Friday, February 3, 2012

Backing into a sweater design

People who have to put budgets together using OPM (other people's money) often have to do something called backing into a budget. It happens when someone gives you an upper limit like $100,000 and you have to figure out what is the most you can do while still keeping it under $99,999. People who spend their own money decide what they need first and then add up the numbers at the end. My sweater design process frequently resembles backing into the design rather than figuring it all out ahead of time.

I often get asked how I know how much yarn to order or why on earth I would dive into starting a sweater with a few rudimentary gauge measurements but no real plan. I guess that the short version is that I don't exactly know but where is your sense of adventure? I can make a decent guess at how much yarn it's going to take to make a basic sweater using a specific weight yarn and then I have to take into consideration things like cables and tapestry crochet that use up more yarn than straight work would. I almost always have a general idea of what I want to make but after I see the yarns that I've ordered and had a chance to play with them I may change my mind completely. I thought it might be fun to walk through making the sweater that I've just started because it's a great example of a pile of yarn with no firm plans for it.

I knew that I wanted to make something with a lot of color against a black background and I knew that I wanted it to be made from cotton or some other lightweight breathable yarn so that it wouldn't be too warm. Tapestry crochet always adds some thickness because of the additional strands being carried along under the stitch. After checking all of my good wholesale sources and not finding what I wanted I checked to see what was on sale at Knitpicks (which is normally much too expensive.) Luckily for me they had a really nice linen/cotton blend on sale that came in a wide variety of colors. After looking at the balance of what I have in my shop I decided that I needed another 1X and that 2500 yards would probably be plenty. Then I split it in half and chose half in black and the rest in an assortment of colors. Will it be enough given that I don't know what I'm making yet? Probably but if not I can change the design mid-stream or order some more since it's a commercial yarn.

I spent about 15 minutes on samples to decide what size hook to use and to work out the gauge to get me to a 1X. I added a bit because I know that it will tighten up once I start adding colors and have to hide them when I'm not using them. There weren't any decisions about what stitches to use since I always do tapestry work in single crochet.

Now it's time to decide what it's going to look like. My original idea was a sort of patchwork motif but I decided that it would either come out great or look like they had a quilt pinned to their back so I abandoned that one for now. I've had this other vague idea in my head for a while about a black sweater with a colorful band across the bottom and then some really big and difficult mandala as one big motif in the center. I still haven't decided if it's going to be a cardigan or pullover but I don't have to know that in order to start the back piece.

I'd love to pretend that at this point I broke out the graph paper and designed the bottom band but the truth is that I just looked around my house at some pottery, picked a few straightforward geometric designs, started with the purples because they're my favorite colors and dove in. I don't really want the bottom band to be too complex or stylized because the big motif will be the centerpiece. Geometric anything is easy because you can follow the pattern repeats by eye without having to count or check a chart. I measure it every few rows to make sure that my estimate of how much it would shrink when I started the tapestry work was on target. It's not a custom order so it's OK if it comes out too big but I don't want it to be any smaller than a 1X.

The big unknown here is how to balance the design with the amounts of each color so that I don't end up short and unable to make the front and back motifs match. The easiest way around this is to work the front and back sections in tandem with each other so that they stay in color sync. I finished the bottom band for the back last night so today instead of moving on with that I'll stop and work the lower section of the front so that it matches and I've used the same amount of yarn on each side. Now I have to decide if it's going to be a cardigan or pullover because that will determine whether I'm working an identical front or splitting it into 2 panels. Since I already have a shrug, cape and 2 sweater coats in 1X I'll make this one a pullover.

I'll be back with the next steps after I finish the lower front and move on to designing the mandala.

Please come see my handmade designer plus size sweaters, sweater coats, capes and shrugs at

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