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Do you love vintage clothing, but never seem to find exactly what you want? Knitting from vintage patterns might be just the ticket.

Using vintage patterns can be fun and enormously rewarding. By making your own pieces, you can vamp up your wardrobe with retro looks without spending a fortune. Rather than searching endlessly for the perfect 1950s sweater or a classic argyle sock pattern, try knitting the perfect facsimile -- in your favorite color and custom-tailored to fit you like a glove. Knitting from old patterns can be especially useful for those who have a hard time finding vintage knits in their size, making classic looks available to those of us who can't fit into the teeny clothes of earlier times. If you've ever tried to shoehorn yourself into a vintage sweater, or tried on vintage gloves that seem to have been knitted for a Chihuahua rather than a full-grown human, you'll love knitting your own "vintage" items to suit you.

Knitting from vintage patterns is also a great way to connect to the way women lived in other times -- both through reading pattern books and in the process of actually knitting from one. And even if you don't intend to knit every one, vintage patterns can be fun to collect as artifacts -- with beautiful fashion photography and quaint and sometimes hilarious depictions of life in a bygone era.

Finding a Vintage Pattern

First, you need a pattern source. If you're not the type to spend hours upending musty boxes in church rummage bins and estate sales, don't despair -- eBay and other online auction sites present a great opportunity to stock up. These sources can offer an extremely wide selection to choose from at the click of a button, but the patterns will invariably cost more than if you come across a treasure trove. Used booksellers also frequently offer old knitting books for pennies, listing them under the knitting or sewing sections of online stores. Try using eBay as a resource to find the names of vintage books, and then hunt for them at cheaper prices from various online booksellers.

Perhaps the best resources are vintage pattern websites. Many blogs and free pattern websites also offer great copyright-free vintage patterns. Commercial websites offer a wealth of patterns at reasonable prices, originally published between the 1800s and the 1960s.

Choosing a Pattern

Much of the time, if you are ordering online, you may only see a picture of the design and won't have an opportunity to read through a pattern beforehand. If you do get lucky, consider it the same way you would a modern pattern. Is it complete? How detailed are the instructions? Does it include charts or (more rarely) schematics? In the photograph, is the model contorted into some weird position, or can you see that the garment hangs properly?

Using Vintage Patterns

Vintage knitting patterns are easy to convert to modern use with a little planning and forethought. If you can make minor adjustments to a modern pattern for fit and style, you can make virtually any vintage pattern. Here are some considerations when making new garments from vintage patterns:

Original Intended Use: Don't be limited by the original use for a pattern - many vintage patterns can be adapted or used as is to create a garment that suits more modern needs. For example, this 1940s camisole pattern was originally intended as lingerie, but while the demand for knitted skivvies is relatively low, it also works as a sexy tank:

Instructions: Thankfully, most twentieth century vintage patterns use the same language and abbreviations used in knitting parlance today. Only minor differences exist -- for instance, extra double-pointed needles and bits of waste yarn replace cable needles and stitch holders. If you like to work from charts or use schematics, consider making your own -- they rarely appear in vintage books and leaflets.

Gauge: The first thing that people notice is the wee gauges in which so many vintage patterns are written. Most people's initial reaction is: "How on earth and WHY did women knit at such impossibly fine gauges?" With some practice, however, knitting at a fine gauge is eminently do-able. A finer knit garment is both more flattering and more durable -- qualities necessary for a time when garments were hard to come by and frugality was an important virtue. The finer the gauge, the lighter and more flattering the garment can be -- subtracting as much as an inch from your waistline as compared to a heavy sweater, and gracefully following your curves. Small gauges also hide mistakes well -- the smaller the stitches, the smaller the mistake looks. And, with small-gauge knitting, you can use superwash sock yarn -- letting you chuck your garment into the washer with impunity. I strongly encourage you to try -- it takes less time than you think and the results are worth it!

If you need to alter the gauge of a garment, don't despair. Simply divide the number of stitches originally called for by the number of stitches cast on -- for example:

Old Gauge = 8 sts/inch
Number of Stitches Called for = 120
Width at cast on = 15 inches

Then multiply your new gauge by the number of inches called for to determine how many stitches to cast on:

New intended Gauge = 6 sts/inch x 15 inches = cast on 90 stitches

You can do the same quick calculation for bust, waist, hip and armhole measurements. For a more detailed explanation of how to change gauge sizes, please check out this Knitty article.

Sizing: Sizing has changed considerably over the course of the twentieth century. To make matters more complicated, vintage sizing was not quite as standard as it is today.

  • size 12 = 30" bust in 1930, 32" bust 1930s -- 1960s, 34" bust post-1968
  • size 14 = 32" bust in 1930, 34" bust 1930s -- 1960s, 36" bust post-1968
  • size 16 = 34" bust in 1930, 36" bust 1930s -- 1960s, 38" bust post-1968
  • size 18 = 36" bust in 1930, 38" bust 1930s -- 1960s, 40" bust post-1968
  • size 20 = 38" bust in 1930, 40" bust 1930s -- 1960s, 42" bust post-1968

Go by the measurements of the garment rather than the pattern size. In cases where no measurement is specified, you can easily choose the correct size by dividing the number of stitches at the bustline by the number of stitches to the inch. (For more information on sizing, refer to this Knitty article)

Fit and Style: Most vintage patterns were made to fit different expectations about style and fit. Some salient points to remember:

  • At various points in history, women wore heavy-duty foundation garments to cinch in their waists, to amplify their busts, or to give themselves the 1950s equivalent of a J-Lo butt -- so garments were made accordingly. For example, a 1955 pattern would be designed with the expectation that you'd be wearing a bullet bra and a girdle every day. To deal with this, know your waist, bust, and armhole measurements, and multiply the gauge by the number of stitches at that point in the garment to determine what needs to be adjusted for your size.
  • Not only were women generally smaller and thinner, they were shorter, and they wore their skirts and pants much higher up on their natural waists rather than the hip-hugging waistline of today. Consequently length is something you should at least consider before deciding whether to alter a vintage pattern. Adjust length as necessary by adding or subtracting from the number of inches knit.
  • As fashions have changed, so have ideas about ease. Ease is the difference between your measurements and the measurements of the garment. Just as you couldn't fit two boxes of exactly the same size inside one another -- one would have to be bigger -- you need room inside a garment to get into it and to move around comfortably. Typically garments have 1-4" of ease, that is, additional space inside the garment so that you can actually fit inside it. Many sweaters have "negative ease" -- meaning that they are smaller than the intended wearer and are intended to stretch for that Sweater Girl effect. Ease is crucial to understanding whether and how a particular garment will fit you. Generally, pre-1960 clothes fit more closely than clothes do today, especially around the waist and arms, with sweaters having as much as 2" negative ease. In the 1920s and 1930s, however, clothing typically had more ease than do today's garments. Determine how much ease you want by looking at the bust size of the original pattern vs. the number of inches (determined by gauge) and by measuring garments you own with a similar fit to the one you'd like to emulate.

A word of caution: when altering vintage patterns, keep in mind that with each adjustment you will also change the look of the finished product. Radically changing the shape of the garment may ruin its vintage look altogether. Try to find the balance between a garment you'll be comfortable in and a garment that reflects the original designer's intent.

Yarn: You will probably need to make a yarn substitution. Substituting for vintage yarns is more art than science. Try to determine the weight & yardage of the yarn originally called for by using online charts -- one such good chart is at If you can't find stats for the vintage yarn, go by gauge and choose a yarn that will yield a similar gauge on the called-for size of needles.

You should also consider the texture of the yarn you're choosing. Is it a traditional yarn (for example, a worsted yarn) or is it woolen or fluffy? Is the content similar to the original? Is it plied (which would have been more likely in earlier times), cabled or is it a single? In the picture, is the garment hairy or fuzzy or smooth? Asking these questions can help you to choose the best yarn for your project. Keep in mind that few synthetics or novelty yarns were used in pre-1960 patterns, save the occasional nylon yarn for stockings and baby items. Your items will look best if you stick with natural materials similar to the yarn for which you're trying to substitute.

Finally, color plays an important role. Is the color appropriate for the era you're looking to emulate? For ideas on color schemes popular in different eras, look at design books, magazines, and even at eBay auctions of similar vintage clothes from the same era.

Just take these details into account when you choose your pattern, and in no time at all you'll be proud to wear your beautiful new "vintage" clothing.



Kristen Rengren lives, writes and knits in Chicago, along with three cats, a very patient husband. Her house is chockablock with yarn, patterns, and funky old stuff.

She works at Loopy Yarns and hosts an ongoing vintage pattern knit-along on her blog.