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Choosing Yarn: The Importance of Drape

Jun 3, 2008

Obviously, when I knit Susan's Bulletproof Sweater at age 14, I had no concept that there was anything much beyond color to consider when choosing a yarn. I just pretty much thought that you used whatever yarn you wanted to for a sweater; and then you sweated and said bad words your mother would cringe at until you managed to produce a gauge swatch that was somewhere in the territory decreed by the gauge statement in the pattern. Once you got gauge, then whoo! you were ready to cast on! And that was it--right?

Clearly not, or Susan's Sweater would not be bulletproof.

Once I bought that charming creamy acrylic yarn, I worked very hard to get the pattern's gauge of six stitches per inch. I kept changing needle sizes, going to smaller and smaller needles until I finally got a decent swatch with the elusive six stitches per inch. I remember being really frustrated, trying to scrunch ever more stitches into the space on my stitch gauge, knitting every more tightly, until finally I got the magic number.

However, the yarn, a worsted weight, was just too thick. Those six stitches per inch were jammed in next to each other, with no room to breathe, and no room to move. Thus, even though I eventually got the correct gauge, THAT yarn at THAT gauge gave me the wrong type of fabric--so for this project both the gauge and the yarn were definitely wrong for each other.

That's how I learned about Drape. Drape, loosely defined, is the ease with which stitches are able to move past each other. The more easily the stitches can move against each other, the more the fabric flows and the more drape the fabric has. If the stitches cannot move against each other, then you have stiff body armor--and thus, no drape, and a sweater like Susan's, that could stand up with arms outstretched even without Bertha's help.

The Drape Mistake is a very common one, made even by folks over fourteen not blinded by a girlfriend crush. We fall in love with a yarn, and we are determined to use it to knit a favorite pattern. We mess around with the gauge until we get something "close enough"--and we completely forget that gauge is only part of the story when trying to substitute yarn.

In other words: If you are trying to substitute yarns, don't stop with the swatch. Got gauge? Good for you. Knit on that swatch some more. Knit until you have a largish swatch, and then live with that swatch for a bit. Carry it around in your pocket. Pin it up on your wall. Scrunch it and stretch it and wave it in the air like a queen's hankie. Wash it and dry it and then repeat the above with abandon.

Did you knit a swatch of Kevlar? If so, maybe you need a thinner yarn. Did you knit a lacy mesh washcloth? If so, maybe you need a thicker yarn. Or did you knit a swatch worthy enough to grace a lovely, creamy movie-star pullover? Ah, then perhaps you have found the yarn of your dreams.

Only your swatch will know for sure.

-- Sandi

By the way--

Thank you for all your wonderful comments on Monday's post. They really touched me--all those stories of sweaters-gone-wrong, all sweaters made with such love.
Next: Why, yes, I did get my hair cut--and dyed! The color is called Violet Expresso, so it's dark dark dark (what else?) chocolate brown with just a sheen of (what else?) purple. Thank you for all the lovely compliments. They quite made my day!

And finally: Some of you asked,"Well, if this is the Second Sweater You Ever Knit, where is the First Sweater You Ever Knit?" Um. It's in the garage. In a box. There are many boxes in Sandi's garage, so we'll all just have to be patient until the First Sweater shows up. (I knit that one when I was ten, so it will be worth a post of its own, methinks.)


Sandi Wiseheart is the founding editor of Knitting Daily. She is now the author of the popular Knitting Daily blog: What's on Sandi's Needles.


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on Jun 7, 2008 7:23 PM

Sandi,  my first sweater was a simple cardigan with K2P2 ribs on the bottom of the sweater and sleeves.  I made it for myself and wore it for several years, before it became too small.  Then I passed it on to someone else, I forget who, so I no longer have that sweater.  I did have a size problem with a sweater I made for my sister when she was in college.  It had an all-over lace pattern that was somewhat complicated, and it turned out that the lace actually made the sweater smaller that it should have been.  At that time, I did not understand about swatching in pattern, and the lace gauge was smaller than the stockinette gauge.  She ended up giving it to a soroity sister who was several sizes smaller than she was.  

MikkiB wrote
on Jun 5, 2008 6:44 PM

Sandi, I just read everyones comments and I agree you have just touched the surface in knitting items.  When I crocheted I never had to worry about stitch guages, somehow they came out right.  In knitting I am making things that gauge doesn't matter.  But I have heard and seen a little, that yarn color also can make a difference in guage.  The same yarn, by the same company in a different color could result in different guages because of the dyes.  So all this is to say please continue on topic.  You are doing a great job, helping us to achieve better garments.  Thanks.

MikkiB wrote
on Jun 5, 2008 6:21 PM

wow, I think you have sold me - the non-swatcher - on making that swatch.  Your explanation is just what it took to make me hear.  I guess I'll use an internet users idea and make plenty of bunnies or afghans from my swatches.  Thanks also for explaining how to fix the problem if the swatch is not right.

DebraP@2 wrote
on Jun 5, 2008 5:11 PM

Are we ever going to have a crochet newsletter?

IreneP wrote
on Jun 5, 2008 2:50 PM

My approach is this -- I pay attention to gauge only in so far as it helps me to pick a yarn that looks like the pattern. Having done (or not done) that, I knit my gauge swatch and determine what gauge I am knitting with this yarn. Then using the finished garment measurements I modify the pattern to yield a finished garment in my yarn with the same measurements. When in doubt, I use the same ratios as the original pattern. For example, I might calculate how many rows up to the armhold and determine what % of those take you from the bottom to the waist shaping.

I am rarely disappointed with this approach. Try it.

BarbieM wrote
on Jun 5, 2008 12:31 PM

What I want to know is how long did it take you after Susan's Sweater to get up the courage to knit another?  I knit a gorgeous patterned sweater as my second sweater--but, even though I was making the gauge and had measured carefully, it came out too slim.  I got completely frustrated with it and picked something that wouldn't depend so drastically on measurements for my next project.  I eventually did get around to knitting other sweaters--far more successfully.  My grandmother thinks the pattern was at fault (she eventually reknit the yarn into a beautiful sweater for herself), but I didn't know enough about what I was doing then to check it to see.  I've also learned to correct problems in patterns as I've gotten more adept!

SoniaB wrote
on Jun 5, 2008 9:11 AM

Hi Sandi,

I so love getting your posts in my inbox. I am a really new knitter, I did a few scarves. And then when I went to move into a sweater is where I got stuck with the how the heck do you choose yarn. Is there a book out there - that say's this yarn at this gauge gives you this, don't ever use this yarn if you don't want to die by sweating to death. Or is the only way to learn is by experience. I thought I could just find a yarn I liked knit a swatch - give my computer program the gauge and knit. I guess one shouldn't learn with custom patterns.

elizaduckie wrote
on Jun 5, 2008 7:32 AM

I thought about answering Gillian regarding her question, I clicked on her name looking for an email addy, It took me to her profile where WOWIE I found a wall. A wall is a place to write a comment. AND there was also a way to email Gillian. How COOL is that. AND a way to add a friend such as Ravelry does. I think if we go to our own profile page that is the way to find the wall.

I was so surprised, how did I miss this. I recall Sandi mentioning some added features when they changed over the site, but wow...this is fun!

mitchellle wrote
on Jun 5, 2008 5:45 AM


I enjoy reading Knitting Daily, I have learned so much.  I am a long time knitter (one more year and I will have been knitting for a half century) but there is always so much more to learn.

I also wanted to say something and I hope you take this the right way.  So often, we see photos of magazine editors and they look like Meryl Streep in the Devil Wears Prada, or the high fashion magazine editor in 'How to Loose a Man in 10 Days'.  Their high fashion, total perfection at all times appearance makes them seem remote and a bit intimidating.  You, on the other hand, wear jeans and hand crafted sweaters.  Your hair is worn naturally (by the way, nice cut), your smile is open and sunny and you seem utterly approachable, like a friendly neighbor.  You look like someone I who might sit in my living room on craft night, sipping iced tea and nibbling cookies while we chat and knit and laugh and share little slices of our lives.  So, thank you!

Hugs and Prayers

Serene Knitter

StellaN wrote
on Jun 5, 2008 5:37 AM

I made my first sweater at 11. It was wearable. The only thing wrong with it was the sick shade of pink my mother had chosen for the yarn. It was yarn she bought so she could knit me a sweater.

Don't ask me how I got from not knowing how to knit to a full scale adult sweater, because I don't have a clue. She came home from work I had had half the back done, so she let me continue until I'd done the front and both sleeves and a collar.

I know I didn't know anything about gauge or even needle sizes until years later since I was totally self taught. I'd been taught the knit and purl stitches by my older sister who didn't make her first sweater for a couple more years when she was in her mid-twenties.

I have no idea of how it turned out to be a wearable sweater, but I did wear it, so it must have been OK.

taknit wrote
on Jun 5, 2008 5:27 AM

Great post Sandi.  I would like to request a continuation along this line, similar to SherylIJ's suggestion about how to substitute.  I would especially like to know how you would go about altering a pattern to fit the gauge of a yarn/knitter.  Seems I rarely use the recommended yarn and I knit tightly, particularly when I knit continental style in the round.  I have been making myself do swatches but I still have trouble with gauge at times.  I've learned that even 1/4 of a stitch too much on a man's size 42 knit in the round sweater can make it up to 4" too big.

For example, I'm trying to work out gauge for a shell I want to make.  The pattern calls for Debbie Bliss Cathay (50%cotton/35%rayon/15%silk) with a gauge of 22 sts and 30 rnds/4" on #4 circulars.  Cathay's specs give this same gauge on #5 needles. I'm going to use Filatura Di Crosa Brilla (42%cotton/ 58%viscose) with specs of 28 sts and 34 row over 4" on 3mm needles (#2.5).  So far I'm up to #5 needles and getting 26 sts/4" in the rnd continental style.  Maybe that will relax a little once the swatch is washed. I hope so.  I don't want to go to a larger needle because this yarn doesn't look good with that large of a stitch.  I'm to the point now that I'm considering altering the pattern to fit my gauge.  I would appreciate any tips or insights in doing this, especially with regard to using cotton and other cellulose fibers.

Gillian wrote
on Jun 5, 2008 2:55 AM

This is a request not a comment. (although I can only say nice things about everything that I have read since joining a few weeks ago. What I really would like help with is the following.  I am just completing a baby blanket that has lace panels (4 across + 5 up) within garter stitch  borders.  I would like to make a narrow lacy pattern border around the whole thing. Is there any way that one go round 90% corners while knitting a lace band about 10 - 12 stitches wide.  I know about mitring but to start a complicated lace pattern with a pointed mitre corner seems just too complicated to me. Can anyone  help?  Gillian Eyre, Gansbaai South Africa

Gillian wrote
on Jun 5, 2008 2:55 AM

This is a request not a comment. (although I can only say nice things about everything that I have read since joining a few weeks ago. What I really would like help with is the following.  I am just completing a baby blanket that has lace panels (4 across + 5 up) within garter stitch  borders.  I would like to make a narrow lacy pattern border around the whole thing. Is there any way that one go round 90% corners while knitting a lace band about 10 - 12 stitches wide.  I know about mitring but to start a complicated lace pattern with a pointed mitre corner seems just too complicated to me. Can anyone  help?  Gillian Eyre, Gansbaai South Africa

EvelynU wrote
on Jun 4, 2008 9:30 PM

Thanks also for sharing openly about that awkward topic of the girl crush. I remember rather extreme crushes on several of my female teachers as well as on other girls. And I also went through a girl crush in my 30s--despite being quite hetero in my actual sexual desires. It's a strange and confusing feeling, and the depth of the feelings involved is obvious from the product you produced! Fortunately, I guess, I don't have any mementos of my various crushes. Just warm and slightly awkward memories.

JenJ wrote
on Jun 4, 2008 7:50 PM


I just wanted to let you know that I really loved the last two KD newsletters.  I'd read the Ravelry thread where some had asked for a return to the more blog-like newsletters.  I haven't been with KD long so I hadn't seen them before; if they were anything like these, I can understand why people asked for their return!  It was a great story that you shared with us like friends that was also full of great info.  I'm a compulsive yarn substituter, so this was a timely lesson!

on Jun 4, 2008 7:14 PM

Love your story, Sandi.  I think we have all there at least once.

TamaraM wrote
on Jun 4, 2008 6:39 PM

Hi Sandi,  

I keep meaning to ask about swatching--do most suggestions for how much yarn a pattern will use take the swatching into account?  I'm always afraid that I'll run out of yarn for the project if I swatch too much.  Or should we buy up one skein/ball in order to swatch sufficiently?


DawnJ wrote
on Jun 4, 2008 5:18 PM


I love your posts, especially the humour.  It is so nice to come home from work and read something so refreshing to get me back into real life.  Your advice and lessons on knitting and life are wonderful.  (I will keep swatching, ugh)

Thanks and keep it up for all of out here in cyber knitting world.


AmyM wrote
on Jun 4, 2008 4:26 PM

I will take your advice about living with a swatch to heart.  I'm not in love with swatching, but it needs to done.  I have made two things that I just had to get started on, and wound up not loving.  I have to set my eagerness aside in order to make sure the product is worthy of a lifetime commitment.

DeniseL wrote
on Jun 4, 2008 3:35 PM

Oooh I made a bullet proof skirt once! It stuck out all by itself.. and that was just a year ago! Frogged the whole thing! Drape is oooh so important in a skirt!

LindaC wrote
on Jun 4, 2008 3:30 PM

Gee!  All these erudite comments make me feel  My first sweater was a vest for my Grandpa, and I was in high school when I did it.  As I recall, it turned out quite nicely and he wore it.  Of course, being my Grandpa, he would have worn it if it had turned out like Susan's sweater, because, of course, Grandpas and Grandmas are like that. (and I know 'cause now I'm a Grandma 8-).  The first thing I ever knitted was when I was 10 and had just been taught to knit by a schoolmate.  It was a bunting made for my Tiny Tears doll out of Pink Ombre Wool yarn.  That would have been in 1956 or 1957.  I don't think there even WAS non-wool yarn back then, was there?  Stockinette Stitch in a medium-size rectangle, folded over and sewn up.  I had it for years!

I, too, love your hair, Sandi.  It makes you look younger and thinner.  How does your hubby like it?

Love Knitting Daily,

Linda the fearless knitter, knitting every day and now making 2 baby sweaters for Matthew Logan Trail who'll be a month old on Friday, and Purse Slippers for his Aunt Taylor (my baby).

SherylJ wrote
on Jun 4, 2008 3:29 PM

This got me looking at what i'm knitting (the frock camisole) to see if i'm headed down the wrong path, too!  I'm new to knitting but i've never once used the yarn specified in the pattern, i always substitute.   I'm just too impatient to wait for yarn to come in the mail, i have to run to my local yarn store as soon as i find a pattern i

want to start on! I try to find something with a similar fibre content and of course the recommended gauge on the label somewhere in the ballpark. How close do you have to get? If i'm getting 21 st/4" when it calls for 19 st/4" should i start over or change needles?  i'm also too impatient for the swatch, must get into that habit.

The numbering system (#1 fine etc.) is very useful but its not on all labels or patterns.

It would help us chronic substituters if the photos on the patterns here were a little more high-res, or if there were at least one closeup of the fabric on each pattern.  Not just to help in substituting but also to let us know exactly what we're getting into!  Some of the images are just too small to see the character of the fabric, which is very important when one is committing to a long term knitting relationship with a shirt or sweater!

I also loved your story about the devotional crush sweater. i thought only i was so hopelessly confused in jr. high.  never quite went that far though.  thanks for sharing!

NancyC@7 wrote
on Jun 4, 2008 3:23 PM


I'm certain that others have already suggested this, but PLEASE consider writing up this or the other story for Brenda Dayne's Cast-On podcast for the Today's Sweater segment. I think these would be absolutely great to feature.

AnnaM wrote
on Jun 4, 2008 3:04 PM

Good post, Sandi  Thanks.

Gauge is good, but drape is also thwarted or enhanced b the fibers in the yarn.  I was really surprised with how much drape 100% alpaca has! And I have an elderly Rowan yarn called "Linen Drape" which is linen/viscose, thus creating more of a lovely drape than line alone would have.

The concept of drape always makes me remember Ernie the muppet saying to Bert something like,

"Hey Bert, are you asleep?  Huh.  Bert are you asleep?  Huh.  Bert, you must be asleep" (picks up Bert's arm and waggles it about)

"You're all floppy and soggy - like." (Bert sighs, exasperated as usual.)

It's that floppy- and soggy- like aspect that is  drape.

But some fibers move more easily over others because of fewer soft, curly, fluffy hairs such as those in shetland wool. Alpaca is more like wool if it is blended with wool--it is less droopy, and keeps its shape. So the fiber has to be factored into drape, as well as gauge.

Nittineedles wrote
on Jun 4, 2008 2:54 PM

I tried to order Knit So Fine but I keep getting charged $7.70 shipping.  What's up with that?  I thought it was free shipping.

JennieV wrote
on Jun 4, 2008 2:44 PM

I blogged about my first sweater from memory. I recalled that it was cottony, soft, and pretty nice.

Ha! My sainted mother (the recipient) had kept it. God knows why--the thing is holey (size 10 needles!) and feels godawful. Instead of cottony, the yarn is really awful acrylic--the kind that feels squeaky.

I told her to throw it away. She asked if she shouldn't donate it instead. I pointed out that a sweater with holes that the wind goes right through isn't worth a darn!

Ah, well, I was young. I know better now.

JoanS wrote
on Jun 4, 2008 2:42 PM

What is more frustrating than finding a lovely pattern, and not being able to find the yarn used to create the article - it's discontinued or only available if you live in Algeria! How do I justify buying several skeins of yarn to make the article, only to find that 1) it doesn't knit to the gauge I need, no matter how hard I try or 2) the gauge is fine, but the drape isn't.

Lana wrote
on Jun 4, 2008 1:17 PM

Hi Sandi, I notice that sometimes I really like a yarn but I don't like the gauge that is recommended by the manufacturer because it is either too drapey or too stiff. When this happens I experiment with needle size until I get the drape that I like. But sometimes I venture further with adding another yarn or doubling the yarn and using much larger needles. I have come up with many interesting designs this way and some unexpected masterpieces.