How to improvise a top-down sweater, Prologue: The possibilities are endless

top-down sweater almost finished

Sorry for the lull in the action on this. It turns out I didn’t have enough yarn to finish this sweater over the weekend, but it’s not critical to being able to finish up this series! (I promise I’ll post the finished sweater at some point.) (UPDATE: Here it is, along with summarized specs.)

When we left off last time, we’d talked about how to calculate shaping for your body and sleeves, so all that was left to do was knit them to the length you want them, work your ribbing (or whatever) and bind off. While there’s no seaming to be done, just weaving in your ends, there is one other tiny bit of finishing, and that’s the inevitable holes at the underarms. Just like with a thumb gusset on a glove, there will be a little gap at each side where you cast on and then picked up stitches. Some people pick up an extra stitch or two at those corners and then decrease them out on the next round. My preference is to simply take a tail of yarn (ideally the tail you left when reattaching yarn for the sleeve) and weave the hole closed. I use a tapestry needle and, as with the duplicate-stitch method of weaving in ends, essentially trace the natural path of the stitches around that area, matching the tension and closing up the gaps.

Other than that, voilà: A sweater has emerged from your needles, fully formed and ready to wear.


The thing I want to leave you with is that, once you’ve grasped the basic process, you can throw nearly everything I’ve said out the window and do whatever you want. If you have a large chest, you might want to have more stitches in the front of your sweater than the back, rather than making them match. If you want a slower slope to your raglans, perhaps for an extra-deep armhole, you might work your yoke increases every third or fourth round. You might also increase for your sleeves and body at different rates, for instance if you’re creating a comparatively wide body and fitted sleeves, or vice versa. When you get to the hem, you might choose to do a split hem (maybe bi-level), or use short rows to create a curved shirttail hem or to make the back of the sweater hang lower than the front. I mentioned before that whether you knit the body first or the sleeves is completely up to you. If you don’t like rotating a whole sweater in your lap while knitting sleeves in the round, you might choose to knit them back and forth (still from the shoulder down) and then seam along the underside of the arm. If you’re truly improvising, or averse to grade-school math, you can even just feel your way through the shaping of the sleeves and body. Pull the sweater over your head every couple of inches; decrease whenever the sweater needs to get smaller; increase whenever it needs to get larger. The point is: You’re in total control of your sweater, and you can and should do whatever works for you.

As I said in the intro, this is really just scraping the surface of what’s possible with top-down. I wanted to show you the basic method so you can see how simple (and empowering!) it is, and to that end, I’ve kept the sample sweater as simple as possible. But with this method, the world is pretty much your oyster. The type of neckline, the gauge of the sweater, whether it has raglan sleeves or contiguous set-in sleeves, whether it’s a pullover or cardigan, striped or two-tone or colorwork, what kind of stitch pattern, what kind of edging … the possibilities are endless. Make just about any sweater you like, no pattern required.


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

How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 5: The art of sweater shaping

knitting body and sleeves on top-down sweater

OK, so! All that’s left once the body and sleeves are separated is to knit three tubes — a body and two sleeves. When you’re ready to work the sleeves, which you can do at any time, you simply put the live stitches onto DPNs (or whatever you prefer), reattach your yarn, and pick up and knit one stitch into each of the underarm cast-on stitches, again marking the center point of the underarm with a marker. You can make the body and sleeves as long or short as you like — from a cap-sleeved crop top to a long-sleeved dress. Totally up to you. Just knit to the desired length, work your ribbing (or whatever), and bind off.


But that leaves the matter of shaping, for which there’s a simple formula. And it applies to all sweaters, so knowing how to do it is also beneficial in modifying a written pattern to suit your own shape.

Let’s consider a sleeve first, since it’s generally only shaped one direction — from larger (at the upper arm) to smaller (at the wrist). You already have your upper-arm measurement from your yoke calculations. (Mine is 12 inches, which at my gauge of 3.5 sts/inch is 42 sts.) Now measure your wrist and adjust for whatever ease you want there. I’d like my sleeve to decrease from 12 inches (42 sts) to 10 inches (35 sts) at the spot where I’ll start my cuff. Now measure the distance between where you want to place your first decrease and your last*, and multiply that number times your row gauge. My sleeve is already pretty slender and my arms are pretty straight down past my elbow, so I’m not going to work the first decrease until I get to my forearm. The distance from my first increase to my last will be only 5 inches; multiply that by my row gauge of 5 rows/inch and and I know I’ve got 25 rounds over which to work my decreases.

Decreases and increases are generally worked in mirrored pairs, one on either side of your marker — e.g., an SSK and a K2tog for decreases; an M1R and M1L for increases. So each decrease round on a sleeve removes 2 stitches. My first sleeve decrease round will take me from 42 stitches to 40. To get from there to 36 (rounding from 35), I’ll only decrease 2 more times (2 sts x 2 rounds = 4 sts decreased). And I have 25 rounds to do that, so I’ll decrease at the 12th and 25th rounds. (If you’re decreasing all the way down your arm — and/or working at a smaller gauge than I am — your equation will have you decreasing more often than that.)

A written pattern with “waist shaping” will assume you have an hourglass figure: The sweater will get smaller (decrease) as it approaches the waist, then larger again (increase) as it heads toward the hips. You may or may not be shaped that way, but you have the power to shape your sweater however you like. The waist shaping formula is exactly the same as above. Whether you’re sloping in or out, you measure the distance between the wider and narrower spots, then multiply that number by your row gauge — that’s how many rows you have to work your increases/decreases. Again, you want to work a mirrored pair of stitches at each marker, so in this case you’re adding or subtracting 4 stitches per round — 2 on each side. Calculate how many stitches you need at the widest point (circumference x stitch gauge), and how many at the narrowest. The difference is how many stitches you need to increase or decrease. Divide the difference by 4, since that’s how many stitches you’ll add/remove per round, and that tells you how many increase/decrease rounds you’ll work. Distribute those evenly between the allotted rounds.

I’m not doing any waist decreasing on this sweater, just knitting straight down from chest to waist, but then I’m increasing a few times so I can maintain my 2-inch ease at the hips. (My hips are a bit wider than my chest.) I’m starting out with 37 inches (130 sts) and want to increase that to about 41 inches (144 sts). We’re dealing with multiples of 4 for body shaping, so let’s say I’ll add 16 stitches (that’s 4 increase rounds), for a total of 146 stitches (130 + 16). And I’ll distribute those 4 increase rounds over a span of about 6 inches (30 rounds). My first increase round will get me from 130 stitches to 134. Three more increase rounds over 30 rounds means one every 10th round. Then I’ll work even until I’m ready to rib and bind off.

That’s all there is to it!

I’ll have some final thoughts for you, once I’ve finished this sweater. Just need to round up some more yarn for it …


*Whatever you do, be sure to keep detailed notes about your first sleeve, since you need to knit an exact replica for the other arm. You’ll want to know how long your sleeve was (from the underarm) when you worked your first decrease, and how often and how far apart you decreased after that, plus total length before you switched to ribbing.


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

How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 4: Separating the sleeves and body

separating sleeves from body on a top-down sweater

To quickly recap, you know you’re done knitting your yoke when you’ve met a couple of criteria: 1) You’ve worked enough increase rounds to attain the targeted number of stitches in each of your sleeve and body sections, giving you your desired dimensions (when factoring in the anticipated cast-on underarm stitches). 2) The raglans are long enough to reach the target spot, somewhere south of your armpit, where you’ll be casting on the underarm stitches. Note that I’ve added pics of my finished yoke to the previous post (and to the Ravelry page). Which means it’s time to talk about separating the body from the sleeves.

We’re going to do this with the assumption that the body will be knitted first, followed by the sleeves, although you’re free to proceed in any order you like. You’ve presumably finished a full yoke round, so you’re at your front-center marker. Drop that marker and work to your first raglan marker. You’ll also be dropping all of your raglan markers as you come to them. (Remember that what happens to any raglan seam stitches is up to you. I have two stitches running down the center of my raglans, and I’m splitting them right down the middle: One will become a body stitch and one a sleeve stitch.) Transfer the sleeve stitches onto waste yarn. On your right needle, cast on the number of underarm stitches you determined you’ll need, placing a marker in the center of them — e.g., I’m casting on eight stitches, so placing a marker after the fourth one. Then continue knitting across the back of the sweater. When you come to the right sleeve, same thing: Transfer the sleeve stitches onto waste yarn, cast on your underarm stitches, placing a marker at the center point, then continue with the front stitches. You’ve now got your body joined in the round, with a marker at the center of each side. The left-side marker is your new beginning of round.

For anyone knitting a cardigan, separate the sleeves and body as described above, ignoring the bits about joining in the round — just keep working the body back and forth like you have been.

The image above and detail shot below are of my sweater after the separation round — the sleeve stitches are on waste yarn, and you can see the cast-on stitches at the right underarm, with a white marker in the center of them. Below right is a photo of the sweater on me again after knitting just a few rounds of the body. If you want to knit an inch or two of your body, that’s fine, but don’t go too far until we talk about how to shape the body and sleeves. That’s all that’s left!

top-down try on with armholes

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

How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 3: Finishing the neck and yoke

how to size and shape a top-down sweater yoke

Time to talk about yoke sizing, but first: You can see my sweater now has its neck ribbing. You can do this anytime, and most patterns tell you to do it at the end, but I like now. Now is good. As previously noted, if I am not completely in love with my neck, I want to know that while it’s not a big deal to rip it out and do it over. So after knitting about an inch past the join, I picked up stitches all the way around and ribbed k1/p1 for 1.5 inches. Do whatever rib multiple and depth you like, and bind off very loosely or you won’t be able to get it over your head! I might wind up redoing mine after I see how it blocks out. Should have used an even smaller needle than I did, but I’m content with the neck shaping so it’s safe to carry on.

(I’m not going to do a whole picking-up-stitches tutorial here, but I recommend this video. Pick up one stitch through the center of every cast-on stitch — both the original ones and the additionals at the front — and for figuring out where to pick up along the sloping sides of the front neck, this diagram might help. I like the one in Pam Allen’s Knitting for Dummies. Make sure your total stitch count is the correct multiple for your ribbing.)

how to measure sweater chest and arm ease


So back to the question of how long we carry on with our raglan increasing. Before we get too far into our yoke, we have to decide, generally, what shape our sweater is going to be. Will it be fitted and shapely? Wide and slouchy? Somewhere in between? The other thing I won’t go into detail about is taking measurements and calculating ease, but if you’re a seasoned sweater knitter or seamstress, you’ll know what you want your bust and upper arm dimensions to be. For everyone else, I recommend measuring a sweater (or shirt or sweatshirt) that fits like you want this sweater to fit. Lay it flat, measure across an upper arm, and double that to get the circumference. Same for the chest — measure where the arms meet the body, then double it. I have 10-inch upper arms and a 35-inch bust. For this sweater, I want 2 inches of ease, which means 12-inch sleeves and a 37-inch bust. NOTE: I’ve also paused here to retake gauge measurements from my actual sweater in progress — no need to assume parity with our swatch anymore, when we’ve got several inches of the real thing to measure from. At my actual working gauge of 3.5 stitches per inch, that means I’ll need 42 stitches for each arm (12 inches x 3.5 stitches per inch), and about 130 stitches (rounding from 129.5) for the body — front and back combined.

However, I’m not going to increase all the way to those numbers, because some of those stitches are going to be cast on at the underarm, just like we cast on stitches at the neck to form a circle. Elizabeth Zimmermann’s rule of thumb is that each underarm is 8% of your total body stitches, which in my equation would be about 10 stitches. I find 2 or 2.5 inches is a good underarm width for me. (Here’s an idea: Measure your armpit!) I’m going to cast on 8 stitches for each underarm.

Now we have to think a tiny bit. At the point where I stopped to do my calculations (indicated by the yellow lifeline in the top photo), I had 28 stitches in each sleeve section, and 48 each in the front and back. (Remember that I have 2 stitches trapped in the center of each raglan. When I go to divide up my stitches into sleeves and body, I’m going to opt to split those right down the middle. So I need to count 1 stitch from each seam as a sleeve stitch, and 1 stitch from each seam as a body stitch.) If I want 42 stitches in each arm, and 8 of them will be cast on, that means I’ll keep increasing until I have 34 stitches per arm. When we increase — 8 stitches per increase round, across 4 sections of the sweater — we add 2 stitches per section. I have 28 sleeve sts and want 34 — that’s 6 more sts — so I only need to increase the sleeves 3 more times! (Good thing I stopped to do my math when I did.) Likewise, if I take my target of 130 body sts, subtract the 16 that will be cast on (2 underarms at 8 sts each), and divide by two, that’s 57 sts each for the front and back. I began with an even number of front/back sts, and we increase in pairs, so I need to round that 57 to 58. I currently have 48, so I need 10 more, that means increasing the front and back sections 5 times more.

So I now know I’m going to increase all 4 sections 3 more times, then I’ll stop increasing in the sleeves and only increase the front and back 2 more times after that. At that point, I’ll have my desired 34 stitches in each sleeve, and 58 stitches each in the front and back.


But before we resume knitting, we need to think about armhole depth, which is also the finished depth of our yoke. You might very well want your sweater to have “zero ease” (meaning the sweater’s chest and yours are the exact same size) but you always want some ease in the armhole depth. Measure diagonally from neck to underarm — running your measuring tape from wherever the top of your raglan seam will hit you down to your underarm — and take that lower measurement from about an inch or two below your actual underarm. That’s how long you want your raglan seam to be. I’m aiming for around 9.5 or 10 inches. (I’ll try it on when I’m in the neighborhood and decide for sure.) For the sake of discussion, let’s say 9.5 inches, and I’m working at 5 rows per inch — that’s a total of 48 rounds of knitting. To increase my sleeves from the original 8 to 34, increasing at a rate of 2 stitches every other round, I’ll be done increasing in only 26 rounds — or about half my yoke depth. If you’re working at a finer gauge and/or making a smaller sweater, it’ll take you more of your yoke rounds to reach your target stitch counts. But regardless, if you’ll reach your counts at any point before your yoke is long enough to come down to your underarms, you’ll simply stop increasing and work even for the remainder of the yoke. But keep those raglan markers in place.

As for me, because I’m reaching my increase goals when I’m only about halfway to my armpit, I’ve spaced the last few out — working them, instead of every other round, after 3, then 4, then 5 rounds. So they sort of fade out rather than stopping abruptly. You can see my completed yoke below (and on Ravelry).

If anyone’s knitting along in real time, stop when your yoke reaches your desired armhole depth. Next week, we’ll talk about separating the sleeves and body. It’s all downhill from here!

finished yoke for top-down sweater

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

How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 2: Raglans and neck shaping

How to knit the neck shaping for a top-down sweater

As of our last installment, you’ve got your stitches cast on and raglan markers placed, so it’s time to get busy! If you’re taking the Reversible approach, you’ve joined for working in the round and knit however many rows of ribbing your heart desires. (Remember we’re using “ribbing” for shorthand when discussing the edge treatment; you may be doing garter or rolled stockinette or whatever.) And you’ve placed your raglan markers during the final round of your ribbing. Because you’re not doing any neck shaping, and you’re already knitting in the round, you’ll only be increasing at the raglans.

If you are taking the Shaped approach, we’ll get to the neck shaping after this little bit about …


Standard operating procedure is: You increase TWO STITCHES at each raglan seam, EVERY OTHER ROW. As I mentioned in Part 1, you have all the liberty in the world where the size and style of your “seams” is concerned. For this demo, I’ve marked off two stitches for the center of each raglan, and I’m doing simple kfb increases on either side of those. You might do m1’s, left and right, or yarnovers, or any increase you like. (Barbara Walker’s book contains a great photo comparison of 10 or 12 different options.) But bottom line is that each increase round involves an increase on each side of four seams, for a total of 8 stitches increased.

If you’re working the Reversible method, go ahead and start working those raglan increase rounds, alternating with straight rounds. For the neck shapers among us, we need to talk about …


In order to shape our front neck, we’ll be working back and forth for the first couple of inches, increasing at the raglans as described above (increasing on every right side row), and also at each end, the front neck stitches. As we add to these stitches, we create a crescent shape, with those front/end stitches reaching gradually toward each other, as seen in the tippy-top pair of photos up there.

There are varying opinions on frequency for this, and it’s part personal taste and part what neck shape you’re after. For a standard crewneck, increase at the neck every other row, same as your raglan increases. For a more sloping neck, you might choose to increase every fourth row. For a V-neck, the frequency will depend on how deep you want the V to be. A faster rate of increase will mean they’ll meet in the middle in fewer rows, for a shallower V. A slower rate of increase will mean they take more rows to meet, for a deeper V. This is relevant, too, if you’re knitting a cardigan — the rate of the neck increase will determine the shape of the neck and front of the cardigan in exactly the same way, from a crewneck to a jewel neck to a shallow V or more of a deep “boyfriend” V. For this crewneck, I’m increasing the neck stitches every other row, same as the raglans.

For a V-neck, you keep increasing until the front stitches meet when you lay it around your neck, plain and simple. But for a crewneck, there comes a point where you cast on additional stitches so you can join for working in the round. Again, when you do that is up to you. As your crescent grows, lay it around your neck — being mindful of where the raglans are sitting on your shoulders — and see what you think.* Mine, in the photo up top, is two inches of knitting (measured down the center of the back) and I’m happy with the dip at that point, ready to connect the ends. If you want a bigger differential between the back and the front, keep knitting and trying it on until you’re happy with it.


The only functional difference between a cardigan and a pullover is that the cardigan is never joined for working in the round — you just stop increasing at the ends and continue knitting back and forth for the whole sweater body. For a V-neck pullover, as noted, just join your stitches once your endpoints meet. For a crewneck, however, once you’ve got your desired neck shape, you need to cast on stitches to bridge the gap. How do you know how many? You count. Traditionally, we make pullovers with the same number of front and back stitches. So count your back stitches, then count your two bits of front stitches, add those together, and cast on the difference. Me, I’ve got 36 back stitches and 10 stitches on each side of the front, for a total of 20 front stitches. So I need 16 more. That’s my cast-on number.

Using backwards loop or whatever you like, cast on those additional stitches at the end of a right-side row — which will have been an increase row; remember that. Using a 24-inch circular, join for working in the round. But there’s the question of where your new BOR (beginning of round) is. Some patterns tell you, when you get to your first stitch marker, to switch it out for a contrasting marker, and this is your new BOR. Others will tell you to put a marker in the middle of your new cast-on stitches and that‘s your BOR. Either will work, but the latter is the more meticulous choice, as it will keep your increases at that front-left raglan more properly paired within the round.

Once you’ve joined and knit a few rounds, put it on again and make sure you’re happy with the size and shape of your neck. You’ve done very little knitting so far — just a few small inches. It’s no big deal at this point to rip it out, make whatever adjustments and knit it again.


OK, so that was the hardest part! From this point forward, there’s no difference between the Reversible and Shaped methods. Assuming we’re doing a pullover, we’re all joined in the round, working only from the right side of the fabric, and continuing to work our raglan increases on every other round. What we’re creating now is our yoke. Carry on, but don’t knit more than about 4 inches of your yoke before the next installment, in which we’ll talk about how to know when you’re done increasing.


* A note about trying on your sweater: You should do it a lot — that’s the whole point of knitting in this fashion. To do so, you’ll need to be able to spread out your stitches to really see what you’ve got. You can always slip them all onto waste yarn, then back onto the needles, but that’s tedious. The best bet is to either knit or slip half the stitches onto a second needle. Both needles will need a cable that’s half the circumference of the sweater. Pull all four needle ends free (as seen in the last photo above), so the stitches rest loosely on the cables, and then you can easily pull the sweater on and off over your head. My habit is to pretty much do this on the last round each night. I put it on before I put it away, see how I’m doing, and note what I need to do next. Be sure to keep good notes for yourself throughout this entire process!


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

How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 1: Casting on and marking raglans

top-down knitting tutorial - casting on stitches and marking raglans

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!

top-down knitting tutorial - how to calculate cast on count


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.


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!


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

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.


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.


*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.


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