I’m always so sad when a knitter brings in a beautifully made sweater that doesn’t fit or flatter them. More often than not, it’s because the sweater is too big. A too-big sweater can easily give one that bulky kid-in-a-snowsuit look. The counter-intuitive secret to well-fitting sweaters? Negative ease!
Ease is often poorly understood. It means “the difference between body measurements and garment measurements.” In garments made from woven fabrics you must have positive ease, meaning that the garment is bigger than the body, because woven fabrics generally have little or no stretch. We have no such restriction in knitting, because knitting stretches beautifully! Negative ease means that the garment is actually smaller than the body measurements and must stretch a bit when worn. Socks are a great example. A sock has to be narrower than the foot or it will feel baggy and uncomfortable.
Another rule of ease? The lighter and more drapey the fabric, the more ease (looser) the garment can be. Think of a really lightweight rayon or silk blouse. It needs lots of extra fabric in order to take advantage of the fluidity of the material, but it doesn’t add visual bulk to the body. Heavier fabrics, like suiting, denim, and most handknitting, need to be fitted more closely. They don’t drape well, so they tend to stand away from the body, creating bulky silhouettes that don’t flatter anyone.
Many knitters, not understanding that less ease will look better, choose patterns by picking the one that is the same as or a couple inches more than their own chest/bust measurement, even when working with thick wool yarns. This usually creates a sweater that will stay in the drawer and never be worn. Instead, choose your size with ease in mind. Very drapey, fine-gauged yarns like rayons and silks and some linens and cottons can be made with a small amount of positive ease. All others should be made with negative ease.
Knitting Daily made a great video illustrating this concept and I hope you’ll watch it, and learn the positive side of negative ease!