Designing a Sweater for Thor, Part 1: Initial Decisions

This series is based on a sweater I am designing and knitting for Thor’s birthday.  I have designed and knit many sweaters, but I design them for a specific recipient and never knit the sweater twice.  For this sweater, I will follow the approach used by all my Norwegian foremothers – not to mention Priscilla Gibson-Roberts and Elizabeth Zimmerman.  That is, you do not need to have a background in engineering to design a sweater.  Using a holistic, conceptual approach, your creativity, and a few basic measurements, you can create your own sweater.

There are several initial decisions that need to be made before whipping out needles and yarn and starting to swatch.

FIRST:  Fiber content.

Thor has a genuine allergic dermatitis reaction to wool, alpaca and mohair, and an anaphylactic reaction to angora (see my blog post about allergic reactions to fibers).  That said, while he can never wear angora (at least not without an epi pin or hospital nearby), he can wear wool, alpaca and mohair as long as it doesn’t come in direct contact with his skin.

When we lived in San Francisco, I knit several garments out of silk, bamboo, cotton and blends thereof that worked quite well for him.  Now, however, we’re living in the Pacific Northwest, and it is far colder – not to mention I am determined to use up some of my immense stash of Brown Sheep’s “Prairie Silk” (now out of production).  🙂

Yet Prairie Silk is a densely spun, single ply yarn.  In 50 g/88 y hanks, its content is 72% wool/18% mohair/10% silk.  Put a garment knit from Prairie Silk against Thor’s skin, and he would be in agony and end up covered in bumps, but, as long as a sweater knit from it has sufficient ease, Thor could wear it over a long-sleeved shirt.

2.  BASIC DESIGN:  Cardigan or pullover?

Thor wanted a cardigan because of its versatility.  I thought (yes, I know it’s not about me), a cardigan the best choice as I can knit in sufficient ease so that he can wear it easily over a long-sleeved, collared shirt (and vest if he wants), thus keeping his skin out of direct contact with the yarn.

A cardigan needs a closure … zipper or buttons?  Thor spends many hours a day watching the stock market on his computer screen.  He often, simultaneously, plays the guitar.  As with many musicians serious about keeping their guitars in pristine condition, while he plays Thor will not wear cardigans or sweatshirts with zippers or buttons or even pants with metal buttons or rivets.

I spent hours planning out hidden zippers (but the teeth were always at risk of hitting the back of a guitar) and hidden placket button bands (but they all looked cumbersome).  I wasn’t satisfied with anything I came up with.  Then I remembered my grandmother teaching me how to knit and crochet buttons for doll clothes!  Voila!

3.  NECKLINE:  V-neck/round, collared/no collar?

I showed Thor several pictures of various cardigans so he could get a sense of what neckline he might like.  He decided on a v-necked, shawl-collared men’s cardigans.

4.  PATTERN:  Simple or complicated?

Thor loves cables, so I gave him The Complete  Book of Traditional Aran Knitting by Shelagh Hollingworth.  Thor oo’d and ahh’d as he flipped through the pages of pictures of cable samples.  We both loved the wide, multi-cable patterns; as Thor’s long and lean, a heavily cabled sweater would look great on him.  But a heavily cabled sweater knit from Prairie Silk would be too warm to wear anywhere but outside tromping through the snow.  (After all, we live in the Pacific Northwest, not the Yukon!  Plus, his birthday is this month … though I know even a simple cabled sweater won’t be ready for his birthday!)  So we compromised:  I will knit a fairly wide cable design on either side of the button band and maybe a smaller one up the center of the arm.  The rest of the body of the sweater will be in straight stitch.

5.  SLEEVE:  Dropped, fitted, raglan or saddle shoulder?

Thor was less concerned about sleeve and left that up to me.  I decided to go with a shaped saddle shoulder.  According to Priscilla Gibson-Roberts in Knitting in the Old Way, this style will help reduce some of the boxiness of the sweater.  This should allow Thor to wear the cardigan under a jacket.  (Gibson-Roberts discusses three types of saddle shoulders.  Also, Shirley Paden’s Knitwear Design Workshop contains a section on saddle shoulders generally.)

6.  TO STEEK OR NOT TO STEEK?

Like many people who learned to knit from their Norwegian grandmothers, knitting in the round and steeking for a cardigan opening seems so logical.  That said, (1) I am writing this series for people who are ready to design their own sweater, and (2) I have not found steeking to be a common practice for the average knitter, at least in the U.S.  So I will knit this in the flat.

Next Sunday:  Part 2 – Measuring, Drawing, Graphing & Note Taking

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About sweatyknitter

Fiber art devotee, author, and amateur artisan bread baker.
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5 Responses to Designing a Sweater for Thor, Part 1: Initial Decisions

  1. While I would prefer to knit this cardigan in the round and steek the opening, I decided to knit it flat with faux side seams. While steeking is easier/faster, I think it is a little more intimidating to U.S. knitters. (My Norwegian relatives never thought twice about steeking and I understand that folks like Alice Starmore would agree. 🙂 ) I am doing this series with the thought it will raise the fog of mystery that seems to interfere with knitters’ confidence in creating their own sweater. 🙂

    Re shoulder seams, I would always use (and perhaps even reinforce) shoulder seams for heavy sweaters – whether the weight is due to the size of the sweater or the pattern (e.g., a heavily cabled sweater). Otherwise, as you know, the sweater can too easily lose its shape/definition around the shoulders.

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  2. I have known only two people with anaphylactic reactions to protein fiber – one was a colleague of mine and the other, of course, Thor. Both reacted severely and quickly … scared me!

    I agree – cables are great fun! The cables on the sweater that is the focus of this next series will be fairly straightforward. I am making the actual making/designing of a sweater the focus, not the stitch pattern. That said, I still haven’t decided on the cable pattern – but I want it to be about 3-4 inches wide and will set them on either side of the cardigan front opening! 🙂

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  3. needleandspindle says:

    Ah this reads to me like an adventure story. Designing your own sweater has to be one of most exciting parts of knitting. I am looking forward to the second installment. What are your thoughts on seams? Do you prefer seamless for ease and speed or seams for structure? The last sweater I designed for my man was seamless. He is big in the shoulders and the weight of the fabric has moved the shoulder seam down several inches.

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  4. Wow, I’ve never heard of anyone having an anaphylactic reaction to something that isn’t ingested in some manner. That’s kind of terrifying. I think I would live in fear that the lady next to me on the crowded train might be wearing something that could kill me. On a totally unrelated note, I am very jealous that your husband loves cables. They’re so fun to knit!

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  5. monsteryarns says:

    I am just going through the same process for my son! We don’t have the allergy problems (that sounds BAD!), but my son has little clue of what he likes but is very clear what he doesn’t like. So we’ve been working on a process of elimination.
    I’m now half way up the front knitting a simple design similar to seed stitch with cabled hem and large ribbed neck. When he saw the design he said he liked both sides. So I’m now going to make it reversible! And since I didn’t swatch (I know….) I’m going to have to add a panel on the sides.
    Race to the finish 🙂

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