Garment Primer: Decreases for Function and Adornment
When making garments, you’ll find that most designs rely on increasing and decreasing to create the shape of the pieces. During the design process, the designer makes many decisions, not the least of which is choosing the types of increases and decreases that will be used and where they will be placed. For sweaters knitted from the bottom up, decreases at the armhole and neckline are in a prominent position, and the designer can choose to make them more or less pronounced to create a desired effect.
For example, a sweater worked with seed-stitch borders might look best if the stitch pattern is interrupted as little as possible; therefore, placing the decreases close to the garment edge and working them as knitted or purled to match the seed-stitch pattern would produce the most invisible result. If a stitch pattern is very complex and decreasing in pattern is too difficult to track or interrupts the pattern too visibly, bound-off stitches at the garment edge can replace the use of decreases for shaping. A raglan sweater worked in stockinette stitch with prominent decreases at the raglan seams has a classic, understated elegance that is subtly eye-catching.
Decreases and Their Role in Design
Part of the designer’s job is to choose the decrease that works best with the sweater’s architecture and concept. The aim of this article is to make you familiar with how decreases function as an aesthetic choice so that you understand why they were used in a design and how you might change them, should you wish to do so.
In the overall design process, choosing decreases might seem like a very small piece of the equation, but selecting which decrease to use actually involves a long series of decisions that relate to one another. When planning a sleeve cap, for example, the designer would first determine the height of the cap and the overall shape, and from there calculate how many decreases were needed in total. Then the designer must choose the type of decrease (single, double, a combination of the two, etc.), the slant (right or left), the frequency (every right side row, every fourth row, every row, etc.), and finally, where the decreases will be placed in relationship to the garment edge (one stitch in from the edge, two stitches in, seven stitches in, etc.).
All of these possibilities are weighed against one another; structural necessities are blended with aesthetic choices, and the result is the finished pattern. The benefit of working from a pattern is that all of the decisions have been made for you—the luxury of making your own clothes is being able to use a pattern as a framework and to change elements to suit your own preferences. Understanding how these basic elements of sweater design work helps you appreciate the designer’s process and gives you a jumping-off point to experiment with your own choices, working with either an existing design or something of your own invention.
What contributes to a decrease being more or less obtrusive? Decorative or invisible? Decreases all have a directional slant, meaning that once a decrease is worked, the top-most stitch leans either to the right or to the left in relation to the other stitches in the fabric. For this reason designers usually choose to use them in mirrored pairs—one at either edge of a knitted piece—so that the decreases point in opposite directions, either toward one another or away from one another. Another key decision is where the decreases are placed within the fabric. Most patterns have them placed at least one stitch away from the fabric edge. Decreases worked with the first or last two stitches of the fabric result in a jagged, untidy edge that makes seaming or picking up stitches more difficult. Placing the decreases at least one stitch away from the fabric edge creates a distinct pattern and a smooth selvedge that can make sewing up seams or picking up stitches much easier. The farther from the edge the decrease is made (two stitches, three stitches, ten stitches—there are many possibilities), the more visible and prominent it will be.
Swatches 1 and 2 show decreases worked two stitches in from the fabric edge. In swatch 1 a K2tog (right-slanting decrease) is worked at the beginning of right-side rows and an SSK (left-slanting decrease) is worked at the end, which results in decreases that slant toward the edges of the fabric. In Swatch 2, an SSK is worked at the beginning of right-side rows, and a K2tog is worked at the end, which results in decreases that slant toward the center of the fabric. Because of the frequency of the decreases in an area like a raglan armhole, even this small change has a very noticeable effect, especially when worked on a ground of stockinette stitch in a yarn with good stitch definition. Whether you prefer the look of Swatch 1 or 2, changing from one to the other is a simple way you can dramatically impact your sweater’s appearance.
For a more pronounced effect, you could move the decreases four stitches in from the edge and choose those used in Swatch 1 that slant toward the edge—K2tog at the beginning of the row and SSK at the end. Swatch 3 shows the result.
If you decide to change the slant of your decreases on the sleeve cap, be sure to adjust the slant on your armhole decreases to match. As a general rule, decreases at the armhole and then on the sleeve cap will either face toward one another or away from one another, but they will not slant in the same direction.
What about decreases used in shaping the sweater body? These don’t usually occur with the same frequency as armhole decreases, so this makes them generally less visible, but the designer (and the knitter) might still have a preference for which way the decreases slant: toward the center of the sweater or toward the edge. In general, decreases slanting toward the body on a relatively plain sweater will accentuate the line of the sweater and the wearer—they have a strong, linear effect. Swatch 4 shows an example of body decreases placed two stitches in from the edge and worked every fourth row.
Swatch 5 also works the decreases two stitches in from the edge and spaces them every fourth row, but the decreases are slanted toward the edge of the sweater, producing a gentler line.
As the example in Swatch 3 shows, moving the body decreases further from the edge of the fabric gives them a more pronounced appearance, similar to the line of a dart on a woven garment. This placement puts the shaping at the forefront of the design and makes it a focal point.
Whether you prefer a more subtle or a more decorative approach to decreasing, an understanding of how decrease placement affects the appearance of a fabric gives you insight into the design process and a basis for your own shaping decisions.
Sarah Solomon is a knitting instructor and designer in New York City. This article was originally published in knitscene Fall 2016.