Let’s talk about underarms

Let's talk about underarms

This is the last official week of the Top-Down Knitalong (aka #fringeandfriendsKAL2016) in terms of blog focus and bonus prizes — the last of which will be announced on Friday — but the show goes on! We, the panel, are obviously still knitting, and I’ll have FO posts about our sweaters as they’re completed. But meanwhile, let’s talk about underarms!

There are two points I want to make:

1) You need fabric at your underarms in order for your arms to be able to move. There are people who don’t like raglan-sleeve sweaters for a variety of reasons, one of which is they’ll tell you that raglans will always leave you with too much fabric (and “bunching”) around the underarms. I say it depends. On your sweater, the amount of ease/fabric you’ve built in, your body type, where you positioned your raglans, whether they’re straight 45° or compound raglans, what kind of drape the fabric has … a million variables. But regardless of sleeve type or those variables or anyone’s point of view, you need some fabric there if you want to be able to move your arms. There have been a few sweaters in the knitalong where something went a little awry with the underarms (see below) but I feel like there are also a few sweaters where people have been concerned about what they see as “bunching” that is actually just a perfectly normal and healthy amount of fabric at the underarms. The hard part for me has been trying to gauge the difference based on tiny photos on my phone, rather than being able to see the garments in person and in motion. It’s awesome that this process has led to people being so tuned in to every detail of their sweater in a way they perhaps haven’t been when following a pattern, but I think it can also lead to overanalyzing and even over-fitting your garment! So if you’re someone who’s concerned about your sweater, put on some other clothes from your closet (of every type and fit, and then also of similar fit to your sweater) and take a look at how the fabric behaves around the underarms. I’ve included a few random images above of clothes of mine you’ve seen before — knit, knitted and woven; raglan, set-in and dolman — to demonstrate the point. There is fabric around the underarms; it’s good.

2) It’s been extremely educational for me to watch so many people knitting from my tutorial, as a way to see potential pitfalls that I hadn’t thought to address or emphasize. As it happens, there are a couple of sweaters in the knitalong where something did go a little off — and interestingly, it’s all to do with the underarms, which I would not have anticipated. When I tweaked the tutorial in August, I put more emphasis on EZ’s 8% rule of thumb for calculating underarm stitches, and less emphasis on my own rule of thumb of measuring your armpit. In fact, I completely removed the original line where I said “here’s an idea — measure your armpit!” I have cast on anywhere from 2-3 inches of stitches in the past, thinking of it only as a measurement and not a percentage, and never had a problem. It turns out the 8% rule can backfire on you if you’re making a big, slouchy sweater or otherwise working with a large number of stitches. So a few people wound up casting on problematically large numbers of underarm stitches, and I regret that enormously. And there have also been a few people who just chose really shallow yoke depths. I say in the tutorial to measure to a spot at least an inch or two below your actual armpit and use that for your yoke depth calculation, but I need to put more emphasis on the importance of underarm ease. If you’re making a sweater with a good amount of positive ease and you cast on your underarm too soon, you’re going to have a large amount of fabric … jammed right up under your armpit. And that will cause unsightly bunching of said fabric. It needs some room to hang! (Conversely, if the armhole were deep and the sleeve more snug, that would also cause the sweater to fit a little oddly.) So I’ll be tweaking that part of the tutorial to talk more about the need for the underarm ease to be in proportion to the upper-sleeve ease.

I totally get how shallow yokes can happen. You’re knitting along on your yoke, the rows are getting longer and longer, you’ve got that shimmering point ahead of you on the horizon — the moment where you get to separate the body and sleeves and put your arms through armholes for the first time — and the temptation is SO STRONG. It’s one of the funnest moments in knitting. I don’t think I’ve ever made a top-down sweater where I didn’t have to consciously force myself to keep going that last inch or so, rather than separating too soon and winding up with shallow armholes. You just gotta hang in there till the moment is right!

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PREVIOUSLY in Top-Down Knitalong: WIP of the Week No.6

26 thoughts on “Let’s talk about underarms

  1. Great post! Thank you so much for all your help with my bunchy armholes over at @borealindigo.
    The percentage just didn’t seen to work for me but measuring has been good. And the longer yoke. Though I might have made mine too long now? Sometimes I get caught up and blow by the count and think can this still work without frogging all that? Pictures to be posted soon.
    You’ve done an amazing job keeping this KAL running smoothly fearless leader!

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  2. I can see by your pictures that my bump resembles yours. Makes me feel so much better. It sounds like my yoke depth is right and also those underarm stitches but I may have shorted myself on top arm stitches. Time will tell. Thanks for taking the time to post these pictures. On the slow fashion front, the newest Selvedge magazine has several articles that apply. One remark caught my eye. We have turned clothes buying into entertainment. People use to keep coats for years but now our clothes only live with us three months.

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  3. I so agree!! No matter how tedious it might seem, but the best way to avoid all the disaster is to take your knitting off the needles and put it on the scrap of yarn, and if you really want to be 100% sure – block it at this stage! It does take more time, but what a great feeling it is to continue on your sweater with the confidence that it will fit you just right!

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  4. Thanks so much for this post! I’ve been feeling so bad for the folks ripping back for little bunches! Ah, the nature of raglans! I’ve found this tendency to overfit our handmade clothes to be so fascinating. I suffer from it most when sewing jeans. We hold our handmades to such a higher standard than RTW, with good reason, but sometimes we can drive ourselves batty fighting against the fabric!

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  5. I started over (again!!!!) and I’m closing in on the split so I don’t want to have to re-do it if I can help it. when you say “In fact, I completely removed the original line where I said “here’s an idea — measure your armpit!” you mean “measure 1” below your armpit and convert that measurement into stitches?

    additionally, say you casted on too few sts, how dangerous would it be to cast on more sts when you come back to do the sleeve? (i.e. with a new ball of yarn?)

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    • Danielle, it looks as though Karen is busy and I am fearful you will go ahead without her response.

      To answer your question, it would be a problem to add underarm stitches to the sleeve (ONLY). The additional underarm stitches cast on for BOTH the body and sleeve underarms need to be the same. That is how the underarm comes out smoothly.

      Hope that is clear to you and has answered your question.

      Have a great day… KNITTING!

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    • Yes, I mean figure out how wide your armpit is and calculate underarm stitches based on your gauge, keeping it in proportion with the amount of ease you have in mind for your sleeve.

      There isn’t any way to have a different number of underarm sts for the sleeve and body — they’re two sides of the same coin. Whether you pick up sts into the ones you cast on, or cast on new ones and seam them together, either way they have to match up.

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  6. Good food for thought! Knitting’s been going swimmingly on my re-do (I surprised you with that, and I feel like I might be some small part of the inspiration for this entry today? Maybe I flatter myself), and I’m dividing for the sleeves and body later when I have another inch or so of yoke down. I’m trying to get this wearable for the weekend (I can dream!). Thanks for the food for thought! I shall, of course, resist the temptation to cast on for the underarms for a little while. Otherwise, things are going well. :) Instagram snippets to come!

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  7. I think the sweater IS the yoke, everything else is an afterthought. This maybe a bit simplified, but sleeves and bodies they are just tubes, right? Crucial is how you go from a neck line to an armpit (top-down) or visa versa (bottom up), joining the three tubes together.

    And yes, armpit are the crossroads in making that work.

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  8. A few random tips for measuring an armhole depth/yoke depth you can actually live with — these have been helpful for me! (very sorry if any of this is a retread of Karen’s great tutorial… I confess I haven’t read the updated version yet since I’ll be doing a knit-a-later rather than a knit-along)

    1. I find that I am often more likely to get an accurate sense of the distance from the top of a shoulder to the bottom of an armpit by measuring down the back, rather than the front. This can require some shenanigans with mirrors or a helpful friend. But for me, it’s way easier to see where the armpit really is on people’s backs, rather than their fronts.

    2. Try putting a pencil/ruler/long straight knitting needle under your arm, at the depth you have measured for your armhole/yoke (so, 1-2 inches below the armpit). Is that actually a comfortable spot for a ridge of sleeve fabric to lie on your body? It often helps me to *feel* where a measurement falls under my arm, and whether that feels “right” and like other shirts I normally wear.

    3. Measure other *knit fabric* shirts/sweaters you normally wear as a reality check.

    4. Combine (1) and (2) by having a helper person measure armhole/yoke depth down your back while you hold the pencil/ruler/knitting needle at the spot below your armpit that feels right.

    And yeah, premature yoke division impatience totally happens! For me, I try to trust my measurements, and be a little stern with myself about not cheating when I’m measuring what I’ve knitted so far. It’s way too easy to just kinda streeetch it a bit when you’re closing in on that target yoke depth. My mantra for this: plan your knit and knit your plan. ;-)

    I also try not to actually do direct in-progress measuring very much. Once you’ve knit most of the yoke of a sweater, then you’ve got a pretty darn awesome gauge swatch. I measure my yoke for row gauge (measure precisely how many inches a whole — large — number of rounds takes up, then divide by the number of rounds) and do the math to see how many rounds I ought to have knit to get the armhole/yoke depth I decided on. Then I trust *that* number, and count my rounds. It’s a lot harder for me to cheat about a row-count than a length measurement on stretchy fabric!

    (Obligatory caveat to everything, because I’m a pedantic nerd: if you knit a gauge swatch and blocked it and found out that the row gauge changes significantly, you will totally need to factor that in — in that case, how/where the unblocked yoke sits on your body may not be a great guide to how the finished sweater will fit).

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    • Julia, GREAT IDEA! I especially like the pencil/ruler/long straight knitting needle under arm and having someone measure from the back. Blocking? I TOTALLY AGREE and suggest one not knit a garment without doing so… particularly if the garment is fitted.

      Have a great day… KNITTING!

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  11. One of the simplest ways to check if you’re where you want to be on your yoke is to simply try it on. I knit off half the yoke onto another really long needle and slip it over my head. This is the beauty of top down knitting. To keep the sleeve from being too big at the underarm I put the first two or three decreases pretty close together, like every four or five rounds, and then proceed with evenly spaced rounds.

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