Knitting Sweaters: Do You Need Horizontal Bust Darts?

There are two primary forms of shaping that people talk about when they talk about bust shaping in knitting—vertical bust darts (or VBDs) and horizontal bust darts (or HBDs). Vertical bust darts are essentially a set of increases that add additional width to the bust beyond the shaping written into the pattern to allow room for a bust that is proportionally larger  than the upper bust. Horiztonal bust darts, on the other hand, are essentially a set of short rows that add extra length just at the bust. HBDs aren’t typically written into sweater patterns because patterns assume that the natural stretch of the knitted fabric will be sufficient to cover the bust. There are lots of tutorials and information online and in knitting books about how to add HBDs (I’ve included some resources at the bottom of this post as well), but today I’m going to try to give some visuals to help you assess whether or not you need to add HBDs to your sweaters.

Me and My HBDs

I decided to try incorporating HBDs into my sweaters when I was working on my fit experiment sweater. When I was taking measurements for that sweater, I decided to compare the length of my back and my front by tying a piece of waste yarn around the point where I like my sweaters to typically fall and then measuring the length from the top of my shoulder to the yarn both at my back and my front. Thanks to those measurements, I discovered that my front is 5” longer than my back—that’s a pretty significant difference. Some people recommend adding enough short rows to compensate for the difference between your front and back measurements, but I decided to assume that my knitted fabric would comfortably stretch to cover a couple of inches of length and only added 3” of HBDs. This worked so well that I’ve continued to add the same amount of length via HBDs in every fitted sweater I’ve made myself since. At this point, I honestly can’t see myself knitting a sweater without HBDs unless it was meant to be worn open or oversized.

Do you need more length or just more width?

Amy Herzog argues in this post on her blog that many people think that they need HBDs to keep their sweaters from riding up in the front could resolve their ride-up problems by adding VBDs instead. The logic is that when knitted fabric has to stretch horizontally, it shrinks vertically, so that if a sweater has to stretch several inches across the bust, you’ll lose length at the front of the sweater and experience ride-up. Amy contends that using VBDs to add extra width to the front of the sweater will reduce the amount of stretching the sweater has to do across the bust and, thus, reduce the loss of length as a result of stretching. I think this makes good sense, and I think that if you are in the habit of knitting sweaters with 3-4” of negative ease and are having your sweaters ride up at the front, then you would probably benefit from adding VBDs to your sweaters before you try HBDs.

And there’s good reason to forgo HBDs if you don’t really need them. You have to be really careful with the way you work your short rows to keep them as invisible as possible, and sometimes they will still create a visible line in your knitted fabric. They can be difficult to work over certain stitch patterns or disrupt striping. And, of course, HBDs are another form of shaping that you have to figure out how to incorporate into your sweater, often with no guidance from the pattern itself. But the bottom line is that extra width isn’t going to solve everyone’s bust shaping issues—it certainly wouldn’t have solved mine. Amy suggests women with more than 2″ of difference between their back and front length measurements might need HBDs. I would agree, and I thought I would share some pictures that could help you make even more sense of your measurements.

A Case Study: The Old Navy Cardigan

Old Navy Cardigan via

For my money, one of the best indications of whether or not you could benefit from HBDs is by studying the way clothes tend to fit you. This sweater is a good example of the way that clothes tend to fit me. This is a cardigan I got at Old Navy a few years ago. From the front, it hits me mid-hip, which is were I typically like my tops to fall. And worn this way, it looks like it’s just a basic, V-neck cardigan. However, this cardigan is actually meant to be worn long through the torso and slightly loose. In my experience, the average length for the body of woman’s sweater from the hem to the underarm is around 14-16” long. This Old Navy Cardigan measures 18” from hem to underarm.

I consistently have problems with RTW tops being too short for me, which made me think that I just had a really long torso. But I don’t have an unusually long torso so much as I’m busty and need some extra length at the front. You can see proof of this when you look at how this sweater fits me from the side and from the back.

Old Navy Cardigan side view via Old Navy Cardigan back via

What you can see in these two shots is that while the sweater hits me at my mid-hip with a relatively smooth front, I’ve literally got piles of excess fabric hanging around the back of the sweater. And if I pull the hem of the sweater down so that the back lays smooth, I end up with an unintended and seriously undesired hi-low hem effect. Lovely!

 Old navy cardigan side view via

This sweater fits me with about 1” of positive ease at the bust, so none of the way that this sweater fits is due to stretching at the bust. And in tops that do fit with too much negative ease at the bust, my experience has been that when they ride up, they actually ride up over the bust and bunch up a bit at the armpits as the top shifts to try to provide extra fabric for the bust. This cardigan doesn’t actually ride up—I can wear it all day like this, with the excess fabric piled up at the back, and not have to constantly adjust the front down. The big issue with the way that this cardigan fits me is that it is unbalanced, which means that the hem doesn’t fall evenly around my body. And while I could knit all of my sweaters to be 18” long before the armpit to make sure they’re an appropriate length in the front, the excess fabric at the back would become even more of an issue since hand-knit fabric tends to be thicker and more dense that RTW knits.

The Comparison: Two hand-knit cardigans with HBDs

When I add my standard 3” of HBDs to my hand-knit sweaters, those sweaters end up measuring 3” longer at the center front of the sweater than at the back or the side seams. So on my last two cardigans, I knit the body of the sweater to be 15″ long before the armhole shaping but added 3″ of bust darts to make the center front 18″ long. If you look at this flat shot of my recent Squared Cardigan, you can see the way that the front dips down longer than the back of the cardigan.

Squared cardigan flat via

However, if you look at pictures of my recent Audrey in Unst cardigan (which has the same exact shaping as my Squared Cardigan), you can see that I’m not plagued with piles of excess fabric at the back of the sweater and that the hem of the sweater is balanced—it falls parallel to the floor all around my body. This cardigan already has plenty of width at the bust—I’m wearing it with about 1/2”-1” of positive ease at the bust—so my HBDs aren’t compensating for stretch across the bust. They’re just providing the bit of extra length I need at the front of a sweater.

Audrey profile view via

So even though they take a bit of extra effort and can sometimes create a visible dart line, I think HBDs are totally worth the costs, especially since I’ve yet to produce a sweater that truly fits me well without them. If you’re wondering if you might benefit from HBDs, I say study your closet and pay close attention to how your clothes feel. And keep in mind that the short-row shaping method used in HBDs can be applied to other areas of the body (back, belly, butt, etc.) where you might need a bit more coverage. When you can finally wear something without having to tug it into place all day, the world is a brighter place!

HBD Reading List and other Resources:



Behold my latest knitting triumph: I made Aidan a sweater!

I’ve knit Aidan a lot of stuff, but so far it’s been mostly socks and hats. I wanted to try knitting him a sweater, so I asked if he would be interested in one and gave him a handful of patterns to choose from. He picked Jared Flood’s Ranger pattern and decided he wanted it in a forest green similar to a color I’d used previously on a sweater for our godson. I ended up going with Valley Yarns Northampton in Dark Green Heather. (If you haven’t used Northampton before, it’s comparable in quality to Cascade 220, but more economical.) I started the sweater last May, finished it in August, and then let it sit around for awhile before I finally blocked it and sewed on some buttons. I mean, there wasn’t much incentive to finish it since it was too warm for him to wear it anyway. When it finally got cold, he wore it out once when we went to the movies and it was clear that it was way too big—the sleeves were a few inches too long and the whole thing just looked kind of droopy and sad.

Getting a sweater to fit another person (and more specifically, a person who is old enough to have lost all of their baby teeth) is it’s own kind of challenge, especially since when something goes awry, you really only have your eyes and your measuring tape to help you figure out what’s wrong. You don’t get to feel how the sweater fits—you can’t use feel and your sense of fit to differentiate what parts fit okay and what parts are a real problem. And that is a bit tricky.

I suspected that my row gauge was off, making both the sleeves and the yoke way too long post-blocking (although somehow the body of the sweater blocked out to the schematic measurements). I tried to get a more accurate sense of what my blocked row gauge was by measuring the sweater itself, but every part of the sweater I measured had a significantly different row gauge. And I’m not a novice measurer—I know what I’m doing. It was incredibly frustrating, and even though I had originally determined that it was mostly the yoke that was a problem, I somehow managed to convince myself during this measuring debacle that I was going to need to reknit the entire sweater. And so it sat with my knitting stuff for four months, taunting me, until I had knit through my stashed yarn and told myself that I needed to finish Aidan’s sweater before I could get anything new.

(Side drama: Just as I had resolved to fix this sweater, it was involved in a freak exploding-garlic-sauce situation that resulted in a quarter-sized grease stain on the back. This is the kind of thing that happens when you 1) leave a project just laying around for four months and 2) store your knitting stuff pretty close to the kitchen. The silver lining is that I now know how to treat a grease stain on wool: Mark the stain with a stitch marker. Put a small amount of dish soap directly on the stain, gently spread the soap around the affected area, and then soak the affected area in warm water without agitating, replacing the water as many times as needed until the water is clear of any soap bubbles. I let it soak for about 5-10 minutes each time before dumping out the water and refilling the bowl. Let the area dry over night and repeat the process if the stain is still at all visible.)

While I was prepared to rip the whole sweater apart, I had the good sense to try it on Aidan one last time and realized/remembered that the the body of the sweater before the raglan shaping was perfectly fine and the sleeves were also fine, except for being too long. So I saved myself a lot of trouble and just ripped back to the point where the sleeves joined the body of the sweater. I ripped both of the sleeves back about an inch to get rid of some of the excess length. The pattern, as written, contains two places where Jared Flood included short rows to allow extra length for broad shoulders and backs—one right before and one right after you join the sleeves to the body. However, when Aidan wore the sweater for the first time, I noticed that in addition to being too long in general, it was also dipping down in the back, giving him a weird droopy drawers situation. So when I ripped back, I ripped out all of the short row shaping since it didn’t seem like Aidan needed it. I reworked the yoke shaping to get rid of about 10 rows and omitted all of the short rows, so that I removed about 1.5” of length from the front of the sweater and about 3-4” of length from the back.

The resulting fit is much improved. There’s no more droopiness and instead of feeling like a grandpa, Aidan says he feels like the “kid” in the pattern photos. My only regret is letting it sit around for so long before I went ahead and fixed it. Oh well. It’s still cold enough for him to wear it for a bit this season. And I’m pleased enough with the result that I would knit him another sweater in a heartbeat. I hope he enjoys wearing it!

Squared Cardigan

I seem to have a ton of very casual clothes and most of the sweaters that I wear regularly fit within this casual style, so I’m trying to focus more on knitting sweaters that I would feel comfortable teaching in. This is the first attempt that has been successful—I’ve worn this sweater several times now, including a day when I was observed by a teaching mentor and on the first day of class during the spring semester. So it passes all my teaching requirements: it looks nice, it fits well (meaning that it doesn’t have to be constantly adjusted while I wear it), allows me to move around comfortably (reaching up to write on the board, leaning over desks to talk to students, bending over to pick up that dropped piece of chalk), and it works with clothes I already have.

This pattern, the Squared Cardigan, comes from the Knit to Flatter book. By the time I got the book, I’d already been reading Amy’s blog for a long time and following her Ravelry group. Still I found some helpful tips in the book, including the suggestion to place horizontal bust darts (which are just short rows) so that they end below the bust apex. I’ve been placing my HBDs a bit higher but lowered them based on this suggestion and I’ve found the lower placement does, indeed, lead to a better fit.

I also like that a lower placement allows me to work my vertical and horizontal bust darts at the same time, which creates less compressed vertical bust shaping. Before I lowered the placement of my HBDs, I used to work bust dart increases every other row, which can lead to some biasing in the fabric. But if I work bust increases through the short row shaping, then I have more length to work the increases over, meaning that I can work them less frequently to get more gentle shaping.

This is the first Amy Herzog pattern I’ve knit, and I’m really pleased with how it turned out. The sleeves on this are the perfect length for my liking, and I really love the shoulder and arm shaping. In fact, I went ahead and used the instructions for sleeve and armscye shaping for another cardigan that I just finished knitting (and am hoping to show off just as soon as I can get some buttons). I’m also a big fan of the sleeve length and the curved ribbing at the bottom of the sweater and the sleeves–it’s a unique detail that’s probably more impressive in real life than it looks in these pictures.

This isn’t made from a single size—I worked out my own numbers for the hip and for the back and bust shaping, working 3” of horizontal bust darts. Based on my upper bust measurement, I followed the 41-42” size for the neckline and shoulders, and followed the instructions for the 45-46” size for the sleeves and armscye shaping.

My neckline ended up more rounded than squared, probably because I didn’t pick up enough stitches. This is my one complaint about the pattern: it gives specific numbers of stitches to pick up for the button bands and neckline, but I much prefer when a pattern gives you a rate for picking up stitches. A rate (like “pick up 3 stitches every 4 rows” or “pick up one stitch from each bound off stitch”) makes it easier to work when you’ve made size adjustments and makes it easier to pick up the stitches evenly. I always disregard specific numbers and work a rate that I expect will be appropriate, but I should have ripped back when I noticed this neckline was a bit tight. Oh well. Live and learn. Or rather, live and maybe, possibly do it right the next time around if you’re feeling especially motivated.

The yarn is Berroco Vintage DK in Charcoal, which is the same yarn I used for Aidan’s gray beanie. However, this yarn has a bit of drape to it, which combined with the open neckline and the larger buttons means that this cardigan really only looks good closed. But that works for me. My favorite way to wear it is layered over a button-down, but it also looks good with a simple tank top underneath.

Every cardigan I finish makes me want to immediately knit five more. If only I could knit faster…

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?