7 steps to make sure your hand knit sweater fits

Knitting a sweater is a big old investment of time, as well as money. Even for an experienced knitter, you’re looking at many, many hours of knitting time to produce a garment that’s big enough to fit an adult human. Or even an human child. Knitting is very much a slow game.

So if you’re going to be putting all the time and effort into knitting a sweater, you want to make sure it’s going to fit, right? But how exactly do you do that?

The short answer is that there are two basic things you need to do; you’ve got to make sure that your knitting is coming out the same size as the pattern, and you’ve got to make sure that size is the one you want.

Sounds both simple and a bit baffling, doesn’t it? You’ve just got to make sure it’s the right size. That’s some patronising as heck advice.

Which is why I’ve broken it all down into 7 steps you can follow to make sure that you’re absolutely nailing the fit, and knitting yourself a sweater that you’re going to wear and treasure for years.

Jacki sits at a table wearing a pink hand knit sweater

Step 1: Swatch. Every single time.

Swatching is the absolute key to making sure that your knitting is coming out as you want it to, and yet it’s one of the most commonly skipped steps. 

Don’t skip it. Really, really don’t.

Swatching is your way of checking that your gauge – or put simply, the size of your stitches –  is the same as the one in your pattern. 

If your stitches are the right size, then logic follows that your finished garment will be the right size. If they’re too big, the sweater will be too big, and if they’re too small…yep, you got it. The sweater will be too small.

Use the exact needle and yarn combination you’re planning to use for your sweater. It may seem overkill, but loads of knitters find their tension varies between metal and wooden needles, so it’s worth doing this right.

I’ve written a whole separate post all about gauge and how important it is, which I seriously recommend reading before you get started on a sweater.

Step 2: Block the swatch the same way you’ll block the finished garment

If swatching had a friend over in neglect corner, blocking would be it. But it’s so very important; different fibres and yarns can behave totally differently when blocked, which can make a bit difference to your finished project.

What is blocking? Simply put, it’s getting your knitting wet and laying it flat to dry. That simple act can even out stitches, add length or width, or cause fabric to fluff right up.

Take a machine washable wool as an example; the superwash treatment they’re given can make them grow up 10-20% when you get them wet. Which means your sweater can grow by 10-20%.

So that doesn’t take you by surprise the first time you wash your sweater, you want to be taking it into account back in the swatching. 

So block your swatch, and give it a little bit of a stretch as you lay it out to dry to simulate the effect that the weight of the garment can have (even though you’re drying things lying flat, transferring the wet garment from your sink/bowl can cause the fibres to stretch out a bit).

Step 3: Compare your upper chest measurement to the pattern sizes

Loads of knitting patterns will tell you to pick a size based on your full chest, but I seriously advise against doing this.

Why? Full chest really doesn’t tell you that much about a person’s body. For instance, my father and I have about the same full chest measurement. He’s a 6’2” slender man, and I am a 5’4” busty woman.

So instead, take a look at your upper chest measurement. This is taken high up, directly under the armpits.

My bust adjusted knitting patterns all have their size charts based off upper chest measurement, so it’s simple to pick out the one that’s going to fit your best. But that’s not the case with all knitting patterns, so picking based off upper chest can involve a bit of sneaky maths.

Most women’s size charts allow for a difference of 2-3in between upper chest and full chest, so if your pattern doesn’t tell you the upper chest for each size then have a look at the full chest measurement and subtract 2in from it.

(If you want to know how to take your upper chest measurement, I handily demonstrate in this Instagram reel)

If you knit the size that matches your upper chest then you’re far more likely to get a better fit. Why? The upper chest measurement is a way more accurate reflection of your overall frame.

Side note: if you’re busty and worried that knitting based on upper chest won’t leave enough room for the girls, then take a look at my Knits That Fit Your Tits online workshop which is all about how to make adjustments that work with big boobs.

Step 4: Check out all the garment measurements

A decent quality knitting pattern should have the finished garment measurements listed – hopefully on the pattern sales page, so you can check them out before you commit your money. If that info isn’t available, then consider spending your money elsewhere.

Checking out these measurements before you get started can help you figure out if a pattern is going to work for you. At the least, I’d compare sleeve width, full chest, and garment length to your body measurements. As well as helping you understand the fit, this can also give you an early signal if you’re going to need to do something like get more yarn to lengthen the sweater. 

Step 5: Get clear on the amount of wearing ease (and what ease is)

Christmas sweater on a hanger

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Now you know what your measurements are, and what the measurements of the garment are, it’s time to compare the two.

The difference between your body measurements and the garment? That’s the wearing ease.

Garments can have either negative ease – where the item is smaller than your body measurement, and stretches for a close fit (used, for example, in hats, socks, bralettes, and tight fitting tops) – or positive ease – where the garment is bigger than your body.

Your pattern should give you a guide for the amount of ease it’s meant to have. Depending on how it’s written, you might need to take this away from the finished garment measurements to get the body measurements each size is meant to fit.

For example, say that your sweater has a finished chest circumference of 46in, and is designed to fit with around 4in of positive ease. Take that ease off the garment, and you get a body measurement of 42in at full chest.

But, as we’ve already discussed, you then want to take another 2-3in off to get the upper chest body measurement. In this example, that 46in finished sweater will fit best on a a person with an upper chest of 39-40in.

Which is me. Hence the example maths.

Added bonus! What different amounts of wearing ease mean in terms of fit

This is a very rough guide, but just as a reference point:

  • Any negative ease is going to make a very close-fitting, skin-tight garment
  • 0-2in / 0-5cm of positive ease gives you a close fit
  • 2-4in / 5-10cm of positive ease is a fairly classic fit – neither tight nor loose.
  • 4-8in / 10-20cm of positive ease is a comfy, slightly baggy fit
  • 8+in /20+cm of positive ease has you in oversized territory.

Step 6: Measure an item in your wardrobe you like the fit of

This is one of those classic “oh my GOD why hadn’t I already thought of that?!” moments.

If you’re still stuck on what size to pick after all of that, then your safest bet is to measure a sweater you like the fit of and go for the size that’s closest to that.

And if there isn’t a size that measures up anywhere near your chosen fit? Might be time to pick a different pattern.

Step 6a – Cast on!

At this point, you should have more than enough info to pick a size – so cast on with the needles that your swatches told you were the ones you needed.

Follow your pattern, and you can chill out about fit until the final step..

Step 7: Block your finished sweater

Yep, we’ve got a nice bit of circularity going on here. Remember how I said you had to block your swatch because you’re going to block your sweater?

This is where you do that.

If you’re after a proper masterclass in how to block a project, then No Frills Knitting has got a blog post covering everything you’ll ever need to know, and probably a few bits more.

But as a basic rule, if you’re really worried about fit, you can block your garment to measurements – which simply means you need to get your measuring tape out, and make sure that when you’re laying your garment out you’re stretching out/patting in excess to make sure that it measures what it’s meant to.

And the final step…wear your beautifully fitting sweater

And, most importantly, feel really smug when people compliment your beautiful sweater and you get to tell them “Oh, this? I knitted it.”

Any questions on the steps in this post? Let me know in the comments.

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