Basted knitting: Or, how (and why) to seam a seamless sweater

Basted knitting: Or, how (and why) to seam a seamless sweater

So as I mentioned yesterday, I seamed the seamless yoke of my Amanda cardigan, and I want to talk about both how and why I did it — about the the idea of including what I’m going to refer to as a “basting stitch” in seamless sweaters to combine the best aspects of knitting seamlessly with the best aspects of seamed garments.

SEAMED VS. SEAMLESS

This is the central conflict of knitting, as far as I can tell. Knitters love seamless sweater patterns, for a multitude of arguably legitimate reasons: ease, speed, increased control over the outcome. But what’s best for the knitting process might not be best for the sweater. In most cases, a garment will wear better — hold its shape longer, and look better doing it — if it has seams to lend it structural support. A sweater without seams is sort of like a tent without poles: you can still climb in there and it will protect you from the elements, but it’s a pretty different experience. I have a beloved, much worn, navy top-down sweater in my closet that, even though it was knitted with neck shaping and the neck band was picked up and knitted from the cast-on edge (that picked-up edge being the only undergirding in that sweater), the yoke has mushed around and settled enough over time that I can now barely tell the difference between front and back. In fact, when I wore it on a flight to Seattle in November, I became convinced I had it on backwards.

As we were working our way through the Amanda knitalong, a lot of discussion arose about the relative merits of seamed vs seamless knitting and, combined with turning that navy sweater around that day before realizing it was on right the first time, I got to thinking about this conflict pretty nonstop.

I love a top-down sweater. I’ve had this debate with numerous people, and I maintain that top-down knitting is the gateway drug to sweater knitting — certainly it was for me. Top-down or bottom-up, I’m not opposed to the act of seaming; I genuinely enjoy it, and it doesn’t even take that long. When I was a brand-new knitter, though, the idea of knitting four or five large pieces (a big time investment) and seaming them together (further investment) and only then knowing how I had done — whether it fit and whether I liked it — was unimaginable. It was just never going to happen. Through top-down, I learned how shaping works, how row gauge especially factors into it … in short, how to exert control over my own sweater. Once the notion of knitting a sweater was no longer daunting, and with that gained understanding of how they basically work, I felt more comfortable tackling bottom-up and pieced sweaters, and more confident that I could get the right fit. (Although even now, I have no idea how an armscye is calculated or how to tamper with it, so set-in sleeves are still not malleable for me. Yet. And since I’m apparently incapable of simply following a pattern, malleability is important to me.) I see real value in seamless knitting, in other words, even as I see the value of seams. So what’s a knitter to do?

THE IDEA OF A BASTED SWEATER

As I was nearing the yoke of my Amanda cardigan — having chosen to knit the pattern in pieces as written, prepared to seam the sides and sleeves — I became increasingly preoccupied with the seamless yoke on the horizon. Why would I put all that effort (and seaming!) into a glorious handknit sweater and have it lack that critical underpinning of seamed shoulder construction? And I kept thinking about that trusty blue sweater and pondering the notion of reinforcing it. First I thought about adding something simple and austere like a row of single crochet along the inside of the raglan to shore it up. But it got me wondering why you couldn’t knit a seamless garment in such a way that you built in stitches that were meant to be seamed out later, the way you design steek stitches into a garment you’re going to cut open. Or like in sewing where you baste pieces together temporarily knowing you’re going to go back and add the finished seam later. And, falling more and more in love with the idea, I pondered what the right combination of stitches would be for that built-in seam allowance. But then once I started knitting the Amanda yoke, I realized the answer was right in front of me.

Amanda’s raglan “seam” is a single stitch of reverse stockinette — 1 purl stitch, in other words. It seems to me too weak a stitch to hang a whole sweater on, but it’s the ideal basting stitch. The number one benefit of seamless knitting, in my opinion, is being able to gauge and adjust fit as you go. So if you’re going to work seamlessly and then remove stitches at the end, you want to remove as few as possible, since that’s going to be an adjustment to the fit. Four stitches — one per raglan — is the smallest possible number for a yoke. One stitch per side seam is a total of only two stitches removed for the whole body. A single stitch per sleeve. All you have to do to seam this basting stitch closed is pick up the running thread on either side of that stitch and work it just like standard mattress stitch. And in doing so, you’ve just given yourself the perfect seam in which to bury the ends once you’re done. As far as I can tell, it’s flawless.

Basted knitting: Or, how (and why) to seam a seamless sweater

HOW TO SEAM A SEAMLESS SWEATER

Here’s the blow-by-blow:

Step 1) Take a piece of yarn about one-and-a-half times the length of your seam and thread it through a tapestry needle. Start at the first stitch at the bottom of your basted seam. (I’m using my Amanda raglan seam to illustrate, so that’s the first stitch up from the underarm seam.) Pick up the running thread to the right of the basting stitch — see upper left photo above — and pull your yarn through, leaving a tail to weave in later.

Step 2) Pick up the running thread to the left of the same stitch — see upper right photo above — and pull your yarn through, but don’t pull it tight yet. Leave it just wide enough to reach across the basting stitch.

Repeat steps 1 and 2 — lower two photos above — picking up the right and then left thread on either side of each stitch, until you’ve worked about an inch of stitches. Gently pull on both ends of the working yarn to pull the seam closed. The adjacent stitches should nestle up against each other naturally — don’t pull them too tight or they’ll bunch. This is all exactly like standard mattress stitch.

Keep working your way up the seam, pulling the stitches together every inch or so, until you reach the top of the seam. When you’re done, run both ends through to the wrong side of the work and weave them into the seam you just created. (I did it just like I do on the wrong side of ribbing.)

Basted knitting: Or, how (and why) to seam a seamless sweater

This took me all of eight or ten minutes per raglan, and increased the appearance and the lifespan of my sweater exponentially.

As I said, I’m certain I’m not the first person to ever add a seam to a seamless garment — likely far from it. But for me personally, this is an epiphany. I recognize the benefits of knitting in pieces — namely the portability. But since I do 95% of my knitting on my couch (and because I like to change things to suit myself, and because I dislike starting back at the bottom again for each piece) seamless knitting has undeniable appeal. But I believe wholeheartedly in seams. Now that I realize all I need to do when knitting seamlessly is insert a single column of purl stitches wherever a seam should be, and seam it up at the end, I feel like my whole knitting world may have changed.

Can it really be that easy to have it both ways? I’ll be testing the theory ASAP.

.

PREVIOUSLY in #fringeandfriendsknitalong: FO No. 4: Karen Templer

104 thoughts on “Basted knitting: Or, how (and why) to seam a seamless sweater

  1. Can you talk about the adjustments in sizing you made to accommodate this bit of seaming? It sounds like you’re potentially decreasing by 4 stitches (1 per raglan). That sounds it could be almost an inch, right? How did you calculate the amount to size up?

    Liked by 1 person

    • In this case, I didn’t make any adjustments because I hadn’t planned to do it. So I did lose four stitches in my yoke, and it worked out fine — the sweater hugs my shoulders much better than it did before. But if you were going into a project planning to add basting stitches, that’s literally what you would do. If you’re casting on a seamless body, you’d cast on one extra stitch at each side seam. For the yoke, you’d include four extra stitches. And also one per sleeve if you’re knitting them in the round. So you put them in knowing you’re going to take them out — your final stitch count remains the same.

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      • Cool, thanks. I am a relative newbie–coming up on my one-year anniversary of knitting. And, I come from a background as a seamstress, so sometimes the relative “mushiness” of knitting math (as compared to sewing) freaks me out.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great idea and great article. Thank you. Could you expand a bit on this idea?
    “Now that I realize all I need to do when knitting seamlessly is insert a single column of purl stitches wherever a seam should be.” It sounds like with the Amanda pattern this stitch was built into the pattern. How would you add it if it is not written in? In case the question doesn’t demonstrate this, I’ve never knit a top down raglan before (though I can see the appeal).

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    • It’s not specific to top-down, and it really is as simple as that sentence says. Just literally cast on an extra stitch wherever you want to put a seam. Say you’re doing a bottom-up cardigan with a one-piece body, you’d add two stitches to the cast-on count, one for each side seam. Or you could cast on the prescribed amount (to be worked as written) and on the first row do a Make-1 at each side seam to get the basting stitch. A pattern will almost always have you place a marker at each side anyway, so you just need an extra stitch next to that marker for your basting stitch.

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  3. This is such a great idea! I love the structure of a seamed sweater but I do love knitting top-down so I will have to try this… and thanks for including a tutorial.

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  4. I love the concept of this. Seaming shoulders can be messy business, and we all know seams add structure. Know you shared that you can’t possibly be the first to do this, but you are the first blog post I have read talking about it. thanks!

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  5. This is awesome! I never like to seam the pieces together as it takes up way too much of my time and it’s frustrating. I’m very particular when it comes to making sure the pieces are lined up and stitched properly. So I’m going to try your approach for my very first cardigan. Thank you so much Karen for sharing this post. It is greatly appreciated.

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  6. Ah, this is such a great idea! I just reached the join and have been working on the yoke but feeling dismayed at how flimsy the raglan seams are. I LOVE learning from other knitters while working on the same project, especially one as complex as this – thank you for all of your work!

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  7. Thanks for this post. I started Carrie Bostick Hoge’s Uniform Cardigan over the weekend. I haven’t gotten past the garter stitch border yet, but I’ll definitely think about this when assembling the yoke.

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  8. Really nice explanation and tutorial, Karen. And I’m with you on the set-in sleeves. Urgh. Sally Melville’s “Knitting Pattern Essentials” has a different way to do set-in sleeves that requires very little shaping. I haven’t tried it, but it looks like it would work beautifully.

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    • Repeating myself here, but want to make sure you see this comment:

      I really like seaming set-in sleeves, and like the look of them — they just tend not to fit my shoulders without some modification so I need to learn how to modify them!

      But for a great tutorial, I like Cirilia Rose’s video on how to seam set-in sleeves.

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  9. Great tutorial, Karen!

    I have added seams to a few of my seamless sweaters, but a bit differently, in that I whip over the top of the seam, creating a sort of “obvious” ridge. I like the way this looks, especially on solid colored sweaters. Granted, it might be too much on a design that is already busy with cables and such. For shoulders, I have reinforced with slip stitch crochet (which is pretty common), but your idea for building in a seam on the raglan is terrific. It reminds me of what I like about the (real) raglan seam on Julie Hoover’s Insouciant … a clean, snug, attractive connection right where a garment gets a lot of stress.

    I think the first time I added a seam down the sides of a seamless sweater, it was to take in some slack on a too-roomy body. But then I ended up really liking the look and structure. It is especially nice on yarns like Tsumugi, which I use a lot.

    Hope I didn’t go on too long, but detailing and finishing are my very favorite things about garment making. I love that you give them so much attention. Thanks so much for a great new raglan seam treatment, it is excellent!

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      • I like my “added seam” method a lot, but in thinking further, yours might better suit garments with stripes or a busy texture. I’ve got a striped sweater going right now in which I’ve added a faux purl seam, so I might give your technique a try. If so, I will report back.

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  10. This is brilliant, Karen! I’m seeing a whole world of opportunities opening up for me. I like knitting things in pieces and don’t mind sewing them up, but yeah, sometimes it’s just nice to go around and around and around.

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  11. That is so clever! I wish I had read that before starting my bottom-up jumper that I just finished. I can already see it streching away and losing its shape. Will see if I can salvage it with faux seams.

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  12. You are brilliant – sheer genius! As I was reading this, I was asking myself how you learned to make all these modifications…and you answered this question as I read on – by knitting a top down sweater and changing things as needed. I’ve always avoided top down construction because I love seaming and think the seams give more structure and durability. It all comes down to personal preference but I’m going to try a top down in the near future and try the instructions you gave in such detail. I always learn something new from you, Karen – many thanks for being such a great teacher!

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  13. You may have solved a problem that’s been plaguing me for awhile now. I have the same reasons for loving one piece knitting and the same problems with lack of seams. I can’t wait to try this! Really, a genius idea. Thank you for sharing this. Your Amanda is gorgeous, btw.

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  14. So this is really interesting. I’m not a very experienced sweater knitter and have the beginning of Isabel Kraemer’s Hint of Summer on my needles, a seamless top-down pullover. Her pattern calls for one reversed ST stitch at each side seam. I would imagine, though, that the basted seam you recommend would provide more structure than this, no?

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    • That’s just a design element — one that comes up fairly often these days. It doesn’t provide any structure whatsoever. But it means you already have a basting stitch built in if you want to use it that way. You’d be sacrificing the design element in exchange for structure.

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  15. This is a very cool technique and I love how simple it is to achieve. I am knitting a bottom up colorwork pullover right now with a very strange seamless raglan construction where the decreases happen on every row, not every other row, which will leave an untidy looking gap. I will have to see if I can use this somehow to neaten everything up.

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  16. This is so smart. I’m actually knitting a bottom-up seamless raglan right now and I’ve been worrying about all the weight pulling on the shoulders. I had also been thinking I’d add a line of crochet instead, but maybe I’ll add a stitch to each raglan and seam them up after I’m done.

    Thanks for this, Karen!

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  17. Genius! and so timely for me. I’m a newish knitter now working on my first top down raglan sweater and I’ve been pondering this issue. I come to knitting from sewing, so it’s a little weird to make something that seems to be relying on what look like rows of stitches (the raglan “seams”) that are at an angle, which, if this were woven fabric, would be the bias. The weakest part of the fabric. It helps that the stitches aren’t right on the shoulders, but still. I was just going to trust the design, but now I’m definitely using your tutorial!

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  19. I can SO relate to your point about a seamed sweater looking like an insurmountable task, especially from the vantage point of a new knitter. I learned to knit when I was young, but was never encouraged to try different projects. So I knew the very basics, but never pursued it as a hobby, except for the occasional ribbed scarf.

    About 6 months ago, my best friend took me to a yarn store right next to my house, and it felt like a whole new world had opened its doors to me. I registered for workshops and got some fun projects done quickly. I got hooked, and ended up making a sweater for my son, in a size of 18 months. This was my biggest knitting project yet, and it took me all I had to cast on. I finished it and it looked lovely.

    Of course, I’m now thinking of making a sweater for myself, but I feel very overwhelmed at the idea of juggling gage and sizes for a project, well, this size. I have a very small waist and chest, with larger arms and hips, and am still not clear on how to make proper adjustments to knit myself a sweater that will fit properly. So, when I think about having to knit 5 different pieces AND seaming them together before I can see if it fits my chest, hips and arms, I just sigh and look at other projects.

    All that to say that your observation about top-down sweaters has encouraged me to look at some patterns, and maybe cast one on soon. Thanks Karen!

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  20. I’ve generally avoided seamed projects at all costs, although I’ve done a handful and has great success.
    This completely changed my perspective (and hatred) for making seamed sweaters. I will definitely be adding some seams to a favorite sweater I made last summer.

    Thank you for the instructions!

    Like

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  25. Your sweater is gorgeous Karen! You’ve inspired me to have a go at it, with shawl collar, I think with Bartlettyarns Fisherman 2 ply/Schoolhouse Sheepswool.

    Will you come back and let us know in a while whether your genius new technique holds up as well as a seam and does all the things you want a seam to do? I love the idea of having the best of the two seamed/seamless worlds.

    Regarding set-in sleeves, my favourite seamless technique is the pick up around the armhole and work short rows for the sleeve cap method. You would think that all that picking up around the armhole would provide a some structure, like a seamed edge of sorts?? Also, I’ve spent probably way too much time pondering how to get a flattering fit at the shoulders. It seems to me that the arm scythe seam should hit at the shoulder where a good tailored shirt would: drawing a line vertical from the armpit, not drifting out over the edge of the shoulder. It seems like every set-in sleeve sweater pattern provides a more generous cross back allowance than strictly necessary. I’d be curious to know what problems you have getting a fit you like with set-in sleeves.

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    • Oh, my shoulders are just super wide, so anything that fits my torso will be too tight in the shoulders. With set-in sleeves, I have to choose between the two suboptimal options, which is why I’ve always loved raglans!

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  28. Karen, any suggestions for how to do this when the sweater is mostly knit and doesn’t have the purl stitch? My Barn Sweater is a little heavy and could use some shoring up. I’ve never done mattress stitch and I’m at at loss how to pick up for the basting stitch. Thank you!

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    • It doesn’t really matter what the stitch is — technically, you could always find the column of stitches that runs along the center of the “seam” location and mattress stitch up that column. If you haven’t built in an extra stitch for this purpose, you’ll be eliminating those stitches from your total stitch count and changing the finished dimensions correspondingly. So if you pick the stitch at the center of each underarm-to-hem and seam those up, you’ll lose two stitches in the circumference of the body. And if you seam up whatever stitch is at the center of the raglans, you’ll lose four stitches out of your yoke, which could be almost an inch of fabric, total, in the yoke.

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  32. Thanks a lot, Karen. This is so smart! I always have problem with loose stitch at the raglan. I’ll use this technique when I knit a new project for my baby due in October. Your technique adds on the aesthetic value of a knitted garment. Bravo!

    SooFen =)

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  36. Karen, do you block the sweater before you seam? I added this into a Hancock sweater I’m knitting right now and am excited to try it for the first time.

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  38. I must admit the seamed raglan on your sweater looks a little better being seamed. I’ve been doing Top Down sweaters for years and have not had any problem with my raglan seams over a period of many years. I’m still wearing some I made in 1991! How ever, my raglan stitch is not the same as yours.

    I could never go back to knitting a sweater “by pieces” and then sewing it together only to find it doesn’t fit just right or definitely not what I had thought I’d love.

    Martha

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  48. For those of us whose knitting in the round ALWAYS produces slanted stitches that distort the stitch pattern (my seed stitch knit in the round looks like a diagonal stitch pattern) top-down and seamed appears to be the only way to deal with the problem, since hyper-aggressive blocking always fails to fully correct it. Thanks for the tip

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  51. This is so interesting!!! The last time I was in Perú, I noticed the knitters baste the decrease ridges in our Skye hat. I’ve never done this, but they showed me it makes the decreases look so much better. It makes total sense to do it on a top down sweater! This is the first time I’m hearing about it. So smart!

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  52. I might try this with my sweater. I have found that sometimes depending on the yarn and the tightness or looseness of my knitting that my jumpers sag and don’t look so great after a while. I am trying a turtleneck jumper, and if I baste the seams it might help to keep the shape and sweater looking good for longer!

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  65. I’ve tried this several times, on two different sweaters, all from the WRONG side. It looked awful, with a huge bump on the right side. I finally did it from the right side, but differently than you show here. Then I reread your post, and I saw it–you do this on the RIGHT side!!!!! That’s what I was missing when I did this. Maybe you can edit “step 1) to include this detail to make it easier for new readers? Now, to try it again on a future sweater…

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  67. This is PERFECT. I’m adapting a Rowan dress pattern (Kaffe Fassett’s Lidiya) to in-the-round because the thought of knitting an entire fair isle dress flat bring me out in a cold sweat. But the thought of the possible shape issues for a knit dress without seams ALSO gives me pause. I’ve been trying to find any way to make a false seam that didn’t involved dropping a stitch all the way from top to bottom and picking it back up with a crochet hook (the Zimmerman method), but wasn’t having any luck. This is absolutely PERFECT. All I have to do is add 1 extra stitch at each side and that’s that. It’s totally mindless basting since there’s nothing to match side to side, it’s a totally mindless mod to the pattern (just 2 extra stitches), and I’ll still have the benefit of stability and better draping without having to do the entire dress flat (SERIOUSLY; you’d have to be INSANE to knit this thing flat). Thank you thank you!!!

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  68. I tried to post a thank you, but it doesn’t seemed to have worked. So here it is, and if it shows up twice, please delete this one (thanks):

    This is PERFECT. I’m adapting a Rowan dress pattern (Kaffe Fassett’s Lidiya) to in-the-round because the thought of knitting an entire fair isle dress flat bring me out in a cold sweat. But the thought of the possible shape issues for a knit dress without seams ALSO gives me pause. I’ve been trying to find any way to make a false seam that didn’t involved dropping a stitch all the way from top to bottom and picking it back up with a crochet hook (the Zimmerman method), but wasn’t having any luck. This is absolutely PERFECT. All I have to do is add 1 extra stitch at each side and that’s that. It’s totally mindless basting since there’s nothing to match side to side, it’s a totally mindless mod to the pattern (just 2 extra stitches), and I’ll still have the benefit of stability and better draping without having to do the entire dress flat (SERIOUSLY; you’d have to be INSANE to knit this thing flat). Thank you thank you!!!

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  69. I just literally stumbled across this nifty seaming trick. I have done the EZ method, but this method sounds and looks so much better. Thank You!

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