OK, let’s get started. For a top-down sweater, we obviously begin with the neck, which happens to be the hardest part. It isn’t hard, but it does take a little bit of explaining. (Future installments will not be nearly this epic! For the Introduction to this top-down sweater tutorial, click here.)
You can make pretty much any kind of sweater from the top down: turtleneck, crewneck or v-neck pullovers, and cardigans with just about any kind of neckline. For this tutorial, I’m going to make a very basic raglan pullover in stockinette with a ribbed neck and cuffs, but most of the point here is that knowing the basic method means you can do whatever you want with it. It doesn’t have to be stockinette, obviously, and the edging can be anything your heart desires. It doesn’t even have to have raglan sleeves — see, for instance, the contiguous sleeve method. And you can use any yarn and needles that give you a fabric you love and want to make a whole sweater out of.
So. The easiest way to begin your sweater — which is an option if (and only if) you’re doing a turtleneck or crewneck/boatneck — will be to simply cast on all of your neck stitches, join in the round, and start knitting. In that case you’ll be making a sweater with no difference between back and front, and your cast-on edge will literally be the uppermost row of stitches of the garment. I’m going to refer to this henceforth as the Reversible method.
If, on the other hand, you want your turtleneck or crewneck to have a distinct front and back — with a neck that sits lower in the front than in the back — or if you’re knitting a neckline that isn’t a circle, such as a V-neck, then what you’ll cast on is a portion of the row of stitches immediately below the neck ribbing. (Or whatever sort of edging you choose — I’m just going to say “ribbing” when talking about edge treatments and you can fill in “or other variety of edging.”) You knit back and forth in rows for a couple of inches to shape the upper crescent of the neck, then join to work in the round. Later, you pick up stitches along the cast-on edge and knit upwards for the ribbing. In addition to facilitating the neck shaping, that cast-on/picked-up ridge provides a little bit of structure, helping to keep the neck from stretching out. So I especially recommend this approach if you’re making an even moderately heavy sweater. I’ll refer to this as the Shaped method. (If there are anointed terms, someone please let me know what they are.)
(I’ll note at this point that there is a hybrid option, which is to cast on and join your stitches, then use short rows to do the neck shaping. I haven’t tried this method so won’t be going into it here. But if you’re familiar with short rows, you’ll be able to picture how that would work.)
So those are the first two things to think about: What type of neckline do you want? Will the shape of that neck or the weight of the sweater require that you take the Shaped approach? Once you’ve decided, it’s time to cast on!
CASTING ON FOR A REVERSIBLE NECK
If you’ve decided to cast on, join immediately, and start knitting (again, resulting in a reversible garment — no difference between front and back), all you need to know is how many stitches. And how do you know? You consult that little magic carpet known as your gauge swatch — the thing that sets a knitter free. Let’s say you’re doing a reversible turtleneck; your gauge is 4 stitches and 5 rows to the inch; and you want your turtleneck to be 12 inches in circumference and 8 inches tall. 12 inches x 4 stitches per inch = 48 stitches, so that’s your cast on count. (Adjust the number for whatever multiple your stitch pattern might require — e.g., k3/p2 ribbing requires a multiple of 5, in which case you’d cast on 50.) Work your ribbing for 8 inches (or 40 rows in this example), then move on to the following step, which is marking your raglans.
For a reversible crewneck, same thing. In this case, I’d advise making sure your neckline is wide enough (like, boatneck wide) that it won’t be riding up the front of your neck. (See Leigh’s pullover for an example.) To get the circumference for your cast-on edge, lay a piece of yarn around your neck and shoulders where you want the top of the neck to be, measure that length, and multiply the number by your stitch gauge. Rib for an inch or two and move on to marking your raglans.
CASTING ON FOR A SHAPED NECK
For a shaped neck, which is what I’ll be demonstrating and what’s pictured above, you cast on the total of the number of stitches needed for the back neck, plus the tops of the two sleeves, plus 1 stitch on each end for the front neck. (Back neck stitches + [sleeve stitches x 2] + 2 = CO.) Again, your gauge swatch and your desired measurements will be your guide. Women tend to have a back-of-neck measurement between 5.5 and 7 inches. (If you don’t know your measurements, you can measure the back of a raglan sweater whose neck you like. Or have someone measure the distance across the back of your shoulders between two imaginary points drawn straight down from your earlobes. Or do both, compare, and decide what you want.) My back-of-neck is 6.75 inches, but I want this particular sweater to have a slightly wider than average neck hole. My gauge here is 3.75 stitches and 5 rows to the inch, so I rounded up to 28 stitches, or about 7.5 inches, for the back of neck. For each sleeve top, you figure about 30% of the number of back neck stitches, so I went with 8 per sleeve, times 2 sleeves, plus the 2 front neck stitches. And I also threw in an extra stitch for each raglan seam, which we’ll get into below and which you can see in the diagram(s) above. So that bumped my total cast-on count to 48 stitches. I’m a very visual person, so I like to draw myself a little diagram like that whenever I’m mapping out a neck. Do whatever makes sense to you!
MARKING THE RAGLANS
The next step is to place markers indicating the position of your raglan seams. Of course, in top-down knitting they aren’t actually seams — they’re just the four places in the yoke where the shaping (the orderly repetition of increases) happens to create a design element. We’ll really get into this in the next installment, but for now just know that each increase round will involve working a pair of increases at each raglan.
If you’re doing the Reversible method, place your markers as you knit the last round of your ribbing. Divide your stitches by the same formula given above: Each sleeve should get roughly 30% of the number of back or front stitches. (Going back to our turtleneck example above, if you cast on 50 stitches, you could divide them like so: | 6 | 19 | 6 | 19 — with each of those vertical bars representing a raglan/marker. Use a contrasting marker for the first one so you know where the beginning of your round is.
If you’re doing the Structured method, you can place your markers as you cast on or, as I did, on your first (wrong-side) row. I could have placed my raglan markers exactly as described by that top drawing in the diagram up there — 1 | 8 | 28 | 8 | 1. But I decided to err on the side of a too-large neck (which can be offset by deeper ribbing) and I also wanted to put two plain stitches in the center of each raglan, with an increase on either side. So as noted, I threw in 4 more stitches and adjusted the distribution a little. What I ended up with is: 1 | 2 | 6 | 2 | 26 | 2 | 6 | 2 | 1. You might need to read that a couple of times and compare it to both images above.
You can do whatever you want here. You could simply place 1 marker at each of the 4 raglans and increase on either side (any increase stitch you like). Or you could put any reasonable number of stitches in between the increases to create a narrow or wide “seam.” You could seed-stitch those seam stitches or even cable them, if that makes your heart sing. But my favorite basic raglan is 2 stitches in the seam and a kfb on either side of them, so that’s what I’m doing here.
We’ll get into the specifics of how and when to increase in the next installment. But if you have questions so far, ask away!
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