Monday, April 18, 2011

How to select a sweater pattern size - and plan for mods, too

An intrepid knitter from the Ravelry Ample Knitters group wants to make Sue McCain's Slip Stitch Pullover. She's bottom-heavy in the Fit to Flatter parlance, so how should she select the right size and modify the sweater to really fit?

Let’s start with the most important thing first: most beginning sweater knitters select knitting patterns like they’re ordering something from a mail-order catalog. You look up your actual measurements in the chart, pick the closest size, and order, right? This works because the retailer has already taken something close to your measurements and added ease. Knitting Daily defines ease as “the extra fabric that allows space between you and your garments--space for things like moving, breathing, comfort, and extra layers of other clothing.”

Makes total sense. Except this isn’t the way it works in knitting. When you look at a size chart in knitting, you’re looking at the finished sizes, not the bust sizes (or whatever body part). So your first task in determining sweater size is deciding out how much ease you want by taking your basic measurements and adding ease for the bust, waist, and hips (and sometimes other body parts like upper arms if they are wide).

So, assuming you have a 46-inch bust and want a standard fitting sweater, you usually add four inches. If you want a snugger sweater, you’d add zero or two inches of ease. If you want baggy, you’d add six or eight. But the Slip Stitch Pullover looks like it needs pretty standard ease, so let's assume four inches. This necessitates a 50-inch finished bust size.

(Caveat knitter: larger people need additional ease - I think. I’m still working this out for sure, but I know from experience that garments knit with four inches of ease are snug on me. So if you’ve got a 58-inch bust like I do, you should probably add five or six inches of ease rather than four.)

Okay, back to the 50-inch pattern. The trouble now is that this sweater doesn’t come in a 50-inch size; the choices are 48.5 or 53.5.
Our intrepid knitter's measurements are as follows:
  • Bust - 46 inches
  • Waist - 44 inches
  • Hips - 55 inches
Given that the bust and hip measurements are very similar, and that our intrepid knitter has wider hips (welcome to my personal club), I think she should make the 48.5 bust size. She questioned whether she should make a smaller size since she doesn't need much ease at the bust, but I think if you have any roundness at all, you need at least some ease. If you’re stick thin with no curves, zero ease is fine, but if you’re shaped like anyone else on the planet, skin tight does not work. This is of course my humble opinion - if you want skin tight, go for it. With the 48.5 finished bust size, we know she'll have sufficient ease for her bust and waist - but what about her 55-inch hips?

Definitely need some mods to make this sweater. Given that she needs about 59 inches for her hips (55-inch hips plus 4 inches of ease), she has two choices. She can either make an A-line top with decreases running from her hips to her armholes, or she can make a modified A-line (my term… not sure what it’s called in the fashion world). In this scenario, she'd do more severe increasing from the hips to the waist, and then knit straight up to the armholes. Here’s the original schematic (or something like it) with the two options:

Given my personal experience, I’d bet that the latter would be the most flattering. I’ve found that I look best in clothes that actually fit. When I buy apparel to accommodate my mighty derriere, it's much too large through the bodice. The best thing for me is to make the bodice fit perfectly and then to accommodate the hips, rather than the other way around.

Next steps: she needs to determine whether she wants an A-line or a modified A-line. If she decides on the latter, she needs to determine the length between her waist and hips so she can figure out the decreases. Which reminds me of another Fit to Flatter rule: for bottom-heavy women, have the sweater end above your largest part. When you make the sweater too long, it wraps around your hips and emphasizes them. For example, the pink sweater below looks better than the green one on my hips anyway - and I'm 50 pounds thinner in the green sweater. They're both too long though. I'm making my new Spencer sweater shorter - we'll see how it looks when I'm done.

One final warning: If our intrepid knitter wants to make sweater, she MUST make an highly accurate gauge swatch. She MUST meet gauge. Being a quarter stitch off gauge doesn't sound like much, but over the course of 59 inches, she'd add more about 2.5 inches to the width of her garment. You've heard it before and you'll hear it again: if you do not meet pattern gauge, the sweater will not fit. No way, no how. Yes, I know. Swatches are boring. But if you’re going to make sweaters, you have to meet gauge. Period.

After our intrepid knitter gets gauge and makes a fundamental decision about garment shape, it will be time to figure out decreases. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, here's a quick update about my Spencer sweater. As you can see, I'm unknitting the original stockinette version and reknitting it as the new lace rendition.

Thanks to Lisa's suggestion, I ditched the ribbing and just did three rows of garter. I think this looks better and will fit better, too.

Now all I want to do is block this darn thing! I can't wait to see what it looks like after its stint as a giant washcloth ends. I need to finish the bodice first. Shouldn't be long - as always, I'm hoping for the best. Again, stay tuned...


  1. I know it is lace...but Geez you knit fast,Julie!
    I really like it!

    re: choosing a pattern.
    Great , helpful post.
    I always keep in mind my 'wings' and back fat as well!!! I wear a store bought 2x, but a knitting pattern would have to be above a 58 in order not to fit snug because of that extra baggage. A tape measure is essential for me!!!
    I envy those gals who can knit patterns that say 'One Size Fits Most'.

  2. I've got lots of forks, Katie, as may be apparent ;-)

    Thanks for the kind words and the reminder about back fat, too, Teresa. Fitting the upper back can sometimes mean adding short rows there depending on how the weight is distributed.

  3. LOVE the new version Julie! Can't wait to see the finished product! Additionally...I want to come shop your shower!! ;D

  4. Looks fantastic Julie, and what a great explanation of how to make the garment fit the knitters shape :-)

  5. Modified A-Line, that's exactly what I need, but never found a proper term for that kind of schematic. Until now. Thanks Julie for giving it a name. ;-)

    Very informative post by the way, one couldn’t describe it better.

    I love the lace pattern and the garter ridge was the right decision. I always use garter or seed stitch along with lace patters. IMHO it looks dressier than a ribbed one.

  6. I just learned something new (at least I don't think I'd put it together before) about the fit and the finished garment measurements. Thank you.

    I wonder if ease should be thought of as a percentage rather than a fixed amount.

  7. Anonymous, I think that's exactly right. It makes intuitive sense that ease should be a percentage, especially if there is a wide range of sizes. One inch might be fine on a 40-inch bust, but a 60-inch bust would be better with a little more room, in this case 1.5 inches which is proportionally the same. Thanks for reading!

  8. As I'm reading the archives (because I'm a weirdo who can't read a blog without reading the archives) I'm seeing you mention often how your wider hips are unbalanced by your preference for longer sweaters. As a young mother suffering, like you, from hyperlordosis (thank you, pregnancy) and and also a giant wide rear .... I'd like to suggest cropped sweaters. They work for me, and here's why:

    As mentioned, I have quite a "shelf-bottom" sticking out behind behind me. I have wide hips and a relatively narrow waist. However, I am also very short, which is terrible for proper fit. So I can't wear long things because they make me look bigger. Can't stop my sweaters at the waist (above my giant hips) because that cuts my in half and makes me look shorter. But a cropped sweater (like a cropped cardi or shrug) balances my shoulders nicely to my hips. Just a thought ....

  9. Wow! I haven't been here before. I love it! Thank you for doing this.