March 11, 2016

A hand knit for a newborn baby has me marvelling yet again over the architectural innovation that is Elizabeth’s Zimmerman’s Baby Surprise Jacket.

IMG_2337The BSJ appeared in Elizabeth Zimmermann’s self-published newsletter in 1968. Elizabeth told her readers that it was called a Suprise Jacket,

because it looks like nothing on earth when you have finished knitting it. Sew up two seams, and you find you have the nicest little garter-stitch baby sweater you could wish to see, reversible, and with no side or armhole seams to look ill-fitting or feel uncomfortable.

The BSJ is Ravelry’s most frequently knitted pattern. Since 2006, 24,333 Ravelry members have knitted one. Why is a design from 1968, so popular? Well, we can really only speculate, so let’s do that wildly right now.

IMG_2342Design wise, the BSJ is innovative…still. It is knit back and forth on two needles using only very basic stitches. All the shaping occurs at two fixed points. It is then folded origami style into a cardigan shape and sewn along the shoulders. The marvel of the unconventional knitting followed by the folding, delights us. It is like knitting a puzzle and holds us in suspense every single time till we cast off and fold.

The BSJ is not just innovative, it is also supremely easy to make and fit for purpose.

  • The garter stitch is particularly good at growing with a baby, so what was a newborn cardigan can still be worn at six months or older.
  • It is also most generous around the nappy area, accommodating a cloth nappy or bulky gathered waists.
  • The arms are slightly cropped so sleeves seem to stay out of mouths and food.
  • It is a proportional pattern that is not gauge sensitive so it can be made in a variety of yarn weights and gauges. This makes it great for using up stash or hand spun yarns.
  • The garter stitch and right angles showcase charactered yarns such as variegated yarns and hand spun yarn.

These are some of the reasons why we knit the BSJ again and again. But I don’t think they really explain why the BSJ is such a contemporary knitting phenomenon.

I have an idea that the reason lies in the design’s peculiar suitedness for sharing in a mediated world, that the distinctive shape and appearance of the BSJ along with its playful puzzle construction has primed it for success via the internet.

IMG_2339The BSJ is visually appealing in a robust dumpling kind of way. It is easy to capture well in amateur photographs. It doesn’t have complex shaping or round bits. It doesn’t drape or float. It is small and easy to understand as an image. As a folded garment, it looks great photographed flat, not requiring a body to fill it out.

IMG_2562The BSJ photographs well in variegated yarns, especially handspun, when the right angles capture colour changes dynamically and offer many opportunities for colour experiments. Its visual attractiveness is very strong. I remember looking at Brooklyn Tweed’s BSJ when I still wrote down favourite blogs on a list by the computer and buying Spin-Off just for the gallery spread of hand spun BSJs in Fall 2008. I poured over those images, experiencing a kind of yarn desire that can only equate to salivating over a menu. Flood’s photographs of his BSJs might be the most beguiling knitterly images ever.

Great images are the life blood of the internet. The image is what we like and favourite, pin and share. BSJ gives great images as you can see in this random screen capture of a google search on the BSJ.


The puzzle quality of the BSJ also gives great stories. The BSJ is not just a cardigan but a story to share, a marvellous curiousity to wonder about. Jared Flood wrote in 2007,

Among the numerous and frequent moments of epiphany, gratitude and sheer awe inspired in each knitter by Elizabeth Zimmermann, none, I believe, is as poignant as the one experienced when you fold together your first BSJ.

In the same year, Stephanie Pearl-McPhee blogged,

It only takes a few hours (maybe….six- eight?) and is simple, assuming one can follow directions. This was my personal barrier to success with the Baby Surprise Jacket over the years. I kept trying to “figure it out” instead of just knitting one and letting the logic of it dawn on you. The first one takes blind faith. Just like turning a heel, when you are learning you suspend disbelief and leap.

And in 2011, Felicity Ford knitted one for her nephew reflecting,

I love the simplicity of the garter stitch, the back and forth straight knitting, the pleasingly-placed increases and decreases, and the always delightful finale when your strangely-shaped little bit of work is magically transformed into a jacket via a couple of nifty folds.

Reading the stories just makes you want to knit your own even more, just to see how it really does work, how it really is possible. When we knit a BSJ, we want to blog and post our BSJs in all the places and invite others to marvel also. It probably doesn’t hurt that all the knitterati have knitted and shared them too!

As a good story and a strong image, the BSJ could been designed by a group of nerds for Web 2.0 but it wasn’t. It was designed almost fifty years ago by a skilled and curious knitter who continues to inspire and teach new generations of knitters despite her death in 1999.


My version was knitted from handpainted, mill spun Finnsheep raised by Suzie Horne in South Australia which I bought at the Australian Sheep and Wool Show a good few years ago. I also used small amounts of New Lanark DK in limestone, and undyed grey and brown Gotland DK from Granite Haven. Even in its unfinished state, this version still looks good thanks to a great design.

Care to speculate wildly on the enduring appeal of the BSJ?