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 SWEATERS
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 SEAMLESS SWEATERS
Ladies Classic Raglan by Jane Richmond — ultra-basic top-down raglan
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.
. . .
Sweatshirt Sweater by Purl Bee — with or without the kangaroo pocket (free pattern)
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.
. . .
CLASSIC SEAMED SWEATERS
Breton by Jared Flood (with or without the stripes)
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 …