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The quote-un-quote "Athlete Build"

Ever been told you're built like a swimmer? Or that you have an athlete's build? Or maybe you simply need a small-bust adjustment?

Disclosure - I come to this discussion as someone with loads of Body Stuff. I'm someone who absolutely loves to move my body, but has struggled with orthorexia, and I've been lots of different sizes for lots of different reasons. I'll be sharing lots of photos of myself in "athletic" settings in this article, and those are from various times and sizes in my life.

If you're struggling, please note the possible triggers this might present and decide if this is right for you or not. As I'm writing this, I'm facing at least two surgeries in the next six months that I might not need if I'd been less aggressive and disordered in some of my movement practices in the past. I feel like it's important to share with you that I'm only sharing photos of times when movement honored my body's limits and felt restorative and joyful.


What we know

Here’s what we know – knitting patterns are designed using size charts, a table of measurements that lists the average measurement of the body in key places for each size. We also know that NO ONE is the average in every way.

Maybe you’re taller or shorter than the size chart (for a woman, it’s 5’4”). Maybe your cup size isn’t the same as the size chart predicts. Maybe you have juicy arms or robot stick arms. Whatever it is, knowing how you differ from the average and what to do about it can transform your fit.

Some differences show up in clusters

When a knitter tells me they are ‘pear shaped’ or have an ‘hourglass figure,’ I know that we’re going to see a very specific portfolio of modifications. But what we don’t talk about as much in knitting is the quote-unquote “athlete’s body.”


Values Talk

Every athlete is different. No cluster of measurements is going to universally reflect any specific sport or movement practice, nor is everybody who engages in a sport or movement practice going to reflect the cluster of measurements I’m talking about today. Finally, let’s recognize that you can be an athlete at any size, and that there’s no moral value attached to athleticism.

So what are we talking about here?

Generally, when someone talks about an athletic build in fashion, they’re talking about a body with strong shoulder girdle and upper body muscles, and often, a smaller cup size for their frame than the general population.

We see this build reflected in an upper chest that’s the same size or larger than the full bust, broader shoulders than the upper chest might predict and sometimes, a deeper shoulder rise. It might also be a broader mid-back and a broader upper arm.

Start with choosing a size

No matter your build, we always fit top down. If you’re making a set-in sleeve garment, choose your size based on front chest. For other constructions, use your upper chest. For more on using upper chest to choose a size, read this article.

Evaluate the pattern

If this is you, you’ll have less work to do to modify your pattern if it:

  • Has a generous armscye (armhole) depth. Look for at least an inch deeper than your body armhole depth.

  • Has equal ease in the front and back. If you are not ‘busty,’ skip patterns that assign extra material to the front.

  • Has generous shoulder rise. This is where our bodies slope along the traps, and if yours have a steep slope, look for patterns that match. A standard build has about 1.75” of rise from the shoulder point to the inner neck point, you may need more.

Consider modifications

What modifications might you make, if this is for you? As you might have gathered from the previous section, ensure that you’ll have adequate room in the armhole and the shoulder. But also:

  • You may need to widen the upper arm to accommodate biceps and triceps.

  • You may need to reduce the full bust measurement.

  • If you have broad lats, you might need a broad back adjustment.

  • You might need broader shoulders (set-in sleeve type garments).

  • A more dramatic compound raglan might suit you better.

Reducing the full bust measurement

In any garment, we change stitch counts between the neck and the full bust. If we’re working top-down, we’re making increases, and if we’re working bottom-up, we’re decreasing. To create a garment that’s less full in the bust without sacrificing the fit you need for your upper torso, work fewer shaping rows for your construction to arrive at a count that makes sense for your build.

Adjust front and back

If you can get someone to measure you, it can be very useful to know your arcs – the amount of your full bust circumference that belongs to your front and back. This way you can reduce those stitches where you don’t need them.

A broad back adjustment

For your garment to work, you need to have the same number of stitches for the front and back at the shoulder. But some of us need extra room through the upper back.

To do that, you want fewer stitches assigned to the armhole, and more stitches assigned to the back neck.

Example – working bottom up: After the initial underarm bind-offs, work fewer decreases than the pattern calls for the underarm. When you bind off for the neck, bind off those missing stitches so that your shoulders are the same count as the pattern.

Re-contour the raglan

Generally, a raglan sweater fits best when there are three shaping rates – more dramatic shaping at the top and bottom, less dramatic shaping in the middle.

This reflects the same shape we see in the body – the body is rapidly divided into arm/body at the underarm (and we are narrowing from a full bust), we have a long straightaway up to the shoulders, and then we have a dramatic slope for the shoulder.

If this feels very theoretical, think of raglans as behaving partly like a set-in and partly like a round yoke. The bottom of the armhole in a set-in sleeve has an initial bind-off and a set of rapid decreases to shape the underarm, then it’s straight up. The top of a yoke features several rapid rows of decreases as the overall circumference of the body narrows from the broad circumference around the shoulders down to the circumference of the neck over just an inch or two.

But if we’re knitting for a body with a robust shoulder girdle and a small cup, we might want to change some of our assumptions. At the bottom, more of our stitches are rib cage and fewer are breast, so we don’t need to reduce our width as rapidly at the bottom. And at the top, we have wider, meatier shoulders and lats to cover, which means we need stitches there but also means we narrow more dramatically to the neck.

Tl;dr? Move some of those close together decreases from the bottom of the raglan yoke to the top.

Example – working top down:

Old: Increase every RS row 8 times, then every other RS row 10 times, then every RS row 8 times, CO 12 for the underarm.

New: Increase every RS row 12 times, then every other RS row 10 times, then every RS row 4 times, CO 12 for the underarm.

After all that, you might still need a full bust adjustment

In fitting, we work top down. And after you do all that work to get the top of your garment perfect, you’ll need to take a look at what’s happening in the lower torso. Breasts, as a reminder, are on the lower half of the torso.

I’ve worked with many knitters who think of themselves as ‘small-busted’ who actually have a larger cup than is predicted for their frame size. This happens because we’re used to comparing ourselves to media and to others, and not to a size chart.

In sweater fit, we often find that extra fabric goes where it’s needed to some degree. If you’re used to sizing up in your sweaters to accommodate your shoulders and lats, the extra material in the full bust may have been moving around to accommodate breast material. Some athletes may carry less body fat in the upper back and be broader in the muscle belly of the lats in the mid back. If we’ve eliminated extra fabric by reducing the full bust measurement, the front will no longer be able to steal from the back.

Finally, athletes that have more developed pectoral muscles might find that yes, they have relatively small breasts, but they have plenty of breast projection (forward altitude). We can benefit from short rows any time a tape measure from the inner neck point to the underbust is substantially longer in the front than the back.

Tl;dr? When you make adjustments to get a better fit throughout the torso, evaluate whether or not you can benefit from adding just a few short rows. Even if you removed material from the full bust, you may still be someone who can benefit from bust shaping!

The takeaway

No matter who you are, whether or not you like to move your body for fun or work, whether your measurements match a chart or not - you deserve knits that fit you well, show off your hard work, and that you reach for over and over.

Regardless of your 'shape', at the end of the day the guidance is the same.

Fit top down.

Adjust as needed.

Enjoy your project.

In the knitting fit world, we talk a lot about fitting large busts. I hope this article that addresses the inverse issue is helpful!


PS - my blog is made possible by Kofi supporters.

I believe in providing paywall-free educational and inspirational content for knitters through my newsletter, on IG, in articles on my website, and through my work on the One Wild Knitting podcast.

If we're going to get to a world that has excellent patterns for knitters of all sizes, and a world where any knitter has the tools to jump in and make something their own, then community-funded education is the path I see to get there. If you find this info helpful or share our belief that access to the handmade movement is a form of justice, I hope you'll consider contributing.

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Thank you for considering!

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