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First amendments continued: altering length in a knitting pattern

Previously, we had dissected the nature of a length alteration in a knitting pattern: when it might be needed, how much must be added or subtracted, and where the alteration should be made. It's now time to put the theory and measurement in practice.

Adding and substracting full rows while minimizing disruption to the design

You may consider plain ribbing (alternating columns of knit and purl stitches) to be a two-row repeat, because the instructions may be different for the RS and WS rows when knitting back-and-forth. In fact, it can also be considered a one-row repeat, because if you were knitting plain ribbing in the round, you would work exactly the same stitch pattern in every round. This is true for other stitch patterns: garter stitch has a one-row repeat when knit flat, but takes two rows when knit in the round.

Stockinette and 1 or 2-row repeat patterns, no shaping: If your length alteration must be made to a rectangular piece of featureless stockinette, it doesn't take much effort to figure out how to add or subtract length. Convert the length you need to add or subtract to the number of rows, and adjust your knitting accordingly by adding or omitting those rows. If desired, add or subtract even numbers of rows, if this makes your knitting easier (by having the RS facing for a certain row).

The same logic applies to colour or texture patterns with very small row repeats, such as garter stitch, seed stitch, or ribbing; these are patterns that have one or two-row repeats. When the repeat is this small, it's easy to add or subtract full repeats of your stitch pattern when making a length alteration. Altering length by a full pattern repeat is ideal, because it minimizes the likelihood that you'll be chopping off a design element in the middle of a repeat.

Stockinette and 1 or 2-row repeat patterns, with equally spaced increases or decreases: Waist shaping or sleeve shaping typically involves increases or decreases spaced at regular intervals. For example, typical sleeve instructions may direct you to increase one stitch at either end of every fourth row until a first stitch count is reached, and then every sixth row until a second stitch count is reached; after that, the sleeve may be worked even until the sleeve cap shaping begins.

Why do sleeve instructions often dictate two rates of increasing?

The reason is probably because there is a preference for placing all increases on RS rows, meaning that all increase intervals must involve even numbers if this preference is to be respected. If the calculations behind a sleeve design suggest increases every seven rows, the pattern may be written as "inc 1 st ea side every 7 rows", meaning that increases would be worked on rows 7, 14, 21, 28 etc., and that some increases would have to worked on the WS. Some people don't like doing that, even though it's possible to make increases on the WS that match RS increases.

One alternative is to write "inc 1 st ea side every alt 6th and 8th row", which results in increases on rows 6, 14, 20, 28, etc. This works too and is very close to the every-seven-row rate, but it's confusing to write and to follow.

A second alternative is to take those every-alternate-sixth-and-eighth-row increases, and split them in half: half to be worked every sixth row first, then every eighth row thereafter. This is easier to write, easier to read and understand, and has the added bonus of allowing the pattern writer to put a faster set of increases first, which helps ensure that the sleeve widens faster to a comfortable forearm measurement.

Length alterations are typically made to the arm portion of the sleeve, and not the cap. When altering the length of the arm portion, it's tempting to simply add or subtract the extra rows at the top of the bicep, where the sleeve is worked even, or at the wrist, especially if there is a cuff that is worked even.

For minor length alterations up to maybe an inch, that's fine--just bear in mind that you may change the proportions of the overall look by changing the cuff depth, which may have been designed to match the depth of the body hem detail. You may also cause problems for the fit of the sleeve around the bicep if the "angle" of the sleeve shaping (highlighted with a blue circle above) is too low on the arm. And, in fact, if you're shortening the sleeve, you might not be able to simply omit sleeve rows in this region without losing an increase.

The alternative is to spread out the alteration rows (or omitted rows) among the increase rows. If you need to add eight rows in a sleeve where increases are worked every 6 rows, for example, consider adding an extra row for every increase row. You would then work your increase rows every 7 rows instead of every six. If you don't like the idea of working odd-row repeats (especially if your pattern uses a two-row stitch repeat), then add or subtract pairs of rows in each shaping interval until the alteration is complete.

The same rules apply to the lower body, above and below the waist. If adding length at the hem or right beneath the underarm is not appropriate, sprinkle the alteration rows among the increases and/or decreases.

Note that this type of alteration, which preserves all increase and decrease shaping, will not necessarily work for a style change -- for example, if you want to turn a long sleeve into a short sleeve, or vice versa. If you reduced a tapered, long sleeve, it would be too tight around the upper arm! If you are cropping off a portion of a sleeve or body and are working from the bottom up, you will need to figure out how many stitches are required for your new starting point, adapt any hem instructions as required, then continue following the pattern instructions from that point onward. If you are working from the neck down, simply follow the pattern instructions, stop when you reach the desired length, and then adapt the hem finish as required.

Larger row repeat patterns, no shaping: Many stranded colorwork (Fair Isle) or cabled designs have larger vertical pattern repeats. A simple 2-over-2 twist cable, for example, is usually worked over at least four rows; a simple 3-over-3 cable usually repeats over six or eight rows. As a general rule, the wider the cable twist (the number of stitches involved in the twist), the longer the repeat (number of rows) will be. Stranded colorwork patterns such as traditional Fair Isle peeries may take a small number of rows, but they can also take several rows (and vertical inches) to complete a full repeat.

If the design has a cuff or ribbing, you may add or subtract small amounts to the length at that point, but if there is no edge treatment that can be altered or if the alteration is too large, then you may have to think about respacing or tweaking the color or texture design.

Ideally, an alteration should not be detectable. Depending on the arrangement of the texture or color patterns that you have to deal with, the alteration may be as easy as adding or subtracting rows at the end of the piece; however, this may result in the row repeat ending in an inconvenient place, for example if the pattern is designed to fit full repeats between the hem and neck.

This isn't really a fatal flaw, although in some circumstances it might be the difference between a good finished project and well designed one. (If the design has bobbles and the alteration causes them to be placed in a prominent position, you may well consider this a fatal flaw.) Consider, for example, what would happen if the garment had a single large intarsia motif. Because garments with intarsia designs are usually worked from the bottom up, and because instructions usually direct that a motif be started "after X inches (or rows) have been worked", the knitter might forget that shortening the body means that the motif needs to be started closer to the hem, and not where the pattern might originally indicate.

So, in making length alterations to patterned fabrics, if you want the finished piece to look "planned", you can consider implementing the alterations by:

  • changing the hem, ribbing, or cuff depth (if possible)
  • adding/subtracting the necessary/extra rows and letting the pattern fall where it may, but repositioning the motif or pattern to begin at a different point (in the example at left, you would begin the lambda motif closer to the hem)
  • altering the texture or color pattern to accommodate the new length

This last option is the most labor-intensive and will most likely require swatching--and depending on your pattern, may not be possible.

For example, if you are making a simply-shaped Fair Isle-type pullover or cardigan composed of a series of alternating patterned bands, you can alter the length while preserving the whole design by either adding a whole band, or by replacing one of the bands throughout with a similar design, but with a different vertical length. This is especially easy if the design incorporates peerie bands.

It's even possible to make a similar alteration in a cabled panel by adding extra rows between cable crosses; once complete, the difference between 5 and 6 rows, or 10 and 12 rows, between cable crossings will be indistinguishable to the casual eye, and only sometimes obvious to the knitter.

Short row alterations

Short rows were mentioned previously as a possible amendment to be made to the length of a garment. Most frequently, they're added to accommodate the "riding up" or "take up" of fabric over the bust; the effect is most noticeable with C-cups or larger. However, short rows can also be used to cover a larger belly, add extra shoulder room to raglan or yoked-sweater shoulders, or add extra length to the upper back in a yoked sweater design. Some discussion of the implementation of short rows for bust shaping, including diagrams and examples, is covered here. See the References for additional information about the placement and insertion of short rows.

Check out the References for further discussions of short rows. Here are some guidelines for the insertion of short-row bust shaping:

In bust shaping, the short row section consists of a series of pairs of short rows, in which each pair is worked with increasingly shorter and shorter widths: starting at one side seam, work across the front, stopping short of the opposite side seam; wrap the next stitch, turn, and work back towards the first side seam, stopping short of the first seam, and so on.

The vertical length of this section depends on your cup size. Estimate about 0.75 to 1 inch for a C cup, and add 0.75 to 1 inch for each full increment (to D, E, etc.).

The short rows start slightly below your bust point, so that when the short row section is complete, it is level with your bust point. Depending on the depth of the armscye, this is probably a couple of inches below the beginning of the armscye shaping, and may vary according to cup size.

The first pair of short rows should end about 1 inch shy of the side seams. The last pair should end about 1 inch outside the bust point. All the short rows in between are evenly spaced. Don't make your last pair of short rows end right on the bust point; depending on how you hide your short rows, you may have an eyelet or slightly glitchy stitch centered right on the nipple.

The short row shaping is completed by working a row across all stitches, hiding the wraps or otherwise hiding the holes that result when short rows are worked. Working that whole row, which has a horizontal length that is less than the perimeter of the short row section, creates a "cupping" effect as the excess fabric of the short row section is drawn in.

If you are knitting to fit a special shape that requires different short row shaping on either side, you'll find it easier to fit a cardigan rather than a pullover, since both sides of the short row bust shaping in a pullover are constructed simultaneously. You also might want to stick to a stitch pattern that camouflages the differences.

Short row shaping at the bust is a knitting equivalent of a bust dart extending from the side seam to just shy of the bust point. A dart is a method of eliminating fullness where it is not needed: while extra material may be needed to cover the bust, it isn't needed at the sides. A horizontal bust dart, provided by short row shaping, effectively adds length to the center front of the garment, but no extra length at the sides.

There are other types of darts (short rows and increases/decreases) that can be used in knitting to shape a garment piece. For example, the dart could extend from the armscye towards the bust point. The extra width provided around the bust is reduced by a series of decreases towards the armscye, so that the upper body is narrowed. This doesn't add length to the center front, but instead it improves the fit near the shoulders. Here, we're working with the horizontal bust dart that adds length and does not affect width.

Adding short row dart shaping to a design will result in some disturbance to the patterning. (The same is true of vertical darts formed by increases or decreases). The degree of disturbance depends on the size of the pattern repeat and the number of pairs of short rows.

Stockinette and 1 or 2-row repeat patterns: Because short row dart shaping is added in pairs of rows, the disruption to the pattern is always an offset of two rows. Therefore, the addition of short row dart shaping in plain stockinette and one or two-row repeat patterns is virtually invisible; just how invisible will depend on your skill in hiding the turning points in your short rows.

Larger repeat patterns: When the pattern repeat is larger than two rows, some amount of disruption is inevitable. However, the amount of pattern disruption is minimized when the total number of short rows is equal to a whole multiple of the number of rows in the pattern repeat.

Compare the examples below (described in clockwise order, starting at top left). In each example, the pattern repeat is eight rows: four rows of each color. The short row "holes" were not concealed for illustration purposees.

In the first photograph, only two pairs of short rows -- four rows -- are worked, starting at the beginning of a repeat; as a result, when the short row section is completed, a double-width stripe results. Changing the position of the short row section to begin mid-stripe (second photograph) does not eliminate the disruption caused by working only two pairs of short rows (four rows total); once the short row section is completed, a set of half-width stripes is created.

When the short row section is increased to four pairs -- eight rows in total, equal to the number of rows in the pattern repeat -- the stripes continue with minimal interruption after the short row section is complete. The same would be true for this stripe pattern with any multiple of eight rows of short row shaping (e.g. four, eight, twelve, etc. pairs of short rows, equal to eight, sixteen, and twenty-four rows in total). The diagonal "line" that appears is the inevitable result of short row shaping, but overall the visual effect is pleasing and continuous. By contrast, in the fourth photograph, six pairs of short rows, or twelve rows in total, not only create the diagonal "line", but also result in a discontinuity in the pattern when the short row section is completed, because twelve rows is not a whole multiple of the eight-row repeat.

From these examples, you can see that if it is possible to tweak the number of short rows that you are working to match the row repeat of the texture or color pattern, the pattern disruption will be minimized, but it can never be completely eliminated without resorting to a stockinette or other one- or two-row stitch pattern.

This discussion also applies to short rows added to shape an upper back yoke, shoulders, or to add extra length over the stomach. You may realize that short rows may be used to shape shoulders instead of stair-stepped bind-off rows and to work a set-in sleeve cap; however, the function of the short rows in these two situations is not so much to add length and curvature to the fabric, but rather to create flat fabric with a shaped outer edge. In either situation, the problem of pattern disruption is not really an issue because the short rows are not used to create a dart.

Coming up next: consequential amendments


Moreno, Jillian, and Amy Singer, Big Girl Knits [Potter Craft, 2006]: To date, the best reference I've seen for knitting to fit a well-endowed body -- and not because I missed the deadline for this article and am afraid of my editor. The discussion of fitting is useful not only for the target audience of this book, but anyone who wants to understand the subject.

Gibson-Roberts, Priscilla, and Deborah Robson, Knitting in the Old Way: Designs and Techniques from Ethnic Sources [Nomad Press, 2004]. Includes a reference to the use of short-row shaping in yoked sweaters.

Walker, Barbara, Knitting from the Top [Schoolhouse Press, 1996]. Short-row shaping of set-in sleeve caps was not relevant to this topic, but Walker's instructions for top-down knitting make extensive use of short rows and their application outside dart shaping.

Righetti, Maggie, Sweater Design in Plain English (St Martin's Griffin, 1990).



Jenna is short. She frequently alters the length of her clothing.

Here you see her pictured in her typical "deer in the headlights" attitude.