Theory Thursday: Who's Afraid of a Little Positive Ease?

On Theory Thursdays, I’ll be tackling (in brief) a question about design theory/overall approach/yarn selection, etc. These aren’t really “technique” questions, in the sense of how to execute something in your knitting, but they’re questions to think about before you get started.

I designed Summit with a recommendation of 12-20”  / 30.5 - 51 cm of positive ease. Michelle’s wearing it here with about 14” / 35.5 cm.

I designed Summit with a recommendation of 12-20” / 30.5 - 51 cm of positive ease. Michelle’s wearing it here with about 14” / 35.5 cm.

Q: Wow, so, I know you say Summit should have 12-20” of positive ease, but do you really mean it? That sounds like a lot! Won’t that make me look kinda gigantic?

This is a super common question that I get about oversized sweaters, and one that, honestly, I asked all the time early in my knitting life (from about 2013-2015, Emily and I had so many conversations of the form of “oh, that’s cute, but maybe I would make it, you know, not so large? I think I would look weird in it” that I’ve lost count). But, I’ve come pretty much full circle on this question in my, erm, advancing years, so today I want to tell you a little about why positive ease in hand knits is an awesome thing that opens up an enormous number of possibilities in your knitting, why it’s not as scary as it sounds, and some things to think about when making oversized sweaters. If you’re already fully in team “knit all the boxy things,” you can skim the beginning, and skip to the “guidelines/things to consider” bit.

So, first of all: what sounds like a lot of positive ease, when measured around the entire circumference of the sweater, is not actually a garment that sticks out hugely from your body in any one direction. Let’s come back to Summit, which has a recommendation of 12-20” of positive ease. For whatever reason, visualizing that extra body circumference feels kind of abstract, and I find it helpful to think about ease in terms of how far the body panels of the sweater extend beyond my body horizontally to each side, rather than in total. So, for our 12-20” of positive ease for Summit, what that actually means is that each body panel should stick out beyond the horizontal width of my body by about 3-5” on each side. (Another way to think about this is if you have the sweater on, and you pinched the sweater right at the edges of your bust under your underarm, how much extra fabric would you have?). Three to five inches is not all that much, and I’m betting there’s a decent chance you have one or more ready to wear sweaters in your closet that measure about this way. For most people, what this translates to is not a sweater that feels gigantically oversized, but one that feels generous and relaxed.

Second of all, mechanically, a substantial amount of ease is required for the modern drop-shouldered sweater to work. Most “modern” drop shouldered sweaters feature a trim sleeve, which is how they escape looking like they were made in the 1980s (and how they produce a flattering silhouette with this construction). This can’t work unless the armhole moves partway down your bicep, closer to the elbow. Because of how these sweaters are assembled, this by definition means the sweater needs a decent amount of positive ease. Most of the time, this is going to mean at least 6-8,” but typically even more.

Third of all, positive ease in handknits is kind of great. Even the lightest handknitting yarns are heavy, relative to ready to wear fabrics. The “sweater girl” sweater look, where the sweater is very fitted all through the body, can work really well, even at handknitting gauges up towards the worsted end of the spectrum, but the margin for error is smaller. I obviously think—and we’ll talk about this much more, at much greater length—it is totally possible with careful planning to make almost any kind of sweater “work,” but if you’re new to sweater knitting, or you’re a bit nervous about how it’s likely to fit at the end, something that’s a little bit boxier and more relaxed—and that doesn’t need to have all of its shaping match your body precisely—can be a great place to start. These kinds of styles also tend to be physically really easy to wear—they’re comfortable, they hang pleasantly on your body, and they may give you more allowance in terms of what kinds of fibers you’re happy to use than something that fits right next to your body.

So, what should you think about when you’re planning a sweater with positive ease?

  • If you really want a drapey, oversized look, you will need more ease than you think. 12” to start, and up from there to about 24” before it starts to look really crazy.

  • In most everyday cardigans, particularly if I plan to meaningfully wear it over something, I’m looking for 4-6” of positive ease in a lighter-weight cardigan like Presidio or Howell Mountain. If it’s something more substantial and outerwear-y, I’m usually aiming for 7-10” (like Cold Spring, Angwin, or Stinson Beach).

  • I tend to want a lot of ease in sweaters at two ends of the yarn spectrum: really light and really heavy. In a heavier sweater, I don’t really want it to cling to my body because, again, small margin of error and it just isn’t a look I like all that much. A lightweight handknit sweater with enough ease to drape really gracefully around your body is about as close as you’re going to get to simulating a lot of currently-available ready-to-wear sweaters, in many ways. They’re a ton of knitting, but it feels wonderful.

  • You’re going to need to think about length. This is a bit of a fashion choice, and is going to depend a lot on what you like to wear on your actual human body, but I tend to find that oversized pullovers work best when they’re either short or long, either very slightly cropped above the high hip line, or long enough to float well away from my lower hips. That middle-length, bottom of your belt loops kind of length just doesn’t seem to work as well for oversized sweaters, and they tend to feel kind of like they’re in no-man’s land.

Got more questions for me on this, or any other, topic? Leave a comment below or send me an e-mail, and I’ll cover it in a future Theory Thursday!