Friday, March 1, 2013

Making Vintage Modern: A Matter Of Scale

Linda asked me, in a comment on my last post, whether I found it challenging to scale my last vintage project (the Princess Jumper) for modern standards. We know I found the armsyce depth issue difficult.  But, in truth, since I was making a "rescoped vintage pattern" - that is to say a vintage one reconsidered and adjusted by a modern knitter (Susan Crawford) - most of the modernizing was done for me.

That won't be the case with my next vintage pattern -  the Late Day Abbreviated Coat (seriously tedious name, peeps) - because it's a vintage pattern in its vintage state without any of the helpful rescaling that current-day pattern alterers provide.

I'd love to tell you that I have a system worked out. Actually, I don't even know how I'm going to cast on (provisionally) but 15 stitches for my next project -  the sassy Guernsey Shawl by Jared Flood. (BTW, I've rarely seen a pattern so beautifully executed and clearly explained as this one. There's a whole set of instructions on simply knitting the gauge swatch. The only thing this guy doesn't do is knit your freakin' shawl.) The point is I've got a whole project's-worth of time to figure out the Late Day rescoping! Can only afford to get fussed about the very next thing in the queue. :-)

Having said this, my biggest concerns, when I see an olde pattern, are understanding a) what stitch pattern it uses (they say everything differently in "vintage-speak", let's face it, I'm not a long-time knitter with knowledge of every stitch-type) and b) figuring out how modern yarn and needles can be used to obtain the gauge required.

In the Late Day pattern, in addition to doing some fairly standard things, one has to cross stitches (wonder what the hell that means, but I do hope there's online info out there), the gauge tells me - if not the yarn brand, which I've never heard of - that I'm gonna have to use fingering weight yarn, likely on size 1 or 2 needles (8 stitches per inch, 7 rows per inch). Natch, I'm going to confirm that, cuz every yarn knits differently and depending on the stitch pattern.

The Late Day pattern comes with two extra documents which the vendor provides:

One speaks about terminology - specifically UK vs American and Australian terminology. It seems to be most focused on crochet.

The other document speaks about vintage vs new needle sizing (in US and UK sizes) and about vintage-to-modern yarn. The fact is, your gauge will tell you most of what you need to know. You'll likely be working with modern yarn - easier to knit than the old stuff in certain ways. Look at the garment photo (hope it's a photo; illustrations aren't super helpful). Aim to determine what quality of drape and hand you're going for (this is as much about experience with textiles as knitting) and choose accordingly. Your gauge swatch will confirm whether you're on the right track.

The interesting thing about the Late Day jacket is that, to my eye, it looks double knit i.e. knit with two strands of yarn worked simultaneously. According to the pattern it is not. I have to imagine that that stitch pattern's gonna give it a lot of body. But I'd be smart to use a pretty firm yarn.

In my travels, I've come across the following resource: Discontinued Yarn Charts.

Let's say you're trying to figure out how many yards of yarn you'll need (if, for example, the vintage pattern tells you to use X skeins of Y (vintage) yarn). This chart tells you how many oz. and yards to a (specific brand of) skein. It is also useful to give info about the composition of the yarn, which the pattern may not provide.

Some vintage patterns are harder to decipher than others. The McCardell Convertible was very difficult. The instructions were almost non-existent. There were no reviews to be found. The construction was in no way intuitive and, even after all the knitting was complete, I still managed to seam the thing together incorrectly (and I'm not an idiot!). The downfall of this pattern is that it wasn't really scalable. Because I couldn't figure out when I was knitting the bust, I couldn't alter it to make it wider there. As a result, I had to make a size that was more or less too big everywhere else.  These are the kinds of challenges one is apt to face when knitting vintage, as far as I can tell with my limited experience.

If you're new to knitting vintage patterns - and I sure am - I urge you to consider:
  • Use patterns that have been modernized by designers like Susan Crawford. 
  • The more reviews of that vintage pattern you can find, the better off you'll be if the going gets tough. 
  • Research stitch patterns by actually typing in the instruction line into Google. You'd be amazed by how often that yields an explanation. 
  • Gain advice from knowledgeable knitters - especially the old ones! After all, they were there when that vintage was modern and they've got so much experience.
  • You may not be able to duplicate the original garment. That doesn't mean your new vintage garment won't look terrific - or vintage. But you'll have the best chance of duplication if you follow instructions faithfully with yarn that is as close as possible to that which has been recommended. 
  • Blocked gauge is particularly important because, when knitting vintage, chances are you'll be aiming for a closer silhouette than that you'll find in many modern patterns. Even fitted modern patterns - constructed according to gauge - tend to fit more slackly than vintage ones. This is ok for a modern garment. It's "the style". Your pin-up sweater, however, having shoulders an inch too-wide, will not look slouchy in a modern way. It will look ill-fitting.
Of course, my experience is limited so I would love your input! Today's question: What tips can you give to assist us in converting vintage patterns into modern-made garments?

Next up, more about the Guernsey Shawl. I'm going to spend part of tomorrow learning provisional cast on...


  1. Wow! Thanks for this, Kristin. A lot of really useful info to think on before pulling out one of my vintage pattern finds.

    When I bought them I thought I would mainly use them for inspiration once I got a bit more experienced. Especially in terms of trusting gauge, as- like you say- hardly any yarn info!

    As it stands, though, one of the patterns has already been useful as I used the Little Pearl cable from it for my 'Toasty'! (It is a perfect lazy person cable as it uses twisted stitches instead of a needle.)

    I have a few gorgeous lacy patterns that terrify me, though, but hope to one day tackle one...with major mods to make them easier as they seem to all be in teeny tiny yarns and needles!

    I just looked up 'crossed stitches' and it looks like it might be the stitch pattern for the jacket. Looks like a linen stitch....pretty!

    1. Thanks for this info on the stitch pattern. And I think you have more than enough talent and experience to tackle any vintage pattern. Just take it slow and do the best you can to plan.

  2. I ALWAYS check the Discontinued Yarns chart before I knit a vintage sweater. Because I'm too cheap to buy much extra yarn.

    1. Well, this one needs 2000 yards of yarn?! That's not gonna happen.