Knitty: little purls of wisdom

For almost as long as I've been a knitter, I've been fascinated by the history of knitting. I've especially enjoyed the mind-twisting process of working with the often obtuse and obfuscatory language of antique patterns. There's a thrill, I find, in watching a project emerge row by row and knowing that other knitters, long gone, followed the same path.

The process of decoding, testing and correcting isn't for everyone, though; and so in this column I hope to share the excitement of the journey by removing as many of the roadblocks as possible. You don't need to be a historian to come along -- just a knitter with a curious mind.

The Call of the Small

beauty shot

I keep knitting baby clothes for no reason at all, because I enjoy knitting baby clothes.

I don't have a baby. I don't want a baby. I am not one to seek out the company of babies for the sheer hell of it. Babies are fine, I guess. Sort of like mushrooms. I will eat a salad with mushrooms in it, but on the whole I would prefer a salad without mushrooms in it.

I'm sorry if you are a big fan of babies and/or mushrooms, and feel upset that I do not share your enthusiasm. I'm not sure what to tell you. Perhaps we can find common ground elsewhere. Are you fond of Edith Piaf?

It's probably a good thing for all concerned that babies and I don't see much of each other. They don't come to my gym, I don't go to their playground. I have a niece, who is now at that one of those ages (I forget which) where she can ride to school by herself but not drive. She used to be a baby. It was nice. You could play with her and stuff; then when you were finished for the moment you could put her down and she would stay there. Like a cribbage board.

You could also dress her up, and I did. She came home from the hospital in one lacy thing I had knit, and was christened in another. She got an intarsia sweater from me the Christmas before she was born, and another sweater the following Christmas, then I remember some mittens. And a kimono top, and an Elizabeth Zimmermann Tomten Jacket. There was a hooded cape, if I recall correctly.

Babies are fun to dress up. It doesn't take long to make baby stuff, even if it's fancy. This is especially true for the youngest babies. You can do a really groovy cabled sweater for a newborn and truly it's not much more knitting than a tea cozy plus arms.

You know what else? Babies don't complain about what you make for them, not in so many words. You can put just about anything on a baby, and people do. I have about six thousand people in my Facebook feed and sweet sainted Barbara Walker, you should see what happens to babies who know people who play with yarn. It's none of my business if you want to use your tapestry crochet powers to disguise your infant as a bottle of Courvoisier or a bag of Fritos, but don't expect me to click your Like button.

The babies don't care. They just think, "okay -- now I'm a bag of Fritos". They don't tell you" sorry, I never wear that shade of blue". They don't look in the mirror and say, "I hate the way it cuts me right across the butt". They will maybe throw up on it, but it has been explained to me that it's nothing personal if they do.

Whereas if you knit something for a grown-up and they put it on and throw up, you should worry that maybe they don't like it much.

The only thing I couldn't get the hang of when I started knitting for babies was what size to make. Babies have this annoying way of growing faster than you knit. You wouldn't believe that's possible, right? They have to produce bone and skin and muscles and…ectoplasm?...or whatever babies are stuffed with, and all you have to make is stockinette. But still you'll lift up the whatever-it-is and the baby's mother will smile sadly and say, "I'm afraid little Columbia Agnes is too big for that now. Maybe a week ago last Tuesday."


I wasn't around to see it myself, but it looks like babies must have been doing this at least since the last quarter of the nineteenth century when this issue's pattern showed up in Weldon's Practical Knitter.

It's a very simple sweater. Mostly you're just making squares and rectangles. But once you sew it together and add the collar, it turns into a reasonably convincing itty bitty teeny weeny version of a fisherman's jersey, and what's cuter than that? Not bag of Fritos, that's for sure.

The thing that caught my attention was the editor's introduction to the original pattern. It says that if you just change the length of the sleeves or body, the widths as given will stretch to fit a kid from three to six years old. That right there is an attractive quality in a child's garment.

It's the brioche, of course. Almost the whole thing is knit in brioche, which looks like ribbing and stretches like Lycra. If you pull hard you could stretch the shoulders of this sweater from one edge of Montana to the other. But probably people would complain.

Now, please keep in mind that the sample as it turned out is not going to fit a modern kid aged three-to-six. Although I used needles of about the sizes originally called for (thanks to a gauge in my collection, produced in England around the same time as the pattern), and yarn that played well with them, this version is more for somebody in what is now a one-to-two years size. You could maybe put it on a twiggy three-year-old if you added length, but I haven't met your toddler so be sure to measure before you begin.

Did you cast on already? I hope so, because while you were reading this the baby grew another four inches.

pink needle

beauty shotblank

by Franklin Habit, translated and adapted from Weldon's Practical Knitter, Tenth Series (c. 1888)





spacer photos: Franklin Habit  

Child Size 2
Note: See essay above about fit.

Chest: 20 inches (measured with fabric relaxed)
Length: 10 inches from shoulder to hem



spacer Mrs Crosby Steamer Trunk [100% Superwash merino wool; 164 yd per 100g skein]; color: Peacock; 3 skeins

Recommended needle size
[always use a needle size that gives you the gauge listed below -- every knitter's gauge is unique]
spacer 1 16-inch US #3/3.25mm circular needle (DPNs or a longer circular for magic loop will also work)
spacer 1 set US #4/3.5mm straight needles

spacer 4 locking ring stitch markers or safety pins
spacer yarn needle
spacer 1 yard 1/2-inch fabric ribbon (optional, see Pattern Notes)



24 sts/28 rows = 4 inches in relaxed (k2, p2) ribbing before blocking
20 sts/28 rows = 4 inches in stockinette stitch

[Knitty's list of standard abbreviations and techniques can be found here.]

YO at beg of row. Bring the working yarn over the tip of the right ndl from front to back. 1 st increased.

Slipped sts. Always slip as if to purl.

Optional Eyelets. The original pattern calls for eyelets in the cuffs and neck bands for the insertion of ribbon trim, and I worked it this way in the sample. If this is not to your taste, substitute rows or rounds of [k2,p2] rib.

Back Stitch. The shoulder and sleeve cap seams are sewn with back stitch.

Mattress Stitch. The underarm and side seams are sewn with mattress stitch.

Jeny's Surprisingly Stretchy Bind Off.
The BO of the neck band must allow the band to stretch fully, as any constriction may make it impossible to fit the garment over the child's head. The original pattern (and the sample) simply take care to BO loosely in the usual fashion; but should you have hesitations at all, considering using this method.


With larger ndls, CO 64.

Rows 1-16: [K2, p2] across.

Row 17, Establish Brioche: [Yo, sl 1, k2tog] across.

Row 18, Brioche pattern: [Yo, sl 1, k tog next st and yo from prev row] across.

Repeat Row 18 98 times, for 100 rows total in brioche.


Repeat for second piece.

Note: The pieces will be identical, and (in theory) reversible. But upon completion, you will find that each has one side that pleases you more. Mark these as your official "right sides" by placing a locking ring stitch marker or safety pin in each.

With larger ndls, CO 44.

Rows 1-5: [K2, p2] across.

Row 6, eyelet row (optional, see Pattern Notes): [K2, yo, p2tog] across.

Rows 7-10: [K2, p2] across.
In row 7, the second k in each k2 will be into a yo from the prev row.
Row 11, establish Brioche: [Yo, sl 1, k2tog] to last 2 sts, yo, sl1, k1.

Row 12, Brioche pattern: [Yo, sl 1, k tog next st and yo from prev row] across.

Repeat Row 12 78 times, for 80 rows total in brioche.

Repeat for second sleeve.

As with body pieces, decide which will be your office "right sides" and mark them.

Body Assembly
Weave in ends and gently block pieces, taking care to dry flat with ribbing compressed.

With WS of front and back pieces tog, use backstitch to sew right and left shoulder seams, on each side working in about 2.25 inches from shoulder edge. Resulting neck opening should measure about 7 inches wide.

On a clear work surface, spread out sewn-together front and back pieces with RS facing. With WS of sleeve piece facing, align center of BO edge of sleeve piece with shoulder seam of body pieces (sleeve will lie across the neck opening). Pin sleeve in place.

Use backstitch to sew BO edge of sleeve to selvedge of body.

Repeat for second sleeve.

Use mattress stitch to sew underarm and side seams.

With smaller circular ndl, pick up and k 84 sts around neck. Place marker and join for working in the round.

Rnds 1-4: [K2, p2] around.

Rnd 5, Eyelet round (optional, see Pattern Notes): [K2, p2tog, yo] around.

Rnds 6-9: [K2, p2] around.

BO loosely. If your normal BO refuses to allow the neck band full stretch, consider using Jeny's Surprisingly Stretchy Bind Off.

Weave in remaining ends. Gently block, taking care to dry flat with ribbing compressed.

If using ribbon trim, run lengths of ribbon through eyelets in cuffs and neck bands and tie in bows.

habit-portraitBlank Franklin Habit (@franklinhabit on Twitter, franklin.habit on Instagram) is the proprietor of the popular knitting blog The Panopticon and author of It Itches: A Stash of Knitting Cartoons. His work appears regularly in major fiber arts publications, and he travels extensively to teach and speak on knitting-related topics.

He has no children of his own, but enjoys the occasional company of small persons who are able to opine fluently upon the latest episodes of Arthur and Shaun the Sheep.