Framing Our Problems with Fit

A version of this article originally appeared in Moorit, issue 1, published on September 28th 2021.

A back and front bodice block or sloper, abutted at the underarm
My bespoke bodice blocks (slopers if you’re from the US).

Every maker has a favourite sweater; a well-loved garment is love and energy made tangible. An item is loved because you enjoyed making it, and you adore wearing it. Part of that love is connected to how well the sweater fits; conscientious makers take great care over fit, and conscientious designers want to design well-fitting garments for everyone.

Crocheters care about finishing techniques and swatching. They are well-informed and deeply invested—financially and personally—in a project’s success, and carefully consider yarn choice, fibre type, and colour. A lot of thought is given to that little square of fabric that holds the key to their chosen project as tension has considerable fit implications.

There is, deservedly, much discussion about quality standards and how to address pressing problems of fitting and accommodating all bodies. Are size ranges responsibly graded and inclusive? Do schematics contain enough information to help makers decide which size to make and how, when and where to make alterations? As a first step, designers and makers would benefit from a more open dialogue about their mutual expectations. But how can we solve fitting problems so makers don’t fall out of love with making garments?

A brick repeat of crochet flowers

The need for representative size ranges is already being acknowledged by more and more designers and companies. Although a specialist skill, grading—the process by which a range of sizes is generated from one or two master patterns—has often been carried out by designers themselves. However, the days of catering for only six sizes (e.g. XS-XXL) are over, and with that comes the realisation that either grading needs to be outsourced—or the designer has to update their skillset. Either way, grading must be part of a high-quality pattern; it is a vital weapon in the war against bad fit. Further, a representative size range supports makers who need to make bespoke alterations. It is impossible to make a start on fit adjustments without an existing size to use as a basis.

Grading goes hand in hand with pattern testing; not the naughty kind that mimics a technical editor, but that which checks the fit of a pattern. Unless a designer has lived experience of dressing or fitting a variety of body types, or being unable to wear standard sizing, it is tricky to understand how good fit works in practice and how it is engineered in a pattern. Testing larger crochet sizes can present challenges because they take longer to make, increased yarn usage adds to the costs, and testers may need more time than is usually given. Utilising testers as well as helpful resources, such as up-to-date sizing charts and consulting specialist graders, can make a huge difference towards good fit.

Top-down construction is a favoured approach for achieving good fit because the maker can make adjustments in situ, while also avoiding seaming. It’s also a great exercise for understanding the relationship between the body, the fabric and the pattern, and crocheters with experience can note trouble spots before they even make a slipknot. On the other hand, not all crocheters and knitters like top-down sweaters, partly because the shoulders and upper chest can be difficult to fit well. 

But designers are clever folk, and a cursory survey shows that the most popular, well-fitting top-down designs feature minimal patterning. If plain treble (US double crochet) or stocking stitch is not used, the pattern repeat is rarely worked over more than four stitches. This limits design possibilities; if larger or more complex pattern repeats are unsuitable for top-down designs that fit well, will we run out of options? Hopefully not! And therein lies an opportunity for invention. First, we need to look at how we got to our current situation.

A lemon and cream striped crochet blanket, made up in a cluster pattern.

Sizing and fit were never about comfort; they were about money and convenience. A TIME article from December 1939, ‘WOMEN: No Boondoggling,’ noted that “Altering garments to fit the infinite variety of women’s figures keeps a great many people busy; but it annually costs U.S. manufacturers an estimated $10,000,000 [over £135m in today’s money].”1 This heralded the first of several flawed attempts to “create a new, unified system of sizing women’s clothing.” In Reducing Bodies, Elizabeth Matelski notes that:

Participants in the 1939 clothing study were given a nominal fee for volunteering, which may have influenced the overall results. As the country had not yet pulled itself out of the Great Depression, the study’s female volunteers originated from the most impoverished populations, using the token compensation as food for their families. This likely complicated the representative figure of the “average woman” as the social conditions may have distorted the collected data toward underweight body types. However, if the class status of volunteers goes unquestioned, then these figures illustrate how disseminators of beauty culture had already taken a strong hold of American women’s body esteem, even prior to World War II.2

Matelski: 2017, pp.16-17

The data collected in 1939 led to the development of the first modern sizing system, which allowed manufacturers to develop systems and processes for producing high quantities of clothing. The collective need for basic sewing skills and a sewing machine at home slowly became obsolete; now, women could shop for the clothes they wanted. 

Flat construction methods and seaming went hand in hand with industrialisation and the creation of standard sizing; in turn, these changing standards facilitated a loss of knowledge about garment construction. Crochet machines do not exist, but crochet-like fabric can be generated with a warp knitting loom. This is traditionally put together with linkers, which form a chain stitch through layers of fabric.

The ability to shape knitting to the body and create fully-fashioned details meant that people who disliked the dropped shoulders and boxiness of traditional ganseys could wear flattering knitwear and crochet, style themselves with more versatility, and enjoy tailored features such as set-in sleeves. But complex patterning, gussets, shoulder straps and traditional modes of shaping were impossible or too labour-intensive for machines, which meant that the ease of movement and comfortable fit they conferred was lost. These technological limitations promoted the manufacture of pieced garments, and together they facilitated a loss of size representation.

By the time hand knitting and crochet had a resurgence in the mid-20th century, consumer familiarity with flat construction prevailed—as did the fit problems associated with commercial blocks or slopers created from flawed data collection. People have been made to feel uncomfortable in their clothes—in their bodies—and makers of their own clothes are fighting to reclaim time and space.

Another brick repeat of crochet flowers – but on a mesh foundation.

Yet, there are signs that traditional techniques are the way out of this fit problem. Seamless constructions, or minimising seams where possible, takes us back to the roots of our craft—but we need to look beyond top-down construction. Set-in sleeves can be picked up flat or in the round and worked downwards towards the cuff. One crucial area for innovation is how to design and construct bottom-up seamless garments so that the set-in sleeve can be inserted as the crocheter or knitter works towards the neck and shoulders. Each piece would be worked bottom up, not just the body. 

However, commercialisation of knitting and crochet patterns has led to flat knitting and loss of traditional skills amongst the general public, though this has also generated many beautiful stitch patterns and construction ideas. The challenge here is with directional patterning and lines of symmetry; crochet stitches are highly directional, and it would be a shame to lose hundreds, if not thousands, of past and future patterns for the sake of seamless construction. Due recognition of how flat and seamless construction methods have effected positive change means we can have the best of both worlds and allow crochet, hand knitting, and machine knitting to be recognised as well-loved crafts in their own right.

New methods of construction and engineering necessitate better communication between makers and designers. We need detailed schematics and measurement tables that demand a holistic focus. This fosters a more inclusive clothing culture and supports more body diversity by thinking more about relationships between various areas of the body and acknowledging that the prospect of good fit is a sign of an excellent design. This moves away from presumptions—“if X measures this, then Y measures that”—based on flawed data collected during the early 20th century and the accompanying tendency to choose a size based on a single area of the body. The full bust/chest circumference used by manufacturers and designers today says nothing about a person’s overall size and shape.

It’s interesting to note that engineering and practicality informed what was possible with 20th century designs, whereas aesthetics and styling have become the main drivers at the time of writing. Splitting design skills into creative and technical roles within industry has not helped—they need to be reunified and acknowledged as a team effort. The beauty of crochet and knitting is that it is impossible to divorce artistry from practicality, but then again, makers have never separated the two—particularly crocheters, whose craft put up the best resistance to industrialisation. They are endowed with technical and creative skill, and are best placed to judge what it takes for a garment to fit them. If the maker is in the best position to create a garment that they love, they need to have all the information possible for them to do so.

1. “WOMEN: No Boondoggling,” TIME, 25 December 1939, http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,762108,00.html.

2. Elizabeth M. Matelski, Reducing Bodies: Mass Culture and the Female Figure in Postwar America (Routledge, 2017), 16-17.

Moorit is an independent crochet magazine based in Scotland and run by Alyson Chu. Launched in 2021, it was imagined as an antidote to the dearth of print publications made especially for crocheters. Focussing on wearable, modern garments and accessories made in natural fibres, Moorit is a high-end craft magazine with true indie spirit.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Heather says:

    This is really excellent, thank you, Natalie. Sewing patterns, unless you make your own, always need to be altered. I remember how surprised I was when I found out how the pattern companies came by their sizing, by measuring what was basically a small group of “average” white women!
    When I knit sweaters I usually use bottom up design, because I learned that first and am more comfortable with that. I rarely follow knitting patterns, preferring my own designs. And you are so correct about flat pattern knitting construction having led to a loss of skill amongst knitters. Studying traditional knit sweater construction is very helpful.
    One thing that bothers me is so many sewing patterns now are kind of “least common denominator “ and are so loose and unconstructed that fit isn’t as important. Pattern companies seem to assume that no one has sewing skills anymore. When I compare them to patterns from earlier eras, there really is no comparison! It makes me so happy to see sewing and knitting and crochet being on such an upswing. I guess you can tell I’m an old lady who learned to sew back in the late 50s, early 60s, when I was very young!

    1. Heather, thank you so much for commenting! I completely agree with you on the sewing side too; it is difficult to find indie pattern designers who don’t shy away from good fit and construction techniques. It’s what I’m used to and grew up with – largely because the family and teachers I had at college were mostly of your generation, or at least learnt from that generation ☺️. I definitely appreciate the sentiment!

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