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

How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 1: Casting on 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. (For the concise outline/pattern and intro, see Improv: A basic pattern for a top-down sweater)

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 an ultra basic raglan pullover — stockinette with a ribbed neck and cuffs — but the point here is that knowing the basic top-down 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 perhaps most importantly, you can use any yarn and needles that produce a fabric you love and want to make a whole sweater out of. In fact, the fabric is the starting point — or more specifically, your swatch is your starting point. Knit a large swatch using the exact yarn, needles and stitch pattern you plan to knit with (swatch in the round if you’re making your sweater in the round!), measure your stitch and row gauge, block the swatch, then measure it again. Once you have those numbers, you’re ready to go. The final post-blocking measurements are what you’ll use for your sweater math, but if your swatch changed meaningfully in the blocking, you’ll want to bear that in mind as you’re trying it on.

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 neck treatment. 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.

(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.)

So those are the first two things to think about: What type of neckline do you want? Will the shape/style of the neck and/or the weight of the sweater require that you take the Shaped approach? (For the record, I highly recommend that you always take the Shaped approach, no matter what!) Once you’ve decided, it’s time to cast on.


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 skip ahead to the next 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.

(Again, I don’t actually recommend doing a reversible sweater and am evangelical about taking the Shaped approach, described below.)

How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 1: Casting on and marking 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 about 7 inches and my gauge here is 3.5 stitches and 5 rows to the inch, so I’m going with 25 sts for the back of neck. For each sleeve top, conventional wisdom is that you figure about 30% of the number of back neck stitches. I know I like a slightly higher ratio than that (and I’d always rather err on the side of too many neck sts than too few), so I started off with 11 per sleeve top, plus the 2 front neck stitches, as seen in the diagram above left, which would be 49 sts.

However, I want to put 2 stitches inside each raglan seam, which we’ll get to below, so I shuffled them around a little, borrowing from the back and sleeve counts and throwing in two extras to make up for the fronts, which brought my count to 51, divvied up as shown in the above right diagram. I’m a very visual person, so I like to draw myself a little diagram like that whenever I’m mapping out a neck, which I believe I picked up from Barry Klein. 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 Shaped method, you can place your markers as you cast on or on your first (WS) row. I could have placed my raglan markers exactly as described by the above left diagram — 1 | 11 | 25 | 11 | 1. But again, 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 adjusted the distribution and ended up with: 1 | 2 | 9 | 2 | 23 | 2 | 9 | 2 | 1. You might need to read that a couple of times and compare it to both images above. In the top photo, you can literally see each stitch and marker in my cast-on.

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.

BASTE NOTE: You may notice in subsequent photos that I actually have three stitches between my raglan markers. On the first (WS) row, I increased one stitch in the center of each raglan seam for a basting stitch, which I’ll work in reverse stockinette for the duration of the yoke and will mattress stitch once the sweater is complete. Because I believe in seams. For more on that, see: How and why to seam a seamless sweater.

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!

(Brass stitch markers used throughout are from Fringe Supply Co.)

POSTS IN THIS SERIES: [Favorite it on Ravelry]
Pattern + overview / 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 / Epilogue: The possibilities are endless

NOTE: The photos and methodology described in this post were both updated in August 2016.

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

  1. Thanks for the great tutorial! I just skimmed it today, but I’ve pinned it and will definitely look again when I start my next sweater project.


    • That’s a good question — thanks for asking it. I don’t have a scientific answer for this, and I’m not sure there is one, but there are a couple of good ways to estimate. One is if you have a sweater that’s similar in proportions and fiber and gauge, you can weigh that sweater. (Everone owns a scale, yes?) The other is to look at patterns for sweaters that, again, are of a similar size/shape and weight as the one you intend to knit, and see what the recommended yardage is. Ideally, you’d find maybe three comparable sweaters and check the yardage or weight on those, then average them, or just go with the highest one.

      Then no matter what — even if you’re buying what a pattern says you’ll need — buy at least a ball or two more than you think you need. You can always return it if you don’t use it (and don’t wind it or remove the ball band or whatever). But you can’t always get more if you need it later. So just buy a lot of yarn, and then return what you don’t use.

      I was in a great, fun “pro tips” class with Josh Bennett last night. (Right after having queued up this post. And hilariously, he started off with a dissertation on why sweaters should never be knitted in the round. I refrained from offering my “gateway drug” sermon, but maybe I can debate it with him over a beer someday.) One of the many useful things he talked about in the course of the discussion was why you really should have a ball in your stash even after your sweater is done. You might someday want refashion part of it, or need to mend a hole or something. And for that you need to have the original yarn.

      Of course, this is one of the great assets of top-down. Want to make your sleeves longer, or reshape the body? Unravel from the bottom, put the stitches back on the needles, and knit away.


  2. Thank you for this Karen. Especially the reversible bit! It gave me the confidence to have another go at my cursed ‘picard’…this time finally making the cardi reversible, which I wanted to do from the first, but just didn’t have the courage! After reading this I bit the bullet and gave it another try.

    Another 2 failed attempts this weekend, but I think the 8th try on this odious, good-for-nothing neck might just do it. Tomorrow. Maybe. ; -?


  3. I am so excited by this post! I can’t wait for the the next installment to learn how to do the increases! As someone who loves knitting sweaters but has been too terrified to try and do one without a pattern, this just might be the thing I need!


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  6. Do your notes go along with Jane Richmond’s Ladies Classic Raglan Pullover pattern? Or does it apply to other patterns? I will purchase the Ladies Classic Raglan Pullover if it will make this process go smoothly for me.
    Thank you


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  8. Thank you for this! Ravelry user emclean’s summery top-down, in the round Hayward in Rowan Denim got me to buy the pattern only to find out the instructions are for flat knitting. (My bad for not reading the pattern page attentively.) I like all methods and would very likely knit this as directed in wool, but in a cotton yarn that shrinks a seamless method has obvious advantages. Your guidelines, while making me have to do some thinking I was hoping to avoid by following a pattern, are very helpful. Love your site!


    • Hi, Mary. If you take a look at the introduction to this series, you’ll see I’ve cited my sources and inspiration (which I’ve also mentioned many other times on the blog). I haven’t read the article you’re referring to but, at a glance, appreciate your pointing it out. I’ve been thinking of trying to put together a fill-in-the-blanks worksheet and love knowing someone else already has already gone to that trouble. So I’m happy for the link.


  9. Thank you for this tutorial! You describe everything very clearly and this is exactly what I was looking for: a way to better understand sweater knitting, so I can go crazy and design my own “nearly perfect sweater”! I’ve only just started, but this might just be the first sweater I ever finished (all the others ended up in a dark corner, because I didn’t really like the pattern).


  10. Hi!
    I´m trying to follow this intructions but I have a question. You said:
    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.
    But the 30% of 25 stitches is 7,5 st. Why do you choose 6 st and not 8 st?
    Thank you in advance!


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  14. I’ve been trying and frogging and biting my nails. You are addressing the exact point that’s confusing to me.

    My question is how do you go about the neck shaping in the back before you join into knitting in the round? Do you just go back and forth over back and sleeve stitches? Are the number of rows listed in Incredible Custom Fit Raglan pattern or is there a way of computing that? How does this change from stockingette stitch to ribbing?

    I’m determined to figure this out. I have rapidly growing GC in need of warm sweaters and a stash badly in need to culling. Thanks so much.


    • Hi, Suzi. I’m wondering if it might help you to read through the whole tutorial and look at the step by step pictures before you start.

      The neck is knitted back and forth, with gradual increases all along the way, before it’s joined in the round — so that is the neck shaping right there. The ribbing for the neckband is added later, from picked-up stitches.

      (I don’t have any involvement in the Custom Fit program and don’t know what their neck instructions are written.)

      If you follow the tutorial, step by step, it should all become clear.


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  16. Incredible Custom Fit Raglan sweater pattern has a list of pattern sizes, dimensions for sizes, appx yardage required and way of factoring in your gauge with needle and chosen yarn. The part that it is confusing is how to cast on and knit. I think your tutorial has helped immensely. Thank you. I do recommend the pattern (free) listed above. Make copies, get pencil and calculator and give it a go.


  17. I’m not good at this kind of thing. I’d like to make a reversible sweater for my three-year old son, who has that preschool skinny neck and big head thing happening. How do I determine how many stitches to cast on? I’m terrible with gauge swatches and I don’t know how to do one with ribbed knitting. I’d appreciate any help! I don’t want to end up with a huge neck hole. Thanks!!


    • Hi, Kim. If you want to improvise it (as opposed to following a published pattern), there’s no way around the gauge swatch. You need to measure how big you want the neckhole to be (using the method described above) and multiply that by your gauge. So you have to know your gauge.

      I wouldn’t worry about measuring ribbing gauge. It’s going to be smaller than your stockinette gauge, but if you’re doing a reversible sweater (meaning, no neck shaping, no picking up stitches in a more stable cast-on edge for the ribbing) it’s going to stretch out with wear. There’s no telling how much it will stretch — depends on the wearer and the weight of the sweater and any number of other factors — which is why I don’t really recommend the “reversible” approach. So if you go that way, you might want to aim smaller than you think, knowing ribbing will stretch to go over his head, and will not bounce all the way back over time.


    • The upside of doing it the unshaped/reversible way is trial and error is your friend. You can do your neck, knit a few inches of your yoke, pull it over his head and see how it fits. If you need to rip it out and adjust your cast-on count, it’s not a lot of knitting to redo.


  18. Hello, I am planning to make my first sweater in round with the help of your tutorial! So thank you so much for it.
    One question though, What length of circular needles do you usually need for a sweater?


  19. I have reached the body part of a top down sweater I am knitting and have discovered that I should have used two strands of yarn when knitting the neckband, I only used one. Can I pick up stitches at the bottom of the neckband and reknit the neckband upwards using two strands? Your advice would be appreciated.


    • Hi, Heather — it’s hard to answer without knowing what you’ve done or how. If you just cast on stitches, ribbed, and then kept going for the yoke, so it’s one continuous piece of fabric, you could rip out the ribbing, bind off, and then pick up stitches to knit upwards, which is really the way it should have been done from the beginning. I’m not a fan of sweaters that don’t have at least that much structure at the neckline!


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  22. When knitting the raglan we do increases where 4 markers are but if I’m knitting with a pattern that calls for multiples of 4 What do I do? Cause will start with set number of stitches but it will change with every round. Thank you


      • Hello Karen,I would like to knit raglan for my little girl. The number of stitches that I have after placing markers is 20 at the front. The pattern is star stitch multiple of 4 thank you.


        • I’m not familiar with the stitch, but basically you just need to “increase in pattern,” meaning you’ll work each increase as whatever increase you’re using (kfb or m1 or whatever) and then when you work that new stitch on the next round, you work it as whatever your stitch pattern calls for in that spot. You’re gradually making the pattern wider and wider. Hope that helps!


          • hello Karen It’s me again with another question :-). I’m trying to cast on a cardigan for my 2 yrs old girly but I’m struggling with something , math is not my strong side haha. Pattern calls for MULTIPLE OF 6sts + 3 inc` d to multiple of 12 +1. I’m confused. So how many I should cast on. I’m working with needles 4.5’mm. Top ~down.Thank you


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  26. Hello Karen,

    I just found your site. It should have happened years ago but here I am finally.

    I thoroughly enjoyed your article How To Seam a Seamless Sweater, and am on to How To Knit a Top Down Sweater.

    In the article you wrote:

    1) 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.


    2) 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.


    3) (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.)

    Guess what? You knit short rows, of a sort, when you knit the upper crescent mentioned in 1). Short rows really are not difficult. Craftsy has a FREE tutorial by Carol Feller on short rows. You may be really surprised to learn you have already done them.

    Okay, I’m off to continue reading your articles. They are well done and very useful. Thank you so much for writing them.

    Have a wonderful day!
    MJ, the SKEINdinavian


    • Hi, MJ. I’ve done lots of various methods of short rows and love them — I just don’t include a short-rows version of neck shaping in this tutorial. When you use short rows for neck shaping on a top-down, you cast on stitches and immediately join for working in the round, using short rows to raise the back neck, rather than knitting the crescent before joining, as I’ve described. The crescent approach doesn’t use any short rows — each row is worked all the way from one end to the other, with simple increases along the way.


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  29. Pretty new at knitting but desperately want to make a sweater so this tutorial has been amazing. One question and probably a silly one – how do I make the neckline square instead of round? I’ve found lots of v neck and cardigan modification tips but the elusive square neck is such a mystery to me.


    • If you cast on all your neck stitches and once and just start knitting, what you have is a square, by default. The fewer arm stitches, the wider, more rectangular and more boatneck-like it will be. More arm stitches, more square. It only winds up not looking square in the end because of gravity and picking up stitches for the neckband and all.


      • Oh goodness thank you so much! So much simpler than I thought – one last question though – does this mean square necklines can’t be done in that dropped neckline style? I suppose it won’t matter as long as it fits over my head but just curious about your thoughts on this one.


          • Okay so even though it’s a square neck I’m hoping I can make the back of the neck sit higher than the front – which is accomplished via the crescent moon shaping before joining in the round for crew and v necks.
            Is that even possible with a square neck?


          • The best thing for you to do, really, is just cast on. It’s so little knitting to do the first part of the neck/yoke and pull it over your head and see what you’ve got. No big deal at all to rip that back and adjust however you like to get whatever it is you’re after!


          • Eeek lol wish me luck! My order of yarn just came in this morning so I’m just itching to get home to test it out. Thank you so so so much for all your help.


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  34. I’ve been looking for a basic crew neck pattern for a man and I’ve discovered two things – we men really do like things plain (and it can be hard to find), and my brain hurts trying to understand step-by-step pattern instructions. You’ve given me the confidence with this to at least start shopping around for a yarn and give it a go!


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  66. Thank you thank you thank you for this! I’m a beginner, just about to tackle my first sweater, an easy raglan v-neck, and I was having difficulty visualizing how it would work out. This has explained everything wonderfully and the pattern makes so much more sense now. <3


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