Two phrases much in the air on internet knitting discussions are "positive ease" and "negative ease." Do you wonder what these mean? You are not alone.
Ease is the amount of extra room built into a garment which allows the garment to slide over your skin as you move--it is the extra bit of room which stops your shirt from riding up as you lift your arm and stops your pants from tearing when you do something athletic. When the garment is larger than the person wearing it, the garment is said to have "POSITIVE" ease.
Logically, you would think that garments made from woven cloth need more ease than knitted garments, because woven cloth does not stretch as readily as knitted cloth does. This is true, but all ingenuity of the dressmaker's art is bent on narrowing the difference: darts, bust shaping, plackets, zippers and slits are all devices which allow woven cloth to fit the body closely without tearing or ripping. Yet with all their tricks, the best that the dressmakers can do is create garments with NO ease: gowns so close-fitting that the wearer has to be sewn into them.
Knitters can go dressmakers one better, and make garments SMALLER than the person wearing them, garments with NEGATIVE ease. A knitted gown can be constructed which fits so tightly as to leave no anatomical feature unseen, and yet require no darts, slits or sewing to get into. (This is because knitting is stretchy, having a good deal of "reserve" yarn built into the fabric: for more info, click HERE.) When the garment is smaller than the person wearing it, the garment is said to have negative ease. You need not go as far as exotic gowns to use the concept of negative ease in knitting: hats are an every-day example of NEGATIVE ease: made SMALLER than heads, hats cling because they have to stretch to fit.
Despite the fact that knitting stretches, however, knitters are not restricted to garments with negative ease. The "boyfriend sweater" is a familiar example of POSITIVE ease: made BIGGER than the wearer, it should fit as if the wearer had borrowed the garment from a big fellow--her boyfriend. (Or maybe his boyfriend--nowadays, who knows?)
It is not always the case that a garment with negative ease is better suited to flattering its wearer's anatomy than a garment with positive ease. A garment with positive ease is said to "drape" and this means that the excess fabric which creates the ease hangs in a potentially very flattering manner off the wearer's body. A shawl worn by a stately woman is a lovely example of a garment which flatters the figure perhaps better than a garment with negative ease could do. Garments with negative ease, of course, do not have any drape, they cling, rather than hang.
Knitted garments go in fads about ease, as do all other fashions. The "sweater girls" of the 1940's certainly wore garments with negative ease, and the fashion is now embraced as the most modern trend, spawning a raft of popular books. No doubt, the pendulum will swing back shortly, and close fitting garments will be considered SO last year, while baggy sweaters with lots of positive ease will be the most modern trend--indeed, the trend may have started already. (update 2014: it HAS started already!)
Ease and drape are not only about fashion, however, they are also concepts important to utility garments. Hats have already been mentioned, and hats with negative ease are indeed a familiar concept to knitters. Most socks are made with negative ease, and most cuffs, whether sweater cuffs or mitten cuffs, have negative ease.
For more information about ease and fashion (and the related concept of gauge) click HERE.
(You have been reading TECHknitting on "Negative ease and positive ease")