Ever since I posted the details of the top-down rollneck sweater I knitted for Bob, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about why on earth I would opt to knit flat sleeves on a top-down sweater, as well as how to do it. For many or most knitters, the whole point of knitting a top-down sweater is that it is seamless, as in nearly free of any finishing work. I actually don’t love wearing seamless sweaters — they feel flimsy and insubstantial to me. For me, the benefits of top-down are increased control over fit, ability to conjure up a sweater without a pattern, and freedom to experiment along the way — all compelling traits, but I also believe in seams, which is what led me to my basted knitting technique. With a basting stitch, it’s possible to add a seam to a circular sleeve and thereby give it the support it needs, so why would I go one step further and knit them flat? A few reasons:
1) At some point I fell out of love with small-circumference seamless knitting (i.e. on DPNs or Magic Loop or however you want to do it). I feel like knitting a sleeve flat — whether attached or detached, top-down or bottom-up — is less fiddly and thus faster than knitting it in the round, even when you factor in the little bit of time it takes to seam it.
2) One of the biggest knocks against top-down sweaters is the tedium of knitting sleeves while they’re attached to a sweater. As you’re knitting around and around on a top-down sleeve, you’re spinning the entire sweater around and around in your lap. I tend to knit the sleeves before the body gets too voluminous, regardless, but still, it’s annoying! By knitting them flat, the sweater can just lie there politely while I work back and forth across the sleeve. To me, it’s a much more pleasant experience than knitting them in the round.
3) As noted, the seam will lend structure to the sleeves over time as they’re pushed and pulled around by the wearer.
Which leaves the question of—
If you’re going to seam your sleeves, you need to increase your stitch count by 2 stitches — those will be the two selvage stitches you seam together at the end. To do that, put your live sleeve stitches back onto a needle or a couple of DPNs, then work as follows:
– Starting at the center of the underarm stitches, pick up and knit along the underarm stitches; pick up and knit one extra stitch at the end of the underarm stitches* (in the gap between the cast-on underarm stitches and the live sleeve stitches); knit across the live sleeve stitches; pick up and knit one extra stitch again in the gap before the rest of the underarm stitches; then pick up and knit across the remaining underarm stitches, bringing you back to the center of the underarm, where your seam will eventually be.
– Do not join in the round! Do not decrease out the 2 extra picked-up stitches — you’ve increased your stitch count by 2, which is exactly what you need.
– Using a short hat needle or DPNs for the first couple of inches (as long as there’s a tight bend in the rows), work back across the wrong side of the sleeve for the next row,** then work back and forth in rows from here on out.
– Once you’ve worked a couple of inches and are no longer fighting the curve of the sleeve, you can switch to a longer circular needle, if you like, for more comfortably working the rows.
– If you’re trying on the sweater/sleeve to check the circumference at various points, clip or pin the sleeve closed, eliminating the two selvage stitches that will later disappear into the seam. (I like Clover’s Wonder Clips for this.)
– When the knitting is complete (and ideally after the sweater has been blocked), use mattress stitch to seam the sleeves closed.
Voila: top-down, perfectly fitted, structurally sound sleeves without the hassle of knitting them in the round.
• How to improvise a top-down sweater
• Basted knitting: How (and why) to seam a seamless sweater
• In defense of top-down sweaters
• Pullovers for first-timers: Or, an introduction to sweater construction
. . .
*If you’re knitting a sweater with a stitch pattern, you’ll need to reconcile your stitches with the stitch pattern on this row — keep the selvage stitch at each end in stockinette for seaming later.
**If your sleeve is stockinette, that means purl on the WS row. If knitting from a chart, start reading your chart from left to right for WS rows, right to left for RS rows.