In defense of top-down sweaters

In defense of top-down sweaters

Here’s the thing. I’ve written before (albeit in somewhat sideways fashion) about why I believe in top-down knitting, despite its detractors; about how I think it’s the gateway drug to sweater knitting; and even how to solve the inherent problem of the lack of seams. (It’s all in this basted knitting post, if you haven’t seen it.) But I think, even in defending top-down, I have failed to properly acknowledge one of its greatest merits, which is the capacity for trial and error. In that regard, none of the other sweater construction methods can hold a candle to it.

When you’re knitting a sweater top-down, you can play around with the raglan placement, play around with sleeve shape, whatever it might be. Try out ideas and see how they work. Since you can put the sweater on and see how it’s turning out, and can easily rip back and make changes, you’re likely to actually do that. Right? It’s not only flexible and freeing, it leads to good results. Consider the sweater above, which I’m currently in the midst of. The body is “done” but I think I’d rather it was a little bit A-line and maybe without so much ribbing, so I’ll rip it back and redo it — no big deal whatsoever. (Especially at this gauge!) But if it were a set of bottom-up pieces, which I had blocked and seamed together before deciding I wanted the shape to be a little different? Let’s face it, game over.

Up until these last two sweaters (Bob’s and this one), it had been quite awhile since I’d knitted a top-down, and I’d forgotten how fun it is. Yes, it gets cumbersome the bigger it gets, but I don’t know if I’ll ever not find it magical to watch a sweater being born whole on the needles in front of me. This one I’ve been having extra fun with — bending the raglans for a more satisfying fit and unintentionally knitting my first V-neck. Plus, this time of year, having a whole wool sweater in your lap is a feature, not a bug.

Of course, if I want to wear it this winter, I better hurry up and be done with it, so that’s my goal for the weekend. How about you?

UPDATE: For those asking or who haven’t seen it, there’s a whole top-down tutorial here on the blog.


62 thoughts on “In defense of top-down sweaters

  1. That sweater is going to be a favorite, I can tell. I love the color! Continuing to work on the Cocoon Vest from Vogue Knitting Fall 2015.

  2. I wish I could learn this. Sadly, I’m very handicapped, having had Lyme for 20 years, so I only knit flat on my back in bed, while hooked up to my feeding machine. Its given me good, strong forearms and wrists. But I can’t imagine holding the full weight of the sweater in the air as it grows. Your points of the advantage are well taken.

    • I can see how that would be problematic. But I’ll also note that this Lettlopi (worsted weight Icelandic wool) knitted at 3.5 sts per inch is as light as a feather. I just weighed it with the needles still in the sleeve and it’s half a pound! So that might be worth trying?

  3. I’ve never made a top down sweater, but I do plan to. I have about a lot of projects to go before it shows up at the top of my list. This weekend I am knitting a few hats, but today is design day. So I am designing the hat patterns today then knitting them this weekend, as long as the kids play nice.

  4. I’ve knit one top-down sweater (Beeline) and I much prefer following a bottom-up pattern – although that may just be what I’m more used to. I basted the raglan seams and the body of the sweater is doing great, but I’m having trouble with the neckline stretching the more I wear it. Any tips for preventing or reversing this? Is it something I did or the nature of top-down knitting? I should say that I usually avoid raglan sleeves like the plague, so maybe my body is doing something freaky to the neck….

      • It is picked up….which I’ve done on plenty of bottom-up sweaters, too, so I’m stumped on why this one is stretching and those aren’t. I did a sewn bindoff on the ribbing, so maybe it’s TOO stretchy? idk. :-/

        • Strange. If the whole sweater was stretching out I’d say maybe it’s the fiber content. Or is there a chance you used a particularly stretchy cast-on for the original neck edge? I’m stumped.

  5. I love this sweater. Until I happened on your blog I would have never considered knitting a top down sweater, but I think I’m ready to give it a try.

  6. My favorite sweater is a top down. The fit is perfect, which I cannot say is true of my bottom ups. I’ve never bent the raglan increases before and it sounds like fun. Do you just start moving it over by one stitch on each row till you get the placement you want?

    • I just varied the rate of increase on the sleeves vs the body. The pins show sections where I was increasing every 4th row in the sleeve (then increasing at an even rate on all sections) then every 4th row on the body.

  7. Yeah, I don’t think there are any “shouldn’ts” in knitting. Not really. Different types of sweater construction have their pluses and minuses. And everyone will have their favorites. Reminds me of a podcast I listened to recently where they were debating whether or not bagels should be toasted. Seriously. If you want it toasted, eat it toasted.

  8. One more plus: if you discover you didn’t get quite enough yarn, you can just make your sweater a little shorter than planned. Unlike when you are on the last sleeve and realize you aren’t going to make it!

    • I wasn’t sure I would have enough yarn for Bob’s, so my strategy was to not do the cuffs until the body was complete and I could see what I had. If needed, I could have knitted all the ribbing in a different dye lot and not been too concerned about it.

  9. Looking veeeeery nice! And I agree with you on the plus points of top down knitting. It really is forgiving. On the other hand, there are a lot of pieced and bottom up designs that I love and was avoiding. Almost all of BT, in fact. So, now, when I’m in doubt, I borrow the sewing technique of making a “muslin”. Using really cheap gray fleece, I chalk out the basic shape using the schematic, then cut and baste. This has really helped me make crucial decisions before I start knitting. Or (as has been the case) to know beforehand that the design did not suit me at all. You do need a decent schematic, though.

    • P.S. The fleece should be the stretchy kind. This is key because it more closely mimics the behavior of knit fabric. You could also use any heavier weight knit from the bargain table. I like plain charcoal fleece, cuz its prettier and doesnt distract.

        • Ha! Truth is, I have a funny, short waisted torso and getting length right is a major problem for me. I won’t tell you how many bottom up hems I have ripped out and reknit. Not fun. And avoiding bottom up sweaters altogether was keeping me from some of my favorite designers. Plus, this is a sure way to know if those odd, but seductive sweaters are worth the trouble or not. That is really where it has saved me time and effort.

          • You know, sewists don’t think twice about making a muslin before starting a project. Why it is impressive to do this before knitting a sweater (which is much more labor intensive and time consuming) is interesting, don’t you think?

            You guys are making me feel like a total geek. I suppose I just might be. ;-P

          • Well…thanks. I only do it when I am in doubt. And/or for unusual shapes. Like for instance, Penguono would be a good candidate for a fleece muslin, because the overall shape is dramatic and oversize and not easily changed once it is knit, but making the fleece muslin would be a piece of cake.
            #fitanddetailsgeekandproudofit ;-P

  10. looking good KT! maybe you can do a post about necklines? I’m thinking about improvising a roll neck. was bob’s sweater a roll neck?

    • It is, but it’s looking like it will be ripped out and redone. But I just picked up sts as I would for a crewneck and knitted in stockinette, decreasing just a few stitches at the back seams as I went upwards. It worked out ok, but the fabric doesn’t really have enough body for that kind of neck — it just wants to roll all the way.

  11. while I love top down, it seems like every sweater I see is a raglan. On my figure it looks like I am framing my chest/breast area. Yes I know that I have breasts, so do others, but the look on a lot of women just isn’t flattering.

    • I agree — raglans are not a good choice for a lot of women, like me. They also tend to be unflattering if you have sloping shoulders. And if you’re not careful with the placement of the raglan seam, they can make your upper arms/shoulders look really oddly disproportionate.

      • There is a book at Quince & Co – Top Down, Reimagining set-in sleeve design by Elizabeth Doherty. The sweaters are lovely top-down basics with set-in sleeves.

    • Unfortunately, there’s no one style that’s ideal on every body type. But as noted, there are lots of ways to do sleeves top-down that aren’t raglan. I haven’t tried any of them yet, as raglans tend to work better for me than set-ins, but I’m really curious about it all!

      • Oh, that’s true, of course – and I have done top-down set-sleeves, and they are pretty slick. . Several Gudrun Johnston patterns feature them.

  12. Part of why I knit so many sweaters in a year was because the majority of them were top down. It’s fast and so easy to adjust when you realize you make a mistake. I made a seamed sweater for my husband but I couldn’t determine what alterations needed to be made until it was blocked and seamed, which kind of stinks.

    • I insisted on doing my husband’s sweater top-down because I know how picky he is about the fit and length of everything, so I needed to be able to put it on him and get his buy-in at every step along the way.

  13. Barbara Walker’s book Knitting from the top down has been a life saver for me. I like the fact that I can try it on as I go and change accordingly if needed. She also has a section for set-in sleeves. Your sweater is looking great, you are a fast knitter.

    • I’ve only ever read the first section (and took a class before I bought the book) but one of these days I’ll get into the rest of it! It’s definitely a must-have.

  14. i went back and read all about your “basting” the seams. curious, do you think that working a pinstripe would work as well to “hold” the seam in shape. I have been reading about pinstripes over on TECHknitter’s blog. The pinstripes are added in afterward. i am wandering if that would be strong enough to hold things in check as well.

  15. Have made many baby top-downs but have not attempted a sweater for myself using this method. I am ready to do it now! I hate the feel of seams on pieced together sweaters, I am so glad you ran this series! Inspirational! I do want to improvise on the hem and make it long enough to cover the crotch area when wearing leggings and maybe even make the back an inch or two longer. I am sooooooo ready to do this! Thanks for the easy to follow hints!

  16. Amen to knitting sweaters from the top down. Along with everything else that you mentioned in this post, it’s just plain fun! When you finish your last stich, with the exception of a few under arm stiches, you are done! That alone makes this type of construction wonderful. And top-down sweaters are not restricted to raglans. Set-in sleeve sweaters and round-yoked sweaters can also be knitted from the top down. To everyone commenting on this blog who has never tried to knit a top-down sweater, let me borrow a phrase from a 70s TV commercial: try it; you’ll like it! :-)

  17. The idea of a top down sweater is inspiring – especially in this gorgeous dark color! This weekend… I’m finishing (down to closing the toes now) a lovely pair of socks that have been on the needles for … hmmmm – two, maybe three years. (Yikes.) And I really truly did wade through my stash, pull out yarn possibilities and began Stephen West’s crazy Penguono. For ME. Happy!

  18. I knit a top down years ago and never wear it because the fit isn’t too great at the raglan seams. If I’ve washed it, do you think I could still get away with ripping out the stitches so I can re knit it to fit better?

  19. Amen to this. The process with my top-down raglan (on the needles now) has been so much fun because I have been able to adjust as I go, based on measurements, style decisions, etc. Because sweater knitting requires so much time, this freedom is priceless.

  20. I had no idea all of the benefits of knitting a top down sweater, but somehow that is what I was drawn to when I chose my first sweater to knit. I am really enjoying the process and I do appreciate being able to try it on as I go. I am tracking my progress on Ravelry ( – it feels so official! Wow, knitting a sweater in a weekend though – that seems impossible! I’ve been working on mine since November and still feel like it will be a couple more months before I finish. I sure hope all that practice going round and round will help to increase my knitting speed.

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  22. I’m a v v new sweater maker, baby I might add so top down construction is definitely my go to for now… I’m itching to cast on a linen tee for myself by knitbot but that will have to wait till I completely want to put my mind to it.

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