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.
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 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.)
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 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!
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 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!
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.