Sunday, January 16, 2011

Successful sweater surgery

Today let's talk about how I altered a way-too-big sweater to fit perfectly.

To review, I made my beloved boyfriend, Tom a sweater for Christmas. Despite my very best efforts, it ended up being huge. VERY HUGE. At least in places. Instead of reknitting it from scratch, I decided to alter it - despite the fact that every knitter I know thought I was absolutely nuts for trying. The only person who believed I was up to this task was Tom - who of course doesn't know a damn thing about knitting.

The photos below show the sweater prior to initial seaming. I should have known this sweater would be too big and too long. Look at the copious amounts of fabric in the back and the almost-tunic length.

Regardless, I kept going. Why? Because my boyfriend insisted that he MUST wear a 54-inch sweater even though we'd just bought him a 46 Long suit. He thinks he should be broader shouldered than 46 inches. I think I should wear a size 0 but all the magical thinking in the world doesn't make that happen, does it? I should have used my common sense. I should have known. My big guy isn't THAT big a guy (even if he is 6'4 and weighs 210 pounds).

So, with Christmas rapidly approaching, I finished the sweater, blocked it, and marveled at my work. You've got to admit, it's beautiful. Then I wrapped it up and hoped for the best.

Christmas morning, Tom opened his gift and dutifully tried on the fateful sweater. The good news: it fit his neckline just fine. The bad: it hung like a dress. The drop shoulders fell to his elbows. The fabric billowed in the back. The photo you see here has all the extraneous fabric pulled back and fastened with a double-pointed needle! This baby was HUGE.

Aargh... I needed a plan. The last thing I wanted to do was reknit the damn thing. God, anything but that!!! After lots of analysis and cogitation, I decided that I could alter this sweater. If the neckline hadn't fit, I'd have had to gut it. But grace of God, the neck fit just fine.

I could also alter this garment because it is a drop-sleeve sweater. The body is essentially two large rectangles attached at the shoulders with some neck shaping. The original design doesn't have armscyes (the curve put under the arms to eliminate the extraneous bunchy fabric that results from drop-shoulder sweaters) which made it much easier to alter.

So... here's how I rescued Tom's sweater:

1. I unraveled the seams and cut the sleeves off the body.

2. I realized (after a sage comment from a blog reader) that if I cut several inches off both sides of the body, that the sleeves would be too short. I cut off the sleeve ribbing, picked up the stitches, knit down two inches in plain stockinette, and then reknitted the ribbing. The photo below shows the altered sleeves.

3. Next, I shortened the sweater by cutting 1.5 inches above the ribbing, picking up the stitches, and then reknitting the ribbing.

4. Next up: fixing the width. Using black yarn, I basted in two inches on the sides of both the front and back. This represented where I would sew and steek the sweater.

5. Then I got an excellent suggestion from my own personal knitting guru, Kathy Zimmerman. She suggested I modify the bodice by making the sweater a partial drop sleeve. She recommended taking Tom's crossback measurement - the width between his shoulders - and then cutting the sweater to this measurement. This alteration makes the sweater hang better at the shoulders and eliminates some of the extraneous fabric underneath the arms. Brilliant idea. So I basted in another line on the upper back to match the width of his crossback measurement.

6. Using the sewing machine, I sewed along the black basting lines twice to ensure that the sweater pieces wouldn't unravel.

7. Then, holding my breath, I cut to the outside of the black basting line.

8. When I was finished, I had a resized sweater body. It looked better already.

9. At this point, I felt like I'd better hedge my bets, so I finished each side with a crochet chain stitch. Better safe than sorry. God forbid the thing unravels!

10. I then sewed the sleeves to the sweater and seamed up the sides. Moment of truth! For the hundreth time, I held my breath. Would it fit? Like a glove? The answer to this question is a very hearty YES!!!

11. I blocked the sweater, breathed a huge sigh of relief, and best of all, started on my Early Bird Special Cardigan.

As you can see, the biggest change in the fit is through the shoulders. The drop shoulders now fall to an appropriate length and the sleeves still fit perfectly. These alterations prove Kathy Zimmerman's theory that the secrets to a well-fitting sweater are the crossback and shoulders.
Now, all I can say is: WHEW. I'm glad it worked; I certainly could have failed miserably and ended up with a giant pile of completely usable yarn. I'm feel like I've earned a master degree in sweater alterations - and merited confidence, too. I hope you glean some wisdom from my fire drill. I hope I do, too. ;-)


  1. A job well done.
    So comical "it hung like a dress".
    You are certainly brave to take those scissors in your hand and cut after all that knitting. As I read and followed the post, the thought came into my mind.."What if it starts to unravel?" Your very thoughts.
    But.. they didn't and your calculations transformed the Beagle 1 into a very well fitting sweater for Tom to wear.

  2. You did an excellent job! It is sooo scary cutting into knitting. What a brave woman you are! I tend to forget that most commercial sweaters are now made of a large piece of knitted fabric, then cut and serged and sewn together.

    I love that Tom had no doubts about your abilities! What a guy!!! A man with that much faith is worth keeping!

  3. This was an amazing job you did. What a leap of faith you took when you altered it. It was an inspiration to me.

  4. Good job -- glad that everything worked out for you and the theory of fit is once again proven!

  5. Master's degree? More like a PhD. Excellent work, and thanks for documenting the process.

  6. I am so happy I saw this post - I have pretty much the exact same problem with a sweater for my husband! It was knit, um, a couple of years ago and I've been contemplating performing sweater surgery on it for a while but haven't worked up the nerve. I think your success has given me the confidence to try - I'll let you know how it goes! :)

  7. today the same thing happened to me! You give me hope! Thanks so much!

  8. I found your blog while searching for "too big sweater" remedies. You have some guts, lady! Kudos to you. I don't know if I could stomach cutting into my knitting. The end result of your work looks excellent!

  9. I'm glad I found this. You did an unbelievable job and I'm going to have to do this to a sweater I hand knitted for myself. I’m so bad about knitting a swatch to measure gauge :(

  10. Thank you for this information. I too have knitted a sweater too big for my husband with about the same standard construction except I've used super bulky yarn so I'm not sure if the cut and sew method will on the bulky yarn and keep the thing from unraveling. Do I dare??? Thanks again.

  11. I just did the same surgery on a sweater for my son. I made him a cardigan with wide front bands. When the sweater was finished those wide boarders just did not seem right. I basted down the front of the sweater following one stitch then sewed the line three times on my sewing machine. I then wiped my brow and proceeded to cut just on the outside of the machine stitching. Nothing fell apart. I single crocheted up the fronts to finish the edges. It turned out beautiful. The only bad part was I had to keep trimming the wispy ends of yarn from the last stitch of each row. This surgery saved so much work. This project would have been a career project if I had not done this. The trick is not to be in a hurry. Do each step carefully and things will turn out well

  12. Hi: What about the opposite? My husband isn't huge, but the sweater I made is too snug. Is the only solution to remove the seams and insert a "gusset" of 1" on both sides? How is that done?

    1. Did any one ever answer you? A gusset would work, probably better than trying to block it that much larger. Not sure of your sweater pattern or how you seamed your sides, but yes, I'd probably undo the seams and make some form of gusset, repeating the bottom ribbing all the way up to the underarm to make it a "feature"

  13. Thanks for the great ideas! I'm an advanced weaver, but a beginnerish knitter. I made my wife a tank top in two panels. Have not sewn them together, but I can tell it will be BIG. I could either sew really big seams on the sides... and then what????? I don't know. Or I could cut and paste like you did. I don't have a serger. Some have recommended that. Thanks again. If you have any advice for me, that would be great.

    1. Allen--I know it's a couple of months now, so you may have figured out how to handle your sweater. But here's what I think you should do: sew the seams so they will fit, even if it means they're really big, Baste the seams--I almost always do this with yarn, and try it on for size (I'm hoping this sweater wasn't going to be a surprise). With a regular sewing machine: use a straight stitch, sew the seam, then sew it again and then next to it on the seam allowance, sew a zigzag seam--a total of 3 seams. Try it on at this point before you cut anything just to be sure. Then, trim close to the zigzag being careful to not cut the stitches.

  14. This is just what I needed although I am not going to take sweater apart. I am going to go to my sewing machine and take up the excess at shoulder that way. No matter what happens, Next time I will know what to do. This sweater has been in progress for 8 yrs and it can be worn as an outdoor sweater for just home. Thank you for all your tips, I am saving and printing them out. Sue

  15. This is just what I needed although I am not going to take sweater apart. I am going to go to my sewing machine and take up the excess at shoulder that way. No matter what happens, Next time I will know what to do. This sweater has been in progress for 8 yrs and it can be worn as an outdoor sweater for just home. Thank you for all your tips, I am saving and printing them out. Sue

  16. You did a GREAT job. Now wish me luck, I'm gonna try it too.