Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Take It Ease-Y

I recently helped a customer who did not understand the concept of ease. "I used to knit a lot," she confided, "but I stopped because I didn't like the way my sweaters fit." I tried, readers, oh how hard I tried, to explain the concept of ease to her, but she persisted in her lack of understanding. I just couldn't convince her that a sweater which measured 38 inches around would not create a hugely oversized and boxy garment for a woman with a 36-inch chest. "But my bust size is 36," she insisted. "The pattern is 38. That's going to be huge on me. I just lost a lot of weight and I want something that isn't oversized." I explained ease and I explained it again, and I urged her to go home and measure some of her own sweaters, the ones that fit her well, to prove my point. She refused. "That's why none of your sweaters fit you right," I thought. "You don't understand ease."

So that I can spare you the shame and embarassment of her state of dis-ease, I will now tell you what I told her. However, I hope that you, unlike this poor knitter who clung to her lack of understanding like I clung to the four blue-toned miniskeins of Koigu I snatched out of the bottom of a stall at the last Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival, will heed my words.

There are two different measurements that are relevant when you are thinking about making a sweater. I will call them "body measurement" and "finished garment measurement." Keep these two separate in your mind at all times and you will always be the master of your fit.

Body measurement is the actual size of the physical body of the person who is to wear the garment. When talking about sweaters, body measurement tends be bust or chest size, and we're talking about the number you get when you wind the tape measure around the wearer's chest, right under the armpits. Say I am going to make Polly Purl a sweater and I measure her chest size at the widest part of her bust. The number I get is 36 inches. Patterns often indicate the body measurement with language like "To fit bust: 34 (36, 38, 40) inches."

Finished measurement is, as the name suggests, the measurement of the finished garment. The pattern may say "Finished size" or "Finished circumference" or you may just have to look at the schematic (remember those?) and see how wide the sweater is (remember that if the schematic shows only the front width, multiply by two to get the total circumference).

Warning: finished measurement is rarely the same as actual measurement. Did you hear me? Finished measurement is RARELY the same as body measurement. If Polly Purl is having me knit her a sweater that will fit her well, the size of the sweater, measured across the chest, will usually be LARGER than the body measurement size.

Why is this? A little thing called "ease." Ease is, as the name suggests, the amount of extra fabric that is built into a garment in order to give you freedom and comfort of movement (or "ease of movement" -- get it?). You know your chest size; now go and measure three or four of your favorite sweaters or shirts across the chest/bust. I guarantee that unless you are a ballet dancer who spends her entire life in leotards, or a Victoria's Secret model wearing lingerie two sizes too small, you are bound to find that most of these garments have circumferences that are at least a little larger than your body's chest or bust size. Go on; I'll wait.

[Hmm-hmm-hmm, la-di-da, hmm-hmm-hmm.]


Okay, now you believe me about ease. How much ease is typical? you ask. How do I know how much ease to build into a garment?

C'mon, you know my favorite answer: It depends. The most important thing it depends on is what kind of fit you want. For most people, ease of around four inches is considered classic, traditional fit, neither hugely baggy nor tight-fitting. Two inches is close-fitting. Zero ease (making the garment the same size as the body measurement) is possible for a body-hugging garment, and is seen more often now than it was in the past, since the current trend is to cut sweaters more snugly. Negative ease (the garment is smaller than the body measurement) is rare, but theoretically possible (I'm thinking tube top?). Where your ease is small or nonexistent, you have to make sure that the fabric is suitable (something with elastic or Lycra that will have some bounce would be good, and the yarn shouldn't be too bulky) and that the garment won't be so close-fitting that it chafes. For oversized, boxy fits, six or more inches is necessary, maybe even as much as ten or fifteen for something hugely baggy.

The amount of ease also depends on your size. The smaller the person, the less ease is required. A petite woman might need only two inches of ease for a traditional fit, while a taller or more curvy woman might want more, maybe five or six inches. They would end up with the same fit; but the amount of ease necessary to achieve that fit might differ.

And the weight of the fabric also plays a role. The thinner and lighter the fabric, the less ease you can get away with; conversely, thick and bulky yarns will require more extra room because the inside of the garment is noticeably smaller than the outside due to the thickness of the yarn. You have to build in extra space for the thicker yarns.

Ease is also used in other kinds of garments, like hats. Most of the time, you measure the circumference of your head, and you subtract an inch or two to get the finished size of your hat. Why? Because if you build in extra inches, the hat will be too loose and slide down your head, covering your eyes and making you look like that Fat Albert character. You want your hat to be snug so it stays put on top of your head. Subtracting an inch or two from your actual head size makes sure you get a snug and proper fit. Ditto for socks; make 'em the same size or little smaller than your foot for a snug fit. Otherwise, they may droop.

When you're looking at patterns, make sure you understand which measurement the pattern is talking about. A dear friend of mine made her first sweater from a book that didn't clearly delineate between body size and actual finished garment size. Laura did a phenomenal job on her sweater, in a gorgeous shade of Manos, only to find it was way too snug. She belatedly discovered that the measurements given were finished garment size rather than body measurement sizes. A 34-inch finished garment was just too snug for her 34-inch bust. A cruel lesson to learn indeed. (I am pleased to report, however, that it hasn't put her off knitting. She's come over to the dark side in a big way. Heh.)

Oh, Go-Knit-In-Your-Hat Lady, you sigh, all this talk of "it depends" gives me the vapors! Tell me exactly how to know how much ease I need in my sweaters! Okay, my personal experience is that the most reliable way to figure this out is to ask the intended wearer of what you're making to give you a sweater that fits the way they want the sweater you're making to fit. Then measure the sweater. This works particularly well with children, who can't always articulate what feels comfortable to them, but is an easy way to get right to the heart of the matter, finding a fit that looks and feels the way you want it to.

Two thumbs up for Curious George

Curious George did not go to a brothel, or a speakeasy, or even an Irish wake, but the movie was very charming. Although the animation was not done in the identical style of the book illustrations, which put me off when I first saw the ads, it won me over, as the movie managed to capture the spirit of the book perfectly. I appreciated that the movie did not try to create sly double-entendres to try to keep the adults in the audience amused. The "voice talent" was excellent and the movie integrated many scenes from the original books seamlessly. I think my favorite part was the explanation of the Man in the Yellow Hat's yellow attire: two disreputable clerks in a Banana Republic-like store (the 80s version, when they still sold safari gear) get a shipment in of yellow jungle duds and sucker the Man into buying them, telling him "Yellow is the new khaki!" It becomes a running joke with The Man as he undergoes his various adventures.

And Shameless Commerce

I was very excited yesterday when two customers walked out of Rosie's happily clutching two balls of my handpainted laceweight yarn. To make it even more serendipitous, the first woman to buy the first ball was named "Shirley" -- which is my dear mother's name. And so Carol's Kute N Kozy Kountry Kottage Full O' Yarny Goodness -- wait, that's not it -- I mean, Black Bunny Fibers is officially up and running. Feeding and clothing three young 'uns isn't cheap, and none of us want me to go back to practicing law, do we? (Let me appeal (no pun intended) to your self-interest: I will be so stressed out and time-crunched if I ever have to practice law again, that my posts here will become very rare...) Visit my Etsy shop ( and tell me what you think.


Rebekkah said...

I really wish knitting magazines would list the measurments of the models in addition to the measurements of the sweaters they're modeling. Okay, it sounds a bit too personal. But heck, they're already putting their bodies out there for us to look at, and that bit of information would really help knitters make more informed choices about what size sweater to knit. And it would sure be a good example knitters like your customer, who for some reason refuse to otherwise believe that it's okay for your sweater to be bigger than your bust.

Of course, as long as magazines still use all sorts of tools and tricks to make sweaters appear more shapely or flattering than they really are, I doubt they'll be as kind to us as to share information about ease of the sweaters on the models. But a woman can hope, right?

Liz K. said...

Carol, Again, an extremely informative post. This is one of the clearest explanations of ease that I have read -- and all of the "it depends" are actually quite helpful. Great post.

Teresa said...

Great post, as I am sitting here wondering what I want to do with the sweater I am seaming. I love how the body fits but after getting one sleeve seemed in I am not liking them. I think too much ease. I love the colours of your yarns, I'll have to wait before I can purchase anything though.

knottygnome said...

i would have to respectfully disagree with a few disclaimers. i am very petite (31" actual bust) and i'm relatively young. for my age group, i find that most commercial sweaters are meant to fit with negative ease.

if i were trying to knit a sweater for a person modeled on a modern style, i would certainly not put 4" of ease in it. i would be swimming in a sweater like that. i almost always make my sweaters with at least two inches of negative ease. i've measured several of my commercial sweaters and they back me up.

i am only saying this because i would like to help people like me avoid the mistake of using the "standard" 4 inches of ease and wonder why they come out looking like a marshmallow.

everyone has their own preference of course, and i mean no disrespect.

Carol said...

No offense taken, bradyphrenia. I thought that my way of phrasing it -- in terms of "traditional" and "classic" fit-- was pretty clear in referring to, well, traditional styles for garments, rather than more trendy (for lack of a better word) or contemporary styles. Certainly many of today's styles are more body-hugging, and this is why it's so critical to measure a sweater that has the kind of fit you want to replicate, rather than assuming that any specific rule of thumb applies to you. You also illustrate my point about how a petite woman is going to want less ease. Again, measuring a sweater with the desired fit is key.

Carol said...

RK, I think you hit it right on the head. If the magazines actually confided that they were, say, showing a size 4 sweater on a model who weight 98 lbs, their readers' heads would explode. It would underscore the reality that most models have body types and measurements that just don't correspond to those of most people in real life. Instead, I wonder if the publishers would rather suck you into believe that you might look like that if you made the sweater, when it would be very difficult for most human beings to look like that.

Anonymous said...

Hi Carol,

This is my first comment, but your post on ease was very timely for me, as I'm about to make Grumperina's Picovoli (which has a -2 ease).

Like bradyphrenia, I'm a young woman with modern sweaters that all have negative ease. Unlike her, I am not petite (36" bust). I'm confused though because I recently followed the Picovoli advice, just like what you say here, to measure a sweater I own that fits me well to get an idea of ease. All of my sweaters measured about 27-28" around the bust! At first I thought I had mis-measured, but no, that was correct. The only thing I can think of it that I'm very curvy (36" bust, 29" under bust), so I'm naturally choosing knits that can stretch to accomodate the boobage. I have tried to wear garments sized with the normal ease amount, and I end up looking like a sack of potatoes. So I would say that the ease rule of thumb also depends on body type, not just the style of the sweater (traditional vs. contemporary).

Anonymous said...

Excellent tutorial - thanks! I "kind-of" understood ease, but have been kvetching lately when trying to pick an appropriate size to knit on a garment. This helps me understand it much better!

Carol said...

Keep the comments coming, everyone. I am, ahem, a little older than some of you, and my body reflects the ravages of childbirth. I tend not to wear really tight-fitting sweaters, but many of you do, so getting your input will help my readers figure out what kind of fit they are looking for, and plan the ease accordingly.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for including the example of my "phenomemal" albeit oversnug first sweater in your discussion. Your explanation at the time helped ease (haha) the frustration and has been well-used in subsequent and, thankfully, better-fitting efforts.

Anonymous said...

Great post! Just been browsing your shop- looks great, and congrats on starting it! Now, off to snag the peachy stuff...

Franklin said...

1. The items in the shop look luscious and I hope the customers flood you with business.

2. My favorite part of the customer/ease tale is the woman refusing to measure her own well-fitting sweaters to see what she ought to aim for. I love it when people complain about something, are offered a clear way out of the problem, and ignore it. As my mother always said to us as children, "Okay, then suffer. And shut the hell up."

3. A friend who knows somebody in Hollywood said the next issue of Knitter's will include instructions for making your own Man in the Yellow Hat ensemble. Lily's working on the finishing touches as I write this.

Anonymous said...

I'm about your age (early 40s) and have had a child (not as ravaging as twins but...). I have a 42" bust. And I have knit sweaters with negative ease that I really like the look of.

One point you missed in your discussion was the importance of the construction of the sweater. In particular, the style of sleeve. If you want a tight fitting sweater (little or negative ease), you'd better be putting set-in sleeves on that baby. And anything with drop shoulders needs ease or they will bunch horribly. More detailed explanation of this can be found in some excellent articles by Jenna Wilson in the archives (Ravellings on the Knitted Sleeve).

for those with 'boobage', add some short rows to prevent some puckering in the bust/underarm area. Again there is a good article in an old issue of Knitty. Short rows add length not width, so you should probably still go for the size most suited to your bust size UNLESS it is out of proportion to the rest of you. Most patterns assume that your bust and hips are the same measurement. If this is not the case, make some adjustments (and the princess line is a good place to add some extra increases to make the bust wider).

Overall, a great entry Carol. And congrats on selling your own hand-dyed yarn.

Carol said...

Thanks, JoVE! You know, I was actually thinking of doing a whole blog entry on different styles of sweaters/sleeves and fit. Maybe I will.

I also am anticipating that the book Big Girl Knits will include info on these topics, and some really concrete info on how to tweak patterns for various body types. I haven't seen any of the book other than my measly little pattern but I'm hoping.

And Franklin, you made that last one up, didn't you? Didn't you? Please tell me you did.

Jersey Shore Deb said...

Carol, this is very helpful and timely for me. I am knitting a shell out of ribbon, and have ripped about 3 times because I was unsure what the exact measurements should be. I have now figured out that I can be secure knowing the garment should come out about 2-3" more than my chest circumference for an appropriate fit.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article Carol, as others have said; I regularly measure commercial sweaters that fit my victims (excuse me, donees) so that I know that the sweater I am knitting will fit the person I'm giving it to. There's nothing worse than giving someone something you worked hard on, them trying it on and having it either WAY too small, or incredibly huge. Love the online store, but where's the purple roving you had in the picture before???

Sherry W said...

You know, I followed this exact advice a few months ago and I still ended up with a sweater that was a lot less fitted then I wanted. Instead of a blouse it was a sweatshirt.

I checked the gauge before, during and after blocking (it was a weird gauge so I was being compulsive). It measured half an inch *smaller* at the bust then a (similar weight) sweater. For some reason, it's huge. I don't know why. I'm going to seam it to take it in.

So in the meantime I finishedn other garments and used this advice- check the top of shoulder measurement as well. It works better for me then just the bust size so far- especially when trying to decide between two sizes.

Marg B said...

Deborah C - you weren't fast enough! Click on the '2 items sold' hyperlink...

Carol - where were you when I knitted the "Big enough to camp under" jumper?

Brilliant post!

Carol said...

I'm working on some more purples --I have some BF Leicester that's drying, although I'm a little worried maybe it felted a tiny bit. But if more plum is what you want, then plum you shall have. Thanks! And especially thanks to Leila and Mindy, my first customers on Etsy. You guys are swell.

Mighty Momogus said...

Great explanation of ease - the other problem I have explaining to customers is that the sizes referred to in patterns are somewhat arbitrary. "But I'm always a Medium!" a customer will cry when the 38" sweater she wants to knit is called a Large in a particular pattern. A Medium from one pattern company can be 34", and 40" from another pattern company. I try to emphasize the Finished Measurement size, but a lot of customers get hung up on the Size label. And who can blame them, when there's no consistency out there?

doloreshaze said...

As a never-pregnant, not-20, very fitted sweater wearer, I have to say that I'm still careful about negative ease in handknits, simply because I so seldom use the yarn weights (sport/fingering) that make really fitted handknit sweaters work. I'm with Jove that a fitted sweater better have a set-in sleeve, but I'm also of the school that a fitted sweater made in anything above sport or VERY light worsted with make the wearer look like John Goodman. No disrespect to The Goodster, of course.

Anonymous said...

I have no doubt the the Dragon man has Man in the Yellow Hat fantasies involving monkeys, bananas and nets.

Anonymous said...

I UNDERSTAND! Glory be, I understand ease!

Thank you so much for writing this up - your customer may not have gotten it, but I finally did. And I wondered why my first sweater didn't fit right, either! Now I realize, it's because I, too, confused "body sized" with "finished garment size."

Thank you so much!!!

Anonymous said...

I want to buy your yarn and rovings, but I can't convince my other half to move from Australia to the US just so I can buy them.

Is there another solution? Pretty please?

Carol said...

Catherine, I'd be delighted to post anything you want to you. I'll check out the postage rates. If you are interested in anything, email privately and I'll do a postage check and we can figure it out. I'm going to put up a few more things over the next few days.
I do appreciate it.

tenacious knitter said...

I have to go with Melissa on this one - I don't want a tight fit, I just don't want to look like a sack of potatoes! And my curviness is to blame (all natural, sigh). My hips are actually smaller than my bust measurement. I think that your advice on measuring the sweaters in the closet is right on - but then believe the measurements you take! I did this but didn't believe my own ruler!

Also I appreciate the comment that short rows give length not width - sigh, and I had hoped that would solve my problem :)

aija said...

Thanks so much for this... I've been knitting my 1st adult sweater for myself and have been wrestling with the concept of ease, particularly ease in a bulky yarn.

rene said...

Wow, what a great post! I screwed up a sweater for my husband by knitting it closer to his body measurement. Of course, it's too tight for his taste (although I like how it looks on him, heh). I learned my lesson! I measured one of his sweaters rather than himself this time and it's much better. (And much bigger!) Wish I'd read this before making the first one. And the customer refusing to believe you cracks me up. Why ask a question and then refuse to listen to the answer?

Angel Baby said...

Thank you for this!!

I'm always stumped by the negative ease description in Interweave Knits, and then wondering why their sweaters always look too tight on them to begin with. Your post helped me a LOT. I really appreciate it!