If you haven’t yet taken that leap to knit your first sweater, there may be some lessons you can avoid learning the hard way.
1. Know what makes a sweater complex, so you are prepared
With almost any project, you have the unique task of combining many different shapes into one. This concept is usually referred to as “construction”, and sweaters have relatively complex construction. There are several elements and design patterns that describe construction, like these phrases: top-down, bottom-up, drop sleeve, raglan, seamed vs. seamless, flat vs. in the round.
How a garment is shaped also has a big impact on the overall fit and the complexity of the project. “Shaping” refers to how each piece of the sweater warps to fit your body. For example, a sweater that cinches at the waist requires shaping of some form. You could do that with increases and decreases, adding cables, short rows, or any other knitting technique that changes the size of a piece. More shaping = more complexity, so consider looking for a pattern that boasts minimal shaping!
2. Practice your seaming, and learn the mattress stitch
If you’ve never had to seam two knit pieces together, you might not realize the precision required. Unless you’re knitting a lace weight sweater, your stitches will be big enough to easily show mistakes in the event you don’t stitch in a straight line. It’s not so scary after you’ve taken some time to learn the mattress stitch! This is a great way to hide the seam. Here is a link to a great video from Alexis Winslow : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ObuZwHlmDCI&t=130s
If a particular type of seam is suggested in the pattern, definitely use it. Just be sure you are follow some kind of seaming technique rather than improvising. This could make or break your project - right at the very end!
3. Make a swatch - no seriously hear me out
A good designer will have thought through all of the different sizes and had testers to make sure they are accurate. They will even provide the finished dimensions of the garment so you make the perfect size. The only thing you have to do is match gauge!
1. Start with the suggested needle size
2. Knit the entire swatch
3. Measure and decide if you need to move up or down a needle size
4. If yes, repeat 1-3
If the pattern says make a 4” x 4” swatch, do that. Some stitches yield different swatches depending on how much you make. Ribbing is a example of this! A 4 row rib won’t collapse nearly as much as a 40 row rib will.
Usually the swatch will take you less than an hour. Once you start making swatches for your projects, you won’t think of it as an extra step but an integral part of the project.
4. Actually follow the pattern
This seems like a no brainer, but this was my biggest mistake the first time I tried to knit a sweater! I wonder how many others reading this have experienced the same thing… :) While knitting my first sweater, I would constantly lose track of how many rows I had knit, and this was before I learned how to count my rows after the fact. It made a huge difference and I wound up with something almost twice as long as it should have been.
The second deviation I made from the pattern - I added cuffs the sleeves after I finished. I knit ribbed cuffs separately and then attached them by sewing them to the sweater. I didn’t understand different seaming techniques and the seam between each sleeve and cuff was very tight and uncomfortable.
5. Block it 'till you rock it (kinda like fake it 'till you make it?)
Blocking can fix a lot of imperfections you can't avoid, like smoothing stitches and evening gauge. It can also fix some mistakes you made along the way! Try pulling and stretching at certain areas for a last minute adjustment. If you're working with a wool blend, you have a shot at fixing those shaping details. Keep in mind you may need to re-block when you wash it next. Cotton and other non-protein fibers tend to keep their original shape, unfortunately.
That all being said - you’re first sweater doesn’t have to be perfect! If you pick a yarn thats warm and cozy, you can always use it as at-home loungewear like I do with my first sweater (after I removed the cuffs).
Comment below if you have additional tips, questions, or want to share first sweater horror stories. Meanwhile, give extra encouragement to those who are about to try their first sweater. I promise the don't all end terribly!