Like push-ups, but for knitting
February 21, 2018 6:09 PM   Subscribe

I have been a knitter for 10 years. I've never moved beyond hats, scarves, or small plushies. I want to start working up to knitting sweaters but am unsure of how to best approach it.

Assume my ultimate goal in life is to knit this sweater. How do I get there? What can I do to practice without committing myself to an entire sweater that probably won't turn out because I haven't developed the skills yet?

The current state of things:
- I can increase and decrease, but it feels like the space between projects makes it so that I forget how to do it and have to re-learn it every time
- I have knit hats but whether or not they turn out is a gamble. Often they are too small or two large and I can never tell this while they're on the needles. This also goes for (fingerless, have never attempted fingered) gloves. In general I am bad at getting things to fit.
- I can knit in the round, but only on magic loop; DPNs terrify me.
- I have done some stranded knitting with moderate success, and am currently working on a double-knitting project.
- I've knit small plushies such as this and this so I am familiar with some shaping.

What can I do to develop the skills needed for more complex projects, specifically sweaters? In particular, how can I address my inability to get anything to fit? How can I get more practice with shaping things that will be worn?
posted by brook horse to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
That one is...fairly advanced. I wouldn't make it for my first project.

Things aren't fitting because you aren't doing and respecting the truth of gauge swatches, I reckon.

You might want to start with a simple stockinette sweater pattern with drop shoulders, which is actually not thaaaaat much harder than a scarf in terms of knitting--just some increases/decreases that will be specified for you. Nothing wackier than you're doing with an average plushie. The really hard part is sewing all the damn pieces together at the end.
posted by praemunire at 6:21 PM on February 21, 2018 [7 favorites]

(I mean, I'm assuming you know what they are and are just skipping or trying to fudge them. You can't. Not for anything fitted.)
posted by praemunire at 6:22 PM on February 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Clarification: I definitely don't want that to be my first sweater. My goal is that in some point before I die I make that sweater. I realistically expect that to be probably several years from now (given the amount of time with which I have to practice).
posted by brook horse at 6:29 PM on February 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Baby clothes are possibly the answer. They require the same general skills as adult garments, but are a much smaller commitment. Socks are also a classic and easy way to get comfortable with new techniques. They are especially good for practicing with DPNs. I got better at stranded knitting by making a couple of Christmas stockings. Once you've got a few socks and baby sweaters under your belt, tackling adult sweaters shouldn't be as intimidating.

Do you know how to read charts? To me, that would be the fiddliest part of a pattern like the one you aspire towards. Well, that and figuring out how to fix a colorwork mistake without ripping back dozens of rows. And I'm sure you could knit the sleeves using magic loop if you really wanted to, but DPNs really do become much less scary once you've got a couple of rows established.

And yes, unfortunately you 100% need to swatch when knitting garments. Nearly all of my many fit issues have been because I got lazy and eyeballed my gauge.
posted by Diagonalize at 6:36 PM on February 21, 2018 [14 favorites]

Fair Isle mittens are a great way to get started with small but more complicated colorwork projects. Then I'd make a couple of simple plain sweaters to get used to knitting for fit, then tackle octo-sweater.
posted by xyzzy at 6:40 PM on February 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

Yes!!! You can make a sweater!

But probably not that one right away. That looks like some advanced colorwork, so if you don't have colorwork skills, I would also work on separately building those skills up by making something small, like a colorwork cowl.

Honestly, it is fairly straightforward to make a good sweater and I would absolutely recommend just... making a sweater. That one is a bottom-up raglan, so I would start with a similar pattern. Or a top-down raglan. The most important sweater skill is really, really simple: swatch. Make a huge square, block it, and measure. Knitty has really nice instructions on swatching.

Here are a few bottom-up raglans made by good designers that might work for you:
Lightweight raglan pullover (free)

It's good to know how to pick up stitches, and I would recommend using your swatches to practice picking up stitches. Other than that... just go for it! I regret waiting so long to make my first sweater. Final tip: be comfortable with ripping things back and re-knitting things that don't work.

Oh, final final tip: if you swatch and block and you get gauge, don't fret too much while you're making your sweater if it seems too big or too small. Trust your gauge.
posted by sockermom at 6:43 PM on February 21, 2018 [5 favorites]

This sweater would be a great place to start. Tincanknits' patterns are really well-written, and this one, especially, is written for sweater-knitting beginners.
posted by sarcasticah at 6:47 PM on February 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

The yarn store Wool and Grace has some ideas for you. I am doing the Vogue Double Seed- so far, so good!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:48 PM on February 21, 2018

Most of my approach to knitting has been to see something I want to make and jump in, usually having no idea what I'm doing.

I frequently have to relearn things/look them up for new projects. I have been making sweaters for my dog this winter, and I hadn't done wrap and turn shaping since making socks *years* ago, so I had to look that up and make sure I was refreshed on the technique.

I learn best from videos so I will watch two or three different ones for a new technique and be patient with myself if it take a few attempts to get the hang of it.

As for your hats being too big or too small - that sounds like a gauge problem. Are you making and measuring the full gauge swatch as recommended in the pattern, with the yarn you've selected? If not, you need to make that part of your knitting process. Try to become very handy with the math of knitting - if your head measures so many inches, and the pattern wants you to cast on so many stitches, will that work according to your gauge swatch?

This was the first sweater pattern I knit and this was my second. They weren't as difficult as I was afraid they would be and turned out well. I never knit with the recommended yarn so I always swatch and triple check everything before starting, though.

Knitting in the round on magic loop is fine, and in fact, my preferred method for everything. There's no need to ever use DPN if you don't want to. I don't find them scary, but I am uncoordinated, and find them too fiddly. Also I stuff my knitting in bags and so on, and I find magic loop projects easier to secure.

I think, really, there's nothing to be scared of with any project or technique. If you make a mistake, you learn something new. If you don't like a pattern, you can use the yarn for something else. The only limit is being scared of just diving in and trying new things.
posted by Squeak Attack at 6:55 PM on February 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Do something easier (mittens, hat) with somewhat complex colorwork - I think that's what will really be the rough part in that octopus sweater.

You could knit an easier sweater just to get comfortable with it, too. But really just Really Really Check Your Gauge, for reals, don't just kinda wing it (as I have done like a million times out of laziness). If the gauge isn't quite right try different needles. When you get to Awesome Octopus Sweater, maybe swatch gauge in both plain stockinette and a little section of colorwork -- sometimes you need to switch to larger needles to keep stranded sections from getting too tight.

But you don't need to train for another decade! Pick a slightly simpler sweater and start it tomorrow. It doesn't matter if you haven't memorized all the increases/decreases; the pattern will remind you anyway.
posted by little cow make small moo at 6:58 PM on February 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Try to learn about different types of sweater construction so you can find your preferences. I personally like top-down seamless construction because I can try it on as you go to get the fit right. I have learned a few different methods: round yoke, raglan, contiguous, short row afterthought sleeves--all of them have their pros and cons and have their different applications.

The Flax pattern that sarcasticah linked to is a really good beginner top down seamless raglan sweater. It comes in a baby size so you can start small--you don't have to do that, but it can be nice to ease yourself into it.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 7:13 PM on February 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

You could knit a sweater with that construction right now. You need to swatch so you get the right gauge, and the rest of it you can look up on YouTube. The issue with that sweater is that the colorwork is going to be a pain in the ass, and I say that as someone who really loves knitting stranded colorwork. Most colorwork patterns are easy to visualize: you can look at your knitting and pretty much figure out which color the next stitch should be. And a lot of them have repetition, so that each row you get into the groove of the pattern pretty quickly. That pattern is going to require you to pay really careful attention to a chart. I think it would drive me nuts.

If you like octopuses and want to try out some non-repetitive stranded knitting, these mittens might be a less-daunting project.

DPNs really aren't as scary as they seem, although casting on to DPNs can be fiddly. If you hate them, though, you can do the two circs method.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:32 PM on February 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

I knit a sweater about 2 months after learning to knit. It was the best way to learn. Do make a gauge swatch, a large one. If you think your yarn may change with washing, wash it, block it, then measure. Disclaimer: I'm way too lazy for this step. Seamless sweaters are easy, but seamed sweaters can have more structure, and wear well.

I'd pick any sweater (I chose a striped cardigan) for first, but decent yarn and prepare to screw up a lot. Pick a harder 2nd sweater, using what you learned, and try again. By the third you can read up on sweater construction and modifying patterns. Then maybe the kracken? (Which I now want to knit..)
posted by Valancy Rachel at 7:34 PM on February 21, 2018

That sweater is amazing.

Like you, I assume, I also skip gauge swatches most of the time (ducks to avoid better knitters throwing balls of yarn) but making that mandatory would be a key step moving forward.

I would knit a few pairs of colorwork socks to get those chops up-- the sweater construction itself isn't that tough and whatever increase/decrease/short rows you need you'll do with socks. Plus if the socks turn out a little busted, they will be inside your shoes!
posted by athirstforsalt at 7:38 PM on February 21, 2018

Absolutely baby clothes. It seems utterly pointless if you don't know any babies or babies-to-be but you can find great charities ahead of time or save em for when someone makes one.
Baby sweaters are great for practice though, because you can test out technique, see how gauge translates to torso shaped objects, and screw up all over the place without wasting too much yarn, time or personal affinity to the project! Agreed that the colorwork there is gonna be brutal when you get to it, but doing an increasingly difficult series of mini sweaters with all over work eventually will give you confidence and skills.
ALSO when you get bored of stupid mini sweaters. you'll have increasing mad skills to make yourself a plainer sweater, kickass gloves (that pattern above just entered my toknit pile) and just get you used to the stupid drudgery of gauge swatching. Yay!
posted by zinful at 8:24 PM on February 21, 2018

Knitting sweaters is not harder than knitting other things, it's just more work.

So, as others have said, do some colourwork projects to practice those skills.

And most importantly, pay absolute attention to your gauge, and gauge swatch before doing any particular project. You can figure out if you knit much looser or tighter than most patterns expect that you will. I automatically go down at least 3 needle sizes from recommended because I am such a loose knitter. If the thing has to fit something other than a growing child, I gauge swatch like crazy to hit the gauge called for in the pattern before I start. Also, if you don't already, be sure to wash and dry your gauge swatches.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:25 PM on February 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Know any kids? Or, um, unconventional adults? Make sweaters for their dolls or teddy bears. They are even smaller than baby sizes so you‘ll get more practice faster. AND you can borrow the doll/teddy and learn how to ge the pattern to fit on the actual model (as opposed to a newborn).
posted by The Toad at 9:11 PM on February 21, 2018

Hint: some people like to start with a sweater sleeve to use as a swatch, especially if they don't expect washing to make a big difference.

There can also be some variation in gauge between knitting flat and in the round, it doesn't hurt to measure gauge as you go even if you've done a swatch. If you checked gauge before and after washing your swatch, you can compare unwashed gauge.

Hats are just tricky, a lot of patterns don't even list gauge. The way that stretching the width decreases the length is part of the problem, too.
posted by momus_window at 9:41 PM on February 21, 2018

Here is how I learned to make a sweater (as my second project, no less): I took a class in it that was based off of Elizabeth Zimmerman's percentage method. That is a GREAT way to learn how to make a sweater. Even if I came out with leg o' mutton sleeves because the percentage method made my upper arms kinda big, I got that shit done, man! The nice thing is that you can learn this method on the Internet these days without any class. (Note that I was also insane enough to throw in color work on one of my first things ever, too.)

As for getting human help, I'd try looking for a local knitting group or store to ask questions at even if there's nowhere in your area that has classes. Joann Superstores tend to have them and Michaels might too.

"Do make a gauge swatch, a large one. If you think your yarn may change with washing, wash it, block it, then measure. Disclaimer: I'm way too lazy for this step."

Yeah...while I don't wash, block and measure my swatches (knitting sacrilege!), I do make sure that when I make the swatch, it lies down flat and EASY. Measure it with a real live stiff ruler if you can. Do not stretch the swatch or squish the swatch to make it fit. If you do that, then you end up with the sweater being the wrong size, ask me how I know. If you completely can't match a 4 inch by 4 inch gauge, it's more important to match the number of stitches across because in almost all cases, most patterns will just say "knit for X inches" anyway. I've really only ever had one project where not being able to match the row gauge was an issue and in the end the person I made it for didn't really care if it was slightly bigger.

As for color work, I took a class from a "master knitter" on this and the tips I can pass on are:
* Be sure to twist the two color yarns you're working with together when you change colors so the colors won't gap at the change.
* Don't go more than about 5 or 6 stitches of knitting the same color in a row without carrying the other color of yarn over and doing another yarn twist in the back. You don't want long floats behind to snag on things.
* Don't knit too tightly or loosely, try to keep it relaxed.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:58 PM on February 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

I love the Embrace Octopus sweater! Memail me if you want advice from an intermediate-level knitter who owns that specific pattern--I used the charts to make it in crochet, because at the time I was a beginner knitter who thought I would never be good enough to knit a sweater.

Ironically, I'm now 3/4 of the way through my first knitted sweater right now, which is top-down with modular construction... I think this sweater would have been easier, although the colorwork obviously takes longer. The raglan construction of the Embrace Octopus is dead simple; only a few optional short rows at the neck, otherwise it's all worked in the round with basic increases for the sleeves and basic decreases for the yoke.

I found it easiest to print out the charts and use post-it notes or highlighter tape to cover up the row *above* my current working row. That lets you easily see where you are in the chart in relationship to the already-made prior rows. It took me 10 months, on and off, to make that sweater... but it wasn't stressful, I promise. All you need is patience to read the chart for every single stitch (I found it potato-chip'y after I got into the groove) and an ultra-flexible deadline so you only work on it when you feel like doing some semi-fiddly colorwork (because of the numerous long floats).

Oh, one tricky thing about the octopus pattern is that it's written in only two sizes and for bulky weight yarn. To get more sizes, you have to play with yarn weight and gauge. Again, memail me if you need help with that.
posted by serelliya at 11:42 PM on February 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Please do wash your gauge swatch. Expecting final measurements to match up with an unwashed swatch is a gamble. Maybe it'll be fine, but maybe not. If your yarn stretches, or felts, or your colours run together and your red-and-white sweater is now pink-and-pink, you want to know that before you spend 100+ hours knitting something that has to fit your body, not after.

I say this as someone who generally plays fast and loose with gauge for other projects, but not with sweaters. Too much of an investment.
posted by Gordafarin at 1:43 AM on February 22, 2018

That sweater is awesome. Because you have that specific sweater as a goal, my advice revolves around that.

This particular sweater says it is knit "in the round using stranded colorwork". That particular type of knitting does need a bit of practice to get your fingers used to manipulating the strands, keep proper tension (it's looser than you think!), along with handling the circulars, not to mention close reading of the pattern.

Luckily Ravelry has an awesome advanced search and you can find a smaller project that uses that exact technique! That search result also includes sweaters, but you can use the Category filter on the left to look for beanies, mittens, baby sweaters, etc.

Because that sweater also has you knit the sleeves on dpns and then attach them to the body, I think mittens would actually be the closest in similarity, where the thumbs are the equivalent of the sleeves. I actually knit these using that technique. They were actually my first stranded colorway project The main "hand" area uses dpn's but it's the same idea as using circulars on the body of a sweater.

Mittens don't need a washed gauge swatch but I 100% agree that you should do this before you start your sweater project. Gauge is everything for a successful sweater.

Now, if you want to make a different, simpler sweater before you work your way up to The Sweater, I would also recommend Zimmerman and baby sweaters, mainly to understand construction. There are so many ways to make a sweater (in the round, pieces, top down, or even back and forth like Zimmerman's awesome Magic Surprise sweater) but once you understand the considerations of the armpit, shoulders, and neckline then the door is open to pretty much any sweater.

Good luck and happy knitting!
posted by like_neon at 1:55 AM on February 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

You could try small projects to practice individual skills until you are confident about each one. I mostly knit socks but try to add new techniques with each pair. For instance, there are many ways to increase and decrease and the appropriate method can greatly improve appearance. Also, practice keeping to gauge when stranding by leaving the right amount of slack and catching the strand when skipping more than 4 or 5 stitches. Learn about proper ease. Even swatching is complicated. When I will be knitting in the round I sample the same way or by using a dpn and slipping the yarn across the back to the right side so I am always knitting as purling can change your gauge.

And I print out cheat sheets to tape in my accessories box for example Kitchener stitch instructions and the best SSK method. Good knitting is really complicated and subtle and I learn new stuff with every project, frequently from videos. Maybe someday I will try a sweater.
posted by Botanizer at 5:21 AM on February 22, 2018

I like your approach, and I love that you have such a great sweater in mind as a goal!

Techknitting has wonderful tutorials for all sorts of useful techniques.

One key is that if you're learning a new or complicated technique on a project, make sure everything else is relatively simple and/or that the project is really fun. For example, I find double knitting a bit frustrating at times, so I chose a cute pattern to work on which really helped.

Another suggestion is to start off learning a new technique with a small sized project, something about the size of a gauge swatch, like a dishcloth or a coaster. It's a small enough item that you won't struggle for too long, or feel too bad if the first attempt comes out wonky. It's also interesting to see the way that different types of stitches and techniques affect the size and shape of the overall piece of fabric. Knitpicks has a set of 52 weeks of dishcloth patterns for people who want to learn different stitch patterns. You can pick and choose the techniques you want to practice.

You can do it! From one relative novice knitter to another. This capelet was my knitting skills goal and I successfully made it!
posted by photoelectric at 7:07 AM on February 22, 2018

Definitely try some smaller colourwork projects, like hats or socks (if you're a sock knitter), or maybe a cowl, to get used to following charts, and get a feel for the right tension to maintain. It's super frustrating to mess up a large colourwork project because you have to tink back a lot of work to get it back on track.

Also, you don't have to master every knitting technique and follow every pattern faithfully, as some techniques make up for others. I've never figured out grafting to my satisfaction, but I can do a great Turkish cast-on and I can easily figure out how to knit a top-down sock pattern toe-up, so I don't need to graft. Some things will just be easier than others and that's OK.
posted by Kurichina at 12:39 PM on February 23, 2018

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