larger all around was so that the raw fabric edge could be turned under during the embroidery stage, although there was no explanation in the pattern to that effect. As I didn’t need to turn under the edges of the wool pennies, I cut them the same size as the templates.

[If I were writing this pattern, I would change the instructions so that the templates were 1/8” larger all around with a note to the effect that if the maker is using wool instead of fabric for the pennies, the pennies should be cut down by 1/8” all the way around. You can remove fabric if you cut something too large. You cannot add fabric if you cut something too small. The note about cutting the pennies 1/8” larger than the template is too easy to miss.]

Next, I laid out the pennies on the wool background to determine their placement before fusing them down. Here, I noted that a background circle 6-1/2” across was not large enough to place three 2” pennies across and still have a 1/2” seam allowance all the way around the edge of the circle. That is a simple math problem. Of course, by this time, I had already cut the background circles from the fabric included in the kit. I considered cutting slightly larger background circles out of some wool from my stash, but in the end, I cut the pennies down enough to make three of them fit across the circle leaving a 1/2” seam allowance.

There is no excuse for that kind of sloppiness, in my opinion. First of all, do the math. Secondly, make the pattern according to your instructions after you write them to make sure that they work. This is a pincushion, for pete’s sake. It would be a simple matter to have two or three people test the instructions. As I said to the husband, I’ve designed dozens of complicated Aran sweater patterns. I didn’t have the luxury of having my instructions test-knitted by anyone but me and yet I still managed to write patterns that were completed successfully by hundreds of people. (I also had a great tech editor.)

It took me twice as long as anticipated to do the prep work for this pincushion, with a great deal more frustration than was necessary. Eventually, I was able to get it to the point where I could work the blanket stitch around the pennies:


Poorly-written instructions seem to be a hallmark of embroidery patterns. The one I purchased for the class at the quilting store in Spokane was short on specifics, too. I wonder if this is because I am used to working with knitting patterns. Knitting is a much more popular hobby with a much longer history of written patterns and (apparently) more rigorous standards. The ease of desktop publishing is also to blame, too, as it makes everyone with an idea think they are a designer. That is no excuse, though, for not having a pattern—especially a simple one—tech edited or tested by someone other than the designer.

Bag designers have pattern writing dialed in, and I think it’s because almost all of them send their patterns out to dozens of testers ahead of the pattern release. And some of those bags are really complicated.

This pincushion isn’t going to take more than a few evenings to complete. I really think I am going to need to start some kind of wool penny sampler or something. Much of what I need is already in my stash.

The Figures charm pack quilt top is done except for the borders; I got it assembled and didn’t want to deal with it any longer, so I set it aside for a few days. The blue and white sampler quilt is back up on the design wall in the process of being put together. I also canned eight quarts of beef stock yesterday afternoon.

And now for the morning weather report:


As you can see, the air temperature—not the wind chill—is about -15. It’s a bit breezy out there, too, so the wind chill will be even lower. The cold is supposed to break by Wednesday, with temps back up to the low 30s. I have no doubt that I will see people running around in shorts by then.

A Wool Penny Pincushion

A Wool Penny Pincushion

Expecting the Unexpected

Expecting the Unexpected