Cardigans for first-timers: Or, how button bands happen

Cardigan patterns for first-timers

Ever since putting together the Pullovers for first-timers post, I’ve been laboring over a cardigan version! And here it finally is: good starter cardigan patterns, whether you’re a beginning knitter or have been knitting for years and have just never tackled a cardigan before. Cardigans simply are trickier than pullovers. (Much trickier to write about; potentially trickier to knit.) And since the pullovers post includes an overview of sweater construction methods, I’ve organized this one according to the key distinguishing factor amongst cardigans, which is the button bands. Throughout those categories, I’ve included a mix of the basic sweater types (top-down seamless, bottom-up seamless, seamed). All of which provides a fairly broad sampling of the many approaches to cardigan construction. As before, I’m giving you one very basic option in each category, followed by options that involve fancier knitting. If you are already comfortable with cables, lace, short rows, etc., there’s no reason your first cardigan can’t include those things.

If you haven’t read the pullovers post and/or don’t already have a basic familiarity with sweater construction types, you might want to take a minute to read that post before proceeding with this one.

Cardigan patterns for first-timers


Just like the drop-shoulder group in the pullovers post, these sweaters (a step up from the simple partially seamed rectangle known as a shrug) skirt the complications altogether. They don’t really hew to sweater construction in general and don’t have buttons or bands. Because they’re fairly abstract shapes to begin with, some of them can also be worn upside down.

suggested pattern:
Prewrapped Wrap from the Purl Bee — one T-shaped piece with picked-up ribbing along two edges, plus two little seams (free pattern)

or if you’re feeling more ambitious:
Cocoon Shrug by Nancy Ricci — three or four rectangles seamed into a cardigan with a double-thick collar (should be downloadable soon)
Stranger by Michiyo — five rectangles; involves grafting two front rectangles together at back neck, picking up stitches for the rectangular back, plus two more rectangles for the sleeves (see also Inversion Cardigan by Jared Flood)

pros: simpler to knit in many regards; the varieties of construction can be fascinating; potential for getting multiple looks from one sweater
cons: because they aren’t really shaped to the human form like a traditional sweater, they can sometimes look a little ill-fitting no matter which direction you wear them; won’t really teach you anything about true cardigan construction

Cardigan patterns for first-timers


Whether or not they have buttons, not all cardigans have button bands. Sometimes the collar or band is simply a swath of stitches along the fronts worked in a contrasting stitch pattern to the rest of the body.

suggested pattern:
Casco Bay Cardi by Carrie Bostick Hoge — no bands or collar (or cuffs, or waistband!); buttonholes worked right into the top-down seamless, garter-stitch body

or if you’re feeling more ambitious:
Purl Soho Cardigan Coat from Purl Soho — bottom-up seamless construction wherein a simple mix of garter and stockinette stitches create the illusion of bands; garter continues upwards for the yoke and neck (see also: Park Street by Pam Allen)
East Matunuck Cardigan by Amy Christoffers — also bottom-up seamless, joined at the underarms; a cable-and-lace motif worked along the fronts creates the collar; with this type of bottom-up integral collar, once you get to the yoke the “collar” stitches are worked separately from the body and joined at the end (see also: the fully seamed Sun Prairie cardigan; free pattern)

pros: none of the additional knitting/seaming of a button band; bands are structurally unnecessary for an open-front cardigan
cons: if you do want buttons, lack of structural bands can exacerbate the gaping-closure problem common to handknit sweaters

Cardigan patterns for first-timers


Crewneck cardigans have straight front edges. V-neck cardigans have fronts that slope away from each other at the neck. Either one lends itself to button bands worked from picked-up stitches, knitted perpendicular to the body fabric. For a crewneck, you simply pick up along each front edge and knit; the neckband is worked separately from stitches picked up around the neckline. For V-necks (like Fable and Uniform), you pick up one set of stitches all the way around — starting at the right front bottom and working up the right side, around the neck and back down the left front. Common stitch pattern options for picked-up bands include ribbing (twisted rib, garter rib), garter stitch and seed stitch.

suggested pattern:
Louise by Carrie Bostick Hoge — worked bottom-up or top-down, an ultra-basic crewneck cardigan (with optional color-blocking); bands picked up along the two straight front edges and worked in garter stitch (see also: Uniform Cardigan for an ultra-basic boyfriend cardigan)

or if you’re feeling more ambitious:
Fable Cardigan by Kate Gagnon Osborn — an equally basic stockinette cardigan but this one’s fully seamed with set-in sleeves and has a shawl collar shaped with short rows
Trillium by Michele Wang (see blueprint at top of post) — bottom-up circular yoke with subtle chevrons and nupps and an intriguing series of short rows for back/neck shaping; button bands in twisted broken rib (hey, mine’s finally on Ravelry!)

pros: Picked-up edge provides some structure; less work than a seamed-on band (assuming you find picking up stitches easier than seaming)
cons: Arguably less structure than a seamed-on band

Cardigan patterns for first-timers


Whether for straight crewneck fronts or designed to run from the bottom front edge to the center back of a V-neck, vertical bands are typically 1×1 ribbing worked (on smaller needles) to the length of that edge and seamed into place.

suggested pattern:
Linney by Amy Christoffers (pictured as knitted by blackbun) — bottom-up one-piece body with set-in sleeves and seamed vertical bands

or if you’re feeling more ambitious:
Dwell by Martin Storey — fully seamed, with set-in sleeves and seamed bands, and the addition of cables and pockets! (see also: Broadstairs)
Amanda by Lene Holme Samsoe — I know! but vertical bands worked simultaneously with the waist ribbing then set aside, worked upwards independent of the body and seamed on; perfectly suitable first cardigan for anyone comfortable with a cable chart

pros: 1×1 ribbing at tight gauge creates a denser, firmer band; seams provide optimal structure; least likely to stretch out at a different rate than the sweater; arguably the most “professional” looking band
cons: slightly more work than picked-up bands

Cardigan patterns for first-timers


I’m not distinguishing between basic and advanced here because this is the tricksiest set in the mix. I’m seeing this lately, though, so I wanted to throw in a couple for the more intrepid among you: top-down seamless sweaters that start with a provisionally cast-on collar/band and are worked outward and downward from there.

Cedarwood by Alicia Plummer — with the look of an integral shawl collar
Skygge by Olga Buraya-Kefelian — with the look of a seamed-on vertical band

pros: Seamless; fascinating knitting process
cons: No real structural underpinning as with a picked-up or seamed edge

. . .

Hoodies, zippers, sideways kimonos, steeks … there are seriously countless kinds of cardigans out there, but if I didn’t keep this reasonably basic and first-timer-y, it could go on for days.

If you are knitting seamlessly (from the top or bottom), do consider adding a basting stitch wherever a seam would/should be, as described in How (and why) to seam a seamless sweater!

Helpful? Will one of these be your first cardigan? Let’s hear about it —


PROFOUNDLY UNRELATED: I’m one of the guests on this week’s Woolful podcast (along with the lovely Felicia Semple). I’m scared to listen, so I’ll count on you to tell me how many different ways I put my foot in my mouth!


PREVIOUSLY in Beginning to knit: Colorwork for first-timers

34 thoughts on “Cardigans for first-timers: Or, how button bands happen

  1. Trillium is in my favorites. Thanks for reminding me how much I love this pattern. Looking forward to this series. I have so much trouble with fit. All my sweaters seem big.

  2. I think this is very helpful. I’m primarily a cardigans and mittens knitter; cardigans, while slightly more work, always seem much more useful than pullovers. I’m a fan of the picked-up button bands. Bands knitted separately seem to take forever.

  3. Thanks for breaking down the button band. Very helpful. And the woolful podcast was awesome! So great to hear your story. I have been following your blog for the past few years & it’s been so helpful.

  4. Great round up! Question though – “cons: Arguably less structure than a seamed-on band” for a picked up band. Why exactly?

  5. Great pros and cons lists! You really lay it out. I have trouble organizing my thoughts so this is really useful.
    I’ve done a number of picked-up bands. One thing I’ve always been curious to try, is a seamed button band that is attached to picked up stitches as you work, like a lace border. Still never been bold enough to try it, but one of these days…

  6. Incredibly helpful post! And thanks for sharing the Cocoon Shrug. Queuing it immediately – not because it’ll teach me anything about garment construction, but because I love the styling and think it’ll look fantastic in Quince Puffin.

  7. Great article again Karen ~ thank you. I too have loved the Trillium, ever since you featured it here as one of your knits so it is in my queue. However, now, along comes Cedarwood and for some reason I had missed this one. Gorgeous! Well, I have knit quite a few cardigans (my first at age 11yrs, at home from school with the mumps!!!) but never a top down so think I am going to have to use Cedarwood as my challenge on that. … and as Rachel says, a really helpful post whether we are a fist time for cardigans or many times along.

  8. You should give the podcast a listen! You did a great job, and it inspired me to catch up on the backlog of 12 posts I hadn’t read yet from your blog :)

  9. This is so helpful! I’ve knit two cardigans for myself, and I’m not happy with the button bands on either – too floppy, not enough structure. My LYS offers very reasonable one-on-one tutoring, and I’ve been thinking of booking a session to figure out what, if anything, can be done to salvage them. Lately I’ve been craving a cozy cardigan in a rustic heathered wool, and I’ll be bookmarking this post to come back to once I’m ready to select a pattern.

  10. My first sweaters were cardigans (the first-first was a top-down raglan with integral button band, the second a bottom-up, seamed, picked-up button band with shawl collar) and I’m not sure they’re ay trickier than pullovers. I agree the button bands can be finicky, but it’s probably more the working back and forth that turns people off. I wonder.

    I love this list of sweaters, though. That Linney Cardigan is gorgeous.

  11. This is such a helpful post! I really appreciate how you take the time to explain each (and give examples!). The pros and cons are really helped me understand how the bands are structurally different.

  12. Very interesting and a great help for choosing a type of cardigan pattern based on the skills required. The very first cardigan I knit, last summer, is an assymetrical one with a button band on the top left of the body, worked in one piece with sleeves picked up and knit later. So an unusual construction but it was really easy to knit, and simply sew three buttons on the upper band (Askew, from knit.wear). And the one I just started is a plain boxy garter stitch one, with rib border and a rib cowl with a zipper, so I won’t have to worry about button bands but I never sewed a zipper before, so definitely challenging.
    I must say I do love the big no closure cardigans that keep coming up these days (first type in your post).

  13. I would love to knit Dwell by Martin Storey cardi but I see that the Rowan yarn suggested by the pattern is discontinued in the US, I am now on the hunt for a replacement yarn. Does anyone have any suggestions? I was thinking Shelter from Brooklyn Tweed, but i am not sure?

    • That’s on my list, too. It calls for an aran-weight yarn, so a little heavier than Shelter, but it’s knitted on US7 needles, which is what Shelter is typically knitted on. So it would probably be fine — just a less dense finished fabric than the original. You should swatch it and see what you think!

  14. I am very honoured to see my Linney cardigan on your blog. I always love reading it, you have such a good way of explaining things !

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  16. Hi – the question I really would like to have answered is why do so many cardigan patterns have garter stitch at the top? I want to do stripes, and they just don’t look so good in garter stitch. I am guessing it’s something to do with gauge – how bad an idea would it be just to knit stockinette not garter?

    • Hi, Katherine. I’m not sure what you mean by “garter stitch at the top.” I’d need to see the pattern you’re talking about in order to weigh in with any advice.

  17. Hi – I’m so excited that you replied so quickly! This is the pattern I am thinking of But I have found so many cardigans with garter stitch around the top/yoke/shoulders.

    I am just trying to think how I can use different colours to make this pattern more interesting. I am worried about using stripes in garter stitch as it doesn’t look as neat as stripes in stockinette. so I was thinking about maybe a fair isle pattern around the bottom and cuffs instead.

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  20. I’m making a cardigan sweater, using 2 inches of seed stitch along the bottom of the sweater, as well as the cuffs. I have several questions. 1) How many inches should I have for the collar? 2) How wide should my vertical bands be? 3) What size buttons should I use? I am guessing the number of buttons to use depends upon their size and size of the garment. This is a woman’s sweater, BTW. Thanks!

    • That’s 100% up to you! You should just size the bands to be a little bit wider than whatever size buttons you’d like to use. Typically finer gauge sweaters have narrower bands and smaller buttons, and vice versa, but there are no hard and fast rules.

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