Reversible Knitting: a conversation about sizing

(the front cover of Reversible Knitting features Norah Gaughan’s innovative Reverse Me jacket)

Today, I’m very pleased to introduce Lynne Barr, whose recently published Reversible Knitting has already become a must-have knitting title. The first part of Lynne’s book explores her original and exciting approach to stitch, with fifty swatches that that will make your eyes pop, your jaw drop, and your hands immediately get busy with needles and yarn, to work out exactly how she managed to do that.

(Lynne’s “Half Nelson” pattern – one of my favourite stitches in Reversible Knitting)

The book’s second part features some incredibly inspiring takes on the idea of reversibility itself, with twenty patterns from all of your favourite designers. There’s a great range of garments here that are both experimental and wearable: dresses and tunics, vests and sweaters, knitwear for the shoulders, feet, and head. Some of these innovative garments can be turned inside-out, or outside-in—such as Veronik Avery’s classic Lice Jacket, or Teva Durham’s bold Geometric Dress. Others, like Lynne’s playful Two Tone Vest or her stylish and eye-catching Folded Mini Dress can be worn back-to-front or front-to-back. Wenlan Chia and Norah Gaughan, meanwhile, have contributed designs that work equally well downside-up or upside-down. Chia’s Winding Path transforms itself from cropped-sweater to long tunic, and the cable-adorned shawl collar of Gaughan’s Reverse Me jacket morphs easily into a deep and richly textured waist band. In the world of reversible design, there is no right or wrong side—but how does one go about sizing these unique garments for a range of different body shapes? Lynne, and the tech editor for Reversible Knitting, Sue McCain, dropped by to tell us more.

(Lynne Barr’s Two Tone Vest)

KD: Recently I’ve been thinking more about sizing in order to extend the range in my own patterns, so I wonder how much more complex it was to size some of the reversible garments in your book?

LB: Sue McCain, our tech editor for the book, sized all of the patterns, and I too wonder what additional issues she had to contend with — in particular for Reverse Me by Norah Gaughan and Winding Path by Wenlan Chia. Both of those sweaters are designed to be inverted top to bottom, and I believe most women don’t have identical bust and hip measurements. But in both designs, having one wearable version short and the other long when flipped upside down, eliminates the need for both measurements around the bottom to fit the widest part of a body. It’s a clever design element that serves two purposes – to increase the visual difference between the two versions and to simplify potential fit problems.

(Winding Path worn as a cropped empire-style sweater)

KD: That’s really ingenious—in the book, the two versions do look very different, while both fitting well. Did these upside-down reversible designs involve their own unique sizing problems?

LB: Let’s bring in Sue, and hear her thoughts on the sizing of Winding Path.

SMC: Working with the large gauge and 4-stitch rib pattern repeat while grading Winding Path was the biggest challenge. With a gauge of 1.375 stitches per inch over the rib pattern, each four-stitch sizing increment used to maintain the pattern added just under 2.75”. Fortunately, the finished piece is fairly forgiving in terms of stretch, and the fit of the stockinette stitch portion is intended to be close to the body.

(Winding Path worn tunic-length)

KD: And did grading Reverse Me pose a different set of challenges?

SMC: The most important task when grading Reverse Me was to really understand how the pieces went together, and how changing the length and width of each piece would affect the other pieces. When grading any pattern, it’s important to remain true to the proportions of the original size, while keeping in mind potential fit issues arising from increasing or decreasing the measurements. The back width at the cast on edge was decided by the desired bust sizes, and once this width was determined, it was easy to grade the remaining dimensions following the proportions of the original garment. We did, however, keep some of the measurements fairly close from one size to the next (neck width, sleeve length and width, length to armhole) as these are dimensions that don’t change much from the smaller end of the size range to the larger end. Aside from limiting the size range, the reversibility of Reverse Me didn’t present any special issues.

(Reverse Me worn both ways)

KD: I had a sort of eureka moment while grading my manu pattern, when I realized how very little the neck width would differ between smaller and larger sizes. Proportional progression is one the things I’ve been finding most interesting (and tricky) the more I explore sizing from a design perspective. In “standard” sizing terms, I’m quite wee — 30″ chest, 23″ waist, 34″ hips. My fuller-figured friend might think she has little in common with my body shape — and yet when you work out the percentages — my proportions are actually exactly the same as hers (44″ chest 34″ waist, 50″ hips) — we are both equally proportioned pear shapes. Why can’t the smaller and the larger “pear” wear exactly the same style of garment, equally successfully? I’m still finding my way with this (when I began designing my size ranges were quite conservative) but am hoping to improve my sense of how garments work for fuller figures by getting feedback from test knitters in that size range.

LB: I’m not sure that sizing is a simple proportional progression though. When Sue sized the Folded Mini Dress in Reversible Knitting, I noticed that the armhole shaping changed significantly from the two smaller sizes I had already knit. Sue explained that the span under the arm is a greater percentage of the overall chest measurement in the larger sizes than in the smaller ones. And she also pointed out that if sweaters were a constant incremental increase for each size, plus sizes would have shoulders that would be enormous and they’re not.

KD: The variance of underarm width really does add another dimension. And then, within a single size range, individual body shapes can be so very different when one starts to consider waist position, shoulder width and so on . . .

LB: This makes me recall years ago when I worked for a bathing suit designer, whose business consisted of mostly custom-made work. It seemed easier working with an actual body to measure and fit rather than trying to fit everyone into a standard ready-to-wear suit. But still, we generally started a fitting with specific styles depending on the individual’s body type and whether they needed support, or wanted to look like they had more than they did. But I hate to think that a style was chosen simply based on some stereotype of what should or should not be worn by different people.

(Lynne’s fab Folded Mini Dress)

KD: Yes, the idea that there are definitive ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ styles for particular body sizes can be so prohibitive. Perhaps it’s just a mater of knitters being brave enough to experiment, feeling confident about adding shaping or changing a part of the sizing of a pattern to suit their particular body shape, as well as being able to visualize oneself in a range of different garment styles. I think it’s often difficult for knitters to picture themselves in a piece they only ever see in one size — and then there is the problem of encountering patterns that really don’t seem to accommodate body shapes outside the US or UK “standard” size range. I wondered whether you had any thoughts on the ways in which “non-standard” knitters might adapt Reverse Me or Winding Path?

SMC: For Winding Path, if you want to work larger sizes than offered in the book, it’s easy to do. While maintaining the given gauge, for every 4 stitches you add to the cast-on, you will add roughly 3″ to the circumference of the piece. When shaping the armhole, work half of the stitches before transferring them to the stitch holder. The sleeves can be graded in increments of 4 stitches as well – just make sure that you work a longer armhole length on the body to accommodate them. We don’t recommend working Reverse Me any larger than the largest size given, unless you don’t intend to wear the piece upside-down, because the bottom band has to increase quite a bit as the sizes get larger, and it will hang too low when worn upside-down.

(Teva Durham’s Geometric Dress, worn both ways)

LB: One last thing for knitters who believe there is a dearth of patterns, both smaller and larger than the typical middle range, I recommend they visit Sue’s website. She offers a line of knitting patterns with the widest range I’ve seen — sizes xx-small to 6x-large. And to expand your sizes upward, this site featuring plus-size patterns looks like a great resource.

KD: I second the recommendation of Sue’s website. And for those of us at the other end of the sizing scale, I remember Kristen Hanley Cardozo writing about some of the issues encountered by xxs knitters in a particularly moot and interesting way.

LB: Kate, I’ve enjoyed meeting you. Thanks so much for having me on your blog… the topic of sizing is an interesting one that I think merits more in depth attention.

KD: Thanks so very much for being here, Lynne, and Sue, and for opening up a really stimulating discussion. I feel I’ve learnt a lot from your insights on sizing and grading. Very many congratulations on an inspired and inspiring book.