TIDKT: A beginner’s view on free vs paid PDFs

Just before Christmas I had an interesting email from a student and friend of mine, Ellie.

Hi Joanne,
I know you often post against free patterns on your blog and Twitter. I completely understand your reasons, but I regularly use free patterns and thought it might be helpful to explain why, as this may make an interesting blog post.
I both knit and crochet. There are elements of each that I enjoy and elements that I don’t enjoy. There are obviously also huge amounts that I don’t know yet. When using a free pattern you can see the pattern in advance and get a feel for what level the pattern is aimed at, what skills are required, and if you’ll need to learn anything new. However, paid patterns usually don’t give this type of information up front, and even when they do I’ve often found it lacking (e.g. I’ve just bought a knitting pattern which failed to mention I’m going to need to learn DPNs).
While I really want to support designers, I simply find it too frustrating to not know what I’m getting into in advance.
When dealing with complicated patterns e.g. clothing, my solution to this problem has been books. I’ve spent a fair amount of time sitting on the floor of Waterstones poring over books trying to work out if I can immediately do at least some of the patterns and want to work towards achieving the rest. This has the added benefit that it’s much easier to ask for books for Christmas than PDFs!
I hope this helps you, and possibly other designers, understand this issue from the purchaser’s point of view. I’d be ecstatic if it lead to more information being provided before having to buy a pattern….

I was really pleased that Ellie had taken the time to remind me of a few things that I had forgotten from when I first started out. It is very easy for me to look at a picture of a finished object and decide if I think I’d like to make it because I’m pretty confident in my knitting and crochet skills. I must admit though that there are some techniques and some writing styles that I am not fond of and I do much prefer to review a pattern before I buy it so I can see if I’d enjoy making it.

So what can we learn from this? A lot I think. And it also raises some interesting questions.

  1. Ellie is really a very brave and confident crafter. She’s willing to get stuck in and have a go at most things. She is also very clever and persistent so she can teach herself most things. So if she feels this way then you can double or treble this effect for crafters who need a little more hand holding or who are wary of trying new things alone.
  2. Lets not make knowledge assumptions. Sometimes even experienced knitters have knowledge gaps. (For instance it was only eighteen months ago I first knit in the round on a small circumference) Beginner/Intermediate/Advanced doesn’t really cut it.
  3. One thing we can easily do as designers is ensure that all the skills needed are listed in pattern description. I am planning to have a brainstorm and list all possible skills and add them to my stylesheets as I think deleting ones not needed will give me better results than listing those needed.
  4. In the past I have been a little wary of writing very detailed descriptions of what the pattern entails as it makes it easier for people to reverse engineer. However Ellie has made me rethink this. I think giving a highly detailed break down will probably help me sell more to beginner and intermediate knitters (my target market) None of my for sale patterns are so simple that breaking down the steps will easily enable someone to make it and if someone is going to go to the trouble of reverse engineering something they are unlikely to buy a pattern regardless. Bear with me, this may take some time to achieve for old patterns!
  5. If we give accurate and highly detailed information before people buy then we build trust and probably customer loyalty.
  6. With PDF downloads is there a viable way of letting people look through the pattern before they commit to buy it? My guess is not easily but if anyone has any clever ideas then please let me know!
  7. Could I have a policy to refund people who buy a pattern then decide it isn’t the right skill level for them? This is certainly tricky because buying and refunding creates fees I have to pay (Paypal and Ravelry) – I am too small a business to be able to suck these up at the moment I think.
  8. Could my business expand into print? I would love to write actual physical books and pamphlets and fully agree with Ellie that I really prefer a printed pattern, magazine or book to a pdf download (call me old fashioned!) With on demand printing is this a service I could offer to customers? How could I get these distributed?
Lots of work for me to do to sharpen up this area of my business and to answer some of the questions I raised here.
Thank you Ellie for a thought provoking email and for allowing me to publish it here.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments, both from the designers and the customers.


  1. says

    I agree with you. It’s not that long ago that I was a brave and adventurous beginner and I would have loved to have the information about what skills are needed before buying a pattern. It’s definitely something I will think of adding to my pattern description pages. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. says

    What a great lot of ideas, I am probably an intermediate crocheter, and tend to stick to designers I know and can understand (as everyone composes patterns in slightly varying ways) so while that’s great, it does mean I tend to limit the patterns I buy to only a handful of people and therefore limit my experience at following patterns and trying out new things. Thanks for this, very thought provoking, even for those of us who aren’t designers!

  3. says

    I purchased a shawl pattern where the cover page had been uploaded as one of the pictures. I could see everything about sizing, needles, standard abbreviations, schematic… I found it very useful :-)

  4. says

    I purchased a shawl pattern where the cover page had been uploaded as one of the pictures. I could see everything about sizing, needles, standard abbreviations, schematic… I found it very useful :-)

  5. says

    Thanks for those interesting thoughts. To be honest I’m not a huge fan of PDF patterns, EXCEPT I know the designer. Think the problem with pdf patterns is in general that you, especially as a beginner, don’t have any clue how much love the designer actually put into the pattern. Is it properly tech edited, did he/she have pattern testers, are proper step by step pictures included which make actually sense. Do you like the writing style of the designer. So many questions, which don’t get answered before you actually purchase the pattern. I do write patterns myself and provide them for free but there are several reasons for that. I don’t design to design I usually create to make someone I know smile. I tend to make things up as a go along so the patterns are more my personal notes that I can remember what I actually did. I skip all the steps, which would provide extra work for me e.g. gauge measurement etc. And now the biggest thing why I don’t charge for them is can I actually charge for it? Is it good enough to charge for it? To be honest I don’t know :(. BUT that doesn’t mean that I’m only after free patterns myself. As I said if I know the designer I’m happy to pay for a pdf pattern but in general its back to old-fashioned books and magazines for me. Especially when I’m making a bigger garment. This way I know what I’m getting myself into before buying. Sadly I don’t have any good idea how to fix that overall problem with pdf patterns. When you would have some sort of preview function I think that it’ll be very likely that most people would just stick to the preview function and than don’t actually purchase the pattern. “Donation”button – again you rely on peoples honesty. So maybe a small “snippet” from the pattern is a way to go to see if you like the writing style? San x

  6. says

    Lot’s of good food for thought here isn’t there? And a number of different issues are raised. Here are my ( current) views for what it is worth :-) Firstly free versus paid in general – I think there is a place for both options, but if we want quality designs & patterns these need to be paid for or there will be no quality designs or patterns. However simple free patterns also have a place and can be a useful way for designers to allow knitters / crocheters to sample their pattern style etc.
    PDF versus paper – again I think that offering both options is desirable. Whilst some people are happiest with paper , I think that there is an equal number of folks who would only consider PDF for a variety of reasons, not least of all availability – these days many people are used to not having to wait for things to be delivered etc. for the independent designer the paper option, besides printing issue, poses other challenges around distribution etc as Joanne points out in her post.
    Quality of introductory information – Ellie flags some valuable points about this which are important considerations for designers pattern writing styles. I have recently started to self publish patterns for sale and I do include details about the skills needed in the description, and also provide helpful links to places these techniques can be learned. However, I’ll be sure to revisit these and my format for future patterns having read this, as I’m sure there will be room for improvement.
    With regard to Loopsan’s point re how do you know what you are getting in terms of quality, perhaps some of this can be addresses by something in the designers profile, or the pattern description which spells out things like whether it has been tech edited and/ or test knit, and whether there are additional step by step photos etc. Also a free sample pattern or two could be offered by the designer which showcases issues such as writing style, formatting etc.
    Another benefit of PDF is that, unlike paper patts, you don’t need to limit the length of these so you can be free with step by step photos for example.

    Another interesting and thought provoking post and discussion – thanks again Joanne – I really enjoy your blog :-)

  7. says

    This is an interesting topic! It’s one I’ve been thinking of blogging about, too. It’s certainly making me re-think my pattern descriptions. I will be adding skills needed, for sure, even when they seem simple or obvious to me.

  8. says

    As someone who is just starting out in writing up patterns for projects it’s an interesting debate. If I share for free it’s a great way to get feedback on what works and what doesn’t, and generally the crafting community is supportive and shares responsibly. For generic things (I’m doing some hearts at the moment) I think most people with a level of pattern skill can ‘reverse engineer’, so sharing how I do it isn’t ever going to make me a million in pattern sales…However, a more detailed animal/doll/character/clothing item (if I ever get that brave) might be far more individual, personal and therefore profitable, and yep, I’d probably be cheesed off if someone started rolling a shed load of them out and not crediting the author.

    Lastly, I am now more likely to buy patterns having trailed and errored with freebie ones whilst learning the skillsxx