Ease over decades

When I set out to write about ease, I decided to survey a small number of books in my knitting library to see what they had to say on the subject of “average” or “typical” ease when designing a hand knit garment; specifically, how they translated actual body measurement to garment dimensions. I actually took notes — I recall making notes from one book while I was on a train (somewhere along the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal corridor) while the person across from me exhausted his laptop battery playing some video game.

The books I surveyed were:

  1. Ida Riley Duncan, The Complete Book of Progressive Knitting (Liveright, 1940) and Knit to Fit, 2nd ed. (Liveright, 1970)
  2. Sion Elalouf, The Knitting Architect (Knitting Fever Inc., 1982)
  3. Vogue Knitting: The Ultimate Knitting Book (Random House, 1989)
  4. Carmen Michelson & Mary-Ann Davis, The Knitter’s Guide to Sweater Design (Interweave Press, 1989)
  5. Deborah Newton, Designing Knitwear (Taunton, 1992)

As you can probably tell, only two of these books are still in print. The other three I bought second-hand at various times. Obviously my design instruction library is seriously focused on the 80s and 90s; not too long after the survey, I finally bought Maggie Righetti’s Sweater Design in Plain English. At the time I did this survey, I also had (and still have) Ann Budd’s The Knitter’s Handy Book of Patterns (that’s the first one in the series) and Barbara Walker’s Knitting From the Top; I didn’t consult them for the survey, I think because neither discussed ease or measurement in absolute terms the way the other books did. Budd’s “Handy” series, of course, isn’t really directed towards designing your own patterns, but rather provides a framework for basic knitted garment shapes. All three of these books are still in print.

Before I go on, I’ll say that while I’m happy to own all of them, I find I’m most inclined to go back and re-read Walker, Righetti, and Newton. With Walker and Righetti I’m likely to read out of idle interest; from time to time I agree, but I do find myself disagreeing with points here and there. I just read Newton over because of her description of her creative process — not because I’d do the same thing, oh, no! I shudder a little when I look at the lavendar cabled motorcycle jacket. But it’s interesting that Newton wrote a book with concrete examples about how she translates her ideas into swatches and garments. Walker’s book, of course, is most unlike all of the others I’ve mentioned here, because it goes into great detail about knitting many garment shapes from the top down. (I also own stitch dictionaries, including Walker’s four treasuries, but I tend not to use them. I look at stitch dictionaries from time to time, note interesting patterns, but then… tend not to use them.)

The book I’m least likely to consult out of the numbered list is Elalouf; while that is in part because I can never find my copy (but it’s available for free from Knitting Fever on its website! it’s not a big book; rather, it’s a cerlox-bound booklet), it’s also because the designing methodology is covered in significant part by Michelson & Davis. both Elalouf and Michelson & Davis explain pattern drafting with a similar chart format and with worked examples, too, Michelson & Davis has better diagrams and provides worksheets and formulas to follow when doing your own calculations. Both books also cover different sleeve shapes; the content of both books is similar, but Michelson & Davis has more detail. If you’re hunting for books on drafting knitting patterns and are wondering whether it’s worth the effort to hunt down Michelson & Davis, then look at Elalouf’s book online, ignoring the section on “constants” (this is Elalouf’s way of explaining certain constant-but-still-variable numbers in a pattern, like a 7.5 inch armhole depth for a size 38 sweater; Michelson & Davis do a better job of explaining where numbers like that come from). If that kind of methodology works for you, but you want a different (or better) explanation, you might be happier with Michelson & Davis.

Both The Knitting Architect and The Knitter’s Guide to Sweater Design stick with hem-to-neck construction. I’ve never seen Elalouf’s second work that goes into different construction methods, The Advanced Knitting Architect; evidently it’s back in print now, because here’s a review. But the information in the first Elalouf book is generally covered in Michelson & Davis, and Michelson & Davis has more content.

Next, once I format the tables: a survey of how these books identified body measurements and instructed its readers on ease.

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8 Responses to Ease over decades

  1. j. says:

    No particular reason, except (a) I only have a few books (Knitter’s Almanac, Handknitting with MS and whatever the hardcover one is by MS with the Phoenix in it), and (b) from what I recall of EPS (from MS books), there really isn’t a discussion about how to allocate ease; once you’ve decided how much to allocate to the chest, which I don’t really remember being discussed in great detail (how to decide how much to add, I mean), everything else, girth-wise, was set in stone, while most of the vertical distances amounted to “as long as you need it to be”. In that way, I find EPS more of a set of rules akin to gynametry: if your finished chest measurement is X, then you must have an armhole depth of Y, although later an exception was carved out to state that for a raglan(?) it would likely not be more than 10 inches. To me, EPS results in a sweater that’s anatomically correct, but not necessarily well-fitting. (It fits well because it’s big enough to cover you, I guess.)

    Anyway, because of (b), the teachings of EPS were omitted. The secondary purpose of the survey when I did it, after understanding how the dimensions of each piece were derived from body measurements and why certain amounts of ease were chosen (I never really figured out the “why” except “it was the style at the time”), was to figure out how different designers computed set-in sleeve shaping based on body measurements, and EPS certainly wouldn’t have done for that. (I also omitted Barbara Walker’s Knitting from the Top, because she glosses over fit in favour of construction.)

    But that being said, I’m going to double-check to see if my EPS teachings at least mention a range of ease.

  2. I’m not going to make recommendations, because I’m impressed with your idea and don’t want to suggest something without research. (it’s just my usual stupidity-aversion)

    Having gotten that caveat out of the way, is there a reason you’re omitting Elizabeth Zimmermann/Meg Swansen? Even if the EPS can be directly linked to Duncan, EZ had a much bigger influence by virtue of easier-to-read prose.

  3. kbsalazar says:

    There’s another book I’d recommend for your fit survey:

    Montse Stanley’s Creating and Knitting Your Own Designs for a Perfect Fit

    Also out of print, and of early ’80s vintage, but excellently written and presented. The link above is to an in-depth review.

    If you’d like to include it but don’t have a copy handy, write to me and tell me what measurements and ease factors you’re documenting, and I’ll be happy to do the look-ups for you.


  4. Cynthia says:

    Remember when Vogue Knitting used to tell you how much ease there was in a pattern? Now they just tell you what size the model is wearing. What good is that?

  5. Carol says:

    I am very curious to hear what “average” ease is, and how it’s changed over time. (In another world, that would be a law review article: A Chronological Study of Ease in Handknit Garments Relative To Sociological Ramifications in the Fashion Industry?) I often hear ranges given, say “two to four inches” except I think that there can be a big difference between a sweater with 2 inches of ease and 4 inches, especially at the smaller sizes. I also suspect that there will be a correlation with the popular styles/trends of the time, i.e., in the 80s, ease will be roomier than the forties.

    In other words, I wait with bated breath.

    Of course, the next generation of knitters will have to factor in the soon-to-be-ubiquitous boob job, so who knows how it will all shake out…

  6. orata says:

    Wow–thanks for posting the link to The Knitting Architect!

    I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on Elizabeth Zimmermann’s EPS in the context of ease measurements and proportions found in these other books–does her percentage of a key number correspond well to the measurements the other sources have come up with? If you figure ease into your key number, then take a percentage of this for the sleeve measurements, your sleeves will have proportionately less ease rather than an absolute number. How does this play into it?

  7. AuntieAnn says:

    I’m doing more (many more) socks than sweaters these days, and find it amazing that hardly any sock books seem to address negative ease, which I find critical to making socks that fit well. Of the many sock books I own, so far only Cat Bordhi’s newest one uses negative ease.

  8. This is very interesting, and thanks for the link to the Knitting Architect which I hadn’t seen before. Look forward to seeing your survey. Meanwhile, you make no comment about Ida Riley Duncan, and I would be interested in hearing someone else’s thoughts – I have a copy of Knit to Fit, and whilst I found it interesting, I found myself constantly irritated by the little bits that she appeared to have left out in explaining the design process