How to knit the right size sweater

How to knit the right size sweater: Or, what is ease?

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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31 thoughts on “How to knit the right size sweater

  1. Karen, I can’t agree more with Francis, you break the complexity of knitting garments down into understandable doable steps. A friend and I are actually going to knit the Amanda cardigan. I followed that KAL from beginning to end but was too intimidated to try it. I have done everything knitting wise except a garment! I have done cabling, lace knitting, fair isle but the idea of making a sweater makes me sweat! I so appreciate your pinning all the links to that KAL. I have been reading up a storm. I wonder what your thoughts are on using BT Shelter for that sweater. I know cabling can make for a heavy knit and even though I live in the Midwest, I don’t think I want that kind of weight on my “aging” body! Thanks so much for your input and your blog.

    Jean Holt

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  2. thanks for this post! that photo is really interesting, I like seeing three of your sweater layed up. I’m doing a cardigan so I read through all the amanda kal posts in your absence, it’s like being in two kals with the same sweater!

    pet peeve: brooklyn tweed patterns that use positive ease use way much more on the model than they suggest!!!!!

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    • I haven’t noticed that, that I recall — they say it’s shown one way but recommend something else?

      They do seem to recommend more ease than I personally would for a lot of garments. I generally think people make their sweaters too big, and often think a BT sweater would look better on most people with less than the recommended ease. Which is not only true for BT.

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      • Off the top of my head, this happens in the modeled photos for Larus, Oda, Riptide, and Rowe (and I know I’ve seen it in other cases, but I couldn’t find them quickly). For Larus, the modeled ease is almost double the “intended” ease, which I think makes it hard to assess the design concept of the sweater. It also means that if you do decide to aim for the modeled ease, the size range of the pattern isn’t so great (maxes out at an effective 46″ full bust measurement).

        But kudos to BT for at least including such detailed info on their website (check the “pattern specs” tab on each pattern page) — that’s more than many pattern publishers do…

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  3. What if the pattern you are using doesn’t list what sort of ease they are using and you have to guess from the picture of the model (who probably isn’t the same shape you are)?

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      • Oh, it isn’t any specific pattern. I just noticed the other day that a lot of pattern books don’t state “this is made with five inches of positive ease” or anything of the sort. In my small collection of knitting books, only one pattern does that.

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    • One solution is to treat the modeled photo as a sort of qualitative example, and ask yourself what adjective would you use to describe the look (fitted, tailored, relaxed, slouchy, etc.). From there, you could apply a general rule of thumb — for example, the Craft Yarn Council’s fit chart (http://www.craftyarncouncil.com/sizing.html, scroll down). That often gets you in the ballpark.

      However, I advocate doing as Karen suggests, and measuring garments you already like. Find something that you’d describe with the same adjective (on you!) as you applied to the fit of the sweater on the model — then see how much ease that garment has. Shoot for a pattern size that achieves something close to that amount of ease.

      One caveat is to try — if you can — to measure a garment with a similar shoulder construction as the sweater you’re considering. The chest ease you need to get a “relaxed” fit in a drop-shoulder can be quite different than what you need for a “relaxed” fit set-in sleeve (If you want to know more about this — and bunch of other great tips — I highly recommend Amy Herzog’s Craftsy class “Simple Techniques for a Super Fit”).

      But the overall point is, it’s okay to use a model photo as an impression of a look, rather than a strict template, and then reinterpret that look in terms of your own shape and fit preferences.

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  4. Thanks for posting this! I totally agree with your methods. I always tell my knitting students to measure a sweater they have already which fits like they want their finished project to fit, compare that to the pattern sizes, and go from there.

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  5. One question: Is the chest measurement given in most patterns supposed to be for the fullest part of your breasts? Or is it the ribcage just below the breasts where a bra would sit and be measured?

    PS: Your instructions are always so simple and broken down in an easy-to-understand way and I love that they are taking me from a knitter with some experience at following patterns to the curiosity to start making my own. Thank you!!
    —Paisley

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    • The chest measurement given in a pattern is the circumference of the sweater at the chest. The measurement you want to have of your own bust is at the fullest part. The question is how does the circumference of the sweater at the bust compare to *your* circumference at the same spot.

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  6. Pingback: How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 3: Finishing the neck and yoke | Fringe Association

  7. Great post. I always struggle with adjusting armholes and then making the sleeve cap match. It’s why I love top down Ragland, but it would be nice to “get it!”

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  8. I’ve heard, of course, the concept of measuring the favorite sweaters, nevertheless I’ve never done it before. Finally, i had some fun and took some measures and … it luckily turned out i still can switch from size M instructions to “S” for the sweater i’m knitting. Thank you for this post and its perfect timing for me.

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  9. Love this post…have never worked without a pattern. This has also led me to exploring the same process in sewing…drafting my own patterns and/or creating patterns to replicate ready-to-wear that I love. It’s exciting, scary, and liberating all at once…a huge paradigm shift for me! Thanks so much for pushing me out of my comfort zone – it never would have happened without your encouragement, outstanding tutorials and on-going support! Thanks so much, Karen!

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