How to start knitting a sweater

How to knit a sweater that fits

Today is the kickoff of the aforementioned #knittingforhimalong on Instagram — and/or wherever else you’d like it to be. (By all means, comment here, blog about it, whatever works for you! The important thing is to knit.) The previous Bob swatch having been rejected as too textural, I re-swatched in stockinette to make sure we both loved the fabric before ordering the yarn. Which is to say, I don’t have my yarn yet. I ordered it on Monday and am picking it up at the trade show in Indianapolis this weekend. (Thank you, Jocelyn!) But that’s ok, because as we all learn — either the easy way or the hard way — there’s work to be done before the actual knitting begins. So I thought I’d post a little bit* about sweater knitting best practices — and my practices, which are not necessarily the same! — in case anyone finds it useful.

So here we go!

The quickest way to begin a sweater is to look at the various chest sizes noted in the pattern information along with the recommended ease (that is, how much bigger or smaller it is than your own chest measurement), pick the size that suits you, and cast on. Certainly if you do that, and follow the pattern exactly as written, you will end up with a sweater. But will it fit you the way you expect it to? I’m sorry to say, not likely. And there are two main reasons or possibilities why not:

1. You didn’t knit a swatch and don’t know how your gauge compares to the pattern-maker’s gauge. Therefore your finished dimensions won’t be the same as the ones you picked out at the beginning. If your stitches are bigger (fewer of them per inch), your sweater will be bigger, and vice versa. If your rows are bigger, your sweater will be longer. Etc.

2. You’re not the same shape as the imaginary person the sweater was written for. If a person is writing a pattern for oneself, they can write it to their own shape and dimensions. But patterns written for untold numbers of unknown people have to make a lot of assumptions. Me, I have a fairly flat chest, broad shoulders but a narrow torso, plus a waist and arms that are long for my height. If I follow a pattern blindly, choosing the size based on my chest, I’ll end up with a sweater that’s too small across the shoulders and too short in the sleeves and body. My handsome husband has a narrow waist and hips but is a little bit barrel-chested, and has long legs for his height, which means a shorter torso.  I’m betting you, too, do not match any stock template of a human shape.

We’re each unique in our own way. The beauty of knitting our own sweaters is that we can account for these differences amongst us, as long as we know four things: our gauge, the pattern measurements (all of them, not just the chest), our own measurements (ditto), and how we like things to fit. All of which are easy to come by! So here are what I would call the 5 Steps for Starting a Sweater that Will Actually Fit:

STEP 1: CALCULATE YOUR GAUGE

Gauge is figured by knitting a swatch — a large one — with the actual yarn and needles you’ll be working with, either worked flat or in the round depending on how the bulk of the sweater is worked, then measuring it, blocking it, and measuring it again. If you only measure it before blocking, it could shrink or grow and then your perfect-fitting sweater will no longer fit. If you only measure it after you block it, you won’t know if it shrank or grew, or how to compensate for that. Once you’ve got your gauge, compare it to the pattern gauge (and note whether the stated gauge was taken before or after blocking.) If they match, the rest of this will be simpler. If they don’t match, though, that doesn’t mean you can’t proceed. It just means you need to do a little more thinking and calculating than if they did.

For example, the pattern gauge for Fort, which I’m about to knit for Bob, is 20 stitches and 35 rounds per 4 inches, in the checkerboard stitch pattern. I’m knitting it in stockinette, and I like the fabric I’m getting on US6’s, for which my gauge is 19 stitches and 27 rounds. So my stitches are a little bigger than the pattern (only 4.75 per inch instead of 5), and my rows are quite a lot bigger (6.75 per inch instead of 8.75). So I can’t just use the stitch counts in the pattern and expect it to come out to the corresponding size. I’m more concerned about liking the fabric than matching the pattern gauge, but there’s always the option of re-swatching with different needle sizes until you match pattern gauge.

STEP 2: STUDY THE SCHEMATIC

While the pre-purchase pattern info typically only tells you the chest measurements, the schematic (if it’s worth its salt) contains vastly more information: measurements for cuff, hem and upper arm circumference, yoke/armhole depth, back-of-neck width, body length (hem to underarm), etc. Every one of them is relevant to how the sweater will fit you, and pretty much every one of them is negotiable, if you know how to negotiate.

STEP 3: MEASURE THYSELF

If you don’t already know all of the same measurements for yourself as are given for the pattern — back-of-neck width, bust size, arm length, and so on — take the time to take those measurements. At the bare minimum, you should know your bust measurement. Don’t actually take it yourself or it won’t be accurate. Stand with your arms hanging naturally at your sides and have someone you love measure around the widest part of your chest with a fabric tape measure, while you wear nothing but the bra you’ll wear with your sweater.

STEP 4: FIND A BENCHMARK (OR TWO)

Raise your hand if you’ve ever gone shopping with the idea that you’d like to find a sweater with +4 inches of ease, or -1 inch of ease. “I’m in the market for something with a 14.5 inch sleeve,” is not a thing anyone has ever said. But “I wish this fit more like my purple sweater” or “that grey sweatshirt is the only thing that’s ever been the right length on me” is. The best way I know (the only way, really) to figure out how we like things to fit is to measure the clothes in our closet and compare them to each other and to … the schematic!

STEP 5: ADD IT ALL UP

So here’s how it all comes together. My gauge is different then the Fort gauge, and some of Fort’s measurements are different from Bob’s preferred sweater dimensions. I know this because we measured all his sweaters. See that little drawing in the bottom corner of the pattern page above? That’s my crude schematic of Bob’s ideal sweater. He has sweaters he likes that are anywhere from 43 to 45 inches in the chest, but this being a worsted-weight sweater — and my wanting him to not look like he’s swimming in it — I’m aiming for the lower end of that range. The pattern sizes are 38 (41.25, 44.5, …), which means our goal is right between the second and third sizes, EXCEPT those dimensions are based on the pattern gauge, which is different than mine. So let’s look at it this way:

43 (inches) x 4.75 (stitches per inch) = 204.25 (stitches)

Reading into the pattern for the point where the back is divided into front and back — i.e. the widest part of the chest and bottom of the armhole — the stitch counts are 190 (206, 222 …). See that size two number? 206! At my gauge (206 divided by 4.75) that will give me a chest dimension of 43.4 inches — close enough! So I’ll base everything else off of that second size.

The cuff sizes are all bigger than Bob likes. His wrist is 6.5 inches and his favorite sweaters have 7-8 inch cuffs. The smallest of Fort’s cuff sizes, according to the schematic, is 10 inches. If I used the stitch count for size two, at my gauge, it would be 11.4 inches! So I’ll calculate my own cast-on count and plan to do more increase rounds than the pattern calls for. But looking at the final stitch count for the upper arm (i.e., before the sleeve cap shaping begins), at my gauge it would be 15.5 inches, and both because of Bob’s preferred sizing and because I don’t want the upper arm to be out of proportion to the armhole it seams into, I’ll aim for an upper arm that’s the same dimension (rather than the same stitch count) as the pattern size.

The body length and sleeve length are both given in inches, not rows, so I don’t need to worry about the difference in my row gauge causing any problems there. I’ll just knit to Bob’s desired lengths rather than the pattern lengths. The only place row gauge might get me into trouble is with the increases in the arms. Because my row gauge is bigger, it’ll take me fewer rows to reach the desired length, which means not as many rows to distribute those increases between. So I really need to take a minute and calculate how many rows and how many increases I’ll be working with.

(If you aren’t familiar with how to calculate and distribute increases and decreases, see part 5 of my top-down sweater tutorial, sweater math. The logic is the same whether you’re working from the top or bottom. Don’t worry — it’s grade-school math! And it’s possibly the most important and empowering thing a knitter can know.)

I’ve mentioned this before, but one of the key things to scrutinize in the schematic is armhole depth, or yoke depth — especially if you’re working from the bottom up. Where your sleeve hits you is a function of sleeve length plus armhole depth. If you attach an 18″ sleeve to a 10″ yoke, that sleeve will hang lower than if you attach the same 18″ sleeve to an 8″ yoke. So measuring your favorite sleeves or looking at the sleeve length in the schematic is not enough — it’s the combination of those two lengths that matters. I’ll be aiming for an 8.25″ armhole depth plus a 19″ sleeve.

If you’ve never tried to customize a sweater before, your head may be spinning. But trust me — next time you start a sweater (whether today or any day), sit down with your swatch and your schematic and this post, and think it through. And if you’ve never knitted a sweater and want some recommendations, take a look at Pullovers for first-timers.

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*Ok, that didn’t turn out to be so little!

 

21 thoughts on “How to start knitting a sweater

  1. these kind of posts are what I come here for–thoughtful, informative posts on the knitting process and making *your* knitting what *you* want. Right on, Maude! :-)

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  2. This was a tremendous help. I can see that I haven’t looked at my body measurements enough and that is why I have some sweaters I love and some that sit on the shelf. I have the problem that sometimes my gauge changes as the project goes along. I get gauge when I swatch but knit tighter over a larger area. I sometimes change needle sizes after the project has been knit for a few inches.

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  3. For me knitting a sweater that my DH will wear is my ultimate knitting challenge. Last year’s effort was a massive failure – knitted one – then took all the issues, adjusted and reknitted. Still didn’t make the grade so he remains sweaterless. Just about ready to try again this year. So far he has rejected every male sweater pattern on Ravelry so off to a great start. So knitters beware – knitting for your male loved one is not for the feint hearted.

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  4. You are brilliant, thank you for sharing your techniques: they are perfect for new knitters like me and when I master socks and move onto sweaters, I will revisit these posts ad infinitum. Bless you Kitten.

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  5. I have yarn and a pattern for a (requested) sweater for my husband. Maybe I should jump in and start actually knitting along with you all. I do have a great sweater (from Scotland) that he already likes, so I’ll take some time to figure out measurement and check my needle stash to see what is not in use already!

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  6. This was incredibly enlightening! You made altering sweater patterns seem far less scary. Thanks for the invaluable help :]

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  7. Oh, dear Lord! I am so intimidated now, I think I’ll stick to scarves for the rest of my life. Either that, or just knit sweaters according to the pattern and then see who they fit when I’m done.

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    • It’s an older book now but Stitch n Bitch by Debbie Stoller walks you through all of this stuff in a conversational and understandable way, one step at a time. I gained the confidence to knit my first sweater- which I adored- and to modify the heck out of my second sweater- because of this book. If you want to knit sweaters (there’s no law saying you have to!) I recommend this book. It is life changing. You will LOVE your sweaters.

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  8. I found this post very helpful. Beatnik by Norah Gaughan was my first pullover, and while it is a wonderful pattern and I loved making it, it is not flattering on me at all. It’s a little disappointing since at the time, I thought I was at the top of my knitting game, haha. I made Aidez next and paid more attention to the fit. It’s my most favorite and most won knit (wearing it now actually) but it’s not quite perfect. I will definitely use your advice when I try making a pullover again.

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  9. Two things:
    1) While I won’t officially be KALing, your #knittingforhimalong is inspiring me to resurrect the Hugo I’ve had on the needles since December. Thank you! (and I’m sure my SO thanks you as well!)
    2) I’d love to hear more about how you choose sizes to fit your shoulders more appropriately. For years I’ve made sweaters based on my bust and then been frustrated when the result was too small or the scoop neck looked like a boat neck – I didn’t realize until this year that I have a narrow ribcage and broad, square shoulders. Do you bump up a size (or more?) or do some other mod to adjust the fit? On my most recent sweater I used the appropriate size for my bust and nixed most of the armhole decreases, which helped a bit, but I’m still working out the best approach.

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  10. This is incredibly helpful. Thank you for your thoughtfulness in sharing it. I had to smile, though, at reading “the bra you’ll wear with your sweater,” since you are knitting a sweater for Bob. Or maybe I shouldn’t assume anything? : ) : ) : )

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  12. I am so sorry for posting this here but I have been scouring your blog for the last couple of days looking for a post that you did (hopefully you did, eek!) on consolidating knitting instructions. For the life of me, I cannot find it and I was hoping that you would help. HHHEEEELPPPPP!

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