By Dorian Owen
A couple years ago I logged all of my yarn into Ravelry as an easy way to keep track of it all. It’s handy to determine if you have the yarn for the project you want to make, or if you get to go shopping (!).
Then I hit the dreaded “Export to Excel” button. I totaled up the yards and just about passed out. How is it possible I have THAT much yarn? To be fair, I prefer to work in lighter weight yarns that have a lot of yardage on the skein – they don’t take up a lot of space, but can take a lot of time to work into a project.
It was time to get serious about working with the beautiful yarn I had been collecting all these years. I needed a plan.
And my plan was to make 12 sweaters in a year. The only rule was the yarn HAD to come from the stash, unless I needed a specific yarn to complete the project. I’ve made sweaters before, but I had no idea what I would learn on this mission:
Take Notes. Get a journal or use Ravelry, or your smart-device to stay organized. A sweater isn’t stitched in a day. I wanted to track the progress I was making on a daily and monthly basis. I logged each sweater in my journal including the start and end dates, yardage I started with and how much I used when I was finished. A journal is also a great way to write down other important details such as the size you’re making, the hook (or needle) size you’re using and any alterations you make to the pattern as you go along.
Measurements. Most women know their bust size. But do you really know your bust size? Or your sleeve length? Or your cross back? If you’re like me, I had no idea since I hadn’t been properly fitted for anything in a number of years (and a number of pounds). Ask a good friend to measure you using a long measuring tape. The standards listed at https://www.craftyarncouncil.com/sizing.html is a great resource for what to measure and how.
Then write it all down, in your journal.
It’s a good idea to measure yourself before you start any garment. Our bodies change over time and for any number of reasons (diet, stress, kids, exercise, etc.) and may impact the size garment you will need to make.
Choose your Pattern. I put 12 sweaters I wanted to make into my Ravelry queue and assigned stash yarn to each. This helped in 2 ways – I always knew what my next project was going to be and I knew that I had the yarn to make it. The 12 sweaters in my queue did not end up to be the 12 sweaters that I finished. I allowed myself to switch the order, or to put in a new one that caught my eye.
More importantly, however, is you should pick a pattern you not only want to make, but that won’t bore you to tears halfway through. Make it interesting, but not challenging. A sweater is A LOT of fabric to stitch.
Ease and Sizing. The concept of ease seems to be where people go off the rails. What is ease? How do I find it? Is it included?Ease is how the finished garment will fit on you. Give some thought to jeans. Skinny jeans are meant to be worn with negative or no ease – they fit you tightly throughout. Loose fit jeans are meant to be worn baggy with a lot of positive ease. Sweaters and other garments are the same way. Do you like your sweaters smaller and tight fitting or oversized and loose? If it’s the former, you want no or negative ease. If it’s the latter, you want positive ease.
Patterns generally tell you what sizes are available based on bust measurement (the fullest part of the chest, NOT your band size) and any details regarding ease. Two examples:
- Finished size: 34 (39½, 45½, 51½) bust circumference (buttoned). Garment is meant to fit with up to 6” of ease
- Finished size: 34 (42½, 47, 51)” bust circumference to fit 28 (34, 38, 42)” bust.Garment is meant to be oversized with 6-9” ease
In the first example, the pattern tells you that the garment is meant to be bigger, or have 6” of positive ease. If you aren’t keen on that much positive ease, then you can decide to make a smaller size so it’s a better fit for you.
In the second example, the sizes are given twice; once with the finished dimensions, and a second time with the wearer’s actual bust measurement. Again, the garment is meant to have a lot of positive ease, but if you’re at 34 bust and don’t want 8½ inches of ease, you could make the smallest size and the garment would have no ease.
Sometimes the pattern will include a modeled picture and include the sizing and ease information: “Garment shown measures 34” modeled with 2” negative ease.” So, if you LOVE the way it looks on the model, you may want to consider a different size to get the same effect.
When choosing your pattern, see if there is a schematic that shows the end measurements of the bust, waist, arms and torso length. Using your measurements from #2 above, determine which size of the garment you should make to fit you. Depending on construction, you may be able to adjust different aspects of the sweater, such as sleeve length, to be the best fit for you. This is one of the benefits of making your own clothes – it will actually fit you when you’re done.
Yarn. Different fibers have different characteristics and will have an impact on the final product. If you choose cotton for a sweater, it may drape and fit differently than if you chose wool. A single ply yarn will pill faster than a tightly spun yarn, which may have an impact on areas that rub such as the underarms.
Ultimately, you want to enjoy making the piece and feel good wearing the finished garment. So, choose a yarn (from your stash or the store) that will accomplish both of these goals. No point in working so long using a yarn you love, but won’t wear well!
Gauge Swatch. I never used to do a gauge swatch. How am I supposed to match my tension with the designers? But after this experience, I will always do a swatch on fitted garments. The gauge swatch is great for a few reasons:
- You know if your finished piece will be the right size. If you swatch and have too many or too few stitches or rows, your finished piece will be too small or too big. You may need to go up or down a hook (or needle) size and gauge swatch again. If my gauge was WAY off, I would make a different size altogether to avoid the insanity of too many gauge swatches.
- You know how the yarn feels. If you’re going to work with 1000 yards of yarn, it’s good to know if it’ll drive you crazy, hurt your hands or be the best thing you’ve ever touched.
- You will know how the yarn blocks. Every yarn blocks out differently and some will block more than others and sometimes in different directions! Once you’ve finished the swatch, measure it and then block it like you would the finished garment. Take a second set of measurements to see how it will block out with the final piece.
- You may have practiced the stitch pattern. If your pattern has a special lace section or other technique and the gauge swatch is worked in this technique, you’ve just tried it out! Now you know how it’s worked and if you can handle working an entire sweater in that technique.
Stay Focused! I used to have a lot of projects going at any one time. Flitting from one to the other and never really finishing anything. This year, I had laser focus. I was going to start and finish TWELVE sweaters, so I couldn’t start a bunch of projects and not get anything done.
This is especially true of a sweater. It can take weeks or months to stitch that much yarn. It’s easy to put it down and forget where you left off. I recommend working on the sweater until it’s done. I also recommend making copious notes in a journal (or on Ravelry) and using sticky notes (on a paper pattern) or highlighters (on electronic devices) to track your progress.
Another reason to stay focused is your tension. Tension can change over time and for any number of reasons. A few years ago, I started a bottom–up sweater the month before I got married and moved to a different city. The bottom half of the sweater is MUCH tighter than the top half!
But have Another, SMALLER Project. After a certain point, it’s hard to move a sweater around. It’s a lot of yarn, and it can be bulky and inconvenient. So have a smaller, more portable project for SnB nights or waiting at the doctor’s office. This also helps to break up some of the monotony of working on the same pattern.
Rip It Out? Or Let It Go? Inevitably, you’ll make a mistake. But you won’t realize it until several rows later. So you ask yourself, do I go back and fix it? Or just leave it and hope no one notices?
My rule of thumb was – if it’s going to impact the fit or drape, go back and fix it. If it’s cosmetic and isn’t terribly obvious, let it go and call it a design element. You may have a different standard, but for me it was more important to fix mistakes that would ultimately affect how the sweater wears on me. If the mistake was going to bother me because I would see it every time I wore the sweater, than I might go back and fix it, if it wasn’t that many stitches…
Blocking. Finally, you’re done stitching and it’s time to block. I like to wet block everything in lukewarm water with wool wash in an empty storage tub. I let it soak for ~30 minutes or so, squeeze out most of the water and roll it in a towel to get out any excess water. I then lay it out on toweled blocking mats on my guest room mattress and start measuring. Using the pattern or schematic, I stretch out the fabric to the measurements for the size I’m making. I block the yarn aggressively for lacier patterns or less aggressively for solid fabrics.
I found that some garments took days to dry. So I took that opportunity to work on smaller projects. One tip I learned from a friend – once the piece is almost dry, put it in the dryer for a few minutes on low heat. This helps bring the stitches together and dry up any lingering moisture.
Seaming and Weaving In Ends. Not everyone enjoys this part, so here’s what I recommend:
- Tell your loved ones, roommates and pets that you’re going to be busy for a couple hours
- Clear off your dining room table and set up shop with extra yarn, scissors, darning needles, pattern, garment pieces, etc.
- Turn on your favorite music, radio station, podcast or audio book
- Have your favorite beverage handy
- Get started!
You’ve already spent weeks stitching the garment; spend a few hours bringing it all together. Of course you can always weave in ends as you go, but I’ve found I prefer to weave in AFTER I’ve blocked since those pesky ends can pop out during blocking. Then I have to go back anyway…
ENJOY! Wear it with pride! Tell anyone who will listen that yes, you made it yourself and bask in the oooh’s and aaah’s you get from your neighbors, friends, co-workers and random people at the grocery store.