Theory Thursday: Do I Want to Knit That?

Larkspur (summer 2018) came out of my really wanting a lightweight tee with the same kind of textures and cables I love to knit.

Larkspur (summer 2018) came out of my really wanting a lightweight tee with the same kind of textures and cables I love to knit.

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.

Should I knit that sweater?

So, last week, when we teed off sweater school, I hopefully convinced you (or at least, convinced you to let me convince you) that most of the things that go awry in sweater knitting happen really early in the process. They’re concept problems: wrong size, wrong yarn, wrong gauge, wrong modifications or lack of same, etc. But actually, the thing that leads most often to that nagging disappointed feeling when you put on your finished sweater is even more basic than those questions. It’s fundamental, and deceptively tricky: the most important question you have to answer before yarn and needles ever meet is, “should I knit that sweater?”

This question has two parts, really, and both of them are vitally important. They are:

Do I want to wear this thing?


Do I think, based on reasonably available information, that I will enjoy knitting this thing?

If the answer is not a resounding yes to both questions, and I cannot stress this enough, the likelihood that you will end your project with garment you are proud to wear and a #happysweaterface (can I trademark that) staring you in the mirror is markedly lower (and I would probably even argue that if the answer to the first question in particular is no, the likelihood is basically zero).

So, how, then, do we go about answering these questions?

Part 1: Do I want to wear this thing?

This is, by far, the more important of the two questions, if you are in the business of trying to knit garments that will be a part of your wardrobe in a meaningful way (and you should be! It is totally doable, and it is great fun). If it is not the kind of thing that seems like the kind of thing you like to wear, and that will fit into your life in some realistic way, you are unlikely to be happy with it when you’re done knitting, and that’s a huge bummer (and trust me, it happens to all of us, but, the goal is to not have it happen that often).

Should you wear it? There are a lot of books/tv shows/websites/stone tablets out there that will purport to tell you a whole lot of figure flattery “rules,” and that will give you a whole lot of suggestions about what will and won’t highlight your best features. (If you’re curious, my favorite one for knitters is Knit to Flatter, by Amy Herzog.) These are definitely a good place to start, especially if you don’t have a strong intuitive sense of what kinds of things you like yourself wearing, but, I think that approach can be a little limiting, for two reasons. First, they typically have a baked-in assumption that the "end goal” is a garment that makes you look as much like a more-or-less hourglass-shaped female figure as possible, which may or may not be a thing you care about at all. And second, while fashion is certainly cyclical, and everything old is new again, they may or may not be responsive to trends that have goals other than, well, looking like the most hourglass-y version of you that there is.

So, how do you figure out what works well for you? At the risk of sounding desperately obvious, start with things you actually wear. Go shopping in your closet. Look at your favorite pictures of yourself. What are you wearing? What do you like about how those clothes make you feel? Measure some of those tops. What does X” of positive ease actually feel like on your body? How long do you like your jumpers, cardigans, and tees? When you scan Pinterest or your favorite brand’s website, what kinds of things are you consistently drawn to? Then, go look for sweater patterns with silhouettes that are comparable to the standbys in your wardrobe, or the things you consistently lust after (with a few caveats that we’ll discuss below re commercially knit sweaters vs handknits). If you’ve found a sweater pattern you think you love, try to abstract it from the aspirational, dreamy image of the very tall, extremely photogenic girl wearing it while staring off into the mid-distance on a perfectly overcast day in Downeast Maine. When you picture that thing, on your actual body, in a setting in which you actually exist, does it still seem as appealing? Have you ever bought anything that looks like that thing and been happy with it? If you haven’t, and it’s a direction you want to push your wardrobe, can you find pictures of it on someone who looks and seems a bit more like you (unless you are, in fact, a tall, extremely photogenic girl who frequently stares off into the mid-distance on perfectly overcast days in Downeast Maine, in which case, you should still try and picture the sweater in a less glamorous setting and location)? For most women, thinking about how we exist in clothes is not the world’s most pleasant process, so do it with care and compassion and gentleness. Remember that the goal is for you to end up with a thing you’re going to end up loving to wear, and to find the right sweater for you, not to make you right for a particular sweater.

If at the end of this process, you think, yes, I would love to wear this thing, proceed to Part 2.

Part 2: Do I think, based on reasonably available information, that I will enjoy knitting this thing?

Just because you want to wear a thing does not necessarily mean that you knitting that kind of garment, or that particular sweater pattern, is per se the right call. Whether you would enjoy knitting a thing is largely a matter of personal preference, with two key caveats that you should keep in mind about the nature of handknits vs commercially knit garments, which are is as follows: (1) you do not have to knit every sweater you want to wear, and sometimes buying a version of the thing is a better bet, and (2) you are not ever going to hand knit a garment that is as fine a gauge as many commercially knit garments you’ll buy. You just aren’t. You might buy a heavier gauge commercially knit garment, but even lace weight yarns (and if you are the kind of person who makes lace weight sweaters, I salute you) are heavier than, say, a typical fine-gauge wool or cotton sweater. Sometimes, per point (1), this means that if what you really want is a lightweight, super drapey pullover at an ultra-fine-gauge, the right answer is to buy that thing, instead of making that thing.

So, would you enjoy knitting it? Take a look at the pattern attributes: do you hate knitting sweaters with seams? Then maybe don’t knit a seamed garment (I’ll try to convince you why this is sometimes a good idea, but for now, your preference wins). Do you hate cables? Maybe skip the sweater that has cables on every right side row (oops?). Do you get really bored knitting stockinette, but you really need that ultra-basic v-neck in your wardrobe? Maybe you can find a commercially-knit version of that garment, while you save your knitting energy for something that will better pique your interest (spoiler alert: this is me). Are you religiously a written-instructions only person, and you despise working with charts? Think about whether you’re willing to write out the instructions for yourself, if the pattern is charted-only. What gauges do you enjoy knitting at? Do you want to knit something that a lot of other people have made, or are you willing to knit a sweater with fewer projects posted on Ravelry? Do you like the yarn that the pattern is specified in, or do you have reasonable thoughts on a substitute you’d like better, that will still get you the look the designer was going for? Is the yarn you want to use reasonably available? Most of us knitters are pretty adaptable people, but at least in my experience, if I’ve ended up being super frustrated by the mechanics of knitting a project, it was usually because I set myself up to do something that wasn’t the kind of knitting I enjoyed. There’s no right or wrong here; it’s really just a question of how you want to allocate your knitting time and energy.

What then?

Not every project is going to be a perfect marriage of the things you want to wear and the exact kind of knitting you like to do, and there are always going to be tradeoffs. But you have to want to wear the thing to make it worth knitting. Desperately want to knit it and really don’t want it for you? Great, you can be one of the fabulous souls who gift-knits sweaters, and the world will love you for it. But when you’re making garments for yourself, if you focus on things that feel like they’re really the you you want your sartorial self to be, and are the kind of knitting you genuinely enjoy, you are well on the path to sweater happiness.