Examining Bottom Up Set-In Sleeve Construction

If you listened to Episode 49 of the SweetGeorgia Show and shared their befuddlement on my design Ribbons and how the upper body is constructed, this post is for you! 

Bottom up set-in sleeve sweaters are my absolute FAVORITE way to work sweaters in one piece, but with the popularity of top-down knitting this method seems to be unfamiliar to some. (Other designs of mine worked this way include Turners Falls Cardigan, Polonaise Cardigan, Cables 'n Cats, Kitsunetsuki Cardigan, and Praline Pullover. Can you tell this method is my absolute favorite?!) I like this method for a few reasons. As a designer, my brain groks it much more easily than top-down sweaters and I can write and grade these designs across multiple sizes without knitting them myself. (Ribbons was knit by one of my awesome sample knitters, Joni.) As a knitter, I like getting the big, boring chunks of knitting out of the way first by completing much of the body and sleeves before finishing with the more interesting yoke. And of course, you get the bonus of attractive, well-fitting sleeve caps that have the appearance of set-in sleeves without requiring any seaming!

My drawing skills aren't the best, so here's my attempt to better illustrate this construction method for you. 

To reach the point shown above, you'll knit the body from the bottom up until the body reaches the underarms. For a cardigan, the body is knit flat; for a pullover, the body is knit in the round. On the last row or round, you'll bind off or set aside some stitches located under the underarms. This is so you can seam or graft the underarms closed once the sweater is finished. After that, put the body aside and knit the sleeves in the round from the cuff until they reach the underarm as well. Like with the body, you'll be binding off or setting aside a few stitches where the underarm is located before continuing. You now have one body and two sleeves...time to combine them!

(I reused scrap paper so apologies for the text showing through a little!) This step is the most fiddly and it's helpful to use a longer circular needle at first to accommodate the large number of stitches all at once. From here on out, I'll be speaking as if you're knitting Ribbons (or a cardigan) as opposed to a pullover, but the only difference is knitting flat vs knitting in the round. Otherwise the concept is still the same.

The joining row is worked on the RS. You'll knit across the right front of the body until you reach the stitches that have been set aside for the underarm. At this location, you grab one of your sleeves and knit across all the sleeves stitches (excepting the sleeve stitches which have already been set aside for the underarm.) Once the sleeve stitches have been joined onto the same needle as your body, you continue to knit on the body on the other side of that underarm gap. Knit across the back until you reach the second underarm gap, then knit across the second sleeve stitches to join the second sleeve to the body. Continue knitting the body on the other side of the second underarm gap, and knit to the end of the row which will leave you on the left front of the cardigan. Your work should look like this now:

Arguably, you could try it on if you wanted to but it's not going to stay on due to a super wide neckline! Now we need to shape the yoke to create the look of set-in sleeves and to ensure the cardigan becomes you know, an actual wearable thing. That will stay on.

This is the part that confuses most people, since the directions can look like a mess of decreases. It helps to remember what the armhole and sleeve cap of a traditional seamed set-in sleeve look like, since we're going for the same effect. We're simply recreating it as a 3D shape, instead of working it in 2D and relying on seaming to transform it into a 3D item.

A shaped armhole (left) starts with a series of bind-offs followed by a section of more gradual decreases to create the curve needed to accommodate your shoulder movement. A set-in sleeve cap (right) is designed to match that armhole curve on the front and back armhole, so each side of the sleeve cap also begins with a series of bind-offs followed by decreases. You'll generally wind up doing more decreases on a sleeve cap than an armhole, since you're attempting to create a bell curve to ease the sleeve cap into the top of the armhole.

How does this translate into Ribbons? The instructions look something like this:

  1. Decreases are worked only on the body.
  2. Decreases are worked on both body and sleeves.
  3. Decreases are worked only on the sleeves.

The rate of these decreases depends on the design itself, the gauge, and the sizes offered, so these steps might not all be followed if enough decreases can be satisfactorily completed in another step. For example, my Turners Falls Cardigan is worked in bulky yarn and I went straight to Step 2 for the yoke decreases since I had far less stitches to work with and didn't need to perform decreases only on the body.

When all yoke shaping is complete, you wind up with:

  1. A small amount of sleeve stitches.
  2. Stitches on the fronts equaling the intended shoulder width.
  3. Stitches on the back divided into three zones: the back neck, and stitches on either side equaling the intended shoulder width. These side zones should contain the same number of stitches as the fronts.

You finish off by working 4 short row sections. The first shapes the right front shoulder while slowly eating up some sleeve stitches to create that rounded top of the sleeve cap. The second section shapes the back right shoulder and eats up the rest of the right sleeve stitches. You repeat this process for the left side, so you're left with equal sets of stitches on the front and back for each shoulder. Then you graft, 3 needle BO, or seam to join the shoulders, and graft or seam the underarms closed!

The end result?

A beautiful, wearable cardigan with flattering, well-shaped shoulders and sleeves!

Are you ready to conquer a bottom up set-in sleeve sweater now? Let me know if you enjoyed this post and want to see more technical content from me!

Gauge is Good (Or How to Properly Break the Rules)

It's my professional obligation as a designer to tell you that swatching is important because I want you to swatch. I want you to check your gauge when you knit one of my designs so your project comes out the size you want and you're a happy customer!

My work has changed my relationship with swatching. We designers have it pretty easy, in that any patterns we write are based on our own personal gauges. Once we have a fabric we like, we're golden! Let's go do some math! Knitting from other people's patterns (OPP from here on out), however, means I have to (or at least am supposed to) swatch for realsies. If my gauge doesn't match, I have to keep trying if I want to knit that pattern.

Such was the case with Tinder, my first planned OPP project of the year. I've had 11 balls of Valley Yarns Greenwich stashed away for...several years. A friend of mine on Ravelry gifted me the pattern in December 2013. You do the math!

Like a good, dutiful, knitter I started my merry swatching with a US 8 as called for in the pattern. I felt confident, and excited. Finally I would have my grey sweater I had been dreaming of! The swatch was....too big. Like 1 st PER INCH too big. I dropped down to size 7 needles and tried again. Still too big, but getting closer--16 sts over 4" vs the called-for 18 sts over 4". The fabric looked great, much better than on size 8's.

1st attempt on top, 2nd attempt on bottom

1st attempt on top, 2nd attempt on bottom

I was cranky at this point, though my troubles made sense. Shelter, the yarn called for in the pattern, is technically a worsted weight and Greenwich is technically a slightly thicker aran. Not really apples to oranges in my book....clementines to oranges?

I tried to be good and swatch once more on size 6 needles, but quit about 3 rows in when I realized I hated the knitting experience of using small-ish needles with that yarn. Ultimately, while I really really want my awesome grey sweater, I need to enjoy knitting it too!

So I wound up cheating and casting on for a smaller size than I would normally choose, because with my gauge on US 7's it will come out to be the size I want.

There is a way to do this with more certainty though, as opposed to just guessing. Don't guess, especially not with a garment!

I looked through the pattern and found the stitch counts of each piece at the bust area. I'm not going to list the actual numbers here to protect the integrity of the pattern, but for example, let's say each front was 30 sts for the smallest size and 60 sts for the back piece. Subtract 2 sts from each piece to account for seaming the sides together and picking up sts along the front for the button bands--28 and 58, respectively. 28 + 58 + 28 =114 sts. If the pattern gauge calls for say, 3 sts per inch, that would turn out to be 38" around. Add in a 1" buttonband and you've got a 39" finished bust measurement. But if your gauge is 3.5 sts per inch, you'd wind up with a 33.5" bust (32.5" body + 1" buttonband). Big difference! That's why gauge is so important.

While I would have aimed for the 34.25" size if I was on point with my gauge, with my new gauge I'm going to be following the directions for the 31.5" size. If my math is correct, I'll wind up with a 34.25" anyways, which will give me just enough ease with my 33" bust. Yay!

You can use this technique even if your gauge is on point, but maybe your personal measurements don't jive with the sizes offered. If it's a sweater worked in pieces and seamed, you can even combine pieces from different sizes to get a custom size, like following the directions for size M for the cardigan fronts and size L for the cardigan back. Some adjustments might need to be made in length-based areas, like the body length of the piece or the armhole depth, since those measurements don't always stay consistent over multiple sizes. You'll just have to make some design choices and maybe rework some increase or decrease sections to fit your new franken-garment. If you're used to modifying patterns, you have the skills to tackle this technique!