Taking Notes

posted July 15th, 2017

This is a sample from The Knitting School Newsletter that went out this morning. For complete content sign up for news in the side-bar.

All rights reserved. Copyright Helen Sharp 2017



I know I am always harping on this, but taking notes of your work, especially fabric development, is a good practice.  But this time I am going to teach you a kind of short-hand – a method of “illustrating” a knit fabric. This is used in industry to communicate a fabric structure and also in programming knitting machinery such as Stoll and Shima.

You only need to learn three symbols. Were you paying attention in the last newsletter?

knit tuck miss symbols

Here are some common knit structures:

jersey and rib

The notation below indicates the direction of the carriage and the two course sequence that describes the Shaker or Half Cardigan stitch


Here are some more common rib structures using knit, tuck and miss stitches:

full cardigan

half milano

full milano

Let’s step it up a notch

blue coral swatch photoblue coral swatch

camel swatche photocamel swatch

coral swatch photocoral swatch

cream swatch photocream swatch

Notating knits in this way is an excellent way of communicating fabrics that are composed of knits, tucks, misses and rib structures, but graphing is better for fair-isle, intarsia, lace and cables.

Let’s Tuck Again

posted June 17th, 2017

This is a sample from The Knitting School Newsletter that went out this morning. For complete content sign up for news in the side-bar.

All rights reserved. Copyright Helen Sharp 2017



The newsletter I wrote a few weeks ago about tuck stitches, got me jonesing for more. I am especially fascinated by how a tuck stitch behaves differently to a knit stitch, and how when you combine them in various arrangements you get distortion in the fabric.


here, a block of tuck stitches pushes out width-wise and pulls down lengthwise to make an adjacent rib wavy

tuck3 tuck3graph

In this swatch, the vertical panels of jersey are being forced to wrinkle like seer-sucker by the adjacent panels of shaker (half cardigan).

tuck5 tuck2

tuck pc5  tuck2pc

These two swatches show very nicely how simple 4 course stripes can be distorted by tucking.

And here’s another wacky one. Triangles of tuck stitch intersect with triangles of jersey to not only create areas of vertical and horizontal stripes, but also to push out little mountain peaks of fabric.

tuck4 tuck4


posted June 3rd, 2017

This is a sample from The Knitting School Newsletter that went out this morning. For complete content sign up for news in the side-bar.

All rights reserved. Copyright Helen Sharp 2017




Just as in life, a lot of knitting (and getting a good-looking product off the knitting machine) is about balance.
The eye likes to see balance. Unbalanced things can be visually jarring – or they can be visually stirring, even exciting. Let’s look at where balance can be a good thing in knitting.

An unbalanced yarn creates an unbalanced fabric – sometimes.

Yarn is composed of fibers that are stranded together by twisting. We call this a ply. Twisting adds strength and elasticity to the ply. Machine knitting yarn needs some twist, but not too much, to create smooth knitting.

single ply

single ply


If there is barely any twist at all, we call this roving, or pencil roving. This yarn is inherently weak with lots of potential to break apart during the knitting. Careful, slow knitting is needed.

Too much twist causes the yarn to kink back on itself which can drive a knitter crazy quickly.

kinky yarn

But even when the amount of twist is just right, the fabric can be unbalanced, meaning it can skew or torque if it is in a single bed structure.

We have all had a t-shirt that spirals around the body causing the side-seams to move to the front and back. This is because the fabric structure (single bed) was not appropriate for the yarn used (or maybe the designer just wanted that to happen!).

skew2 ply

The swatch on the left is knit with a single ply yarn in jersey structure. The one on the right is a two ply yarn also in jersey.
To get a more balanced yarn, two or more plies are twisted together. Now the twist has another yarn to twist against offering stability.

two ply

two ply
But maybe you only have the single ply, it is your favorite color and you really want to use it to make something. You would have less chance of skew if you worked with a double bed structure. Rib is a more balanced, stable structure than jersey stitches and can cope with single ply yarns.


single ply used to knit jersey and 1×1 rib

Yarn Behavior

posted May 20th, 2017

This is a sample from The Knitting School Newsletter that went out this morning. For complete content sign up for news in the side-bar.

All rights reserved. Copyright Helen Sharp 2017


Yarn. This is usually the catalyst for a knitting project. You find a yarn that just makes you want to get on the machine and start knitting. It is like paint to the artist, like plants to the gardener. But just as an artist has choices – oils, acrylics, water-color, conte, depending on the mood they want to create, the feeling they want to evoke, you have some things to consider too.

Not just color, not just cashmere-or-cotton. Yarn brings so much more to the table. Loft, weight, drape, sheen, halo, softness – these are all qualities that yarn can offer. What about function? Breathability, stretch, warmth?

As important as all of these qualities is behavior. Does the yarn behave in the way you want it to, in the fabric you want to use?

merino cableslub cable

cashmere finishedwool cable

Here is the same cable in four different yarns: merino, lambswool slub, cashmere and 100% wool.  Look how the cable changes with the yarn choice, from crisp to soft to fuzzy.

You might be surprised by the notion that yarn can have such an impact on the finished garment. Better to be surprised now than after you have made it. Ask me how I know!

I designed a garment for a hand-knitting publication a few years ago. They sent me a yarn of their choosing for the project, one I had not worked with before. I made tension swatches and did the math and knit the garment. As I was knitting, I began to get a sense of unease about the yarn. It was super stretchy and quite heavy. When the garment was finished I put it on the mannequin and it immediately grew by 8-10″. I was horrified. I sent an image to the publication asking what to do, we were up against a tight deadline – no time to reknit. They said they would deal with it at their end. When the magazine came out, I was slightly mortified to see the garment on the model, with the sleeves rolled up about three times and the bottom of the sweater cut out of the image (it must have been down to her knees!).

For two decades I ran a design service supplying the garment industry with sweater designs. I tended to work with the same yarns over and over precisely because I knew how they behaved.

I used a 2/28 Italian Merino that I could use single-end on 12gg and add more ends, all the way up to 12 ends on the bulky machine. It was smooth and clean looking with excellent recovery, meaning that it held it’s shape beautifully in both single bed and rib structures.

merino ends

merino using 1 end (12gg), 3 ends, 6 ends (6gg) and 12 ends (3gg)

Another favorite was a merino lambswool from Scotland. Unlike the Italian merino, the lambswool required wet-finishing (washing after knitting to remove the waxes and oils that are processed into the yarn for machine knitting). The wet finishing brought out the best in the yarn, plumping it up, softening it and brightening the colors. I loved both of these yarns because they had awesome color palettes and were offered as a stock service (meaning that all colors were kept in stock so there was no waiting and minimums).

I also loved how they behaved and since my job was to generate idea after idea, never repeating the same design twice, familiarity with the yarn eliminated the surprise element and allowed me to just focus on my fabric development.

cashmere 3

Here is 100% cashmere right off the machine, steamed and wet-finished  (L>R)

Of course I was always seduced by the novelty yarns and every season would check out what the spinners had to offer. I fell in love with many new yarns over the years, linen/cotton from Italy, cashmere from Scotland, a gorgeous (and expensive) baby mohair/lycra blend that came in the most seductive color palette.

This yarn in particular held a few surprises. Texture tended to get lost in the fuzziness, but stripes and fair-isles took on a hazy quality that looked very fresh. Getting the tension right was a challenge because of the lycra, and steaming was fun because the first shot of steam caused the fabric to shrink to half size.

fair isle 1fairisle2

fair-isle knit in four different yarns. L>R 100% cotton, lambswool, tweedy wool-blend from Italy, that fuzzy mohair/lycra I was talking about

The main point I want to make here is to encourage you to take some time to get to know your yarn. Knit it up in a few different structures to see how it performs. Make some bigger tension swatches to get an idea of drape, heaviness and stretchiness. It may require buying extra yarn, but will save money in the long run by reducing disappointment and failure (well, we can’t completely eliminate these things – knitting has a mind of it’s own after all!)

And by the way, knitting the little cables swatches for this newsletter reminded me how hard cashmere is to work with – so weak and brittle. It took several attempts to get a good-looking swatch because the cables kept bursting. The merino, on the other hand, was a dream to work with. 3-over-3 cable? No problem!

3-D Knitting

posted May 6th, 2017

This is a sample from The Knitting School Newsletter that went out this morning. For complete content sign up for news in the side-bar.

All rights reserved. Copyright Helen Sharp 2017


If you work in the knitwear industry it is hard to avoid the buzzword “3-d Knitting”.

When I first heard the term a few years ago, I thought it was knitting done with a 3-d printer and I thought “What is the point of that?”.  Then I understood it to mean pieces that were knit to shape using a combination of fashioning and short rows, and I thought “What’s new about that?”.  After all, a sock is knit 3-d, so is a hat, gloves, an Icelandic sweater. Anything knit without seams can be considered 3-dimensional knitting.

Now, I am somewhat better educated in the matter. I even went to a 3-d knitting conference. And I am here to share my vast wisdom!

We can break down machine-made knit goods into the following categories:

Cut & Sew Knits: Garment pieces are cut from knit yardage just like woven fabric. T-shirts are cut and sewn. So are sweat pants, sweatshirts, leggings and most sportswear. The machinery needed to assemble the pieces is different from woven fabric machinery as it needs to accommodate the stretch of the knitting, and it’s potential to unravel. Overlockers (or sergers) are used for assembling  knit fabrics.

Cut & Sewn Sweaters: The difference here is that the pieces are knit in panels to the width of the garment, so there is less wastage. The pieces come off the machine, one after the other with a draw-thread separating each piece. The welts are finished, as are the side seams. A J shape is cut out for the arm-hole. The sleeves have slightly more wastage as there is usually a widening from the cuff to the underarm, and also a sleeve-head shape. Formerly, much sweater knitwear was made using this technique. If you read my article on Haute Couture you will remember the company Dehen, still working with old school knitting machinery and cut & sew techniques.

Fully Fashioned Knitwear: Garment pieces are knit to shape using increases and decreases. Less wastage. No need to cut the fabric. Cup-seamers and linkers are used to assemble the garments. Most fashion knitwear is made using this technique.

Knit & Wear: Shima Seiki, a Japanese knitting machine manufacturer developed the first machine that could knit an entire garment in the ’90′s. No seams. No assembly required. However, the design potential was limiting and the machines were mostly used to create underwear garments where the lack of seams provided more comfort. The early machines could only knit jersey (single-bed) garments. Now they have the ability to knit ribs in the round too.

3-D Knitwear: These machines (from both the German knitting machine manufacturer Stoll and Shima) can knit pieces that incorporate not only different stitch types but different yarns in the same course of knitting. Combine this with high tech yarns and very complex and sophisticated fabrics can be made, with channels for laces, areas that are more breathable, areas that are more elastic.  The pieces that come off these machines are finding their way into auto parts, aerospace, the medical field, the military and of course, running shoes. Fashion apparel? Not so much. But as with all things related to fashion – that could change.


The Nike Flyknit running shoe put 3-D knitting on the map

Haute Couture & Knitwear

posted April 8th, 2017

This is a sample from The Knitting School Newsletter that went out this morning. For complete content sign up for news in the side-bar.

All rights reserved. Copyright Helen Sharp 2017


A prospective student called me this morning inquiring about classes. She wanted to know if I could teach her haute couture techniques on the machine.

The question threw me. I had to ask her what she meant by haute couture. I was fairly sure I knew what it meant, but I wasn’t sure what it meant with regards to knitwear. Or what it meant to her.



Yves Saint Laurent Wedding Dress 1965

My old Collins English Dictionary defines Haute Couture enigmatically as “high fashion” and then as a literal translation of the french “high dress-making”.

Wikipedia is much more expansive on the subject. Here is an excerpt that resonates with me “Haute couture is high-end fashion that is constructed by hand from start to finish, made from high quality, expensive, often unusual fabric and sewn with extreme attention to detail and finished by the most experienced and capable sewers, often using time-consuming, hand-executed techniques.” The French have a legal definition of Haute Couture, but there is also the generally understood definition which may be closer to the Collins English Dictionary. Here, I am giving my interpretation as it relates to knitwear.

If we think of couture as being the opposite side of the coin to pret-a-porter, by definition each piece is unique, made to fit a particular person and may or may not include hand-work such as beading and embroidery, it would be hard to think of teaching those techniques in machine knitting. What would they be? There are no parameters for teaching couture. It is more of an artistic expression, like the YSL wedding dress (which, by the way is hand-knit). On the other hand, we could look at the difference between a high-end piece of quality knitwear (for example, a Chanel cardigan) and compare it to a high street garment.

Knitwear, by its nature and history is not typically considered couture. The rise of the sweater as a garment other than a work garment (think fisherman’s sweaters rich with lanolin to keep out the cold and water) came from sportswear, especially golf.  Remember that painting of the Prince of Wales, Edward VIII in his fair-isle golf vest in 1936? – that was the birth of knitwear as we know it.  Was that a couture garment? It was hand-knit on a little island off the coast of Scotland, probably using the local Shetland wool. You can still purchase similar pieces today made in the same way, using the same yarn.Prince of Wales


Portrait of HRH the Prince of Wales by John St. Helier Lander

It is true that Chanel and Shiaparelli introduced knitwear into their collections in the 1920’s. Were they couture? The first goods had reportedly been purchased from factories that made underwear in the British midlands. Once in France, the pieces were doctored with different trims and turned into outerwear pieces such as cardigans.
Here is a later piece that was clearly specially commissioned.


A silk pullover made in the UK by Allen, Solly & Co in 1924 and reportedly supplied to a Paris couturier. More details and all credits here

Looking further back, before anyone would consider wearing a knitted item “out”, hand-knit hosiery was the leg covering of choice for royalty and the upper classes. The higher quality pieces were silk and very finely knit. Initially they were imported from Spain and France, but soon they were being made by man, woman and child in rural England out of wool, silk and cotton. The fashion for knitted hosiery spanned centuries and spurred the invention of the first knitting machine in the late 1500’s.

All through the 1600’s and 1700’s knitting machines, or frames, were producing hosiery in cottage industry settings alongside hand-knitters who were producing the same. You can visit a frame knitters museum in Ruddington outside Nottingham, UK and get a sense of the hard life the “stockinger’ had – working long hours for little pay.

I think you could say that the garments that were produced were fine enough to be called couture. The yarn was of superior quality, the skill needed to make them was extremely high and the goods that were produced would be “fit for a king” and definitely out of the reach of common folk. However, the fact that the labor force was being exploited by hosiers who owned the rented the frames to the knitters and set the price for the goods made, means that the situation is little different from the situation found in many factories around the world today.


Red silk stockings with green wool embroidery 1760 – 1800. More info and all credits here

But were the machine made pieces of a poorer quality to the hand-knit pieces? That is a tricky question.

Just as today there can be exquisite machine-knits and hand-knits – there can also be poor quality, badly made machine and hand-knits. Just because it is made by hand does not mean it is better than machine-made. I have heard that so often from hand-knitters (Don’t get me started!).

The pieces made on the machine were probably finer gauge and lighter weight and more evenly knit. The hand-knit pieces were possibly coarser knit just because the time needed to make a piece by hand that has 12-20 stitches to the inch would take too long. There is skill and knowledge in both crafts.

Fast forward to 1950’s Europe. There are two main types of knitting machine now – fully fashioned flat-beds like the Bentley Cottons I mentioned in The Fashioned Back Shoulder article and more automated v-bed machines like Dubieds and Stoll. The fully fashioned machines had limited capabilities – they could knit jersey and some pointelle and they could fashion (move needles in and out of work to increase and decrease the width of the garment), but not much else. The V-beds, on the other hand, could make single jacquard (fairisle), double jacquard, links-links (knit and purl combos), pointelle, cables, tuck and miss stitches but….they couldn’t shape the pieces.

So, if you wanted to make a sweater out of a high quality yarn (cashmere, sea island cotton, merino – or botany, as it used to be called) you would make it on a fully fashioned machine. Why? Because you would probably want to keep the garment as lightweight as possible (cost) and jersey is as light as it gets, and you wouldn’t want to be cutting out and throwing away some your expensive yarn in the process of making the garment (cost!).

The v-bed machinery was used for more fashion-driven pieces and the yarns were more likely to be less expensive -  wool/synthetic, cotton/synthetic or just 100% synthetic.

So, does that mean the fully fashioned pieces were superior and the cut and sew were a lesser garment? I personally don’t think so. I think what made the fully fashioned pieces higher quality was the yarn only. If a cut and sewn piece is made well it is a perfectly fine garment, as good as any fashioned piece.  By being made well, I mean that the tension was good (not sloppy or too tight), that the fit was good and that the seams were double needle overlocked (serged) and sewn without distortion to the fabric, the neck trim was linked and of course, the yarn was of good quality.

Today, machinery has advanced to the extent that most machines can fully fashion as well as perform fancy stitches. It is very, very rare to see a commercial sweater that is cut and sewn. I think the last time I saw one was about 20 years ago in Barneys New York.  It was a Dries Van Noten Sweater and cost hundreds of dollars. No, wait – a very nattily dressed male student came to class wearing a sweater that caught my attention. It was a gorgeous sweater, clearly well made but I couldn’t believe the construction, because it was new and cut and sewn. Then he told me where he bought it. You can tell, by looking at Dehen’s website, that they have enormous pride in their work and are producing high quality garments.

Apart from the out-liers, there is still this idea that fully-fashioning is superior just because it is fully fashioned. I don’t subscribe to that. The advantage I see in fully-fashioned garments is the reduction in waste – that is definitely a good thing! But even a cut and sewn sweater (depending on the design) has minimal waste since the body panels were knit to exact width requiring a small J shape cut out of the top on each side for the armhole and scoop cut out for the neck. The sleeves would have slightly more wastage.

So what is the real difference between say, a Chanel cardigan that costs $2000+ and a cardigan from Old Navy or Target at $19.99? In techniques used and possibly machinery used – nothing. Both would be fully fashioned on power machinery and the neck trim would be linked on. The most obvious difference would be in the yarn used. There is even a big difference between high quality cashmere and cheap cashmere. Both labels say 100% cashmere but most of us have experienced the pilling on a poor quality cashmere sweater after only a few hours of wear. The other big difference is where in the world it was made, how much the labor force is paid, how much their skills and knowledge are respected and honored. Scotland, England and Italy are still the places where the best knitwear is made and this is down to 100’s of years of skill and experience and a respect for the both the workers and the finished product. I feel honored to have worked in factories in all three countries either as a student, a designer or a sample knitter and I have the highest regard for every single person who works in the shop floor whether they are standing at a steam bed, linking on a neck-trim or coaxing a recalcitrant knitting machine to produce the goods.

So, that is a long way round of saying that yes, I suppose I do teach couture methods and the common-or-garden techniques too – because they are the same

Here is a little knitting porn – The Making of a Chanel Cardigan – look at them cutting out the neck opening and placket!


Why Knitting Stretches (and what to do about it)

posted March 25th, 2017

This is a sample from The Knitting School Newsletter that went out this morning. For complete content sign up for news in the side-bar.

All rights reserved. Copyright Helen Sharp 2017



(and what to do about it)

You probably know this already, but I’ll tell you anyway – knitting stretches.

Here’s why.


woven vs knit

Looking at the woven fabric you can see that each thread or yarn is already straight,

Unless it has some inherent elastic qualities, it has no potential to stretch.

Knitting, on the other hand, is composed of interconnecting loops. There is lots of possibility for it to stretch regardless of the inherent stretchiness of the yarn.

fig 14 - course_wise extensibility

Look at how far the loop can open up sideways (in a course-wise direction) – easily 2-3 times its width if it is really pulled.

It has less potential to stretch vertically (in a wale-wise), but still possibly double its relaxed state.

For this very reason, sweaters are usually made with the limited stretch of the wales (or stitches) placed vertically. Turning a sweater around and using the knit sideways gives much more potential for the garment to grow in length (and shrink in width).

wait_what just happened


The stretchiness of knitwear is what makes it comfortable to wear. It also means patterns for knitwear don’t have to be as precise as for woven fabric.

However, it is also why it is unpredictable.  In a way, knitwear is alive. It has a mind of its own, and yarn choice and stitch choice add to the unpredictability.



Don’t let the knitting be the boss of you.  Learn how different stitches and different yarns behave and harness that power. A good designer will understand their fabrics and put them to work so the knit stretches where stretch is wanted hugs the body where that effect is desired. This can happen without any shaping, just by using the inherent quality of the yarn and fabric.  The first step -  pay attention to the fabrics you create – see how they behave and plan accordingly.  It is not just about their appearance.

Here’s a couple of examples.

rib relaxed and stretched


Ribs stretch more sideways. Looking at the rib from the top, we can see it has lots of potential to stretch and relax.

garter stitch stretches vertically


Garter-stitch stretches more vertically.  Looking at the fabric from the side, we can see that in a relaxed state, the courses form a zig-zag.  Once gravity is brought into play (the garment is worn) the fabric will start to straighten out and get longer.



This brings me to a related subject – accumulated weight. The more fabric there is, the more it will weigh, the more it will stretch.

It is a fine art getting the garment length just right so that you end up with the sweater you want.

When I worked for design companies, the sweaters would come in from the factories and we would have a “fit review”.   A fit review is a meeting with the designer, the technical designer, maybe even the buyers would attend and the all-important fit model or models.

The fit model is a person whose measurements exactly correspond to the desired size/build of your ideal customer.  Different companies have different ideal sizes. Not just small, medium and large. One company’s medium might be quite different from another company’s medium.

In one company I worked at, we also ran petite and tall sizes, so the fit review had three models…but I digress.

The technical designer would measure the sweater flat to see how close the measurements corresponded to what we had asked for and then we looked at the garments on-body.

If we wanted a sweater to be, for example, 26″ long, it might measure exactly that flat, but on-body it may grow to 28″. If we took 2″ off the length to account for the accumulated weight, the sweater now weighs less and won’t drop so much.  Do you see the problem?  So, it became a bit of a guessing game to figure out the perfect length.

How should we approach this when making our own garments?  My advice is to make the tension swatch as large as you are able.  Measure it flat, and once you have calculated the correct tension, pin it to the wall or a vertical surface and let it hang out for a while. Then measure it again. If there is a significant difference, you can start the guessing game for the perfect length

In Praise of Jersey

posted March 11th, 2017

This is a sample from The Knitting School Newsletter that went out this morning. For complete content sign up for news in the side-bar.

All rights reserved. Copyright Helen Sharp 2017



It has taken me a while to fall in love with jersey, but then I fell hard and it will be forever.
Jersey is classic. It is timeless.

And what is more, it is the easiest fabric to make on a knitting machine.

Hand-knitters know it as stocking stitch (UK) or stockinette (US). Also called ‘plain knitting’.

As I design student, I used anything but, and on the rare occasions I did, it was only to knit intarsia, or fair-isle. Why would I want to use the most boring stitch in the world? For 30 years I cabled and tucked, bobbled, floated and ribbed – but never just plain old jersey.

At some point, it all become too much. I wanted less. Less color, less texture. I wanted knitwear to be paired down to it’s essence, it’s most simple state. I wanted jersey.


From Helen Sharp Knitwear Fall 2010
Photography: Julie Adams Photography

If you start to really look at jersey, it becomes the most beautiful, magical stitch. All those loops intersecting in perfect unison and rhythm with their adjacent loops. All those little ‘V’s lining up and stacking course after course. Turn it over and you see horizontal bumps from the knit loop and sinker loop.

It occurred to me a few years ago that ‘purl’ was the reverse side of ‘knit’. What I mean is, I knew it already of course.  It is just about the first thing you ever learn in knitting. But one day, looking closely at a piece of jersey and flipping it over and back, I saw it in a whole new way – I SAW it.  I could finally see the knit loop and how each loop was connecting with the next and why I could see the “legs” of the loop on the knit side and the tops and bottoms of the loop on the purl side. It was like something just exploded in my head. That was when I fell in love.


knits and purls

However, jersey has a little problem – it is unstable. It is always trying to curl up into itself and hide. The sides of the fabric want to curl to the back and the top and bottom of the fabric want to curl to the front.
There is an easy fix to this – ribs will stabilize the bottom and top and seams will stabilize the edges. Result – the perfect sweater!

On the other hand, you could, like me, learn to love the roll. Remember the J Crew Roll neck sweater? They ran that style for years – through most of the ‘90’s as far as I can remember. Now it is back, and just as perfect as ever.

Maybe you have been knitting for a long time and feel like there is nothing new. Here’s an idea – have another look at jersey.


Photography: Julie Adams Photography

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