When Phoenix first began designing she was a 12-year-old aspiring dancer, and some of the first garments she designed were dancewear, including a fabulous bootcut romper made from lavender alpaca that had a detachable top. Most of the time she wore it with the top folded down over the fitted bootcut pants, and everyone who saw it went wild for it.
The romper’s knitted-in-the-round construction consisted of two tubes for legs and a separately knitted flat crotch panel, all joined and continued as a single tube to the waistband. The crotch gusset closely resembled that of a pair of tights, which was fine for dancewear, but was far from Phoenix’s vision for a real pair of pants. So, a couple of months later when she designed jazz pants (aka, street wear with attitude) for her pattern line, it was my job to sort out the proper pants construction for REAL pants.
I quickly discovered an appalling lack of knitted pants patterns for adults. There are no handy measurement charts for knitters with standard thigh or calf circumferences, crotch depths, or inseams listed. The only knitted pants pattern I could find for reference was in a magazine, and it was knitted in flat panels and seamed. Phoenix’s legs are 34” long, and she and I hate purling and seaming, so flat construction was out.
In the circular knitting camp I found that Elizabeth Zimmerman’s Longies were close to what we were after. I found plenty of baby pants and soaker patterns, and many that paid loving homage to EZ’s Longies. Barbara Walker offered more fodder for the makings of a decent pair of knitted pants, and with the help of the doyennes of modern circular knitting and lots of trial and error, Phoenix’s circular pants construction was conceived.
Phoenix has designed capris, yoga pants, leggings (both capri length and regular length), shorts, bootcut pants, straight leg pants, and many other types that still lay, half formed, in the bottom of her project bin. They are all flattering and fitted in the right places. Forget any notions you’ve had of baggy-kneed knits, drooping at the seat and clinging to every lump and bulge. Knitted pants made properly defy all of these stereotypes and transcend expectations in unexpected ways. I can’t tell you how many times Phoenix or I are stopped by random strangers when we’re wearing her knitted pants. People (both men and women) want to touch them and invariably ask numerous questions about how they were made, who designed them, and where we got them. Her hand-made pants never fail to show off the knitter’s skill to good advantage and the wearer’s figure to even better.
First You’ve Got to Select the Right Yarn
Let’s say you find the idea of knitted pants intriguing, and you’d like to give it a shot. What are the first things you’ll need to know in order to make a pair that flatters YOUR body? Through the trial and errors of Phoenix, several test knitters, numerous tech editors, and myself we’ve learned a number of things about well-made knitted pants, not the least of which is the importance of using the right yarn. Her beloved alpaca romper was certainly a vision, but the 100% suri alpaca was much too fragile for all that rolling around on the floor, and the pants fell to tatters after several months of daily wear.
Eventually Phoenix found that plied yarns with an elastic content are best. Wool and cotton stand up to wear, but both make the best pants when tempered with synthetics, especially in the form of elastic. The elastic provides invaluable give across the butt, thighs, and hips, and allows for exceptional wear. I wore Phoenix’s Casual Bootcut Pants (pattern featured in this issue) made with GGH Solitaire, a wool/elastic blend, to a conference three hours from our home and found them comfortable for traveling, and wrinkle-free (and fabulous looking enough to elicit comments from random strangers) when we arrived.
Textured and boucle yarns hide lumps and bulges marvelously. Even those without any elastic can work well for pants. Phoenix’s yoga pants feature Cascade Bulky Leisure, a cotton/alpaca blend, and her original bootcut pants were done in Lion Brand Homespun. I’ve worn both and find the boucle fabric forgiving, comfortable, and, in the case of the alpaca, very warm (a big plus since I’m always cold). Her newest discovery, Crystal Palace Bamboozle, a bamboo/cotton/elastic yarn, offers the right amount of texture due to plying. It also makes the softest lightest pants you can imagine, which is why it is recommended as the substitution yarn for the pants in this issue (and will be the best choice for those experiencing hot flashes or who get easily overheated).
Some knitted pants need a more tailored or classic looking fabric. Smooth yarns work well for these, and we’ve found inexpensive cotton/synthetic blends like Plymouth Jeannee that drape and stretch beautifully. Almost any merino blend (preferably washable) would work well, too. And, leggings in fingering weight wool or cotton blend sock yarns (with or without a nylon component) like Lorna’s Laces Shepherd Sock or soft merinos of a similar weight like Tahki Stacy Charles Zarina, feel and fit exactly like store bought garments with the added benefit of sporting luxury fibers (think $1,500 designer leggings found in fashion magazines) and cooler colorways than you could ever find in Target or the mall (think hand dyed variegations and subtle monochromatic shadings).
Where drape is the star of the show, linen, silk, and bamboo yarns shine. Loose, blousy, or drapey pants like gauchos, wide leg trousers, palazzo pants, and dressy pleated pants work up beautifully in these yarns, especially when the weight is sport or thinner. A bulky yarn may whip up more quickly, but heavier yarn will not give the drape and hand that a skinnier yarn will for these types of garments.
But, Will They Be Fashionable?
Fashion and fit are the most important things to consider when picking a knitted pants pattern. Yarn selection and the designer’s sense of style will ensure your knitted pants are fashionable, and you should be able to see this from the pattern photo. First take a look at the hem of the pants. Phoenix’s pants in this issue sport a 2×2 ribbed hem that does not suck in; a larger needle for the ribbing ensures a clean line from knee to hem. Also, pay close attention to the length of the pants. Bootcut pants should be slightly longer than straight leg pants and the model garment should reflect that.
Junior and some Misses casual styles are still sporting a low-riding waistband that sits just under the belly button, and Phoenix’s patterns reflect this trend. A low waistband can be very comfortable in a stretchy yarn, but, mature figures may need more tummy coverage, and a good knitted pants pattern will tell you how to customize your waistband height. If you need this kind of flexibility, pick a pants pattern with a simple 2×2 rib (finished with elastic threaded through on the wrong side) or drawstring waistband that you can make as high or low as you’d like, and be prepared to try on your pants before beginning the waistband.
Acquaint yourself with current fashion through a quick glance at sewing pattern books or fashion magazines, and then look for a similar style in a knitted pants pattern. While traditional cardigan sweaters may be timeless, pants styles are not as forgiving, so be sure to select a pattern that conveys a current sense of fashion.
And, Will They Actually Fit You?
Making sure your knitted pants are fashionable is easy, but, what about fit? Knitted pants beg customization more than any other knitted garment. A well-written knitted pants pattern will provide customization and try-on-as-you-go options throughout. The key places you’ll probably need to customize include inseam length, hip circumference, and waist height and circumference. Do you have a bubble butt? Add more inches across your seat with short rows. We learned as we went along, and some of Phoenix’s early pants patterns don’t include short rows, but you can add them easily to any pattern because they merely add vertical height, not width. And, of course, if you have a flat butt, you can leave off the short rows entirely.
One of the most crucial aspects of getting a good fit in circular knitted pants lies in crotch construction, and after all that knitting, you certainly don’t want to feel uncomfortable. Our method for making comfy crotch stitches is easy. Once each leg is finished, stitches are added at the top of the thighs and then they are held together on a stitch holder for later grafting. These are the crotch stitches, and we found their number is proportionate to the gauge of the yarn and the size of the garment. We worked out a simple ratio for figuring the number of stitches needed for a comfortable crotch in a variety of sizes and we use this formula for all of Phoenix’s patterns.
If you have long giraffe legs like Phoenix, or just the opposite and have to hem your pants after you buy them, you can make your pants as long or short as you’d like. Working in the round allows you to slip stitches to waste yarn and try on the knitting as you go. Be patient with these little fittings. They produce a knitted garment far more perfectly suited to your unique body type than any store bought garment could be.
Will Your Hand Fall Off Before You Finish Them?
Ok, so getting the right fit and fashion is not difficult, but what about all the knitting required for a pair of pants? A quick check with Ann Budd’s The Knitter’s Handy Guide to Yarn Requirements reveals that the yardage required for the range of Phoenix’s pants (in size small) is roughly equal to the yardage required for a sweater sized between 30” and 42” bust (with her leggings requiring the least and her yoga pants requiring the most). Phoenix’s small full-length leggings actually require less yarn than a sweater of the same gauge in her size! When we began knitting pants, we hadn’t knitted any sweaters yet, so we had zero frame of reference for such comparisons, but now we appreciate the fact that knitted pants only appear to require miles of knitting and mountains of yarn. That long expanse of leg makes it seem that way when compared to smaller blocks of different shapes required in a sweater. It’s good to know that many knitted pants patterns will take less time to knit than a sweater of a similar weight, and since the pants are worked up in the round, there’s plenty of relaxing TV, reading, or movie knitting requiring little concentration or counting.
Have Fun and Look Fabulous!
With the right pattern and yarn, knitting your first pair of totally flattering made-for-you pants is easy. Once you’ve knit your first pair, you’ll think of a million reasons to make more…capris, shorts, leggings, slacks, gauchos, and all perfectly fitted to your body.
About the Author: Beth Bess
Beth is an artist, writer, and homeschooling mom. She lives in Mathews, Virginia where she designs for her business, Bella Blue Hand Painted Knitting Needles, and manages the business end of stuff for her teenaged knitwear designer daughter, Phoenix Bess.
Text © 2008 Beth Bess.