Shifting the sleeves

The premise: People who have a difference of greater than 2” between their full bust and high bust measurements will benefit from pattern adjustments that assign more fabric to the front of their sweaters than to the back.

I am not an example of this body type, so thanks to my friend Brooke for modeling!

First of all, credit once again to Amy Herzog for teaching about these ideas and introducing practical strategies to help us get there. I also want to point to the work of Jacqueline Cieslak and Jessie Mae Martinson, designers who are contributing greatly to our store of size inclusive patterns and writing those patterns in a way that empowers knitters to achieve the fit they prefer.

So what’s your high bust and why does it matter if you measure it? Bodies come in all shapes and sizes, but most pattern drafting makes assumptions about average proportions that may or may not align with yours. There’s less difference between people’s skeletons than there is in their musculature and fat. If you measure your circumference right up under your arm pits, you obtain a number that correlates better to the size of your shoulders than your full bust circumference does. You might have a 52” full bust but only a 47” high bust; choosing a sweater size based on the 52”—with added ease—may well result in a garment that’s much sloppier through the shoulders than you’d like. You’re better off working from the 47” measurement and adding fabric for the bust via extra shaping or bust darts. If you’ve never worked bust darts before, I really like Jacqueline Cieslak’s approach in her pattern book Embody, which uses schematics and tables to help you find the right shaping pathway for your measurements and walks you through the short row bust dart method with great results. (I don’t personally ever get to add bust darts, but I have friends who do and their sweaters from Jacqueline’s patterns look terrific.)

As far as I know, Amy Herzog was the first to recognize that round yoke sweaters offer another, easier way to assign more fabric to the front than to the back: you just move the sleeves. I started experimenting with this on my Seven Sisters yoke design when I was regrading it for independent release and a friend who’s in the >2” bust difference category was one of my test knitters.

I made this modification to Brooke’s sweater after it was complete; if you want to follow along there’s a step-by-step documentation of the process on my Instagram feed as a highlight called “Sweater Surgery.”
The sweater after the successful sleeve shift.

I calculated the difference between her high bust and full bust measurements as a number of stitches at my pattern gauge. Four inches = 22 stitches for this sweater, so I divided 22 in half and moved each sleeve toward the back of the sweater by 11 stitches at the point of the union round where I joined the body and sleeves. She wears her Seven Sisters sweater often and so I have lots of chances to see how it works on her body in motion. It’s working out just fine, but I actually think that I could have moved each sleeve by 8 or 9 stitches to give her a tiny bit more ease across the back. When we look at ourselves in a mirror to see how a garment fits, we tend to let our arms hang at our sides, so the garment is as undisturbed as possible. But we humans do a lot of activities that involve moving our arms around in front of our bodies, and our clothes should give us room to do that without pulling or distorting. So now I think, calculate your shift according to the different in full and high bust measurements, but then cheat back towards the front by a couple of stitches on each side.

A few weeks ago, another friend pinged me for help diagnosing what was going wrong with a yoke sweater she was knitting. This friend is built like me, long and lean, and she’s recently had a mastectomy. It was my conversation with her that set me wondering about the reverse of a full bust adjustment for yoke sweaters. I thought back to my blue raglan, which is slightly wider across the back yoke than the front. Why not try the same thing on a round yoke? It stands to reason that those of us who are flat chested and whose shoulders naturally roll forward a little bit might benefit from more fabric across the back of the sweater than the front. I decided to try it on my current project, Leila Raven’s ‘Aina pullover.

I started by placing the yoke on waste yarn, blocking it—it’s lace, so I really needed to see what the fabric would do once it could open up—and assessing how it wanted to hang from my shoulders. I could definitely tell that it needed less fabric across the front. The difference appeared to be about one repetition of the lace motif, or ten stitches, so I tried moving the sleeve divide point towards the front by five stitches on each side. I went ahead and knit a few inches of fabric on the torso—you’ve got to stabilize the stitches and create enough fabric to give you useful information—and tried it on again. Even without blocking, I saw signs that I’d gone too far. Five stitches is more than an inch of fabric at this gauge, and I was getting pleats across the back and a little bit of tightness at the points where the sleeves meet the chest up front. So I ripped and did a forward shift of just two stitches on each side—half an inch of fabric. This is closer to the difference in cross back and cross front I calculated for that custom raglan in Amy Herzog’s workshop. Lesson learned: don’t let your zeal for modifications run away with you. A subtle shift can be all you need.

‘Aina sweater drying…again. Big thanks to my soapstone wood stove.

The ‘Aina pullover torso is complete; I’ve now blocked my partial sweater for the second time. This might sound excessive, but I’ve finished too many sweaters that don’t fit well over the years and I’d rather know as soon as possible if course corrections are necessary—in this case, before I add sleeves. (Also there’s mohair involved, and if you’ve ever tried to frog mohair you may be wise to the fact that it’s probably a similar time investment waiting for the sweater to dry… but with far less cursing.)

The deep yoke, lower sleeve set is a little more “fashion” than my usual, but things are looking good. On to the sleeves!

Next time I’ll talk about the vertical distribution of shaping rounds—doesn’t that sound scintillating? This is an aspect of yoke design that really makes a difference to fit, and it’s a trickier fix that involves willingness to color outside the lines if you’re working from a chart.