Knitting Garments When Busty - A Personal Primer

This is a requested post. I was asked: Could you give me some tips on how to choose knitting patterns when you are busty? And, dear reader, this is the result.

First, let’s go through some pointers:

  • This is not a post about knitting plus-size garments. People can wear all sorts of sizes and be busty. This post will deal with people who wear D-cups and above, regardless of size.

  • This is not a post about modifying patterns. There are tonnes of workshops, books and articles out there. Google is your friend.

  • This is not a post about how to make yourself look slimmer or whatever. I’m a big fan of making peace with our own bodies because our bodies are amazing & carry us through life.

  • I am not here for body-shaming, and any comments about ‘real bodies’ or ‘real women’ will be moderated. Seriously, don’t be a jerk.

 This was an okay garment, but it had some serious issues regarding ease and fit.

This was an okay garment, but it had some serious issues regarding ease and fit.

Knitting garments when busty can be quite an adventure. With high-street shops you can try on garments before committing to them, but unless you happen to have access to a LYS with a sample in your size, deciding to knit a garment can feel like taking a risk. You are committing a lot of time and money to something you do not know will suit you. Pattern photos are often no help as garments tend to be modelled by people falling into the A to C-cup territory, so you are left going through Ravelry project pages hoping to find someone with your body shape. But that Ravelry quest requires someone to have taken that risk for you.

Hi, I’m Karie and I’m a knitwear designer. I used to be one of those knitters who’d spend days going through Ravelry project pages and social media before deciding to knit a garment. I’m also someone whose full bust measurement is two sizes larger than the rest of my body, so I have decades of experiences trying to navigate fit and sizing. I’ve developed some strategies for choosing knitted garments and I hope these tips will be useful.

 This garment was a terrible decision. I have rarely worn it outside the house.

This garment was a terrible decision. I have rarely worn it outside the house.

1. Understand Your Wardrobe

A few years ago I wrote a series of blog posts on how to (slowly) build a handmade wardrobe. They were called Wear What You Make. I recommend you read them, because understanding what you wear and what you keep reaching for will make it easier to identify whether a garment will work for you. You may not be able to try on that gorgeous pullover you keep seeing on Instagram, but you will be able to assess whether it is a tried-and-true shape you already have in your wardrobe or maybe it has the same neckline as the pullover your Aunt Hester gave you and you never wear because oh god.

The second part deals with assessing your current wardrobe: throw your clothes on the bed; look at what you keep wearing; what do your wardrobe staples have in common; look at your accessories &c. It is a really good exercise and one that I urge you to do every few years. I wrote my blog post three years ago and my personal style has changed a lot.

The third part deals with figuring out what to make. You need to be honest with yourself about your lifestyle, whether your making matches what you wear, and what your preferred fit is. As busty individuals we know that the old adage of “One Size Fits All” is a big lie, so I cannot tell you what your preferred fit should be. Look at the clothes you love wearing: are they baggy? are they fitted? are they A-line? Do they have any shaping? Your previous choices should always guide you (though not rule you). Many people tell me "Oh, I don't think about fashion - I don't have the time nor the inclination" and I hear you on that. Everyday life can be so hectic that many of us just grab whatever we can afford and what more-or-less fits. However, I promise you that subconsciously you are drawn to similar things again and again, and that your wardrobe will reflect this.

Understanding what clothes you love to wear and identifying your personal style is a huge help.

2. Throw Out The Rule Books

I know I’m currently writing you a list of tips, so asking you to throw out the rule books may seem counter-intuitive, but hear me out.

I’ve always heard that I shouldn’t wear horizontal stripes because I’m busty. Likewise, I’ve always been told I cannot wear cropped anything because the thing will just hang off my chest and look like a tent. Guess what? I have a cropped top with horizontal stripes that I love and wear as often as possible. I’m here to tell you that all this Should Not Wear is nonsense. Shaming women’s bodies is not only a big industry, but there are tonnes of people wanting to police what you should or should not wear (some of them very well-meaning and probably related to you), and you need to tune them out.

I have lost track of the comments I’ve had over the years but here are some comments I received in my twenties: you look slutty, you look too easy and you need to cover up, you only wear that to draw attention to yourself, no one will take you seriously if you wear that. All these comments were directed to me at a time when I wore undergarments designed to reduce my bosom (somewhere between a binder and a bra) and they made me very self-conscious. Thank heavens I’m no longer in my twenties and I’m able to identify these comments as utter nonsense.

No matter what you wear, people will have opinions. The worst opinions you will hear might come from yourself, truth be told. When you hear yourself saying “oh no, I cannot wear that” ask yourself if what you are saying is the result of years of living in a world where bodies are politicised, shamed and sexualised, or if it is truly a reflection of what you see in the mirror.

If in doubt, head to your nearest high street store and locate a garment similar in shape and fit to the one you are thinking of making. A cropped oversized jumper? A fitted knitted dress with a scoop-top? Try that sucker on and see how it looks (and not how you think it looks). If your local high street shops don’t stock anything like that, find an online shop with easy returns. Or look in your friends’ wardrobe.

Trying on things you don’t think will suit you might surprise you hugely. And always be kind to yourself.

 I’m lucky that I get to design garments that suit me, but that’s obviously not an option for everyone!

I’m lucky that I get to design garments that suit me, but that’s obviously not an option for everyone!

3. Okay, Let’s Talk Fit

I did say above that prescribing shaping and fit is a bit like saying “One Size Fits All” but there are some basic things that most people can apply when looking for garments they would like to knit.

You are more than just your bust size. Speaking from experience (and as someone who rarely sees her feet), it may seem that the bust dominates everything but it is simply not true. You are also your shoulder width, your waist line, your hips, the length of your torso, and the ratio of your arm length to your torso length. And that’s just scratching the surface! When I design garments, I take all those things into consideration instead of just zeroing in on my bosom and figuring out how to accommodate it.

Decide on a size based upon your top/high bust size, rather than your full bust measurement. High street shops and independent pattern designers work with a large set of average measurements, and the measurements are typically graded to a B-cup. If you wear a larger cup size and you go for your full bust size when determining which size to knit, that’s when everything becomes too big.

(Look at the grey/purple cardigan I knitted. I decided to knit the size based upon my bust size. It turned out massively, hugely big and I had to chop 4 inches off the shoulder cap just to make it fit.)

Take your top/high bust measurements, add roughly 2” (5cm) to that measurement and look for the size corresponding to that. That should give you an idea of which size you should knit. I am always so surprised when I do that because I always forget that my full bust skews my sizing.

Focus on getting the fit right across your shoulders. This is a trick that I picked up from a good friend who works as a dressmaker. If she gets the shoulders to fit right, the rest of the garment fits better. Are you narrow-shouldered (like me) or do you have broad shoulders? Look at the fit of the shoulders on the pattern photos — this is far more forgiving than trying to find someone will a full bust, by the way! How does the piece fit? What sort of construction is used?

(Look at my yellow cardigan. See how I chose to design it with a set-in sleeve and a narrow shoulder width? It fits me like a glove and that was intentional.)

Then assess if you need to add extra fabric through short-row shaping or if the garment has enough ease to accommodate the non-B-cup bosom you are sporting. Remember also that knitted fabric tends to be flexible and has a moderate amount of give. You may not need that short-row shaping despite all. I see many people adding short-row shaping no matter the garment and sometimes that garment doesn’t need it. Even if you are a G-cup.

 Do not be afraid of yoked jumpers. I’ll be releasing this one soon, promise.

Do not be afraid of yoked jumpers. I’ll be releasing this one soon, promise.

4. Those Colourwork Patterns, Though

I keep being asked about colourwork patterns, particularly yoked jumpers. I’m a fan of colourwork patterns (as I think this post proves) but there are some pitfalls.

  • Beware of where the colourwork is placed. Remember the top cardigan? The brown one? I love it so much, but it has some major problems for people with big busts. Stranded knitted is less flexible, or has less give, than single-strand knitted fabrics. Floats stabilise and fix the fabric in a way you don’t get with fabrics made using just one strand. Sadly the cardigan in question has a section where you knit with three colours in a row — something which makes the fabric even stiffer than two-strand knitted fabric —and that section is placed right on your full bust. That means you have fabric with zero give right where you need it most. On the sleeves, the same thing happens on the upper arms. I am not going to knit the pattern again, but if I were I would change the three-strand colourwork section to a two-strand pattern or use duplicate stitch. So, be aware of where colourwork is placed and what impact it will have on your movement or ability to breathe.

  • Beware of deep yokes. They look super-nice but the colourwork can also stop in really unfortunate places. Measure your yoke depth on yourself (see below) and work out the yoke depth of the garment you want to make. This may involve some maths: look at the row gauge and figure out how many rows the pattern runs over (either ask someone who’s made the pattern, count the rows from photos, or simply just buy the pattern if you are deeply suspicious). Make a mock-up of the yoke depth and hold it up against yourself, or simply know from your own yoke depth whether the pattern will hit you right or wrong. Remember, it’s quicker and cheaper to do all these things than spend weeks knitting something you hate on your body.

 Yoke depth! It’s a thing and an important one.

Yoke depth! It’s a thing and an important one.

5. So, In Short…

  • Make stuff you’d actually wear rather than jump on a bandwagon just for the sake of it.

  • Tune out people who make you feel bad about yourself and your body.

  • Make stuff you’d absolutely love to reach for at 6am on a Monday morning.

  • Buy good bras that support your bust and don’t bite into your shoulders (I forgot to mention this earlier but a good, well-fitted bra will change your life).

  • Forget the whole What Not To Wear nonsense. Remember, making you feel bad about yourself is a whole industry and as a maker you have the power to say “bah! I’ll make it myself!”.

  • Know your body measurements . You are not just a bust size.

  • Short-row bust shaping isn’t always the right answer.

  • Think carefully about colourwork patterns and where the colourwork is placed.

  • Read and enjoy Busty Girl Comics because that whole strip is totally relatable.

Feel free to leave your own favourite tips in the comments.