in their own words: holly chayes

Welcome to a new series, in their own words. I’ll invite artists, designers, and creators to share what drives their big projects. We begin with Holly Chayes; she’ll explain how a desire for approachable math led her to start knitting lots and lots of little green swatches.


Math does not have to be intimidating, overwhelming, or unapproachable – that’s the overarching/driving idea behind the whole Shawl Geometry Series.

Math can certainly be incredibly intimidating, overwhelming, and unapproachable, it does not have to be.

The Shawl Geometry Series is a master class in shawl shaping and while, that’s not what I originally envisioned this as, that’s what it’s become.

The whole series originally began when I started knitting shawl shape swatches to create my own reference library of shawl shapes, which then turned into a series of blog posts, and finally a series of books, and now a fully updated and revised edition of those books.

When I started writing up the shaping of these swatches for other knitters and designers to follow, I quickly realized that it was in danger of getting overly-complicated, intimidating, overwhelming, and unapproachable. But I also realized that it didn’t have to be.

I’ve always been amazed by the extremes of the knitting-math comfortable/uncomfortable spectrum. There are the knitters who resize fitted colorwork sweater patterns without a second thought, and then there are the knitters who would rather knit a whole sweater in a totally wrong size than spend five minutes resizing the pattern. And then there are the rest of us fall somewhere along the middle of the spectrum.

So, I focused on writing the Shawl Geometry Series in a way that would be approachable for knitters at every level of knitting-math comfort. I wanted knitters who felt they weren’t good at math to be able to follow along from cast on to bind off just like any other knitting pattern and end up finished shawl they love. But I also wanted advanced knitters who are super comfortable and willing to do math at the blink of an eye to be able to use these books as reference books, or as a jumping off point to create their own shapes. Which is a very lovely idea in theory, but a bit more difficult to pull off in practice!

Since this whole project very first began as a collection of shawl shape swatches for my own reference, I began by creating the shapes that I wanted to reference – which were not your standard squares and circles! When I created the blog series, I filled in more common shawl shapes. And then when I expanded the blog series to the first edition of the books, I added more intermediate shapes, advanced shapes, and shawl shaping theory.

But since the books evolved out of the blog series, and the blog series evolved out of my own desire for a shawl shaping reference library, the books weren’t as focused, or as clear, or as knitter-friendly as they could have been if I had started this project with the end in mind. Which is why I eventually decided to update the whole book series.

With this updated second edition I was able to more clearly focus each book in the series, which mean that I could make them clearer, more knitter-friendly and just more useful.

In the updated editions, book one focuses on the common, basic shawl shapes, perfect for a knitter who is just beginning to dip their toe into the world of shawl shaping – the shapes are easy to follow, and you’ve almost definitely knit some (if not all) of them before. Then book two moves more into intermediate and uncommon shawl shapes – some of these shapes are a little trickier to keep track of, and there are probably a number of shapes that most knitters haven’t run into before. And finally book three dives deep into the principles and theories of shaping and transforming knitted shawls with some advanced and straight-up-odd shawl shapes thrown in for good measure – this is the book that focuses on how to create corners and curves in knitting, how to determine and finesse you shawl’s shape using blocking, and how to transform a circle into a half circle, a square into a triangle, or a triangle back into a square.

So the idea that knitting math does not have to be intimidating, overwhelming, or unapproachable, was really the whole reason I ended up updating the Shawl Geometry Series. I wanted someone who was a beginner to be able to pick up just the first book and not get totally overwhelmed, and I wanted an advanced knitter to be able to pick up the third book and dive into theory, and I wanted the truly shawl obsessed (like me…) to be able to get the whole series and have enough shawl shaping to last them a couple lifetimes.

Pile of Shawl Swatches in Green from Holly Chayes' Shawl Geometry Series

I think the two main lessons from the Shawl Geometry Series (at least the lessons that don’t include a cast on and bind off!) are:

  1. If you can add, subtract, multiply, and divide you can do shawl shaping math. There’s nothing more complicated then that in any of the patterns in the series (and I don’t even ask you not to use a calculator). Of course you can make the shaping and math more complicated, but you don’t have to.
  2. Never underestimate how deep you can dive into a single, very focused topic. If you had asked me when I started creating my own library of shawl shaping swatches that I’d eventually write 400+ pages on shaping shawls only using increases and decreases I would have laughed myself sick.


Holly ChayesHolly Chayes is a designer and artist living in New York City. Her ability to sew a straight seam first led her to a career in costume design for theatre and film and her ability to keep systems and spreadsheets straight has since led her to helping creative businesses with their tech and operations. She discusses all aspects of making in her approachable style at hollychayes.com and is excited to be dipping a toe into exploring personal style at WhoWearsWho.com

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One Reply to “in their own words: holly chayes”

  1. Thank you so much for having me Penny! It was a delight writing this. I’m honored to have kicked off this series, and can’t wait to read the next writer “in their own words.”

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