I have been plotting my sweater season for weeks now, waiting for the weather to turn just a little chilly. I have made plans one morning and changed them by the afternoon. I have favorited so many sweaters and matched them with my sweater quantities that it would make your head spin.
I wanted to talk about what yarn to choose for your sweaters. This is difficult because there are many different factors that go into the decision: weight, fibers, plies, etc. The yarn you choose might be different than what your friend may choose. A knitter in Florida will choose a different yarn than one in Michigan. To add to the complication, your ideal yarn will probably change from pattern to pattern based on construction, your body type, or what you are happy knitting.
There is a lot to say on the subject so I am going to break this up into a few posts over the next couple of weeks. I will preface this series by saying that I'm not a sweater expert, but I do like to knit sweaters. I can't tell you what your ideal sweater yarn should be, but I hope to offer some things you should think about when you do chose your sweater yarn. Take my advice with a grain of salt and do what works for you. Today let's talk about yarn weights.
For me, sweater weights fall into 4 categories:
(I don't include lace in my categories because I don't like to knit sweaters with lace. Not that it shouldn't be on thee list, just that it isn't on my list. There are some great ones out there though, like the Featherweight Cardigan by Hannah Fettig, so if you are inclined I would make a quick search of Ravelry.)
"Danie, you are making this too complicated. Why wouldn't I just use the yarn called for in my pattern?" I'm not saying you shouldn't use the yarn called for in the pattern you have picked out. What I am saying is that sometimes you want to pick the yarn first based on what is flattering to your body and then pick a pattern to match your yarn's weight.
I think of 2 big factors when I consider yarn weights for sweaters: my body and how I like to knit.
Let's have a quick and real discussion here about our bodies. They are all different shapes and sizes. There are different proportions to us all. For a great read on body size and shape, you should really read anything by Amy Herzog, but especially Knit to Flatter. She makes you feel great about the body you are in. "It all comes down to this. If a piece of clothing doesn’t work for you? It’s the clothing’s fault, not your body’s," says Herzog on her website as she drops the mic and women across the world cheer.
There are things we want to accentuate (like shape) and things we would like to camouflage (like lumps and bumps). As a general rule, the ease of all sweaters being zero, the lighter weight yarns will fit to form and accentuate while the heavier weight yarns will smooth over and help to camouflage. "Great! Let's just hide underneath bulky then and call it a day!" Wait just a minute there Hair-Trigger Jane. While the bulky will help to cloak areas you are self-conscious about, it may also hide the lovely shape of your body.
Choosing sweater yarn is a delicate balance between showing enough but not too much. Think about a thin jersey tee. It drapes beautifully and shows off my shape but it also shows my tummy area with more detail than I care to everybody of the outside world. I need a heavier jersey to give a little bit of structure to the fabric and a loose fit over my tummy to skim over those places rather than cling. That thin jersey is like a fingering weight. It drapes beautifully and shows shape but you might decide you want more structure.
Taking it to the other end of the spectrum, imagine a heavy winter parka. Sure I don't see any unflattering rolls but I don't see much of anything. I don't see much shape. I can't see my waist or the soft curve of my hips. I just look like a big blob of human. Bulky yarns provide a lot of structure that can smooth over your lumps but it can have a rather rigid "drape" that can swallow your shape if it is not a fitted and shaped pattern. A petite person's frame could look overwhelmed in a big fluffy sweater. A bulky sweater with too much ease can make anyone look bigger than they really are.
To illustrate how much detail a fabric can show or cover up, I laid four of my sweaters over the same lineup of different sized cans to simulate lumps and bumps. You can see how much of the detail of those cans you can see in the fingering weight sweater, even in the way the fabric pools around the cans. On the far right, the bulky yarn barely shows any detail but you also aren't getting much shape there either. That's not to say the far ends of this example shouldn't be used, the ends should just be chosen with greater care of the ease and fit of the garment. We will talk more on that below.
I should note here that the density of your fabric, how tightly you choose to knit your yarn, can give each yarn weight a range of drape vs. structure within its own category. If you knit fingering weight on US 00, then that will be a very dense fabric that will not drape as soft and flowy as a shawl knit in fingering weight on US 4.
So each weight has a chance to have more or less structure depending on the gauge you knit it with. This is why swatching is important! Yes, I know. I heard a bunch of you sigh. I usually swatch to get gauge but I also try to have a swatch knit with a needle size larger and smaller than that to see which fabric I like better. I may want more drape or more structure than the gauge the designer used and that depends on the fit and construction of the pattern. I know that sounds like a lot of prep work to knit a sweater when you just want to cast on. It is. But if you get this right you will have a beautiful sweater for years to come. A sweater quantity is a big investment, so don't skimp on the prep work.
Another thing to keep in mind is if you are a warm or cold person. If you are the person who brings a cardigan to a restaurant in the middle of summer then you might be comfortable in a bulky sweater. If you tend to run on the warm side then you would probably feel more comfortable in a lighter weight yarn. Likewise, a knitter in Minnesota would get more mileage out of a bulky weight sweater than someone in Texas. Be real about what kinds of weight sweaters you want to wear in your climate.
How You Like to Knit
The next thing to consider is how you like to knit. Some people love to knit with lace and fingering weights while others prefer sport or worsted weights. How you tend to knit shouldn't limit what you choose, but be mindful that if you knit socks in fingering weight for hours on end, switching to a bulky weight sweater might make your hands ache. Your fingers are trained to hold thin needles and light weight yarn. The same can be said if you usually knit larger weights and then jump down to lace. It should not deter you, but be mindful of how your hands and wrists are feeling and give them a break if needed and time to adjust. It may not be a good decision if you are working on a tight deadline because you don't want to push your body too far and injure your precious knitting hands.
Speaking of deadlines, you should also consider how long you want this project to go on. I knit a bulky weight sweater, a top-down Owls sweater by Kate Davies, in 6 days. The Featherweight Cardigan I am knitting in a fingering weight I have been working on for over a year. I love the sweater but sometimes it feels like I'm not making any progress and it gets trumped by a project that is in a more exciting stage. While I have quite a few fingering weight sweaters in my favorites on Ravelry, I always ask myself if I'm prepared for the long haul on this sweater. You know you best.
Tying It All Together
Your head may be spinning. How does this apply to you specifically? It's all about balancing what we need and what we want from our factors above with the fit and shape of a sweater pattern.
A bulky yarn will have a lot of structure to make a smooth shape but will not have much drape. This could create a boxy appearance if paired with a loose fit. However, if you chose a sweater with shaping and zero or negative ease, the bulky yarn would hold that shape and give your body a smooth look. If you have ever watched Project Runway's unconventional challenges, when working with a stiff material like cardboard they fit it and shape it to the model's body. Use the same idea here. DownEast by Alicia Plummer does a great job of skimming the body and adding shape. (Note that with a bulky yarn you need to place the shaping exactly because depending on your gauge, the yarn could hold that shape even if you aren't there to fill it.)
See the shaping on this bulky sweater? I thought it was placed closely enough. Turns out it is less than an inch too high and the sweater creates that shape on me even though my hips aren't there to hold it.
A fingering weight will skim the body giving your body shape and movement but it may show every bump if paired with a tightly fitted pattern. A loosely fitted sweater like Rachel by Josée Paquin drapes off of the shoulders and bust while providing a fabric that flows over rather than hugs the midsection. Very flattering for those of us whose six packs are in hibernation. (Going in my favorites)
The sport/DK weights and the worsted/aran weights are just middle points of the fingering and bulk weight spectrum. They will have some of the same characteristics but not as drastic. They give you a bit more room for error which is why I think they are great yarns for sweaters. If I am buying a sweater quantity for a sweater pattern I haven't picked out yet, I buy in sport or DK because it looks good in a loose or fitted, a structured or flowy, and a heavily detailed or simple pattern. I love the structure a sport/DK gives while still having a bit of flow over the body. I also love how a fitted worsted sweater smooths my body but also has more movement than a bulky would.
Take a look at your body and decide what factors are priorities for you. Be sure to balance fit and structure of your pattern with the yarn that is to create it.