Pattern Play: Size Matters

Usually when we learn to knit, someone teaches us the basic skills and tells us to practice. That’s a great start, but then we have to learn how to read a pattern. This 7-part series explains how. We’ve all been there—that point at which we fall in love with a knitted garment pattern but agonize over what size to knit. Pattern guru Kate Atherley is here to share the secrets to choosing which size to knit for any garment. Originally published in knitscene Summer 2016.

There are a lot of factors that go into choosing the right size of a pattern to knit, but there are two key things to look for: information about the garment itself and information about the person who is to wear the garment. Information about the garment itself can be found in the printed pattern. You might see the headings Size (or To Fit) and Finished Measurements (or Actual). What’s the difference?


Size describes the person who is to wear the garment. Sometimes size is presented as letters—S, M, L, XL. For children’s garments, it’s often presented as an age (e.g., newborn, 3 months, 1 year, 2 years). Sometimes it’s given as a measurement (e.g., 36″, 38″, 40″ chest). Think of this as what you read on the label in the clothing store. Size says very little about the garment.

Finished Measurements describes the garment and is the key listing to help you determine a size. If a pattern lists that the sweater has an actual finished bust circumference of 40″, if you measure it, it will be 40″ around at bust height—that is, the front and back will each be 20″ across. In knitscene, the measurements at the top of the materials list under “Sizes” are the actual measurements of the garment when knitted to match the gauge listed. (See my Pattern Play column from knitscene Winter 2015 on achieving gauge.)

Different types and styles of garments are worn differently: a bulky sweater-coat is worn loose, while the shell of a twin-set is worn more fitted. The finished measurements of the sweater-coat would be much larger than the finished measurements of the shell, but both could be worn by the same person. To help choose the right size, you also want to consider the person who will be wearing the garment.

You’ve probably heard about “ease.” Ease is about how you wear a garment, the difference between your measurements and the measurements of the garment. The measurements of my winter coat are much bigger than my body measurements; it has a lot of ease, so I can fit a sweater under it. The measurements of my favorite summer T-shirt are much closer to my own actual measurements—I wear it quite closely fitted, with only a little ease. The finished measurements of my yoga top are the same as my measurements—I wear it with zero ease. The finished measurements of the leggings I wear at yoga class are smaller than my measurements, as they stretch to fit—I wear them with negative ease. Go through your own wardrobe and measure items of clothing: different types of garments will have wildly different measurements, depending on how you wear them.

Note: The finished measurements of the garment that are listed in a pattern are exactly that—the measurements of the garment. There is no ease built into garment measurements, since there is no ease without a person in the garment.

The finished measurements of a garment you make will rarely match your own measurements. Choose the finished measurements of the garment based on your measurements plus the ease you want. If you want to wear a garment loosely, you might choose the size for which the finished measurements are your own plus 3–4″ of ease. That is, if your bust measurement (more on this below) is 40″, you will want your sweater to be 43″ or 44″ around. If you’re making a stretch-to-fit piece, such as a sock, the finished measurements might be smaller than your actual measurements.

Some patterns don’t list a size specifically. Always look for the measurements of the garment, such as numbers on a schematic, and guidance on how to choose which size to make. There may be a statement (e.g., “choose a size about 2″ larger than your actual measurement”). Look at the pictures: How is the model wearing the garment? Is it very tight? Is it slim-fitting? Is it roomy? Consider the garment type and style and how you would wear it. Find something similar in your wardrobe and measure that!

I love a pattern that offers a schematic, as it’s a way to virtually try on a garment. Before I decide on the size I’m going to make, I hold a tape measure around myself to get a sense of how big a size is relative to my body. If it’s a straight sweater with no shaping measuring 42″ around, I will see what a 42″ circumference looks like around my body at various points: my hips, my waist, the fullest part of my bust, my upper bust. I’ll also look at the sleeve lengths, the neck depth, and other key measurements to get a sense of how the garment will fit me. After that, I’ll choose the size that most closely aligns with the measurements I want, and then I can get started knitting the perfect size for me!

A few minutes with a tape measure can guide you to better size choices and radically improve the fit of your garments. Measure yourself, measure your wardrobe, and then measure out the pattern you’re looking at. If you’re going to spend hours making a garment, it’s worth those few minutes to get the perfect fit!

How to Measure Yourself

Grab a friend for a measuring party. Wear a tight-fitting tank or a swimsuit and take the key measurements. The handy chart and illustrations here come from Alex Capshaw-Taylor’s book, Dressed in Knits (Interweave/F+W Media, 2015). The most important measurement is bust, but probably not as you expect: for your bust, take your upper torso measurement, just under the arms. The size of your full bust doesn’t reflect the size of your frame. A D-cup slim but curvy woman and a B-cup, broad-shouldered competitive swimmer might both measure 40″ around the full bust, but they couldn’t possibly wear the same size shirt. The high bust measurement gives a more accurate sense of the size of your frame. The key to flattery is a proper fit in the shoulders and frame.


  1. High Bust: Measure just under the arms.
  2. Waist: Measure around the narrowest part of your waist.
  3. High Hip: Measure around your hips at the top of your hip bones.
  4. Hip: Measure around the widest part of your hips, between your high hip and crotch.
  5. Upper Arm: Measure around the widest part of your upper arm.
  6. Forearm: Measure around your forearm, where a three-quarter-length sleeve would hit.
  7. Cross Back Width: Hold a knitting needle in each armpit and measure the horizontal distance between the two needles.
  8. Back-to-Waist Length: Measure vertically from the top of your vertebrae to the narrowest part of your waist.
  9. Waist-to-Hip Length: Measure vertically from the narrowest part of your waist to where you would like your garment to hit.
  10. Short-Sleeve Length: Measure vertically from your armpit to midway down your upper arm.
  11. Three-Quarter-Sleeve Length: Measure vertically from your armpit to midway down your forearm.
  12. Full-Sleeve Length: Measure vertically from your armpit to your wrist.

Write down your actual measurements for future reference.


Featured Image: Photo by Garrett Evans.

Read More of Kate’s Pattern Tips in knitscene

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