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Knit smarter, not faster

I had been knitting for several years before I realized that the measure of one's skill as a knitter is not merely a tally of technical milestones or finished projects.  Rather, it is a product of technical proficiency and the ability to supply context to a knitting project where little context, or no context, is provided.

What do I mean?  Well, there are knitters who routinely knit sweaters from written patterns as gifts for their extended family every year, but cannot improvise a garment on their own.  Yet there are also "novice" knitters who have no hesitation in knitting an allegedly difficult project, or combining disparate design elements into one garment. There are knitters who seem to be incapable of deviating from a written pattern, and others who must always apply their own improvements. And there are knitters who are disappointed when they finally try on a finished garment and discover the fit isn't right, while other knitters are able to spot potential fit issues before committing the resources and time to a project, and either work around or avoid the problems altogether.

What's the difference? Is it a question of having the confidence to make mistakes and rip back if necessary? Not entirely, because ripping back is a fact of knitting life.  If the experience of knitting from patterns can teach you anything, it's that many patterns contain errors that the technical editors miss, and that anyone can misread even straightforward instructions. Is it tunnel vision from knitting too many intarsia reindeer? That's really a taste issue, and beyond the scope of this article [not to mention beyond hope].

This difference is best described as the degree of context the knitter is able to bring to his or her work.  Call it knitter's instinct, or plain common sense; context is the ability to knit "smarter" -- the ability to supply details to a pattern with deficient instructions, or to identify the source of errors and the means of correcting them. It's having a starting point for creating an original design, insight into shortcuts for making knitting, fitting or finishing easier, and being able to visualize the big picture.

Context is also difficult to teach.  Ideally, it's gained by experience, but that's not the case for everybody. And while it's possible to teach the individual morsels of knowledge that form part of knitting context, it is not as easy to impart the insight that combines all those elements into successful garment design.  Part of that insight is an understanding of garment structure, and how that structure can be achieved.

Most instructional knitting books concentrate on only the technical aspects of knitting: they are catalogs of cast-on techniques, decreases, increases, and buttonholes. But all such techniques are merely the building blocks of a knitted garment. 

What instructional books are often missing is an appreciation of garment design and structure.  Without the ability to shape knitted pieces into a properly fitted garment, knitting merely produces a substrate for texture or colour. That's fine if you're planning to knit and wear pillowcases; but if you wish to be able to knit garments that fit your body, rather than merely sit in storage, you need to knit smarter: you need to understanding the shaping you wish to achieve, as well as the techniques that allow you to achieve it.

Developing this knowledge has additional benefits, even if you don't have design aspirations. Being able to supply your own context to patterns will make pattern reading easier, and allow you to work around errors, because you will understand the logic behind the written instructions. It will also help you think ahead in your knitting, and plan changes to improve fit and make finishing easier.

What I hope to do with this column is to help you develop your own context and knit smarter by focusing on structure and form. So, here's the plan. The rest of this article is preparatory work.  We'll review one element of knitting smarter: reading your knitting pattern properly, and learning how to extract information from whatever written instructions you have -- a necessary step on the way to effecting alterations and improvements. And in the following two issues of Knitty, we will concentrate on one aspect of the theory behind garment design and structure, but with a practical application: we'll learn to add sleeves to a sleeveless garment, starting first with the simple drop shoulder and modified drop shoulder, then moving on to the set-in sleeve with shaped cap.

Reading comprehension

One important method of avoiding grief in knitting is mind-bogglingly simple, but often ignored. If you read through a pattern before you pick up the needles, the actual process of knitting the pattern will be easier. And if you're planning to make improvements or changes to the design, particularly fitting alterations, it's an excellent idea to milk the written pattern for as much information as possible.


Start by taking a look at what you've got.  Hopefully, you have complete -- if cryptic -- knitting instructions, any necessary charts and symbol keys, separate instructions for special stitch patterns, and a schematic. At the very least, you should have some instructions. Not every pattern includes schematics, particularly those that are short on space [if you collect "vintage" knitting patterns and magazines, you will have noticed that schematics were frequently omitted].

Before committing to knit this pattern, you also will have hopefully determined that the garment style is actually flattering to you [or the intended recipient].

First, read the pattern from beginning to end. You're not reading for correctness, just glaring errors and clarity.

  • Is there sufficient information to enable you to choose a suitable yarn -- at the very least, the intended gauge?

  • Based on the photos and description, count the number of parts you need to knit to yield a whole garment [for example, for a cardigan there might be a back, two sleeves, two fronts, a front band and a neck band]. Are there instructions for each of these parts, or is something missing? 

  • Wherever the pattern uses some unfamiliar abbreviation, or references a stitch pattern [for example, "herringbone st" or "fancy stitch patt"], check to make sure a definition is provided.

  • If the pattern references one or more charts, make sure they're present, and check the symbol key to make sure you understand each symbol. If your pattern requires that you follow more than one chart at a given time [for example, if you are knitting an Aran sweater], make working copies of these charts, and tape them to a separate piece of paper so they are side by side, if that will help you. If you run through multiple repeats of one chart while you're still working the first repeat of another, consider making multiple copies of the shorter chart, and tape them in place, too.

  • If the pattern makes use of recursive or otherwise cryptic instructions, now is the time to decipher them. Write them out in detail, while your head is clear, for reference later. 

  • If you notice any "at same time" or similar instructions that expect you to execute more than one shaping step at a time [a tip on identifying those problem areas is given below], highlight them in the text.  Otherwise, you may miss them when knitting the pattern, resulting in some inconvenient ripping back.

Next, if your pattern has a schematic and you have the means, make an enlargement of the schematic so that you can write numbers, measurements, and brief notes on it comfortably -- aim to fill most of a letter-sized piece of paper with the schematic of a single piece. If you don't have the means to make an enlargement, sketch out your own supersize schematic on a piece of graph paper, and write in any measurements provided on the schematic. If your pattern does not include a schematic, sketch out your own, making your best guess from the photographs and descriptions provided.

Make a note of the pattern's gauge per inch at the top of your schematic. Gauge is typically given as a number of stitches and rows over a span of 4 inches [10 cm] or 2 inches [5 cm]. It's an easy calculation to break this down as numbers of stitches and rows per inch [2.5 cm], and it's handy to have these numbers at your fingertips.


For now, we'll stick with a typical sweater pattern, which is knit in pieces from bottom to top. This particular hypothetical pattern has a deep V-neck and set-in sleeves. Take a look at your schematic, and apply some geometric logic.

Looking at our hypothetical design, we notice that there is some ribbing at the hem, decreases and increases defining the waist, as well as the expected armhole decreases and neck shaping.


In fact, we can draw horizontal lines across the schematic to denote the various shaping zones, as shown on the left.

In this schematic, the front starts with ribbing at line 1. The ribbing ends at line 2, at which point there are decreases that taper the body to line 3. After line 3, the width increases up to line 5; however, you'll note that first, at line 4, the V-neck begins.  Between lines 5 and 6, the armhole is decreased, and then worked even up to line 7, which is where the shoulder shaping begins.


Now, imagine that you were to hold a ruler or other straight edge across the schematic, and slide the straight edge upwards, in the direction of knitting.  Examine the orientation and number of lines in the schematic that intersect the straight edge at various positions.

Because we're knitting upwards from the bottom [the same would apply to knitting downwards from the top], straight or "even" knitting with no increases, decreases, or other shaping is represented by schematic lines that meet the straight edge at a right angle [90].  An angle other than a right angle suggests that there is some shaping to be worked in that zone.

In the left-hand diagram, two lines of the schematic do not meet the ruler at a right angle; instead, they slant towards the center of the schematic.  You can infer quite easily that there must be some decreases worked in this area, and you should be able to confirm this by checking the written instructions. Furthermore, the lines of the schematic are symmetric around the imaginary center line of the garment; they slant at the same rate towards the center, and again, you can easily infer that the decrease instructions for either side of the garment must match.

In the center diagram, the upper edge of the ruler now intersects four lines, all of them at non-right angle intersections.  The fact that there are four lines obviously means that there are two parts to the garment to knit at that stage -- the left side and the right side of the neck. 

But there's something else to note: on each side, the angle, or slope, of the lines intersecting the ruler are different.  The slope of the neckline is different from the slope of the side edge at this point.  The fact that the slopes are different suggests that you have different shaping instructions for each edge that must be followed [the notorious "at same time" instructions]. 

Similarly, in the right-hand diagram above, there are two pieces [left and right shoulder] to be knit, and the design lines have different slopes: while you are shaping the shoulders, you should be alert to the fact that you may have some neck shaping to work at the same time. You may have already flagged these potential problems during your first read through the pattern; if not, you can go back and highlight them now, and even highlight the trouble zones on your schematic [see diagram at left].


When preparing to knit a pattern, it's also useful to write in your own checkpoints -- stitch and row counts at the end of each shaping zone in your pattern. 

Many patterns provide stitch counts at certain points: for example, after all the decreases from the hip to the waist of a pullover have been completed, or after all the increases in a sleeve have been completed. However, patterns do not always provide stitch counts after the completion of each shaping zone in a pattern, and fewer provide row counts. For example, instructions often read "knit until piece measures 14 inches from cast on edge, ending with WS row," rather than providing the exact number of rows to be knit. Since a measurement of length in knitting before blocking can be grossly inaccurate, it's wiser to knit to a set number of rows rather than holding a measuring tape to your knitting.

Based on the written instructions in the pattern, make some simple calculations now based on your gauge, and write the stitch and row count you expect to have at the end of each zone on your schematic, as well as the corresponding measurements in inches or centimetres. At the same time, count the number of decreases and increases you expect to make in each zone, and mark them on your schematic as well.

Immediately before committing to the project

Swatch with your chosen yarn.


There are knitters who proudly claim that they have never swatched before knitting a sweater in their lives. Have you actually seen them wear those sweaters? And do you want to look like them?

There are two circumstances where it is reasonably safe to forego swatching: when an exact finished size for a single knitted piece is not crucial, and when you have used that particular yarn with that particular size of needles so frequently that you can accurately predict the characteristics of the knitted fabric they will produce. A scarf or shawl is still functional even if your knitting gauge is a little off, and you probably can compensate for any extra or lost width or length by working fewer or more repeats of the pattern -- assuming you have sufficient yarn.  But when a knitted piece is meant to be seamed to another or to conform to a particular body shape and size, if you want to be reasonably assured of the final result, you will knit a six-inch [15 cm] square swatch before you embark on the actual project. And you will like it.

During knitting

As you knit, refer to your schematic as well as the written pattern, and check off decreases and increases as you knit them. By tracking the increases and decreases, and by marking the points at which there are "at same time" instructions to be followed, you have a warning system in place that will hopefully alert you to follow the written instructions more carefully, thus avoiding mistakes.

Some patterns will explicitly tell you to work all your shaping stitches one or two stitches in from the edge, so that you are left with a clean selvedge for seaming. Other patterns may miss that detail, and simply instruct you to "dec 1 at each side." In that case, make a note of how you've decided to work increases and decreases along garment edges. It will save guesswork later when you come to work matching pieces, such as the second sleeve.

Once you reach the dreaded "at same time" or "work as for other side, reversing shaping" shoulder and neck shaping of a garment, if the instructions are not explicitly provided, take the time to record in detail exactly how you are knitting the first side -- on what rows you have chosen to work decreases to shape the neckline, for example. That way, you will be able to work the mirror image on the other side of the neck with more confidence.

But do I have to?

Carrying out each and every one of these steps in preparation for a knitting project does sound laborious. Of course, it isn't necessary to do everything listed above. However, if you anticipate difficulties in interpreting the instructions on the fly, or you are concerned that a pattern is beyond your current skill level, it's a good idea to read the pattern through before you start so that you're not caught by surprise. And if you are planning any modifications to the pattern, whether to customize the fit or alter the style, it's extremely useful to sketch a large schematic and have all the relevant numbers at your fingertips. In the upcoming articles on sleeves, we will assume that this type of preparation for the original sleeveless pattern has already been done.


Gibson-Roberts, Priscilla, and Deborah Robson, Knitting in the Old Way: Designs and Techniques from Ethnic Sources [Nomad Press, 2004]. This book was recently republished. It's a wonderful reference, covering the construction techniques, stitch patterns, and shaping in many folk sweaters from around the globe; and in fact a passage from this book was the inspiration behind this series of articles.

Newton, Deborah, Designing Knitwear [Taunton, 1998]. This book is an excellent reference for anyone who wants to embark on handknitted garment design at any level.  In addition to covering the basics of garment shaping, Newton encourages exploration [via swatching] of knitted fabric, texture, and colour, and demonstrates her sources of inspiration for knitwear designs.

Walker, Barbara, Knitting from the Top [Schoolhouse Press, 1996]. Nothing focuses your mind on the shaping of a garment like knitting it in a different direction.  Even if you do not choose to knit from the top down, reading through this book with its verbose directions will help you appreciate garment construction and what knitted fabric can do for you. 

None of the above references provide you with hard pattern instructions, or if they do, those instructions are provided as an afterthought. The directions in these books are phrased as general directions, and you are expected to work with your own numbers [measurements, gauge, finished dimensions] to arrive at a finished product.

"The Method of Three," INKnitters. This is a three-part article on adjusting pre-written patterns to fit; however, there's probably enough data contained in the article to allow you to calculate the instructions for a sweater from scratch.  So far, the first two parts of this article have been published in the winter 2003 [Issue #11] and spring 2004 [Issue #12] issues; the third should be published in summer 2004 [Issue #13].  While you may not need the information in these articles right away, I recommend that you pick up copies of these issues while they're still available.


About the Author
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