Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Gauge, ease and fashion--or "why doesn't my sweater fit?"

includes a how-to
Knitting any pattern for the first time is an act of faith. You see a pattern. It appears on a model, cunningly displayed on a chair, or hanging at the LYS. Through some combination of experience, fashion sense and hope, you decide that although you aren't a model, a chair, or a hanger, that sweater will surely look as well on you. You buy the yarn, you buy the pattern, you cast on. You switch needles 3 times until you get the exact gauge. You work diligently, keeping the gauge perfect all through the sweater. You assemble your masterpiece--and--well, um. Your new sweater fits best if you don't button it and covers up best if you don't breathe. And forget about raising your arms. It fits your friend well enough though, so it goes to her. Not a disappointment, exactly, because she does look good in it and she admired the heck out of it, but a sweater for your friend is not what you were aiming for. What went wrong? I am here to absolve you. It isn't your fault. It wasn't an error in your gauge--there was insufficient "ease" in the pattern to get the fit you were looking to get.
So what is ease? Well, when you buy a sweater at the store, you try a few on. Perhaps you find that even among garments from the same manufacturer, you prefer a size 6 sweater, while in a different model, a size 4 might fit better. Assuming we are not talking high-fashion sweaters here, the difference between the way the two sweaters fit is due to their "ease." Stated otherwise, "ease" in a technical sense does not refer to lolling about watching TV while eating bon-bons. It refers to the amount of extra room inside your clothes--how much looser your clothes must fit than your skin does, in order that you do not tear your clothes or expose what you would rather not, every time you lift your arms, turn around, sit down. It is the amount of extra room which allows your clothes to slide and glide becomingly as you move around.
Confusingly, the concept of ease often runs right into the concept of fashion. Fashion waxes and wanes. Sometimes the fashion is for baggy pants--big enough to conceal one's friends in, sometimes for skinny jeans. Yet, it would be ease, not fashion, which dictates that, among the stereotypical body types, her pants must typically be cut broader in the beam than his, and that his pants must, regardless of fashion, be cut looser in the crotch than hers (at least if fathering viable offspring lays in the future). 

Leave aside fashion and assume that we knitters are persons of distinction seeking sober well-fitting garments. We still might not get what we want when set out to knit a sweater, because we might not consider how much ease we actually like to have in our clothing. And even if we do know how much ease we want in our clothing, we might not know how much ease the pattern creator allowed. When we add fashion to the equation, we step ever further away from any assurance our hand-knitted garment is going to achieve an attractive fit. What is wanted is the baby bear's amount of ease--not too much, not too little, but just right. But how to find it?
Here is the trick. Do NOT measure your BODY. No. Or at least, not yet--not first. Instead, go and measure your favorite sweater/hat/gloves/whatever it is you are trying to knit. That's right--do not wrap the tape measure around you--use it to measure your favorite garment, instead.
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The reason you love that garment is because it fits you the way you like clothes to fit. And that fit is something you can analyze. How big around is the sweater in the area of your bust? Your waist? Your hips? How big is your actual bust, waist, hip? The difference is the amount of ease you prefer in a sweater. Are you surprised that it might be as much as 8 inches, and maybe even 10 inches in a heavy jacket-type sweater? I know I was when I first started knitting sweaters. How long do you want that sweater to be--do you want your rear end covered, or do you find that a garment grazing your belly-button is quite long enough? Better be sure that the sweater you are making is long enough to cover what you want covered (and only that). The best way, again, is going to be to measure your favorite sweater. Ditto sleeve length, ditto shoulder span, ditto neck hole width and depth, ditto v-neck depth and angle. How about the depth of the armhole? My sister recently gave away an expensive Norwegian tapestry-knit sweater. It fit everywhere except for armhole depth. These were too shallow, causing the sweater to bunch unattractively. In other words, even assuming the garment you want to knit has the same armhole style as your fave, what is the armhole depth of your proposed creation?
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Now let's add fashion to the equation: Look at the shoulder--are all your favorite sweaters drop shoulder? If so, why assume that raglan sweater you are planning to knit is going to be flattering? A drop shoulder sweater typically hangs so the shoulder seam lies some distance past your natural shoulder--a shoulder-broadening profile on the narrow-shouldered. A raglan sweater has, technically speaking, no shoulder at all. The wearer's shoulder defines the sweater's shoulder. A person accustomed to depending on their sweater for a few extra inches of shoulder-broadening might be surprised how narrow-shouldered they look in a raglan. On the other hand, a broad-shouldered person looking to minimize shoulder span might be surprised at how they look a drop-shouldered sweater, as if wearing a padded jersey. 

OK, enough philosophy. Here's where the rubber meets the road. Before you knit a sweater from a pattern, look to see that the pattern gives the FINISHED GARMENT SIZE in inches (or centimeters) not just in dress sizes, or XXXS through XXXL. If the pattern does not give the finished garment size, you have a lot of detective work. Where finished garment sizes are provided, use them: If you are usually size M, and the finished garment size for size M differs from your favorite sweater, disregard the size designation--DON'T knit a size M. Instead, knit the sweater which will give you the finished garment size, measured in inches (or centimeters) closest to your favorite sweater. This way, regardless of how much ease the pattern writer thought appropriate, your finished sweater--whether labeled size S, M, L, or XL, will fit YOUR notion of how much ease is appropriate to your body. You may have to do some detective work to figure out some of the dimensions of the finished garment and work backwards from the pattern directions (so and so many rows, at such and such a row gauge) to determine the armhole opening depth. (Hint: your LYS is a great resource here.) 

 A caveat: The heavier the fabric, the greater ease required. If your favorite sweater is lighter weight than the weight of the sweater you are planning to knit, you will have to add ease so the thicker sweater fits like the thinner sweater does. Conversely, if your favorite sweater is heavier in weight than the sweater you are planning to knit, you must subtract ease to get to the right fit. How much ease to add or subtract is a judgment call, which is why the very best way to get a good result is to use a sweater in the style and weight you want to make as your taking-off point. click picture

Another caveat: Very high fashion styling changes the equation because, unless you already own a leg-of-mutton sleeved sweater with a twirly button band and the fronts longer than the back, you really have nothing against which to measure your proposed new handknit in that style. A department store or boutique showing the high-fashion garment you covet, some surreptitious activity with a tape measure in the fitting room, and you've laid the groundwork for a better fit when this eventual masterpiece rolls from your needles. 

 A final thought: If you used the same yarn and needles to make your next project, you'd be ahead of the game. You already have a big, big gauge swatch in the sweater (hat, mittens, whatever) which you made first. You have an important body of knowledge and experience gleaned from working with that yarn and those needles. You know in the core of your being what X number of stitches look like after they come off the needles. With this information, you're far more likely to make a fitting garment the second time through than you were the first time around. After all, think on traditional folk knitters: unlike modern knitters, they didn't use a different yarn and different needles for each project. In fact, most had access to only one weight of yarn, and they used the same needles over and over again. I don't advocate that every sweater you ever make ought to be in the same yarn as you used for the first one, but you will get an increasingly professional-looking result with each project for which you use the same yarn and needles. --TECHknitter