Sometimes, when lightening strikes in the form of an idea, you have to run with it, if you’re able. That was the case with this project. I’ve been in the middle of knitting a cardigan since December, but then right after Christmas I got an idea in the back of my head for a quick project. Well, relative to a fingering weight cardigan, that is.
I wanted to knit a bolero out of some Jill Draper Mini Empire yarn that I bought at Rhinebeck in 2018. I didn’t buy enough for a full sweater for some reason, a fact I discovered about a year ago when I pulled it out to swatch for something. So I shelved the yarn again for awhile while I ruminated. And wouldn’t you know, finally just the right idea came along for it, when I realized it was enough for a bolero!
My first thought was maybe something lacy, but then I swung in the opposite direction and settled on… plaid. Sure, file plaid under “quick”. If you (I) say so.
Don’t ask me if I’ve worked out how many things a plaid bolero would go with in my pattern-heavy wardrobe—I haven’t—but I knew it would be a few things at least, especially if the plaid wasn’t too busy. And I had a dress in mind to go with it which I’m wearing here, but more on that later on.
As for the shape, for years (and I do mean years) I’ve wanted to knit a one piece bolero: you knit both fronts with the sleeves knit on, then join them across the back neck and knit the back, seaming under the arms. There’s no shoulder shaping. (I mean technically there could be, but there isn’t.) I even worked it out on a little piece of paper with my friend Elisa once.
So for this bolero, I roughly copied measurements from a RTW vintage bolero that fits me really well… well enough that I actually already copied it to make myself a sewing pattern from it, which I’ve made three times! When it’s a sewing pattern, it’s not made as one piece, but I wanted to use the general shape to knit one that was.
Now get this: when I started digging more, I realized 5 years ago I posted about that same RTW bolero and taking the measurements from it to knit one. I barely got that project off the ground and never finished it, but I said in that post that I’d worked out the idea for this type of bolero with Elisa about 6 years before. So here we are, something like 11 years after I first had the idea. I finally did it!
And wow oh wow, it was worth the wait, because I love this!!
While the knitting itself was quick, since this was aran weight yarn and it knit up at 3.75 spi, the process and the crochet embellishment at the end took the most time. To achieve plaid, I decided I wanted to use a technique from one of my vintage knitting booklets:
The horizontal stripes are knit in with the pattern as normal, but you leave a purl column anywhere you want one column of a contrasting color. After the knitting is complete, you crochet a slip stitch chain up the indentation in the knitting that the purl column leaves. Some of the patterns in the booklet also include intarsia for larger vertical sections but I wanted to keep it simple. Well, relatively speaking, obviously.
Trying to plan that all out without visually being able to see it presented a problem, so I plotted the shape of the entire bolero on graph paper!
This isn’t a new concept, it’s just not common for a large scale project. Usually you see a smaller version of these charts for things like mittens (my Sildra mittens were charted that way). But the very first vintage sweater I ever knit had the pattern charted on graph paper. You just read the steps on the graph paper as increases and decreases, according to the direction you’re knitting.
It’s brilliantly simple! And was exactly what I needed to plot out the bolero. It also really helped after I’d knit most of the first front and decided I wasn’t happy with the sleeve shaping, because I was able to quickly and easily just re-draw the lines on the paper. In fact it made the knitting so much easier than it could have been, reading both the shaping and the plaid lines at the same time, that I’ll absolutely use graph paper like that again.
Soon enough, I was onto the vertical crochet lines. Now because I didn’t have a natural-colored yarn in aran weight, I had swatched around until I decided three strands of Excelana (Susan Crawford’s fingering weight yarn) held together for the horizontal stripes that are knit in with the pattern, but I went with two strands for the crochet vertical stripes. Boy I don’t recommend crocheting with two strands of yarn. Ugh.
Here’s a photo of the crochet stripes at about the halfway point. You can see the shape of the bolero clearly, too:
The crochet stripes were SO annoying!! Double exclamation point annoying. It’s fine when you’re at the edge, or on a very short section, but soon you’re unable to have the hand that tensions the yarn above the work, and you’re feeling around with one hand above and one hand underneath.
It was just a gigantic pain, and I hated nearly every minute of it. Was it worth it? Yes. Would I do it again? Also yes.
I wouldn’t change much about this bolero, but if I had thought about the plaid longer, I probably would have alternated the double stripes on the horizontal as well as vertical, since the sleeves are knit out from the body and so the stripes appear to change from the torso to the sleeves when your arms are down.
I’d also have started the double stripes at the center front instead of a single one, since on the front, the only double set gets kind of trapped under my arms when they’re down. But truly minor things. And the plaid is fabulous from the back.
You can really see the batwing style sleeve shaping in the photos below. I love the look so much!
I think the stripes came out great, and are just enough to give it the feel of plaid, but not make it too too busy, so it still can go with another pattern, like this dress. I mean at least in my book. Oh right, speaking of!
This dress is made from the bodice pieces I thought I was using when I made my flannel poinsettia dress for Christmas! Right after I finished that one, I was determined to sew a new version. And because this time I didn’t cut the bodice on the cross grain, and I used the pieces I meant to use, it turned out just liked I wanted. I’m really happy with it!
I also threw in a small gaping neck adjustment in the front (here’s the tutorial I used from Cashmerette) because I felt like I could use one after my flannel version. It helped, so I’ll use that adjustment on future versions. I like this bodice so much I could just keep on using it. (Spoiler alert: I already have.)
The combination of sleeves in this bolero and dress is ideal. I love the look of a cut-on sleeve on a dress or blouse, but they’re awful to wear with a typical set-in sleeve sweater on top. I talked about that briefly in my last post. I’ve mostly avoided sewing them for a few years. You end up bunching up all the underarm fabric in your armpit and just no thanks, I hate it. Frankly I’d rather wear a long underwear shirt under a sleeveless dress in winter if I want to wear a cardigan.
But my eyes have been to looser armhole styles in knitting, and thus I’m also no longer avoiding sleeves on dresses. I don’t know why it took me this long to make the connection in my mind, but thankfully I have.
And these two are the perfect match! Bring on the roomy armholes!
I love the fabric I used for this dress. It features pine cones and small berries, and I admit it walks the line of being Christmasy. But pine cones don’t disappear on December 26th, so to me it’s wintery. The end.
One more special detail on this outfit–I made the belt buckle! Several years ago I used to do a lot of resin crafting to make jewelry, but hadn’t done it since 2015. (I think I only did one blog post about it.)
Until December, I really had no desire to do it again. But I suddenly started to want to make some buttons and belt buckles for myself. It’s a bit of a complicated craft to get into. But it wasn’t too hard after a long break to re-discover it. It’s slow and methodical and a total departure from sewing and knitting, so I’ve enjoyed dabbling in it again.
I made a mold of a vintage belt buckle, and then cast a translucent green buckle for my matching belt. It reminds me of prystal lucite!
It’s hard not to be ecstatic about an outfit that includes a bolero that I love, a dress that I love, and a belt buckle that I love. It’s like a creator trifecta or something. I’m pretty jazzed about it!
Since photographing these projects I’ve already started and frogged another bolero in this shape (no fault of the shape, just couldn’t get into the charcoal yarn, much as I need a charcoal bolero), and finished another dress with this bodice. No set future plans, I’m just going with the inspiration whenever it strikes. And right now, that’s a muslin for the Charm Patterns swing coat pattern (it’s available for Patreon members).
Stay tuned (probably). 🙂