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Knit a better sweater with these sewists tools

It's time to start stealing

Sewists get the best stuff. This week, we're stealing from them.

Do swatches lie?

These two rulers are my most used knitting notions, and you'll find them both in the quilting section in your local sewing store.

One is a small quilt ruler with 1/16" markings. The other is a quilting cutting ruler.

Use the small ruler to measure gauge

When you measure gauge, measure the largest area on your swatch that you can. Don’t measure any stitches that are distorted by your edges, but measure every other stitch you can. Measure whole stitches, to the nearest 1/16th of an inch. Divide the stitches by the length, and then multiply that by 4 to get your gauge over 4”. Do the same for rows. Working in cm? Measure to the nearest mm, and multiply by 10 instead.

A handknit swatch in cable pattern with a small quilting ruler.
Bonus tip you didn't ask for: get a tidy bind off like this when cabling by working decreases as you bind off. Look ma, no ruffles!

Tip: Make a swatch that is at least 5” square, block your swatch before measuring, measure only whole stitches, block your finished garment to the schematic measurements, and you will never have another gauge swatch lie to you.

Block better with a quilting ruler

While your finished knitting soaks, use pins and this ruler to block out all the corners of your garment. Lift the knitting out of the water, bunch it up on a towel, roll it up and step on it, repeating until the water is out. At no point should any part of the knitting be allowed to dangle or stretch with the weight of the water.

Then lay your knitting into the outline you pinned out, and gently begin to block to measurements. Use the ruler to ensure straight sides, sleeves, and hems Doing this will 1) ensure that your gauge swatch didn’t lie, and 2) ensure that your garment is symmetrical (both sleeves are the same length, both sides are the same length, the shoulders are even, etc). If your garment is pieced, blocking to measurements before seaming also guarantees that your pieces will align when you sew them. Finally, it will open up your selvedge edges so you can see exactly where to put the needle.

Pieces of a handknit sweater, laid flat to block for easy seaming
Look carefully, and you can see the pins at each corner

Perfect blocking = painless seaming. This is Scoop Shop, a v-neck shawl collar cardi for kiddos.

Get a sweater that fits the way you expect

Sewists make muslins/toiles. That’s a mock-up of their final garment, using inexpensive fabric (usually muslin, hence the name). This allows them to see how the final garment will fit and to make any adjustments before cutting into their fabric. In knitting, we aren’t cutting into fabric, but we are investing dozens of hours into creating a shaped piece of fabric. We deserve the same tactic for ensuring our work will pay off! To create a muslin, take your swatch to the fabric store and find an inexpensive fabric with a similar stretch and weight. Using your pattern’s schematic and a ruler, cut out pieces the same size and shape as your garment. You don’t have to do a great job putting them together - sew right at the edges, or use safety pins. If you find you need to make an adjustment, you can mark directly on the garment with chalk (or even marker). Want a visual? Here’s a very quick video!

Make some modifications

Let's talk about two common modifications that sewists make that will transform your sweater fit. You're probably already making adjustments to the length of your sweater from the hem to the underarm, but what about adjusting the length in the top of the back, or the bottom of the front only?

Lengthen the back yoke

The armscye measurement is the length from our shoulder bone down to our underarm, measured straight (as if a caliper were measuring it). But if we laid the measuring tape across our bodies there, there is more of a curve in the back than the front (and that makes sense, if you imagine the profile of a skeleton, and the natural S-curve of our spine). That means that there’s more length in the back than in the front. Knitting patterns rarely address this, and for many of us, that’s just fine. Knitting is pretty squidgey; it stretches and goes where it needs to go. But if you find that your sweaters are tugging toward the back, you might benefit from adding just a few extra rows in the back only. Note: As we mature, this adjustment may become more important. Our spines, and therefore our torsos, change as we get older, and that curve becomes more prominent.

Make room for your breasts

So often in knitting, we ignore the fact that we are not shaped the same in the front as in the back. If you have breasts, you might benefit from adding short rows to accommodate them. But what I really want to talk about is modifying WHERE we put those short rows. Even if your pattern includes bust darts, the location might not work for you.

A handknit sweater on a dress form. It has bust shaping, which is nearly invisible, so two pins mark the begin and end of the shaping line.
The pins mark the line of the bust shaping, which ends at the apex

Article: Bust shaping demystified

The goal with short rows is to have them right at, or just under, the apex of the breast. Again, as we become more mature or as we bear children, our breast apex gets lower. Patterns are typically written using a Misses chart, which is like, a 20-year-old. To make sure you’re getting your darts at the best location, start by measuring from the inside of your neck down to the apex. This is your neck-to-apex. Then, look at your sweater pattern and figure out how much of your sweater you need to knit before starting.

Really actually try it

I like to imagine that as I write these article, you’re all soaking this up, and having an easier time imagining how your sweaters will fit or how you can upgrade your finishing techniques. But there’s no substitute for trying things! One of my favorite books ever is The Palmer/Pletsch Complete Guide to Fitting, by Pati Palmer and Marta Alto. It’s a book about tissue-fitting sewing patterns. Their strategy is to take the actual paper pattern and make your modifications on that, and they show you very clearly how changing the shapes of the pieces changes the fit. They provide detailed instructions for making modifications for lots of different fit issues. One of their key pieces of advice is to make a basic shell dress and modify it to fit you PERFECTLY. Knowing what mods you make for that dress is a shortcut to getting the perfect fit in every subsequent sewing project.

For knitters, a set-in-sleeve sweater does the same thing. Each component can be adjusted, so you have ultimate control over the final fit. Seaming lets you tackle modifications one at a time. Example: it’s much easier to add length to the back yoke of your set-in-sleeve sweater than it is to work out short rows to accomplish the same in a seamless raglan. Note: I keep typing ‘yoke.’ Once, I had someone confused about that term, because in knitting, when we say yoke we often mean a round yoke sweater or a raglan yoke sweater.

In sewing, it’s “a shaped pattern piece that forms part of a garment, usually fitting around the neck and shoulders or around the hips to provide support for looser parts of the garment” (thanks, Wikipedia).

Because in knitting we often are talking about garments that are positive ease from the bust down, I tend to use the word ‘yoke’ whenever I’m referring to the underarm to the shoulder.

Looking for the perfect pattern to experiment with?

The first pattern in my Classics collection, Classic Colorblock, will give you the perfect canvas for experimenting with measuring, blocking and modifying. And if you're not ready to modify? It comes with two sleeves (one trim and one slim), two lengths, and optional bust darts so you can begin to see how making these changes transforms your fits.

Not sure you're ready to try the sweater for adults? You can also find Kid's Classic, a child's version of the same. Kid's patterns are a fantastic way to experiment with new techniques.

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