Tips for knitting your first sweater

Hello! It is the beginning of a new year and maybe you set some goals for the year ahead like knitting your first sweater! As much of the world is in a lockdown thanks to COVID-19 this is a perfect time to learn how to knit and knit your first sweater. 

Knitting a sweater for the first time was my new year’s resolution for 2018. I had intended to knit Flax by TinCanKnits as my first sweater, in fact I even finished the body, but my gauge was way off (we’ll talk about how to avoid this later on) so it was way too big – I rippled it out and made the Harvest cardigan with the yarn instead, but that’s a story for another day… 

My first complete sweater ended up being the Julia sweater which I got as a kit from Wool and the Gang. It’s made out of their Billie Jean yarn which is upcycled denim. I absolutely love this yarn…too bad I’m not the biggest fan of the sweater.

From my experience above you may think you’re also going to hate your first knit sweater. But that’s not true! And the tips for knitting your first sweater that I’m going to give you below will help you avoid my mistakes! 

Choosing the right size for your first knit sweater

Most knitting patterns use bust size as the main measurement for determining which size you should make. Choose the size that matches, or is the closest, to the measurement of your full bust. The widest part of your chest. 

What is positive or negative ease?

In many sweater knitting patterns you will see the terms positive or negative ease. Ease is the difference between your measurements and the final measurements of the garment. So this will make the garment looser or tighter fitting. 

Positive ease refers to a garment that is looser fitting around your body and allows for movement. A good example of a sweater with positive ease is Andrea Mowry’s Weekender, which has 10” of positive ease. 

Here’s a picture of me wearing the Weekender I knit for my mom. I have a 38” bust measurement and the finished measurement of this sweater is 48” giving me the full 10” of ease. 

Negative ease is a garment that is tighter and will fit snuggly to your body as the measurement of the finished knit sweater is smaller than your actual measurements. 

Here’s me in the My Little Secret Crop with a negative ease of 5”. As you can see it is tight fitting.

Most patterns will indicate if the knit sweater has positive or negative ease built into the final measurements, or if you should choose a size that is a certain number of inches smaller or larger than your bust measurement. 

For example, wording similar to this means you do not need to choose a larger size to get the intended ease, the ease is written into the pattern already: This sweater is intended to be worn with 5 inches of positive ease, this is included in the design, please choose the size that correlates best to your bust size. 

In this case, if you have a 42” bust you will knit the size that is closest to 42”.

While wording like this means you need to pick a size that will give you the intended ease: This sweater is intended to be worn with 5” of positive ease, to achieve the intended ease choose a size that is 5” larger than your actual bust size. 

In this case, if you have a 42” bust you will knit the size that is closest to 42” plus the 5” of ease, so the size with a bust closest to 47”.

Gauge and swatching 

Gauge is how many stitches and rows of knitting fit within certain measurements, usually measured over 4”.  The pattern for your first knit sweater should include the gauge and the stitch pattern to measure your gauge in (if it doesn’t include this info do not knit this sweater, especially as your first knit sweater! This information is critical!)

Gauge can change depending on many factors, some yarn doesn’t puff up, or bloom, as much as others, certain fibers can knit up tighter or looser. And naturally knitters can have a tighter or a looser gauge as well.

How does gauge affect fit?

Gauge is incredibly important for sweater knitting because it’s how you ensure your finished garment will fit! 

If your gauge is tighter than the designer’s gauge, that means that your stitches are smaller, so it takes you more stitches to knit 4”. If you try to knit the sweater at that gauge with the designers instructions, it will come out way too small!! 

The opposite is true if your gauge is too big, your knit sweater will come out too big as well as it takes you less stitches than the designer to knit 4”. This is what happened to me when I knit my first Flax sweater that I had to rip out. My sweater came out several sizes too big because my gauge was off. 

My gauge was only off by a couple stitches, but this shows just how important it is! Just a couple stitches off produced a garment that was a completely different size than intended, so you need to make sure you’re meeting the pattern’s gauge. 

How to measure gauge

To measure your gauge you will need to knit a swatch using the yarn you are going to use to knit your sweater. Here’s a photo of a swatch I recently knit for a sweater, it has a purl line in the middle because I swatched with two different needle sizes so that border divides the different gauges.

A swatch is a square of fabric knit in the stitch you need to measure your gauge in, if you need to measure gauge for stockinette stitch then you will knit your swatch in stockinette. You should cast on more stitches than you need for 4” and knit more rows than needed so your square is larger than 4” by 4” as you’ll want to measure in the middle, not near the edges where your stitches can be tighter or looser. 

You should knit your swatch in the method that you will knit your sweater. If your sweater is knit in the round you should knit your swatch in the round, if it’s knit flat you should knit your swatch flat. 

Block your swatch 

Blocking is when you wet your knitting and then lay it out flat to dry in the shape you want it to be in. Being wet, and then drying, can cause the yarn to stretch out more, so that’s why it’s important to block your swatch. Seeing as you’re going to wash your sweater at some point it’s going to get wet, and when it does that can change the size of the stitches. 

So it’s important to know what your gauge is after your knitting has been blocked

To block your swatch leave it soaking in warm water for about ten minutes, squeeze out as much water as you can (don’t wring) and lay it out flat, tug gently to shape it, but don’t pull too hard and stretch it out unnaturally.

Measure your gauge from the swatch

Once your swatch is blocked and dry it’s time to measure your gauge. I always start with rows personally! 

Lay your measuring tape down at the top of a stitch and count the number of stitches that fit in 4”. That’s how many rows you knit to reach 4” in length. 

Then lay your measure tape across your swatch starting from the left side of a stitch and count the number of stitches across to 4”. That’s how many stitches it takes to reach 4” across.

What if your gauge is wrong?

Firstly, if your gauge is wrong take a deep breath!! There is nothing wrong with you, or with the designer for that matter. Everyone knits differently and there are a handful of designers out there who knit tighter or looser than me, when I knit one of their patterns I just know that I won’t get gauge with the needles they recommend! And that’s OKAY. 

What to do if your gauge is too small

If you are getting more stitches or rows in 4” than the pattern states than your stitches are tighter. To remedy this go up a needle size (or two if you’re really small) and swatch again to get looser, bigger stitches. 

What to do if your gauge is too big

If you are getting less stitches or rows in 4” than the patterns states than your stitches are looser. To remedy this go down a needle size (or two if you’re really loose) and swatch again to get tighter, smaller stitches. 

What to do when the stitch gauge matches, but the rows are off (or vice versa)

You may find that you are able to meet the stitch gauge but not the row gauge, and then when you swap needle sizes the row gauge matches, but now you’ve lost the stitch gauge. When this happens, prioritize meeting the stitch gauge.

As stitch gauge is what determines the width of the garment it is what’s most important for fit. The length can almost always be altered easily by knitting more or less rows and most patterns give the length directions in measurements rather than the number of rows. So it will say something like “knit until sweater body is 15” from the cast on edge”  so you won’t even need to worry about knitting a set amount of rows. 

All this swatching can be really annoying. I won’t lie to you it’s my least favourite part about sweater knitting, and every time I debate not swatching. But it is so so so important for knitting sweaters and other garments. 

Sweater construction

Top-down vs. Bottom-up 

If you are knitting your first sweater with a design that is knit in the round then you will be either knitting from the top-down, meaning you start with the collar and work down to the bottom edge. Or the button-up meaning you start from the bottom edge and work your way up to the collar. 

Flax by Tin Can Knits is knit from the top-down and is a raglan style sweater. 

A young white woman takes a selfie in a mirror, she is posed with her hand on her hip. She is wearing a blue knit Flax sweater and grey leggings
I’ve pretty much been living in this sweater for the past week

The weekender is knit from the bottom up with a drop shoulder for the sleeves. 

Both a perfectly fine options for your first sweater, but many knitters prefer top-down for sweater knitting as you can try the sweater on as you go to test the fit and see the length. 

Knit in the round vs. flat

You can knit a sweater in the round using circular needles, Flax is knit in the round so it has no seams along the sides; it’s all one piece. 

Or you can knit a sweater flat in pieces and then seam the pieces together. The Julia sweater that I made is knit flat and seamed, as is this super bulky cozy sweater. 

Skills to know

Basic stitches for knitting your first sweater

To knit your first sweater you’ll need to know how to knit and purl. These are the two foundational knit stitches needed for any project. 

In addition to knitting and purling you may need to know techniques like cables and lace knitting depending on the sweater pattern you choose. The simplest stitch for your first sweater is going to be one that is knit primarily in stockinette stitch. 

Increases/decreases for sweater knitting

If your sweater is knit in the round from the top down then you will need to increase to make the body wider from the neck out over the shoulders. If the sweater is knit in the round from the bottom up then you will need to decrease to shape the neckline. 

And regardless if the sweater is top down or bottom up you will likely need to decrease as you knit the sleeves so that the sleeve tapers from your upper arm to your wrist to fit your arm correctly. 

Common increases and decreases

There are a few common increase/decrease methods that are used in knit sweater patterns. Increases create new stitches to increase the overall stitch count, making the sweater wider. While decreases take stitches out to decrease the overall stitch count, making the sweater narrower.

When I was knitting my first sweater I found online tutorials really helpful so I have linked a few below!

Make 1 left/Make 1 right

Abbreviation: m1l/m1r

This increase involves picking up the strand between two stitches and making a new stitch. There are two variations, one is left leaning and one is right leaning. This sounds complicated, especially if you’re a beginner knitting. But it is pretty straightforward!

Here is a tutorial from Tin Can Knits on how to make 1 left and make 1 right.

The hardest part for me is remembering the steps for each one. Here is how I remember

Make 1 right: R for rear and for regular. Pick up from the rear (the back) and knit the stitch regular (through the front). 

I don’t have a trick for make 1 left, just that it’s the opposite no r, so pick up from the front and knit through the back. 

Knit front and back

Abbreviation: kfb 

This increase is essentially creating two stitches out of one! Once you knit a stitch as normal sticking your needle through the front, you’ll put your needle back into the same stitch, through the back loop and knit it again. 

Check out this knit front and back tutorial from very pink

Knit two together

Abbreviation: k2tog

To knit two together you do exactly what it says! You knit the next two stitches together, so instead of putting your needle into one stitch, you put it through two and then pull them both off. 

Here’s a video tutorial from Purl Soho showing the knit two together in action! 


Abbreviation: ssk

Just like the knit two together, slip-slip-knit makes one stitch from two. Instead of just knitting two stitches together though, you slip the next two stitches onto your right hand needle and then knitting them through the back loop. 

I know this sound so confusing! Here’s a useful tutorial from Tin Can Knits on how to slip-slip-knit.

The difference between the ssk and the k2tog is the way that the decreased stitch leans. A knit front and back leans right, while an ssk leans left. The way the decrease leans affects the shape of the garment so most knit sweater patterns will use both! 

For example when decreasing on the sleeves you will knit front and back for your first decrease and slip-slip-knit for the second one. This causes the decreases to lean into each other giving the sleeve a nice shape. 

In this photo the left leaning knit two together is boxed in red and the right leaning ssk is in yellow.

Seaming your first sweater

If you’re knitting a sweater flat in pieces you will need to seam all of those pieces together at the end to make a sweater. Most knitters prefer to knit in the round over seaming as seaming can be…well annoying and time consuming. I personally find it a little fiddly! 

But there are advantages to seaming, it gives a knit sweater more structure than a sweater that is knit in the round with no seams. 

When I knit my Julia sweater it was the first time I had seamed and it came out really wonky! 

The mistake that I made was pulling too tight. When you are seaming make sure your seam isn’t too tight or too loose. 

Here’s a list of helpful seaming tutorials from Very Pink!

I hope that this guide has filled you with the confidence you need to knit your first sweater! I love sweater knitting and I promise it is much easier than it seems. You can do it! 🙂