How to improvise a top-down sweater: Introduction

how to knit a top-down sweater

When a perfectly capable knitter says to me that she can’t imagine knitting a sweater, I like to ask if she’s ever made a fingerless mitt. You know, with a basic thumb gusset? Because, if so, she already has made a sweater — a tiny, one-armed turtleneck that happens to be worn on the hand.

Think about it. The process for the two items pictured above (a 70-Yard Mitt* and my Almost Perfect Pullover) is identical:

  • Cast on.
  • Rib for a couple of inches.
  • Place markers designating increase points.
  • Increase every other round until you’ve got the desired dimension.
  • Transfer the gusset/sleeve stitches onto waste yarn.
  • Cast on a few extra stitches to bridge the gap, and rejoin the main part of the piece for working in the round.
  • Knit the rest of the hand/body until the desired length, adding any other desired shaping along the way.
  • Switch back to ribbing for the edge/waistband, and bind off.
  • Put the reserved stitches (for the thumb/sleeve) back onto needles, and pick up additional stitches into the cast-on ones.
  • Continue knitting the thumb/sleeve until the desired length, adding any other desired shaping along the way.
  • Switch back to ribbing for the edge/cuff, and bind off.

The only real difference is the number of stitches — although there wouldn’t be a huge difference between a fingering-weight mitt and a bulky sweater. And with a sweater you don’t have to turn around and make a second one! Although you’ll want to — and you will.

Actually, there is one key (optional) difference. Remember why I dubbed that sweater the Almost Perfect Pullover? It’s because in the method described above, which I used for that sweater, there was no neck shaping — nothing to cause the back of the neck to sit higher than the front. Ideally, that’s your first step, and so that’s where we’ll start this little tutorial, coming up in a day or three.

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I had speculated that I might do two different top-down tutorials, but what I’m going to aim for is something in between. I’m going to take you through a basic raglan pullover, step by step, and describe how to think about and execute each step. I’m not going to get into all the technicalities and variations and alternate theories and methodologies — there’s a wealth of thought and knowledge beyond what I’ll cover, or even know — but I am going to tell you everything you’d need to know to improvise a basic sweater for yourself. For some of you, it will simply help you understand the process and visualize what’s being described (and why things are being done the way they are) when you’re working from a top-down pattern. For others, it will embolden you to try improvising a sweater on your own. And I hope it will also open up a rich discussion. I’ll be happy to answer any questions you have as we make our way through this series, and I hope others (more expert than I) will weigh in with additional advice — or even take issue with anything I might say. I love to learn as much as anyone, so please don’t be shy.

Keep in mind, when I say this is easy, that I’ve only known how to knit for a little over a year, as of the writing of this post. I made my first top-down sweater (baby-sized) in a class with Barry Klein in my third or fourth month of knitting. It is not rocket science. But it is life-changing, for a knitter. Understanding top-down theory will not only free you up to make pretty much whatever your heart desires, it will help you understand sweater construction — and knitting, in the most fundamental sense — in a way that will make you a more adventurous knitter. You’ll find yourself actually knitting without a pattern, as well as modifying patterns with confidence.

This series isn’t meant to replace all of the amazing books and classes available. It’s truly just a primer. Everyone should own Barbara Walker’s book Knitting from the Top, and I can’t encourage you enough to take classes wherever you can find them. Everyone has different ideas and approaches, and the more you hear and absorb, the better. For these posts, I’ll be drawing on what I’ve learned from Barbara Walker’s book, Barry Klein’s class (which he teaches at the Stitches conventions), patterns such as Jane Richmond’s Classic Raglan Pullover, which I highly recommend for first-timers, and of course some thoughts and conclusions of my own. I hope you find it useful! Part one coming soon.

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*I swear I get no kickbacks from Hannah Fettig for mentioning this pattern; I just really love cranking these out. If you haven’t ever made a pair of mitts with a simple gusset like this, this is a great place to start! And then you’ll be one step closer to making yourself a sweater.

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POSTS IN THIS SERIES: [Favorite it on Ravelry]
Introduction / Part 1: Casting on and marking raglans / Part 2: Raglans and neck shaping / Part 3: Finishing the neck and yoke / Part 4: Separating the sleeves and body / Part 5: The art of sweater shaping / Prologue: The possibilities are endless

27 thoughts on “How to improvise a top-down sweater: Introduction

  1. Looking forward to this! Perfect timing, as well, as I have finally caved and frogged that troublesome neckline on my ‘picard’ and am feeling a bit uncertain about knitting back UP with short rows (the pattern is constructed top down). It will be really useful to stop and THINK about the process instead of just jumping in!

    I am also still trying to figure out how to make a cardi reversible and hope reflection on the process will help.

    Anxiously awaiting first instalment… ;-)

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  2. I love your analogy of a fingerless mitt with a top-down raglan — you are so right! I’m working on an improvised top-down raglan right now and one thing I completely forgot to do is adjust the neckline so as you said, the back of the collar is the same as the front. Oh well, lessons learned, right?

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    • Oh, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. If it’s a lightweight sweater and a wide enough neck, no problem — from a technical/functional standpoint. It was an issue with that ivory pullover of mine because the yarn is so heavy and there’s nothing structural to keep it from stretching out endlessly. I should have been more clear about that.

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    • I just couldn’t bear it in the end. I really did try to walk away, but every time I wore it I was constantly pulling it down and it was driving me nuts! I decided it was time to fix a few of the projects that have been bothering me, so got the scissors out.

      Think different directions are only noticeable with certain stitches (but can’t tell you which as not experienced enough!) I can tell you that on a reverse stockinette raglan yoke – halfway through- you can see it where the increases turn into decreases, but it isn’t glaring and much better than having a ridiculous looking high neck. ;-)

      I love it when I see people just doing what they think might work…and it does. Like knitting a yoke sideways and then picking up to knit down, or chopping into work to modify. I made the mistake of using the term ‘off grid’ to describe that kind of mentality to my partner the other day and now he won’t let me live it down.

      Eeesh. heh.

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  3. This couldn’t have come at a more perfect time–I’ve been contemplating casting on for my first adult-sized sweater, and this series might be just the nudge I need. Looking forward to it!

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  4. I also can’t wait to read the rest of this. I have a whole board of pins for when I get the courage to go from fingerless mitts to my first sweater. I’m building my courage daily. This 70 yard Mitt comparison definitely gave me an aha moment!

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  14. I am coming to this rather late in the game, but I thought I’d just say THANK YOU for this series. I am now feeling nearly 100% confident to start my first sweater, thanks to these tutorials for helping it all make sense.

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  15. Pingback: Improvisation | Garn och ord

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