How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 5: The art of sweater shaping

How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 5: The art of sweater shaping

OK, so! All that’s left once the body and sleeves are separated is to knit the body and sleeves! When you’re ready to work the sleeves, which you can do at any time, you simply put the live stitches onto DPNs (or your preferred method for small circumference in the round), reattach your yarn, and pick up and knit one stitch into each of the underarm cast-on stitches, again marking the center point of the underarm with a marker. If you prefer to knit the sleeves flat, as I’m doing here, instead of in the round, see: How and why to knit top-down sleeves flat.

You can make the body and sleeves as long or short as you like — from a cap-sleeved crop top to a long-sleeved dress. Totally up to you. Just knit to the desired length, work your ribbing (or whatever), and bind off.


But that leaves the matter of shaping, for which there’s a simple formula. And it applies to all sweaters, so knowing how to do it is also beneficial in modifying a written pattern to suit your own shape.

Let’s consider a sleeve first, since it’s generally only shaped one direction — from larger (at the upper arm) to smaller (at the wrist). You already have your upper-arm measurement from your yoke calculations. Mine is 14 inches, which at my gauge of 3.5 sts/inch is 49 sts. Now measure your wrist and adjust for whatever ease you want there. I’d like my sleeve to decrease from 14 inches (49 sts) to 10 inches (35 sts) at the spot where I’ll start my cuff. Next measure the distance between where you want to place your first decrease and your last*, and multiply that number times your row gauge. My sleeve is going to be 18″ long from the underarm, the last 3″ of which will be my cuff, so it’s 15″ of stockinette. I’ll plan to do my first decrease at 3″ from the underarm and the last at around 13″. That means I’m distributing my decreases over 10″ of knitting, which is 50 rows at my gauge.

Decreases and increases are generally worked in mirrored pairs, one on either side of your marker — e.g., a left-leaning SSK and a right-leaning K2tog for decreases; an M1L and M1R for increases. (I like them to lean toward each other.) So each decrease round on a sleeve removes 2 stitches. My first sleeve decrease round will take me from 49 stitches to 47. To get from there to 35, I’ll decrease 6 more times (2 sts x 6 rounds = 12 sts decreased). And I have 50 rounds to do that, so I’ll decrease every 8th row, 6 times, and actually complete them in 48 rows.

A written pattern with “waist shaping” will assume you have an hourglass figure: The sweater will get smaller (decrease) as it approaches the waist, then larger again (increase) as it heads toward the hips. You may or may not be shaped that way, but you have the power to shape your sweater however you like. The waist shaping formula is exactly the same as above. Whether you’re sloping in or out, you measure the distance between the wider and narrower spots, then multiply that number by your row gauge — that’s how many rows you have to work your increases/decreases. Again, you want to work a mirrored pair of stitches at each marker, so in this case you’re adding or subtracting 4 stitches per round — 2 on each side. Calculate how many stitches you need at the widest point (circumference x stitch gauge), and how many at the narrowest. The difference is how many stitches you need to increase or decrease. Divide the difference by 4, since that’s how many stitches you’ll add/remove per round, and that tells you how many increase/decrease rounds you’ll work. Distribute those evenly between the allotted rounds.

My hips are a bit wider than my chest, so I’m not doing any waist decreasing on this sweater but am working two sets of increases to give it more of an A-line shape and give me similar ease in the hips to the bust. Adding 4 sts twice will take it from 149 sts (42″) to 157 sts (45″). I’m planning to make the body only 12″ long from the underarms, 3″ of which will be ribbing, so 9″ of stockinette. I’ll work my two sets of increases at 4″ and 7″ from the underarms.

That’s all there is to it! Final thoughts in the epilogue …


*Whatever you do, be sure to keep detailed notes about your first sleeve, since you need to knit an exact replica for the other arm. You’ll want to know how long your sleeve was (from the underarm) when you worked your first decrease, and how often and how far apart you decreased after that, plus total length before you switched to ribbing. (See also: Show your work and Mark your rows)

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.

25 thoughts on “How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 5: The art of sweater shaping

  1. Can you give me some ideas on how to make the back of a cardigan bigger? I do not want a lot of fabric in the front so that I can make a wider ban for a jacket type sweater. When I think I hav the front the way I want it I think the back is too small. Thank you.

    • Hi, Judy. I wouldn’t think of it as making the back wider. No matter what you’re doing, your cast-on count will be based on how big you want the neck opening to be. Then your rate and frequency of increases will determine the width of the back, fronts and sleeves. So you increase within each section until you have the measurements you want. If some of the front width will come from attached bands or something like that, it might be the case that you stop increasing the fronts at some point while continuing to increase the back and/or sleeves. (Or maybe it’s the case that you simply don’t cast on any new stitches for the front neck, so the front stitch counts remain smaller than the back. It just depends on what you’re going for.) But all of the respective widths will be based on how often you increase. So as long as you know your row gauge and your target stitch count (stitch gauge x desired width), you just keep increasing until you reach that number.

      Hope that helps!

  2. Hi, I am at the point where I just separated the sleeves and body. I was wondering, do you normally increase for the bust by increasing only in the front? Thanks

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  6. Thanks this series was exactly what I needed to interpret my pattern and do all of the mods! Lovely and well-written.

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  10. I love this series!! Your information about how to vary increases for the raglan, so that it really fits the curves just as a pattern for garment construction, has opened a whole new chapter for me. Encouraged by the top-down tutorial and the graded raglan info, and just a little reading in Ann Budd’s and Barbara Walker’s books, I decided to just start knitting and increase intuitively. I did try the garment on a dress form as I went along, one of the great advantages of top down knitting, and I found I didn’t need to do any calculations besides taking just my neck measurements. When I finish, I’ll put it all on Ravelry. BTW: I’m a beginner, yet I’m finding that following your guidance is really ramping up my skill and confidence. THANKS!

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  12. Hey karen,
    I’m working on my sleeves and I’ve figured out I will need to decrease on every 5th row, 10 times. Now I’m knitting the sleeves flat and everytime I hit the 5th row it’s sometimes on the purl side and sometimes on the knit side where I’ll have to decrease. Is this okay? Or should I Instead decrease on an even number row so I’ll always decrease on a the same side?

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    • I would recommend to you — there are loads of great beginner videos showing how to do all sorts of things, along with what they mean and variations, etc.

  15. I forgot to ask, what’s the difference between a round and a row in knitting? I am new to knitting and so far, my sleeves are being knitted “in the round” with circular needles…

    • A round is just a row worked in the round. So when you’re knitting flat, it’s back and forth in rows (a Right Side row followed by a Wrong Side row). When you knit in the round, every row is a RS round. Does that make sense?

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  19. I would like to say thank you for all the help your top down sweater posts have given me. In fact, I almost feel empowered as I begin a new sweater. Thanks

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