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.

How to improvise a top-down sweater, Epilogue: The possibilities are endless

How to improvise a top-down sweater, Epilogue: The possibilities are endless

When we left off last time, we’d talked about how to calculate shaping for your body and sleeves, so all that was left to do was knit them to the length you want them, work your ribbing (or whatever) and bind off. Block your finished sweater. Then how much “finishing” there is to do depends on choices you’ve made along the way:

– Just like with a thumb gusset on a glove, there may be a little gap at each side of the underarm where you cast on and then picked up stitches, even if you picked up an extra stitch at each corner and decreased them out on the next round. My preference is to simply take a tail of yarn (ideally the tail you left when reattaching yarn for the sleeve) and weave the holes closed. I use a tapestry needle and, as with the duplicate-stitch method of weaving in ends, essentially trace the natural path of the stitches around that area, matching the tension and closing up the gaps.

– If you’ve included a basting stitch in the raglans or sides seams, and/or knitted the sleeves flat, go ahead and use mattress stitch to seam those up.

– If you’ve knitted a cardigan and still have button bands to do, or have left your neckband for last, that will be your final step.

Other than that, voilà: A sweater has emerged from your needles, fully formed and ready to wear.


The thing I want to leave you with is that, once you’ve grasped the basic process, you can throw nearly everything I’ve said out the window and do whatever you want. If you have a large chest, you might want to have more stitches in the front of your sweater than the back, rather than making them match. If you want a slower slope to your raglans, perhaps for an extra-deep armhole, you might work your yoke increases every third or fourth round. You might also increase for your sleeves and body at different rates, for instance if you’re creating a comparatively wide body and fitted sleeves, or vice versa. When you get to the hem, you might choose to do a split hem (maybe bi-level), or use short rows to create a curved shirttail hem or to make the back of the sweater hang lower than the front. Whether you knit the body first or the sleeves is completely up to you. If you don’t like rotating a whole sweater in your lap while knitting sleeves in the round, you might choose to knit them back and forth (still from the underarm down) and then seam along the underside of the sleeve. If you’re truly improvising, or averse to grade-school math, you can even just feel your way through the shaping of the sleeves and body. Pull the sweater over your head every couple of inches; decrease whenever the sweater needs to get smaller; increase whenever it needs to get larger. The point is: You’re in total control of your sweater, and you can and should do whatever works for you.

As I said in the intro, this is really just scraping the surface of what’s possible with top-down. I wanted to show you the basic method so you can see how simple (and empowering!) it is, and to that end, I’ve kept the sample sweater as simple as possible. But with this method, the world is pretty much your oyster. The type of neckline, the gauge of the sweater, whether it has raglan sleeves or contiguous set-in sleeves, whether it’s a pullover or cardigan, striped or two-tone or colorwork, what kind of stitch pattern, what kind of edging … the possibilities are endless. Make just about any sweater you like, no pattern required.

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.

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.

How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 4: Separating the sleeves and body

How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 4: Separating the sleeves and body

To quickly recap, you know you’re done knitting your yoke when you’ve met a couple of criteria: 1) You’ve worked enough increase rounds to attain the targeted number of stitches in each of your sleeve and body sections, giving you your desired dimensions (when factoring in the anticipated cast-on underarm stitches). And 2) The yoke is long enough to reach the target spot, somewhere south of your armpit, where you’ll be casting on the underarm stitches. Which means it’s time to separate the body from the sleeves.

If you’re knitting a pullover, drop your front-center marker at the beginning of the separation round. No matter what you’re knitting, drop your raglan markers as you encounter them.

BASTE NOTE: For me, the first and last st of each sleeve will be my uncounted basting stitches from the two raglans — they’ll become the two extra sleeve sts I need for selvage sts, as I’ll be knitting my sleeves flat and seaming them. If you’ve included a basting stitch in the raglans and intend to knit the sleeves in the round, just decrease them out soon after the separation round so your sleeve stitch count will be on target.

Here we go: Work to your first raglan marker. Divvying up any raglan seam sts however you’ve decided, transfer the sleeve stitches onto waste yarn. On your right needle, cast on the number of underarm stitches you determined you’ll need, placing a marker in the center of them — e.g., I’m casting on twelve stitches, so placing a marker after the sixth one — then continue knitting across the back of the sweater. When you come to the right sleeve, same thing: Transfer the sleeve stitches onto waste yarn, cast on your underarm stitches, placing a marker at the center point, then continue across the remaining front stitches. You’ve now got your body joined in the round, with a marker at the center of each side. If you’re knitting a pullover, the left-side marker is your new beginning of round.

The top and middle left photos above show my sweater immediately after the separation round — the sleeve stitches are on waste yarn, and you can see the cast-on stitches at the underarm, with a marker in the center of them. The middle right and bottom photos show the sweater being worn (albeit by the dummy!) after a few rounds of the body have been knitted.

BASTE NOTE: As with the raglans and sleeves, I want seams at the sides, so I’m opting to work one stitch at each side marker in reverse stockinette, as a basting stitch, and will mattress stitch it when I’m done with the sweater. I had already rounded up when doing my math, so the loss of these two stitches to the seam won’t affect my dimensions adversely.

If you want to knit an inch or two of your body, that’s fine, but don’t go too far until we talk about how to shape the body and sleeves. That’s all that’s left!

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.

How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 3: Finishing the neck and yoke

How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 3: Finishing the neck and yoke

Time to talk about yoke sizing, but first: You can see my sweater now has its neck ribbing. You can do this anytime, and most patterns tell you to do it at the end, but I like now. Now is good. As previously noted, if I am not completely in love with my neck, I want to know that while it’s not a big deal to rip it out and do it over. So after knitting a little ways past the join, I picked up stitches all the way around and worked my neck band — in this case, 3 inches of ribbing which I folded inward and whipstitched to the cast-on edge. Do whatever rib multiple (or garter stitch or stockinette roll or whatever) and height you like, and bind off very loosely or you won’t be able to get it over your head!

(I’m not going to do a whole picking-up-stitches tutorial here, but I recommend this video. Pick up one stitch through the center of every cast-on stitch — both the original ones and the additionals at the front neck — and 2 in 3 or 3 in 4 stitches along the slopes. For figuring out where to pick up along the sloping sides of the front neck, this diagram might help. I like the one in Pam Allen’s “Knitting for Dummies.” And make sure your total picked-up stitch count is the correct multiple for your ribbing.)


So back to the question of how long we carry on with our raglan increasing. Before we get too far into our yoke (or ideally before we even started), we have to decide, generally, what shape our sweater is going to be. Will it be fitted and shapely? Wide and slouchy? Somewhere in between? If you’re a seasoned sweater knitter or seamstress, you’ll know what you want your bust and upper arm dimensions to be. For everyone else, I recommend measuring a sweater (or shirt or sweatshirt) that fits like you want this sweater to fit. Lay it flat, measure across an upper arm, and double that to get the circumference. Same for the chest — measure where the arms meet the body, then double it. (See also: How to knit the right size sweater.) I have 10-inch upper arms and a 34.5-inch bust. For this sweater, I want about 4 inches of ease in the upper sleeves and about 7.5 inches of ease in the chest — or, 14-inch sleeves and a 42-inch chest circumference. At my gauge of 3.5 stitches per inch, that means I’ll need 49 stitches for each sleeve (14 inches x 3.5 stitches per inch), and about 149 stitches for the body (42 in. x 3.5 sts/in., rounded to an odd number because I happen to have started out with an odd number) — that’s front and back combined.

However, I’m not going to increase all the way to those numbers, because some of those stitches are going to be cast on at the underarm, just like we cast on stitches at the neck to form a circle. Elizabeth Zimmermann’s rule of thumb is that each underarm is about 8% of your total body stitches, which in my equation would be 11 or 12 stitches. I find 3 or 3.5 inches is a good underarm width for me, so I’m going to cast on 12 stitches for each underarm.

Now we have to think a tiny bit. Remember that I have 2 stitches trapped in each raglan seam. (The basting stitch I’ve added at the center of each raglan does not factor into the stitch counts — we’ll get to that later.) When I go to divide up my stitches into sleeves and body, I’m going to opt to split those two raglan sts right down the middle. So I need to count 1 stitch from each seam as a sleeve stitch, and 1 stitch from each seam as a body stitch. If I want 49 stitches in each sleeve, and 12 of them will be cast on, that means I’ll keep increasing until I have 37 stitches per sleeve (including those from the raglans). When we increase — 8 stitches per increase round, across the 4 sections of the sweater — we add 2 stitches per section. I started with 11 sleeve stitches, need to add 26 to get to 37, and increase two per increase round, so that’s means I’ll work a total of 13 increase rounds in the sleeves. Dividing the body stitch target of 149 sts in two (74.5) for the front and back, and subtracting the underarm count of 12, means I need to increase the front and back sections until I have 63 sts each (rounded from 62.5, and remembering again to count one st from each raglan). I started with 25 in the back, need to add 38 to get to 63, and increase two per increase round, so that will mean a total of 19 increase rounds for the front and back.

So I’ll stop increasing in the sleeves after 13 increase rounds, when my sleeve counts reach 37 sts, continue increasing in the front and back for another 6 increase rounds until those sections clock in at 63 sts each, and then work even for all rounds until I reach my desired yoke depth.

How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 3: Finishing the neck and yoke


But before we resume knitting, we need to think about armhole depth, which is also the finished depth of our yoke. You might very well want your sweater to have “zero ease” (meaning the sweater’s chest and yours are the exact same size) but you always want some ease in the armhole depth. Measure diagonally from neck to underarm — running your measuring tape from wherever the top of your raglan seam will hit you down to your underarm — and take that lower measurement from about an inch or two below your actual underarm. That’s how long you want your raglan seam to be. I’m aiming for 9 inches, and I’m working at 5 rows per inch — that’s a total of 45 rounds of knitting. To increase my sleeves from the original 11 to 37, increasing at a rate of 2 stitches every other round, I’ll be done increasing in only 26 rounds — or a little more than half my yoke depth. And my 19 front/back increase rounds will be done over the course of 38 rounds, 7 rounds shy of my finished yoke depth. If you’re working at a finer gauge and/or making a smaller sweater, it’ll take you more of your yoke rounds to reach your target stitch counts. But regardless, if you’ll reach your counts at any point before your yoke is long enough to come down to your underarms, you’ll simply stop increasing and work even for the remainder of the yoke. But keep those raglan markers in place.

If, like me and my sleeves in this scenario, you reach your increase targets in a comparatively short portion of the yoke, you might opt to space them out a bit farther for the last few increases (every third, fourth, fifth round instead of every-other), so they sort of fade out rather than stopping abruptly. I didn’t do that on this sweater, and you can see it looks just dandy as is — one of those things that’s totally up to you.

So work until your yoke reaches your desired armhole depth, and next we’ll talk about separating the sleeves and body. It’s all downhill from here!

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.

How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 2: Raglans and neck shaping

How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 2: Raglans and neck shaping

As of our last installment, you’ve got your stitches cast on and raglan markers placed, so it’s time to get busy! If you’re taking the Reversible approach, you’ve joined for working in the round and knit however many rows of ribbing your heart desires. (Remember we’re using “ribbing” for shorthand when discussing the edge treatment; you may be doing garter or rolled stockinette or whatever.) And you’ve placed your raglan markers during the final round of your ribbing. Because you’re not doing any neck shaping, and you’re already knitting in the round, you’ll only be increasing at the raglans.

If you are taking the Shaped approach, we’ll get to the neck shaping after this little bit about …


Standard operating procedure is: You increase TWO STITCHES at each raglan seam, EVERY OTHER ROW. As I mentioned in Part 1, you have all the liberty in the world where the size and style of your “seams” is concerned. For this demo, I’ve marked off two stitches for the center of each raglan, and I’m doing simple kfb increases on either side of those. You might do m1’s, left and right, or yarnovers, or any increase you like. (Barbara Walker’s book contains a great photo comparison of 10 or 12 different options.) But bottom line is that each increase round involves an increase on each side of four seams, for a total of 8 stitches increased.

If you’re working the Reversible method, go ahead and start working those raglan increase rounds, alternating with straight rounds. For the neck shapers among us, we need to talk about …


In order to shape our front neck, we’ll be working back and forth for the first couple of inches, increasing at the raglans as described above (increasing on every right side row), and also at each end, the front neck stitches. As we add to these stitches, we create a crescent shape, with those front/end stitches reaching gradually toward each other, as seen in the tippy-top pair of photos up there.

There are varying opinions on frequency for this, and it’s part personal taste and part what neck shape you’re after. For a standard crewneck, increase at the neck every other row, same as your raglan increases. For more of a scoop neck, you might choose to increase every fourth row. For a V-neck, the frequency will depend on how deep you want the V to be. A faster rate of increase (i.e., every other row) will mean they’ll meet in the middle in fewer rows, for a shallower V. A slower rate of increase (i.e., every fourth row, or more) will mean they take more rows to meet, for a deeper V. This is relevant, too, if you’re knitting a cardigan — the rate of the neck increase will determine the shape of the neck and front of the cardigan in exactly the same way, from a crewneck to a jewel neck to a shallow V or more of a deep “boyfriend” V. For this crewneck, I’m increasing the neck stitches every other row, same as the raglans.

For a V-neck, you keep increasing until you have the same number of stitches in the back and in the two fronts combined, and the front stitches should meet when you lay it around your neck. But for a crewneck, there comes a point where you cast on additional stitches so you can join for working in the round. Again, when you do that is up to you. As your crescent grows, lay it around your neck — being mindful of where the raglans are sitting on your shoulders — and see what you think.* Mine, in the photo at top right, is about three inches of knitting (measured down the center of the back) and I’m happy with the dip at that point, ready to connect the ends. If you want a bigger differential between the back and the front, keep knitting and trying it on until you’re happy with it — just remember if you keep going you’ll wind up with a V-neck.


The only functional difference between a cardigan and a pullover is that the cardigan is never joined for working in the round — you just stop increasing at the ends and continue knitting back and forth for the whole sweater body. For a V-neck pullover, as noted, just join your stitches once your endpoints meet. For a crewneck, however, once you’ve got your desired neck shape, you need to cast on stitches to bridge the gap. How do you know how many? You count. Traditionally, we make pullovers with the same number of front and back stitches. So count your back stitches, then count your two bits of front stitches, add those together, and cast on the difference. Me, I’ve got 37 back stitches and 13 stitches on each side of the front, for a total of 26 front stitches. So I need 11 more. That’s my cast-on number.

Using backwards loop or whatever you like, cast on those additional stitches at the end of a right-side row — which will have been an increase row; remember that. Using a 24-inch circular, join for working in the round. But there’s the question of where your new BOR (beginning of round) is. Some patterns tell you, when you get to your first stitch marker, to switch it out for a contrasting marker, and this is your new BOR. Others will tell you to put a marker in the middle of your new cast-on stitches and that‘s your BOR. Either will work, but the latter is the more meticulous choice, as it will keep your increases at that front-left raglan more properly paired within the round.

Once you’ve joined and knitted a few rounds, put it on again and make sure you’re happy with the size and shape of your neck. You’ve done very little knitting so far — just a few small inches. It’s no big deal at this point to rip it out, make whatever adjustments and knit it again.

How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 2: Raglans and neck shaping


OK, so that was the hardest part! From this point forward, there’s no difference between the Reversible and Shaped methods. Assuming we’re doing a pullover, we’re all joined in the round, working only from the right side of the fabric, and continuing to work our raglan increases on every other round. What we’re creating now is our yoke. Carry on, but don’t knit more than a few inches of your yoke before the next installment, in which we’ll talk about how to know when you’re done increasing.


* A note about trying on your sweater: You should do it a lot — that’s the whole point of knitting in this fashion. To do so, you’ll need to be able to spread out your stitches to really see what you’ve got. You can always slip them all onto waste yarn, then back onto the needles, but that’s tedious. The best bet is to either knit or slip half the stitches onto a second needle. Both needles will need a cord that’s at least half the circumference of the sweater. Pull all four needle ends free (as seen in the lower left photo above), so the stitches rest on the cables, and then you can easily pull the sweater on and off over your head. (See also: Save time at try-on) My habit is to pretty much do this on the last round each night. I put it on before I put it away, see how I’m doing, and note what I need to do next. Be sure to keep good notes for yourself throughout this entire process!

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.

How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 1: Casting on and marking raglans

How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 1: Casting on and marking raglans

OK, let’s get started. For a top-down sweater, we obviously begin with the neck, which happens to be the hardest part. It isn’t hard, but it does take a little bit of explaining. (For the concise outline/pattern and intro, see Improv: A basic pattern for a top-down sweater)

You can make pretty much any kind of sweater from the top down: turtleneck, crewneck or v-neck pullovers, and cardigans with just about any kind of neckline. For this tutorial, I’m going to make an ultra basic raglan pullover — stockinette with a ribbed neck and cuffs — but the point here is that knowing the basic top-down method means you can do whatever you want with it. It doesn’t have to be stockinette, obviously, and the edging can be anything your heart desires. It doesn’t even have to have raglan sleeves — see, for instance, the contiguous sleeve method. And perhaps most importantly, you can use any yarn and needles that produce a fabric you love and want to make a whole sweater out of. In fact, the fabric is the starting point — or more specifically, your swatch is your starting point. Knit a large swatch using the exact yarn, needles and stitch pattern you plan to knit with (swatch in the round if you’re making your sweater in the round!), measure your stitch and row gauge, block the swatch, then measure it again. Once you have those numbers, you’re ready to go. The final post-blocking measurements are what you’ll use for your sweater math, but if your swatch changed meaningfully in the blocking, you’ll want to bear that in mind as you’re trying it on.

So. The easiest way to begin your sweater — which is an option if (and only if) you’re doing a turtleneck or crewneck/boatneck — will be to simply cast on all of your neck stitches, join in the round, and start knitting. In that case you’ll be making a sweater with no difference between back and front, and your cast-on edge will literally be the uppermost row of stitches of the garment. I’m going to refer to this henceforth as the Reversible method.

If, on the other hand, you want your turtleneck or crewneck to have a distinct front and back — with a neck that sits lower in the front than in the back — or if you’re knitting a neckline that isn’t a circle, such as a V-neck, then what you’ll cast on is a portion of the row of stitches immediately below the neck ribbing. (Or whatever sort of edging you choose — I’m just going to say “ribbing” when talking about edge treatments and you can fill in “or other variety of edging.”) You knit back and forth in rows for a couple of inches to shape the upper crescent of the neck, then join to work in the round. Later, you pick up stitches along the cast-on edge and knit upwards for the neck treatment. In addition to facilitating the neck shaping, that cast-on/picked-up ridge provides a little bit of structure, helping to keep the neck from stretching out. So I especially recommend this approach if you’re making an even moderately heavy sweater. I’ll refer to this as the Shaped method.

(I’ll note at this point that there is a hybrid option, which is to cast on and join your stitches, then use short rows to do the neck shaping. I haven’t tried this method so won’t be going into it here.)

So those are the first two things to think about: What type of neckline do you want? Will the shape/style of the neck and/or the weight of the sweater require that you take the Shaped approach? (For the record, I highly recommend that you always take the Shaped approach, no matter what!) Once you’ve decided, it’s time to cast on.


If you’ve decided to cast on, join immediately, and start knitting (again, resulting in a reversible garment — no difference between front and back), all you need to know is how many stitches. And how do you know? You consult that little magic carpet known as your gauge swatch — the thing that sets a knitter free. Let’s say you’re doing a reversible turtleneck; your gauge is 4 stitches and 5 rows to the inch; and you want your turtleneck to be 12 inches in circumference and 8 inches tall. 12 inches x 4 stitches per inch = 48 stitches, so that’s your cast on count. (Adjust the number for whatever multiple your stitch pattern might require — e.g., k3/p2 ribbing requires a multiple of 5, in which case you’d cast on 50.) Work your ribbing for 8 inches (or 40 rows in this example), then skip ahead to the next step, which is marking your raglans.

For a reversible crewneck, same thing. In this case, I’d advise making sure your neckline is wide enough — like, boatneck wide — that it won’t be riding up the front of your neck. (See Leigh’s pullover for an example.) To get the circumference for your cast-on edge, lay a piece of yarn around your neck and shoulders where you want the top of the neck to be, measure that length, and multiply the number by your stitch gauge. Rib for an inch or two and move on to marking your raglans.

(Again, I don’t actually recommend doing a reversible sweater and am evangelical about taking the Shaped approach, described below.)

How to improvise a top-down sweater, Part 1: Casting on and marking raglans


For a shaped neck, which is what I’ll be demonstrating and what’s pictured above, you cast on the total of the number of stitches needed for the back  neck, plus the tops of the two sleeves, plus 1 stitch on each end for the front neck. (Back neck stitches + [sleeve stitches x 2] + 2 = CO.) Again, your gauge swatch and your desired measurements will be your guide. Women tend to have a back-of-neck measurement between 5.5 and 7 inches. (If you don’t know your measurements, you can measure the back of a raglan sweater whose neck you like. Or have someone measure the distance across the back of your shoulders between two imaginary points drawn straight down from your earlobes. Or do both, compare, and decide what you want.) My back-of-neck is about 7 inches and my gauge here is 3.5 stitches and 5 rows to the inch, so I’m going with 25 sts for the back of neck. For each sleeve top, conventional wisdom is that you figure about 30% of the number of back neck stitches. I know I like a slightly higher ratio than that (and I’d always rather err on the side of too many neck sts than too few), so I started off with 11 per sleeve top, plus the 2 front neck stitches, as seen in the diagram above left, which would be 49 sts.

However, I want to put 2 stitches inside each raglan seam, which we’ll get to below, so I shuffled them around a little, borrowing from the back and sleeve counts and throwing in two extras to make up for the fronts, which brought my count to 51, divvied up as shown in the above right diagram. I’m a very visual person, so I like to draw myself a little diagram like that whenever I’m mapping out a neck, which I believe I picked up from Barry Klein. Do whatever makes sense to you!


The next step is to place markers indicating the position of your raglan seams. Of course, in top-down knitting they aren’t actually seams — they’re just the four places in the yoke where the shaping (the orderly repetition of increases) happens to create a design element. We’ll really get into this in the next installment, but for now just know that each increase round will involve working a pair of increases at each raglan.

If you’re doing the Reversible method, place your markers as you knit the last round of your ribbing. Divide your stitches by the same formula given above: Each sleeve should get roughly 30% of the number of back or front stitches. (Going back to our turtleneck example above, if you cast on 50 stitches, you could divide them like so: | 6 | 19 | 6 | 19 — with each of those vertical bars representing a raglan/marker. Use a contrasting marker for the first one so you know where the beginning of your round is.

If you’re doing the Shaped method, you can place your markers as you cast on or on your first (WS) row. I could have placed my raglan markers exactly as described by the above left diagram — 1 | 11 | 25 | 11 | 1. But again, I decided to err on the side of a too-large neck (which can be offset by deeper ribbing) and I also wanted to put two plain stitches in the center of each raglan, with an increase on either side. So as noted, I adjusted the distribution and ended up with: 1 | 2 | 9 | 2 | 23 | 2 | 9 | 2 | 1. You might need to read that a couple of times and compare it to both images above. In the top photo, you can literally see each stitch and marker in my cast-on.

You can do whatever you want here. You could simply place 1 marker at each of the 4 raglans and increase on either side (any increase stitch you like). Or you could put any reasonable number of stitches in between the increases to create a narrow or wide “seam.” You could seed-stitch those seam stitches or even cable them, if that makes your heart sing. But my favorite basic raglan is 2 stitches in the seam and a kfb on either side of them, so that’s what I’m doing here.

BASTE NOTE: You may notice in subsequent photos that I actually have three stitches between my raglan markers. On the first (WS) row, I increased one stitch in the center of each raglan seam for a basting stitch, which I’ll work in reverse stockinette for the duration of the yoke and will mattress stitch once the sweater is complete. Because I believe in seams. For more on that, see: How and why to seam a seamless sweater.

We’ll get into the specifics of how and when to increase in the next installment. But if you have questions so far, ask away!

(Brass stitch markers used throughout are from Fringe Supply Co.)

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.