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Tools for the DiY knitter is for knitters who aren’t satisfied with cookie-cutter patterns; who are beyond the basics but have a hard time finding projects that fit their style or figure; who want less ripping out and more finishing things. I’m here to provide some of the tips, tricks and tools that I’ve found along my knitting path, from rewriting garment patterns to knitting artwork. It all comes down to intent: Does your knitting do what you want it to?

There are as many ways to get a desired result in knitting as there are ways to cook pasta. My goals are to empower the knitter to feel comfortable with where they are and to learn the principles of producing a knit fabric. I am a spiritual granddaughter of Elizabeth Zimmermann. I believe we can make knitting whatever we want it to be.

Jessica Fenlon Thomas
Contributing Editor

The Gauge Myth

If we knit EXACTLY to gauge, following a pattern stitch by stitch, we’ll get a garment as gorgeous and well-fitting as the one in the picture. To ensure correct fit, check gauge. Problem is, a garment designed for a body profile sharing only one measurement with me (the bust measurement) won’t necessarily fit.

Designers work with body templates. Each designer, or design group brand name, has its own stock figure profiles. These don’t always include my zaftig 6' 1" frame. When I knit designer A's patterns, they always fit me well. A's template mirrors my own proportions. But B's sleeves are always too short and C's knits are stylish but the instructions stop at a 38" bust.

Then there are style issues. I don’t like looking bigger than I am. Cookie-cutter T-shaped box tops do not work for me. My bust demands a bra under the sauciest of patterns, the backs of which won't always offer bra coverage (see the Halter pattern I designed with Lily Chin in her book, The Urban Knitter).

I don’t have time to design all my own knitwear. Some of the patterns out there are fab — just not written to my size or the sleeves are too short or the neckline too tight or the back won’t cover my bra. I've developed a technique I call picturing perfect for modifying existing patterns. You can also adapt the following technique to design your own garments.

Find Your Numbers
You’ll need a helpful knitsib, a new tape measure (old ones can stretch, becoming unreliable), narrow masking tape, a marker, and a notebook. You’ll be stripping down to your skivvies, so make sure you’re comfy with your knitsib.

Horizontal Measurements

  1. To help with vertical measurements later, stick a piece of narrow masking tape, numbered with the measurement, on the center front of your torso as you go.
  2. Bust: Raise arms, just so the tape measure can wrap around your torso. Measure your circumference at the nipple line.
  3. Chest: Raise arms. Wrap tape measure around torso. Lower arms. Snug tape measure up under your armpits as high as you can. [Note: this horizontal line is the optimal point for a V-neck neckline to fall, in cookie-cutter design land.]
  4. Waist: Wrap tape measure around torso at bellybutton or narrowest point on your torso.
  5. Top of hip: The bony ridges of your hip bones, a few inches below your bellybutton, mark the top of hip. Use these as guides for measuring around your torso.
  6. Lower hip: The widest part of your hips, including your butt - where your fingertips are when your arms hang relaxed at your sides. [Leave the marker for this measurement on your thigh.]
  7. Upper arm: Wrap and measure arm at point closest to armpit.
  8. Cross shoulder: From one bone at the edge of the shoulder, where your arm falls, to the other, across the back of your neck. [Divide this measurement by 3. The resulting number is a good starting point for a neck opening measurement and single shoulder widths.]

    Vertical Measurements
    Masking tape markers and body landmarks are your measurement guides.

  9. Neck to waist: Find the u-shaped bone at the front base of neck, where neck joins body. Measure from this point to the 3rd masking tape marker (or bellybutton).
  10. Neck to top-of-hip: From u-shaped bone at the base of neck to 4th marker.
  11. Waist to top-of-hip: From 3rd marker to 4th marker. This measurement is useful for determining if a shaped garment that claims to start at the top of the hip, pinch in at the waist, and go back out for the bust has the length for the shaping to fall in the right place. My measurement is about 4.5". I end up adding a half-inch to an inch to a pattern in this area to get a better fit.
  12. Waist to lower hip: From 3rd to 5th marker. Useful for checking or changing shaping on tunic-length patterns. Subtract the 10th measurement from the 11th for top-of-hip to lower-hip measurement.


  13. Stand straight with shoulders relaxed, arms hanging loose, palms facing the body. Measure along the outside line, the bumpy side of the elbow. Follow the line the knit fabric will follow.
    Full sleeve length: From the bone on the outer edge of the shoulder to the bump on the pinky side of the wrist, or your desired sleeve length
    Three-quarter sleeve: From same shoulder point to 2 or 3 inches past the elbow.
    Short sleeve length: From same shoulder point to your favorite short sleeve length.
    Shoulder to elbow: For reference’s sake — I hate sleeves that nestle in my elbow, and like having this measurement handy. To the bump of your elbow.
  14. Center back neck to wrist: From the bump at the back of the neck where the neck joins the body, to the bump on the pinky side of the wrist.

Picturing Perfect
My numbers became the basis for a body profile on paper. I use this profile to tweak patterns from books, knitmags and yarn companies.

Using my numbers, I mapped a profile of myself on graph paper, treating each square as an inch. It looked strange. I reminded myself, this is what designers work from: 2d profiles of the human figure. Idealized ones at that. I went to Kinko’s and photocopied my body profile onto transparent acetate.

When I plot pattern adjustments, I go to the espresso hut next door to Kinko’s, with graph paper, the pattern I wanted to tweak, my calculator, scissors, glue stick, pens and pencils. I label fresh graph paper with the pattern name and gauge (stitch AND row). With the calculator, I go through the pattern line by line. I divide the number of stitches in each key pattern row by the gauge, determining actual garment dimensions. I do this instead of using the pattern's schematics because I'm always surprised by the differences between hard gauge measurements and schematic rounded measurements. Plus schematics don't always include dimensions for waist shaping and other details.

I count rows, dividing by row gauge to calculate garment length. Sometimes I need this information when altering a slope (how many inches of stitches to decrease or increase over how many inches of rows). Some patterns say "work as established until garment measures 6 inches". I count off graph squares, mark that point, then connect the dots. I plot the locations of the increases and decreases. I draw this schematic to the same scale as my body-profile, run next door to Kinko’s and photocopy the garment schematic a dozen times.

Back at the espresso hut, I thank the counter boy for watching my stuff. With a fresh latte waiting to be spilled over everything, I place my acetate body-profile atop the garment schematic. Immediately I discover a few things that I had not pictured in my head. Let’s say it’s proportioned well…for a me who’s about 25 pounds lighter and 3 inches shorter. How can I make this fit?

If the garment is allover a bit too small [or large], for my figure, I try altering the gauge. Calculator to the rescue! I keep in mind when looking at a flat schematic that it represents half the circumference of the garment. Any width changes to the garment are made over both the front and back pieces. I look at the pattern's given gauge. If it's 23 stitches = 4 inches (5.75 stitches/inch) and there are 100 stitches to cast on, then that piece is 17.39 inches wide. If I knit to 5.25 sts/inch, the garment piece becomes 19 inches wide; if I went to a 5 stitch/inch gauge, the garment piece becomes 20 inches wide.

Keep in mind your row gauge when substituting yarns; if there is a significant difference in row gauge, it can affect the length of your garment pieces and the rate at which you increase and decrease for each piece of the garment. Also, when changing garment size by altering gauge, a yarn can usually stand a half stitch/inch change without having it alter the garment's drape or the fabric's appearance. Swatch first. That way you'll know whether you should change yarns entirely to get the new gauge. [I'll talk in more detail about yarn substitution in a future issue.]

I go through the entire pattern, checking all the measurements with the new gauge and the old stitch count. I check the row gauge as well, especially to compare the armhole circumference [distance from armhole bindoff on garment front to armhole bindoff on garment back] to the sleeve cap [the width of the top of the sleeve]. These measurements should generally be equal, unless there is special sleeve shaping. Gauge adjustment can be the easiest way to solve size problems while maintaining proportions.

Cut, paste, draw. When tweaking for style, I use this technique and all those photocopies of the pattern schematic. If the pattern is too narrow, I cut it up, and glue-stick it to a fresh piece of graph paper, instantly adding extra fabric. I adjust length a half-inch here, a half-inch there, periodically dropping my figure profile over the re-shaped garment to see how it fits. The more detail I've noted on the original pattern garment shape, the more flexibility I have in changing the garment. Sometimes I add more length in the edging. If I want more room for boobs, I mark here and here and voila! I have short rows plugged into the front. Want a deeper v-neck or something more modest? Change the neckline on the front.

Once I’ve tweaked the pattern, I need to get it back into knit-direction form. Another trip to Kinko’s and I take home clean copies of the new garment profile. I always save the original schematic I created. More on why at a later date.

I write the new pattern instructions on a clean photocopy, cast-on edge up. I note the inch-width of each measurement point and calculate stitch counts, filling in increase and decrease directions later. I run the numbers 3 times - checking the inch-width of a garment piece, multiplying inches by gauge [number of stitches per inch] to calculate stitch counts, the number of stitches to increase or decrease over how many rows. I check the armhole depth against the width of the sleeve cap.

I love playing with this process. Besides swatching, I don’t have to knit a stitch to have an accurate sense of how the garment will fit. Once I have my body profile, it just takes an hour or so to pick through a pattern line by line. Compared to days or weeks of knitting something that doesn’t fit…well, my time is valuable and I want to be happy with the results.

If you don't use this process for pattern alteration, you can write your own patterns based on your body profile. Photocopy your body profile onto heavy white paper. Photocopy graph paper onto a sheet of acetate and then draw the garment on this acetate until you are happy with it. Photocopy it a bunch of times. Use your swatched gauge to fill in the knitting instructions on the schematics.

There are as many ways to knit a project as there are to drive from Phoenix to Buffalo. The goal is to have as smooth or adventurous a trip as you want and know what you are in for before you set out.

Jessica Fenlon Thomas just finished her MFA in studio art in Tufts University & the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston joint program (5/2002). While at the SMFA, she developed and taught Knitting for Artists to assist artists in developing their conceptual and knitterly artmaking skills. Her thesis show included the knit sculpture, Hairshirt, also featured in the Summer 2002 issue of Interweave Knits article "Knitting in Contemporary Art". She had the good luck to work with Lily M. Chin as the Boston contributor (halter top) to Lily’s book, The Urban Knitter (2002). She now lives, knits, and makes art in Pittsburgh, PA.


2002 Jessica Fenlon Thomas