On the Subject of Sweaters Part 1: Choosing a Pattern

This post is Part 1 in a series of weekly posts I’ll be doing on the process of sweater knitting: not exactly the nitty gritty details and techniques, but the opportunities and decisions you may encounter on the way to getting a knitted sweater that works for you.

The Challenge of Choice
In my mind, there is only one real “rule” of sweater knitting, and here it is: You can knit whatever sweater you want. There are no “musts” in knitting. There are big advantages to knitting your own sweater – getting it to fit your body, for one. Sleeves can be as long or short as you want, you can control stitch counts and gauge to make the pattern smaller or larger if necessary, and your colour selection is limited only to the yarn colours available to you in your yarn shop or online retailers; Which is to say you can basically knit whatever sweater you want in whatever colour you want, whenever you damned well feel like it.

Knit a big classic Aran fisherman’s pullover. Knit a wispy drapey unstructured thing that looks like it belongs on a modern runway. Knit something from the magazine that just arrived in the yarn shop because you liked how it looked on the cover. Knit the sweater you just saw online this morning. Knit a sweater from a vintage book that you inherited from a friend’s great-aunt’s yarn stash even though you have to sift through modification after modification to get right. Knit the sweater all your friends are knitting. Knit a sweater none of your friends have even heard of. Part of the fun of knitting is getting to make these kinds of selfish choices when we knit things for ourselves. So really, the only thing you must do, is knit whatever the heck you want. For many of us, choosing a sweater pattern is easy because it’s an “I know it when I see it” sort of thing – one day you turn the page of a magazine or come across a website and gasp out loud a little bit and think “oh my goodness I need to make that.”


Still, a lot of us struggle over the pattern selection part because our brain often stops us from viewing a particular pattern as something that is desirable for us. For example, the colours yellow and orange are the least common colours in my closet (though I’m working on liking orange more, really I swear), and I also very rarely wear pale colours like pastels. So if a pattern sample is knitted up in yarn in one of these colours, I’m less likely to glance at it first when I’m flipping through the magazine. It’s absolutely nonsensical and something that any logical person wouldn’t let get in their way, but I guarantee you it happens to the best of us. It’s a rare day when someone at a knitting circle or on a podcast will be flipping through a magazine or reviewing a new knitting book without dropping a comment like, “well it could be a really neat sweater, but I don’t knit with red. It might work for me if I made it in blue instead.” Knitters are visual people.

There are a lot of other mental starting points you can train yourself to work from when you’re considering a sweater, aside from the colour (though colour choice does certainly matter in the final yarn selection, something we’ll look at in a later post). Not the least of these are: the sweater’s structure and construction technique, the sweater’s style, the fiber content of the yarn, the availability of the pattern, what kind of yarns you are best able to access or afford, and your own personal style.


Handknits and Your Wardrobe
A good general place to start is to go to your own closet and pull out the sweaters – be they commercially made or hand knit – that you enjoy wearing the most. They should be sweaters that fit you comfortably and would be pleased to be seen wearing in front of other people (which people, and where, is entirely up to you). One thing to pay attention to here is the measurements and fit – are they loose, fitted, short, long, boxy, belted, etc. But more than fit, look at these sweaters and ask yourself overall what it is you like about them.

Many people would tell you that your favourite sweaters in your closet are the kinds of things you should be trying to reproduce in your handknit sweaters, and I partially agree with this. These sweaters in your closet should tell you about what size feels good, what kind of materials feel comfortable, and what shapes and styles appeal to you. All of these are worthwhile to reproduce in your knitting. However, you should also take a moment to ask yourself this: Are these sweaters you like to purchase the same kinds of sweaters you would like to knit? Sometimes this might be the case. If you purchase a lot of buttoned cardigans but can’t ever find one that has sleeves that fit your arms, for example, knitting a buttoned cardigan is a way you can achieve a more satisfying result than what’s in your closet even if the overall style is similar. If this is the case for you, then by all means search for patterns that reflect the styles that already exist in your closet. A lot of my own knitting comes from this motivation, because as a 5’9” gal, I often have trouble in stores finding clothes that are the right length for me.

On the other hand, it might be the case that your favourite sweaters in your closet do not actually reflect the kinds of sweater you would like to knit. Your wardrobe might have gaps or vacancies that you need knitting to fill for you. For example, if the sweater you want to knit is an all-over cabled cardigan in dark orange wool, you might actually not stand as strong a chance of being able to find that in a store, and the reason you want to knit a sweater like that is because you can’t acquire one by shopping for it. Also consider the projects that bring you to knitting in the first place: what kinds of projects do you like to knit? A good reason to ask yourself this question is to find out if there is a difference between the kinds of sweaters you prefer to buy and the kinds of sweaters you prefer to knit. If you are the sort of knitter who prefers interesting techniques like lace or cables, this is likely to be the kind of vacancy in your wardrobe that knitting can fill for you. Much of my sweater knitting in particular also fills this niche for me, more often as I dive deeper into knitting world: I like knitting the kinds of garments that I can’t buy in stores.

We have a lot of options open to us in knitting pattern world because designers have just as much variation in style preference as knitters do. Ask yourself what you would like to wear AND knit for yourself, and you’ll narrow down the kind of sweater patterns you should be looking for.


Materials and Structure: Thinking Ahead
If you are truly in doubt, start with the yarn. Choose a favourite yarn from your stash or favourite yarn shop and investigate what kinds of sweaters other knitters have made from it – in doing so you may actually discover some new patterns, or you may also discover that it is a less ideal yarn for sweaters, and you’ll end up steering yourself in a different direction. But chances are, if you start with a yarn that you love and work from there, you will take the care to get a garment that you love just as much. In a later post I’ll also get into considerations of yarn substitution and basic principles to keep in mind when working with a yarn that is not the one specified in the pattern instructions.

Knitters are inventive people. There are thousands upon thousands of sweater patterns out there, in many different kinds of styles, using many different stitch techniques. Something that can help you narrow things down is to consider how the sweater is actually constructed. In other words, is it worked in the round or in pieces, from the bottom-up or from top down. It’s entirely possible that you don’t have a preference or don’t know what your preference is: if that’s the case, just pick something that looks good or that closely matches the structure of the sweaters you already like from your closet, and you’ll likely discover along the way whether or not you have a preference or not in this regard. In my next post in this series next week, we’ll consider these qualities of style and structure along with fit and size.

Tomorrow, though, I’m going to follow-up with an interim post (I wanted to do it today but it is enough to have its own blog post space), on searching for patterns online, particularly through sites like Patternfish or Ravelry. There are a few search mechanisms you can use on these sites that often go un-noticed even by experienced users, so it’s great to have a few tricks like that up your sleeve when browsing for your next sweater project.

Happy knitting this fine Thursday! Until next time, knitting friends.

Sweaters from my own closet seen above, from the top of the top photo on down:

Gwendolyn, pattern by Fiona Ellis, in Cascade 220 Heathers
Yoked cardigan, from instructions by Elizabeth Zimmerman in Knitting Workshop, in Cascade 220 Heathers
Hourglass Pullover, in Last-Minute Knitted Gifts by Joelle Hoverson (one in Malabrigo worsted and one in alternating stripes of Noro Silk Garden
Dusseldorf Aran (Ravelry link), pattern by Fiona Ellis, in Berocco Ultra Alpaca
Cabled Swing Cardigan from Knitter’s Book of Yarn, pattern by Norah Gaughan, in Berocco Ultra Alpaca


Continue with Part 1 (Addendum): Browsing For Patterns

Or Part 2: Construction, Style, and Fit


  1. Great post. I often compile a huge favorites list of sweaters I like – almost like impulse ‘buying’ – and then when it comes down to knitting one it takes me an agonizingly long time to choose. So many factors to consider! Still, I’d say sweaters are the most fun thing to knit.

  2. I have only knit one sweater and I never wear it. I think I see my problem now. I didn’t love the yarn. I picked the yarn because it was cheap, and it “didn’t matter” because it was my first sweater. I was thinking of it as practice. But that was a big mistake, because I don’t like wearing that yarn any more than I liked it when I bought it. And making a sweater, even a simple one, isn’t “just practice.” It’s actually knitting a sweater. If I put that much time into something I want to love what I make. Sigh. Next time.

  3. Thank you for acknowledging that being a knitter, even a knitter who knits sweaters, doesn’t mean one will necessarily stop buying sweaters in stores. I appreciate that you see handknits and commercial knits as peacefully co-existing.

    I’m glad you’re doing this series. I’ve seen some of the other resources out there and think they’re great, but I enjoy hearing your take on this, especially since you clearly have quite a lot of sweater knitting experience.

  4. Wonderful post! I consider myself a fairly experienced sweater-knitter. I have made dozens of them and yet I have recently learned/decided that I need better discretion in choosing patterns. Just because I like a sweater in a magazine doesn’t mean it will look good on me. For that matter, just because I want to knit my husband a sweater doesn’t mean he will wear it!! Same goes for my brother, who is 6’3″ (gar). All these things I learned the hard way…more than once…ahem (aside: will you be doing a post on knitting sweaters for others? just curious) Anyway, I filled up a bag of sweaters I know I won’t wear anymore. They are destined for a consignment shop or women’s shelter, wherever I can dispose of them kindly to make room for all the fabulous things I plan to knit myself in the future! As soon as i choose the perfect pattern, that is.

  5. Thank you so much for posting this! I am in the process of knitting my second sweater. This post has really opened my mind to thinking about what kind of yarn I like, what kind of sweaters I like to wear, what colors I like… I look forward to reading your next sweater post. thanks again.

  6. caityrosey · ·

    I definitely suffer from pattern sample color bias too. I LOVE warm colors and will be attracted to patterns in those colors I would not normally look at.

    I think I’ve learned how to succesfully shop for shapes that fit my body, but it’s harder to figure out how to modify patterns to fit me. Not just the sleeves and such…it’s pretty easy to just make the sleeves shorter or longer…but how to nip a sweater in at the waist, or change the shape of the neck. I would love to learn more about that. And to see examples of how that’s been done.

  7. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’ve had a sweater pattern I’ve been wanting to knit since I started knitting earlier this year. I’ve even bought the yarn for it – I just need to work up the courage to start and I feel these posts will get me there!

  8. I found this guide really helpful, thanks!

  9. I’ve been knitting for a lot of years (over 40 – I started young LOL) and sweaters are by far my favourite thing to knit. I’ve knit some for myself and lots for others.

    One thing that I have learned is to pick good yarn. I was at an event earlier this spring, and the question was asked, “Why would you buy expensive yarn?” My response – because if I am going to put that much time and effort into knitting it, I want it to look good for many years. I have a cardigan that I knit over 20 years ago, and it is still going strong! Even knitting small things like socks and mittens out of cheap yarn is problematic for me. I just can’t justify putting in the time without ensuring good quality.

    After many years of perusing knitting magazines (Vogue Knitting was a favourite), I’ve learned to look past the colour of the sample and to look at the form, but that does take conscious effort. I let the pattern “speak” to me about what is the best colour. Sometimes you can pick the wrong colour for the pattern. I know I have. And I have yarn in my stash that I’m just waiting to find the “right” pattern for.

    Knitting for others can be a real challenge. I’ve knit for pay and I’ve knit as gifts. Most of the time, the gifts have been appreciated and worn – a sure sign to me that it is loved. Other times, the recipient was less respectful of the value of the gift (generally because they have no idea of the time, effort, and thought involved). There are certain people that I will never knit for again.

    Somewhere in my stash of knitting patterns and books, I have a list of sweaters that I wanted to knit from VK. And of course, now I have a list of favourites on Ravelry. Even if I knit 8 hours a day for the rest of my life, I’ll never get through them all. So now it is a matter of being very critical and choosing only those that I know I am going to love. And maybe picking a pattern or two to challenge my knitting skills.

    I’ve designed some very simple patterns for myself, but would love to learn a bit more about that process. Perhaps this can be a goal in 2013. That and multi-colour knitting. I’ve never done that either.

  10. Great post! I’m trying to not buy any clothing & to only make my own for awhile. You’ve helped me realize there are just some things I don’t want to make- like a simple cardigan that’s all stockinette stitch. I think I’d get so bored the unfinished project would still be on my needles decades from now! Now I’m realizing I’ve also been avoiding sewing one up.

  11. I blogged something recently on this same topic, but you said it so much better! Really drives it home. Great post, keep em coming.

  12. Glenna,

    Thank you for posting this series. I just recently bought some Cascade 220 to make a sweater. I really enjoy working with it. However, I’ve been worried that I shouldn’t have splurged without already having a pattern picked out. Your post laid my fears to rest!

    I’ve already learned so much by reading your blog. I know this series will be really informative as well.

    Thank you for all your hard work!

  13. My problem with visualizing tends to be about body type. I noticed a while back that I tended to gravitate toward patterns that make the wearer’s waist look itty-bitty … because that’s how I want my waist to look! But it doesn’t, so I’ve been training myself to look at how the finished piece looks on a larger person before I get my heart set on knitting it.

    Really looking forward to the rest of this series! Cheers.

  14. Makes me want to get a sweater on my needles again!

  15. […] the few sweaters I’ve made came from a series recently created by Glenna, starting with her post about choosing a sweater pattern. Also, the light from our one living area window on this rainy yet […]

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