Monday, March 30, 2009

Breaking a Knitter's Heart - on Altering

I recently broke a knitter's heart.

I was teaching a class on finishing techniques. Knitters usually bring their half-finished projects, and we examine them and talk about how to seam them up, how to weave in ends, and how to make make sure the garment looks as good as it possibly can.

(It is amazing to me that good seaming techniques aren't well known... they make all the difference in how a garment looks. The quality of finishing can make a break a project. I saw a hat the other day that was beautifully knitted, but the seaming was an absolute disaster -- and it looked really rather awful. Anyway.)

This particular knitter took the pieces of her sweater out of her bag. It was beautifully knitted, a tailored jacket style with a set-in sleeve, in a gorgeous Fleece Artist angora blend.

We lined up the pieces on the table and my heart sank. The sleeves looked oddly narrow, and as I started to pin the sleeve cap into the armhole, I realized we had a serious problem. The sleeve cap was significantly shorter than the armhole. It was never going to fit in - the sleeves simply couldn't be sewn to the armhole.

I asked about the pattern. "Well... " the knitter began. "I liked this sweater, but the gauge didn't quite match, so I reworked the numbers."


I have a degree in Mathematics, have spent a lot of time studying garment construction, and like to consider myself a reasonably skilled knitwear designer. And I won't do the math for an alteration like that.

I asked how far off the gauge was.

The original pattern is for a yarn that knits to 15 sts on 4 inches, and the yarn the knitter was using gets 24 sts on 4 inches.

That's over a 50% difference.

She'd started off well enough... The body of the garment looked about right, but the sleeves - and in particular the sleeve caps - were totally off. The sleeves were about 50% narrower than they should have been -- wouldn't even go around my wrist (as I've said here before, I'm a petite sort, and have petite wrists) -- and the caps were at least 3 inches too short.

We talked about it at length. This knitter should be commended for her positive attitude in the face of difficult news. She said that she would find another pattern that works better and alter that for the yarn.

I told her to remove the word alter from her lexicon.

There are so many great knitting patterns out there -- thousands and thousands -- that if the gauge is off, all you need to do is find another pattern that does work. Chances are you might even find a free one from some of the great online sources -- Knitty and Berroco are two of my favourite online sources. Berroco in particular has a lot of great basic designs - classic shapes and styles in all sorts of different gauges.

And for the adventurous, there are Ann Budd's terrific books - The Knitter's Handy Book of Patterns and Handy Book of Sweater Patterns. They map out all sorts of basic designs in a wide range of sizes for kids and adults, in a huge range of gauges. I go back to these books again and again.

There are just too many variables to consider to make the fit of a garment work -- particularly a tailored, set-in sleeve style. It's not just about recalculating the number of stitches to cast on - that's pretty easy. The hard part is making the curves fit. And to make a set-in sleeve work, you've got to match up the curve of the armhole -- which is rows -- with the curve of the sleeve cap -- which is stitches. That's more math than anyone should ever have to do. I *like the math, and I won't do it. Me, I go back to the Ann Budd books, or some of my other references, or various templates I've created over the years, and use those.

Oh yeah, and the "I'll just knit a bigger size" trick doesn't always work either.

Please just find a pattern that matches the gauge of your yarn.

Trust me. I'm a mathematician.


TracyKM said...

I totally agree with both of your issues! I don't have a degree in math, and sometimes I quite enjoy the math aspect of designing. It's like one of life's little laws. Cast on 100sts and if you're getting 25st/4" your piece will be 16". Right? LOL. But it's funny how that just doesn't always happen (I have a blog post waiting to be written on how math and gauge are lying to me right now!)
(My word verification is 'sizesses' LOL)

Jasna said...

Kate, how would this knitter's problem jive with the sweater design guidelines that Elizabeth Zimmerman suggests in "Knitting Without Tears"? I'm new at this, so I'm not able to picture the design of the sweater that the knitter was trying to make work, but could she not have gone with body measurement percentages and worked with the design? Or is my question naive? :)

I love math too!