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