Knit Better Sweaters – Ease

Have you ever looked at a pattern and struggled to make sense of the ease, or had questions about choosing the right ease to get the results you want? Let’s talk about it!

Today we’re going to cover the most common questions about ease in sweater knitting and how to improve your chances of getting the results you want, including:

  1. What is “ease”?
  2. How to determine the ease in a pattern
  3. How to use ease to choose the size you want to make
  4. Factors that can derail ease

Let’s start digging!

What is ease?

Ease is the word used to describe the fit of a garment in relation to the size of the body wearing it.  You will hear terms like negative ease, zero ease and positive ease. What’s the difference?

  • Negative ease: A garment which measures smaller than the measurements of the body (usually in the bust, with the corresponding fit in the arms and body being proportional to the fit at the bust). For example, if you have a 36″ bust and you knit a sweater with negative ease, the resulting piece will measure less than 36″. How much less will depend on how much negative ease is written into the pattern.
  • Zero ease: A garment which measures the same as the measurements of the body. For example, if you have a 44″ bust and you knit a sweater with zero ease, the resulting piece will measure 44″ at the bust.
  • Positive ease: A garment which measures larger than the measurements of the body. For example, if you have a 32″ bust and you knit a sweater with 3″ positive ease, the resulting piece will measure 35″ at the bust.

All ease is not created equal

Some designs are meant to be worn with all kinds of ease because it’s part of the style. Some are meant to be worn with little to no ease. The benefit of knitting your own sweaters is that you get to decide – you are the boss of your knitting, after all – but intended ease gives you insight into the mind of the designer and the way the garment was meant to fit. If you want your sweater to fit you the way it was designed, knitting the intended ease will make that happen. If you want a different fit, adjusting the ease can help you do that.

If a design says it has ease, it’s already built into the pattern. For example, if it says it has 2″ of positive ease, and it’s for sizes 32 (34, 36, 38, 40, 42, etc)… then the finished size would be 2″ larger than that for every size. This means you knit the size for your bust (if you measure 36″, then you’d knit the 36″) and the finished size would fit you with 2″ of extra room. If you like your sweaters roomier, you can go up a size. But to get the suggested fit from the designer, you would knit your actual size and the measurement would fit you based on the amount of ease in the pattern.

When would you want negative ease?

Negative ease is most often associated with vintage styles. Cropped, form-fitting cardigans and pullovers that are designed to be worn over a 1940’s style dress are a perfect example of this. Sweaters like these are what we imagine when we think of zero ease, but the truth is, it’s NEGATIVE ease (less-than-zero) that creates that ultra snug fit. This look can be perfect for certain styles, but it’s not for everyone.

No ease? But why?

Believe it or not, zero ease can be a good thing. If you’re knitting a cardigan that you intend to wear over a sundress and you don’t plan to button it (or even if you do), having a good fit without ease can sometimes be more flattering than a cardigan with wiggle room. I get that not everyone is ready for negative ease (ditto here), but let’s not dismiss zero ease as quickly – there’s a time and place when this works for just about everyone. Even pullovers with zero ease can be very flattering, especially if your bust is larger than your belly. I happen to know a few knitters who knit my patterns a size smaller than their size just to get a snug, curvy fit at the bust. That style doesn’t work for me on pullovers, but for cardigans – yes. Get to know yourself and your style, and keep an open mind. You’ve heard me say this before, but knitters have a tendency to knit sweaters that are too large and too long for their bodies. If you ever have the chance to try on a sweater at a trunk show that might fit you with zero ease, give it a go and look in the mirror. Have someone snag a picture of you on your phone. You might surprise yourself!

Positive ease, thank goodness.

You’re breathing a sigh of relief – I get it. Positive ease is our comfort zone and it’s where most sweaters live. About 2″ of positive ease is a pretty standard, modern fit, and it gives most of us the wiggle room we need to feel “safe” in our clothes AND have freedom of movement. Positive ease allows us a little fluctuation in our size, too, which is always a welcome thing (ifyouknowwhatImean). However, there’s still a caution here: Beware the temptation to assume that if 2″ of ease is good, 4″ is better. Less is more here. There’s a point where slight positive ease becomes over-sized, and while there are occasions when we really do want an over-sized look, most of the time the result is sloppy. (In case you’ve forgotten or missed last weeks’ post, don’t knit a yurt.)

How to determine ease in a pattern (and how to choose your size)

Most hand knitting patterns will tell you right up front about the ease written into the design. It might look like this:

Sizes 32 (34, 36, 38, 40, 44, 48, 50)

Finished bust 34 (36, 38, 40, 42, 46, 50, 52)”

There’s a difference of 2″ between the sizes it’s written for and the finished bust measurement, which indicates 2″ of positive ease written into the pattern. The work is done for you – all you have to do is knit the size for your bust and – assuming your gauge is “on” – you’ll have a sweater that fits you with 2″ of wiggle room. If the pattern doesn’t specifically say how much ease is included, you can still determine this number by comparing the sizes it’s written for with the finished measurements. The difference between the two will tell you how much ease has been included in the pattern. If you opt to knit one size larger than your bust, your finished ease will actually be 4″ larger (that’s a lot of wiggle room, friends… more than you need for most sweaters unless they are meant to be over-sized or have a unique fit). Let’s say you’re a size 40 bust, and you’re knitting a cardigan to wear with a favorite spring dress. You could knit the size 38 (from the measurements above) and end up with a size 40 – because of the 2″ of ease built into the pattern – and you’d have a nice fitted cardigan with zero ease.

But let’s say the ease looks like this:

Sizes 32 (34, 36, 38, 40, 44, 48, 50)

Finished bust 32 (34, 36, 48, 40, 44, 48, 50)”

There’s no ease included in the design; a size 32 will be 32″ at the bust when you finish. If you want more ease than that, you could knit the size 34 and have 2″ of ease. Cool, right?

When ease goes astray

These formulas are all well and good until you discover that your gauge has gone astray. A sweater with an intended 2″ of ease can very easily morph into a sweater with 5″ of ease or 2″ negative ease because of a slight discrepancy in gauge. Let me show you how this works:

216 stitches at the bust

Gauge: 24 stitches over 4″ (6 st per inch)

Result: 36″ bust

If your gauge varies, the gauge changes. Check out these examples (Same number of stitches = 216. The only difference is the gauge):

  • Gauge: 23 stitches over 4″ (5.75 st per inch)
  • Result: 37.5″ bust

  • Gauge: 25 stitches over 4″ (6.25 st per inch)
  • Result: 35.5″ bust

  • Gauge: 26 stitches over 4″ (6.5 st per inch)
  • Result: 33″ bust

  • Gauge: 22 stitches over 4″ (5.5 st per inch)
  • Result: 39″ bust

See what a difference gauge makes? The goal might be 36″ at the bust, but a discrepancy in gauge can mean a very unexpected fit [insert sweater horror stories here – we all have them]. I can’t tell you how often knitters lament, “But, my gauge was pretty close.” Dear ones, as you can see above, pretty close may not be as close as you think. Plus, it’s important to check gauge as you go, because – surprise! – sometimes the gauge in your swatch gives you a false sense of security. It can’t predict that you might relax as you start knitting, or be stressed, or might have a glass of wine (or two) along the way that might change the size of those stitches and send your best efforts right out the window.

Most importantly, remember that ease is a tool – one of many – and you get to use it in ways that serve you best.

Want to try a fun sweater for spring and summer that has a little ease built-in? Check out my Eavesdrop tee.

Happy knitting!


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