Hand Knitting Techniques

Hand Knitting & The One Piece Block

Back in the 60's and 70's when knitting had a real explosion of interest among the hippie and crafting groups you saw quite a lot of crocheted and knitted bikini tops and really low hipster bottoms. I've no idea whether it was because swimwear fabrics weren't very good back then or because hand knitting was a cheap way to make stretchy garments or whatever, but there they were in abundance. Most people used wool rather than knitting/crochet cotton, which would have deteriorated very quickly in water so I doubt the garments were ever intended for beach or pool use. In fact most times I've ever seen those bikini tops was when they were accompanied by low rider jeans and an awful lot of beaded jewelry in 70's magazines.

With the vast improvements made in Lycra/Spandex fabrics (and their marketing) in the early 80's wool disappeared almost overnight. Actually I can pin point it to a 1981 Vogue cover showing a bright yellow, extremely high cut, one piece Nylon Lycra swimsuit. It was so different and (back then) sexy that hipsters were out and long legs were in. I'm not sure why the knitters didn't try to copy the high cut leg line ... maybe they did, but I don't recall seeing any. Knitting was suddenly restricted to pullovers, baby clothes, balaclavas and tea cosies ... and it was grandma doing the knitting. Gone were the days of young girls making exciting pieces. No doubt it's those same young girls who are now the grandmas knitting today's baby clothes.

I'm not sure what the resurgence of interest in knitted garments is due to in current times, however. Perhaps I'm a bit out of date with current trends and they're making a come-back or perhaps I've coincidentally come across more of them and the knitters that make them. I'm positive it can't be because the hipster style has returned, as that's been around since the turn of 2000 and has just about had its day. I know it's not a cost issue as it's almost as expensive to buy the wool and needles as it is to buy a bikini these days.

Whatever the reason, I've had an enormous number of requests for information relating to how one would convert a one piece swimsuit block for hand knitting bodysuits and bikinis. Is it possible? What considerations need to be kept in mind?

Lycra/Spandex is very different to knitted wool. Yes they both stretch, but that is where the similarity ends. Knitting stretches along its rows. It doesn't stretch a great deal at right angles to this, making it a two-way, rather than four-way stretch. Furthermore it is completely lacking in rebound strength ... the ability of the fabric to pull itself strongly back to its rest position when stretched (the tightness of the garment). This is the most significant point of difference, and we'll get back to it later.

Knitted wool garments stretch over time and stay that way ... swimsuit fabrics do not. Knitted garments don't take well to being stitched or seamed without creating bulk (take a look at the seams on your pullover and see just how chunky they are). To its credit however, you can add or subtract stitches to your heart’s desire to change the shape of a hand knitted garment. Darts and wedges are suddenly a simple matter and don't need a seam. Indeed, leg lines and arm holes are shaped by adding and subtracting stitches rather than cutting ... the only consideration here is that the edges aren't often very clean no matter how good you are at knitting. A way to straighten up your edges is to add or subtract edge shaping stitches one or two stitches in from an edge, or crotchet around the arm holes and leg lines once the garment is finished. Advanced knitters can avoid the crotch seam by threading a needle back into the cast on row and knitting in the opposite direction …

... and when front and back panels reach the side seam you thread the whole lot onto a circular set up and continue.

Hint: rather than using pins to mark your guide positions for circular knitting, try using coloured plastic or wooden tooth picks ... I also like to use them for row counters. Some people baste in a contrasting thread colour to create vertical guide lines, and remove these later.

Essentially you could make an entire body suit complete with bust darting and waist shaping built in, with no seams by using circular knitting needles.

You can still add elastic and stabilizing ribbons to knitting on a sewing machine, which go a long way to help it work as a close fitting garment.
OK, so let's get back to that main point of difference ... the lack of rebound strength. We normally make a garment close fitting by using negative ease ... or reducing the size of the garment relative to the body. But put knitting under tension and you stretch it quite quickly. Even if you make it exact body size it will soon stretch and then essentially have positive ease. So it needs enough negative ease to allow for stretch but not so much that the pores between stitches open up and show through (unless that’s what you're after). Something I've found is that if you design the garment with enough darting that it doesn't need to rely on stretching to conform to body shape (especially around the bust) then the garment will last longer before distorting.

So how much is the right amount of negative ease? It really depends on needle size and the wool you're using. The bigger the needle the less number of stitches holding the garment in shape so the faster it stretches and distorts. Wool that easily rubs into fibres between your fingers also tends to stretch and distort faster. The more easily something distorts the less you really want to force it to do so, so contrary to popular belief, the less negative ease you should use. The less likely something is to stay distorted when stretched, the more negative ease you can afford to risk to get a closer and tighter fit. I tend to recommend 5-8% horizontal negative ease, but suggest doing a test sample to verify.

The above photos were done without a test sample and I ended up with 18 stitches per 10cm rather than the 17 it was designed for ... or a further 5% negative ease on top of the first 5% I put in ... so the garment was clearly too small. Yes, 1 stitch per 10cm can make that much difference! Avoid my mistake and do a 10cm x 10cm swatch (4 inch square) and count the stitches carefully to make sure you've got the tension correct or the pattern may lead you to create an incorrectly sized garment. The other point of note is that when you exceed 8% (with any hand knit pattern), the vertical begins to withdraw and effectively shortens the pattern ... which clearly has also happened in the above photos. This may not be a problem for separates but becomes a real problem for bodysuits. Ready-to-wear students may be starting to realise that these small percentage tolerances do not lend themselves to standard sizing! Hence why everything changed when Lycra blend textiles showed up.

OK, so we're going to design a one piece body block. Essentially it's the same as the Women’s One Piece Block with the following changes;

•    Use zero vertical negative ease and 8% horizontal negative ease.
•    Leave the shoulder dart in place rather than a side dart.
•    Raise the front block at the bust line.

I use the shoulder dart because it's much easier to seamlessly dart vertically than it is to stitch the side dart later (especially considering the stitching inhibits stretch). There is 2cm inserted at the bust line to raise the height of the 10B/C block to account for my 10D model (wider bust already accounted for). Maybe not relevant to this exercise, but there for accuracy and completeness. The grey image on the left represents a standard swimsuit block with the above modifications made



The red image on the right overlying the block shows how I've straightened the seams a little to make it read easier on a written pattern (knitters will understand exactly what I mean). The theory is that you might do several rows adding one stitch every row, then several more adding one stitch every second row and so on, to create a curve. It tends to be easier to write the pattern that way than describing every single row. Of course you can easily do a perfect curve rather than a segmented curve by drawing your tension grid straight onto the pattern and working out how many stitches are needed for each row ... then simply add/subtract stitches two stitches in from the edge.

You might notice that I've also squared off the leg line at the side seam. This is because it's difficult to create the end of the concave curve on the front panel (unless you are circular knitting and don't have a side seam). I've also squared up the side seam here because I don't like the distorted look you get at the leg line by seaming two knitted panels at an angle. I've done the same thing at the armhole. If you know how many stitches per 10cm (4 inches) the correct tension creates then you can also tweak your pattern a little to make it require a whole number (integer) of stitches ... I've never quite understood patterns that suggest distances which create a 0.5 stitch remainder that looks wrong whether you add or subtract .... much better to tweak a pattern to work with adds/subtracts of 1-in-1, 1-in-2, 1-in-3, as so on.

I've left the bust section off the above image because it needs a little more explanation. If we were to make the design shown in the left image below out of Lycra/Spandex it would need to be cut as an empire line design and darted in the bust section in order to sit under the bust and curve out over it correctly. However because we can simply add or subtract stitches in a knitted garment to change the horizontal width in any area and at any point along the row we can keep knitting each row without ever stopping to create a seam or dart. The image on the right shows what the knitted pattern would look like as panels, but essentially they'd all be joined continuously together as shown by the grey dashed lines. Below the bust point we'd be adding stitches to create the shape of the panels and above the bust point we'd be subtracting stitches ... the final garment would show a feint vertical line in the position demonstrated by the dashed red line in the left image but with no seam. Sounds crazy but it does work, and it's technically better because the vertical direction of knitting (which doesn't stretch) wraps around the outside of the bust to stabilize the shape and sit flatter.

All the above text is really a long winded way of saying you can use a one piece swimsuit block to make patterns for knitted garments with just a few simple considerations.

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