How to improvise a top-down sweater: Introduction

how to knit a top-down sweater

When a perfectly capable knitter says to me that she can’t imagine knitting a sweater, I like to ask if she’s ever made a fingerless mitt. You know, with a basic thumb gusset? Because, if so, she already has made a sweater — a tiny, one-armed turtleneck that happens to be worn on the hand.

Think about it. The process for the two items pictured above (a 70-Yard Mitt* and my Almost Perfect Pullover) is identical:

  • Cast on.
  • Rib for a couple of inches.
  • Place markers designating increase points.
  • Increase every other round until you’ve got the desired dimension.
  • Transfer the gusset/sleeve stitches onto waste yarn.
  • Cast on a few extra stitches to bridge the gap, and rejoin the main part of the piece for working in the round.
  • Knit the rest of the hand/body until the desired length, adding any other desired shaping along the way.
  • Switch back to ribbing for the edge/waistband, and bind off.
  • Put the reserved stitches (for the thumb/sleeve) back onto needles, and pick up additional stitches into the cast-on ones.
  • Continue knitting the thumb/sleeve until the desired length, adding any other desired shaping along the way.
  • Switch back to ribbing for the edge/cuff, and bind off.

The only real difference is the number of stitches — although there wouldn’t be a huge difference between a fingering-weight mitt and a bulky sweater. And with a sweater you don’t have to turn around and make a second one! Although you’ll want to — and you will.

Actually, there is one key (optional) difference. Remember why I dubbed that sweater the Almost Perfect Pullover? It’s because in the method described above, which I used for that sweater, there was no neck shaping — nothing to cause the back of the neck to sit higher than the front. Ideally, that’s your first step, and so that’s where we’ll start this little tutorial, coming up in a day or three.


I had speculated that I might do two different top-down tutorials, but what I’m going to aim for is something in between. I’m going to take you through a basic raglan pullover, step by step, and describe how to think about and execute each step. I’m not going to get into all the technicalities and variations and alternate theories and methodologies — there’s a wealth of thought and knowledge beyond what I’ll cover, or even know — but I am going to tell you everything you’d need to know to improvise a basic sweater for yourself. For some of you, it will simply help you understand the process and visualize what’s being described (and why things are being done the way they are) when you’re working from a top-down pattern. For others, it will embolden you to try improvising a sweater on your own. And I hope it will also open up a rich discussion. I’ll be happy to answer any questions you have as we make our way through this series, and I hope others (more expert than I) will weigh in with additional advice — or even take issue with anything I might say. I love to learn as much as anyone, so please don’t be shy.

Keep in mind, when I say this is easy, that I’ve only known how to knit for a little over a year, as of the writing of this post. I made my first top-down sweater (baby-sized) in a class with Barry Klein in my third or fourth month of knitting. It is not rocket science. But it is life-changing, for a knitter. Understanding top-down theory will not only free you up to make pretty much whatever your heart desires, it will help you understand sweater construction — and knitting, in the most fundamental sense — in a way that will make you a more adventurous knitter. You’ll find yourself actually knitting without a pattern, as well as modifying patterns with confidence.

This series isn’t meant to replace all of the amazing books and classes available. It’s truly just a primer. Everyone should own Barbara Walker’s book “Knitting from the Top,” and I can’t encourage you enough to take classes wherever you can find them. Everyone has different ideas and approaches, and the more you hear and absorb, the better. For these posts, I’ll be drawing on what I’ve learned from Barbara Walker’s book, Barry Klein’s class (which he teaches at the Stitches conventions), patterns such as Jane Richmond’s Classic Raglan Pullover, which I highly recommend for first-timers, and of course some thoughts and conclusions of my own. I hope you find it useful! Part one coming soon.


*I swear I get no kickbacks from Hannah Fettig for mentioning this pattern; I just really love cranking these out. If you haven’t ever made a pair of mitts with a simple gusset like this, this is a great place to start! And then you’ll be one step closer to making yourself a sweater.


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