Knitting a top-down sweater with set-in sleeves

I'm working on a top-down raglan sweater right now, and I love this method for a couple of reasons: I like being able to try it on as I go (which I did last night and it fits perfectly!), and I love how the increases look on the raglan sleeves.

This will be the third top-down raglan I've knitted, and I was thinking the other day about different constructions-within-the-construction, i.e., is there a different way to do sleeves on a top-down sweater?

I found my answer in Kristeen Griffin-Grimes's French Girl Knits, which was on my bookshelf long before I started working at Interweave. She details knitting legend Barbara Walker's technique of knitting top-down sweaters with set-in sleeves.

And it's so easy!

Here's Kristeen to spell it out for us.

Barbara Walker's description of seamless set-in sleeve construction
in Knitting from the Top provides inspiration as well as in-depth detail for this intriguing technique. It gives knitters who love seamless construction the means to achieve the sophisticated look of made-in-pieces sweaters without the tricky and often frustrating armhole seams. This construction technique is especially useful for sweaters worked in solid colors or with fine-gauge yarns, where poorly sewn seams are obvious.

Top-down sweaters with set-in sleeves

Top-down & Set-in

This method has an elegant simplicity that knitters of all skill levels can achieve. I'm partial to this method because it gives a smooth look, requires that only a few stitches be picked up at the top of the shoulder (rather than around the entire armhole), and produces a tidy, almost invisible seam line, depending on the type of increase.

For this method, the sweater begins at the shoulder line with a provisional cast-on for the entire width of the shoulders. This approach lets the work progress in two directions-down the front and down the back. You work the front and back separately, with short-rows worked across the back to add a bit more fabric at the back neckline (Figure 1), until each measures about a third of the way to the underarms.

You then join front and back as you pick up stitches for the sleeves at each armhole edge (Figure 2).

For a pullover, work across the front stitches, pick up stitches for the left sleeve, work across the back, pick up stitches for the right sleeve, then join for working in rounds.

For a cardigan or a pullover with a low neckline, the row begins at the left front and ends at the right front. Continue to work the body and sleeves together to the base of the armholes (Figure 3).

From this point on, you work the garment the same way as a top-down raglan—you knit the body down to the hem, shaping the bust, waist, and hips along the way, and you knit the sleeves down to the cuffs, using decreases to create the desired taper (Figure 4).

—from French Girl Knits

Kristeen's design Viola uses this method; isn't it a darling sweater? I love the feminine accents at the neck and sleeve cuffs, and that button cuff is so smart.

Viola, from French Girl Knits

Kristeen has a wonderful story about her inspiration for Viola: "Stringed instruments hold a special place in my life. Once upon a time, my husband and I were itinerant musicians. It wasn't that we lacked a home; we were simply on a journey to a place we hadn't yet found. Along the way we played music on the street for a bit of money to propel our crusty Dodge van just one mile farther.

We actually met each other on the street, or more correctly the road, a wide esplanade in Santa Barbara called "The Green," where hitchhikers gathered in hopes of a ride north. When the van in which he was riding pulled up, he jumped out, guitar in hand. I jumped in, also toting a guitar. To this day, I bless whatever force pushed him back into that van and my life.

Viola was named for the stringed instrument whose curvaceous shape inspired its silhouette and whose rich wood called for the wine-deep tint of the yarn. Add floaty edgings to this top-down, set-in sleeve beauty if you wish or keep it as clean and simple as a well-played sonata."

Isn't that sweet?

If you don't have French Girl Knits, now's your chance to pick up a copy for a song (perhaps accompanied by a viola?), because it's on sale!


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Knitting Daily Blog
Kathleen Cubley

About Kathleen Cubley

Hello daily knitters! I'm the editor of Knitting Daily. I've been obsessed with knitting for about ten years now and my favorite projects are sweaters. I like the occasional smaller project, but there's nothing like yards of stockinette with a well-placed cable or a subtle stitch pattern here and there. I crochet a bit now and then—especially when I need to produce a baby blanket in time for the baby shower. I've been in publishing for 20 years and I'm finally exactly where I want to be: at the crossroads of knitting and communication. I live in Spokane, Washington and when I'm not knitting I enjoy gardening, snuggling with my dogs, swimming, reading, and playing in the snow in the winter. But, really, I'm pretty much always knitting!

4 thoughts on “Knitting a top-down sweater with set-in sleeves

  1. What a wonderful story from Kristeen…and the viola is a great piece of architecture for anyone who loves buildings. You can endlessly study stringed instruments to learn about life….and at times, knitting!

  2. Yes, it is nice to be able to try on a sweater as you go. I’m just finishing a top town sweater with raglan sleeves. The last sleeve is half done. The increases look great, but, unfortunately it’ll have to be for somebody much larger than I. I followed the pattern but the sweater didn’t follow me. Oh, well.

  3. Really?! That’s all there is to it to add the sleeves? It seems too easy! I feel like I’m missing something! Just put the live sleeve stitches on a holder when you reach the bottom of the armhole?

  4. Ok wait… I love the idea of top-down with set-in sleeves, and I’m totally ready to start designing a sweater around this concept… but I’m having trouble envisioning this technique in my head. Specifically, how do you get the hole for your head? If you cast on, knit down to the armhole, then go back and pick up the provisional cast-on and knit the back…. you’d get an envelope. Wouldn’t you?

    Or is it that you provisionally cast on for the front and back together, side-by-side, knit each separately, then at some point go back and knit upwards to the top of the sweater from the cast-on? Do you leave some live stitches on the needle while knitting the entirety of the sweater, then pick them up and knit the neckline edging? Do you bind off neckline stitches and the pick them up later? Am I over-thinking this? (Probably)

    Help! =P