As a designer, sometimes I get asked by newer knitters what to look for in a First Sweater pattern. Afraid of starting off with a misstep, they want me to share the secret of how to get it right the first time. They are terrified of committing a fashion faux pas, and worry their sweater will be wrong: too baggy, too small, or (most of all) not disguise their quirks and perceived flaws.
Ah, me. Ah, knitters! So much is at stake when we cast on for any garment: style points, body confidence, even world peace.
A Hashtag Is Born
In January, when Kristin Lehrer posted on Instagram about her own first handknit sweater, I was enthralled and asked her more about it.
Back in the day, this was hi-res.
Kristin said, “When I stumbled on the photo, I couldn’t resist sharing it on Instagram. I just wanted to give my followers a laugh and show that the first attempt at anything new isn’t always going to be perfect.”
Kristin’s post quickly racked up 1,800 likes, and inspired others to share their own #shamelessfirstknits. The hashtag was amplified when Andrea Mowry added #myfirsthandknitsweater to her string of tags that Instagram participants customarily attach to a photo, especially when jumping on a good bandwagon. Over the following week, an entertaining series of photographs joined the collection as knitters dug up evidence of their own first finished garments.
Since then, the hashtags have inspired hundreds of knitters to post photos on Instagram. These sweaters have much to teach us in this moment in “knitternet” history.
O, the Humanity
Combing through the photos, you might recognize some sweaters and their knitters. Many of them were made in the early years of knit blogging, that glorious era between 2004 and the beginning of Ravelry, when old-school viral patterns launched the first knitalongs, inspiring real-life sweater meetups and lasting friendships. Here live so many Rogues, Shaloms, and Owls. So many headless bathroom selfies shot with real cameras, so many tropes of blogging. It’s a quick scroll down memory lane.
But there are also the freshly finished, post-millennial sweaters: the yokes, the fair isles, and the Fades. There seem to be fewer groans of regret among the more recent sweaters, perhaps because their fashionable moment has not yet passed.
But we can also see evidence of more successful guesses at work, better combinations of yarn and pattern, accurate sleeve lengths, happier knitters. Maybe this is because ready advice (thanks to Ravelry or the Local Yarn Shop) has improved, or because knitters are enjoying a wider range of choices. There has never been a greater abundance of pattern and yarn options for knitters.
And there have never been more ways to mess up.
Intrigued, I surveyed these sweater posts with interest, looking for wisdom. As a designer, I was looking for what got people knitting. As a knitter, for new lessons in my own sweater forays. Here is a distillation of what I found.
Choose Yarn Carefully
These posts are full of regret over yarn choices. So many projects that began enthusiastically, with a favorite yarn and a sweater that whispered sartorial perfection, ended badly. A yarn you love isn’t necessarily the best yarn for the pattern you love. Multicolor yarn can pool in odd ways and sometimes inconveniently over body parts; mohair tickles; wrong-sized yarn makes fabric that resembles cardboard or droops flabbily at the pattern’s gauge; single-ply alpaca yarn grows a sweater into a dress over time.
I won’t say that you have to use the exact yarn the pattern calls for, but substitutions are a whole subclass of knowledge in the knitting world, and a knitter should proceed with caution. Consult Ravelry, or ask a full timer at your LYS. Find someone to trust in these things. Or failing all that, use the recommended yarn. You can go your own way after you’ve racked up the confidence that comes with experience.
Block Your Swatch (You Did Knit a Swatch, Right?)
Related to yarn choice is making sure the gauge matches the pattern. Several posts wail about sweaters that ended perfectly, only to grow or shrink after washing. It’s tired because it’s true advice: take time, knit the swatch, and block that puppy.
One of my own first sweaters was a swatch disaster—as in, I didn’t knit one. I made it out of Lily Sugar ’n Cream, held double, because a fellow yarn store customer told me to. (I think it was the only cotton yarn they carried in that northern Maine yarn shop.)
If this sweater could talk, it would beg Me to reconsider that double-stranded dishcloth cotton.
What I ignored from the get go was that I wasn’t getting anything near the prescribed gauge. As a result, the final garment was so enormous and stiff that it could stand by itself in the corner. And yet I wore it everywhere. It was a sweater I had to reclaim from friends more than once, and I think I finally lost it to an old beau. I have no photographs of my sweater to show you, but it was a Calvin Klein sweater, design number 15, from Vogue Knitting’s Spring/Summer issue in 1985. It may have been a strange sweater, but it was loved.
Any Pattern Can Be a First Sweater
What’s the best pattern to choose for a first sweater? The difficulty level of these Instagram first sweaters is impressively high. There are not nearly as many plain vanilla top-down pullovers as there are Icelandic yokes and intarsia tour-de-forces. I admire this fearlessness among new sweater knitters. File this under “what you don’t know won’t intimidate you.” I imagine a lot of these knitters also think nothing of running down the beach and jumping straight into the ocean surf.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of us who are waders-in. The reason first sweaters are so often popular patterns is that we get to see them on a lot of other people, some of them sized and shaped like us, and find confidence imagining ourselves wearing that pattern successfully too.
What’s the short answer? The best pattern for a first sweater is the one that excites you to knit it. If it turns out to not be the best thing you ever knit for yourself, it will probably make a good gift.
Just Do It
When are you ready? Do you have to be an experienced knitter? Do you have to be a confident knitter? Do you have to even be a knitter at all? Simply put: no.
Hashtag originator Kristin sums this up, writing to me, “I’ve had so much fun keeping up with the posts, and the stories behind them. What I found to be very interesting: how knitters dove into knitting their first garments at different skill levels.”
So true: some made their first sweater almost immediately after learning to knit, others waited years, leaving blankets and scarves and socks in their wake, before they tackled their first sleeve.
This last lesson of #myfirsthandknitsweater is that happiness is not connected to how much knitting one has or hasn’t done. No matter the outcome, there is much to be proud of, and still so much to learn. Most of us made more than one sweater before we got it right, and few of us would change that. Every sweater taught us something. Every sweater made us better knitters.
As Kristin says, “I love looking back on these things—not just for chuckles, but also to appreciate how much I’ve grown as a knitter. I hope everyone who joined in sees that for themselves, and that #ShamelessFirstKnits encourages others to try something new, too!”
To these bold knitters who shared their first sweaters, we say: R E S P E C T.
We encourage you to follow them on Instagram.