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A Ladies’ Leg-of-Mutton Sleeve Sweater from June 1897

About 15 years ago I purchased several issues of The Delineator dating from 1895-97. One had knitting instructions for a delightfully curvy and improbable leg-of-mutton sleeve sweater, which I fell utterly in love with. The huge sleeves! The tiny waist! I had never even considered that the exaggerated fashions of the era might have extended to knitwear.

Every time I page through those magazines looking for inspiration, I stop and dream over that sweater. To my delight, I discovered an extant example of just such a sweater in the collection at the Met. I added it to Pinterest as a reminder of the similar sweater in my magazine, in hopes that someday I might be ready to tackle a period knitting project.

Leg-of-Mutton Sleeve Sweater from the Met

Sweater in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accession # 2009.300.1111.

Images of the Met sweater were shared on Facebook a few weeks ago, and it turns out many of my friends also have a soft spot for this style. Once again I thought of that old pattern. I was traveling at the time, but decided I should pull out the magazine when I got home. Imagine my surprise when I looked at the magazine and extant sweater side by side and realized they weren’t just similar – they are, as far as I can see, absolutely identical.

1897 leg-of-mutton sleeve sweater - original magazine image

Both sweaters are stitched primarily in rib knit of various sizes, which creates the curvy shape. The hem, waist, and shoulders are worked in a “fancy” staggered rib knit, creating a variant of a block stitch. The turtleneck has buttons along both sides, arranged so that the buttons are visible when the collar is folded down. The large leg-of-mutton sleeves taper into fitted lower sleeves that are folded back into a cuff.

This is definitely a pattern for the advanced knitter. The pattern identifies needles by the material they are made of rather than the standardized sizes we have today. It lists a 34″ bust, but gives no other measurements or gauge. A little deductive reasoning suggests that this pattern might fit someone with the corseted measurements of 34″-22″-26.5″, which is roughly a modern size 4-6. You’ll want to make several swatches to make sure the finished sweater will match your measurements, especially if sizing up.

Once you get through all the calculations for size and gauge, it’s actually a pretty simple knit. It’s 1×1 rib knit through most of the sweater, with decreases for the waist, collar, and below the puffed sleeves. Most of the shaping is done by changing needle sizes for different sections.

While doing some research, I found another example of a leg-of-mutton sleeve sweater on the DAR Museum website, from the collection at Historic Northampton. This example is burgundy with white stripes across the upper sleeves, chest, and cuffs. It’s a little different, as it doesn’t have the same waist shaping and the sleeves don’t fold back. The description mentions silk cord, so it sounds like the buttonholes may also be omitted in favor of loops.  It could be adapted from the 1897 magazine pattern by shortening the sleeves and using decreases to shape the waist.

Burgundy leg-of-mutton sleeve sweater

Mid-1890s wool sweater with silk cord loops and glass buttons. DAR.

I’d be curious to know if a sweater like this could be made with a knitting machine. I suspect it would need a bit of adjustment, since it sounds like knitting machines are usually only a single size of needle, and the magazine pattern relies on 3 different sizes for shaping. However, the shaping could just as easily be accomplished with some increases and decreases, and a machine would certainly speed things up. Otherwise I fear a project of this scope could take me a decade (or longer!).

If you’re interested in tackling this fabulous sweater, the PDF pattern is now in the shop. It includes variations for 2 different sizes of leg-of-mutton sleeves. The PDF includes the original instructions as well as directions in modern knitting terminology. I’ve also provided all of my calculations about gauge and sizing, in hopes it will help you calculate the size you need. Please keep in mind, however, that this is a vintage pattern and you will need to do some serious calculations of your own before starting your project.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this sweater. Are the sleeves just perfect, or way over the top? Are you willing to knit one up and wear it? If so, I’d love to see pictures of your progress or the finished project.

13 Responses to “A Ladies’ Leg-of-Mutton Sleeve Sweater from June 1897

  • I want this so freaking bad, but I’m a sewer, not a knitter! I don’t suppose there’s any way to turn it into a sewing pattern?

    • That would be a fascinating project! I bet you could do it. You’d lose out on some of the fine details like the contrast knitting pattern and different sizes of rib knit in the original, but you could compensate for that with the right knitted fabric. You could start with a sewn turtleneck pattern and adapt the sleeves to be the leg-of-mutton style. I estimate the ones in this pattern to be about 25″ wide. I’d also nip in the sides and make the buttons decorative rather than fully functional.

  • I bought a knitting pattern a couple of years ago where someone had made a replica of the Mets sweater. It is a bicycle sweater! I also joined a Facebook group where a Swedish woman had made gren own pattern (in Swedish though).

    On Instagram you can find several different ones.
    https://www.pinterest.se/dressedintime/the-cycling-sweater/

    • I’m used to thinking of it as a cycling sweater, too. Interestingly, The Delineator doesn’t call it anything other than a ladies’ sweater. I imagine they were good for a variety of sports and activities by the time they were being published in magazines.

      • True. A sports sweater for a true lady 🙂 Quite warm when being active though…

  • The top sweater from the Met just seems so sassy! I love the way they have posed it, and it makes me want to make this sweater! (I am far from an advanced knitter, probably intermediate) Event though it is a very old sweater, it has a very modern feel about it! It’s just lovely. It’s a reminder of how good classic fashion, never really goes out of style.

    • I love it and could totally see wearing it for modern clothing. But I’m a poofy-sleeve girl all the way. I’m an intermediate knitter too, and I feel like I could probably tackle this sweater, if only I knitted faster! It’s mostly rectangles with a little bit of shaping, and even most of that is from changing needle sizes.

  • If I understand the listing correctly, this is a one-size pattern so one would need to scale it for any size differences? Also, did you “translate” the archaic instructions into modern knitting terms/instructions?

    Thanks.

    • Yes, it is a one-size pattern. The original lists very briefly how to size it up, but doesn’t really give enough information. I’ve tried to include some basic calculations about the sizing and possible gauges used so that you can size it up as needed. The shapes are relatively simple, but since it is meant to stretch, you have to think in terms of negative ease.

      I also modernized the knitting terms as well as providing the original instructions. There are a few notes about possible errors when I noted directions that seemed a little odd, or where it would be a good place to lengthen the pattern, etc. If you purchase and have questions, I’m always happy to help.

  • Hello, I bought your pattern and then ran out & immediately bought yarn… Now I am confused. I am knitting up swatches to get the gauge and it says “a size that gives approx. 9-10 rib knit stitches per inch.” Is this meaning just counting the ribs/knit stitches? or (4 knit + 5 Purl) = 9 rib knit stitches? I keep working down to smaller and smaller needles and seem to be getting only 4 ribs (4knit +4 purl) per inch…

    • Thanks for the question! Yes, one knit or one purl would each count as a stitch. So 5knit/4purl should be close.

      The original pattern says add 8 stitches for 1 inch of extra bust measurement. So I’m interpreting that as adding 4 in front and 4 in back to go up an inch. And then 8 stitches should be about 1″ when it’s slightly stretched when you wear it. Since it’s meant to stretch, it should be a little flexible. But since it’s a vintage pattern, definitely go with something that makes sense in reality! Let me know if you have more questions.

      • Thanks, that helped! a no.2 needle did the trick for getting me close on the no.12 steel gauge (now that I’m not trying to count only the rib ridges!)

        • Good to know! That’s the needle size a vintage needle conversion chart indicated, but it sounded impossibly small for worsted, so I was doubting it. I’m curious to know how this progresses for you. 🙂

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