Story of a Sweater: How I Started Knitting Sweaters That Fit

I started trying to knit sweaters almost as soon as I learned to knit. I say “try” because my attempts rarely yielded something wearable. I struggled to get a sweater to fit well and struggled to choose patterns that suited my style. Over the course of about seven years, I knit thirteen sweaters for myself. Of these sweaters, five were either unraveled or donated before they were even worn. Another five got worn two or three times before they were donated. One pullover was way too big when I finished it and sat in a drawer for at least a year before I happened to gain some weight. Of this first crop of sweaters, only two were worn frequently from the beginning, and only one of these still sees regular wear. Of course, this only accounts for sweaters I finished–I can’t begin to count the number of sweaters I started and abandoned  before they were done.

The cream of the 13 sweater crop–my Girl Friday cardigan.

You’d think that would be enough to get me to give up on sweater knitting. And I did, indeed, get seriously discouraged about sweater knitting for a couple of years. In 2010, right in the middle of my period of sweater disillusionment, Amy Herzog started her original Fit to Flatter series. I read and studied her tutorials thoroughly, and there are a handful of important sweater knitting lessons I took away from the series:

  1. I could and should become less dependent on a pattern as written and instead actively work to make the pattern suit me
  2. There are more shaping methods available than simply increasing and decreasing at the sides of a garment
  3. The shaping at the front and the back of the garment doesn’t need to be same, and probably shouldn’t be
  4. I would be better off choosing a sweater size based on my high-bust measurement and modifying the rest of the sweater to fit
  5. I should pay close attention to the stylistic features that I most like in clothing and work to reproduce them in my knitting

The famous Gisela Ramirez F*ck Flattering shirt, which is sold out at the moment.

I find the concept of dressing to flatter problematic for a number of reason, not the least of which is the fact that rules about what “flatters” and what women “should” or rather “should not” wear are frequently used to police and shame fat bodies. I appreciate that Amy, both on her blog and in her book, says that she’s not interested in giving women a set of rules for getting dressed in a What Not to Wear fashion, but that she is rather trying to give women a language for articulating what they do or do not like in a particular garment. She also encourages women to appreciate their bodies as they are and to not see fit issues as a result of bodily flaws. These are important ideas when it comes to talking about clothes. Unfortunately, it seems that any discussion of what is “flattering” has a tendency to be taken up by some in ways that fixate on shoulds or should-nots, and people can get too caught up fretting about their bodies and trying to heed recommendations even when they clash with personal preferences.

Extracted from the language of “flattering,” my last take-away point—that I should be mindful of what I like and what makes me feel good—has been really important for me. I’ve realized, for instance, that the list of stylistic features that I like includes deep necklines, sleeves that aren’t flared in any way, clean lines, a close fit, and a more limited color palette that reflects the colors I actually like wearing. While there might be areas of overlap, this list isn’t based on other people’s recommendations about what will flatter my body, but rather reflects what makes me feel comfortable and confident. Generating this list of my preferred style features changed the way that I looked at sweater patterns–it helped me winnow down what patterns would make sense in my life and helped me envision possible pattern modifications.

The palette of colors I like to wear

In addition to the Fit to Flatter series, I started doing some research on vertical and horizontal bust darts. I learned a lot in my research, but I also started to feel overwhelmed. I wasn’t exactly sure how to manage multiple modifications, and I couldn’t visualize how to incorporate different kinds of shaping into a pattern. Ultimately, I decided that I needed to stop researching and start trying to actually experiment with some of the principles I’d been learning about. What I wanted was to knit something along the lines of a sloper in sewing—a basic pattern, fitted to my measurements, that could function as a guide for future sweaters.

I chose a very simple pullover pattern that I could work with–specifically, the Perfect Sweater pattern by Mandy Moore and Ann Shayne. There are a lot of basic, blank slate sweater patterns available, but I picked the Perfect Sweater pattern because it makes use of my preferred sweater construction method—that is, a seamed sweater with set-in sleeves. I’ve experimented with lots of different sweater construction methods, and I’ve consistently had a better fit with set-in sleeves. And while a lot of people like it, I find knitting an adult-sized sweater in one piece incredibly tedious. I decided to use some yarn that I’d had sitting around for awhile because it was a color that I didn’t really care for. The benefit of using yarn that I didn’t particularly like was that I didn’t have to be anxious about investing prized materials into a project that was largely experimental.

From there, I made what I think of as a body map. I took a bunch of measurements: high bust, full bust, waist, high hip, bicep, sweater length, length from underarm to waist, length from underarm to fullest part of the bust, and crossback. I measured sweaters I liked for sleeve length, different neckline depths, and armhole depth. Finally, I measured the length from the top of my shoulder to my high hip, both for my back and my front. The difference between these last measurements helped me determine how much length to add to the front of the sweater using horizontal bust darts. I marked all of the measurements that I took on a very rough diagram of my body to keep as a reference. From this point, I wrote out a modified version of the Perfect Sweater pattern, adding bust and waist shaping where I thought it needed to be added.

My final version of the Perfect Sweater.

My final version of the Perfect Sweater.

And then I started knitting. Based on my first modified version of the pattern, I knit up the front and back of the sweater. I then basted the two pieces together and tried them on. With this fitting, I was able to pinpoint changes that I needed to make—for example, I was able to see that I had knit the sweater with too much ease and had placed the bust shaping too low. I updated the pattern with my changes, unraveled the pieces I had knit, and reknit the front and back of the sweater. At the second fitting, everything looked great. I knit the first sleeve twice as well, which helped me figure out once and for all how much ease I like in a sleeve. Even though it was a lot of work, at the end, I had a sweater that fit better than anything I had knit before and a basic fitting map that I could continue to tweak.

The specific fitting details and modifications are listed here on Ravelry.

The specific fitting details and modifications are listed here on Ravelry.

As I’ve continued knitting sweaters, I’ve continued tweaking. I’ve changed the placement of my horizontal bust darts, changed the way I work my waist shaping a bit, and slightly adjusted the amounts of ease I like at different parts of the sweater. It sounds like a lot, but having worked though the first fitted sweater makes it all more manageable. And knowing that my sweater template will produce a reasonably-fitting sweater means that I can gradually tweak my approach as I work through different projects with very little risk. Now that I’m several sweaters in, I have four pieces of advice for people looking to knit a sweater that fits well. First, keep your calculator close and don’t be intimidated by the math. Second, keep a notebook with you as you knit and document all of your shaping mods—it will become an invaluable resource. Third, don’t get fixated on a perfect fit. Good is good enough. Better will come with time. And finally, at some point, you just have to dive in and figure it out. Sometimes, knitters want to wait to tackle a sweater until they can be assured that it will turn out perfectly. But when it comes to craft, there is no substitute for trying to work through problems with your own hands.

One of my most recent sweaters–The Granville hoodie

This is just a quick gloss of my process to improve the fit of my sweaters, but I am eager to talk about these topics more. So what part of the sweater knitting and fitting process do you want to hear more about? In your experience, what is the key to getting a good sweater fit?


6 thoughts on “Story of a Sweater: How I Started Knitting Sweaters That Fit

  1. I really admire your commitment to this fit project, Anna. It really speaks to the fascinating part of knitting that is both extremely complex (math, the human body), but also very simple (math, the human body). The time and energy you’ve put toward finding the exact fit shows the pleasure and pay-off of being dedicated to a craft and to yourself. If you are looking for other ideas for posts, you could write about how you consult other knitters like me and help us work through sticky issues, how you’ve formed your knitting authority, etc.

  2. Pingback: Knitting Sweaters: Do You Need Horizontal Bust Darts? | Sweet Alchemy

  3. Pingback: My Method for Learning to Sew | Sweet Alchemy

  4. I am so excited to find you. This is exactly my issue. I have been knitting for a few decades, but have never been able to knit a sweater for myself that fit me well. After frogging a red sweater 3 times since December, I decided that I needed to know how to modify patterns to suit my body and tastes. My first step was to take a webinar by Pat Lyons. This gave me some good pointers. Now I have found you! I am one happy camper. And, bonus, your body looks similar to mine. It is so encouraging to see pictures of sweaters fitting and flattering you/me. Thanks

    • Thanks! I’m glad that this was encouraging. 🙂 I always find it immensely helpful to see knitters with bodies like mine modeling their sweaters. I hadn’t heard of the Pat Lyon’s webinar before, but it looks really helpful. Good luck as you keep working towards a well-fitting sweater and keep me updated on your progress!

  5. Interesting post! I only started to make some headway with knitting when I began using patterns as guidelines and not as if they were set in stone. And I can NEVER match the tension. 😉
    I love the last grey one.

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