Improv: Basic pattern for a top-down seamless sweater

Improv: Basic pattern for a top-down seamless sweater

When I first published my top-down tutorial in early 2013, I’d only been knitting for about 17 months, hadn’t yet struck on my basted knitting theory, and didn’t take much care with the tutorial photos. In the interim, I’ve published many related posts about various details of the process. And I also never imagined how popular the tutorial would be or how many countless sweaters would be knitted from it! So in 2016, I felt like I owed it an update — factoring in some deeper thinking and linking — which is now in place. (And which also feeds into the Top-Down Knitalong!)

I also realized what was missing was a short and sweet outline/pattern for how to knit a seamless top-down sweater — without all the explanation and elaboration — which would be sufficient for sweater knitters who’d simply not done it from scratch before, while also serving as a gateway to the full tutorial for those who need it. So that’s what follows. And both the short-form version below and the full tutorial now contain specifics on how to incorporate basting stitches and/or flat knitting for those (like me) who choose to add seams to their seamless knitting, to get the benefits of both!

I can’t wait to see what you make with this pattern and tutorial! Please link your Ravelry projects to the new Improv pattern page. And if you’re participating in the knitalong, please use #fringeandfriendsKAL2016 wherever you share. Enjoy!

Improv: Basic pattern for a top-down seamless sweater

Improv: A basic pattern for a top-down seamless sweater

Knitting a basic sweater from the neck down is one of the easiest ways to gain an understanding of how sweater shaping works, which builds your confidence as a knitter and enables you to begin modifying published patterns to your liking or to knit without a pattern. And it’s so simple that, as I said in the original tutorial intro, if you can knit a fingerless mitt, you can knit a top-down sweater.

For this pattern, you may use any yarn and needles you like; you may choose between a pullover and cardigan, as well as the specific details thereof; and you’ll establish your own stitch and row gauge.

First: With the exact yarn and needles you intend to use, knit a large swatch (swatch “in the round” if you’re knitting your sweater in the round), measure your stitch and row gauge once, then block the swatch and measure it again. The blocked dimensions are what you’ll base your sweater on, but if your counts changed with blocking, bear that in mind when trying on your sweater as you go. (And if so, you might find it worthwhile to steam your sweater whenever you’re trying it on.)

Read through the entire pattern below before starting. Reference the “Target Stitch Counts” section below that for calculating the numbers used throughout the pattern, see the notes below that for including optional basting stitches, and click through the linked pattern subheads as needed for the corresponding tutorial for that step.


  • A sweater’s worth of your choice of yarn (see yardage requirements for comparable sweaters or consult a source like Stashbot)
  • Needle Size A: in size needed to achieve your main fabric gauge, one 24″ circular needle for neck/shaping and start of yoke; one circ slightly shorter than your intended body circumference for yoke and body; DPNs or preferred method for small-circumference knitting in the round for sleeves
  • Needle Size B: in size needed to achieve your edging fabric (ribbing, or as desired), one 16″-24″ circular for neckband; longer circ for hem edging; DPNs or preferred method for cuffs in the round
  • Optional Try-On needles: Second long circular needle gauge or smaller than Needle A for trying on sweater in progress (See: Save time at try-on)
  • stitch markers
  • waste yarn
  • tapestry needle

Note: If you are knitting a cardigan and are a Magic Loop knitter, you can knit the entire sweater with one long circ


  • Taken from blocked swatch, see headnote above

– – –


CO [A] sts for neck edge, placing markers for raglan positions (and any “seam” stitches if desired) on this or the next row. (See Basting Stitch section below if using)

Improv: Basic pattern for a top-down seamless sweater

Work back and forth in rows, increasing on both sides of each raglan on every right side row (or as desired) and at front neck as needed for your intended neck shaping (every other row for crewneck or shallow V; every fourth row for deeper V; or as desired).
(8 sts inc at raglans, 2 at front neck, per inc row)

For crewneck pullover: Continue neck shaping until you’ve worked to your desired neck depth [B] and have completed a RS (inc) row. Count back neck sts and front neck sts (combining the two fronts), and subtract to get the difference — this is your additional CO count. Placing a marker (BOR) in the center of them, CO the number of sts needed to make front and back equal, then join in the round.

For V-neck pullover: Continue until your front sts combined equal the number of back sts. At end of the inc rnd that brings them equal, place a marker (center front neck, BOR) and join in the round.

For cardigan: Work neck shaping as above but do not join in the round; continue working back and forth in rows.

3. COMPLETE YOKEImprov: Basic pattern for a top-down seamless sweater

Continue working in the round (for pullover) or back and forth in rows (for cardigan), increasing at raglans as needed until desired st counts are met for front and back [C minus F] and sleeves [D minus F], then work even until desired yoke depth [E] is met.*

4. SEPARATE BODY AND SLEEVESImprov: Basic pattern for a top-down seamless sweater

Dropping raglan markers as you come to them, and dividing any sts within the raglan seam between body and sleeves as desired, work to first raglan marker; transfer left sleeve sts to waste yarn; CO underarm sts [F], placing a marker at the center of the underarm; work across back sts to next raglan marker; transfer right sleeve sts to waste yarn; CO underarm sts [F], placing a marker at the center of the underarm; work to BOR marker (for pullover) or end of row (for cardigan).

5. COMPLETE BODY AND SLEEVESImprov: Basic pattern for a top-down seamless sweater

Body: Continue knitting the body with shaping as desired until intended length before hem treatment. Work hem treatment and BO.

Sleeves: Return sts to needle, making sure you’ve got the correct number. Pick up and knit one st in each underarm-cast-on st, placing a marker at the center of the underarm, and join in the round.** Continue knitting the sleeve with shaping as desired until intended length before cuff treatment. Work cuff treatment and BO. Repeat for second sleeve.
(To minimize holes at the corners of the underarms, pick up and knit one extra st in the gap between the cast-on and held sts, then decrease it out on the next round.)

Block your completed sweater and finish as needed for your specific sweater:

Neck: Pick up sts and work as desired for your preferred neckband/buttonband treatment. BO.
(This can be done at any point after the neckline is complete — for a pullover, I prefer to do it shortly after the neck is joined.)

Weave in ends; close up any gaps at corners of underarms with a tail of yarn; seam anywhere you included a basting stitch or knitted a sleeve flat. Wear with pride!

– – –


[back neck width x sts per inch] + [~30% of that number for sleeve top x 2] + [1 front neck st x 2] = CO
(See how to subdivide with markers for raglans in the tutorial.)

desired drop from back to front neck edge x rows per inch = neck depth
e.g. For 3” neck depth at 5 rows per inch, you’d work 15 rows

C / FRONT AND BACK ST COUNT (at underarm/chest)
1/2 chest circumference x sts per inch = front or back st count***
e.g. A 44”-circumference sweater is 22 inches across; at 4.5 sts per inch that would be 99 sts for the front and 99 for the back
NOTE: subtract F from this number to get the number you are increasing to during the raglan shaping. E.g. if you’ll be casting on 16 underarm sts, you’ll work raglan increases in the front/back until you have 83 sts, then 16 will be cast on at the underarm, giving you 99.

D / SLEEVE ST COUNT (at underarm/upper sleeve)
desired sleeve circumference x sts per inch = sleeve st count***
NOTE: subtract F from this number to get the number you are increasing to during the raglan shaping; see above.

desired distance from shoulder to underarm x rows/rounds per inch = yoke depth****

desired underarm width (rule of thumb is ~8% of body circumference) x sts per inch = underarm CO count

For how to calculate sleeve shaping and body shaping, see the sweater shaping math section of the top-down tutorial.

– – – – – – – – – –
Yoke: Add one stitch in center of each raglan (do not include in any target stitch counts), work in reverse stockinette for duration of yoke
Sleeves: Give the extra yoke stitches (above) to the sleeves on the separation round; use them as the two extra selvage sts needed for flat sleeves, or decrease them out right away for circular sleeves
Sides: Work one stitch at each side seam marker in reverse stockinette
– Mattress stitch after blocking finished garment. For the basted seams, work mattress stitch back and forth under the bar on either side of the basting stitch for the length of the “seam”
– – – – – – – – – –

BO = bind off
BOR = beginning of round
CO = cast on
circ = circular needle
inc = increase
rnd(s) = round(s)
RS = right side
st(s) = stitch(es)
WS = wrong side

*You may reach your desired counts in the sleeves before the front/back, or vice versa. As desired counts are met, simply work even in that portion of the sweater.

**Or for seamed sleeves, knit flat as described here.

***You may need to round up or down on either your target count or your cast-on count, so that both are either even or odd numbers. Every increase is an even pair (2 sts) and you can’t increase evenly from an odd number to an even number, or vice versa. Use whichever your stitch pattern requires, if applicable.

****Make sure you have enough rows to work the number of increases it will take to get from your cast-on counts to your target-minus-underarm counts.

105 thoughts on “Improv: Basic pattern for a top-down seamless sweater

  1. Pingback: How to improvise a top-down sweater: Introduction | Fringe Association

  2. Pingback: How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 1: Casting on and marking raglans | Fringe Association

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

  4. Pingback: How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 3: Finishing the neck and yoke | Fringe Association

  5. Pingback: How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 4: Separating the sleeves and body | Fringe Association

  6. Pingback: How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 5: The art of sweater shaping | Fringe Association

  7. Pingback: How to improvise a top-down sweater, Epilogue: The possibilities are endless | Fringe Association

  8. Thank you for this amazing tutorial!! I’ve been eager, but intimidated, to try my hand at improv knitting on this scale (I’ve only done so with very small projects like hats and toys). You’ve made it so clear and laid it all out so beautifully. I’m going to cast on as soon as I settle on a yarn choice. Thanks again!

  9. Wow! So many nifty tricks and tips! It’s almost overwhelming!! I’m going to have to set some aside for my next sweater… I might go into overload if I try them all on my first one!!! 😀

  10. Thank you for taking the time to write all this out for us. I found your blog is year and love reading it. It’s inspiring to see how you take on all these projects, both knitting and sewing, with no formal pattern.

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  13. Ahhhh…. “Target stitch counts and dimensions” = priceless. Thank you Karen!! I feel this type of improvised project may have just become attainable for me. Bless you!!!

  14. Pingback: Top-Down Knitalong: Kickoff and PRIZE news! | Fringe Association

  15. I would love if you or one of your panelists talked about different increases and when/why to use them. I’ve knit a few top down sweaters with M1L/M1R increases vs. kfb and wonder how a designer chooses! Thanks.

  16. This tutorial series is super helpful! It’s certainly helped me to understand patterns better–even bottom-up ones.

  17. When you say increase on either side of the raglan stitches, which stitch should I be increasing into? do I kfb into the raglan stitch?

    • It’s completely up to you! Do whatever kind of increase you like, as long as it’s on either side of your raglan, so it’s a pair of increases at each raglan “seam”.

  18. Really appreciate all the time you’ve put into creating this tutorial, it is truly helpful and full of useful information and tips!

  19. Pingback: How to incorporate a stitch pattern in a top-down sweater | Fringe Association

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  21. For the crewneck design, when you say “Placing a marker (BOR) in the center of them, CO the number of sts needed to make front and back equal, then join in the round.” I’m not sure of where you are speaking. In the middle of all the sts on the needle? Or in the middle of the additional sts needed to CO to make the front and back equal? Thank you for your tutorial. I’m sure you are helping many, many people, including me.

  22. How did you work your neck band in the purple sweater? Did you pick up stitches, knit to double length and fold it and seam it? If so, what stitch did you use to join it to the sweater body. I’ve been having problems with that part of the sweater because it won’t fit over the recepients head.

  23. This is so awesome! I feel like I’m learning loads. I’m knitting a plain Jane, vanilla design of stockinette in cream worsted wool. I want a scoop neck and loose sweater to wear with stretch pants, comfy and my favorite from the start. I just want to focus on learning the techniques. Unfortunately, my first lesson involves ripping out a whole night of work. I did my math, got several inches going and realized at midnight last night I had left out one increase at the beginning, making my front less triangular. Then when off my needles I tried it on and realized while it was a great shape for a crew neck (tight), it wasn’t the loose scalloped neck I want. I want to start with a large loose neck. So I’ve redone my math and started over. Then I discover my newly learnt long tail cast requires a purl first since it incorporates the first knit row and that was why my beginning cast on was a thicker ridge. So I’m happy now that I ripped out and every bit I learn I consider treasure to use for another day. Thanks.

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  37. Oh BARNACLES! – of course that’s how you do the crewe front for a neck.. Why on earth did I short row it when I improvised my own pattern before!

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  54. This blog is just what I’ve been looking for! There is so much useful information.

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  75. Hi Karen, your work and site is really beautiful and very inspiring. Although I must admit I’m getting a bit lost… I would love to make your improv top down sweater but feel I would need a pattern to go with the description, is there one? I’m a bit of a beginner but have made an Icelandic jumper in the round using Léttlopi. I think the purple version of your sweater is made from Léttlopi, right? What size needles did you use? Thank you!

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  79. I have been knitting all my sweaters top down for many years now. Using a Leasure Arts pamphlet. This is 1st time I have been excited about a pattern. I am 70 and used old way since I turned 25. I like the fit and NO Sewing!!!! I am going to start a new sweater today!!! Thank you for this. I want to
    follow you on what ever site you are on. Linda

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  81. My name is Heyjeong Seo, and I wanted to ask for your permission to translate one of your post

    I belong to a Korean online community dedicated to knitters and crocheters, somewhat similar to
    We arpick a free pattern and do a month-long KAL.
    We would really love to work on your top-down post

    Unfortunately, many of the members on this website do not speak or read English, so we would need to translate it.

    If you let me translate it, I would like to write it on my blog and make it public to my members and neighbors.
    Of course, I will also link your post address.

    I look forword to hearing from you soon.

    Thank you!

    • Thank you so much for your interest in my pattern, but I’m not able to grant permission for my patterns to be republished anywhere else in any form. Thank you for understanding!

  82. Pingback: NARWHAL.

  83. I hope I just overlooked it, but is there a pattern pdf or download of this? It’s my first time making a sweater and I work better with printed patterns. I am super excited by all of the links and tutorials / how to’s. I’m just hoping to see the pattern isolated on a page. Thank you!

    • It exists as this blog post and the series of in-depth tutorials each step links to. There’s no PDF or any other form of it available.

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  90. This post is so great ! wonderful! i’m a french knitter and i’m so disappointed that we cannot be able to knit as good as you amirican. It’s very clear, digest and it’s a mine of information very usefull !
    thank you a lot and hope you keep in writting so.
    Merci beaucoup !!

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  93. Thank you for this great tutorial and all of the tips! One question: why couldn’t one start the neck with the neck band and then just increase number of stitches and switch to larger/longer needles at the point where these instructions cast on?

    • You can, and I talk about the pros and cons in the tutorial. I just don’t recommend it, for all the reasons noted! It’s really worth the time to shape the neck properly and pick up stitches for the band.

  94. I really love that you wrote this entry, and have used it several times. You seem to have knowledge and an understanding of knitted garment construction. As a new designer, I struggle with finding the necessary measurements. For example, I was to add ease into the sleeves, but I can’t seem to find the circumference of the upper arm, forearm, or wrist. Does that matter? I love that you created a kind of formula to build your own top-down raglan. Does this exist elsewhere for other garments? If not (I cannot seem to find it and have asked yarn shops), then I wonder why we don’t have this for the knitting community.

    • There are definitely industry standards out there, or so I’ve heard — you’d have to do some googling (or check the designers forum in Ravelry maybe). For me, I just know what I like and knit to that.

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