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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.

In the MDK Shop
Jen Geigley's Main Squeeze Cardigan deserves to be your first (or 50th) sweater. Find the pattern in Field Guide No. 12: Big Joy.

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.















About The Author

As a blogger, writer, teacher, lecturer, designer, and catalyst in the knitting world, Julia Farwell-Clay has for the past ten years dug herself ever deeper into the world of textile traditions and personal decoration. She is the designer of all of the patterns in Modern Daily Knitting Field Guide No. 7: Ease, and  has been published as both a writer and a designer in Knitty, Interweave Knits, PomPom Quarterly, and Twist Collective, among others.


  • I recognize your first sweater — from a Rowan magazine in the early 90s, I think? I knit that same sweater, only in forest green. I loved it and wore it to death!

    • Of course you did! ::fist bump:: Rowan Magazine #8 FTW

  • I really enjoyed reading your text about first knitted sweater. All I can say is: I learned the hard way over many years of practice that you best stick to the yarn that is recommended. I knitted a whole lot of nice patterns with the ‚wrong‘ yarn and the outcome was too bulky, too warm, too ethereal, too big, too whatsoever … and mostly a disappointment after weeks and month of work. I am also sticking quite close to the pattern (no changings whatsoever) because that also often ended in strange results. Since and through Ravelry I found some really good designers, where I know, the pattern will work for me and my bodytype and it‘s a pleasure to wear the well fitted piece in the end. So, no more illusions when a special yarn jumps on me in a shop…

  • Lily Sugar n Creme held double — your hands must still hurt.

  • Another lesson might be: if you see the sweater is coming out stiff as a board or pooling in odd places, or unacceptable in some way, stop and rip it out. Don’t just plod on to the end. If you do plod on to the end and you don’t like it, rip it out and change yarn, pattern, size, etc. And if, like me, you have very limited knitting time for knitting and don’t want to waste it, do as the first group of knitters you mentioned did and get as much expert advice as you can before you start.


    • Such a beautiful sweater – thanks for reminding me, because, of course, I have that magazine issue too. Amazing how many of those are still lovely, only needing minor adjustments. There’s another great CK cable sweater in Best of Very Easy Vogue book.

    • I still have the magazine, of course, Karen! DM me, baby

  • The main blog photo looks an awful lot like one of my first sweaters, except for the colorway in that top-down raglan. Mine was the blue and purple one, and it pooled just as horrifically! 🙂

    Actually, that wasn’t my FIRST sweater. My FIRST sweater — in fact, the first thing I ever knit after the then-obligatory slippers — was … black. Mohair. (Mother, WHY didn’t you tell me that was a horrible choice for a beginner?) Fortunately, no photographs survive. But I know it took me six months to create the sleeveless turtleneck shell.

    What a fun topic!

    • May I be a total heathen and say that I love pooling? It make the piece so much more interesting with the concentrated areas of a single color. It’s like a garden that looks more striking with blocks of the same color than just mixing all the flower colors together.

  • I made that exact Calvin Klein sweater … out of Rowan Handknit Cotton, held double. It was heavy! I made a pencil skirt out of a linen and silk fabric with a design of black and gray leaves to wear with it, and I felt very sheik wearing the ensemble – I know I wore it to give talks. I must have the sweater somewhere. It was very very late 80s — drop shoulder, long line, loose … the pattern was from Vogue Knitting, I think … and I may still have a copy of the instructions, somewhere.

    • Wish you had a photo of you in that ensemble! I love reminiscing about garments we wore till they were threadbare. Thay became part of our lives really.

  • We’ve all been there- in one way or another! The lesson to be learned from our first sweaters? We have to be willing to be “bad” at “it” to get “good” at it…and it doesn’t matter what the “it” is! Most importantly, don’t give up-just keep knitting!

  • I knit my first sweater in the 70s when I was a foreign exchange student in Sweden. The yarn was beautiful — the Swedes are good at yarn! I got lots of help with the Swedish pattern and the sweater turned out a little big but I loved. I wore it, then my Mom wore it, and now my niece is wearing it in college in Minnesota. 30 years and still going strong! Just don’t look at the inside — I tied knots instead of weaving in all kinds of ends.

  • I can remember my first sweater but no photographic record exists. I was 15; it involved two different types of yarn:one was white worsted, the other was a synthetic blue mohair called “mohlan” purchased from the local dimestore. The sweater involved slipped stitches and there was a cowl neckline. I believed I looked just like Audrey Hepburn, if she had been a pudgy teen wearing glasses. Since no picture exists, I can hold onto the delusion.

  • Love! Excellent reminder. I used to be a fearless knitter, alas what the H happened?? Great advice & inspiration.

  • I love them all !!!

  • I have been knitting since 1952 or 1953, so I can’t remember the exact year I knitted one that I could wear, but I was young and it was a navy v neck. My mother was an expert knitter so I could ask her and she helped me pick out the best yarn for the project. But throughout the years, I have unraveled more than I have knitted. Now I keep a book with samples, etc. so my advice is to keep knitting with confidence. You’ll make less mistakes as you age!

  • I don’t have a picture, or the sweater, but I think my first sweater was a Portuguese Fisherman’s Sweater, the Candide pattern, when I was in high school

  • I loved this post. Sometimes I explore the sites and run into things like this. I learned to knit and crochet before I was eight, could have been 6 or 7 years old. I have never made a sweater —too intimidated I guess. I recall my husband going to Ireland (without me by the way) and he purchased a beautiful fisherman’s sweater. It is so heavy and warm. He told the ladies in the shop that his wife knits. They asked him how old I was. He told them that I was in my forties. They said I wasn’t old enough to know how to knit! Talk about intimidation! I love that story. Now that I am in my mid-fifties—I guess it’s time to put my big girl skirt on and give sweater making a whirl.

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