Brioche Sweater

Some time last year I wrote about my intentions of knitting a sweater, based on a picture from an 1950s Dutch knitting book called Het Breien in Betere Banen, or A Better Course in Knitting:

a better course in knitting - breien in betere banen - de vries-hamburger men's outfit

Although this book deals with knitting, it doesn’t contain a single pattern for garments. Nevertheless, it is scattered with inspirational outfits, one of which was this beautiful sweater, knitted in alternating textural stripes of brioche rib and honeycomb brioche.

As you can see, the original sweater is very much of its time, with its high waist and tight fit. Not a shape I would want to wear, but almost everything else about it I love: the texture of brioche stitch, the zips, the small pockets at the waist line, referred to in the book as “ticket pockets” and the collar. The only thing I wasn’t so keen on were the chest pockets, but they could easily be left out.

Brioche Sweater and grafitti

Me posing in a decidedly urban setting

For this sweater I spent a lot of time swatching and calculating, to arrive at the right fabric and shape. Apart from the hints and tips from the Dutch book, I also used a lot of ideas from Catherine Lowe’s book on couture knitting techniques The Ravell’d Sleeve. I thought a lot about the right selvedges to use to make seaming up easier, using bound edges to create a finished look, and using many needle sizes to make a good ribbing and transition from ribbing to main fabric.

brioche sweater sleeve

The sleeve cap has been fully shaped for a nicely set-in sleeve. You can also see the waste yarn at the ribbing that helped me make a very nice tubular cast-on

One of the things I’m particularly happy with, are the sleeves. Knitting is a very forgiving fabric as it is so stretchy, and many knitting patterns nowadays do away with a curved sleeve cap as things will kind of find their way after a few wears. It is also a nightmare for pattern writers to write up the instructions for a fully curved sleeve cap, as the decrease rate changes every few rows, so many knitting patterns don’t bother. But as I didn’t have to worry about that, I could do exactly as I pleased and I made fully curved sleeve caps (as an aside, some knitting pattern writers did use nicely shaped sleeve caps, such as James Norbury.)

brioche sweater cuff

Tubular cast-on and 1×1 ribbing and about five different needle sizes to keep the ribbing under control

I’m also really pleased with the ribbing on the sleeve cuffs and the welts. I decided to use Lowe’s preferred method of a tubular cast-on with waste yarn. I find that using the waste yarn method (you can still see it in the picture of the unseamed sleeve, as I only took it out after final assembly) it is much easier to be consistent with the cast-on. I used to favour the Italian cast-on, also sometimes known as the alternate cast-on, but that relies on attempting to be consistent with the tension whilst casting on. A bit of a challenge when casting on roughly 180 stitches! As a tubular cast-on looks very nice, but isn’t necessarily that resilient, Lowe advocates the use of a very small needle size for the casting on, and then gradually increasing the needle size as the ribbing is worked. To make the transition from ribbing to main fabric smoothly, the first inch or so of the main fabric is also knitted in a smaller needle size than the bulk of it.

brioche sweater collar

The collar of the sweater has bound edges for a neat finish

Another area where I used graduating needle sizes was the collar. The outside edge of the collar was knitted on a large needle size, and then I gradually moved to smaller needle sizes to give the collara curved shape. It’s barely noticable I used this trick, and that makes it extra satisfying. No decreases to distort the honeycomb brioche! Speaking of which, I found Nancy Marchant’s book on brioche knitting indispensable in chosing the right increase and decrease techniques. Brioche stitches are not like your regular knitting, as they are built up by slipping stitches whilst making a yarn-over at the same time, alternated with knitting together the slipped stitches with their buddy yarn-overs. This has all sorts of implications, which Nancy is much better at explaining than I am.

brioche sweater set-in sleeve

The set-in sleeve cap, with perfectly matched stripes

I also managed to perfectly match the stripes when I seamed the sleeve into the armscye. I wasn’t sure whether this would work out, as this area of pattern matching was elusive. I haven’t found any resource that explains how you can ensure that the shaping you come up with for sleeve cap and armscye will allow you to match stripes perfectly. All the tutorials I found were for sewing patterns, and they all start with: check that your sewing pattern is suitable for stripes, otherwise you will not be able to match them at the armscye seam. But surely somebody must have designed it to be so to start with?

brioche sweater in merino

The brioche sweater was knitted in merino, a surprising choice for me!

The author of the Dutch book, De Vries-Hamburger, explained how she feels you arrive at the best results if you think about the fabric you want to achieve and then find yarn to match rather than starting with the yarn and then hoping to find a suitable pattern to go with it, and I wanted to put that theory to the test. And I ended up with a surprising choice: merino! Im not usually a fan of merino. It’s often only good at two things: it’s very soft, and it takes colours well. I don’t find it performs very well as a hand-knitting yarn. It’s often superwash treated, which affects the handle, and it often starts pilling very quickly. The Blacker Swan merino 4-ply I chose, however, seems to be different from what I’ve experienced before and it is more lively, and a has nice handle as well as being soft. So far I don’t regret my choice!

A few days ago I met up with my dear friend and comrade in wool, Felicity “Felix” Ford, and we had a lot of fun taking these pictures, so I’ll part this blog post with some more gratuitous photographs of my sweater. I hope you’ll enjoy them as much I did taking them with her!

brioche sweater side view

The triumph of the set-in sleeve

brioche sweater collar with zip

The collar with its bound edges

brioche sweater ticket pocket

The ticket pocket

47 Replies to “Brioche Sweater”

  1. Excellent post! Full of information and excellent photos of your really beautiful sweater. The cast on, the sleeves, the ticket pocket and the brioche stitch are just great. Thanks for sharing all of it.

  2. It’s beautiful.
    I love your blog.
    When are you going to make a slipover? In old films men, especially Englishmen, are wearing them. They are rather ‘près du corps’ and beautiful for slim men. So very nice old fashioned. I’m looking for a pattern to knit one for my husband.
    Complimenti for your work.

  3. I love this sweater. It looks fabulous. For me, it’s all the small details that go into making a stunning knitted garment. Not many such garments around, but yours in absolutely one. A real wonderful example of artisan hand knit work.

  4. Love love love. Amazing detail! Those ticket pockets! The changing needle sizes and the collar. This is archival quality. Really nice.

  5. Hey Tom

    Lovely pix of your brioche masterpiece – I’m guessing you had a good time with the elusive Felix.

    Any chance you’d be prepared to lend me your linen provenance cloth to show off on Saturday at our Flax day???????

    See you soon I hope. love xsx

  6. In love.. Your sweater looks amazing. I love the ticket pocket. The sleeve are very lovely. Always great. Thank you for all the references and sharing as always.

  7. A triumph of planning, thought and care! What a stunning result and a pleasure to read about – especially so well illustrated with great photos on top of it all!

  8. I’d love to see a pattern of this (just saying’ ;))! As for stripes, a somewhat time-consuming but very educational way to approach it is to take an existing blouse or sweater that you like and draw an approximation of your patterned fabric on it with chalk, then compare how the lines of the pattern orient to the edges of the pieces (sleeve and scye seams, etc.). I find that doing this gives me insight into how the 2d design of the fabric will work in 3d and with that insight, I then am able to lay out my pattern easily enough on the fabric to get the design to do what I want it to (more or less). No idea how to approach the problem as a knitter, however! I’ll have to stare at these lovely pics for a bit and think on it.

  9. Hi Tom,

    your sweater ist gorgeous, absolutely perfect. As for the stripe-matching, that is very easy: the row in which you begin the armhole-shaping on the sleeves and on the main piece must be exactly the same in the pattern. So, when you calculate the length of your sleeve, you calculate from the pattern-row in which the armhole-shaping begins on your main piece downwards. As sleeves are usually longer than your main piece you will need to add pattern rows right after the ribbing of the sleeve, where your pattern starts.

    Regards from Switzerland,

    1. I have done that, but it doesn’t guarantee that the stripes will line up at the arm scye seam, as the incidence angles of edge and stripe are different for sleeve cap and arm scye.

  10. I have been knitting for 56 years but you manage to come up with information I have never come across before in almost every blog post. Thank you so much for all your informative comments. I shall be finding a copy of the book you mention on bound edges. Your standard of workmanship is superb and a joy to look at so please continue with gratuitous pictures – I emjoy every one.

  11. Beautifully made sweater. I can see this lasting for generations. Thank you for sharing this, and all the useful collar and cuff information.

  12. That completes your PhD in knitting, Tom!!! Wonderful, well thought through and beautifully crafted.
    Re: stripes matching – I am totally into fitted sleeves knitted top down right now – you knit the sleeve head as you knit the body and can shape both independently. My main reference for this is Barbara Walker, but I have added some short row shaping at the top of the sleeve head to give it a perfectly round shape… just a thought… works fine for me.

  13. Hi Tom, as I commented on Instagram (as WalkingInWool) I just finished a sweater will a collar. I tried to plan out the construction, and be thoughtful about each piece, and am proud of the result. HOWEVER, it was a very humbling experience, and I realized how much I have left to learn! Your sweater, blog post, and book recommendations are great places to start. Thank you!

  14. What a piece!

    Re: sleeve caps. Despite lacking the mental energy to think this through, I can reference you to the Fashion Incubator’s much-discussed blog post “Sleeve cap ease is bogus”
    Also, the following debate is very informative. I have not had time to test this, but if sleeve cap ease actually isn’t necessary even when working with woven fabrics, then matching stripes or plaids would be a breeze.

    Sunni of A Fashionable Stitch also had a whole series on planning plaid garments, which you might also find useful:

    Anyhow, please share your thoughts and experiments, if you read up on this and come to a conclusion of some sort.

    Hope this helps.

    Also, Lowe’s book is quite expensive and there doesn’t seem to be many reviews around. What else is in there?

    1. Thanks for the great links. I already knew about the sleeve cap ease “bogus” through the Male Pattern Boldness blog, where Peter Lappin talks about his sewing projects. As he found out from learning abour Ready To Wear manufacture, sleeve cap ease is not necessary for shirts, and I guess it could translate to jackets etc as well, as explained by the Fashion Incubator blog post. However, it still doesn’t quite explain how to ensure that the stripes will match. She only says it was done by a master pattern cutter, and that “Obviously, the total length of the sleeve cap must be equal to the total length in the armhole, otherwise these stripes would not be matching” although perhaps that really is the only trick?

      Lowe’s book is full of detail on how she feels you can get a couture finish on your hand-knitted items. It goes very in-depth about swatching and washing processes before measuring gauge, how to seam garments, how to achieve a good-looking ribbing, the best way to pick up stitches along edges, and how to play around with needle sizes for shaping. It talks about couture knitting, as all her methods are inspired by and sprout from a “knitterly” approach. It is very technical, yet she manages to convey her techniques without a single diagram. If you like how June Hemmons Hiatt approached The Principles of Knitting, then you would probably like this. The book ends with three simple projects, approached the couture knitting way.

      1. I do think that is the trick, although that does not necessarily ensure matching vertical stripes.

        I am a bit uncertain about Hemmons Hiatt as I find that all the reinventing of terms (especially without referencing old ones) and the lengthy descriptions, which often entail little new knowledge do not really justify itself. That being said, I much prefer Mary Thomas, who is brief yet spot-on, much like Elizabeth Zimmermann some decades later.

      2. Mary Thomas is my all-time favourite. However, there are lots of little gems hidden inbetween the general knowledge in JHH. Catherine Lowe is more about doing some well-known things very precisely with so you can achieve a perfect finish. There were some new things in it, too. But there are loads of lengthy descriptions. I really like it, as I really like that attention to detail.

  15. Absolutely beautiful knitting, Tom. You are such a neat knitter and the fitting together of pieces is really enviable. A wonderful garment that you may have to darn in 20 years time as a much loved sweater.

  16. What an exquisite sweater with loving attention paid to the details! Is there going to be an English translation of the book so we can be inspired as well?

    Your artistry is breathtaking.

  17. hi tom! I’m working on designing a honeycomb brioche coat and wanted to ask how you did the shaping without interfering with the honeycomb brioche pattern. I want to do set in sleeves but have been tinkering with increases / decreases and haven’t found the right way. your work is flawless and gorgeous, so I had to ask! hope you’re well!

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