Sunday, April 10, 2011

The absolute truth about the plus-size knitting market

We've heard it before and we'll hear it again: America is fat.

Much of the industrialized world is, too. Today I don't want to debate the perils of obesity and overweight; I'll leave that to Michelle Obama and your doctor and all the healthier (and often genetically luckier) people in your life. What concerns me today is that business in general and the knitting industry in particular just don't get it.

Attention yarn companies, designers, and publishers: America is fat. And growing older, too. And you're ignoring the fastest growing and most underserved market in the world.

I love diagrams, charts, and maps that SHOW what I'm talking about. So let's start with some illustrative maps provided by the Centers for Disease Control. This first map shows the prevalence of obesity by state in 1994, defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater. In 1994, the prevalence of obesity ranged between 10 and 19 percent nationwide. Note that this data does NOT include the number of people who are considered overweight but not obese.

Fast forward 15 years and look at the 2009 map, the most recent data available from the CDC. In 15 years, obesity expanded to 20 to 30+ percent in every state except Colorado.

From this we can deduce much of our country is obese - and that's not counting the many more who are overweight. WebMD states that in 2010, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index found that "36.6% of Americans are overweight and 26.5% obese." Add those together: over 60 percent of Americans are fat.

I'm not saying this is a good thing. What I'm saying is that this the truth. This is reality. Here's some more reality, as reported by the New York Times:
For years, an average woman was thought to be a size 8, although some circles had bumped that up to size 12 in recent years. But even the women who came in on the small side in the SizeUSA survey look more like what the longtime clothing industry standards would consider a size 14 -- the size at which ''plus size'' clothing begins.
But the average American woman is not only a size 14; she's also older. Despite the fact that every seven seconds someone turns 50, the knitting industry delights in the increase of young craftswomen, as evidenced in the knitting magazines and pattern books published every year. But let's look at reality. The following chart represents age distribution of knitters  according to research conducted by the Crafts Council of America. Despite the CCA's overheated press release that claims that "20 and 30 year olds are turning on to crocheting and knitting," the truth is that the VAST majority of knitters are middle aged or older.

(And as an aside, we all know from personal experience that people often get heavier as they age. Even those 20 and 30 year olds.)

ERGO, Knitting Industry, I challenge your denial about the age and weight of knitters - and more pointedly, the incredible inavailabilty of patterns in larger sizes. From a quick review on Ravelry, there are 24,174 adult sweater patterns available. Of those patterns, only 3,411 patterns are designated plus. The term "plus" is unfortunately not defined on Ravelry so it sometimes means anything from size 12 up.

Now let me put this all together for you:
  • Over 60 percent of Americans are overweight or obese.
  • The average women's dress size is at least a 14.
  • Women often get heavier as they get older.
  • Over 75 percent of knitters are aged 35-65.
  • Only 14 percent of patterns are designated plus on Ravelry.
Plus-sized knitters are the most underserved market in the knitting industry. By far and bar none. We are screaming for more options. We will knit more if you make more. As evidence, note that the four most popular patterns on Ravelry are all available in at least 50-inch finished bust size. I contend that if they were offered in even larger sizes, you'd have even more people making these sweaters.

February Lady - 52.5 largest size
Featherweight Cardigan - 50 largest size
Central Park Hoodie - 60-inch largest size
Hey Teach - 55-inch largest size

As further evidence, I point to Ysolda, one of the industry's most successful young designers. In her upcoming book, Little Red in the City, she offers every single pattern in a 60-inch finished bust size. She even uses a plus-sized model throughout the book (my only complaint is that the larger sweaters were not knit to fit the ample model and therefore sometimes don't flatter her, but I still admire Ysolda's effort to include those of us who are so often excluded).

Finally, Knitting Industry, consider this: as a large woman, I routinely buy over 2,000 yards of yarn to make a worsted-weight sweater. My skinny compatriot requires only 1,000 yards. Isn't that reason enough to provide pattern support for larger women? If all you care about is money, and this is business and America after all, doesn't this just make sense? If you can make twice as much on me, why are you so worried about her?


  1. Julie, you've made it plain and clear!
    That says it ALL!
    This blogging today speaks for the Ample Community as to what we are asking from the designers and publishers.
    I long for the day when I can renew my subscriptions to knitting mags without debating whether or not it is worth it since not even the plus patterns are really styled for the really plus and ample figure, and the material callously overlooks the full figured woman ( make more money???)..
    ...and yes..I spend much much more $$ on yarn for a cardigan than a Medium/Large chick would.

    re: the aging/'growing' population...I always wondered about all those 'vintage' sweater patterns which never seemed to go above a 48.
    The graphs explain it all.
    Thanks for today's blogging, Julie!

  2. Thank you for writing this.

    I am a large woman, living in Oklahoma. Finding flattering, well-fitting professional clothes is difficult. I want my hobby to help me fill up part of my clothing needs. I'm very grateful to designers like Ysolda and Lisa Shroyer, I would like to see more plus designs in warm/hot weather yarns such as cotton, hemp, linen, etc.

  3. Another excellent post! And a very good point. Really, women come in every shape and size, so patterns (and designers) would be smart to include sizing to fit from a tiny size 2 up to a 60" bust-- and include notes on how knitters can further customize the fit. My frustration is that height, girth, and bust measurements do NOT go hand-and-hand, even though the sizing often assumes that they do!!

  4. Thank you for speaking for us real women Julie!!!

    chrisg26 on Ravelry

  5. What a great article! Unfortunately, the statistics don't only apply to the US. I'm in the UK and patterns here rarely go over a 44" bust, so I get most of mine from Ravelry, and by download from American web sites.

    Much as I like to see fitted knitwear, I'm afraid it doesn't work for my midriff bulge - I'm not 'fuller figured' but just plain FAT!!

    Thanks Julie, and good luck with your campaign.
    Robebe on Ravelry

  6. How right you are. When will they see what's in front of them. Plus size knitters spend much more money on yarn than smaller knitters. Every so often the pattern companies get wind of our unhappiness and will come out with a few bones to keep us quiet, example VK, and DB just 2 of many magazines on the market. Lets keep pushing, maybe someone will get the message that the plus size market is willing to spent the money to make stylish hand knited garments.

  7. Very well put. Another thing that always baffles me, when I walk into a yarn shop wearing a handknit sweater, they shop owners should realize, here is a gal who will spend $$ to make her sweater. Sadly this is not always the case. Maybe there is a trickle down effect industry, then shop owners?

  8. Great insight!

    Wouldn't it be wonderful to start by designing a "Perfect sweater" for my size, then figure out how to make it in SMALLER sizes! Sorry, you need it smaller than a 48 bust? YOU figure out how to rework the armholes! LOL!

  9. For the benefit of anyone in the industry who might read this: people who get larger rarely get taller. It would be nice if the larger sized patterns were actually tried on real life fit models, of average height: maybe 5'5". It is hard enough to resize the width of the pattern, without having to deal with the extra length?

  10. Hear! Hear!, thanks again Julie for speaking for the masses... common sense business practices... the demand is there , the supply, sadly is not...


  11. Thanks for writing this and thanks for sharing it on Ravelry! I am a plus sized knitter and while I have seen an increase in stuff that's available I continue to be disheartened by the general lack of patterns that _I_ would want to make, in my size.

    I'll have to get ysolda's next book. I do like her designs.

  12. Hey, just a small matter of fact: in 1998 the CDC changed the definition of overweight and obese (moving the diagnostic threshold downwards), so that is part of why you're seeing such a dramatic increase the number of overweight and obese people from 1994 to 2009. On June 25, 1998, 25 million Americans woke up fat--when they hadn't been the day before.

    Here's a great post from Lesley at Two Whole Cakes that helps to put some of those numbers in context:

  13. Amen, sister! And you could mention that as we age, we're more likely to have had various surgeries or other injuries that have an impact on what we "can" wear. It would be nice to see more designers follow Ysolda's lead.

  14. From my understanding on the plus size sweaters that are in the new Ysolda book, I think the model knitted them. There is a photo of Ysolda in the Shetland Trader book that is in a sweater that is a bit too small.

    And many of the designs are just not flattering on those of us with a bust.

    I have a friend who is a designer and she designs lovely sweaters but they do not look good on anyone who is not really slender. And she is a designer for a few of the big yarn companies.

    And this reminds me it is time to get serious about losing the 30 pounds I need to lose.

  15. Isn't it obvious that we need to stop buying patterns from people who don't write them for plus sizes?

    And I mean well designed plus sizes. I often see patterns where larger sizes are just, well, bigger. The proportions of a big girl are different, it's not enough to expand small sizes and be done with it.

    You touched a nerve, he. Off my soap box now.

  16. You read my mind, last four sweaters knit, gave as gifts to skinny friends, did they realize I gave them a hundred dollar sweater? Probably not.... point being, I am willing to spend the money, but the bottom line is, I would like to have had those sweaters!!! All four of them. Thank you for your approach and I am waiting with knitting needles in hand to spend one hundred dollars for your outcome.

  17. The article is well written and brings home the point. I have never seen business models such as we have today. It is like business of any type is saying "Oh we don't want your money." You ask if they make patterns in your size. "Sorry only 'normal' sizes." {have they bothered to LOOK at normal sizes these days?} You ask if they make an app for your phone "Sorry we have only the Iphone" The business model seems focused on select groups not taking into considerations that the larger populations is OUTSIDE that group. And then the business whine "The market is bad" Yep. Should have made patterns in bigger sizes. Should have made your product available to a wider group. Bailout smailout.. Sell to a wider population you sillies. Remember ALL MONEY SPENDS THE SAME. And just remember you want the most money not the select group because select groups are fickle.

  18. Loved this post, and I am a solid size 14.. I am trying to learn to knit something other than a scarf or blanket.. this gives me hope whem I progress beyond those and socks, I will find a pattern that compliments my size!

  19. I am new to knitting, but I LOVE it! I am also 60 years old but not an old lady, a true plus size who wants clothes that fit, with lots of free time to knit and income to afford the best yarns, supplies and patterns/books/magazines. Thanks for writing this post. Ravely, knitting pattern designers and publishers take note! Please!