One convert’s pullover

improvised top-down pullover knitting

I’ve taken to calling myself a top-down evangelist, so determined am I to teach people. It’s a wonder I don’t stand on the street corner with a big hand-lettered sign and a bullhorn, trying to lure aspiring knitters into my studio.

It’s not that I think top-down is the One True Way to make a sweater, and I certainly wouldn’t want to knit exclusively top-down forever either — there are too many fascinating and nuanced construction techniques to be explored. BUT, I do think it’s a wildly empowering and transformative thing to know how to do. And a real gateway drug for beginners. It’s one thing to be able to knit what you want to knit, without a pattern, and customize the fit as you go. But in addition to all of that, it teaches you the nuts and bolts of construction, the true value of a swatch, and the basics of knitting math (so simple!) and shaping, all of which can change how you relate to the patterns you knit — enabling you to make changes to suit your own taste and shape, and to understand how those changes will play out. Simply put: It makes you a much bolder knitter.

So you can bet that whenever a friend can’t find a pattern that’s close enough to the picture in her hand or her head, I say, “Why not let me show you how top-down works.” Since I mention my pal Leigh so often around here, I thought I would show you the sweater she recently finished. She’d ordered a kit from Wool and the Gang and loved the wool but not the pattern. What she really wanted, it turned out, was a very simple, wide-necked, raglan pullover — the easiest possible top-down project. So with a little guidance from me and Barbara Walker, she improvised it. We took these pictures a few days ago and Leigh was being goofy for the camera, but I think it’s not surprising that the poses she jokingly struck were of triumph and pride. That’s exactly how your first patternless sweater makes you feel.

I’m thinking of doing a couple of posts on top-down theory in the coming weeks — one a broad pictorial overview of how the process works, to help demystify it for anyone who thinks it might be daunting, and then perhaps a more detailed dissection of how to improvise a sweater of your own. I won’t rest until I’ve wiped out episodes like this one, where 80 people ask for a pattern they wouldn’t need if only they knew. I remember looking at that project page a year ago and being utterly awed and perplexed at the idea that a person could just make up a sweater out of thin air and string. Unimaginable! to a noob like me.


14 thoughts on “One convert’s pullover

  1. Loving the sweater, Leigh! AND the top-down evangelizing, Karen! ;-)

    I have to say, top down is the only way I DON’T have trauma with arms…it is just a total non issue, which is the hugest relief. Was starting to get a complex.

    (more of a complex)

  2. That sweater is lovely!
    I began a sweater back in August, but from bottom up. I’m now at the spot where I need to connect my sleeves, but I haven’t the slightest idea how I’m going to do it. I’m hoping the answer comes to me as I finish up the sleeves.

    • I’ve only done that once — will be doing it again soon with Garance, apparently — but I’m interested in finding some smart advice about how to knit those first few rounds after the join without traumatizing the underarm. I know there’s some brilliant trick, and it likely involves some magic loop-ish manipulation of the cable as you’re going around the still-small circumference of the arms at that point. But I wasn’t able to find anything in my hour of need. If anyone out there has advice, please chime in!

      • I find the underarm recovers fairly quickly from the trauma of those first few rounds, so I just try to get them over as quickly as possible!

  3. Inspiring!! I’ve never knitted a top down and don’t really know what’s involved, but reading your posts is increasingly making me think I need to explore this top down malarkey! Guidance notes enthusiastically recieved.

  4. Are you using the Elizabeth Zimmerman’s Percentage system?
    I need to try this so I can get over my fear of knitting math!

  5. I tend to use Barbara Walker’s formula, which says when marking off your raglans you should make each sleeve top 1/3 the stitches of each body section. But for myself, I’ve been playing around with something a bit closer to half, trying to figure out what sits best on my broad shoulders.

  6. Pingback: How to improvise a top-down sweater: Introduction | Fringe Association

  7. Pingback: How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 1: Casting on and marking raglans | Fringe Association

  8. Pingback: Our Tools, Ourselves: Leigh Wells | Fringe Association

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