Pullovers for first-timers: Or, an introduction to sweater construction

Idlewild blueprint

I’ve been promising this post on sweater patterns for beginners — or first-time sweater knitters at any level — for quite awhile, and it’s turned out to be a bit of a monster! But let’s get one thing clear right up front: There is nothing intrinsically hard about knitting a sweater. Don’t let the size of this post scare you! As I’ve said before, if you can knit a mitt, you can knit a sweater. Depending on the type of sweater, it may involve some combination of increases/decreases, casting on or binding off stitches mid-stream, picking up stitches, possibly even some short rows — some or all of which you’ve most likely done by the time you’re thinking about a sweater. It’s just knitting. But given the potential investment of time and yarn money, a sweater represents a bit of a mental hurdle for lots of knitters. I’ve met people who’ve been knitting for decades, who have all kinds of fancy knitting skills, but who’ve never felt confident about knitting a sweater.

I feel like in addition to the time and money, another hesitation for people is just not knowing how sweaters are made — what it is you’re signing up for. It’s less daunting to dive into a pair of fingerless mitts, say, without really knowing what it will entail. Embarking on something as big as a sweater when the process is a mystery can be doubly daunting. So this post is a set of patterns I think are good starter patterns, but which also provide an overview of the four or five most common* ways a pullover is constructed — along with some pros and cons for each — to help you decide which might be the best place for you personally to start. (Coincidentally, Hannah Fettig and Pam Allen just did a podcast on basic sweater types at knit.fm, so I’d suggest listening to that for their thoughts as well.)

NOTE: Since everyone’s skills are different, I’m suggesting one basic/beginner pattern for each construction type, along with more ambitious alternatives. If you’re perfectly comfortable with cables, lace, colorwork, or whatever, there’s no reason your first sweater has to be plain stockinette. But if you’re newer to knitting and doing your first sweater, you might want to keep it simple in that regard.

OK, here we go:

Drop-shoulder and dolman sweater knitting patterns for first-timers

DROP-SHOULDER AND DOLMAN SWEATERS

suggested pattern:
My First Summer Tunic — not pictured, but see this Knit the Look for more on this one (free pattern)

or if you’re feeling more ambitious:
Relax by Ririko — a bit of a hybrid with some eyelet interest
Idlewild by Julie Hoover — dolman with cables and shaping (see blueprint above)
Mix No. 13 by AnneLena Mattison — drop-shoulder with allover lace

The trickiest part of sweater design and construction is the “armscye” — the shaping of the joint where the sleeve meets the body. Drop-shoulder sweaters avoid the issue altogether by consisting simply of four rectangles (front, back and two sleeves) sewn together, with the body pieces being wide enough that the sleeves can just be a pair of tubes stuck on at the opening. Dolman-sleeve sweaters, similarly, are basically two big T shapes, one front and one back, seamed together, with an opening for the neck. Both are necessarily oversized to account for the lack of a sleeve cap.

pros: No armhole shaping to worry about; anyone who can knit a rectangle can knit four
cons: Drop-shoulder won’t really teach you any new skills (other than mattress stitch) or anything about true sweater construction

. . .

Top-down sweater knitting patterns for first-timers

TOP-DOWN SEAMLESS SWEATERS

suggested pattern:
Ladies Classic Raglan by Jane Richmond — ultra-basic top-down raglan

or if you’re feeling more ambitious:
Basic Round-Yoke Unisex by Hannah Fettig — or even the colorwork version, Willard Fair Isle
Portside by Alicia Plummer — boatneck tunic shape with pockets

With top-down, your cast-on edge is your neckline. You knit the yoke in the round, shaping it via increases, and it can be raglan, round-yoked, saddle-shoulder, or a simulation of a set-in sleeve. Once the yoke has reached your desired armhole depth, you set aside the sleeve stitches on waste yarn, join the back and front in the round and keep knitting the body downward from there. Then you put those sleeve stitches back on the needle and knit each of the sleeves in the round. So you literally knit the entire sweater in one piece, seamlessly. (For step-by-step photos illustrating the process, see the Ravelry page for my top-down-tutorial sweater.)

Sweaters knit in the round — whether top-down or bottom-up — have their detractors. But I consider them the gateway to sweater knitting. With top-down, you can literally try on your sweater as you go, giving you absolute control over the fit. Whether you’re knitting from a pattern or making it up, you’ll find lots of information about how it works — and how sweater shaping works in general — in my top-down tutorial. Understanding the basic concepts will allow you to modify any pattern to fit your particular shape.

pros: No seaming; lots of control over the fit
cons: None of the structural support that seams provide (less durable); with certain yarns, the sweater may twist on you over time, having been knitted in a spiral, which is what “in the round” technically is; less portable; the one big piece may feel more cumbersome to work on as it grows into a sweater.

. . .

Bottom-up sweater patterns for first-timers

BOTTOM-UP SWEATERS

suggested pattern:
Sweatshirt Sweater by Purl Bee — with or without the kangaroo pocket (free pattern)

or if you’re feeling more ambitious:
Bedford by Michele Wang — simple cables on the body only
Stasis by Leila Raabe — colorwork and a round yoke

Seamless pullovers can also be worked from the bottom up. In this case you knit three tubes starting at the hem: the body plus two sleeves. When all three of those pieces reach armhole height, they’re joined together on a single long needle, and the yoke is worked seamlessly upward from that point, shaped by decreases. It can be raglan, round-yoked or saddle-shouldered.

There’s also a hybrid category of bottom-up sweaters, where the body and sleeves are each worked and shaped separately all the way to the top, then seamed together at the arm joint, which can be either a raglan or a set-in sleeve.

pros: Can be seamless; the three separate pieces are relatively portable, and sleeves are always a nice place to start
cons: If seamless, same cons as for top-down, above; not as much control over the outcome as with top-down; no way to try it on until the body and arms are joined, so adjusting the length requires ripping back/un-joining.

. . .

Seamed sweater patterns for first-timers

CLASSIC SEAMED SWEATERS

suggested pattern:
Breton by Jared Flood (with or without the stripes)

or if you’re feeling more ambitious:
Redford by Julie Hoover — unisex! sweatshirt detailing, including side panels
Belesama by Michele Wang — ribbing plus textured-stitch panels on front and back

There have been sweaters for centuries longer than there have been circular needles, so traditionally sweaters were knitted in flat pieces** — just like you cut pattern pieces when sewing a garment — and seamed together with mattress stitch. Lots of people hate (or think they hate) the act of seaming. But I believe people’s increasing preference for seamless sweaters is as much to do with the control issue as with the actual seaming. I could be wrong, who knows. A seamed sweater typically has set-in sleeves, but can also be raglan or saddle-shouldered. With thoughtful shaping, a seamless sweater can actually be sculpted to fit a three-dimensional body, but the conventional wisdom (and the reality of most patterns) is that a set-in-sleeve sweater will conform to the human shape better than, say, a raglan. Obviously, there’s a lot of room for nuance and debate there.

In some cases, the sleeves of seamed sweaters are worked in the round up to the armhole, then the sleeve cap (the upper part of the sleeve) is worked flat. That eliminates the need to seam the arms.

pros: long-lasting, as seams provide structural support; pieces are portable; no painfully long rows/rounds to knit; a long history of published patterns to draw on
cons: you don’t know how you did until you seam it all together

. . .

Whichever type of sweater you start with, fit is always a concern. Nobody wants to spend a month or more making a sweater, only to have it not fit in the end. So taking measurements — of your body and also a garment that fits the way you like — is critical. Any good pattern will include a schematic, detailing the finished measurements of the sweater. (Which presumes your gauge is the same as that listed on the pattern. If your stitches are larger or smaller, your sweater will be larger or smaller.) Picking the right size is the first step toward a successful outcome.

Questions? Disputes? Let’s talk about it—

.

*There are infinitely more than four ways to construct a sweater but we’re sticking with the basics here!
**I’m being corrected on this in the comments. Read on for further info

30 thoughts on “Pullovers for first-timers: Or, an introduction to sweater construction

  1. I will admit I’m afraid of the sweater but I recently tackled fingerless mitts and am feeling more confident. I even have a Craftsy class for a sweater but have yet to dedicate the time to do it. I’m going to take the plunge!

  2. Great post! I love that you are suggesting some seemingly ambitious patterns. They’re not too ambitious for a first sweater if the knitter has experience with those techniques in the form of smaller projects.

    Regarding the history of sweater knitting, I don’t know much about this topic, but I have heard that the earliest knitting was done in the round on DPNs. Purl stitches were unknown until the 16th century, so the only way to produce stockinette fabric was in the round. I don’t know how they knitted large circumference pieces like sweater bodies–really long DPNs? I’d love if someone who knows more about this would enlighten us!

    Wikipedia has some information about the history of knitting and knitting tools:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_knitting
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knitting_needle

    • Yeah, like I said, if you’ve already mastered cables or lace, there’s no reason you can’t knit a sweater that incorporates those skills.

      I wish I knew more about the history of knitting. I’ve been asked before about a good book, but I don’t know of one! Wish I did. Thanks for the wiki links.

      • For knitting/textile history, The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years – Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times by Elizabeth Wayland Barber are a couple of good places to start–I’d imagine there are at least a couple other books out there, too.

        Also, nice sweater rundown!

  3. Great choices and you’ve pegged the pros and cons beautifully.

    I made a pieced sweater for my first “re-entry” into knitting a couple of years ago, because I knew I could use a garment I already had as a guide for fit, and because I liked the idea of one piece at a time. But, I think that might stem from my sewing background. I actually enjoy seaming and finishing and think they can enhance fit.

    As for bottom up, in-the-round, I have a very hard time getting the length right. I have had to do hem surgery twice now, which isn’t fun on a bottom up. Interestingly, I don’t have this same problem with bottom-up, pieced sweaters, and I think it is because the measure is more specific and again, I can easily lay it out and compare it with a garment I already have.

    Also, had the “twist” thing happen with only one of my top-down garments. Maybe yarn is a factor of this issue? Not sure. Other than that, I really like top-down knitting and think your tutorial is one of the best I’ve seen.

    I am on my second Relax and recommend it highly. Not just because it is an easy, clear pattern, but because the clean, simple lines look good on a variety of shapes, and it is a terrific template for lots of mods.

    I do go on, don’t I? Your posts seem to bring out the chatty in me, Karen.

    • I stopped buying linen sweaters years ago because they always twisted on me after the first wear. I didn’t know enough at the time to realize they may have been created in the round. But I’ve heard others say that’s an issue with linen in particular. I’ve only witnessed it in a hand-knit in-the-round sweater once — when my friend Leigh made something out of cotton tape yarn at a very loose gauge.

      I don’t have any issues like that at all with any of the top-down sweaters I’ve made. But there are people who swear they can feel a sweater (as in, any circular sweater) spiraling around them when they pull it on.

      So yes, depends on the yarn and the knitting and the person, I think.

  4. Responding to Clare, the top-down ‘twist’ is very ‘yarn’ indictative! It’s actually called ‘biasing,’ and I know that linen can be a very prone product to the process.

    Karen, WONDERFUL post !! Thank you !!

  5. What a great post. Thank you. I am new to knitting, but have become addicted. And I have only recently found your blog, but the way you describe things is the best I’ve seen. Or maybe your brain just works the same way as mine. Anyway, when I get up the courage to try sweaters I’m going to use your recommendations. Then I’ll feel more confident.

    On an unrelated topic, because of my new-found addiction to knitting, I often knit too much and experience pain in the muscles on the back of my right hand. Could you someday do a blog post on how to reduce pain from knitting too much?

    • Hi, Kari. For some people, certain sizes or kinds of needles are just problematic. Straight needles hurt my hands — something about the way the right one always has to be held. Some people find larger needles uncomfortable; others find small ones a problem. So for starters, I’d say mix it up and see if there are different things that cause more or less pain for you.

      But regardless, it’s just really important to stretch your hands and arms constantly. If you google “stretches for knitters” or anything along those lines, you’ll turn up lots of good recommendations, with diagrams of different stretches, etc. One thing I do is constantly — like every time I pause for any reason at all (end of a row, pulling on my working yarn, changing to the next DPN, whatever) I very quickly stretch my right hand. I’m sure to anyone watching, it would look like a weird tic. I just spread my five fingers as wide as they’ll go, while bending the whole hand backwards, to stretch the wrist a bit at the same time. But make sure you’re doing more than that once an hour or so, and when you’re done. And get up and walk around at least once an hour.

  6. I am currently knitting my first jumper. I have done cardigans before both were raglan patterns but I wish I had had this post when I started. I was really intimidated by jumpers for a long time. Now that I am nearly finished I don’t really remember why.
    Also, great pattern selection! My favourite is the Belesama jumper by Michele Wang.

  7. I like this post. I am one who has yet to tackle a sweater after 9 years of living deep in The Knitting Life! I also dislike seaming, so I am drawn (again!) to the Purl Bee’s Sweatshirt Sweater. Thank you for reminding me of it. You’ve helped me take a step closer to sweater knitting.

    And speaking of knitting in the round, you say, “traditionally sweaters were knitted in flat pieces.” However, I immediately thought of the Knitting Madonna, who is shown knitting a sweater in the round on 4 needles! I then came across this site which says, “Surviving Mediaeval and early knitting is nearly all done in the round.” Here’s more, if you’re interested: http://www.kcguild.org.uk/index.php?id=15
    It sounds as if “mediaeval” knitters also disliked seaming!

  8. Oops…note to self: always read others’ comments before leaving your own. I see that Fiona already addressed the history of knitting in the round! : (

  9. Karen, you say you are asked about “history of knitting,” and wish you knew books to recommend on the topic. I checked the comments this time, and it doesn’t seem as if anyone else has yet addressed this issue! : ) Since I am fascinated by knitting history, I thought I would give you my “off the top of my head” list. I initially found all of these at my local library, and later purchased some of them. Others may know other books and sources.

    No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting by Ann Macdonald
    Knitting America by Susan M. Strawn
    Knitting the Threads of Time by Nora Murphy
    The History of Hand Knitting by Richard Rutt
    Knitting around the World by Lela Nargi
    Knitting in the Old Way by Priscilla Gibson-Roberts
    Folk Socks by Nancy Bush
    Folk Shawls by Cheryl Oberle

    Piecework Magazine “Knitting Traditions” back issues
    Project Gutenberg’s Encyclopedia of Needlework, by Thérèse de Dillmont (available online)

    And, many other contemporary designers are influenced by tradition as well. Kate Davies is one who blends contemporary and heritage knitting, with excellent history besides. Some classic how-to books, like The Knitter’s Handbook by Montse Stanley have many historical examples of knitting techniques.

      • I don’t know if I have a favorite. I will say that after I wrote my comment, I went to my knitting book shelf and pulled out Knitting in America and Folk Socks and have enjoyed dipping into both of them again. I especially love the old knitting pictures and photos in the Knitting in America book. However, the Murphy, Rutt, and Nargi books are probably the most comprehensive.

  10. My first sweater was Emilien, a simple stripe cardi for my boyfriend. I was afraid to make something too big, so I took the measures for one of his sweater I know was a good fit for him and applied it to Emilien => perfect result! Then I try to do one for me, I started with a Boxy from Joji Locatelli, very simple, st/st almost all the way, as for the fit, it’s a boxy sweater so no problem! Two books helped me a lot to take down my fear of knitting fitting sweaters: Little red from Ysolda, and Fit to flatter from Amy Herzog. I really recommend Amy Herzog book, because thanks to it, I no longer fear to make modifications to have a sweater with a perfect fit for me! Since, I’ve made one cardigan, one dress and a cable sweater!

  11. Thank you for including my design Mix No. 13 in this fabulous write up. Very informative, I’m sure many knitters will get the courage to take the next step. Everyone just remember, it’s just yarn, you can frog (unravel) and begin again or even frog part way. It’s not glued together and permanent so mistakes are easily fixed

  12. Pingback: Lark Pullover In Action | The Funimalist

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