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Picking your first sweater pattern

Updated: Jan 25, 2021

A friend of mine recently cast on her first sweater for herself. She wanted to make sure that, as an advanced beginner (she’s been knitting for just over a year, tackling progressively more difficult accessories and children’s garments), she was going to end up with a sweater that she loved knitting, loved wearing, and was worth the investment of yarn and time.

There’s a bit of an art to finding the perfect pattern, and with so many available, it can be difficult to find one you have faith in! Today I’m sharing with you some of my advice for choosing a first sweater pattern.

Jen wearing a brightly speckled bobble sweater, with approximately 3" of ease and hitting at the natural waist.
Turns out... I don't like to wear this style.

What kind of sweaters do you like to wear?

Look in your closet - do you have mostly cardigans or pullovers? Heavy outerwear sweaters, or light drapey tunics? Fitted raglans or oversized drop shoulders? Choosing a sweater that has a fit and construction that you know you like to wear is the first step to creating a sweater you reach for time and time again.

Fabric selection

Choose a yarn that’s appropriate for the sweater style you’ve selected, matches your availability for maintenance and care, and is one that you (and your skin!) really love.

A heavy sweater for layering over flannels and hiking will do great with a handwash worsted weight wool, whereas a drapey cardigan might look best in fingering weight with a little bit of alpaca or synthetic in it.

If you have sensitive skin, choose cotton or synthetic fibers, or choose a garment that will be entirely layered over other clothes. If you know you won’t regularly handwash sweaters, pick something machine washable or that doesn’t need washing frequently (like outerwear).

Knowing intuitively which yarns will work well for which kinds of sweaters will come with time. For beginners, a good way to get started is to look at some patterns and see what they recommend, and then note the properties of that yarn, and look for a similar yarn. If you don’t stray too far from the recommended yarn weight, content, and care you’re likely to get a good result.

A brown child's sweater with a saddle seam in mid construction.
Seaming keeps your shoulders in place!

Consider a seamed garment

Seams give your garment structure. Knitters often have strong opinions about seaming in general, so I won’t cover that much here - but for beginners, I think there are even more compelling reasons.

  1. Because you’re working on one component at a time, you actually get to finish chunks and set them aside.

  2. You’re not grappling with a ton of fabric on your lap.

  3. You don’t have to worry about your gauge changing when you switch from working in the round to working flat, or working in the round on the body to small circumference working in the round for the sleeves.

  4. If you abandon your project for a month while you work up something else, it’s easier to figure out where you left off.

  5. You can tackle easier parts (like the back, with little to no shaping for long stretches) before the sleeves (which often have shaping all the way up, in addition to any patterning). This lets you build confidence and reduce errors.

  6. If you discover a critical mistake 20 rows later, you’re ripping out 20 rows of one just one component, which could be a difference of thousands of stitches.

Look at lots of patterns and projects!

Ravelry and Instagram are my favorite places to search for patterns. Ravelry has a powerful filtering tool that lets you filter on all the things covered above, and lets you easily view lots of projects from other knitters. By using hashtags and following designers and test knitters, you can also use Instagram to get very focused results.

There are tons of patterns on Ravelry, and many of them are from independent designers. Don’t be too swayed by what knitters photos look like, but do pay attention to things like fit, especially from knitters who have worked sweaters in your size. Do the armholes appear to come down further than you’d like? Does it look like the sweater will stay in place, or will the shoulders slide? Look for notes that say things like ‘clear instructions,’ ‘detailed schematic’ or ‘helpful tutorial’.

Another tip is to find knitters on Ravelry or Instagram who share your proportions and tastes, and check out their projects!

Ensure fit

Before you invest in a pattern, make sure that the specific pattern you’ve selected will fit you the way you want. Ease is the difference between your actual measurements and a garment, and most sweaters have positive ease - the garment is bigger than your body (hats, in contrast, need to stretch to fit your head, and therefore have negative ease).

A line schematic for a cardigan with a shawl collar
Look for patterns with detailed schematics.

Measure some favorite sweaters from your closet and measure your body - how much ease do you like in the chest and arms? Compare that to the finished measurements of the sweater pattern you're considering (and make sure you're seeing finished measurements, not just S/M/L, or body measurements). How many inches of ease does the designer recommend? How many inches of ease are modeled in the photos? Understanding the relationship between the way a pattern is modeled and the way you like your sweaters can help you select just the right size - and make sure that your final pattern is one that includes your size.

Pick something that excites you

Finally, I want to encourage new knitters to aim high! Pick a project that excites you, don't necessarily play it safe. Feel free to tackle a handful of new techniques in this project, after all, if you have to rip out then you're just extending the number of hours you get to spend with the yarn you picked out. Knitting is all done one stitch at a time, and there are numberless great tutorials out there, so choose a yarn and a pattern that thrill you and go for it!

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