Why are so many vintage patterns only in one size?

posted in: Books, patterns, technique | 6
I would very much like to introduce you today to Jen Arnall-Culliford.

Formerly employed by Future Publishing, Jen is now working as a freelance tech editor and has very kindly taken on the task of tech editing A Stitch in Time Vol 2 for me. It is a mountainous task but Jen is the sort of girl who loves a challenge! We work very closely together on every pattern, in our efforts to give the knitter the best pattern possible, without radically altering the design. Jen has agreed to write some blog posts explaining some of the more challenging situations we are encountering and how even so, we are managing to maintain the integrity of the original designs. So over to Jen…

So, why are so many vintage patterns only in one size – or, the challenges of vintage patterns…  This is the first in a short series about technical editing of complex knitting patterns.

My background is in chemistry, and one of the things I love about working as a knitting technical editor, is the amount of problem solving, pattern spotting and maths involved. People often think I have a peculiar career path, but to me it makes complete sense! Straight chemistry didn’t provide enough variety for me, but many of the skills I learnt are directly useful in knitting. Writing lab reports so that another chemist can repeat your work uses exactly the same skills as writing a pattern so that another knitter can create the same garment. And likewise, the problem solving that you use when trying to make a natural product in the lab are the same as the problem solving that you apply to charting or grading a knitting pattern. They are, really!

Many of the patterns that will be featured in A Stitch in Time Vol. 2, were originally published in just one size. Susan is working hard on rewriting these patterns to give a range of sizes better suited to modern knitters (this process is known as grading). In most cases, this involves adding extra stitches to widen a piece, and extra rows to add length. For colourwork patterns, this is usually a straightforward process – adding extra motifs to the bands, and then rows between to lengthen. Cable patterns aren’t too complicated either, although sometimes the repeats are wide, and compromises need to be made to allow width increases of less than one pattern repeat. You will no doubt have seen patterns where extra small cables, moss stitch or ribbing are added at the sides of larger garments.  It is generally lace patterns that pose a particular problem, and sometimes in these cases, grading a pattern in the traditional way just isn’t possible. The designs use the shape of the stitch patterns in such a way that it is vital to respect the way in which the stitch pattern evolves if you wish to grade larger (or smaller) sizes without losing the most important design features. A stitch pattern that has sloping sides may be used to create any of the shaping that the garment requires, for example at the waist, bust, armhole or neck opening. If you change the point in the pattern where this shaping occurs, then a vital part of the original design is lost.


Many of the lace patterns chosen for A Stitch in Time Vol. 2 use complex motifs where the stitch count changes as the rows are worked (creating a shaped pattern). This makes it almost impossible to change any of the garment dimensions in less than a whole pattern repeat. And pattern repeats can be quite large! Imagine, for example, an original garment to fit a 32in bust. The front measures 16in across, 12in to the armholes and then has an armhole depth of 8in. The stitch pattern has a diamond shape, and measures 4in wide by 4in tall, and stitch counts change on almost every row, making it necessary to keep shaping for armholes in the same relative position on every size. If you want to make the armhole depth more than it already is, you would need to go up to 12in, which is much too deep for any size. Likewise, to decrease the depth, you would need to go down to 4in, which is too small.

In some patterns, it is possible to work half pattern repeats, which give a smaller increment in which to work, but that’s not the end of the problem, as working a half repeat may well necessitate writing a whole different set of instructions for the shaping. Given that some of the patterns already take a large number of pages in just one size, adding extra pages isn’t a printable option. And remember that more written instructions increases the probability of errors. So the more instructions there are, the more checks and tests need to be performed to remove them. In science this is often possible as the risks and rewards involved are high, so budget is available for lengthy and rigorous testing. In knitting, these same risks and rewards are lower, and as such it isn’t normally possible to have more than 3 levels of editing of a pattern, without increasing the cost to the consumer dramatically. Most patterns and pattern books don’t sell in anywhere near enough numbers to cover the cost of professional test knitting of every size of a garment, followed by multiple levels of technical editing.

Given these challenges, it isn’t surprising that many older patterns were printed in only one size, and explains why some of the patterns in both volumes of A Stitch in Time are graded using needle size changes and yarn weight changes instead of pattern instruction grading. When a designer has gone to such lengths to use a stitch pattern so creatively, it’s wonderful to be able to offer that design in a wider range of sizes, whilst preserving the very design features that make the pattern so special. With careful choice of different weights of yarn, you can grade a pattern in the best possible way – the finished garment will look the same as the sample, just larger. How often have you seen disappointing patterns where the proportions have been destroyed with acres of extra filler stitch pattern in large sizes? Using needle size and yarn carefully avoids this problem, and gives larger sizes the same cleverly designed proportions as the original.

Next time I’ll take you through how we chart a pattern with changing stitch counts, and hopefully get rid of some of the confusion surrounding “no stitch” symbols.

For more technical blether, I can be found on Twitter @JenACKnitwear and on Ravelry also at JenACKnitwear.

I do hope you’ve enjoyed today’s guest post. Jen will be back again in a few weeks with more insights into what goes into the making of A Stitch in Time.

but for now,
Ruby xx

Images courtesy of Jen Arnall-Culliford

6 Responses

  1. Melody
    | Reply

    Very interesting. I have wondered why vintage/retro patterns are printed in only one size. I mean everyone couldn't have been to exact same size and body type.

    I didn't realize printing one size took a lot of space.

  2. woolwinding
    | Reply

    This is fascinating; thank you very much.

    I've got some vintage patterns I love, but there's no way I will ever be a 32 bust again. I'm going to look at them in the light of this and see what I can do!

  3. Hélène Magnússon
    | Reply

    Thank you for sharing and explaining better the wonderful Ruby – and you- have made!

  4. Ellen
    | Reply

    As a pattern grader in the woven fabric garment world i'd love to know if there are any books written about the grading of knitting patterns or if it's just an apprenticeship thing

  5. flossie
    | Reply

    this is great! very helpful. can't wait for my ASIT2 to come in the mail!

  6. Sarah
    | Reply

    Very interesting article that explains a lot. I've inherited a lot of vintage patterns and you have encouraged me to start knitting them. Thanks for making vintage more accessible..

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *