How (and why) to knit top-down sleeves flat

How (and why) to knit top-down sleeves flat

Ever since I posted the details of the top-down rollneck sweater I knitted for Bob, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about why on earth I would opt to knit flat sleeves on a top-down sweater, as well as how to do it. For many or most knitters, the whole point of knitting a top-down sweater is that it is seamless, as in nearly free of any finishing work. I actually don’t love wearing seamless sweaters — they feel flimsy and insubstantial to me. For me, the benefits of top-down are increased control over fit, ability to conjure up a sweater without a pattern, and freedom to experiment along the way — all compelling traits, but I also believe in seams, which is what led me to my basted knitting technique. With a basting stitch, it’s possible to add a seam to a circular sleeve and thereby give it the support it needs, so why would I go one step further and knit them flat? A few reasons:


1) At some point I fell out of love with small-circumference seamless knitting (i.e. on DPNs or Magic Loop or however you want to do it). I feel like knitting a sleeve flat — whether attached or detached, top-down or bottom-up — is less fiddly and thus faster than knitting it in the round, even when you factor in the little bit of time it takes to seam it.

2) One of the biggest knocks against top-down sweaters is the tedium of knitting sleeves while they’re attached to a sweater. As you’re knitting around and around on a top-down sleeve, you’re spinning the entire sweater around and around in your lap. I tend to knit the sleeves before the body gets too voluminous, regardless, but still, it’s annoying! By knitting them flat, the sweater can just lie there politely while I work back and forth across the sleeve. To me, it’s a much more pleasant experience than knitting them in the round.

3) As noted, the seam will lend structure to the sleeves over time as they’re pushed and pulled around by the wearer.

Which leaves the question of—


If you’re going to seam your sleeves, you need to increase your stitch count by 2 stitches — those will be the two selvage stitches you seam together at the end. To do that, put your live sleeve stitches back onto a needle or a couple of DPNs, then work as follows:

– Starting at the center of the underarm stitches, pick up and knit along the underarm stitches; pick up and knit one extra stitch at the end of the underarm stitches* (in the gap between the cast-on underarm stitches and the live sleeve stitches); knit across the live sleeve stitches; pick up and knit one extra stitch again in the gap before the rest of the underarm stitches; then pick up and knit across the remaining underarm stitches, bringing you back to the center of the underarm, where your seam will eventually be.

– Do not join in the round! Do not decrease out the 2 extra picked-up stitches — you’ve increased your stitch count by 2, which is exactly what you need.

– Using a short hat needle or DPNs for the first couple of inches (as long as there’s a tight bend in the rows), work back across the wrong side of the sleeve for the next row,** then work back and forth in rows from here on out.

– Once you’ve worked a couple of inches and are no longer fighting the curve of the sleeve, you can switch to a longer circular needle, if you like, for more comfortably working the rows.

– If you’re trying on the sweater/sleeve to check the circumference at various points, clip or pin the sleeve closed, eliminating the two selvage stitches that will later disappear into the seam. (I like Clover’s Wonder Clips for this.)

– When the knitting is complete (and ideally after the sweater has been blocked), use mattress stitch to seam the sleeves closed.

Voila: top-down, perfectly fitted, structurally sound sleeves without the hassle of knitting them in the round.

• How to improvise a top-down sweater
Basted knitting: How (and why) to seam a seamless sweater
In defense of top-down sweaters
Pullovers for first-timers: Or, an introduction to sweater construction

. . .

*If you’re knitting a sweater with a stitch pattern, you’ll need to reconcile your stitches with the stitch pattern on this row — keep the selvage stitch at each end in stockinette for seaming later.

**If your sleeve is stockinette, that means purl on the WS row. If knitting from a chart, start reading your chart from left to right for WS rows, right to left for RS rows.

69 thoughts on “How (and why) to knit top-down sleeves flat

  1. Very interesting! I’m going to try it on the sweater I’m working on now, especially since it’s fingering weight and very drapey – I was kind of worried about the sleeve structure. Thanks for sharing this!

  2. I’ve still never made a top down sweater, but it is on my list of knitting to do this year. I like the idea of seaming the sleeves. I used to have a seamless sweater and I don’t like that the sleeves and body twist around. I rid myself of it after only a few wearings. This is why I have always only knit sweaters from the bottom up.

  3. Brilliant post, as always! Howver, you lost me with this instruction.

    Using a short hat needle or DPNs for the first couple of inches (as long as there’s a tight bend in the rows), work back across the wrong side of the sleeve for the next row,** then work back and forth in rows from here on out.

    Can you elaborate? Hat Needle? Tight bend in the rows? What is the difference between the knitting that occurs in the “first couple of inches” and “from here on out”?

    Many thanks for how you help all of us advance our skills.

    • As long as you’re near the armpit it’s small-circumference knitting, even if you’re not doing it in the round — you still have to work your way around the curve of the sleeve. In other words, for those first couple of inches, you can’t lay the rows out flat because they’re attached at the underarm. So even though you’re working back and forth, you need DPNs or a 16″ circular with short tips (aka a hat needle) to get around the curve of the sleeve. Once you’ve got a few inches of fabric, you’re no longer constricted by the underarms and can work in more of a flat fashion on a longer circular, longer needle tips. Does that help?

        • I’m flummoxed. How do I pick up and knit stitches at the beginning AND end of the live sleeve stitches?
          I can do the ones to the left of the under arm as you look at the RS – the first 4-plus-1 but at the end? What with?

          • You pick up and knit underarm stitches starting in the middle of the underarm. Then work the live/held sleeve stitches. Then end with picking up and knitting the other half of underarm stitches. I hope this helps! I’m currently knitting the sleeves of my Comfort Fade Cardi flat instead of in the round, due to tension issues with fading/changing colors…

  4. I’m quite relieved you do this. I’ve knitted my last two top down sweaters this way because a). DPN’s drive me insane and suck all the pleasure out of knitting and b). I was finding using a magic loop when knitting in cotton ( I live in a warm climate and a 10ply wool sweater is not going to get worn) was not giving a neat and even stitch result. Overall I think I am getting a better finish by using this method and although I don’t enjoy seaming, feel it’s a worthwhile modification.

  5. When you say “keep the selvage stitch at each end in stockinette” does that mean knit the first and last stitch on the Right side row and purl the first and last on the wrong side row? Thanks!

      • I’m currently knitting Brooklyn Tweed Bellows and the selvedges are garter stitch and have found it fairly difficult to seam and pick up stiches along this edge. In other BT patterns, the selvedges are garter or twisted garter stitch. Do you find that there is a difference in structure of the seams/sweater between the different types of selvedges?

  6. I’m with you 100% on this, for all the reasons you give. I got frustrated with magic loop halfway down a sleeve once, switched to knotting back and forth and the difference in quality and gauge (even after blocking) was amazing.

  7. I’m struggling with this right now while working on my Lila sweater top-down. Currently I’m on the second sleeve and it just seems to be taking forever. Knitting in the round in such a small circumference and having to hold/turn the entire sweater is not only frustrating, but also causing pain in my fingers while knitting. I definitely think I’m going to try this on my next top-down sweater. Thank you!

  8. I always knit my sleeves flat. It just makes a better sleeve, IMO, and it is faster and more pleasant, especially if you are knitting stripes. At the beginning awkward stage, I just use two needles, changing from one to the other until the sleeve flattens out. Also, if you mark your decreases with a running thread on each side, it makes the seaming even more of a breeze.

  9. I also knit flat sleeves on sweaters in the round only ever knit one in the round she eve and boy was it a chore.

  10. Karen, I often choose to knit sleeves flat, mostly to avoid switching to dpns. However, if the sleeve is loose-fitting and wide enough, I use a short circular needle. Since I don’t have to change from one needle to the next (as I would if using dpns or magic loop or two circular needles), or purl, the work flies. I finish a sleeve in a couple of hours, without spinning the sweater in my lap. I put the sweater body in my lap, knit around the sleeve as far as possible, until it is twisted against the body. Then I untwist the sleeve and knit the rest of the round. No need to move the sweater. The process is similar to an owl twisting its head to look around over one shoulder, then back around to look over the other shoulder. Of course, this method doesn’t give the structure a seam does, but it eliminates spinning sweaters.

  11. So helpful – I just started the first sleeve of my top down pullover & the yarn broke first time I tightened when switching needles. I was debating with myself the pros & cons of switching to seamed, but I remembered having trouble one other time. You just clarified the problem and solution. I’m going to rip the inch I’ve done & restart knitting flat. Thank you.

  12. Elizabeth Zimmerman was a big believer in seams for structure so you are in excellent company. In fact, when she knit sweaters in the round, she went back afterward and added faux “seams” down the sides.

  13. omg this has changed everything. I have a sweater that i’m avoiding because spinning the whole thing around while i knit the sleeves is incredibly annoying. This may have made me a sweater knitter

  14. OK, so one of my big beefs with top down sweaters is that gauge can really change in the round vs. back and forth, depending on how your tension changes (or not) with purling. So when I knit a cardigan top-down, the main part is always back and forth with the sleeve in the round. I just finished a sweater for my daughter like this and I had to redo the sleeves because they were too tight! I think from now on whenever I knit a top-down cardigan, I’ll do the sleeves flat so I don’t have this issue. If I knit a topdown pullover, I’ll have to think about it. I totally agree that knitting sleeves on DPNs with the weight of the sweater is really annoying!

  15. I’ve always felt that knitting a sweater completely seamless and in the round isn’t the best use for many yarns. Seams provide structure. Just as we would turn into shapeless puddles without our skeletons, a sweater with no seams can become a shapeless mass over time if the yarn is lacking in body or elasticity. I’ve seen it happen with me own eyes. So I salute you for pointing this out to your readers and creating a pattern with stabilizing seams. To the seamless whiners, seaming has been a part of knitting for centuries so put on your big kid panties and learn about it.

  16. I agree with Susan about the gauge change. I mostly knit cardigans, so the knit in the round sleeves need a bigger needle. I also like to knit both sleeves at the same time so that the shaping is ide tidal. I lip it a few rounds individually on each sleeve (tight corner relief) then I put all the stitches on a single needle and make identical sleeve ses at the same time.

  17. While I won’t quibble with the right of every knitter to knit how they like best, I still prefer to knit sleeves in the round, ALWAYS. Why?
    1. It makes last-minute fit adjustments so much simpler. Example: when I knit the Modern Gansey for my son, after wet blocking, the sleeves were just a teeny bit too long. Since there was no seam to undo, the unravelling and re-knitting of the cuff was no problem.
    2. I learned to knit on dpns as a child, and it’s second nature to me.
    3. Recently, in my Wolfe Island Gansey, I used the magic loop for the sleeves (even though I don’t think I’ll ever use it for socks), and that worked amazingly well–no dpns to fall into sofa cushions.
    4. Granted, there’s a short space of knitting at the top of a sleeve when you have to manipulate the entire sweater around (pinning cardigan fronts together helps, as does poking a finished sleeve inside the garment while you work the second sleeve), but before very long it becomes possible to work around the entire sleeve with the remainder of the garment sitting in your lap. Just remember to turn the sleeve back to the underarm for the start of the next round instead of keeping on going around in a circle.
    5. No sewing time at the end. Just wet block and wear!

  18. I’m now able to finish my Lila sweater in bulky wool because of this post. Thank you thank you thank you

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  20. What a great technique. Although I don’t like seaming, in this case it is better than dpns or magic loop .

  21. What a great technique. It solves all the hassles of knitting sleeves in the round – am definitely going to try it.

  22. Great post. I’m knitting my first in the round sweater (Lesley) and I’ve been using dpns for the sleeve. It’s a bit wonky and I’m going to frog the sleeve and use the seemed method. Thank you for sharing.

  23. I have been thinking about point 2 since I read your post. Here is how I do it. I don’t spin the entire sweater in my lap while knitting the attached sleeve in the round. As I knit, the sleeve twists around counterclockwise. After one round, I hold the yarn in the back and turn the working part of the sleeve back around clockwise. Then I knit another round. The sweater stays stationary in my lap. Which is quite comfy and cozy on a cold winter’s day :)

  24. What does anyone think about knitting the body of a top-down sweater in two pieces (below the arm holes) for the same reason: side seams for better stability? I don’t think I’ve ever done this, but it might be a good idea with drapey yarn.

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  26. I am coming into the discussion late so I am not sure if this is still a life threat, but I thought I would try: do you go down a quarter or half needles size to knit the sleeves in the flat instead of the round? I knitted the sweater in the round with a 3.75 mm needle and I am pretty sure my flat knitting is slightly looser (due to the purl rows). So I am thinking of going down to 3.5 mm needles. Any thoughts?

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  32. So happy I saw this! I just finished pulling out a sleeve I had been knitting in the round because I wasn’t happy with the sizing. I think seaming would allow a little more flexibility to make slight adjustments. Thanks for sharing!!

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  36. I always knit the sleeves flat before knitting the body of the sweater. Then there is no constriction.

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  39. Question: I’m about to start my first bottom-up sweater (the BT Spearheads) and am wondering how you would suggest approaching knitting a bottom-up sleeve flat? I know you’re doing that for your Channel, but I’m assuming it’s written flat.

    • You’ll just need one extra stitch at each end for your selvage stitches — the two that get seamed together at the end.

      (Channel is actually written for in-the-round sleeves …)

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  44. Hi Karen – thanks for this help. I’m trying this method for the first time and I have a question. My pattern says to decrease the sleeve every 8th round. When knitting flat, is this decrease done every 8th row or every 16th? Thank you!

    • Hi, Judy — you’ll still work the decreases exactly as specified in the pattern with regard to frequency and placement. The only difference is you’ll just be doing them at the beginning and end of rows instead of rounds.

  45. I was looking for permission to work the sleeves with a seam instead of in the round and here it is! Thanks.
    One other advantage of not working sleeves circular — I like to work my sleeves simultaneously on my long circular (back and forth). That way I know that every decrease or increase is worked on the exact same row and the sleeves will be the same length.

  46. So happy I stumbled onto this site!!!
    Making a sweater for my granddaughter (haven’t made a sweater in 30+ yrs). I’ve done and redone the sleeve tooooo many times – tried DP needles, small circumference circular, regular circular using magic loop – failed each time – stitches are different even though the needle size is the same. ARGH!!!!

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  49. The perfect solution to knitting sleeves in the round is to do them on 2 circular needles. It’s a weird technique to learn, but once you have it, you can make any teeeny circumference in the round. I make socks on 2 circs, small child garments on 2 circs, and so on. When you separate the sleeves and body, find the center stitch on the armhole, and work that stitch in purl all the way down the body and down the sleeves: instant fake seem.

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  51. Dear Karen, why does no one think to attach cuff up sleeve parts to a top down upper sleeve part ? Any suggestion for how to join them ?! something tricky with a crochet hook perhaps ?

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  54. Thanks for the tip…what I find frustrating about knitting sleeves in the round is that the gauge comes out much tighter than the sweater, especially a cardigan…I’m currently knitting a baby cardigan and it will be a perfect item to try this new technique…Thanks so much

  55. Someone who thinks exactly like I do! I hate knitting sleeves in the round, though I usually do it that way. I think I’m going back to knitting them flat.

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