On the Subject of Sweaters, Part 5: Modifying the Pattern

This post is Part 5 in a series of weekly posts I’ll be doing on the process of sweater knitting: not exactly the nitty gritty details and techniques, but the opportunities and decisions you may encounter on the way to getting a knitted sweater that works for you. Previously, the topic was reading and interpreting the pattern.

If you’re a knitter who has knitted a lot of patterns exactly as written in the printed instructions and had a lot of success with that approach, I congratulate you and wish you much continued success. It does happen often, and for many knitters it happens quite frequently. Just like some knitters always “get gauge,” other knitters manage to execute patterns as written and get results that look fabulous on them. It depends both on the individual knitter and the pattern’s style, size, and shape. Realistically, though, this is not something everyone manages to do all the time. And even if you don’t ever find The One perfect pattern for you, you DO always (well, maybe of the time) have a functional brain (or at least a caffeinated one) and you have a personalized all-access pass to the one thing you need to make a sweater fit you better: your own body.

Apr19-Tools1

I’m of the opinion that the happiest, most successful knitters are those who take control of their knitting as much as is comfortable and reasonable. This is a good default position to have anyway, but particularly when you’re working on a large garment that needs to look wearable on your body. It involves measuring yourself, deciding on preferred style, fit, and ease, but also modifying the sweater pattern as needed. A lot of knitters do this fairly intuitively, or as a result of accumulated experience. You’ve probably seen a fair number of blog posts or Ravelry project pages where a knitter posts photos of their finished garment and a few notes along the lines of: “This was a fabulous pattern and I loved making it! I did it just as written except I made it longer, changed the neckline, and combined the XL with the M size to get what I wanted.” Knitters who have done this sort of thing before will nod sagely. “Sure, like you do.” Knitters who haven’t done this sort of thing before might well stare wide-eyed at the photos and notes. “But, HOW did you do that? What do you mean you combined two sizes? How does that even HAPPEN?”

The fact is that it’s rare that you’ll come across a pattern that fits all of your desired specifications at the same time, and you’re well within your rights to change things as you need to. I feel good about this as a knitter, and as a designer I completely expect knitters to change things up if it will get them the result they want while knitting from my patterns. Any time you make a conscious adjustment to the pattern that diverges from the written instructions, you are engaging in pattern modification, and it can open up a world of wonderful results for you.

Sept20-Gwendolyn

What kind of modifications are we talking about, exactly?
If you’re an experienced knitter, I will bet that you have a mental list of typical modifications you execute on a regular basis whenever you knit a sweater. I do too, and so I thought I’d broach this topic first by pulling out pieces from my own sweater wardrobe once again, and breaking down for you what modifications I did for them. (The pattern links below will be Ravelry links.) These are sweaters you’ve seen before on my blog and in this series. For reference: I am a 5’9″ woman with a 37″ bust, 42″ hip, 16″ cross-shoulder measurement, and prefer a length of 24 ins for most fitted sweaters, and a 19-20″ sleeve. These are the key pieces of information I go in with when it comes to pattern modification. Though I have a bust size that puts me well into the range of mainstream patterns, I have yet to find a commercial pattern that accounts for all of the above numbers/preferences in the same place. I am much like a lot of other knitters on the planet in this respect.

I do want to make one broad statement – all of the sweater patterns I mention here today are really fabulous patterns, and they are in good company with hundreds (thousands, really, possibly millions) of many others out there in knitting world. The fact that I modified them doesn’t make the patterns any less awesome – it just means I made sure they would be the final result that I wanted to get.

The turquoise cardigan above is my Gwendolyn cardi that I finished last winter (pattern by Fiona Ellis), in Cascade 220 Heathers (I am very sorry to report that I don’t remember the exact colour name, though I’ve received oodles of compliments on the selection. It’s a nice turquoise heather, is the best I can say.) This is a set-in sleeve seamed cardigan worked from the bottom up, with no waist shaping. It is finished with a hood and a button-band. There is no waist shaping involved in this sweater, which meant I didn’t need to pay attention to placement of the slim part of the waist in relation to my body. The cross-back measurement (across the shoulders) matched quite well with what I wanted, so my main concerns were: a) choosing a size, and b) modifying for length. Part a) is something I documented in an earlier blog post, and involves the fact that I ripped out and re-started with a different size when I was halfway through the back piece, because it was clear that it was turning out too small for what I needed. Part b) was fairly simple – I added 2-3 ins in length simply by knitting to a longer measurement between the hem and armhole separation, than indicated in the pattern.

A third modification came on the sleeves, when I decided to carry ribbing up from the cuff all the way through the inside of the sleeve, even though it wasn’t specified in the pattern. I decided I liked the idea of ribbing as an extra bit of snugness and comfort, and it worked. Otherwise, I knitted everything as written, and I am very happy with the result.

Sept20-DusseldorfAran

This pink number is my rendition of the Dusseldorf Aran, also by Fiona Ellis. It is a pullover with a high scoop neck, set-in sleeves and seamed, worked from the bottom up. The sleeves also feature pleated ruffles and i-cord bows, for extra prettiness, though they’re hard to see in this photo. The modifications I did on this are as follows: a) modified to add length, b) lowered the neckline, c) expanded the cross-back measurement to be slightly wider. Another common modification I have seen with this sweater is to make it as written, but eliminate the pleated ruffles at the cuffs for more practicality. This would involve casting on a smaller number of stitches that will comfortably fit the wearer’s wrist, and increasing evenly to achieve the same number of stitches as needed at the upper arm.

To a) modify for length, I used my preferred measurements for my back-waist (from collar/back of neck to waist, measurement 3 here) and my preferred length from waist to hem as references, and compared with the pattern schematic. In the end I added about an inch before the decreases at the hip, and another inch after the increases and before splitting for the armholes. This is a pretty typical step for me because I have a slightly longer torso than mainstream sizes tend to account for, and I’ve gotten used to doing it. To b) lower the neckline, I got out my measuring tape and figured out how deep I wanted the neckline to be, compared to the centre of my shoulder, then subtracted this number from the vertical depth of the armhole. The resulting number is the length between the armhole and the beginning of the neckline, and that told me when to start the neckline shaping – which I did as written, just slightly earlier.

To c) alter the cross-back measurement, what I did was simply decrease fewer stitches within the armhole shaping decreases. I then made sure to execute the same (altered) number of decreases on the front piece, to make sure they matched. Another way to have done this, however, would be to have kept the armhole decreases the same, but add vertical dart increases in the stockinette portions at the shoulders (as opposed to attempting that within the cabled panels, which, errr, let’s not.) Altering the cross-back measurement is also a fairly common step for me and for most people, because the relationship between our bust size and shoulder measurement is pretty arbitrary. It has to do much more with unique combinations of body shape, musculature, posture, and athleticism (I am actually sure that since taking up yoga the last several months, my shoulders have added some muscle back there, and I should probably take that cross-back measurement again), and really much less to do with predictable proportionality and overall body size. Two women with vastly different body sizes and shapes could well have the exact same cross-back measurement, but they sure as heck won’t be knitting the exact same pattern in the exact same way.

Sept20-AutumnRose

Thirdly, I present my Autumn Rose pullover (pattern by Eunny Jang). It is a stranded colour-work pullover knitted in the round from the bottom up, with raglan sleeve shaping and a steeked neckline. It is intended for negative ease, which means the garment itself is slightly smaller than the wearer. It is one of the most modified things I have ever done, even though it probably doesn’t look like it. The modifications I did were: a) increase the length, b) raise the scoop neck, c) elongate the raglan shaping decreases at the shoulder, and d) change the colour selection. Altering for length is something I did in the above two sweaters as well, and many others, but in this case it was more challenging because the pattern did not come with a schematic. All I had to go on were the length indications within the written pattern, and these were a bit more sparse than what one might hope for (for the record, Eunny Jang is a brilliant knitter and designer, and I am pretty sure any omissions like this are a result of sparse editing, not her own talents. It happens). So, I had to go from my own numbers and essentially design my own pattern schematic indications from scratch.

When it came to part c) changing the raglan shaping decreases at the shoulder, I knew what kind of length I wanted for myself based on my relatively broad shoulders (as compared to my bust size), and I knew what my row/round gauge was, and so I estimated from there how many rounds the raglan shaping needed to take up to get the total raglan height that I wanted. The result is that I did the same number of raglan decreases as indicated, but spaced out over more rounds. (You can do this in the other direction, too, if you need/want the raglan height to be shorter, by working the same number of decrease rounds over fewer total rounds.)

Altering the height of the scoop neck was a judgement call for my own preference – the original pattern is gorgeous and modern and includes a very deep scoop neck, but I wanted it to be just a touch more modest for myself. So I did the opposite of the Dusseldorf Aran step, and raised the neckline by beginning it a couple of inches later than originally indicated in the pattern, which in this case amounted to starting the neckline shaping and raglan shoulder shaping at about the same time. However, what took the longest time in this was d) changing up the colours. For a single-colour garment it is mostly a matter of picking the colour off the yarn store shelf that you really like, but in this case, substituting 11 different colours required some time and swatching and decision making. (I wrote a whole post about it, at the time.) I liked the pattern, but the colours used in the original sample (and many of the kits for same) had a much rustier colour scheme than I usually knit, so I wanted to customize this. I did 4-5 swatches before arriving at the colour combination that I liked. It was well worth the time I took to do that, because holy crap look at it, this is freaking gorgeous. (I still have all of the swatches, too, and if you take colour-work or steeking classes with me I often bring them out for show and tell ;) )

Sound good? Good.

Mar10-EPSClass3

What else?
These are some examples from my own closet. You can see that the kinds of modifications I made to the three pieces above aren’t entirely dissimilar, but they do vary depending on the style of the sweater and what I want to get out of it. For most knitters, probably the most typical set of modifications they do are to get the overall size they want. For example, if you want the sweater to be worn with 2-3 inches of positive ease, and you have a 40-inch bust circumference, this means you’ll want a garment that is either 42 or 43 inches around in the bust. If the pattern only offers you a 40-inch or 46-inch size as the closest options, though, you might be able to modify things to get you “between sizes,” either by adding stitches to the smaller size or subtracting stitches from the larger one. Knitters with bust sizes on the very small or very large end of the size spectrum are more likely to be familiar with this process, because they are also more likely to have to modify for size simply to create the pattern size they need. Still, pattern size ranges are more expansive than they used to be, and indie designers often want to try harder to include as many knitters as possible. One hopes this will keep improving, but nevertheless, bust size isn’t the only thing that determines a good fit, and many knitters with mainstream bust measurements are well used to modifying fit or length or other aspects of the garment, to suit their own body and preferences.

The best thing any knitter can do is approach the pattern notes as strong guidelines rather than a locked-in set of commands, and diverge from them where and when they need to – and relax with a sigh of relief if/when you don’t end up needing to change anything. The simpler the pattern is, chances are, the easier it will be to modify, so keep that in mind if you are new to the process.

Jan20-ScratchThat

Modification is not only acceptable, it is encouraged. Designers write patterns based on standardized guidelines as well as personal style choices that may or may not completely match your own preference. If you could achieve a better look or fit with a pattern by modifying it, for the love of wool, PLEASE DO IT. Off the top of my head, these are some pretty common modifications that you’ll see:

-Changing the length (longer or shorter) of the body or sleeves

-Changing the placement of the waist to best fit your own (adding or removing length between the waist and armholes, or between armholes and shoulder, to achieve a different length than the pattern indicates)

-Changing the width or circumference by adding or subtracting stitches from the body of the sweater, if possible.

-Changing the width or circumference by changing the gauge (this also depends on whether you’re working with a yarn that is happy at the altered gauge), but keeping the original stitch count the same. A looser gauge will result in a bigger sweater, a tighter gauge will result in a smaller sweater.

-Changing the amount of ease by knitting a larger or smaller size as compared to your bust size, than is originally intended by the pattern notes. (this is style-dependent and preference-dependent as well).

-Changing the height of a neckline (lower or higher)

-Changing the shape of a neckline, i.e. from a v-neck to a scoop neck or vice versa.

-Changing the stitch pattern, i.e. adding a texture or cabled stitch pattern to an otherwise plain stockinette item.

-Combining different pattern sizes within one garment, i.e. working with size 2XL for the hips, but size L for the rest of the torso and shoulders. This involves working more decrease rounds to achieve ideal waist shaping by combining the two (very different), or adding vertical darts to accomodate more decreases in multiple places.

-Changing a pullover into a cardigan, or vice versa.

It’s a wide, wide world of possibilities out there, folks! I recommend perusing Ravelry project pages of sweaters you like or friends’ projects that you like, and notice when they talk about what they did differently. I really, really enjoy that part of Ravelry, that lets people write about what they did to make the pattern fit them best, and it can help others to achieve good results by letting them in on a few ideas.

For a whole world of ideas on how knitters modify different garments of different kinds, check out Julie’s Modification Monday

To think more about modifications that are related to body size and shape, many of the references I listed in Part 2 of this series are relevant, since this is all about achieving the fit that you want.

This post series is almost at an end, dear knitter friends! I look forward to visiting you with one more post on this theme next week, and I hope that your sweater knitting season (as fall approaches) will be a successful one. Until next time!

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23 Comments

Filed under sweaters

23 responses to “On the Subject of Sweaters, Part 5: Modifying the Pattern

  1. I love the posts you do. They are very helpful. :)

  2. I’m so very glad! Thanks for the lovely comment :)

    G

  3. Very helpful and inspiring! I have knit a few sweaters, and I need to think about how I approach my next one a little more thoughtfully and carefully.

  4. Lori

    What is the purpose of “negative ease”?

  5. Hi Lori

    Ease is something I mention in Part 2 of this series; http://crazyknittinglady.wordpress.com/2012/08/30/on-the-subject-of-sweaters-part-2-style-construction-and-fit/

    Ease is mostly a matter of style and fit preference; A negative ease garment will be very fitted, as opposed to very loose, which would be positive ease.

    G

  6. I love this series! You’re right, my knitting epiphany came when I started seeing patterns as just suggestions, and started knitting to my shape instead.

    Nowadays, I don’t even bother to “get gauge”; I just knit a swatch with needles I want to use and if I like the resulting fabric, I calculate the sweater to my measurements. I figured that I was making so many changes to fit my body that it made more sense to quickly calculate the whole thing rather than laboriously try to match the pattern. After the first couple of times, the calculation is really quick – almost automatic!

    I routinely lower the ease, narrow the body and hips, add lower back shaping, elongate the torso, add short rows and vertical darts for the bust, narrow the sleeves. Sounds like a lot of work, but after the first two times it is easy. And I end up with really flattering sweaters!

  7. PS: forgot to add — I’ve absolutely adored your Autumn Rose sweater ever since you first posted about it!

  8. Doris

    GREAT information!! Another incredibly helpful post.

  9. This is such great and helpful information! You should think about writing a book.

  10. Excellent and very helpful series, thank you. My attempts at modification sometimes create more problems than they solve, which leads me to say that I knit most things twice to get them right. Current example: used fewer stitches in the cuff of a sleeve but didn’t think about putting them back so now I have a sleeve and yoke that are all wonky and all those twisted/rib stitches will need to be frogged. :-(

  11. Doris

    Also wanted to add that the pictures of your sweater wardrobe are lovely. I’m feeling very “inspired”.

  12. Glenna, bravo as always. You write so clearly and in such a friendly way (SOOoo unlike your real in-person self! Ha!) that it really feels like all of these modifications are in easy reach. I haven’t knit many adult sweaters, so I’m taking notes from your posts!

  13. Elizabeth

    Thanks for all the good guidelines you provided. I’ve always changed the pattern for sleeve length, but hesitated for other measurements–like more ease across the chest. You’ve given me courage to do that with my next sweater. Thanks so much.

  14. What a great idea for a series! This post offers lots of practical tips. I’ve always had to modify everything I’ve ever knit, crocheted or sewn for myself. I am far taller than the average woman, and I have an extremely long torso and long waist. So by now a sort of automatic adjustment – one that also necessitates, of course, calculating how much extra yarn I’ll need. Oh, and sometimes button(s). :)

  15. Sharon

    Loved the pictures of your sweaters, and continue to absolutely love this series. It’s so informative, but in a very approachable way.

  16. You do realize I’m going to have to find some way of archiving these articles, right? Very helpful, very well written — but you have *always* been very encouraging of new (or sort of new) knitters just trying stuff. And I love that!

    So when will you be teaching south of the border? Or do I have to figure out an excuse to travel to Toronto when you’re teaching classes on this stuff?

  17. Laurie, you’re so wonderful to ask! Oh how I would love to teach in the US, maybe that will happen down the line. If someone were to cover my travel expenses, I’d be there in a heartbeat! ;)

    G

  18. LauraSue

    I admit it. I don’t do the math. Your post makes me think I actually could, though. I’ve got Royale queued, so perhaps I will start there. Eeek! Cables AND mods. What a brave little knitter I am becoming.

  19. LauraSue

    Oh, and one more thing. What I really want is your little tin of fabulousness in the first picture. It’s the tin I always dream of having in my bag, but I never do.

  20. Louise

    Wonderful! You’re so generous with your time to explain all these nuances to us.

  21. Pingback: On the Subject of Sweaters, Part 6: Knitting it Up | Knitting to Stay Sane

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