If you spend a little time deconstructing your original pattern and treating each area logically, you’ll soon be able to work out which areas you need to change, and how.
1. General Vintage Knitting Pattern info
3. Body Measurements
5. Vintage Yarns & Quantities
6. Modern Yarns
7. Swatch Till You Drop
8. Plotting Out The Pattern
9. Make a Toile or Muslin
10. Understanding The Pattern
11. Working with Colour and Stitch
12. Needle Conversion Chart
GENERAL VINTAGE KNITTING PATTERN INFORMATION
Knitting from vintage knitting patterns is sometimes not for the faint-hearted, and not generally recommended for beginners (unless you’ve got someone experienced on-hand to help you). Having said that, don’t be too put off even if you only have a little experience under your belt, as long as you bear in mind that the garments take time and patience (they’re mostly knitted using a fine-ply wool and fine needles). Many UK vintage knitting patterns, particularly from the ’30s ’40s, can be intricate.
Things have changed in the 60 or so years since most of these knitting patterns were published, mainly yarns and body sizes. I’d like to think the body size issue is down to more disciplined under-garments in the last century, but sadly I think we’re just bigger (lucky you if you don’t need to adapt them). Instructions in these vintage knitting patterns are often given in one size which would roughly translate to our size 10 (32 – 34″ being the most common bust size).
Tension/Gauge swatches are the order of the day when it comes to knitting up old patterns – if you’ve never bothered before, now’s the time to start.
PAY CLOSE ATTENTION TO THE ORIGINAL PATTERN’S TENSION GUIDE
The tension guide is the key to unlocking the size of the original garment: you can read through the pattern and note down the key measurements by converting stitches to inches. For example, if the tension guidelines tell you to aim for 7sts and 10 rows to the inch, and the amount of stitches on the needle at the bust before armhole shaping is 120, you can perform the following calculation:
120 (sts at the bust) ÷ 7 (sts per inch) = 17.14 (inches)
From this you can deduce that the original garment is intended to fit a 34” (85cm) bust. Use the same formula for the main body measurements (see below) and compare with your own measurements to assess where you’ll need to make size changes. This is particularly useful when it comes to working out whether or not the garment is running into negative ease (see below).
Don’t forget, if your swatch differs slightly from the original guidelines, you can always try knitting up another using different size needles. For example, if the original recommends 7.5 sts to the inch on size 11 (3mm) needles and yours comes up as 7 sts, try another swatch using size 12 (2.75mm) needles. Alternatively if yours comes up as 8 sts, try using size 10 (3.25mm) needles.
You might think you’re already pretty familiar with your measurements, but you’ll need to work from a definitive map of your own body in order to convert the original pattern into something you’ll be comfortable wearing.
Vintage patterns are generally too small for our modern figures (as a rule the 1930s – 40s patterns cater for a 34” (85cm) bust) and although they might fit more petite figures you’ll still need to watch out for the length and negative ease (see below). Waistbands were designed to sit at the actual waist, making them a lot higher than our modern garments … you’re going to want to create something which is comfortable (ie you’re not tugging constantly at the hemline) but which hasn’t been lengthened to the extent that it detracts too much from the overall vintage dimensions.
Take a careful note of your own body measurements and use them as a map to guide you through which changes you’ll need to make to your garment. You can work out the original garment’s measurements by using your tension/gauge swatch (see below) and compare them with your own.
The most likely places you’ll be making size alterations to are bust width and length. Be aware if you make alterations to the bust width, this will have a knock-on effect in other areas such as shoulder width. If you make adjustments to the bust width but not to the shoulder width, you’ll have to re-shape your armhole slightly to end up with the right amount of stitches at the shoulder. You’ll also have to make corresponding adjustments to the sleeves to fit into the armhole.
WATCH OUT FOR EASE
Ease is the amount of space between your body and the garment. A typical modern garment will use between 2-4” (5-10cm) ease depending on the style of the garment, whereas vintage garments catered for between -1 to -2” (2.5-5cm). This method of making the garment tighter than the actual body measurements avoided the use of shaping methods (you’ll rarely come across darts in vintage patterns), ensured a close-fit and resulted in a silhouette which was in keeping with fashions from the 1930s – 1950s.
Calculate the original garment dimensions by referring to the tension guidelines (see point 1) even if it tells you the bust is a comfortable 36” (90cm) which just happens to match your own … you’re more than likely to run into negative ease in any patterns up to the late 1950s.
VINTAGE YARNS & QUANTITIES
This is another hurdle which modern knitters often baulk at – how do you know which yarns were used? A clue is often in the tension guidelines and needle choices: the finer the needle and tension guideline, the finer the yarn. For example 2 and 3-ply yarns were very common which resulted in a fine fabric, lending the garments a more tailored look. To knit a fine fabric and maintain a fluid drape using this fine yarn, size 2.25mm – 3.75mm (sizes 13 – 9 UK imperial) were used.
Pre-1950, any reference to ‘wool’ meant 100% wool. Synthetics didn’t make an appearance until well into the decade, although silk, cotton and mixes were also used. Look at the garment image and see if you can deduce any clues from that – does the yarn have a slight ‘halo’ around it, meaning a mohair or angora mix?
How do you know what quantities are required? The patterns tell you how many ounces to use whereas nowadays we’re used to buying our yarns in lengths and grams. There’s a simple way to estimate how much yarn you’ll need: if you can work out the amount of yarn used in a simple swatch, you can calculate how much yarn per square inch you’ll need. By then estimating how many square inches there are in your garment, you can then multiply the total square inches x yarn length per square inch. Add 20% or so on top of that as a safety net.
Whilst DK is still the most popular and ubiquitous yarn available, we’re seeing a burgeoning choice of finer yarns. Popular brands such as Rowan and Debbie Bliss are producing some great 4-ply and laceweight yarns, then there’s the vintage knitter’s favourite, Jamieson & Smith, which produces a jumper-weight 2-ply Shetland (roughly equivalent to a vintage 3-ply). The popularity of sock knitting also helps the vintage knitter as the fine sock yarns are often appropriate (although watch out for some of the tougher wearing ones as they won’t produce a terribly soft garment), and machine knitting knitting yarn sold by the cone is another source.
Above all, don’t be afraid to plunge in and experiment with a swatch, you’ve got nothing to lose!
SWATCH TILL YOU DROP
The key to decoding any vintage pattern is to knit a swatch using your intended needles and yarn. This swatch will act as your guide to yarn and needle choices, and will be a foundation point to help you decide how to re-size your revised garment (see Point 1 above). It’s also a good way of helping you decide whether the yarn you’ve set your heart on is appropriate for the project or not – does it drape well? Does it knit up to the same tension guidelines? Is the colour appropriate?
PLOTTING OUT THE PATTERN
You don’t have to be an expert fashion illustrator to mock up an outline of your garment with the appropriate measurements. I have a sketchbook which I use purely for my knitting projects containing all my sketches, calculations and swatches which I can refer back to for future projects.
I draw one outline with the original measurements, then another one with my revised measurements (taken from my body measurements table, see below) which I can then convert into stitches and knitting instructions. If I’m feeling extra diligent or unsure, I’ll make up a toile, or at least sketch out a lifesize prototype using knitter’s graph paper.
MAKE A TOILE (OR MUSLIN)
A pretty definitive way of working out whether or not your revised measurements are going to fit is to sew up a toile, or prototype. I know I know, you’re a knitter not a sewer, but this is an incredible useful way to de-mystify the garment, particularly handy if you’re not sure if the changes you’ve made to the armhole and sleeve shapings will work.
Plot your toile by transferring your measurements onto dressmaker’s spot-and-cross paper (graph paper can also be used), then cut round the outline to make a paper pattern. Pin the pattern to a plain jersey (or T-shirt) fabric, cut it out and sew it up.
Many knitters from the 1930s and ’40s would use a sewing pattern as the foundation for their own knitting patterns, so the relationship between the two is closer than you think!
UNDERSTANDING THE PATTERN
Before you make a start on the pattern, make sure you’ve gone through it closely to ensure you don’t come across any unexpected glitches, including the ‘Making Up’ stages (actually this is good advice for any knitting pattern!). Is there is a stitch you’re not familiar with? Different abbreviations to those you’re used to? How do those box-cap sleeves actually work? If you’re making changes to the width or armhole length, do you have an understanding of how the armhole/sleeve shaping works (plotting the pattern out properly as above should help this).
Better to be prepared and work it out … if in doubt, make up some knitter’s graph paper which will give you the actual size of each stitch (see below), cellotape it together and draw out the pattern shape row by row – particularly useful for armholes and sleeves.
WORKING WITH COLOUR AND STITCH
You might find yourself hankering after a fine ’40s fair isle jumper, or a ’50s sweater with contrast peaked yoke or a particularly stitch pattern, but then falter when it comes to incorporating the colourwork into any size changes you might be making. The answer is to go back to the graph paper or sketchbook and work out the pattern stitch by stitch.
Many vintage fair isle patterns don’t contain a chart, preferring instead to write the instructions for colour changes out row by row, in which case making your own chart up is a useful thing to do anyway. Fair isle repeat patterns are generally ‘centered’ on the garment, with maybe half a pattern at each side. When you work out how many stitches there in each repeat, you can plot out how many will span the row and incorporate any extra stitches this way.
Stitch patterns are worked out in the same way … they occur over ‘multiples’ (ie, a k2, p3 rib will occur over multiples of 5) and you’ll need to incorporate any extra stitches into these repeats.
NEEDLE CONVERSION CHART
Vintage patterns use imperial needle sizes, which you can still pick up second-hand. If you only have new metric needles, here’s a useful needle conversion chart: