Tips for Working Tricky Armholes

The Drawstring Raglan from Interweave Knits 2008

People are used to knitting raglans from the top-down, but the Drawstring Raglan is done from the bottom up, and I’m noticing a lot of emails asking for help at the part where you cast on extra stitches for the sleeves.

Knit the front stitches to the midpoint of the underarm, then cast on stitches for the sleeve, then knit across the back to the midpoint of the other armhole, cast on stitches for the next sleeve, and knit across the front.

There are no extra stitches to form the base of the armhole between the front and back of the sleeve. Let’s say I’m going to knit the 40″ size. The front of the sleeve starts after stitch 55 and the back of the sleeve connects to stitch 56. When you knit around from front to sleeve to back, the strands between stitches 55 and 56 get distorted and pulled out of shape.

One solution: This is from Katie Himmelberg, assistant editor of Interweave Knits: “If you’re working on a circular needle as the pattern suggests, after casting on the stitches, slide as many as possible to the cord portion of the circular (this will include the last stitch from the body) before knitting the next body stitch. This will help alleviate the strain on that stitch.”

However, if that still isn’t working out for you, maybe there’s another way. Putting on my problem-solving hat, I realize that people are stymied by having only two stitches at the actual underarm–one before the sleeve stitches and one after. What if we added in a few more stitches there?  Perhaps we could do a very slight modification, a la Elizabeth Zimmermann…

Let’s create an actual underarm!

How Many armhole stitches? EZ’s formulas suggest that an underarm be about 8% of the total body stitches. I’m going to use the total body stitches after the decreases at the waist, rather than those at the hem, because the waist stitches reflect a more accurate body fit. So: 220 stitches for the size 40. 8% of 220 is about 18 stitches, which is about 3″ of armhole according to the gauge. That seems monster huge to me, based on this pattern’s style and cut, so I am going to cut that down by half to 9 stitches. So: The base of my armhole will be 9 stitches wide. 5 of the 9 stitches will come from each front panel and the remaining 4 stitches will come either side of the back. (I want the armhole slightly wider at the fronts in order to accommodate the pull of my bust.)

Stitch count for each front: Pattern specifies working 55 stitches to sleeve. 55 minus 5 equals 50.

Stitch count for the back: Subtract 4 stitches for each side: 110 minus 8 equals 102.

Here’s how I proceed:

On the WS row just before casting on for the sleeves, work as follows for the 40″ (modify your stitch counts as needed for your particular size)

Next Row: (WS) Work 50 stitches across front in pattern. Leave those 50 stitches on a holder or spare circular needle. Bind off the next 9 stitches for underarm. Work 102 back stitches. BO 9 nine sts for underam. Work remaining 50 stitches for other front. Check stitch counts: 50 + 9 + 102 + 9 + 50 = 220.

Next Row: (RS) Knit 50 stitches across front. Cast on the 70 sts required for the sleeve, rejoin knitting to the back stitches and knit across back. Cast on the 70 stitches for the second sleeve, rejoin knitting to other front and continue knitting to end.

If this still seems awkward to you using only one long circular needle, you can put the sleeve stitches on dpns and knit the body stitches on circulars.

And finally: If you still get loose stitches at the underarms no matter what you do, you could work some duplicate stitches over that area to help tighten things up. Or, you could even work a row of single crochet there to ensure that the loose stitches did not become looser over time.

Could you work this pattern from the top down?

Well, sure. The one thing you might have to do is flip the order of the lace pattern rows–you still want the actual lace row nearer the top of the garment, so this would be come Row 2 instead of Row 4. The other caveat is that you might not get the nice scalloped edge at the hem if you are working top down.

What about you? Do you have any suggestions or ideas for tricky underarms? Leave a comment!


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Sandi Wiseheart is the founding editor of Knitting Daily. She is now the author of the popular Knitting Daily blog: What’s on Sandi’s Needles.


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11 thoughts on “Tips for Working Tricky Armholes

  1. Re: “The other caveat is that you might not get the nice scalloped edge at the hem if you are working top down.”

    Is that a feather and fan lace pattern that is used in this sweater? Because I have knit a couple little top-down vest-cardi things with the feather and fan lace pattern, and I found that they both scalloped quite nicely at the bottom. I think that other similar lace patterns would do the same.

  2. Thanks! I just bought yarn for this today, then looked up the pattern on Ravelry and came across the holey armpit issue. I had one other idea for fixing it — what about twisting the two stitches in question (as in Right Twist or 2-stitch cable) in the row just before the cast-on? Then they wouldn’t be able to pull apart.

  3. For me, I would want to do some plain knitting before I worried about the armholes. I am one of those women who needs an inch or two more of the top to make the empire part hang correctly. I think in the case where the sleeves/armholes are not directly on top of the skirt, the issue may be alleviated to some extent.

  4. I’ve had problems with tricky armholes in the past but didn’t have the time or the patience to ask for solutions. This was before I signed on to Knitting Daily which has been a Godsend now that I have to time and the patience (retired) and am trying new knitting techniques. Thanks for the suggestions to the problem with the Drawsting Raglan which I want to knit.

  5. Just this morning I finished making the Drawstring Raglan, whew….I used Royal Llama Silk by Plymouth and loved the colors I used. And, I did have a huge problem when it came to casting on the stitches for the sleeve, no matter what I tried I could not knit those stitches off my needle, and just for the record I was using a long circular needle. Finally I decided to solve the problem my own way. I used a crochet chain for a cast on, knit the rest of the top and then kitchener stitched the top to the bottom. When I got to the live stitches around the sleeve, I did a slip stitch crochet into the live stitches, it all work out great. I also crocheted a chain with 2 strands held together for my drawswtring. Will post a picture..just as soon as I figure out how!


  6. A trick that I have used, for getting those lovely scallops at the bottom when working top down, is on the last row (ie. the one before bind off), at the dips in the scallops, knit 2(or 3) tog, and at the points of the scallops make 2 (or 3). Doing this also helps the scallops points to sit flat and not curl up.