Step 3: Planning and starting the sample

posted on: April 29th, 2019

You’ve refined your concept and charted the stitches: finally it’s time to start your actual sample. Of course once you have your yarn it is really tempting to just grab it and start knitting right away, but there are a few crucial steps to be done first.

Previous posts: 

The preamble: So you wanna be a designer…

Step 1: From idea to pitch

Step 2: Charting and Ravelry

Gauge swatch in the sample yarn

We talked about swatching at the proposal stage, but there is one more to work. And that is a large (at least 15 cm / 6 in square) swatch using the yarn you have for the design. This should use the stitch pattern that you intend for the final project, should be knit flat/in the round as you intend to work the sample, and should be blocked appropriately. For lace, that would be a hard block, or for a garment a gentle pat into shape and then pinning before leaving to dry. Obviously this step is less important where the finished fit isn’t critical (eg a lace shawl), but it is still worth doing to check you are satisfied with the fabric created using your chosen needles.

It is really important to measure the gauge on your swatch both before and after blocking. If it changes substantially, then this is worth noting in the pattern, especially if instructions will include lines like “work till piece measures…”

Note down the pattern details

– Yarn: take a note of the yarn details, including colourways used. I often take a photo of all the ball bands for a complete record. Remember to weigh your yarn accurately (and note this down somewhere safe) before you start knitting the sample. This will mean you can weigh your leftovers and calculate exactly how much of each colour you have used. 

– Needles: note down the size(s) you used for the gauge swatch and any others you will need for the pattern.

– Notions: keep track of the number of stitch markers you use, and also any other notions such as a cable needle, buttons, stitch holders etc.

You should take a lot of notes while knitting the sample – really, a lot of notes. You’ll think you don’t need it, but you do. So keep all of these details in a notebook right in your project bag and use it often.

Size charts and grading

There are many intricacies in the world of pattern grading, and everyone has come up with their own approach. We can only provide guidanced based on how we go about things. First off, decide on how many sizes to offer. Try to include at least a few sizes, even for things like hats, gloves and socks, because truly one size never does fit all. There are some patterns where this doesn’t work out, but it is always worth attempting. 

Resources:

ASTM misses/plus size standards – these are the most comprehensive size charts available, but are pricey. If you are serious about designing garments they contain a wealth of information. However, the following free online resources are also very helpful. 

Ysolda size chart – and drawn together by designer Ysolda Teague from a variety of sources. Usefully for knitwear design, these are sized in 5 cm / 2 in increments at the bust.

Woollywormhead for hats – fantastic range of hat depths and circumferences from newborn to large adult. 

Knititnow for mittens – includes thumb dimensions, as well as length and circumferences for the hands and wrists.

Knitty for socks – results of a survey of nearly 400 knitters.

Emily: My sizing is based predominantly on the ASTM standards, with reference to Ysolda’s table where I need to. The one size chart that I absolutely don’t use if I can avoid it (some publications want designers to use them for all their designs) is the CYCA standards. I find that, especially for the armscye, the sizing is not accurate in the larger sizes and that there are several body dimensions that are important for design but which are not included. 

Robynn: I have created very detailed sizing spreadsheets over time that synthesize measurements from a range of sources – including all of the above – into a table that makes sense to me. So I don’t have to look numbers up afresh each time, I just start with my huge spreadsheet and delete whichever numbers (sizes, body dimensions etc) are not relevant to that particular design.

The important thing to note with all these is that they give body sizes, and not finished garment sizes. It is up to you to determine the desired ease, i.e. how much larger the item should be compared with the wearer’s body. Sometimes negative ease – an item actually smaller than the body – is needed; for instance, hat brims always need to be a bit “too tight” for a good fit, and a close-fitting sweater will often have negative ease at the bust. Outerwear of course needs to be much roomier. 

Using Excel to calculate finished sizes and stitch counts

There are a number of excellent resources for pattern grading available, but these are mostly aimed at grading garments. This is going to be over-complicated for accessories, but it will give you a good starting point.

The basis for calculations is as follows:

– Based on the size charts you are using, determined the body dimension (eg, head circumference).

– Add or subtract ease (e.g. for a hat, subtract 2.5 cm / 1 in from the head circumference) to calculate an approximate finished dimension.

– Multiply the finished dimension by gauge to get an approximate number of stitches. 

– Round the number of stitches to fit in with your stitch pattern. Say your approximate stitch count for a hat is 124, but your lace pattern is a multiple of 6 sts, you would round up to 126.

Although you only need one stitch count for your sample, you will of course have to work out a range of sizes. So you may as well set up a spreadsheet (see resources below) to calculate every size right from the start. Doing this will also highlight any potential problems with the grading (maybe the stitch pattern just doesn’t work with one or two key sizes, for instance) and give you a chance to adapt your pattern at this early stage, if need be. So take care to think through the entire project, determine the key points at which shaping needs to be done, and plan for your whole pattern from the start. 

As you get more experienced in pattern writing, it is likely that you can work towards being able to write the pattern in advance of casting on the sample. We still don’t always do this, especially if working on something totally new, but it is an excellent aim. As mentioned above, attempting full grading from the start gives you a chance to adjust the pattern to avoid pitfalls. Working from a fully written pattern also saves you time as you knit (no need to stop and calculate along the way), and to an extent you become your own test knitter, spotting possible problems in the instructions as you go.

It is worth noting that the grading spreadsheet is going to be different for every project, so need next to no calculations, some need lots. But the important bit is to use a consistent structure and to make sure that there are clear labels and notes throughout so that you can remember what you have done when you come to it later. 

Resources:

Marnie Maclean Tutorials – Some excellent guidance, including example spreadsheets that include measurements and shaping formulae. 

More are linked from the resources page in the Budding Designers group, but are mostly are aimed at grading garments.

There are also courses on Craftsy that cover the topic, though I found them hard to watch.

Then all that remains is to cast on your sample. Again, remember to TAKE ALL THE NOTES. It is the unwritten rule that you can never remember that thing that seemed so logical and obvious when you are knitting. Whether designing on the needles, or working from your drafted pattern, you need that notebook and pencil close at hand. 

Exercise #3: Plan and grade your pattern

Create a full grading spreadsheet. 

– Set it up in whatever way works for you, but ensure that you have somewhere to record: your gauge (both stitches and rows per inch), actual measurements and stitch counts for each size. (Note that Marnie’s tutorial includes a very handy tip on naming cells, which makes it easier to refer to gauge, but that doesn’t work in all spreadsheet applications.) .   

– Create rows for each key measurement. Eg for a hat, this would be head circumference and hat depth (brim to crown). 

– Enter the relevant formulae to calculate your starting stitch count.

– Think through the construction. What are the key turning points – when do you need to start, stop or change shaping? What’s the logical flow of the pattern?

– Create a new row for every relevant turning point in the pattern and calculate the stitch counts at each point. (For something like a top-down shawl, with regular increasing, the process is a bit different; rather than working backwards from the desired stitch count, work forwards to determine the stitch count that will result after completing X repeats or reaching a given length.) 

– Develop your spreadsheet (including more rows as necessary to determine the spacing of increases or decreases, for example) until you are confident you have all the numbers needed to create your sample. Highlight or bold the column for your sample size. Print it out and keep it in your project bag, with a pencil, ready to take ALL THE NOTES. 

– Start knitting! Wheee!

Next posts:

Step 4. Style sheet, pattern writing & layout
Step 5. Photography & editing
Step 6. Tech editing & testing
Step 7. Pattern release & marketing
Step 8. Project & business management, final questions