I field a lot of questions about ease, and I thought especially with the Top-Down Knitalong coming up, now would be an excellent time to write a proper post about it. First: What is ease? In common parlance, ease is the difference between your chest measurement and your sweater’s chest measurement, plain and simple. And ease is not a constant: Your favorite sweatshirt sweater might have 10″ of positive ease — it’s 10 inches bigger around than your chest is — whereas your favorite retro-style, fitted, night-on-the-town cardigan might have 1″ of negative ease, meaning it’s actually an inch smaller than your chest. The right amount of ease depends on the style of the garment and on how you like your clothes to fit.
All three of the sweaters pictured above fit me as they should, even though they themselves have very different chest measurements, as you can see. The Togue Stripes tank fits me with about 1/2″ of ease; the Amanda cardigan with a couple of inches; and the Bellows cardigan with nearly 10 inches — click through to those three posts to see how that all looks in the wearing.
If you’re creating your own pattern, you can make it any size you want, and we’ll talk about that a bit more below. In published sweater patterns (at least those that conform to standard practices) the size(s) of the garment are given as a bracketed list of numbers, stated as the chest measurements. So, for example, if it says the sizes included are 28 (32.5, 37, 41.5, 46)”, those numbers are how big the circumference of the sweater is at the chest, for each size. How do you know which size to knit? That’s where ease comes into play. A good pattern will tell you how much ease they recommended, and/or how much ease it’s shown with on the model. If it says the sample pictured is 37″ and is worn with 5″ positive ease, that tells you the model’s bust is 32″. At that point, you can say to yourself, would I like it with this same amount of ease, or would I like it more fitted/more slouchy? In addition to the matter of personal preference, there’s also the fact that rarely will there be a size that’s exactly that same differential from your bust size. Taking our example sizes above and recommended ease of 5″, I am about a 34.5″ bust. So for this hypothetical sweater to fit me with 5″ of ease, I would need it to be 39.5″, but that’s not one of the options. So I have to decide whether I want to go with the 37″ for 2.5″ of ease (more fitted) or the 41.5″ for 6″ of ease (more slouch). Which I would choose depends, again, on what style of sweater it is, and how I prefer such things to fit.
(All of this assumes you’re knitting at pattern gauge. If your stitches are bigger, your garment will be bigger, and vice versa. If instead of choosing to size up or down you’d rather adjust your gauge, see How to account for gauge differences.)
But wait, how do you know what your preferences are? You might have a hunch, and that hunch may or may not be correct — the truth might surprise you. The best way to figure out what suits you best is to measure the clothes in your closet and make a little inventory. First, have someone take your bust measurement around the fullest part of your chest (ideally wearing only the bra you would wear under this garment, if you’re a girl and/or a bra-wearer) with your arms hanging straight down at your sides. Then lay some of your favorite sweaters/sweatshirts on a flat surface and measure from edge to edge at the chest, and double that number for the circumference. Subtract your bust measurement from the garment’s, and that’s your ease — if the garment is bigger around than your bust, that’s positive ease; if it’s the same, that’s zero ease; if it’s smaller than your bust, that’s negative ease.
Then there’s another thing to keep in mind, which is that there’s more to a sweater than the bust measurement. To really get a sweater to fit like it’s custom-made for you (since it is!), you really want to study the schematic and make sizing decisions based on all of the measurements, not just the bust. How does the upper sleeve circumference compare to your upper arm? You might find the size you’ve chosen has sleeves that are tighter or looser than you like. How deep is the armhole? How wide the neck and the hips? By taking into account all of the measurements, you can hybridize sizes or make tweaks as needed to get just the right fit. My hips are wider than my chest, so I nearly always knit a hybrid — a larger size at the hips than the chest, increasing/decreasing to the other size’s stitch counts as needed. I also don’t like baggy upper arms or too-wide neckholes, so again, I blend sizes together. The first step is understanding what you like, and then practicing bending a pattern to your will.
But this is also the very best thing about improvising your own sweater, as opposed to working from a pattern. When you set out to create your own stitch counts and dimensions, you can decide how much ease you want in your sleeve, which may be different from how much ease you want in the chest, your hips, and so on. You can increase or decrease for whatever shape you want the body to be, whether that’s hourglass or A-line or boxy. And the more you do this, the more adept you’ll become at getting ease right throughout your sweater and not just at the bust.
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