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First amendments: altering length in a knitting pattern

There's nothing like a technical article to make something sound more complicated than it really is.

You're planning to knit a sweater, but looking at the finished dimensions it seems that by following the instructions as written, the sweater will come up a little short on your body, or perhaps a little long. You might conclude that the solution is to add (or subtract) enough rows of knitting from (or to) the pattern to make the sweater the right length, and that no further thought is required. And assuming that your sweater is knit from bottom to top, or top to bottom, that's absolutely right.

But when the design incorporates shaping, textural stitch patterns, or colourwork, adding or subtracting rows might not be quite as straightforward at it seems. What if the length alteration interrupts a cable repetition? What if it cuts into a band of Fair Isle patterning? There might be placement issues: where is the adjustment actually needed? In the upper body, above the waist, or below the waist? There might be shaping issues: how should increases or decreases be respaced? Are there any consequential amendments that need to be made to other pieces that are joined on to the lengthened/shortened piece?

And maybe you only need extra length in a certain area, and not an overall length alteration is needed at all. Sometimes, adding an inch or two of length is used as a panacea for other fitting or style problems. (This is true of adding width, too.) If you find that your sweater fronts ride up too much compared to the back, the solution isn't necessarily to add length all around; the solution might be short row bust (or belly!) shaping instead.

So here, we'll take the long, analytical approach to length alterations, which we can summarize in four deceptively simple questions:

  1. How much length do you need to add/subtract?
  2. Where do you need to add/subtract it?
  3. How can you add/subtract this length while causing the least disruption to the design?
  4. Do any other pieces need to be altered as a result of this addition/subtraction?

We're not really addressing significant alterations that affect the overall style of the garment. For example, you might be working from a pattern for a waist-length jacket that you want to lengthen to fingertip length -- that's a more substantial alteration that will affect the look of the jacket, and perhaps skew the balance of the design. Here, we're talking about length alterations that are intended to preserve the original style, but keep a wrist-length sleeve from becoming an unintentional bracelet-length sleeve.

In this article, we'll address the first two questions. The next two, we'll save for next time.

How much length do you need to add/subtract?

Determining how much length to insert or take away is relatively simple: given that you likely already know what your preferred overall garment and sleeve lengths are, compare them to the pattern's finished dimensions and do some simple math.

Your preferred lengths: When it comes to preferred body length, you probably have a series of preferred lengths that you know you're comfortable with and look good on you: one for loose, casual sweaters and cardigans, one for tight-fitting tops, one for close-fitting, dressy sweaters, and so on. This doesn't mean that you've got these lengths committed to memory. It means that you're aware that different styles of clothing look best at different lengths, and that you're not fixated on making every single pullover or cardigan you knit the same length.

As part of this awareness, you're probably cognizant of the fact that in tops with waist shaping, the proper location of the waist shaping depends on the location of your natural waist -- the indentation between your ribcage and your hips (or at least, the place where you'd put your hands if you were asked to put your hands around your waist). If you find that you need to lengthen or shorten a pattern with waist shaping, the location of that indentation may be important to know.

The vertical location is usually expressed in sizing charts as your back waist length, which is measured along the back between the base of the back of your neck and your waist. To find the base of your neck, tilt your head forward slightly, and feel for the most prominent bone jutting out of your spine. That measurement isn't quite a true vertical measurement because the spine is naturally curved, but for the purpose of most hand knitted items, it's close enough. For some individuals with rounded shoulders or a hunch, the difference between the back waist measurement and the true vertical may be more significant.

When measuring for a full-length sleeve, make sure that in addition to knowing your ideal sleeve length for a set-in sleeve (from the shoulder joint to the wrist, with the elbow slightly bent), you also know your wingspan: the distance from wrist to wrist, with elbows slightly bent, along the shoulder and across the back of the neck. Knowing your preferred upper body width, shoulder to shoulder, as well as your set-in sleeve length, is effectively the same thing.

The pattern's finished dimensions: Ideally, the relevant dimensions of each garment piece -- front, back, sleeves -- are provided in schematic form. If they aren't, you'll have to follow the pattern instructions for your size and count the number of rows worked, and do a spot of math to calculate final lengths. Either way, make sure that you take any welting, ribbing, or other hem treatment into account. When taking the length of the sleeve, also determine the width of the upper body of the garment.

When determining the length of the garment pieces, keep a couple points in mind:

If you sew, you might be accustomed to measuring a scalloped or similarly shaped hem from its highest point. In knitting, because most lengths are measured in terms of the number of rows worked, changes are that the length of the garment is reported based on the distance to the lowest point. In many cases, that won't make a significant difference; however, if the scallops or crenellations are particularly deep or wide, you may want to make sure that the "shallow" portions are the right length. For example, if a full-length sleeve ends with a scalloped edge, you will probably want to estimate the pattern length from the inner edge of the scallops, not the outer edge.

Also, knitting patterns often provide finished garment lengths measured from the top of the shoulder, and sometimes from the top of the armscye. Frequently, those numbers do correspond to the base of the neckline, but sometimes they don't. This means that if you simply compare your conventional back waist length to the pattern's reported garment length, you might mistakenly think that the garment will hang lower on your body than it would in real life. For example, a knitting pattern for a waist-length jacket might claim to have a finished length of 15 inches. If that 15 inches is measured from the top of the shoulder to the hem, then it will actually end above the waist on a person with a back waist length of 15 inches. We frequently ignore this discrepancy in hand knitting, because of the overall fit of hand knitted garments -- that length difference is often unimportant.

So, there are three ways to address this discrepancy: either ignore it and assume that your back waist length and the garment length are "close enough"; or estimate your shoulder "depth", from the top of the shoulder next to the neck to a point at the same depth as the base of the back neck and add this to your back waist length, or when determining the length of the garment, estimate where the base of the back neck would lie and make your measurement from that point.

With those caveats in mind, the comparison of the pattern dimensions to your preferred lengths should be quite easy. For the body length, compare one of the two sets of numbers:

  • your actual back waist length vs. the length of the garment measured from the base of the neck, according to the pattern
  • your actual back waist length + shoulder depth vs. the length of the garment measured from the top of the shoulder, according to the pattern

The difference is the amount by which the pattern must be lengthened or shortened.

For the sleeve length, compare:

  • your preferred wingspan measurement (sleeve length + upper body width + sleeve length) vs. the wingspan measurement of the pattern.

The difference is twice the amount by which the pattern must be lengthened or shortened. Half of that difference must be added or subtracted from each sleeve. For example, if the pattern wingspan is 60 inches, but your actual wingspan measurement is only 57 inches from wrist to wrist, then you'll need to subtract 1.5 inches from the length of each sleeve.

However, if the sleeve is a set-in sleeve, the length alteration that must be made to the sleeve may be affected by any necessary alterations to the body -- see the discussion below about determining where length should be added or subtracted.

Where do you need to add/subtract these extra rows?

This is where the actual shape of the garment pieces is relevant.

Altering the body length: If the body is an unshaped rectangle without an armscye (drop shoulder style), then subject to texture or colour pattern repeat issues, the extra length can be added or removed anywhere from the hem up to the neck shaping.

If the body is generally rectangular with no waist shaping but with an armhole indentation, as in a modified drop shoulder or even a raglan style, then chances are the armscye is appropriately sized to accommodate the body and requires no adjustment. Typically, the fit of the entire garment is loose, and a slightly oversized armscye won't make much of a difference. The length adjustment can therefore be made anywhere between the hem and the beginning of the armscye shaping. This makes the alteration easier: altering in the armscye region would require an alteration to the sleeve width.

Altering body length between the hem and the armscye also follows for dolman styles and set-in styles. For dolman styles, the fit at the shoulder joint is loose, so small adjustments would not make a noticeable difference in fit. For set-in styles, the armscye depth is usually appropriately sized already, and while individuals vary in back waist length measurements, that variation can be accounted for by altering the length below the armscye. On rare occasions, the set-in sleeve armscye may be tight and binding, requiring a length adjustment to increase the armscye depth, or a width adjustment to make a bigger armhole. In that case, the overall length of the body will be affected, so consequential alterations to the rest of the body length may be necessary.

If the body has waist shaping, however, you might want to consider how your body's vertical measurements deviate from the vertical measurements in the pattern. Depending on your body shape, you might want to add or subtract your rows above or below the waist indentation.

If you're especially long-waisted (have a longer than average back waist length measurement) and you've determined that you need to add length to the garment body, you might want to insert your extra rows between the waist and the beginning of the armscye rather than at the hem. Similarly, if you're noticeably short-waisted and you find that you need to shorten the garment body, you might want to subtract those unnecessary rows above the waist. But if the back waist length of the pattern matches your own back waist length, then that length alteration would be more appropriate between the waist and the hem. In knitting patterns, the indentation at the waist is often an inch or two wide. This means that a minor length alteration might not adversely impact the overall positioning of the indentation, so you can get away with making the length alteration at the hem, which is often easier.

Altering the sleeve length: While you may have determined the total length to be added or subtracted to the wingspan, that translates directly to a sleeve length alteration only if the upper body width does not need to be altered.

In the case of a garment without a set-in sleeve, such as a drop shoulder pullover, the upper body width will likely be broader than your actual, preferred, upper body width, and no adjustment would be made to the upper body width. Differences between the pattern wingspan and your preferred wingspan measurement will be adjusted in the sleeve length, as described earlier; half of the wingspan differential will be added or subtracted to each sleeve.

In the case of a set-in sleeve, you should first determine whether the upper body width is appropriate; if it is, then any length adjustment that needs to be made should be made in the sleeves. If the upper body width in the pattern needs to be adjusted (which is actually a width alteration, not a length alteration), then this may impact the sleeve length alteration. So, you'll also need to compare:

  • your preferred upper body measurement (shoulder to shoulder) vs. the upper body measurement of the pattern

These should be approximately the same in a close- or slim-fitting style, not taking into account any selvedge stitches that would be worked into the armscye seam. In some classic-fitting or casual styles, the armscye seam may not ride exactly at the shoulder point, but may fall slightly lower on the arm -- but not by very much, no more than about half an inch depending on the thickness of the fabric. If the upper body measurements in a set-in sleeve style differ significantly, then the pattern should be altered to bring this measurement in line with your preferred size. This might be done by choosing a different pattern size, but it may also be done by altering the width of the body.

If the width of the body is altered in order to broaden or narrow the pattern's upper body measurement, then this will affect the total wingspan measurement of the pattern: after alteration, check again to make sure that the pattern wingspan matches your preferred wingspan measurement. If it still doesn't match, then the sleeves will have to be shortened or lengthened by half of the difference in wingspan measurements. Just as in the example described earlier, a wingspan difference of 3 inches translates to a length alteration of 1.5 inches on either sleeve.

Whether the sleeve is a set-in style or not, the length adjustment will be made somewhere between the hem and the beginning of the sleeve cap shaping, not in the sleeve cap itself. The sleeve cap shaping will only be adjusted if the armscye itself is altered.

Next issue: Altering length and minimizing design interruptions, and consequential amendments


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

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