A few Elsewheres ago, I included a link to a fantastic interview on the Kelbourne blog with Jenn Steingass, better known as @knit.love.wool on Instagram, about her amazing bounty of colorwork yoke sweaters. After it ran, I got a nice email from Jenn, in which she mentioned that her very first sweater she had ever knitted for herself was from my top-down tutorial! Which of course I love to hear. Wanting to hear more about that sweater, though, I asked her to do a My First Sweater q&a here on Fringe, and she kindly obliged.
Jenn’s only photo of the finished sweater is the sadly dark and grainy one above, but if you want to see copious beautiful photos of her abundant output since then, make sure to check out her Instagram feed and Ravelry page. And with that—
. . .
How long had you been knitting when you decided to knit your first sweater? What got you to do it?
I’d been knitting for about two and a half years when I decided to knit myself a sweater. I’d made raglan sweaters for my kids, maybe 10-15 of them, some of which are on Ravelry and some that I never added to my project page. I wanted to make myself a sweater sooner, but I got pregnant with my second son so I put my plans on hold. Having knit so many woolies for my kids, I often wondered what it would be like to wear a garment made just for me out of nice wool yarn.
Your first sweater was improvised from my top-down tutorial. What made you choose that path as opposed to following a pattern for your first one?
Yes! Had I known that I would someday be chatting about this sweater on your blog, I would have made sure to take better photos. I was so excited to have knitted a sweater for myself, I immediately started wearing it and proceeded to live in it for the next year or so! Unfortunately, it went missing when we moved last year, and I have looked for it quite a few times but haven’t been able to find it anywhere. This picture was taken almost a year after I finished the sweater.
First, I decided I wanted to knit a basic stockinette sweater because the yarn I was going to use was marled and too busy for any sort of intricate stitch pattern. I’d tweaked raglan sweater patterns for my kids in the past, so I felt like I’d probably be able to improvise one for myself. I searched for a plain raglan pattern on Ravelry, but had trouble finding a simple, classic raglan. I think I had used too many filters in my search and that’s why I didn’t find what I was looking for. I somehow found your Improv project page, although I can’t remember exactly how I ended up finding it since it’s not technically a pattern. From there I followed the link to the tutorial on your blog, and also used the notes on the Improv page itself. It was perfect for me because I had already started altering patterns.
What yarn did you use, and how did you choose it?
I used worsted-weight Elsawool 2-ply, woolen-spun Cormo in Marled and it was a dream to work with and so nice to wear. I remember how soft it was, yet sturdy at the same time. The plies were spun in such a way that the yarn was really round, almost like it was one solid piece instead of two strands, and it was so bouncy. It was definitely some of the most perfect yarn I’d ever used. My favorite yarns are woolen or mule-spun domestic non-superwash wool. I had wanted something similar to my favorite Targhee yarn from a now defunct yarn company called Sweet Grass Wool. I think someone had recommended Elsawool when we were chatting about yarn via private message on Ravelry. I’d originally bought it to make a hooded romper suit for one of my boys but never got around to knitting it. It was the only yarn I had in my stash in sweater quantity at the time, so I used it for my sweater. I wore that sweater so much and the yarn didn’t pill hardly at all. I’d recommend it to anyone who loves wool!
Everyone I know who’s ever knitted with Elsawool is evangelical about it. How did the knitting go — what were some of the hurdles or challenges or thrills along the way? What surprised you about the process, if anything?
The knitting went well! I guessed at what I thought my gauge would be. I tend to look at a yarn, decide what needle I should use for it, and then guess what my gauge will be based on other similar yarns I have worked with in the past. I started doing that not long after I learned how to knit and then I would measure my gauge when the project was finished and blocked, and then would take note for future projects. When I want to knit something, I just want to cast on and go, so I don’t want to knit a swatch and then wait for it to dry. I understand I would have more consistent results if I had the patience to knit swatches, I just prefer to plan my projects using a hypothetical gauge instead. I like the mystery of whether or not things will work out or not. It keeps my on my toes.
I lucked out and my gauge was very close to what I thought it would be. My sweater fit me pretty well. I remember wishing I had either started with a few more stitches when I cast on, or stopped the raglan increases a little sooner and cast on a few more stitches when I separated for the body and sleeves. My yoke ended up a little more deep than I wanted. It was no fault of the tutorial, I just knit a few too many rounds for the yoke.
The most surprising part of the process was how long it took compared to a tiny kid’s sweater! For me, I have to build up tolerance for how long projects take. I remember thinking I could never, ever knit myself a sweater when I first learned how to knit, because it felt like it took so long just to knit small items. I am not quite at the point where I feel like I have desensitized myself to knitting a whole adult sweater in fingering-weight yarn on size 1 needles, but I have a feeling there will come a day where I won’t be fazed by knitting a sweater at such a fine gauge!
You mentioned above that you basically lived in it, so apparently it was a success in at least some ways. Did it live up to all your various goals and expectations?
Yes, I was totally thrilled with it and was so proud to have finished it. I loved the yarn I used, so it really was a delight to wear. The fit wasn’t 100% perfect (my own fault for not swatching) but it was good. I often slept in it in the winter — that’s how much I liked it. I wore it as much as possible up until I knit my second sweater a little over a year later. I continued to wear it in rotation with other sweaters I’d made until we moved. I would absolutely be reaching for it if I still had it. I might just have to knit it again because I liked it that much.
Do you feel like an improvised sweater was a good place to start — as in, would you recommend it as a starting point for others?
I felt like improvising a sweater based off the notes on your tutorial was very easy — it definitely helped that I had prior experience knitting a variety of pieces for my kids. I have a feeling it wouldn’t have gone as well if I hadn’t knit many other things first, but that is only because I guessed at what my gauge was going to be.
I can see how the following the tutorial would be beneficial for a first sweater project because it explains each step so much more than the average pattern. I like how you’ve provided pictures of what the sweater will look like as various stages in the knitting process – I imagine that extra info would be immensely helpful to a new knitter who is nervous and doesn’t know what to expect while trying their first raglan. I definitely think it would be an excellent first sweater project for an inexperienced knitter, so long as a gauge swatch is knitted in the round first.
I know you’ve knitted tons of amazing sweaters since then — your colorwork yoke sweaters are jaw-dropping. How does your experience of improvising a top-down sweater now impact your work on other sweaters, whether they’re from patterns or otherwise?
Thanks for the nice compliment about my sweaters! I really love making them.
Knitting my improvised sweater made me a more confident knitter. One of the things I love most about knitting is building on what I’ve learned from my successes and failures and applying that knowledge to future projects. I realized that closely following patterns isn’t always necessary — that sweaters are often very customizable at any point in the knitting process, and that a few simple math equations help make a well-fitting knitted garment possible. I began heavily modifying most of my projects from that point on. After having knit my sweater, I went on to improvise several top-down raglans for my sons in handspun of various weights, and all of them were based off of what I learned when I used your tutorial for my sweater.
For my lopapeysa-style sweaters, I use colorwork charts for the yoke but now redesign my sweaters by altering the stitch counts for the body, sleeves, yoke and collar. I know I picked up my improvised sweater several times as I knit some of my first colorwork sweaters and used it as a point of reference for stitch counts and measurements for the body and sleeves. The things I learned while knitting my improvised sweater also helped lay the foundation for my designing endeavors. I’d recommend the tutorial to anyone who is interested in knitting garments with a more personalized fit or even for those who hope to publish knitting patterns in the future.
PREVIOUSLY in My First Sweater: Mary Jane Mucklestone
All photos © Jennfirstname.lastname@example.org, used with permission