Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Christina deserves an answer

Reader Christina is pissed. She writes:

why do designers stop sizing at 40 inch busts, especially since 67% of American women have more than 40" of rack? Secondly, why the HELL did Cheryl Oberle "size" her patterns in "Folk Vests" with bigger needles?

Christina is not alone. Time and time again, I hear people complain about the limited size ranges that commercial patterns come in. More commonly, knitters complain about the sizes not going big enough but I also have a colleague at Rosie's who has trouble because the patterns don't go down small enough for her extremely petite figure.

I wish to take a stand, first of all, on the issue of "sizing" patterns by suggesting that the knitter use a larger needle. It's crap. It's lazy. It's sloppy.

When I work with a yarn, I play around with different needle sizes until I find one that I think creates the best fabric for my project using the yarn. Using a larger or smaller needle than that won't give the same quality of fabric. There can also be other issues of proportion and gauge that make this unworkable. To suggest that a sentence saying "For a larger size, use a larger needle" is tantamount to resizing the pattern is bullshit. I'm right there with you on that one, Christina.

Now onto the meatier question of why commercial patterns don't come in a larger range of sizes. If statistics showed that, say, 60% of all American men wore a size 9 or larger shoe, do you think that shoe manufacturers would make, say, 80% of all men's shoes in size 8 or smaller?

Me neither.

Leaving aside the potential question of sexism, why do pattern manufacturers seem to consistently overlook larger sizes?

My own personal suspicions are crass. First and most significant, I suspect that pattern manufacturers simply don't pay their designers enough for designers to want to write their patterns in a wider range of sizes. It is work to create a broad range of sizes in a pattern; it's not just a matter of math, but also proportion, and fit, and other things. If you're getting paid a nominal amount for a design, or in some cases, nothing, you just don't have much of an incentive to go out of your way to increase the size range of your patterns. Why do more work for the same money?

This is not a slam on designers (although in some cases, laziness may be part of the problem). Designers just don't get paid that much for the amount of work that goes into creating a design. A lot of people design for the love of the craft, and this means that there are lots of people willing to produce designs for free or very nominal amounts. It's hard to lobby for more money when someone else out there is willing to do it for free. Remember, when you design a sweater, you have to knit up a sample garment (sometimes providing the yarn yourself) as well as writing the pattern. For e-zines like Knitty, you also have to provide photographs. You might be getting paid as little as a hundred or a hundred and fifty dollars for an adult sweater, maybe with cables or fair isle or some other labor-intensive design feature; try hiring a test knitter while keeping a significant proportion (any!) of that amount! You may not have that much time to turn around a sweater, and you may face additional challenges adapting your original concept to the finished garment. (What if you swatch a design in a fingering-weight matte wool in a solid color, and the company purchasing the design sends you a bag of worsted-weight variegated mohair with sparkles?)

Another cynical idea that crossed my mind was that maybe pattern manufacturers don't particularly care if larger-sized people make their designs. Let's face it: many of the designs out there are made for models who look like sticks, who are very tall, with no boobs or butt and with an extremely low body fat percentage. That sweater isn't going to translate well on a curvy woman with different body proportions. The pattern manufacturer may figure that women above a certain size just aren't going to make that cropped tube top, so why bother sizing it way up?

Being the gonzo blogger that I am, I decided to go a step further and ask a bunch of knitting designers. I posted a query to a knitting design list I belong to and got these additional reasons:

1. Fit of garments can't always be changed simply by making the size bigger; bigger bodies have curves in places that smaller bodies don't and require more individualized tweaking to look good. Sometimes this would require completely reworking a design and altering it. A knitter will probably get a better result for her individual body by tailoring it to her particular body.

2. It takes more time to knit sample garments in larger sizes than in smaller ones. Deadlines are often extremely tight, giving a designer only a few weeks from swatch to finished garment.

3. The overall style and age group of a design may determine the size range. "Hipper" and "trendier" designs may be geared to smaller sizes on the theory that younger women and teens tend to be slimmer, while more "classic" designs may appear in a larger range of sizes.

4. When publishers try to market designs at the large end of the spectrum, people don't buy them and so they've stopped doing them.

5. Publishers like simple patterns that are easy to edit and follow. The wider the range of sizes, the more complicated (and lengthy) the pattern gets. (For example: For sizes XS and S, do X. For size M and L, do Y. For sizes XL and XXL, do Z.) Many knitters like simple patterns, too, and it costs less to produce shorter patterns (less pattern, less paper) so there are many incentives to keeping patterns short and as uncomplicated as possible.

So there you have it, Christina. Some of those answers make sense to me: for example, the idea that you'll get a better fit by individualizing the pattern to your body needs makes sense and is true, to a more or less degree, for many knitters who don't fit into an "average" set of measurements. Others, like the publishers aren't interested in plus-size knitters, don't sound very valid to me.

Before I turn over the comments to you readers, it bears asking whether it is, in fact, true, that patterns don't come in a wide range of sizes. Let's set aside
Big Girl Knits and Classic Knits for Real Woman by Martin Storey et al., the two recent entries into the world of "plus-sized" knitting. And don't get me started on the Delta Burke collection of patterns.

Rowan patterns have in recent years tended to stop at a 40-inch or maybe a 42-inch bust for women -- pretty small. (However, Rowan announced at TNNA that, beginning this fall, their patterns would include expanded size ranges. We'll see whether this includes all of their patterns and exactly how expanded they will be.)

Dale patterns traditionally go way up in size; the problem is that they tend to be extremely time-consuming stranded patterns with drop shoulders and no shaping. Not very conducive to playing up one's body strengths.

A recent Elsebeth Lavold book shows patterns with finished (I think) bust sizes of up to 54 inches in one particular pattern and 51 inches in another. Pretty good.

A 2004 Knitter's Magazine showed some patterns in expanded size ranges (including a nice Elsebeth Lavold one that went up to the 50s) but others ended at 40-inch busts.

A recent Interweave Knits also showed some patterns -- but certainly not all -- with a finished width in the high forties or fifty-odd inches.

This very unscientific survey suggests to me that the breadth of sizes offered in today's knitting patterns is, well, uneven. Tank tops and other skimpier or close-fitting garments tend to have more limited size ranges than cardigans and more traditionally-styled sweaters (perhaps illustrating points 1 and/or 3 above).

Okay, readers, I'm sure you're foaming at the mouth on this juicy topic. Have at it. And I hope all my American friends had a wonderful Independence Day and that my loyal Canadian friends had a terrific Canada Day.


Anonymous said...

Dancing Fibers patterns are written in 7 sizes, finishing
at approximately 34, 38, 42, 46, 50, 54, and 58 inches.

Sometimes they come out even larger, depending on the
stitch pattern/amount of ease.

Natalie said...

I also have to wonder how many designers use the excuse that it's too hard to design for larger sizes to hide the fact that they don't want to see fat people wearing their designs.

Or, really, because they don't know how--it's more challenging to make a pattern that's going to scale up to 56" from 36" properly than it is to make one that's going to scale from 36" to 44" properly.

If I ever get around to designing the cardigan that lives in my head and if I write a pattern for it, the smallest size it's going to come in is 48". My own personal revenge for all those cute sweaters that don't come in my size.

I hate the whole "use bigger needles to make the garment bigger" thing myself; every time someone talks about fitting a sweater on the ample knitters list, that gets trotted out as a solution. I'm half-heartedly knitting one of the sweaters from Sweaters From Camp and I'm using a needle one size larger for the bottom two repeats than the rest so I can get some slight shaping, but I checked to make sure it wasn't messing up the final fabric before I cast on 416 stitches. On size 4 needles. I will be working on this sweater for the rest of my life.

(Sorry for going on for so long, this is a subject that's near and dear to me.)

Jen said...

I've noticed that patterns in Knitty often have sizes that measure up to 52" in the bust when finished.

That would seem like a good size range. The problem is, my own bust measures 52", and I'm only a size 3X. A sweater with a 52" bust measurement isn't going to allow for any ease at all.

So for all that Knitty has done a pretty good job of offering larger sizes, they don't come large enough for me.

I also get frustrated with picking up books that claim to have sizes for larger women, only to find that they mean up to about 48". That falls even further short of reality for me.

I haven't knit one of their patterns yet, but Vermont Fiber Designs shows promise for me. They offer a lot of classic knitting patterns, and all their patterns come in sizes from XXS to 6XL. I was able to pick up a pattern for a classic t-shirt style sweater at my LYS - it shows lots of promise for easy knitting, good fit, and endless variation depending on what yarns I use.

They don't sell direct to the consumer, but their website ( does list shops that sell their patterns.

So, it's frustrating for us larger gals, but there is hope. But I'm still going to fume when I see a pattern describe their "Large" size as having a 36" bust! ("Large?!? I'll show you Large, you scrawny little toothpicks!")

Anonymous said...

This entire subject is so hard for me to understand (your wonderful posts on ease have helped, but I still struggle). First, I think that finding clothing in larger sizes--be it knitting patterns or stuff off the rack--is hard in this country. Media talks all about our weight issues as a country, yet no one seems to be making clothing for us.

Second, I am short and fat--try finding anything for that situation. I am a fat tiny person. If you ever have the time, please do a post on how to adjust a pattern for a larger bust and short body and arms. When the bust fits, the sweater is a dress with sleeves that can easily be used to make it a straight jacket.

krista said...

I'm honestly not at all surprised by the lack of patterns available for larger sized women. If you take a look at any store that offers plus sizes in addition to regular and petite and tall, you'll notice that the sizes offered cut off at a certain point (often 24) and that the selection is often very limited. I always wonder why this is because if more than half the population is overweight, why isn't more than half the clothing available for larger women? If you're 'average,' you have a huge assortment of clothing to choose from. If you're larger than average, you're limited in your choices, unless you go somewhere like Lane Bryant or the Avenue. And there you're limited by what they deem to be fashionable.

Maybe thinner women buy more clothing, but maybe heavier women would buy more if more were offered. And maybe that would translate to patterns as well. I'd buy more if there were a wider variety.

Anonymous said...

Kudos to Vermont Fiber Designs and Big Girl Knits. Boos to Classic Knits for Real Women, which still fall short of being ample enough for a 3x.

I've often suspected that designers didn't want their clothes seen in public on fat women.

Why do they think we knit? It's to get garments that fit, that we can't buy!

Lloer said...

The thing that seems really daft to me is that yarn companies seem to be ignoring the fact that if they provided more plus size patterns then they'd sell more yarn because, of course, it takes more yarn to knit a plus sized sweater.

I had a brief chat with Debbie Bliss about this issue back in December at the Knitting and Stitchcraft show in London. She said that one of the problems with upsizing a design is that the designs can often lose that which made them special in the first place.

BGK is fantastic, I'm in the middle of knitting my second item from it.

Sherry W said...

I always wonder what a reasonable size range *is*. Sure, it's crazy when I'm knitting the XL and I'm a 38 finished bust. What I mean though, if %1 of the knitting pattern consumer is a size 00, can the designers really be expected to make patterns for them? There has to be a reasonable upper and lower limit, and sadly your going to find a small percentage of people who fall through the cracks.

Don't think medium folks have an easy time either. What if your short waisted, tiny busted, long arms? Everyone has something! Pattern modification is the way to go, and knowing your body shape and what not to knit.

I kind of wish BGK would market as 'real women knit' instead of just 'big'. If you have boobs, belly or a butt, they offer really good info, even if your a size 2.

Anonymous said...

I lose at any size, so I'm desperately trying to make my knitting knowledge substantial enough to fit my body.

I've got a 42" bust, see, but my waist is 32", and most patterns assume a less substantial size differential.

me & off-the-rack-or-page do not get along. :)

Anonymous said...

I have this software called KnitWare Sweater Design. You know the drill- you give it your gauge, choose from several design options, choose your size, and it spits you out a pattern. I don't know if all the other programs do this, but this one also allows you to input your personal measurements, so you don't just get a pattern for a size 52 bust- you get this pattern to fit every bit of you. I haven't really put it to the test because my body follows a standard size pretty closely, but I have high hopes for it (I want to get into custom-sized designs).
Great springboard Carol- and great pre-springboard research- thanks!

Anonymous said...

I'm with Laura- I have the problem of being a smaller woman with a big rack. So a 38" or 40" might fit my chest, but I will swim in the rest of it, because I have a small waist, skinny arms, etc- thank goodness for short rows, but I cannot tell you how many times I have looked at a cute design and groaned because it would look bad on me because of my big chest.

I find that White Lies Designs stuff fits on me, and that Joan's designs tend are made to fit the bodies of lager women. Again, thank goodness for short rows, but so few designers utilize them.

On another note, my mom is a large lady and she never knits any garments for herself because of the lack of patterns her size. I made her one Sally Melville vest that came out well-(some of the stuff in the Knit and Purl books is generously sized) In any case, Mom has simply become a sock afficiando.

Christina said...

Carol, I love ya. What started out as a hysteric rant (me) turned into a great unbiased review of a genre of knitting (you). I really, really want to thank you.

Anonymous said...

great topic - and if I may, I'll throw in another point of controversy: not all designs are going to be attractive in all sizes. Sort of a companion point to Debbie Bliss's comment that the design can be lost in larger sizes.

I think some designs are just going to be awful when done in a significantly different size than originally written - unless signficant changes are made. And for all the time and money constraints already mentioned - such redesign just isn't going to happen. But maybe there's a derivative designing opportunity?

Anonymous said...

I understand that it takes the designer more time to draft the pattern in a lot of sizes, but what really kill me, is that I've actually got some pattern books where some of the patterns are written for one size only. That's just nuts.

Elizabeth said...

It was interesting reading the answers on the knit_design list. I had been thinking that I needed to start making my samples smaller and get some skinny young things to model for me when I got a mention on the Ample Knitters list a little while back. Suddenly, the fact that I am plus size and wearing my garments for the photos was an asset, not a liability! I'm committed now to making my patterns go up to at least the upper 50's range in inches, not just to be nice but because I think it's good marketing. There is a neglected niche there and I plan to cater to it.

That said, while doing the math and writing for my most recent cardigan, I was tempted to skim it back and offer just the middle range. Why? Because of that issue, "Size S and M, do X; Sizes L and XL, ... " It would be so much easier to write a pattern where everyone starts the lace repeat at the same stitch than if they all come in at different points. Unless I do the market research, I can't really quantify what sizes are being made when people buy my patterns. And I can't afford a team of MBAs to let me know. I tend to assume that most people will be making a M, L, or XL. And that assumption could be way off base.

Anonymous said...

the answer for larger ladies seems to be either
1 be your own designer - then you get exactly what you want
2 Find women like elizabeth and befriend them and convince them to make great designs for large sizes (that 'lose their special design feature' if scaled down to a S)
I know how you feel - i am so scrawny that anything that fits around the bust leaves 4 inches of wrist sticking out the sleeves. The fasion and design industry just doesn't cater to figure types that aren't within the centre of the bell curve.

Anonymous said...

Read Elizabeth Zimmermann. Everything is a proportion. You can alter anything you want.

I'm fat and flat. Imagine that!! Have you ever seen a 46A bra? I've worn sports bras and nothing else for years. I've lost weight since then and see that A cups are moving up in band size. With another 20 pounds I'll be able to wear a real bra!

Anonymous said...

I have a 44" bust, which is not so very large. I wear size 16 or 18 clothes. This isn't very large, I think. Yet there are so many patterns that I think could be flattering, that just don't don't go large enough (e.g. that vintage book, forget the exact title). And I am not some matronly older woman, I am in my twenties, please don't ignore me!

I bought "Classic Knits for Real Women" and it looks very promising, although I haven't yet made anything from it. I was especially interested when I learned that it goes down to a 36, so even if I lose some weight I will still be able to use these patterns. (I am at my highest weight ever, and at my lowest adult weight I had a 36 bust.)

Like cynthia (above), I am not only fat but short, which does create additional problems. *sigh* I'm not skilled enough to be able to adjust sleeve length, which is harder than adjusting body length.

Why can't a publisher print two separate versions of a pattern, if it's so confusing and complex to try to make one pattern fit all?

I would knit so much more for myself if these things weren't issues...

Big Alice said...

Seems like adding short row shaping and darts for curves also makes the designs more complex, and distorts complex patterning - making it difficult to infeasible to adapt those patterns from small to large and/or busty sizes. Eunny Jang is working on a fair-isle jacket where she made the fair-isle pattern change so that she could tailor the waist and breast areas.

I've taken the tack to just design my own and understand enough about pattern and shaping to be able to modify other's patterns to fit my body size. I like Maggie Righetti's Sweater Design book, since she goes into detail about different body shapes and shaping for those and patterning that flatters each shape.

Kimberly said...

That's been my beef for years. I have to seriously adjust any pattern to fit my body. I have a 38 bust with a 29 waist! But my mom and sister's are much bigger then most sizes. Example- mom has a very large front but her back is a size small. Major adjustments to make anything fit!
I'm working on designing patterns based on the current fashions which will fit real women AND be knittable by someone with an advanced beginner's knowledge. I'm finding a bit of a challange but so much fun!

Kat said...

I want to start designing, but part of my problem is how to deal with size (or more particularly body type). I am cursed with the "perfect body" (from the lady at the shop where I bought my wedding dress) I have a ten inch difference between chest and waste and waste and hip measurements. The ONLY item of clothing that fit off the rack was my wedding dress which was designed for people who plan to corset themselves on their wedding day. When I do design, it will be primarily for things that will fit and flatter my body type, namely an hourglass / figure eight (partially out of desperation to have something fit!) However, such designs would fall off a toothpick and be too small in the waste for anyone that did not taper at the waste. That said, the design concept itself might be great for other body types without the shaping (or with different shaping.)

How do I know how to shape larger and smaller sizes? Do I assume that all people with chest measurement x have the same proportions, or do I choose a target set proportions for each chest size? What if a design element is used that does not flatter different figures?

Sorry to ask more questions but these are things I have personally been worrying about.

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of the comments above, being on the short and squat side myself.

One suggestion I have is to get the "Sweater Wizard" software. I bought mine in 2001, so there probably have been some changes since then.

You can enter various measurements yourself and it adjusts the pattern accordingly. This would allow someone that doesn't fit into standard patterns and who doesn't like to do the math of adjusting to quickly create a pattern. I was able to put in a chest measurement of 100 inches with no problem. It will also calculate how much yarn you need.

It is kind of expensive, but pays for itself over time if you use it instead of buying pattern books. You could also use it to figure out how to alter published patterns.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I think one of the reasons designers stick within a fairly narrow range of sizes is that most of us respond more favorably to a slimmer model. It's all about advertising. The photo isn't just selling the pattern, it's selling our cultural ideal of youth and beauty. It's like those beer ads that show all the hot, sexy young things - male and female - drinking beer. They're not going to show guys with beer bellies slurping down a brew and belching in front of the TV, even though that's a fair percentage of their market. It's all about image and a pretty girl, with what our culture teaches us is a desirable figure, is going to sell more patterns than an attractive, realistically heavy woman. In other words, maybe it's not just designers who don't want to see heavy women modeling their designs. Maybe those of us who purchase the patterns also have a bias, even as we're annoyed by the narrow range of sizes.

Carol said...

That may be so in terms of the size of the models who wear the garments in photographs, but why would that preclude sizing the patterns more broadly? In other words, are you equating responding negatively to a plus-sized model modeling a sweater with seeing a a pattern written for all sizes (and a slim model wearing the garment in the photo)? If one of the principles in advertising is wanting the purchaser to imagine herself as the model, then I can understand hiring only slim models -- you might think it'll look that way on you. (Well, I wouldn't but you know what I mean.) But why would the mere presence of additional sizing destroy that illusion? Ditto for the designers: you might want a very attractive and slender model to wear your garment (and you can mightily increase the odds of it by making a sample in a size 2, as opposed to a size 22) but would you be opposed to someone who is size XXL from ever having the chance to knit and wear your garment by refusing to size it up?

Anonymous said...

Maybe they're not big-time designers (yet!) but The Garter Belt team is doing a fabulous job providing patterns in a wide range of sizes... hallelujah!

Sarah said...

I have found this topic very thought-provoking. I felt like you had written all that can be said on the subject, and then I went on to the comments and found more from others. I can see how this issue really touches the nerves of many. The frustration makes its way through the screen as I read of those vowing to exclude the smaller folks from their designs as payback for the current sizing situation. I know you wouldn't really do that if you could help it because you don't want to be that way, but I understand the feeling. For many reasons, patterns will not be written to fit and flatter all sizes, shapes, curves, and variations of the human form. I make changes when I can. I use books and patterns for inspiration, and then see if I can make the designs mine. When the idea of shedding excess fat for the sake of my health isn't quite enough to get me up and do the work I ought to, I've often thought of the designs I'd like to knit for myself but couldn't figure out how to adjust for my size. Of course, that's just me. Not everyone whose measurements aren't in line with standard written patterns is overweight. Being without the excess fat is unlikely to make me grow any taller.

Anonymous said...

Re: 4. When publishers try to market designs at the large end of the spectrum, people don't buy them and so they've stopped doing them.

So, people complain that the sizes are too small, and then when they're provided, nobody buys them?

Okay, my brain has just stalled on this one (and I admit that I'm not terribly bright anyway): could somebody please explain what goes on here?

Carol said...

Two possibilities: (1) the publishers are producing ugly designs in plus-sizes (see, e.g., the Delta Burke tunic) and/or (2) the publishers are (gasp) lying about no one buying them. I'll be interested in seeing how well Big Girl Knits and the Martin Storey book sell, although there's enough interest in BGK to get them working on a sequel all ready.

Now, on to the more interesting question, Ted: are you coming with us to Rhinebeck this year? Hmm? I want to Vulcan Mind Meld with you.

Anonymous said...

Interesting to read everyone's comments, especially since I'm on the opposite side of the spectrum from most of you. Out of curiousity, I looked up average bra size, and found that it is now 36C, up from 34B just 10 years ago. Interesting, huh? It's smaller than I would've guessed (but then, I'm 32AA so I'm one of those girls who brings the average way down!). Still, 2 inches and 1 cup size in just 10 years is a considerable increase. I'm sure most of the folks who've commented here are naturally well-endowed but it got me thinking... I wonder how much of the rise is due to plastic surgery. Large breasts are so popular nowdays. (You girls should count yourself lucky! If it weren't for my long hair, I'm sure a lot of people would think I'm a boy.) As for me, I can't wear many of the pretty patterns I see simply because they would look silly on such a flat-chested person. I think some styles are just suited to certain body types. I actually find myself looking at kid-sized patterns a lot because I know they'll fit me (a 35-year-old) better. (And you girls thought you were desperate!)

Hannah said...

Very interesting post. I'd love to find more designs really made for my body--but now realize that most are going to have to come from my own head. If the patterns were out there, I'm not sure I would push myself to try to design!

tekopp said...

Me personally, am getting sick and tired from the "designs don't go far enough up for me" rant.

Designs never, or in 99% don't fit me, they are too big, the smallest sizing are often two sizes to small.
Everything I knit therefore is adjusted to me, by me.

This goes both ways, can't people remember that?

Carol said...

We-e-e-ll, I agree that custom-fitting to your own body is key. But I also think it's absurd that, for example, the book "Vintage Knits" came in exactly three sizes: 32/24, 36 and 38. There has to be a middle ground somewhere. And if the majority of women fall outside the small range of sizes offered, then it's not a matter of a minority whineing (or whinging); it's the publishers of patterns disregarding the majority of their target purchasers.

Anonymous said...

I met the designer of White Lies Designs and she is a plump, curvy woman, about 5'2" and busty. She said she primarily designs what she would want to wear, because she couldn't find patterns that fit her well.
I am taller, but built very much like her, so I was sold. I have bought and made five of her ladies styles (and have the patterns for several more) and I have not been disappointed. Beautiful stuff from a designer who really knows what she's doing in regard to fitting a womanly shape.

Marin (AntiM) said...

I know I'm very late to the game, but I just started reading your blog and... well, my particular corner of OCD says I have to read the whole thing from beginning to end.

One thing I've found is, despite my roughtly 42" bust measurement, I rarely want to wear anything that large. Even when I look at the size charts at Nordstrom, I look best in (stretchy) things that are built for about a 36" bust. I'm a 36D and I am NOT slender otherwise, but my waist is smaller than my boobs (thank goodness for small blessings). Negative ease is my best friend.

Unfortunately, knitting sweaters is dicey business since I don't know how much negative ease a particular sweater will carry and still look right.

It was either Annie Modesitt's "Romantic Knits" or the latest Interweave Knits that had sweater patterns that actually told how much negative ease you should be seeking.

I know this kills the "designers don't have time/patterns should be short and sweet" portion of your presentation, but I was thrilled. Not having to guess... so nice.