Friday, November 2, 2012

Tips & Techniques: Lily Chin edition

While at the NYS Sheep and Wool Festival in October, I attended a workshop led by Lily Chin, master knitter and designer extraordinaire. The workshop was titled “Custom Fitting Existing Patterns” and promised to demonstrate “how to successfully personalize the fit of a pattern and cater it to yourselves or those you knit for… You’ll learn simple refinements and easy modifications that don’t require extensive pattern re-writes, but will produce great results.”

Let me tell you, this class delivered all that and more. Lily is a personable and effective instructor, leading us step by step through the basic calculations which built upon each other until we were comfortable with, and ready to, design our own patterns. If you ever have a chance to take a class with Lily, do it!

Not much of this information is secret – if you’ve read knitting magazines, blogs or Ravelry for any length of time, a lot of it might be familiar to you. But Lily stepped us through it and helped us make the connections to put it all together. I'll share some of the tips here.

We started out by taking some basic measurements. Lily had us measure our hip measurements (or wherever we preferred our garments to end). Then came the neck to hemline measurements. Using this, we could graph out the basic rectangular shape of a garment. Each square on the graph paper equalled 1” of garment. Then we measured our shoulder-to-shoulder widths, neck width, and preferred neckline depth, each time graphing these onto our schematic. 

Sample schematic based on actual measurements (+ 4" ease) and with gauge of 4 sts x 6 rows
Lily pointed out a couple interesting facts about our shoulder-to-shoulder and arm length measurements. Despite there being 10 very different body types in the class, there was no more than a 2” variation in the measurements from lowest to highest. This is because our basic skeletal structures vary very little. It’s just the surrounding padding that creates the diversity. 

This is interesting because many patterns keep making sleeves longer the bigger the pattern size, but really, there’s not that much variation or even relation between sleeve length/shoulder width and plus sizes. So keep an eye out for this in any patterns you’re choosing to knit.

Next came a segment on sleeves. We learned about drop shoulders, some variations Lily called “Son of Drop Shoulder” and then “Grandson of Drop Shoulder” and the calculations for each. Sleeve measurements were added to our sketch.

Graph paper is all well and good, but it isn’t a fair representative of knitting stitches, which are taller than they are wide. Graph squares are, well….square, not rectangular. The answer is to obtain gauged graph paper, which can be generated for any gauge; every square represents 1 actual stitch of knitting. This allows you to fine tune your garment necklines with accurate increase and decrease placements on each row of knitting. If you Google “gauged knitting graph paper”, you’ll come up with some programs to generate these for you, both free and paid.

Neckline decreases sketched out as if on gauged graph paper.
Draw your neckline and then mark where the right side decreases should fall.
Another interesting tip that Lily mentioned was to use the big tablet of presentation graph paper that is sold at Staples and other office supply shops. These are made of 1” squares, so you can trace your favorite fitting garments to make templates for knitting similar items. This will show you exactly where your waist increases and decreases should fall, and where to place shoulders, armholes and necklines. Once you have the tracing of the life size garment, transfer those measurements to your gauged graph paper to do the fine-tuning of number of decrease and increase stitches at each point.

Sure, these methods take some time and thought, but in the end you get a garment that is knit exactly to your measurements, designed to fit and flatter you.

Key points:

  • Take your measurements! Have someone help you so that you get the most accurate measurements possible. Without knowing your true measurements, you can’t customize your knits.
  • Do a gauge swatch, as big as possible. Without accurate gauge numbers, you can’t calculate where to put your increases and decreases for armholes, necklines and waist shaping.
  • Sketch it out! Put your measurements and the pattern’s schematic on graph paper, using 1 square = 1 inch.
  • Trace a favorite garment on presentation graph paper to get a life sized pattern. You’ll know exactly where to place waist shaping and how big/small to make armhole shaping based on something that already fits and suits you.
  • Use gauged graph paper to figure out the details row by row.
  • Knit something beautiful and wear it with pride!


  1. So my knitting challenge to myself this coming year may end up being a wearable sweater. And if it is, I will totally come back to this post. Thank you so much.

  2. wow - so much information in one small space! This is very helpful, thanks for sharing.