Choosing your sweater size is a tricky business (especially if you’re new to sweater knitting). It can feel like going on a blind date or taking a road trip with only a vague map of where you’re headed.
I’ve talked a lot about ease over the years; whether you’re a student of my sweater workshops, a Knit Camp member, or a reader of my work – if you’ve been around me at all – you know that I can’t shut up about knitting sweaters that fit.
Ease, in its most basic form, is just the difference between your actual body measurement and the finished measurement of the garment. If the garment measures larger than you measure, it has positive ease. If it measures the same as your measurements, it has no ease. And if the garment is smaller than your measurements (like in the case of a swimsuit or a sock), it has negative ease. There’s a time and a place for each of these variations – none of them are good or bad, but with sweater knitting, we often lean in the direction of positive ease because sweaters are often worn over other clothing.
A good pattern should tell you the stated size and the finished measurement of the sweater, and these two sets of numbers are a good place to start when deciding what kind of fit the designer intended. In many of my patterns, these numbers look like this:
(This is like the size you’d choose off the rack if you were shopping for clothing at the store)
32 (36, 40, 44, 48, 52, 56, 60, 64) inches
Finished Bust/Chest Circumference
(This is the actual measurement of the clothing around the bust/chest)
34 (38, 42, 46, 50, 54, 58, 62, 66) inches
Based on these numbers, if you knit a size 64, the finished measurement will be 66 inches, which means that if your full bust measures 64 inches and you choose to knit the size 64, the finished sweater will be 2 in/5 cm larger than you are. In other words, you’ll have 2 in/5 cm of positive ease in the finished sweater.
But what if a pattern lists the sizes as S (M, L, XL, 2XL) or 1 (2, 3, 4, 5)? In cases like this – much like shopping for garments off the rack at the store – the amount of ease will be based on the difference between your measurements and the finished measurements of the size you choose. How MUCH ease you want depends on several factors, so stick with me while I break it down below.
If all sweaters – and all bodies – were the same, then that one nugget of insight, alone, would be enough to choose the right sweater sizes forever and ever, amen.
Not so fast.
“Recommended ease” (e.g. the designer’s suggested fit) varies from pattern to pattern based on the construction of the sweater, the unique fabric of the garment, and the overall style of the design. In this post, let’s speak specifically to the fit of a cardigan knit with either a rounded yoke or raglan shape since those are two of the most often pattern styles I offer for cardigans.
Let’s look at a couple of examples to see how different amounts of ease might look in a cardigan.
Baybridge was designed for about 2 in/5 cm of positive ease, but I opted for a looser fit for my version. I knit mine with about 4 in/10 cm of positive ease, and you can see the loose fit on the sleeves and casual fit of the body.
Southwell, was technically designed for a similar fit as Baybridge (about 1-2 in/2.5-5cm) positive ease, but I wanted a more tailored fit for this one. You can see the closer fit in the sleeve as compared with the previous example, and you might notice that the body is clearly not quite as loose. I chose the size that would give me about 1-2 in/2.5-5 cm of positive ease. This photo was taken a few years ago, and my size has changed a bit over the years. This cardigan is now smaller than my actual measurements, but since I prefer to wear my cardigans open (not buttoned), I can still technically wear it. What once fit me with a little bit of positive ease now fits me with about 2 inches of negative ease (meaning the sweater is about 2 in/5 cm smaller in the bust than my current actual full bust circumference). If I were to button it, I would definitely notice it’s too small for me. But if I leave it open, it’s fine.
The difference between the two examples shown is the difference between knitting yourself a cardigan with about 4 in/10 cm of positive ease (Baybridge) or just 1-2 in/2.5-5 cm of positive ease (Southwell). You can adjust the fit by choosing the size with the finished measurement that gives you the amount of ease you like.
Choosing the right ease for a rounded yoke or raglan cardigan depends on three primary things:
- Do you plan to wear it buttoned?
The finished bust/chest circumference matters most when you plan to button your cardigan. I like to keep mine unbuttoned because it creates a flattering vertical down the front center of the body – AND I just like the flow of an open cardigan. Because of this, I don’t have to worry QUITE as much about the bust circumference being perfect. If you’re not going to button it, you can err on the smaller side and knit 1 or 2 sizes smaller than you might ordinarily. BUT there are two important caveats: a) If you have broad shoulders, a smaller size may not work for you. In this case, I recommend sticking with the appropriate size for your finished bust – and b) If you have larger than average biceps, check the finished circumference of the sleeve at the widest part to make sure it will fit your arm. A sleeve can fit with about 1 in/2.5 cm of negative ease, but less than that will be uncomfortable. If the sleeve circumference of the smaller size is too small for your arms, then go with your recommended size.
- What do you plan to wear under your cardigan? (A sundress? Multiple layers?)
A cardigan worn over a sundress can fit more closely than a cardigan that has to accommodate multiple layers of clothing underneath. Think about how you will wear your sweater to help you determine if knitting a slightly smaller size would work for you.
- Do you prefer a tailored or relaxed look?
Even if you CAN get away with a smaller size, it’s important to consider your personal clothing style. If you love a tailored or vintage look, the smaller size might be perfect. If you love loose, flowing clothes, then you may not want your cardigan to fit too closely.
How Small is Too Small? How Big is Too Big?
My online workshop, Best Sweater Ever, talks in detail about getting the right fit based on your gauge, body, intended fit, etc… but the short version is this:
If the sweater fits too tightly around your arms, or pinches at the shoulders, it’s too small – even if it’s comfortable around the bust.
If the sweater sags, looks sloppy, is too loose around the arms, or doesn’t stay on your shoulders, it’s too big – even if it’s comfortable around the bust.
So much of sweater fit depends on getting familiar with your own body and knitting enough sweaters to learn what you like and don’t like about the fit.
Think of sweater knitting like online clothes shopping. You choose your size based on the measurements or sizing details the company provides, but until you receive your order, you may not entirely know if the fit is going to work for you. But the more clothing you wear from the same company, the more familiar you’ll be with how their sizing works for you.
Knitting sweaters is very much the same, but there’s added complexity because the finished measurements are only accurate if your gauge is accurate. If your gauge is off – even by a seemingly small margin – your “perfect” size sweater can end up too small, or too large.
If you’ve knit a cardigan for yourself and the result doesn’t fit the way you wanted it to, here’s how to troubleshoot what went wrong:
- Did you measure yourself around the full bust before you selected your size? We’re often wrong about our own size, so if you’re in the habit of knitting sweaters, always check your bust/chest circumference before you start. (Do this at least a couple of times a year.)
- Did you knit it at the correct gauge? Often we’ll treat our swatches like a precious baby angel in attempt to get the perfect gauge, but we relax or get tense while we’re knitting the actual sweater. Measure your gauge in the sweater, itself, to see if it changed along the way.
- Did you choose the right amount of ease for the fit you wanted? If your sweater feels looser or tighter than you intended, this is a good opportunity to think more about the kind of fit you really want. Maybe you went into the project thinking that you prefer looser-fitting sweaters, but when you actually put it on, you realize that maybe you don’t need QUITE that much room. Or perhaps it’s the opposite, and you thought knitting a smaller size would work well for you, and it didn’t. This doesn’t mean you failed – it means you now have more information about the fit you like.
Using What You’ve Learned
One of my favorite suggestions for sweater knitters is to knit the same sweater twice. Take what you learned from your first experience and knit it again with the appropriate adjustments. If it was a little big last time, knit a size smaller. If it was a little snug last time, knit one size larger. Maybe you’ll learn that you like your sleeves a little shorter or longer; you are not beholden to the limits of the pattern. Knitting it twice makes it easy to adjust the things that didn’t quite hit the mark the first time through. And if your gauge went astray on the first attempt, make sure to adjust your needle size accordingly the next time.
Knitting patterns, just like clothing, are designed for “average” bodies. We all know that hardly anyone fits an average standard, but no pattern or clothing brand can account for every variable that exists on the human body spectrum. With a clothing brand, we just have to look for the brand that offers the size and fit that works best for us, but when it comes to knitting…
Being a sweater means more than just learning how to follow a sweater pattern. If you just want any old sweater, then fine – just knit one. But if you want a sweater that fits you a particular way, then it pays to put in the time to really understand your own figure and pay attention to the kinds of patterns you’re knitting. Knitting the same pattern twice will help you learn how to make adjustments that give you the fit you need, and the more sweaters you knit – in general – the better your sweaters will be. Use what you learn from each project to develop your own little recipe for the perfect sweater for YOU. I know some knitters who always knit the yoke with a smaller needle because they have such tiny shoulders, and then adjust the needle as they near the bust line. I know others who always crop the body and sleeves because they’re petite.
You are the boss of your sweater; the more sweaters you knit, the sweater-bossier you can be.