#KnitPetiteProject: How is sizing in sewing different than in knitting?

Our last post where we looked at how sewing resources can help a knitter.
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The world of sewing has fantastic fitting resources that knitters can use, and we’ve already referred to a number of them in the #KnitPetiteProject.

But there’s a few important differences between knitting and sewing that you need to keep in mind when you’re delving into those sewing resources, and a number of different ways sewing can help you as a knitter.

I’ll let the great Maggie Righetti take it from here:

“There is forgiveness to knitted fabric… Forgiveness means that, unlike woven fabrics, home-knit fabrics give and take a lot. You don’t have to be nearly so exact and accurate with knit measurements as you do with gabardine or oxford cloth or crepe. The knit fabric will adjust and forgive you. Cloth won’t! Many of the shaping details that must be used with cloth simply aren’t necessary with knit fabric.” 1

After this paragraph, you may wonder why I’d point you in the direction of sewing resources since they sound so very different. It’s that difference, in fact, that makes the sewing world so much more rich with petite fitting information than the knitting world.2

Sewists using woven fabric are working with materials that are, as Righetti says, not as forgiving as us hand knitters. Woven fabrics need to be shaped much more precisely than knits do. An extra quarter inch could result in a garment that is ill-fitting with wovens. Sewists need to pay incredible amounts of attention to their own shape and the shaping of their fabric in order to achieve the fit they desire.

I point this difference out because you may encounter language or instructions within sewing resources and patterns that are different from anything you’ve seen with knitting. Knowing that sewists need to be more particular about fit because their fabrics behave differently than your handknit fabric is important.

With the caveat that: you may notice that sewists also mention “knits” or “knit fabric”. There are indeed some machine knitted fabrics with stretch and “forgiveness” that sewists work with. A good example is t shirts. If you look very closely at t shirt fabric, you may recognize the tiny shape of the stitches as miniature versions of those on your needles! Knit fabric sewing patterns usually have different types of shaping than for woven fabric because of this “forgiveness”.

Righetti goes on to highlight more differences between sewing and knitting:

patterns for knits have no seam allowance…
with knits, the back and front sections are usually the same width…
From shoulder to bottom edge, the front and back of a sweater are usually the same length…
back and front armholes are shaped identically… 3

These are just a few of the points she names. Most of these notes have to do with the much more particular shapes that have to be created for a good fit with woven fabrics. I want to mention, though, the point about seam allowances.

While knitwear designers certainly must take into account a few stitches worth of your handknit for seaming, I believe Righetti is pointing out the much more generous seam allowances that are (usually) built into a sewing pattern. This has to do with how fabric for sewing has raw edges that must be finished and sewn together.

Another important way sizing is different in sewing (particularly with wovens) is ease allowance. I’m a big fan of negative ease; we can use this in knitting. It’s that forgiveness and stretch in the knit at work. You can knit a sweater that’s several inches smaller than your actual body measurements. Try doing that with woven fabric and you won’t be able to get it over your head! So non-stretch woven fabrics will always have some positive ease, otherwise you couldn’t put on, or even move in, the garment.

But, while our lovely hand knitted fabric gives us forgiveness, that forgiveness doesn’t solve every issue. We sometimes need to employ some shaping tricks to get the knit to fit the way we want!

Vertical darts, for areas where abrupt changes in width are desired, are made on the sides of an imaginary line with decreases or increases.

Horizontal darts, for areas where special length is needed, are made with short rows.4

Maggie Righetti isn’t the only knitter who looks to sewing for tips, resources, and inspiration.

Last week I touched on how much June Hemmons Hiatt shares about sewing in her book The Principles of Knitting. The whole of chapter 24 is devoted to this topic.

Example of a modern pattern with multiple sizes, printed on tissue paper.

In it, she discusses how you can use a sewing pattern to successfully design a hand knitted garment. If you’ve never seen or used a sewing pattern before, it may be a bit of a puzzle. They usually come in an envelope of some kind, and are printed on a tissue that you (usually) have to cut out. Each piece will have all sorts of different symbols on it that help the sewist know things like how many pieces to cut, what direction the grainline is, how big the seam allowance is, and most modern patterns come with multiple sizes all on one pattern piece.

If you’re keen to try June Hemmons Hiatt’s suggestion of designing from a sewing pattern, then there’s a few things to note:

“Sewn garments often have a greater variety of separate pieces than would typically be used for a knitted one. These may be necessary to refine the fit, introduce stylistic details, or as a means of finishing the raw edges of a woven fabric – think of princess seams, darts, peplums, and plackets. In a handknit fabric, these aspects of a design are more often done as an integral part of the construction.” 5

Example of a vintage pattern with only one size. Note the “seam line” vs the “cutting line.

While there certainly is a number of things you need to take into account when attempting this sewing-pattern-as-handknit-design trick, there is a wonderful advantage for the petite knitter looking for a good fit: paper sewing patterns are quite easy to alter, add or remove length or width, and test out in a way that can be much less time consuming than knitting up a whole sweater, only to find the fit is off.

In a sewing pattern, once you identify the fit issue you want to tackle (narrow shoulders, broad back, short waist, extra full bust compared to frame size, etc…) you can pretty easily find free tutorials all over the internet to alter that tissue paper pattern and solve your fitting issue.

One of the sewing books I’d recommend you purchase as a knitter is Fit for Real People. We’ve talked about it before in the #KnitPetiteProject. I praised it for the information on identifying your body shape and diagnosing fit issues, as well as the really fun, cool, and informative tool of a Body Graph.

Well, I think there’s yet another thing that Fit for Real People is great for: the author’s technique of “tissue fitting”. Palmer and Alto share with you how they take the tissue of a sewing pattern and can fit it to a person before they even cut into any fabric at all! So, if you’re thinking of trying out June Hemmons Hiatt’s technique of using a sewing pattern to design a handknit, Plamer and Alto’s tissue fitting step-by-step will help you and save time!

I hope I’ve got you thinking a bit about what sewing can do for you as a knitter.

And now, there’s a special treat! We get to hear about fitting from someone trained in knitting and sewing, Jill Wolcott.


Jill is a knitwear designer and teacher with a background in fashion design in both
sewing and knitwear. In 2000 she began teaching at FIDM in San Francisco, in topics such as technical design, product development, on line development and portfolio development. She has taught grading for plus sizes online, and created sizing standards for yarn companies.Jill-Headshot 3x4

I’m so pleased Jill has agreed to share her thoughts with us here in the #KnitPetiteProject!

Selecting a Size
#KPP QUESTION: Much of the advice I’ve found for selecting a size to fit your frame is to pick the bust circumference that matches your torso (upper bust) measurement. This advice intends to give the knitter something that is more likely to fit their shoulders, which is very important in a sweater.
Many #KnitPetiteProject survey respondents stressed that they “always have to shorten the sleeve cap/depth” for their sweaters.
JW ANSWER: Sleeve caps are definitely the least understood and often the trickiest part of a garment.  However, you can’t just adjust sleeve caps—it is an interlocking puzzle.
#KPP QUESTION: As sleeve cap math is very involved, how should a petite person proceed in choosing a size to fit their shoulders?
JW ANSWER: There is little standardization in knitting patterns, so I have no good advice. I think you should only buy patterns that give schematics and measurements, and find brands that have their sizing chart available.
The absolute crucial measurement is the shoulder width.  But no one knows this. There are lots of misconceptions about how to interpret this measurement in a garment.  Let’s just say, I’d look at that shoulder/upper chest area before I started worrying about the sleeve cap.  The adjustments made in that area will impact your sleeve cap.  It is all interlocking!
The easiest thing to remember is that the length of the sleeve cap edge (where it will be sewn into the sleeve) needs to match the armhole where it will be sewn in.  Usually, the wider the sleeve at the underarm, the lower the sleeve cap will be to accomplish this.
#KPP QUESTION: Is taking the torso measurement the best approach, as it is for regular sizes?
JW ANSWER: By torso do you mean bust?  The thing is that a well-fitting garment isn’t built on a single measurement.  Or even three or four.  We are creating a garment from scratch, and there is an assumption that all measurements are created equally, but they aren’t.  You need to know your measurements (what they aren’t isn’t important!) and then how they compare to the garment you want to make or create.  But yes, any measurement is important in any size.
#KPP QUESTION: Is there any special information or instructions you can recommend a petite knitter consider in addition to this?
JW ANSWER: This is my advice to all knitters.  Know your own measurements.  Know your measurements in relationship to known sizes.  If a regular size 10 has a 16.75” back waist, and yours is 15.5”, you know you need to shorten your top.  But you also need to know where to shorten it!  In the armhole? In the neck? In the body?  Yes, to all three. Remember all clothes are built for a mythical body.
#KPP QUESTION: Another challenge for petite women is that sizing standards assume our bodies are longer than they may actually be; we then have to make any horizontal (and vertical!) modifications in a truncated amount of space, compared to a regular-height knitter.
Do you have any tips, advice, or resources you can suggest for petite women (of all ages and weights) with these sorts of issues?
JW ANSWER: I think circumference and length get the same answer.  See my answer above!  Proportion is really important (as you probably know).  You need to be honest about what looks good on you, and what adjustments will get the proper proportion for your individual body.
#KPP QUESTION: What sweater construction would you suggest for a petite person (particularly, one who may have to think about sleeve cap depth?)
JW ANSWER: Well you could go for sleeveless, but that probably has a whole different set of problems!  I think that a sweater with good information is going to help.  But also the knitter has to be realistic.  What we are talking about is making a custom fit garment, that you are also creating the fabric for.  This is an undertaking in and of itself.  I would start with something very basic.  I would work with a sport weight yarn and I would make my best-guess changes, but I would also expect to have to try the garment out as I worked on it to see if it was working.  It likely takes three tries to get a good fit that you can rely on.  But once you know what to do, it is relatively easy to transfer that to all your future knitting.
You may need to have someone help you.  Put pins in to make adjustments.  Take photos—you are looking for clues as to where problems are.  Sometimes an adjustment for one thing exacerbates something else, so always be judicious.
The easiest adjustment to make is to slope your shoulder.  It is like taking a dart at the armhole and can get rid of some of that bunching under the arm or above the bust!
#KPP QUESTION: Would you suggest any sweater constructions to avoid if you are petite and need to adjust sleeve depth or any other vertical measurements?
JW ANSWER: I guess I’m not very happy with avoiding things as a solution.  I believe each of us should find what works for us, then work within that.  It is all about proportion, not about garment type.  I know I have a very short (square) torso, but very long legs.  The best thing for me is to not try to get the same look as someone with a different figure.  I am very critical of what looks good on me.  If I don’t care, why should anyone else?  I believe that looking good is its own reward!  It will change how you feel about yourself, and how others perceive you.
Petite Patterns in the Knitting World
#KPP QUESTION: I LOVE your text here below; this is something noted by a number of #KnitPetiteProject survey respondents: if only knitting
patterns would make note of this, like sewing patterns do!
“First, I always put “or to desired length” after giving a specific measurement to knit to so someone needing to make an adjustment will know this is where to do it.  Generally these are length measurements and they occur in places when nothing will be negatively impacted as long as any corresponding piece is likewise adjusted.”
“I’d like to add that this flexibility is one of the great things about creating your own garments.  Likewise, it is the headache of anyone who doesn’t fit the standard sizing scheme that the pattern writer (me, in this case) is using.” (Blog Post “Or to Desired Length”)
JW ANSWER: I do think that many knitting patterns do say something similar, but I believe clarity works well for everyone.
#KPP QUESTION: Do you know of any other knitting designers who add these sorts of instructions into their patterns?
JW ANSWER: Quite honestly, I don’t look at the written instructions for a lot of patterns by other designers.  I’m too caught up in what I am doing myself.  However, I am always a little horrified by the shortcuts that patterns take.  I can elaborate on this at great length!
#KPP QUESTION: Do you know of any knitting designers who create patterns specifically for petite folks? (there are a few who do this for sewing, but
I’ve yet to find someone who addresses the petite market in knitwear).
JW ANSWER: I think you might be able to find some on Ravelry, but I am not a petite person, so I must confess that I don’t look.
Teresa, what I always find interesting is that there is an assumption that only certain types of people need to make adjustments.  I think the reality is that there are very few standard-sized people and it is just that when you fall outside the “normal” it feels like you have special issues.
The fact is that until the 60s and 70s, people didn’t buy as much ready-to-wear clothing as we do now.  If they did buy RTW, they anticipated that their dressmaker or tailor would make adjustments to customize the fit.  People spent a considerably larger portion of their incomes on their clothing, had less of it, and valued fit over quantity.
Sewing and the Petite Knitter
In July, we’re looking at what the world of sewing can teach knitters about fit and sizing.
#KPP QUESTION: How is sizing in sewing different than sizing in knitting?
JW ANSWER: Theoretically it isn’t different.  I think what may be different is the willingness to understand the underlying concepts of construction and fit.  We are blessed by flexibility in our fabric, and it is often used as a substitute for fit.
#KPP QUESTION: What are some sewing resources that can help the petite knitter understand and achieve her desired fit?
JW ANSWER: I hate to keep harping on this, but if you want fit, you need to understand your body and its relationship to garments.  Most people who knit don’t know as much about garments as those who sew.  Everyone today has access to tons of information, but sorting out what is good and what is relevant is a huge challenge.
I learned to sew when I was about 8 years old.  I learned how to fit myself and others by trial and error and observation.  I took risks, made a lot of mistakes, and filed it all away. Then I learned industry construction and pattern making, which I have translated into hand-knitting garments.  This is not easy.  My patterns are priced higher than most, but I have considered a lot of things when designing them.  I have tried to make garments that are generally flattering, and that fit well through the shoulder area.  But I’m not doing custom garments.
Suggested Resources
#KPP QUESTION: The System of Grading courses you offer on your website are in-depth ways for designers and tech editors to learn more about grading.
What fit resources can you recommend for petite knitters who are interested in learning about ways to achieve their own personal fit goals? (anything! From knitting books/videos/classes/websites to information from crafts other than knitting like sewing manuals etc…)
JW ANSWER: So I would love to spend more time teaching this sort of thing, but it requires a lot of time on my part and the part of the participants.  I think the best thing to do is to learn to sew, and take a basic fitting class.  Then transfer what you learn to knits.
I believe if we would value the time we put into making things, and be willing to do it in a meaningful way, we would have fewer, better things.  But it is an investment of time and money.  I buy clothing because I don’t have time to make it!  But I am pretty ruthless about what I’ll spend my money on.
Quick solutions:  Wear colors that are flattering.  Be brutal about whether something looks good on you—but be realistic about your body as it is unlikely to radically change. Use accessories to get variety and have a small palette so you can interchange things. Try new things!  We should all spend more time trying on clothes to find what looks best (perhaps without regard to fit and without purchasing).
#KPP QUESTION: What’s next for Jill Wolcott Knits?
JW ANSWER: I’m really interested in teaching online classes.  I don’t want to go around the country teaching classes, but I’d love to do remote teaching.  I want to help people understand that clothes are transformative.  I would love to help designers and knitters value the inputs of our knitted garments so that we could enjoy the making and not always be rushing off to the next thing.  Seriously, if you are knitting a garment there are going to be dead boring times.  Allow yourself a little time off (but be very disciplined) to make something fun, then get back to the big project.
I see so many comments on project along the lines of “my gauge isn’t quite right, but I’m sure it will be fine.”  That just sounds like  a recipe for disaster—or at least disappointment.  I’m doing online Swatch Workshops which teach my secrets.  I am preparing more professional development classes (with a parallel for non-professional knitters), and I am reworking some of my patterns.
My goal with reworking the patterns is to turn them into patterns with a teaching focus. A primer if you will.  This would be perfect for KnitAlongs, but I am not really sure how to get knitters on board.
You can read Jill’s full CV here.
Check out her website for more, including tutorials and her own sizing charts and sleeve length calculator!
Other helpful resources from Jill Wolcott include:


Have you ever used a sewing pattern as a guide to creating a handknit?

1 Maggie Righetti. Sweater Design in Plain English. St Martin’s Press, 1990, pg 23.

2 FYI, this is my humble opinion.

3 Maggie Righetti. Sweater Design in Plain English. St Martin’s Press, 1990, pg 26-27.

4 Ibid, pg 30.

5 June Hemmons Hiatt. Principles of Knitting. Touchstone Publishing, 2012, pg 485.

#KnitPetiteProject: How is sizing in sewing different than in knitting?

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