Saturday, February 23, 2019

Why I Don't Like Knitting Top-Down Sweaters "In the Round"

Unless you're new to knitting sweaters, you've probably considered multiple reasons why the seamed versions may be preferable to the ones one knits in the round - particularly the top-down raglan kind. Having considered all of the factors, you may still prefer to knit a lot of top-down raglans in the round and, if that's the case, round-away. Every time I knit one though, it does not spark joy (and btw, neither does that stupid term that is now so deeply embedded in my mind, I appear to use it conversationally?!). It actually sparks irritation. Like, from beginning to end. So why have I just done it again??

Allow me to elaborate.

For starters, I think we can agree that knitting any sweater is a worthy project and one should feel very good about giving it a go and learning and completing it and wearing it and taking all the credit while wearing. However, I do believe it's clear that the knit-in-the-round sweaters (KITR from here on in) are technically "easier" than the worked-flat sort, all things being equal. FWIW, no one is going to argue that knitting any sweater - even the chunkiest thing, done in the round in stockinette with no embellishments of any type - is a quick win. For a new knitter (or one who loves the fit and style), KITRs are great. But in my personal experience, things generally look complicated when they are complicated.

Here's the thing - I do like complexity and I cannot lie. I don't think I've ever made a KITR that I've worn in the end. I've given them away or ripped them back to reuse the yarn. As I rarely make sweaters using needles that are thicker than 3mm with any yarn above sport-weight (and that's slim yarn, for the non-knitters who may be reading), that means I have spent a considerable amount of time in my day making sweaters that I then rip out. And, yeah, I do feel bad about having wasted hours and hours of time.

Moreover, here's what I generally dislike about the KITR:
  • In its standard format, it's a "one size fits all" construction methodology, assuming that the body is equally dimensioned on the front and back.
  • In order for the neckline to sit well, the front body needs to be "lower" than the back body, which requires short-rowing of the sweater just below the ribbing. It's super hard to do this well when knitting stockinette, IMO. German short rows (or maybe Japanese) are the best way to go...
  • I like seams! They give structure but they also delineate the garment. The KITR feels a bit like an eel when you wear it (to me). Where are all of the lines?
  • KITR construction is boring. Even when you shake it up - and I've thought long and hard about how I'm going to do my next KITR (yeah, I'm not going to pretend it'll never happen again - these patterns are popular!) such that the angle of the raglan sleeve will be very acute. It's still apt to be a massive amount of stockinette (not that it needs to be, I suppose). Knit stitch forever is not as fun as breaking it up with lace or cables or colour work or even a freakin' increase/decrease every once in a while. I didn't think I'd ever say this but, there you go.
  • Depending on whom you talk to, the raglan sleeve calls attention to a proportionately large bust. I actually believe that a raglan worked well need not do this, but I agree that the "standard" raglan proportions can have this impact. Changing the angle of the raglan can mitigate this, as can knitting the body at diff inc ratios than the sleeves. But then this method becomes less simple.
  • I have slim arms. And proportionately large breasts. The kind of raglan that fits me is so "unequally worked" that I can only increase evenly (aka 8 stitches per row) for part of the time. Add in the fact that my shoulder to armscye dimension is very short (6.75") and it's a bunch of crazy going on that I could totally avoid by using just about any other sort of sleeve construction. If I'm going to do math, why not go fancy?
You can see where I'm coming from.

I made my most recent raglan (the Party Top) because I was in the mood for a palate (palette?!) cleansing quick knit with a fun painted superwash yarn that's reminiscent of Madeline Tosh. Yeah, it did occur to me that I should find a raglan-sleeved pattern for fingering-weight yarn but the DK-weight party top seemed (dare I admit it) faster.

If you don't like "robust" yarn for a slim-lined sweater, don't freakin' use it (says Kristin to herself, having used it). Note: While many will suggest that DK-weight is fairly slender yarn, those who hang out in Thin-Fingeringland tend to disagree.

But this story ends up well. While I may eventually rip back this raglan pullover in DK-weight yarn, I've learned a LOT:
  • Tubular cast off!!! It's so easy and so fun. I will never bind off a hem without it again. Note: My first attempt isn't perfect but my improvement ratio gives me lots of hope. There are a zillion tutorials for 1x1 rib tubular cast off - or 2x2 for that matter. Find one and try it out. I swear, it is in no way scary.
  • No part of this sweater has escaped being ripped back at least once. My willingness to do this has yielded some great fit - even if the overall construction doesn't thrill me.
  • I hate twisted rib. In the round it's bad enough. Knit flat (I did knit my sleeves flat so that I could diminish the too-large upper arm circumference optimally quickly, while trying to avoid too much fabric under the arm) it's a misery. I'm done with twisted rib in any volume because it causes me wrist and thumb pain.
  • I have really slender arms in the scheme of things. I've got to stop making sleeves an inch to 2 inches too big in diameter, simply because the pattern ratios call for it. The thickest part of my bicep is less than 10" in circumference. Most raglans assume that one has arms of a certain girth when one has boobs of a certain size. This ain't the construction method for me (unless I want to fuss - and who wants to fuss with a purportedly unfussy construction method that isn't even that cute or structural in the end).
  • I don't actually like the look of any of the hand-knit raglan "shoulder seams" that one can devise - they all seem kind of homemade to my eye.
  • Should I do this again, I've got some tricks to try that I believe will improve the angle of the raglan (to better suit my frame), change the shape of the neckline and provide a less-chunky-feeling outcome (this involves a raglan made with lace-weight yarn?!!?).
I'm starting to understand that the sweaters I enjoy making are complexly patterned and either thicker than or thinner than DK/sport-weight because, for me, the neckline and shoulder fit are PARAMOUNT. Truth is, if I want a slender, fitted knit, I'm better off buying some jersey and sewing a top OR going to a nice store and spending on a machine knit of slender-gauge.

But enough about me. What's your perspective on this? Do you like the top-down raglan knit in the round? Do you prefer another construction method? Do you like the skinny yarn best? Do you, by any chance, have proportionately slim arms and big boobs but still find raglans attractive? Let's talk!


  1. i have a similar shape and have instinctively stayed away from top down with raglan sleeves. I am not as an experienced knitter as you and find this post reaffirming. However there is the siren call of all those cute patterns!

    1. It's impossible to lose hope that the next DK raglan is gonna change the landscape :-)

  2. Hi Kristin: I love your posts on these topics because you always say everything I think I would say if I knew as much about knitting and fitting as you do!

    I am mostly a garment sewist who formerly had larger breasts and now, due to a cancer related bilateral mastectomy, has none at all. So I have experienced the challenges of fitting a raglan sleeve to a bodice in both conditions. I am a moderately experienced but slow knitter and have been in search of a cardigan sweater pattern that fits the body I have now.

    I decided to try the Kirsten Hipsky Dylan top-down raglan sweater pattern. It has a v-neck, knitted-on front binding, some waist shaping, and a simple but not excruciatingly boring ribbed garter stitch pattern. I thought I would be able to adapt it to my measurements by adding some circumference below the waist. I have finished the body and am about half way down one sleeve.

    As far as I can tell, the upper body fits well and the slight additions I made at the hip are about right. Mind you, this is on me with the totally flat chest, so I don’t know that this would hang nicely on someone with anything other than very small breasts. It seems to me that the nature of a top-down raglan has limitations in this area based on the geometry of the design and is inherently not a great approach to fitting most women’s bodies.

    However, for me, with my current upper body, so far so good. But after I got several inches into the first sleeve I was quite shocked at how wide it was—far larger than my arm, and in a design sense, not really in keeping with the fitted nature of the body of the sweater. I ripped the sleeve back and tried again, this time decreasing a total of 18 stitches over the first six ridges of the pattern rather than the decrease of 6 stitches over six ridges that the pattern called for. I am going to continue on a much steeper decrease in order to have a more fitted lower sleeve as well. There aren’t many comments about this pattern in ravelry and some of them are about this same problem, so I know it isn’t just me.

    With my new adjustments and more aggressive decreasing, the sleeve shape seems much improved, though when I tried the sweater on, there is still a little bulge in the front of the armpit that I don’t like. If I had breasts, this little bulge would probably be pulled forward toward the front bodice. So I’m going to let it go and hope that once I start wearing the finished sweater, it just smooshes down and I forget about it.

    I think that fitting the sleeve to the bodice of any fitted garment is one of the most challenging portions of the process, whether it is sewn or knitted. The problem with managing this in a knitted garment is that it’s so much more work to make adjustments in a top-down, one-piece garment. If the article of clothing is made of separate pieces of fabric—or even separate knitted sections—the adjustments are much easier. It still takes skill, but one is not unmaking and remaking whole sections of the sweater. This gets to your point about seams providing many more options for adjusting fit. The top-down seamless sweater is great if you are totally symmetrical, or know exactly how to get the perfect fit, or just don’t care about the fit. But anything else and you’re screwed.

    The other thing I find annoying about knitting a top-down sweater—at least one with long sleeves—is that it is a pain to manage whole rest of the sweater while I am knitting the sleeve on a 16” circular needle. I can’t really enjoy the knitting when about every 30 stitches I have to stop and flop the whole thing over in my lap so I can continue. I know there are other ways to manage knitting sleeves, but they wouldn’t really work with this pattern.

    I’ve gotten this far so I plan to finish this and I fully intend to wear it.

    But next time I start knitting a sweater, it’s definitely going to be in pieces, and I won’t complain about the process of sewing it together.

    1. Wow - what a fab and robust comment! You have a window onto fitting that many of us never experience. I'm sure this is going to teach you (and, by proxy, us) a lot. Also, I hope that you are feeling well and healed after your surgery! I'm always surprised by the popularity of the top down raglan KITR because it never seems to fit anyone :-) But I'm off to check out the KHD one you have mentioned.

      I'd recommend being careful about the sleeve decreases because - as you've seen - going from wide at sleeve underarm to narrow really quickly has created some puffy underarms in my experience. This time, I've tried to mitigate it by knitting the sleeves flat (cuz it gets rid of some gusset bulk under arm), but I still have a bit of an issue on my finished sweater. It'll be fine with some extra steaming and wearing... It's never occurred to me that what minimizes this issue is the fact that the boob pulls the gusset forward slightly and uses up a bit of the extra ease. I wonder how this will work out for you now that your chest is flat.

      I couldn't agree more with this statement: "The top-down seamless sweater is great if you are totally symmetrical, or know exactly how to get the perfect fit, or just don’t care about the fit. But anything else and you’re screwed."

      I suppose the beauty in knitting is that there's something for everyone - and many diff ways to have fun. I too will be seaming next sweater. Wait! I'm doing a fair isle vest and it's totally seam-free. Lord.

  3. I have a similar shape to you and yet at this point in my knitting life I prefer seamless sweaters. The appeal is in constructing a complex shape in 3 dimensions. If I'm just knitting in 2D it's like I might as well cut fabric and sew. So, basically I'd rather make the sweater fit me by doing math and dealing with a bunch of different increase rates and such, because that's what makes knitting interesting and worth it for me. But yeah seamed sweaters hang better from the shoulder. Can't argue with that :)

    1. I totally understand where you're coming from! I get it - I just feel like the pieces to seam have their own 3-D component, with shaping (and their own math :-)) Thanks for sharing your perspective!

  4. I finished 12 garments in 2018, so I would call myself an experienced garment maker at this point (although moreso in crochet than knitting, I'm solidly an intermediate-level knitter and happy to hang out there forever in endless-knit-stitch land).

    Have you tried any top-down seamless yoke sweaters? I don't know if they would work for your body type any better -- I barely have boobs and my torso shape is absurdly box-like, think "rectangle body type" with no visible waist definition from a distance -- but I personally prefer the look and fit of yokes to raglans.

    And in the realm of experimenting with different fits, what about saddle shoulder or (unlikely but) drop shoulder? If you want complexity -- have you looked at the contiguous method or the Ziggurat method of top-down seamless construction?

    I'll freely admit that of the 16 completed sweaters in my Ravelry projects, 0 were seamed in the structural sense (drop shoulder sleeves with body worked in the round doesn't count). But I got a great fit with my very first sweater, a DK-weight crochet lace top-down seamless yoke, so I didn't see the point in making extra work for myself.

    Wrt complexity - hah, I hear you, just substitute "crochet" for "knitting" :) Ideally I would exercise my brain in crochet and reserve knitting for endless stockinette in the round to produce lovely drapey opaque fabric. But of course there are many more knitting designs and designers than for crochet, so I end up being tempted by full-on knitted garments.

    1. You are experienced and your crochet is lovely - I wish there were more crochet patterns too, not that I'm good at crochet.

      I've knitted one seamless top down yoke and I much preferred it to the regular raglan. I think yoke shaping has an elegance that the similarly constructed raglan can't achieve. I totally have to go to look up the Ziggurat method...

  5. If knitting stockinette in the round is boring at least it’s less painful than knitting (and purling) it flat. If you want lace, texture, or stranding, there’s nothing to stop you.
    That said, having made a grand total of two finished sweaters (and 70% through a third) in the round, I definitely prefer bottom up to top down. Because knitting sleeves after the body is complete means everything keeps getting snarled and twisted. I made the Carbeth and it was a revelation how easy and fast it was. Yes, bulky yarn, but also easier to handle. I’m working on a Ranunculus with worsted and it’s easy to see why projects die on Sleeve Island. Bonus with bottom up, the sleeve is the gauge swatch!
    I think fitting the sleeves would also be easier with bottom up, btw. I like raglan sleeves because I have a flat bust but also find there are fitting problems with set in sleeves generally. Maybe my shoulders are narrow?
    Stephanie McPhee suggests casting on more stitches in front if you have a large bust...she may have said more but it’s not my issue so I kind of forgot Also I have seen some sweater patterns with bust darts, which might give you a better fit.

    1. It is less painful than knitting and then purling back - but secretly I like to purl :-) And I agree about the irritation of knitting the sleeves with the rest of the body flopping around.

      I've knitted bust darts into sweaters before but my fit tech (and knitting ability) were not what they are now. Having said this - they always made the end result too baggy, regardless of how reserved I was. Later on I read that for most women (esp those who are narrow otherwise), bust darts are generally unnecessary and can cause more probs than they resolve. But I should give it another go so that I could fit the shit out of the rest of the garment.

  6. I do not generally like raglans in any form, knit or sewn, but I always hold on to the fantasy hope that such a thing can be perfectly constructed to fit.

    I do not like fitted sweaters that are knit with heavier yarns or on larger needles, and dk would count as heavy. But it do have looser, non-close-fitting sweaters that knit from heavier yearns. I just finished a slouchy cashmere sweater knit in dk cashmere on size 7 needles. But I am also taller and although I have curves, the loose linear line has always suited me.

    I do not like sweaters in the round. I suppose I like complexity. I also like structure and I feel that the seaming holds the line. I also feel like seamless sweaters twist around and do not flatter my body which is not symmetrical.

    I have one sweater that I knit in the round which I knit and wear and love. It is a yoke sweater, not raglan, in a bulky brushed cashmere, and is knit in the Icelandic style. It was knit in either the late 90s or early 00s and was meant to be bulky. At that time I was thinner and less busty, but the sweater was so oversized that it somehow still looks good.

    Even though I am tall and long waisted, I think part of my problem with raglan sweaters in the round is that I am fairly busty, but also because I need a deep armhole. I have a small upper chest, and am short from shoulder to bust point. At the shoulder I am broad in back but not in front, at the bra band I am smaller in back than front, and for a close fitting armscye the depth would be 9” but my bust point is also 9” from my shoulder, and raglans always just seem too both pull where I don’t want them to pull and leave too much fabric lying around right where I do not want it.

    None of these things are impossible, or even all that unusual, but they do mean the standard top down raglan sweater pattern doesn’t tend to fit me well. I will probably fiddle with yoked sweaters further, but increasingly think I am just going to give up on raglans altogether. Now that I’ve said that, watch me fall in love with a raglan.

  7. I totally agree about fitted sweaters requiring slender yarn. That's the proportional sweet spot, IMO. And I too find yoked sweaters more flattering than the regular raglans. They're effectively the same so I'm surprised by how one is more pleasing to wear (and to look at on my frame). And yet, I have given away my yoked sweaters just like my raglans. I think my early attempts were looking for refinement I might be able to bring to the fore now. It's always fascinating to me to read about the proportions of others! I can actually get away with a 6.5" armscye depth - 6.75" is prob my optimal depth. This seems to work fine with many knitting constructions but, when I transfer it to sewing, it's a real challenge. I'm just starting to understand that having a very short shoulder to bust length, proportionately, means that most sewing patterns are too long in that spot. But I'm also trying to keep my fitting compulsion in check. Egad.