How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 3: Finishing the neck and yoke

How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 3: Finishing the neck and yoke

Time to talk about yoke sizing, but first: You can see my sweater now has its neck ribbing. You can do this anytime, and most patterns tell you to do it at the end, but I like now. Now is good. As previously noted, if I am not completely in love with my neck, I want to know that while it’s not a big deal to rip it out and do it over. So after knitting a little ways past the join, I picked up stitches all the way around and worked my neck band — in this case, 3 inches of ribbing which I folded inward and whipstitched to the cast-on edge. Do whatever rib multiple (or garter stitch or stockinette roll or whatever) and height you like, and bind off very loosely or you won’t be able to get it over your head!

(I’m not going to do a whole picking-up-stitches tutorial here, but I recommend this video. Pick up one stitch through the center of every cast-on stitch — both the original ones and the additionals at the front neck — and 2 in 3 or 3 in 4 stitches along the slopes. For figuring out where to pick up along the sloping sides of the front neck, this diagram might help. I like the one in Pam Allen’s “Knitting for Dummies.” And make sure your total picked-up stitch count is the correct multiple for your ribbing.)


So back to the question of how long we carry on with our raglan increasing. Before we get too far into our yoke (or ideally before we even started), we have to decide, generally, what shape our sweater is going to be. Will it be fitted and shapely? Wide and slouchy? Somewhere in between? If you’re a seasoned sweater knitter or seamstress, you’ll know what you want your bust and upper arm dimensions to be. For everyone else, I recommend measuring a sweater (or shirt or sweatshirt) that fits like you want this sweater to fit. Lay it flat, measure across an upper arm, and double that to get the circumference. Same for the chest — measure where the arms meet the body, then double it. (See also: How to knit the right size sweater.) I have 10-inch upper arms and a 34.5-inch bust. For this sweater, I want about 4 inches of ease in the upper sleeves and about 7.5 inches of ease in the chest — or, 14-inch sleeves and a 42-inch chest circumference. At my gauge of 3.5 stitches per inch, that means I’ll need 49 stitches for each sleeve (14 inches x 3.5 stitches per inch), and about 149 stitches for the body (42 in. x 3.5 sts/in., rounded to an odd number because I happen to have started out with an odd number) — that’s front and back combined.

However, I’m not going to increase all the way to those numbers, because some of those stitches are going to be cast on at the underarm, just like we cast on stitches at the neck to form a circle. Elizabeth Zimmermann’s rule of thumb is that each underarm is about 8% of your total body stitches, which in my equation would be 11 or 12 stitches. I find 3 or 3.5 inches is a good underarm width for me, so I’m going to cast on 12 stitches for each underarm.

Now we have to think a tiny bit. Remember that I have 2 stitches trapped in each raglan seam. (The basting stitch I’ve added at the center of each raglan does not factor into the stitch counts — we’ll get to that later.) When I go to divide up my stitches into sleeves and body, I’m going to opt to split those two raglan sts right down the middle. So I need to count 1 stitch from each seam as a sleeve stitch, and 1 stitch from each seam as a body stitch. If I want 49 stitches in each sleeve, and 12 of them will be cast on, that means I’ll keep increasing until I have 37 stitches per sleeve (including those from the raglans). When we increase — 8 stitches per increase round, across the 4 sections of the sweater — we add 2 stitches per section. I started with 11 sleeve stitches, need to add 26 to get to 37, and increase two per increase round, so that’s means I’ll work a total of 13 increase rounds in the sleeves. Dividing the body stitch target of 149 sts in two (74.5) for the front and back, and subtracting the underarm count of 12, means I need to increase the front and back sections until I have 63 sts each (rounded from 62.5, and remembering again to count one st from each raglan). I started with 25 in the back, need to add 38 to get to 63, and increase two per increase round, so that will mean a total of 19 increase rounds for the front and back.

So I’ll stop increasing in the sleeves after 13 increase rounds, when my sleeve counts reach 37 sts, continue increasing in the front and back for another 6 increase rounds until those sections clock in at 63 sts each, and then work even for all rounds until I reach my desired yoke depth.

How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 3: Finishing the neck and yoke


But before we resume knitting, we need to think about armhole depth, which is also the finished depth of our yoke. You might very well want your sweater to have “zero ease” (meaning the sweater’s chest and yours are the exact same size) but you always want some ease in the armhole depth. Measure diagonally from neck to underarm — running your measuring tape from wherever the top of your raglan seam will hit you down to your underarm — and take that lower measurement from about an inch or two below your actual underarm. That’s how long you want your raglan seam to be. I’m aiming for 9 inches, and I’m working at 5 rows per inch — that’s a total of 45 rounds of knitting. To increase my sleeves from the original 11 to 37, increasing at a rate of 2 stitches every other round, I’ll be done increasing in only 26 rounds — or a little more than half my yoke depth. And my 19 front/back increase rounds will be done over the course of 38 rounds, 7 rounds shy of my finished yoke depth. If you’re working at a finer gauge and/or making a smaller sweater, it’ll take you more of your yoke rounds to reach your target stitch counts. But regardless, if you’ll reach your counts at any point before your yoke is long enough to come down to your underarms, you’ll simply stop increasing and work even for the remainder of the yoke. But keep those raglan markers in place.

If, like me and my sleeves in this scenario, you reach your increase targets in a comparatively short portion of the yoke, you might opt to space them out a bit farther for the last few increases (every third, fourth, fifth round instead of every-other), so they sort of fade out rather than stopping abruptly. I didn’t do that on this sweater, and you can see it looks just dandy as is — one of those things that’s totally up to you.

So work until your yoke reaches your desired armhole depth, and next we’ll talk about separating the sleeves and body. It’s all downhill from here!

POSTS IN THIS SERIES: [Favorite it on Ravelry]
Pattern + overview / Part 1: Casting on and marking raglans / Part 2: Raglans and neck shaping / Part 3: Finishing the neck and yoke / Part 4: Separating the sleeves and body / Part 5: The art of sweater shaping / Epilogue: The possibilities are endless

NOTE: The photos and methodology described in this post were both updated in August 2016.

64 thoughts on “How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 3: Finishing the neck and yoke

  1. You’ve inspired me to knit my own top-down pullover(or maybe cardigan) now that I have your detailed and wonderful instructions to guide me. :) Thank you for taking the time to do this!

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  3. Pingback: How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 2: Raglans and neck shaping | Fringe Association

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  6. I have a couple of books on this topic and am currently knitting a top down color-work yoke sweater. I guess the concept I can’t figure out from books or from your FAB.ulous blog is what to do once you have increased for the sleeves and body, finished the yoke and you are short of the place you want to be to divide for sleeves. can you just keep knitting around until the yoke is deep enough? or will that make it look too boxy?

    • Hi, Laura! Yep, exactly. That’s this part: “… if you’ll reach your counts at any point before your yoke is long enough to come down to your underarms, you’ll simply stop increasing and work even for the remainder of the yoke. But keep those raglan markers in place.” I was confused by the term “work even” at that very point of the process the first time I saw it in a top-down pattern, so should have clarified. I couldn’t imagine that the raglans lines would ever stop before reaching the armpit, but it’s totally fine.

  7. Thank you. Oi! Work even, I meant no increases. So just keep working in the round without increases (keeping raglan markers in place) until long enuff to reach my underarms? I guess I am long!

      • I am working with Lettlopi on #7 (US) at 19st/26rows. the pattern I am using, employs short rows to shape the back which nicely rounds out the inter-scapular space. I guess (as you say) if you can work even with raglan to get the appropriate length, I can’t see why it wouldn’t work with a seamless yoke top down pattern. (?) THANK you for your wonderful blog.

  8. Question – I’ve followed your tutorial with a reversible neck before but am trying one with neck shaping and I cannot get the neckline to lie flat when worn. It lies flat on the one where I started with the ribbing, and I have a commercially produced (LL Bean) sweater I’ve been trying to get to tell me it’s secrets (It’s collar was clearly knit as a separate piece, but it has a strip of bias tape around the seam so I can’t see how it’s joined). It’s really important to the recipient that it not look even remotely turtle-neck like. Any ideas?

    • Hard to say without seeing it, but I’m guessing you need to pick up fewer stitches — spread them out a little more on the curved parts. Sounds like you’ve got more fabric than you need.

  9. Would working a decrease row after picking up the stitches do the trick as well? Or just pick up every other stitch, or something?

    • You could decrease, but it would be cleaner (and wouldn’t mess up your rib pattern) to just pick up the right number to begin with. On the sloping parts, you might need to pick up 2 out of 3 stitches, or 3 out of 4, depending on your gauge and fiber and so on. It’s like a button band — sometimes it takes some experimentation. The nice thing is it’s not a lot of knitting, not a big deal to rip and redo, and does no harm to the selvage or anything.

  10. Oh my goodness, this post is exactly what I was looking for on Ravelry just the other day! I’m thinking of knitting a cardigan or partial zip front.

  11. Thank you for the wonderful tutorial! I’m making a sweater for my toddler, and I have a question about the raglan seams. I decided to have two seam stitches, like you, but I liked your idea of seed stitching them, so that’s what I’m doing. When it comes to dealing with these stitches, do you have a particular strategy for how to make sure it doesn’t look like the raglan seams end abruptly? I had been thinking of having these meet under the arm, and then continue down the side of the sweater (2 stitches wide) as a decorative detail, if that makes sense, but I can’t quite figure out how to reconcile that with the underarm cast on…

    • My first question is actually have you swatched that raglan? I’m not sure two stitches of seed stitch will really read as such, especially with increase stitches on either side. You might need to have a wider patch of it, or do reverse stockinette instead. I’d definitely swatch the raglan treatment first. Just cast on 20 sts or something (I don’t know what gauge you’re working at) and work one raglan seam down the middle of it over a few inches — enough to see how it’s looking.

      Then whatever you decide on for a raglan treatment, yeah, it’s not going to literally meet at the underarm unless you do that deliberately and don’t cast on any underarm stitches. You’d need to make a wide body and deep raglan — almost like a batwing shape — for that to be feasible, and even then I wouldn’t really advise it. Although you could try it and rip back — it’s not a lot of knitting for a toddler sweater.

      I would just phase out the raglan as you head for the underarm — work it every 4th and/or 6th row as you approach the underarm — and then resume it again with the centermost underarm sts running down the body. It won’t be obvious when it’s on the child, because that all disappears into the underarm anyway.

      I’d just play around with it. Like I said, it’s not a lot of knitting, so try it, be prepared to rip back a few rows if it’s not quite right, adjust. Have fun!

      • Thank you for the prompt response!

        Yes, actually I’ve swatched it, and it looks really nice so far (it doesn’t quite look like seed stitch, but it gives the textured effect I wanted). I’m using Rowan colorspun, and my gauge is (after blocking) is 6.5 st / in and 7.5 rows / in on US7 needles. Since the yarn is somewhat scratchy I elected to do a bit of a wider neck hole and a v-neck, and I’ve just joined the front. I had to frog twice to get the seed stitch effect to look as I wanted, but ultimately figured out that I need to do the kfb increase 1 st. *before* marker, and then on the st immediately following the second marker after the raglan seams. This provides a “border” stitch, if you will, that makes the textured effect come out. (I used the same principle for the increases on the neck edge, doing 1 st in on the left neck edge, but 1 st before the last st on the right edge; this makes the edge smoother for picking up stitches for the neck band, but also makes the kfb bumps symmetric.

        (Here’s the link for my project on Ravelry, where I’ve uploaded pictures of the seams. I didn’t know how to link to your site properly, so if you would like me to do that, please tell me how!

        One idea I’ve been toying with is to kinda sorta combine a raglan and a set in construction… Not literally, but instead of casting on all 12 underarm stitches at once, to do increases on both rs and ws in the last 6 rows before the separation on the body. Does that even make sense? Thanks!

        • Oh, actually… maybe there’s an easier solution! I haven’t quite figured it out, but something like this: I’ll just treat both the raglan seams as part of the body. When it comes to casting on, the cast on portion will play the part of the “border stitch” that’s closest to the sleeve, and I’ll seed stich those 12 stitches for two rows, then only seed stitch the centre two stitches to continue down the panel. It won’t pop the same way, but maybe there’s a special stitch I can try. The idea is to have the raglan seams form a border around the sleeve on the body.

  12. Oh how I wish I found this fantastic tutorial before I started my top down raglan sweater! Thank you!!! For your generous website.
    Ok I’ve knitted the body and the shoulders and arms eye are too small.
    Current solution-LOL- is to increase arms eye so sleeves aren’t too tight and create an open gusset. (I’ll be using for hiking so this can be positive for air circulation). Question: is it possible to rip out from top down, then recaste on knitting new yoke and joining to existing body?

    • Hi, Carolyn. Are you working from a pattern? And how far have you gone past the armhole separation? The best thing is most likely just to rip back to that point and keep knitting the yoke until you have the number of stitches (and armhole depth) that you need for it to fit you correctly.

      • Thank you for your time to reply. I had completely knit the front and back. A more disciplined knitter might have frogged All that work. After picking up the shoulder/ sleeve stitches I knit flat and increased adding a couple of inches, then joined and went on to knit the sleeve in the round. I then tried on. Low and behold it fits. The increase still matches up with the sides so I can seam up with a blanket stitch. (Since the body was coming out too small I added 3 inches to the sides and 4 to the length. All is working out. What a learning curve. Pattern: LemonGrass @jojilocatelli So glad I found your great site. Carolyn

  13. sorry about any typos, I am Lena and Swedish and joining the others in praise for you tutorials.
    Also I am starting my first top-down cardigan. I am using Rowan Purelife Revive. 36%recycled silk 36%recycled cotton and 28%viscose. Feels good inside out (: Now to my question/s: –
    1) I am broad sholdered with a fair amount of muscle on my upper arms. How do I tackle the raglan on the way to my armpit?I want a snug fit all round but not to the extent the sholdder is outright too tight. I will zip the cardie.
    2) I want an hour-glass shape. How/Where do I add the additional width for my modest boobs?

    Late spring greetings from Sweden

    • Hi, Lena. All you need to do is follow the instructions above for calculating your desired stitch counts at the bust and upper arm, then increase each section of your knitting until you reach those numbers. You don’t have to increase the same number of times or with the same frequency in the sleeves as you do in the body sections. So, for instance, you might reach your desired body counts before you reach your desired sleeve counts, so you would work even in the front and back sections while continuing to increase in the sleeves. Or whatever the case may be.

      So that gives you your desired bust measurement. To shape the waist for your hourglass shaping, see the discussion of shaping in Part 5 of the tutorial. I’d avise reading all the way through before starting your sweater, just for good measure.

  14. Hi Karen, on to the next first for me thanks to you (after a first lace project and first cable project with the hatalong). You write: “So I now know I’m going to increase all 4 sections 3 more times, then I’ll stop increasing in the sleeves and only increase the front and back 2 more times after that. ” Do I understand correctly that you increase only on *one* side of the the raglan seams that mark the front and back sections, i.e. you are doing an asymmetrical increase in a way? Since increasing on both sides of that raglan seam would mean you are adding to the sleeve as well? Thank you so much for all of this!!

    • Yep, exactly! You want to increase the sleeves until you have the right number of sleeve stitches, and increase the front/back until you have the right number of body stitches. You won’t necessarily reach those two counts at exactly the same time.

      • OK, got it. Thank you! It is so good to not just follow a pattern blindly but to be able to understand the steps involved and to be able to modify the measurements based on that understanding.

  15. Pingback: Improv: Basic pattern for a top-down seamless sweater | Fringe Association

  16. You’ve said it a million times by now: so raglan lines will pretty much disappear once I’m done increasing for sleeves and body, but haven’t reached my yoke depth, right? My option to get a raglan to the armpit would be to space them out more, but I’d have yo pretty much start over, or make a
    compound raglan… right?
    You’ve mentioned how it looks perfectly fine, to stop the increase, and I trust you but can’t picture it… I guess I’ll just have to try and see for myself!!!
    Maybe I’ll start with striping before I split the arms and body, after the raglans are done?

    • Yeah, it looks totally fine. If you’re doing a decorative increase (like a yarnover) and don’t want it to end, you could try doing a decrease for every increase to keep it going without actually increasing. But if your increases aren’t decorative, it’s totally fine for them to stop happening as you approach the underarm.

      You could definitely also use stripes strategically.

      • Thanks! I can’t wait to SEE it!!
        Thanks for the great blog… ever considered writing a book? Your photography would look great on paper!!

  17. I have no words to describe this amazing guide. I am so grateful to you and you will attract so much positivity in your life with sharing such a masterpiece for free.
    Just a little funny question. At the very beginning of everything, do you start increasing since the very first row, let’s say, right after you’ve fasted on your stitches already?

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  20. Hello! I came accross your blog via Pinterest and I wanted to congratulate you on your work. Thanks to all your detailed explanations and advice, I’m starting to knit my first sweater! And I’m not even afraid of it! And I am a beginner knitter! Congratulations on your fantastic blog and looking forward to reading more!

  21. Thank you. This is EXACTLY what I’ve been struggling with. (I’ve achieved sleeve increases but still need more sts on the front.)

    I’m currently knitting Lanvad and you’ve given me the courage (and the knowledge) to make it the sweater I want it to be.

  22. Hi. Is it “normal” to have enough stitches for the chest circumference but to have to continue increasing just for the sleeve circumference? I feel like there’s something backwards about that. But try as I might I can’t find the error in my calculations.

    • It’s certainly possible — it depends entirely on how many stitches you started out with for each section and what your targets are. Just don’t forget that you’ll be adding in underarm stitches when you get to the divide, so you increase up to your target minus the underarm stitches, whatever that count is. (That goes for both the body and the sleeves.)

  23. I found this little bit confusing: “I started with 11 sleeve stitches, need to add 26 to get to 37, and increase two per increase round, so that’s means I’ll work a total of 13 increase rounds in the sleeves.”

    I think you mean that you will end up increasing 11 stitches after working 13 rounds, but it kind of sounds like you start out knitting the sleeve from 11 stitches. Or am I nuts?

    • Nope, that’s correct. You might be picturing a bottom-up sweater, that starts at the cuff? This is top-down, so those 11 sleeve stitches are the very top of the raglan sleeve and it increases downwards from there.

  24. This is amazing! While I love knitting, I loathe finishing! This definitely keeps the finishing to a minimum! However, my dream is to create a chunky, long cardigan with a generous, drapey hood. Do you think that I could start with the hood so that it’s relatively seamless and then decrease for the shoulders?

  25. I found your blog today, thank you very much for teaching us, I loved it and found it very useful margarida from portugal

  26. My sweater puffed/bunched along the raglan sleeve seams on the front and back of my sweater. I garter stitched the sleeve caps and used KFBs as my increase. The bunching of the fabric on the chest and back makes my sweater look very homemade – any idea what I did wrong?

      • Yes, on my knitting Instagram account – it’s @foolknittin. A couple posts ago (the blue sweaters with gray stripes), I took a close up shot of the “puff” I’m describing. A friend of mine says all her Raglan sweaters do the same thing, and neither of us know why! Your input would be much appreciated! : D

  27. That is odd — it’s like you’ve just got a little too much fabric at the upper parts of the raglans somehow. You were increasing at the raglans *every other row,* right? Not more frequently than that?

    It also looks like — the way it bunches between the raglan and the collar — you’ve likely picked up a few too many stitches along the slope of the neck. Which is a pretty common thing, and easy to fix. It basically means your neckband is as long as the edge it’s attached to, whereas it actually needs to be a bit shorter than that edge in order to draw it in a tiny bit and for the whole of it to lie flat in the end. Yours is ameliorated by being doubled over and sewn down — if it weren’t for that, rather than lying flat, I’m guessing it would be standing up a bit. Fixing that might fix the whole issue. So my recommendation would be to pull out the neckband and do it again, being careful to pick up fewer stitches along the slopes. (I also tend to pick up maybe 3/4 across the back neck instead of 1 for 1, just because I like a nice tidy neckhole, resistant to stretching out.) You don’t want to pick up so few that you’re actually cinching the fabric, but just enough to draw it in ever so slightly.

    If you’re a sewer, it’s the equivalent of how a bias facing is always shorter than the edge you sew it to — the trim is being stretched slightly as it’s attached so that the outer curve of it winds up slightly longer than the inner curve, which is how it can lie flat. Does that make sense?

  28. Yes, that does make sense as far as the neckline! Thanks so much for explaining that!

    And yes, I only increased every other row on the raglans – like you said, I thought maybe I had too much fabric, as if I’d increased too fast. But if I spaced out the increases any more I don’t think my sweater would have fit right. I’m not sure what I can do differently to avoid the problem next time. Could the garter stitch shoulders have messed things things up?

    Thank you so much for taking time to troubleshoot with me. I’m a self taught knitter and don’t have many knitting resources where I live :)

    • I do wonder whether the difference in gauge between the garter and stockinette has anything to do with it — garter does tend to be wider. It’s hard to say. But let me know if the neck fix solves the whole of it! I’m hopeful that it will. And also just wearing a thing can often cause it to find its level.

      • I’ll take that as my working theory for now, and just keep experimenting and making new sweaters until I figure out how to smooth out the kinks in my pattern! Thank you again for this awesome post series and for your help!!

  29. Hi Karen,

    I’m trying out my first Improv sweater in a brioche stitch! For the raglan increases I’m aiming for 46 stitches per sleeves and 85 for each the front and the back. I’m now at the point where I should separate the sleeves (at 46 stitches) but the front and back are only at 60 stitches each and the yoke is deep enough that I shouldn’t continue…. I’m wondering if you can recommend how to continue? I’m thinking I will separate the sleeves and continue increasing the body until desired width?

    Loving this series of posts, thank you!!

    • Hi, Stephanie. The number of stitches you have at the separation round (plus the underarm ones you’ll cast on in that round) determine how big your sweater is at that juncture. If you were to keep increasing beyond that point, you’d be making an A-line sweater, but it won’t affect the bust measurement. If you need the body of your sweater to be 85+85+underarm stitches, and you only have 60+60, it will be too small. You always need to hit your targets before you divide for the sleeves and body, so it sounds like you need to get there faster! It’s hard to offer guidance without seeing all of your numbers, but it sounds like you either need to start out with more stitches or increase faster, or some combination of the two, depending.

  30. Hello, thank you for the great tutorial. I have started my first cardigan yesterday and have added the suggested basting stitches. What happens to the basting stitches when I have finished the increase before I have reached the desired yolk depth? Do I keep knitting them to the end of the yolk? (Which would be what I would go for) or do I stop knitting them as soon as I finish all increases? Thank you very much! All the best, Marlen

  31. Hi Karen, These are AMAZING instructions. Do you have any suggestions on using short rows for shoulder shaping with this top down approach? Does the shaped neckline take care of “shoulder fit” instead? Thanks!!

    • I talk about that a bit in the tutorial — I do not offer any guidance on using short rows. The method described here is to use increases to create the neck shaping at the start of the piece.

  32. I’m starting my second sweater from this tutorial—which is fantastic—and I had a question about the neck ribbing. I know that you picked up fewer stitches so it cinches in slightly, but did you also use a small needle size for your ribbing? Thanks!

    • I do pretty much always knit ribbing on smaller needles. It can look flabby when done in the same size needle as the main fabric.

  33. Hi, this tutorial is helping so much with my first pullover! But there’s something wrong with the sizing- when I went to separate the body and sleeves I had more than 7 inches of extra chest circumference! I’m wondering if and how the underarm stitches affect the front & back panels. Should I be subtracting the underarms from both the sleeve and the body target stitch counts?

    • Yes, the underarm stitches are part of the total body stitch count, so you increase just to the point where adding in the underarm stitches will give you your intended total.

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