Theory Thursday: Back to Sweater School

You’re not supposed to pick favorites amongst your children, but this is my favorite square foot of knitting from the last year.

You’re not supposed to pick favorites amongst your children, but this is my favorite square foot of knitting from the last year.

It’s August (somehow)! Now, some of you will argue that August is most certainly summer, and in most of the Northern Hemisphere, I will own that it is really quite warm outside, but, I ride hard for the idea that even if I can’t convince you that sweater knitting is a year round sport, at the very least, my birthday (August 3rd) is the Official Start of Fall Knitting Season. The reason is simple: if you want to be wearing a new hand-knit sweater in early fall, and you do not have exceptionally speedy needles, you need to be knitting it, or at least thinking about it, in early August.

Because of how publication calendars work, I’ve been deep (deeeeeeeeeep) into both my own Fall and Winter 2019-2020 sweater projects, and into the process of extending size ranges for a number of my sweaters for the past two months. I’ve also been teaching a really fabulous group of students at my local yarn shop Uncommon Threads as they work through my Mapleshade tee, a group that includes a number of first-time-sweater knitters. The first night, like I always do if I’m talking to folks about garments, I asked how many people had knit a sweater before. A number of hands went up, as I expected. But, when I asked the next question — how many of you have knit sweaters you really love wearing? — a significant chunk of the hands went down.

As we went around the room talking about what had and hadn’t worked about folks’ previous projects, a few themes came up repeatedly. The sweater didn’t fit well at the armhole. The whole sweater turned out too big or too small. The sweater fit fine, but just turned out to not be quite the thing the person wanted to wear, because it didn’t fit into the knitter’s life as well as originally imagined. I thought I liked the yarn in the skein, but when it was on my body, it just didn’t work. And so on.

Listening to my students that night reaffirmed two really critical beliefs I’ve long held about sweater knitting. First, you (yes, you!) can knit successful sweaters! Really. I promise. Second, when sweaters fail, most of the time, they fail before yarn and needles meet (or at least, before they meet to actually knit the garment).

In my experience, if you can (1) knit with reasonably even tension over time, (2) are willing to use some means of counting and keeping track of where you are, (3) have some fluency at pattern reading, and (4) are willing to learn the stitch patterning/increases/decreases/cast on method/etc required for your particular pattern, you can make a successful sweater that you’ll love. But, the likelihood of your ending up with #happysweaterface at the end of your project is exponentially greater if you spend a little bit more time at the concept stage, choosing and planning your project, before you actually cast on. And, sweater knitting evangelist that I am, I really desperately want to help you make that happen (really, desperately: if you ask my mum, she would tell you I will not let this one go, no matter how many times she tells me she wants to make soothing scarves on airplanes. Sorry, mum.)

So, over the next two-ish months, we’re going to talk about the core skills of successful sweater knitting, most of which, again, have to do with project selection, yarn choice, and project planning, as much as they do the actual mechanics of knitting (though we’ll talk about finishing, which is more of a mechanical topic, down the road). We’ll talk about the most common ways sweater projects get off the rails, and how to prevent them. We’ll talk about how to swatch (sorry), how to substitute yarns, how and why to make modifications, how to think about silhouettes you want to wear, how to read schematics, and how to work through all those dreaded “at the same time” instructions that seem to populate sweater patterns.

Between pattern support questions, other queries I’ve gotten, and issues that have come up in my teaching, I’ve got a list of topics I think are some key sweater knitting considerations (IMHO?), but, as we set off on this journey, I want to know what’s on your list. What would have helped you in your last sweater project? What do you wish you knew when you started? Think about your favorite sweater you’ve knit—what made that knitting experience different, and that sweater more successful than others you’ve made? I’d really love to hear your ideas and questions about sweater knitting, so I can weave those topics in, so, if you’ve got questions, leave a comment below, or send me an e-mail at

I can’t wait to start to show you all some of the sweaters I’ve got in the hopper for fall! Happy sweater knitting, everyone!