Undone by Numbers

I have never liked arithmetic. That, and actual numbers and the awful, cold formulaic logic of numbers. Maybe I don’t like them because I’m a total failure at using them. When I first took the math SAT, my score was so low that I was asked to do it over. My score didn’t improve much on the second take.

I have never mastered how to do percentages on a calculator. I can set up spreadsheets to keep track of expenses and such. But I don’t see the bigger picture of what the numbers mean. Basically, I’m innumerate.

Definition of innumerate

: marked by an ignorance of mathematics and the scientific approach

: unable to understand and do basic mathematics

I’m not just ignorant and unable to understand, but actually terrified by numbers and my knowledge that I can’t make sense of them no matter how hard I try. Thankfully, I have a best friend who is a whiz at math; he can do things like percentages in his head! And he’s patient, very patient. I also found a financial planner to handle my money because I’m so clueless.

But being innumerate has far-reaching consequences, even effecting my craft. Take, for example, knitting…


“Obtaining the correct tension is perhaps the single factor which can make the difference between a successful garment and a disastrous one. It controls both the shape and size of an article, so any variation, however slight, can distort the finished garment.”–from Rowan, The Lima Collection.

On the left, the photo in a Rowan pattern book of a cardigan sweater I just loved and decided to make–despite not making things for myself. The sweater looked so cute, so gamine.

So I bought outrageously expensive yarn (Classic Elite Yarns, Kumara–85% extra fine merino; 15% baby camel), and jumped right into knitting the sweater. Knitting without doing the “swatch” one needs to do BEFORE knitting a whole sweater.


Patterns are very specific as pattern makers actually want you to make something that fits, and that looks and fits just like the sweater they painstakingly designed. The swatch ensures that the sweater you make–with the yarn you have chosen, and with the size needles and the tightness of your knitting–will end up fitting you. You really do have to succumb to making a swatch if you want your long hours of knitting and the expense of the yarn to come out as something you can wear.

But I can’t make a swatch! I’m innumerate! I have NO IDEA how to do the math to adjust my knitting to match the pattern! (I do love that the swatch directions are referred to as “tension.” OF COURSE there is tension! Look at all those numbers!) From these directions, one allegedly can see exactly what adjustment is needed to have the sweater come out correctly. You could, for example, knit on larger–or smaller–needles. Or see that the yarn you bought won’t do, and find another that will work. I suppose there are many options. Options for the number savvy majority.


For the innumerate, there is only a flooding sense of shame at our inability to understand what it all means and how to adjust. Better, therefore, to lunge ahead, skip the swatch, pretend we are gifted with an innate sense of “what will work,” and knit the whole thing on a lark and a prayer, put it all together, purchase expensive buttons, and then, and only then, try the thing on, assuming–really, just wishing–that it will fit.

The loose, shroud-like, very expensive garment in the photo on the right, shows theIMG_5303 sweater I made without a swatch. It has been sitting in the Closet of Shame for about 4 years now. It’s too big. The sides of the cardigan don’t button up evenly, so one side droops. The neck is as big as the waist of the sweater and yawns wide and shapelessly. In the shroud, my breasts look like the humps of the now-grown camel whose fur went into the yarn that I knit the sweater with. The overall effect of the sweater is singularly unattractive.

But, as I said, it’s expensive. I had purchased everything high-end this one time: pattern book, yarn, and buttons. And, it’s also soooo soft. It wouldn’t be right to give it to Goodwill in this unfinished, droopy shape. And I did make it as a treat for myself. I have to salvage it somehow. Without any numerically-charged directions.

What am I thinking? There are no directions at all for fixing this garment-gone-wrong, this shroud knit without a swatch! I’ll have to make something up. How can I go wrong?


(Any suggestions on how to “fix” this sweater? Leave them for me in Comments.)

6 thoughts on “Undone by Numbers

  1. Oh Miss Chanler, I can relate! Suggestions: Wear a scarf to cover the neckline …um… I mean accessorize …. and put on 20 lbs?

  2. Oh wait the pattern is not Miss Chanler. She was the gal in the previous post about paintings. Too much chocolate today.

  3. Here’s a hardly-no-knitting possible-fix. Do NOT try to do all of these steps at once, just one at a time…
    1. Use some of the knitting yard to run 2 or 3 rows of basting stitches on the back of the side of the button placket that’s too long. Use 1 piece of yarn for each of the rows. Then anchor the basting yarns at either the top or the bottom on a safety pin (Loop those basting yarns ’round and ’round the pin) and gently gather the longish side so it matches the shorter side. Repeat with each basting yarn, then anchor them all securely at the other end on a safety pin. We shall let the basting be for now…
    [Before the next part, roll the sleeves up to a not-too-objectionably length. More on them later…]
    2. Do a similar sort of thing on the back of the collar, basting and gathering. You’ll need to try it on for this, so it can be a bit fiddly. Again, anchor the ends securely on two safety pins and let that basting be, too.
    3. Now for the mid-section (waist): Ask yourself, “Could a wee bit of gathering help here?” and “If so, what if I knit a ‘belt’ (using the textured stutch) that would go around it and draw in my midsection?” If either sounds marginally doable, try on the sweater and figure where you’d like this to be… Empire? Actual waist? Blouson? If you’re voting for “belt,” then figure out how long this “belt” will need to be. Knit it, then fold the ends over and sew them so you have space to put a loop of yarn. Make twisted cord ties for each of these. Try the whole kaboodle on:
    Baste the belt on, gathering the sweater a bit? Or, fasten at the side seams with belt loops? You decide (But for now you can just safety pin it on, from the inside).
    4. Now, those sleeves: Are they long enough that you can fold up a nice cuff? If not, just fold them up a wee bit. If yes, do that EXCEPT you’re going to do this with the sweater inside out. Stitch / baste the ends of the cuffs to the sleeve, using the safety pin method. Turn right-side out. Fold the cuffs.
    How does it all look? Maybe you need to adjust your gathering threads? When you get things adjusted to the point where it’s somewhere around the make-believe, “My eccentric great aunt knit this for me, and — considering how bizarre her stuff usually looks — this is definitely one of her better endeavors,” it’s time to fasten the ends of those basting threads. Stitch them just a bit (you could tie them, if you want).
    Block your sweater so it resembles what it’s supposed to be (A spray bottle, some no-rust pins, set out on a towel on the guest-room bed or carpet or similar location works). Using a non-wonky sweater as a template could help.
    If nothing else, you’ll have a sweater that’s made of amazing yarn to cuddle up in at home with a good book and a cup of tea, a sweater that’s a reminder of how much time you devoted to meditative knitting and to YOU. Enjoy!

    1. Thank you, Anita. Taking these steps, one at a time, sounds do-able. Especially since there is no math involved. Just sewing and tweaking, and fudging things. When–if–I make the changes, I will send you a photo. Thanks again for your wonderful advice!

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