Sample Sizes

sommet hat

*this photograph has nothing to do with this post – I just can’t bring myself to post without any images…


Ever since I taught a class about custom fitting your knits in Iceland, I’ve been mulling over discussing the issue on this blog. Before I begin, I think it would be best to talk about where we are (usually) starting from in order to best illustrate the concepts used to alter garments for one’s figure.

To start with, one needs to know which size most knitting patterns are calibrated for. Whether we are talking about knitting patterns, sewing patterns or even ready to wear, a garment is designed in what is called a sample size before being graded to fit other sizes. This varies, but only slightly, from one maker to the next – the measurements used are typically about 34.5″ around the fullest part of the bust, while the waist and hip respectively measure 26.5″ and 37.5″. Furthermore, this sample size measures 5’7″ and wears a B cup.

In ready to wear, this size is often designated as a 4. In sewing patterns, these measurements would be a little larger than a 12 through the bust and hips. Coincidently, have any of you ever heard that Marilyn Monroe wore a 16? Many like to use this fact in order to make a point about today’s women being held up to slimness standards not seen in Marilyn’s day. The problem with this assertion is that clothing sizes have changed since Marilyn’s day – I just grabbed one of my vintage patterns, and a 16 is marked as being 34-28-37. In other words, quite close to today’s size 4 (I have to admit that the fact that the waist size was larger when women wore girdles makes me pause for a moment).

I’ve asserted before that sample sizes vary from one manufacturer or make to another, and it does. It isn’t really as foolish as it seems, though – in ready to wear (RTW) , manufacturers need to address their customer base as best they can and different age groups have different fit concerns. So this may explain why one store’s size 4 fits one woman better than another’s. If this a subject you find yourself particularly interested in, I would suggest reading Fashion-Incubator, Kathleen Fasanella‘s blog. She posted a very thorough discussion on vanity sizing a while back which I have found fascinating.

I hope that all this discussion about sizes versus measurements have made one point amply clear – it isn’t enough to look for one’s size and one should rather look at the finished measurements of the desired garment. This is very, very important when regarding knitting patterns as the alpha sizing has absolutely nothing to do with RTW but rather uses letters in addition to measurements in order to avoid long strings of numbers in the pattern when directions are given for only a few of the sizes. It can be confusing to someone who expects a knitting pattern to match their RTW size  – a pattern containing 8 sizes separated by a grading increment of 2″ would likely result in a  large with a finished measurement of 38″ whereas a RTW large often designates an actual bust measurement closer to 40″. In this case, a string of finished measurements like these:

32 (34, 36, 38, 40, 42, 44, 48)”

And would result in a string of alpha sizes such as these:

XS (XS, S, M, L, XL, 2XL, 3Xl, 4XL)

I can also assure you that an off the peg 4XL will not have a finished circumference of 48″, unless said garment contains lycra in its fabric.

Note that I’ve talked about actual body measurements and finished measurements – knitting patterns differ from sewing patterns and RTW in that they present the knitter with finished measurements whereas the latter present sizes. Sewers (sewists? seamstresses?) pick a pattern and must consult the paper pattern or measure it in order to determine its finished measurements (they also often sew a mock garment called a ‘muslin’ out of inexpensive fabric to test the fit, but I doubt I’ll be convincing knitters to do the same anytime soon). So, Knitters not only need to know what their actual body measurements are but also need to know how much ease is needed in order to choose the appropriate size to knit from in a pattern. We’re told that ease is a matter of preference, but that is only true to a certain point – if a garment’s silhouette is supposed to be close fitting, a knitter should not attempt to knit a version with 6″ or more of ease as the fit would be poor throughout as a result.


Silhouette Tops Jackets Coats
Close Fitting 0-3″ n/a n/a
Fitted 2.75″-4″ 3.75″-4.25″ 5.25″-6.75″
Semi-Fitted 4.25″-5″ 4.5″-5.75″ 6.75″-8″
Loose Fitting 5.25″-8″ 5.75″-10″ 8.25″-12″
Very Loose Fitting 8″ + 10″ + 12″ +


The terms used in this table will be familiar to those who sew – sewing patterns include written description which detail the fit as well as any feature of the pattern, such as pockets. Unfortunately, knitting patterns don’t indicate in the description what kind of silhouette the garment is designed. Some indicate how much ease, but knitters must often use their own judgement to determine how much ease to add to their actual body measurements.

Which wouldn’t be so hard if we were all 5’7″ and wore a B cup… we’d just add however much ease we need to our actual bust measurement and choose the appropriate finished measurement.


That’s enough for now – one day, I’ll explain how grading is done when it comes to knitting patterns. In the meantime, please ask any questions you may have in the comment section- I’ll check in and answer to the best of my abilities.