Where I write about knitting, crocheting and lace, and, on occasion general comments on other topics

Designing a Sweater without a Pattern

Written by: Lindy

April 24, 2010

In previous posts, I have discussed how to use Elizabeth Zimmerman’s Percentage System (EPS) to design and knit a sweater and how to modify a written pattern to adjust for changes in sizing and/or gauge. Today, I will briefly describe the process of designing a sweater without a written pattern. I learned this process in depth when I first knitted a sweater using my knitting machine. Knitting garments on a knitting machine requires extensive set-up and calculations before you can even begin to knit. Regardless of whether you are hand knitting or machine knitting – the process and calculations are the same.

As in the previous design techniques, you start with a good set of body measurements and a gauge swatch to determine your stitch and row gauge. You will also need to factor in the amount of ease you wish to have in your completed sweater.

Any sweater has several basic elements: The front & back, the sleeves and the neck. Sweaters come in two basic forms – the pullover and the cardigan. If you take a minute to think through all the sweaters you have seen, you will realize that all of them are some variation of these two basic forms. So, let’s start by breaking down the elements of a basic pullover sweater.

Elements of a Pullover Sweater:

  1. The Front & Back – in a very basic design, the front and the back are the same up to the point where one shapes the neckline. The Front and Back make up the tube of fabric that goes around the entire body – thus, the back consists of one-half of the total number of stitches needed for the body/chest measurement and the front has the other half. In our basic design, the back/front is essentially a rectangle – and you need to determine the width and the length from your own measurements. If you plan to knit this sweater in the round, then you will calculate the total number of stitches based upon the body/chest measurement plus ease. [(BM + Ease) X SPI]. If you plan to knit this sweater in pieces and then sew the pieces together, you will calculate the number of stitches needed for the front/back by dividing the Body/chest measurement by two and then adding in Ease and multiplying by your stitch gauge. [((BM/2) + Ease) X SPI]. For a set-in sleeve, you will also need to calculate the shaping of the armhole. When knitting in the round, at the point you begin shaping the armholes, it is best to knit flat and knit the front and back separately.
  2. The Neck – the most basic neck for a pullover sweater is a round or crew neck shape. In our basic sweater design – a portion of the stitches of the center back are used for the back of the neck, while in the front there is some shaping done to make the front of the neck slightly lower than the back. The stitches not used in the neck are used for the shoulders and form the shoulder seams of the sweater. It is best to use live stitches for necklines. This allows you the needed stretch for the fabric to go over the head of the wearer. One must also keep in mind that the average woman’s head has a circumference of 22 inches. Thus, there needs to sufficient width allocated to the neck to allow the head to pass through it.

    Back Neck – for the basic sweater pattern, the back does not have any shaping to it. It is simply divided into three sections: Left shoulder, Neck and right shoulder. The number of stitches assigned to the back neck stitches is somewhat proportional to the chest measurement. Generally, the wider the chest, the larger the neck circumference. In this basic sweater design, there should be an equal number of stitches allocated to the shoulders, with the remaining stitches placed on hold for the neck. You determine the number of back neck stitches by multiplying your stitch gauge by the width of the back neck. You then subtract the number of back stitches from the total number of stitches for the back at the shoulders – this will give you the number of stitches for the shoulders. This number needs to be divisible by 2, so you may need to take 1 stitch from your neck stitches to even it out.

    Front Neck – the shaping for the front neck begins below the last row of the shoulder. For women, the depth of the neckline starts 2.5 to 3 inches below the shoulder, for men, the depth is 3 inches to 3.5 inches and for children the depth is 1.5 to 2.5 inches. This depth is entirely a matter of preference. The front neck is shaped as a semi-circle by gradually eliminating stitches on either side of the center front neck stitches. Thus, the center front stitches are placed on hold and then decreases are done on either side of these stitches as you knit up to the shoulders. This shaping will occur concurrently with the armhole shaping

  3. The Sleeves – the most common styles of sleeve in commercial sweaters are the drop-sleeve and the set-in sleeve. For this design, I will cover the set-in sleeve. A Set-in Sleeve joins the body of the sweater at the armhole and the top of the shoulder seam. Set-in sleeves require shaping at the top of the sleeve itself as well as corresponding shaping in the front and back. The shaping is made by a series of bind-offs, increases and/or decreases. To design your sleeve you must have your sleeve length, the width of the sleeve at the armhole, the width of the sleeve at the elbow and the width of the sleeve at the wrist. You also need the depth of the armhole. There are quite a few calculations required to be able to knit a properly fitting set-in sleeve. You begin by calculating the shaping of the sleeve from the wrist to the underarm and then calculate the shaping required to form the rounded sleeve cap. Shaping is achieved by a series of increases from the wrist to the underarm, followed by bind-offs and decreases to form the sleeve cap.

Now let’s look at a basic cardigan sweater.

Cardigans are most often knitted flat – either in separate pieces or in as a one wide piece on a long circular needle. They can be knitted in the round using a steek to separate the two fronts when finishing the sweater. Shaping for armholes and neckline are mirrored for the right and left fronts. In addition, there is a knitted band of fabric that overlaps at the center front – this band can be knitted concurrently with the front using a pattern stitch or can be added to the front by picking up stitches along the center front edge after the front has been knitted.

The calculations for this sweater are essentially the same as for our basic pullover – with the exception of the front. A cardigan sweater has two front pieces that meet and overlap in the center of the garment. This means that each front piece is one-half of the front piece of a pullover sweater, plus some added width for the overlapping parts(buttonbands or borders). In our basic sweater design, you simply add the desired width of the buttonband to each front piece. For example, the front on our pullover measures 40 inches. For our cardigan, each front piece would be half of that or 20 inches and the buttonband would be 2 inches wide: 20 + 2 = 22 inches. My Excel Spreadsheet includes a section on calculating the fronts for a cardigan.

I have created an Excel Spreadsheet for all the calculations required for a basic pullover with a set-in sleeve. Click here to see the spreadsheet: Sweater Calculator.

Using this calculator and your own gauge, you now have all the calculations required to knit your pullover sweater. You can knit this sweater from the top down or from the bottom up. The shaping for a top-down sweater is done in the reverse order of a bottom-down sweater.

Terms of Use: You may electronically copy and print to hard copy portions of the spreadsheet for the sole purpose of using materials it contains for informational and non-commercial, personal use only. Any other use of this spreadsheet — including any commercial use, reproduction for purposes other than described above, modification, distribution, republication, display, or performance — without the prior written permission of Lindy’s Knits & Laces is strictly prohibited.

Today I have briefly outlined the basics of designing your own sweater using two basic sweater designs. From these two basic designs, you can create a sweater according to your own measurements out of any weight yarn. I recommend you give it a try. Listed below are some references for your further exploration – I have only scratched the surface of this topic. Happy Knitting.

If you find this post and/or my spreadsheet helpful , please leave me a comment. Thanks!

For further exploration – check out these sources:

Maggie Righetti, Sweater Design in Plain English
Leslye Solomon, The Uncomplicated Knitting Machine
Deborah Newton, Designing Knitwear.
Barbara G. Walker,Knitting from the Top Down.
Vogue Knitting

Part 2: Freeing Yourself from a Pattern – Step 2: Analyze the Pattern and Modify It to Fit.

Written by: Lindy

April 2, 2010

In my last post, I went through all the necessary measurements you need to take in order to ensure that you can modify or create any sweater pattern you wish.
If you haven’t done so, you may want to go back and read this information and take your measurements.

Today I will discuss how to analyze a written pattern so that you can use it as a guideline to knit your own well-fitting garment. First, get your favorite sweater – you will be using it to help you analyze the pattern you have selected.

Now, let’s take a look at this sweater – you need to understand what it is about this sweater that makes it your favorite. Is it a pullover or a cardigan? Is it close-fitting or loose? How long is it? What type of sleeve does it have (Set-in, drop, raglan or other)? What type of neckline ( Round, V-neck, Boat Neck, Square, or other)? Now compare this information to the sweater pattern you want to knit. Just a word of caution, here, if the pattern you have chosen differs dramatically from your favorite sweater – you may not be happy with the end result. Then, again, if it is a conscious choice, you may.

Now let’s look at the sizing given in the pattern. Sizes are often stated as “Small, Medium, Large, Extra-Large”, etc. Some patterns will give sizing using finished chest/bust circumference, while others will state the sizing in terms of actual body measurements. If the pattern sizing is in terms of finished measurements, it will have the ease incorporated into it. If in actual body measurements, you may have to determine how much ease is factored into the garment. The amount of ease is both a matter of personal preference and a property of the design of the sweater. To determine how much ease you prefer – pull out your favorite sweater, measure the chest and compare the measurement to your actual body measurement. The math is simple: Subtract your body measurement from the garment measurement – this will give you the amount of inches of ease.

Now – take a look at that pattern you are considering– is there a size that matches your actual chest measurement PLUS that amount of ease? If the answer is “Yes” – then, if your gauge with your yarn matches the pattern, you are good to go.

If you find that your size is not represented within the pattern, you will need to adjust the body width.

For a body width less than the smallest size given in the pattern, recalculate the number of stitches to cast on and then follow the directions for the smallest size.

For a body width greater than the largest size given in the pattern, recalculate the number of stitches to cast on and follow the directions for the largest size.

For a body width that is in between sizes, recalculate the number of stitches to cast on and then follow the directions for the closest size.

In all cases, the formula is: SPI (your gauge) X body width

There are some additional elements to consider and modify if you are adjusting body width:

If the sleeve is a drop sleeve design, be careful not to add too much body width or the shoulders will be too wide. If you need more width in the hip area than the shoulders – use an A-Line shape for the body – which means that you will need to factor in some decreases from the hip to the underarm.

If the sleeve is a set-in sleeve design, remember that as you change body width, you must also adjust the shoulder width because the top of the sleeve should hit the end of the shoulder.

The sleeve length must be adjusted when adding or subtracting body width. This is because if you add width or subtract width to the body, you have also done so to the shoulder width – and shoulder width contributes to the total sleeve length. Verify the length you need for your sweater and make adjustments accordingly.

Additional considerations in modifying a written pattern:

Does this pattern incorporate a textured or colored stitch pattern? If so, what is the base stitch pattern? To determine this, look at the instructions and the graph for the stitch patterning. Most stitch patterns are a multiple of a base number of stitches – i.e. 8 stitches over 24 rows. So, if you are reducing or increasing the number of stitches to cast on – you will need to adjust this number so that it divisible by your base stitch pattern. For example: You have determined that you need to cast on 214 stitches and your base stitch pattern is an 8 stitch repeat. If you divide 214 by 8, you get 26.75 – which is not a even number. You will need to increase the number of stitches you cast on to 216 – which is evenly divisible by 8.

Today, I have discussed how to use a written pattern as a guideline and modify it so that it will fit properly. This works best if your gauge matches the pattern, but your measurements do not.

Next post, I will discuss the notion of designing your own sweater from your choice of yarn, a basic design and the stitch pattern of your choice.

Tags: , ,
Posted in knitting, Knitting Techniques, Sweater Design, Yarn | Comments Off on Part 2: Freeing Yourself from a Pattern – Step 2: Analyze the Pattern and Modify It to Fit.>