Tips to Adapting Vintage Knitting Patterns


A few of my selection of vintage patternsI adore retro looks, particularly those from the 1950s and early 1960s. Vintage hand knit dresses and suits are among my favorites. Knitting your own reproductions from old patterns is a rewarding experience, not to mention making retro pieces without spending a fortune.

If you love vintage hand knit designs, you can replicate them by adapting the pattern instructions to your desired measurements. Don’t be discouraged; knitting patterns are easier to alter than sewing patterns. Let’s delve into the important steps to creating a beloved retro style. I’m making the assumption that you’re not a beginner, and not afraid of a little math to adjust the pattern instructions.

General Vintage Pattern Information

You may be lucky enough to have inherited old pattern books, but finding vintage patterns is not difficult; ebay and other auction sites are rich sources of them. There are vintage pattern websites that offer a wealth of patterns, copyright free. If you like used bookstores, some carry old knitting books and magazines. When I worked at the museum in textiles, I was able to photocopy pattern instructions from old knitting magazines, a ready source when the whim strikes me.

Often with online pattern purchases you will only see the image of the design, and not the actual instructions. If you’re lucky enough to find instructions, or a partial sample of them, read through it as you would with any modern one. Look for the usual information like the skill level required, and how detailed the instructions are.

For the most part, knitting abbreviations and terminology used in 20th century vintage patterns are similar to now. However, the use of schematics and charts rarely appear in vintage books and leaflets. Old patterns wrote the instructions row by row, using abbreviations and full text, even for colorwork and complex pattern stitches.

American patterns used imperial needle sizes and still do. Canadian patterns used English (UK) sizes, and not the metric system. Needle conversion charts are readily available, and will help you decipher needle sizes.

North American pattern instructions also used the imperial system (inches) for body measurements and gauge. Today, the metric system (centimeters) is included alongside the imperial measurements. Yarn requirements were only given in ounces, whereas now, patterns rely on length (yards/meters) and weight (ounces/grams).

Body Measurements and Ease

Vintage patterns are typically smaller in size than today’s equivalents. For example, size 12 in the 1930s fit a 30 inch bust, whereas post 1968, a size 12 fits a 34 inch bust. Vanity sizing (numbered sizes), was a marketing ploy popular in the mid 20th century, and is still used today. Therefore pattern writers often used numbered dress sizes (10, 12, etc.) and not body measurements. Children’s patterns tended to use age categories. Men’s patterns and designs through the decades have been better at relying on body measurements, rather than on numbered sizes. Follow the body measurements, and not the dress size or age to determine the size you want to make.

Often times older patterns didn’t give finished measurements. It’s important to make note of your own body measurements, and use these as a guide to making the necessary adjustments. You can calculate the original garment dimensions using the gauge in the original instructions, and compare these with your measurements to determine the proper size. See Calculating Body Measurements From the Original Pattern at the end of this section.

Waistbands were often designed to sit at the actual waist; higher than most modern garments. Because garments catered to smaller figures, watch out for length and negative ease, a measurement smaller than your body measurement.

Ease refers to the fullness incorporated into a design so it fits comfortably, allowing for body movement. The fit of a garment can vary from a close fit to very loose or oversized. Over the decades, ideas about ease changed. The ease in vintage patterns is generally a closer fit. You’ll find that most vintage patterns were made to fit the expectations of style and fit for each decade.

Calculating Body Measurements From the Original Pattern

Pullover from McCalls Magazine Spring/Summer 1955
Beach-going Pullover
McCalls Magazine
Spring/Summer 1955

The gauge for this striped pullover from McCalls Magazine Spring/Summer 1955 is 5 stitches per inch, and 7 rows per inch. The instructions don’t indicate the needle size or pattern stitch in the gauge information, so assume the larger needle size and stockinette stitch to knit the swatch. If you read further on in this example, the pullover is knit in stockinette stitch with American No. 8 (5mm) needles.

Portion of pattern instructions from 1955

Back measurements for bust size 32in; 65 stitches (at lower edge) ÷ 5 stitches (stitch gauge) = 13 inches. After you add more stitches for the side slits; 77 sts ÷ 5 sts = 15.4in. Further shaping is made; 85 sts (at the bust) ÷ 5 sts = 17in. The final bust measurement at underarm is 17 inches. The front piece is made the same as the back, so the bust circumference of this garment is 34 inches, the finished measurement. You have to decide whether this is the right size for you. Continue using this same formula (stitches ÷ stitch gauge) for all the body measurements in the instructions. Compare with your own.

To figure out row counts, which are helpful in matching the pieces for seaming, and for the placement of increases and decreases, use this formula: length desired x row gauge per inch.

Example – Work until armhole measures 6 1/4 inches. Row gauge is 7 rows per inch. 6.25in (armhole length) x 7 (row gauge per inch) = 43.75 rows or 44 rows in total to complete armhole.

Vintage Yarns and Quantities

During the beginning of the 1900s through to the early 1960s, fine yarns were popular with knitters. The finer yarns were both figure flattering and durable. Knitters made many tailored garments like dresses and suits, which are more suitable to finer yarns. On the plus side, because of today’s popularity of sock and lace weight yarns, we have a huge selection of substitutes for the finer yarns of yesteryear. Also, these time periods didn’t have the variety of yarns that we enjoy now. Fine yarns such as 2 and 3 ply, and fingering were the most popular. Double knitting (DK) and worsted weights were available, and are popular today.

Pre 1950s “wool” meant 100% wool fiber. You’ll find some silk and cotton used in designs. Blends were not commonly found. There were very few synthetics and novelty yarns, such as mohair and bouclé used prior to 1960. Synthetic fibers are a later development, with acrylic produced around the 1950s as an inexpensive replacement for wool. If you’re wanting an exact retro look, stay as close as possible to the original yarn’s fiber content and texture.

Generally, the yarns used in vintage patterns are no longer available. I would still do a search of the yarn’s name, and check ebay for possible information. This information could prove useful when substituting with modern yarns. In your initial reading of the instructions, watch for the terms DK and worsted, as older patterns used them, and are easier to substitute.

Yarn quantities were written in ounces. You’ll need to calculate or roughly estimate yarn requirements from the test swatch. 

Pay Close Attention to the Gauge

The gauge is key to revealing the size of the original. Swatching is crucial, and helps you resize the garment and alter the instructions. The test swatch will also reveal whether or not the new yarn is appropriate for the design. Along with the yarn tips given above, use the original gauge as a guide when shopping for yarn. You may be lucky enough to get the same gauge as in the vintage pattern, making it easier to knit the project with any revised measurements. Swatch till you drop is the name of the game!

Plot Out the Pattern Pieces

After figuring out the measurements of all the pieces in the original instructions, adjust the measurements to your specifications. I would suggest making a sketch or schematic of the garment with the appropriate measurements. When I design, I draw my schematics on graph paper (standard graph paper), and use this sheet to write the instructions and convert measurements to stitches and rows.

Optional Step: Make a Toile or Muslin

Some designers go a step further by making a prototype, a toile or muslin sewn with the revised measurements; a definitive way of obtaining the desired outcome. This is common practice by sewers. Making a muslin is a useful way to check fit. A toile is particularly useful with structured garments to check whether or not a sleeve fits into the armhole, and for other areas that are difficult to fit.

Working With Color and Stitch Patterns

Most vintage patterns don’t contain color charts; the color changes are written out row by row. You’ll have to incorporate the colorwork into any size changes made. The best solution is to draw out the pieces on knitters graph paper, and work out colorwork such as FairIsle, stitch by stitch. Place Intarsia motifs on full-sized garment pieces that have been drawn on large sheets of graph paper, for the best effect.

For stitch patterns with “multiples”, the repeats will need to be adjusted for the new stitch and row counts. This is so the stitches are evenly spaced across the row; properly positioning the pattern.

By following the above details for adapting vintage patterns, you’ll knit an amazing retro look that will give years of enjoyment. Retro looks will always make their appearance in fashion at some point in time, so why not make your own special creation with a little planning and some minor adjustments.