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In my most recent series of columns I have demonstrated how to use straightforward division to make adjustments to distribute increases and decreases evenly, less than evenly, to make adjustments for your row gauge, and to fine-tune sleeve fit.

Now I’d like to explain my approach to alterations: no garment alteration is impossible, but some are significantly easier (and less risky) than others. The key to success is assessing difficulty so that you take on the types of alteration you are comfortable taking on! 

Comfort Zones

My husband and I moved a few years ago, and our real estate agent offered this most sensible piece of advice: No home you buy is going to be perfect for you, but a better choice up front will reduce the cost, effort, and risk of the work you need to do to make it perfect. It’s all about knowing what types of renovations you’re willing and able to take on.

Whether buying a new home or choosing a garment pattern, the key to making a good choice is knowing the relative difficulty of alterations, and what you feel comfortable taking on.

To guide you with that, I present: 

Use this to inform your garment pattern shopping! Find yourself a garment pattern that works well for you, and that only requires the types of alterations you are comfortable making. 

In general, I recommend that any garment pattern you choose be the structure you want: is it seamed vs. worked in the round? And the style you want: set-in sleeve vs. drop shoulder vs. circular yoke vs. raglan? Does it offer the size you need, and match the yarn you want to use? These aspects of a pattern are all pretty fundamental—think of them as the “bones” of your garment—and they’re the most complicated to alter.

For example, to convert a set-in sleeve style to a raglan requires a lot of mathematics, and a good solid understanding of how the garments are constructed. (And I don’t think I’m giving away any industry secrets if I tell you that sleeve cap and armhole shaping can be the most complicated aspect of design, capable of making very clever and experienced people cry.) 

Although this might not be a popular opinion, even a gauge adjustment can be hard: the more complex the garment shaping, the more math you need to do. Gauge adjustment is very straightforward for a scarf or a hat, where there’s not so much shaping, but see my previous comment about sleeve cap and armhole shaping—it can be pretty intense!

The world is your oyster (or purl).

We’re in a wonderful place these days, as knitters: there are tens of thousands of patterns available to us, and if you can’t match gauge for a given pattern, or it doesn’t offer the size you want, I can guarantee you can find a very similar pattern that does have the size you need, and does work for your yarn.

I have a degree in mathematics and studied garment design at college, and I would still rather be knitting than trying to reengineer a pattern. If you want to do the work, go for it! But know that you don’t need to do it.

Once you’ve got a garment pattern that has the right structure, with straightforward but remarkably powerful adjustments to elements of style—like colors and edgings—and with easy tweaks to the fit—like sleeve and body length and shaping—you can make it perfect for you!

Save it for later. Here’s how to tuck this article into your MDK account with one click.


Field Guide Sweaters Hall of Fame Gallery up top: Hadley Pullover in Field Guide No. 2: Fair Isle, Easel Sweater in Field Guide No. 3: Wild Yarns, Calligraphy Cardigan and Liberty Pullover in Field Guide No. 9: Revolution, Petula Pullover and Bottom Line Pullover in Field Guide No. 10: Downtown, Main Squeeze Cardigan in Field Guide No. 12: Big Joy, Transom Cardigan in Field Guide No. 14: Refresh, and Destination Pullover and Daytripper Cardigan in Field Guide No. 17: Lopi.

About The Author

Kate Atherley is a teacher, designer, author and technical editor. She’s also the publisher of Digits & Threads, a magazine all about Canadian fibre and textile arts.


  • I once read an article on supposedly easy adjustments to sleeve caps, in which it turned out one needed a working knowledge of calculus! But your little table makes perfect sense. Sometimes I’m willing to change things up a lot, but usually I’m at the add a stripe, change the cuffs level.

    • Thank you for the valuable advice. A table like this would be handy for a lot of life’s decisions.

  • Kate your articles always help me see the world a little differently, and I love that.
    I love the charts and agree with your difficulty levels but I will say- if you really want to understand how a pattern works, changing the gauge is a great way to see how all the different elements interact. It’s not easy, but doing this significantly upped my sweater-knitting game. Except for set-in sleeve caps, I feel competent in altering a pattern however I might want to. I like the freedom it gives me, even if 99% of the time I work to get gauge instead of altering it. Because altering is a pain, but an empowering and instructive kind of pain.
    Like the commenter above, I would love this kind of chart for other things in life. It’s brilliant.

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