Being a larger gal who's also quite short (5' 2"), I have to make adjustments to almost every sweater I knit. While the main tool in making those adjustments is the ever-important gauge swatch, there are lots of other little things that I pay attention to as well.
Ease is one of those "little things," and it was an elusive concept when I started knitting. What is ease, exactly? Ease is extra width that allows free movement in a garment, and understanding how it works can be key to making a sweater that fits.
One thing about ease that I learned the hard way was to pay attention to the garment measurements in the pattern. (Some sweaters are designed with negative ease, which sounds counter-intuitive, but it simply means the garment is supposed to stretch to be form-fitting, so the finished piece will actually be smaller than your measurements.)
Many patterns list just the finished measurements of the actual sweater, but I love it when designers list the ease, too. This is the measurement listing for a sweater I knit a couple of years ago:
Sizes: To fit bust 32(36-40-44-48-52)"
Finished measurements: Bust—36.5(40-44.5-48-52.5-56)"
How great is that? From reading these measurements and looking at the schematic for the pattern, I knew I could make the size 48 to fit my 50-inch bust. I would not normally ever make a size 48 without carefully studying the pattern and yarn choice to make sure the finished sweater would stretch appropriately (no gapping or over-stretched fabric) to fit my actual body. By showing the finished measurements right up front with the "to fit" sizes, I could tell at a glance that this sweater had quite a bit of ease built into the design, so I was okay knitting the pattern as written (for the most part).
Now, don't panic. Even though most designers include only the finished garment measurements in that up-front info (the section that includes materials, gauge, etc.), you can look at the schematic and figure out how much ease you'll want by comparing the finished measurements with your own measurements.
Here are some general guidelines for ease allowance—32": 34" standard ease; 36" roomy ease; 33" tight ease; and 30" form fitting (or "negative ease"). So, you'd take your bust measurement and add 2" for standard ease, 4" for roomy ease, 1" for tight ease, and subtract 2" for form-fitting ease.
Keep these guidelines in mind when you're looking at the finished measurements for sweaters you want to knit; they'll really help you evaluate how a garment will fit. And when you're evaluating sizes, don't forget that knitting the same size garment as your bust size won't allow you any ease, so unless you want a tight or form-fitting garment, choose a size that allows one or two extra inches.
In her new book Knitwear Design Workshop: A Comprehensive Guide to Handknits, renowned designer Shirley Paden gives a nice introduction to ease and its purpose in knitwear design. (I especially like her hints on comparing garments you already own to your measurements to find your desired ease for each area of a sweater!)
Excerpted from Knitwear Design Workshop: A Comprehensive Guide to Handknits by Shirley Paden
In order to move comfortably in a garment, there has to be some ease, or extra width. Most designers allow about 2" (5 cm) of ease for a garment that will be worn over undergarments. This means that the garment measures about 2" (5 cm) more in circumference than the actual body measurements, or 1" (2.5 cm) across the front and back. Usually, an additional 1" to 2" (2.5 to 5 cm) are added to the standard ease amount for outerwear that is worn over clothing, for a total of 3 to 4 (7.5 to 10 cm)of ease.
Keep in mind that these are standards, and they may not correspond to the way you like your clothing to fit. The amount of ease is a personal choice. Compare your body measurements to a garment that fits well to get an idea of the amount of ease that's comfortable for you. Try on and measure several garments to determine your ease preferences. You may like the way one garment fits in the bust, the way another fits in the sleeve and armhole, and the way a third fits at the neck. In each case, lay the garment out flat on a hard surface (a table or measuring board), measure the parts that you like, and then compare those measurements to your body measurements to determine the desired amount of ease.
Ease is also used as a design element. Additional ease is added to produce the billowing sleeves on a poet's coat or the roominess in the bust and armhole of a drop-shoulder pullover designed to have an unstructured, oversized fit. Negative ease is used in the body of a garment designed to be form fitting (although the sleeves usually include ease to allow for arm movement). When designing with negative ease, be mindful of the elastic properties in the yarn and stitch pattern you select. Wool is more resilient and therefore more elastic than nonresilient fibers such as cotton or raime.
Here's a video clip of Interweave Knits editor and Knitting Daily TV host Eunny Jang talking with Shirley about designing and the patterns in her new book.A Free Pattern from Shirley!Interlocking Cables
, pictured above, is a beautiful, sophisticated knit. We've classified it as an experienced project because of the allover cable pattern—it's definitely doable, though, if you've got a couple of cabled garments under your belt! The fold-over boatneck collar is so flattering on many of us, especially with a fancy cami underneath! You can fold this collar down to varying degrees, too. I'd probably fold it down about half as much as the model in the photo has it folded. Any way you choose to wear it, it'll be a piece of art!