7 things you need to think about when knitting for children
Barb Brown discusses how to create comfortable, wearable and long-lasting knits that little ones will love to wear.
When I first started knitting sweaters for my kids, I was dismayed when the boys so quickly grew out of them or, even worse, refused to wear the sweater at all. Over the years, I found some techniques that helped solve both problems. I am sharing these with you in hopes that your child’s sweater will fit longer than a month, and have a chance to wear out from constant use!
Spread out any yarn in your stash that has enough yardage to make the sweater, and let them pick the colour. If they want two colours, use them - it could turn out to be a happy surprise. My son once chose a muddy brown and a bright blue – horrible. But when it was knitted up, it was a beautiful sweater that everyone admired!
Light-coloured ribbing can look very grubby after just a short time. If you’re knitting a light sweater, consider casting on the ribbing in a dark colour. It adds a bit of interest to a plain sweater, picks up one of the colours in a patterned sweater, and keeps the cuffs looking clean for longer.
Children are tough on their clothes, so consider working the ribbing with the yarn held double. This trick, part of the traditional construction of a hard-wearing fisherman’s sweater, will help to stop edges from fraying and adds extra warmth.
I prefer wool for children’s sweaters. You may have a very distinct memory of itchy jumpers, or perhaps the smell of wet wool overwhelming your school classroom after a rainy lunchtime spent playing outside. But this wouldn’t necessarily be the case with a woollen jumper now.
There are many breed-specific wools on the market that are very soft yet tightly spun. Merino and Bluefaced Leicester are two readily available breeds.
More gently spun yarns, for example Debbie Bliss’s Baby Cashmerino (a blend of wool, cashmere and acrylic) or Sublime Baby Cashmere Merino Silk DK, are super-soft and great for baby clothes.
Consider choosing superwash wool, particularly if you aren’t making the piece for your own child. It’s chemically treated to make it colourfast and stop it from felting when washed. Few parents will relish the prospect of handwashing their children’s knits - with superwash wool, you should be able to put it in the washing machine. King Cole Merino Blend comes in 4ply, DK, aran and chunky weights and has a vibrant colour range, or try Peter Pan Merino Baby DK for gorgeous pastels.
Do check the label of superwash yarn, though – superwash may mean machine washing at 30C rather than the expected 40C. Washing too hot could still felt the garment, so be kind to the parents of the intended recipient and write the washing instructions for the yarn into a little card which can stay in the sweater drawer.
You could even get special labels made with the washing information if you’re feeling generous (try jjcash.co.uk).
Sock yarn is popular for children’s garments, particularly for baby cardigans. It’s soft, strong, usually superwash, and shouldn’t be itchy. If you want to use this, bear in mind that it will probably have some nylon content, and some children are allergic to nylon or find it irritating to wear. If in doubt, use a pure wool sock yarn rather than a wool/nylon blend.
But why wool anyway? First, it’s warm, and stays warm even when wet. Wool can absorb up to 30% of its weight in water without feeling wet. It is naturally water-repellent, which also means it doesn’t get dirty as quickly as other fibres - it resists absorbing dirt and grease. And, very importantly, it is naturally fire retardant.
It may seem alarmist to think about your little one’s clothing catching fire, but it is still a potential danger. Cellulose fibres, such as cotton and linen, will ignite and flare up very quickly, and burn up completely in seconds. Many synthetics will light quickly with a flare, then begin melting. Wool, on the other hand, is very difficult to ignite, and will extinguish when the flame is taken away.
If you want to check the flammability of the yarn you are using, you can perform a burn test. This should be done outdoors, with a bucket of water handy. Hold a long length of yarn in a pair of tongs, and light it while holding it over the bucket so it can be quickly extinguished.
Finally, make sure the child likes the yarn! I used to knit a little sleeping bag from my intended yarn for one of their small teddies. If the teddy was never in the bag, then I didn’t use the yarn again. Very young children won’t be able to tell you if they don’t like the feel of a certain fabric, so this gets around that problem.
If you are knitting for cold weather, consider going with a finer yarn than you might usually choose. Then, knit a matching gilet or vest using double strands of the yarn. Make the armhole depth an inch longer than the sweater. Kids don’t like clothing that restricts their arm movement, which chunky wool often does. A gilet keeps the body core warm, and usually will be kept on when a heavier sweater will be tossed on someone’s lawn.
Raglan or drop-shoulder sweaters tend to fit a child longer and accommodate the strange growth patterns every child goes through at some point. A pullover is better than a cardigan as kids rarely pause long enough to do up buttons or zippers. Be sure to make the neck roomy enough to go over the head. A two- or three-button placket worked in the front is my favourite solution.
If the sweater is for very cold weather, consider adding a hood rather than knitting a matching hat. A hood can’t get lost, and most kids will actually pull it up if their ears are cold.
Adding armhole depth
Check the depth of the armhole of your pattern. Generous room will allow the garment to fit for longer. To add depth to an armhole you can go two ways – shorten the body but keep the garment length the same, or add overall length to the garment, placing the extra at the armhole.
Usually when making a garment from the bottom up you’ll be instructed to ‘work to XXcm and then begin armhole shaping’. To keep body length the same, shorten this length and add the difference to the depth worked over the armhole.
Alternatively, stick to the original length given before working the armhole and then add the extra length you want into the armhole. This will increase the total length of the garment.
Either way you choose to increase armhole depth, you will need to alter the sleeve head to fit the deeper armhole. For a drop sleeve, the sleeve head will be the width of twice the armhole depth, so you will need to increase to a larger number of stitches to fit the new depth. So, if you have a an original sleeve width of 30cm, and an original armhole of 15cm, you will need to add 2cm to the sleeve width to every 1cm increase in armhole depth.
For example, if working at a tension of 20 sts to 10cm, you will need 60 sts at the top of the sleeve in the original version, and an extra 4 sts across the top of the sleeve for every 1cm added to the armhole depth.
For a set-in sleeve, the sleeve cap will typically be two-thirds of the new armhole depth. First, work out the new depth of the armhole and calculate the number of extra rows you’ll need to knit over the sleevehead.
You will need to add two-thirds of this number of rows to the sleeve cap shaping – the easiest way to do it is to space these out over the decreases, remembering to concentrate the extra space AFTER the section where the decreases on the armhole and sleevehead match, which falls right after the initial cast-offs.
A raglan sleeve is structured differently, but the requirement to spread the extra depth of the new armhole across the raglan sleeve shaping remains. This is perhaps the trickiest sleeve shape to add length to, because in a classically designed, pieced raglan, all four raglan pieces will have different lengths at different points.
In this case, it’s probably easiest to knit to the armhole and then follow the instructions for a larger size, knitting the sleeves for a larger size as well, so that your stitch counts are all proportionate. As long as you only go one size up the difference shouldn’t be too noticeable.
One last option is to knit a gusset for the armhole. This technique, which is suitable for garments made in the round, can be seen in Caroline Pearce’s ‘Ernest’ gansey
in The Knitter issue 32. Armhole gussets are created by increasing either side of a ‘seam stitch’ towards the armhole, to give a triangular gusset of fabric. These gusset stitches are then put on hold while the body is worked. Finally, the shoulders are joined and the sleeves then picked up around the armhole, including these gusset stitches. The gusset is then ‘decreased out’ along the length of the sleeve as you work down.
For an excellent overview of ganseys and their construction, including detailed instructions on armhole gussets, try Beth Brown-Reinsel’s book Knitting Ganseys (White River Press) or Alice Starmore’s Fisherman’s Sweaters (Collins & Brown).
Knit the sleeves top down. This makes it easier to pick out the cast-off and add a couple of inches if needed later. To do this, join the shoulder and side seams then, with right side facing, pick up evenly all around the armhole and join to work in the round.
You can pick up the sleeves and then work them back and forth on straight needles, but you should get a more even stocking stitch fabric if you work on circulars in knit stitch only.
Usually, a sweater is too small for a child because it’s too short in the body or the sleeves. To knit longer sleeves without having the cuffs dangling past the fingers, try this. Find the difference in the number of stitches between the ribbing and the top of the sleeve. Increase this whole amount immediately after the ribbing, and then knit straight till the sleeve is about 1 or 2 inches too long. The fabric will ‘blouse’ over the ribbing, making the extra length you’ve just added less obvious.
For more length in the body, just make it longer. Add some of the extra rows into the ribbing, and again the fabric will ‘blouse’ as it does in the sleeves.
Be sure to check the difference between the ‘blocked’ chest and the ‘actual’ chest measurements and go with a little larger difference. Some patterns have a small difference between the two. The heavier the yarn used, the greater the difference should be. This will make the sweater comfier to wear, and also allow that all important room to grow!
Want to get kids knitting themselves? Start them off with finger knitting and see how they get on! Check out our How to do finger knitting article with video guide.
As well spending her working life thinking about yarn, Sarah designs knitting patterns in her spare time, too!