Skip to content

Sweater Construction: The Many Ways to Knit a Sweater

July 29, 2021

There are MANY ways to knit a sweater. Let’s learn about some of them!

Jump directly to:

What does ‘construction’ mean?

In the context of knitting, ‘construction’ means the way that an item is knit. It describes which pieces are knit first, whether they are knit in rows or rounds, and in which direction the finished knit grows. We always describe the construction of our designs, so you can visualize how the project will come together.

Construction diagram for the Wheat Scarf, showing how it is knit from end to end in rows.

For example, most scarves are knit in rows, from end to end. Most hats are knit in the round, starting at the brim and eventually decreasing at the crown.

Sweaters are a bit more complex. A sweater is made of four ‘tubes’ that cover your torso, arms, and yoke or shoulder section. These tubes can be made and joined together in several different ways, that is, using several different construction methods. This tutorial provides a broad overview of common sweater construction methods.

Sleeves and body in progress, this little sweater is knit in the round from the bottom up.
The start of a bottom-up sweater knit in the round: two sleeve tubes and one body tube. Next they’ll be joined for working the yoke section, which is just another tube that decreases from shoulders to neckline.

On our website, we describe the construction method for each and every one of our designs! On any pattern page, click the View Pattern Details button and then navigate to the construction section. To see some examples, check out the free Flax sweater construction, the Lush cardigan construction, and the Vivid blanket construction.

Knit in the round (seamlessly) or knit in pieces and seamed

Garments can be separated into two broad categories:

  1. Garments knit in the round by working a series of tubes that are joined together with minimal seaming
  2. Garments knit flat (in rows) and seamed together after the pieces are complete
Seamless and seamed sweater construction methods. Illustration.

Depending on the garment shape you’re looking for, one or the other method might be better suited for your project. However, many shapes can be worked either way – by knitting seamlessly in the round OR by knitting flat pieces and seaming them together. Alexa and I like to knit and publish seamless knitting patterns because we find them simpler. Some knitters prefer to knit in pieces and seam; perhaps they prefer to work on straight needles or perhaps they like the firmness and structure that seams can add to a finished knit.

Is there one way to make a sweater that’s BETTER than the others?

There are a LOT of opinions out there, but let’s not get blue in the face arguing about whether the toilet paper should run off the top or the bottom of the roll, folks!

Whatever method brings you pleasure, whatever way you can manage, whatever construction results in a finished garment that works for you or your loved ones – that is the ‘best’ way for you…at least for now. If you’re like Alexa and me, you’re continually learning and experimenting to expand your knowledge of garment construction. The method that works best for you today may change tomorrow, as you continue to learn and to grow your skills. Our best advice? Try a couple different methods and see what YOU think!

Bottom-up and top-down construction

Direction is another aspect of garment construction. When a sweater is knit from the neckline downward to hems and cuffs, we say it’s knit top-down. When it’s knit from the hem and cuffs upward to the underarm and through the yoke, we say it’s knit bottom-up.

TOP-DOWN DIAGRAM

Yoke sweater construction diagram. illustration.
The Embers sweater is knit top-down. From the neckline, you work in increasing rounds from the yoke. At the underarms, the work is separated into three tubes (body, right sleeve, and left sleeve). Each of these tubes is knit from underarm down to the hem or cuff.

Working top-down is great because you can easily adjust the body and sleeve lengths after the fact – and it’s a bit easier to try it on as you go, which gives you a rough idea of how your sweater will fit.

BOTTOM-UP DIAGRAM

Bottom up raglan cardigan construction. Illustration.
The Boardwalk cardigan is knit bottom-up. With this pattern, you cast on each sleeve at the cuff and work tubes in the round to underarms. You cast on the body at the hem and work in long rows up to the underarm point. At the underarm, you join sleeve tubes to the body and work in decreasing rows through the yoke to the neckline. The button bands are picked up and worked last.

Working bottom-up is great because it’s very easy to adjust the neckline, which is worked last. The neckline is a very critical point in a sweater because it can make all the difference in how well the garment fits. (Read How to Get the Perfect Neckline for more tips!) I also love working bottom-up sleeves because they’re easy to take with me for knitting at the park or coffee shop!

To see photos and descriptions that cover each step of top-down construction, check out our free Flax Sweater tutorial. For all the details on bottom-up construction, read our in-depth tutorial, Let’s Knit a Bottom-Up Sweater.

Raglan

A garment with raglan shaping has seam lines (or shaping lines) separating the sleeves, front, and back parts of the garment through the yoke. These lines extend from the underarm up to the neckline finish.

Bottom up raglan and top don raglan pullover construction. Illustration.

A raglan can be worked either bottom-up (with decreases to shape the pieces) or top-down (with increases to shape the pieces). It can also be worked seamlessly (knit in the round) or in pieces and then seamed.

We’ve designed more than a few seamless raglan sweaters and cardigans over the years! Click your favorite to get the pattern.

Circular yoke

A circular yoke has a seamless ‘circle’ that expands (or decreases) to shape the yoke. This type of garment is usually worked seamlessly in the round, at least through the yoke section. If a circular yoke is worked from the top down, then the yoke is shaped with increases. Worked from the bottom up, it is shaped with decreases.

Bottom up and top down circular yoke pullover construction. Illustration.

The Cartography sweater is a circular yoke knit from the top down, with increase rounds placed between charming little bands of colourwork.

Cartography Sweater pattern

The Compass sweater is also knit from the top down; however, instead of discrete rounds of increase between the pattern, the yoke is made with a wedge-shaped chart with increases within the pattern itself.

Compass Sweater Pattern

We love circular yokes so much that we designed an entire ebook full of them! PLUS, we created a recipe that guides you step-by-step in designing your own! Get a copy of Strange Brew and check out our in-depth tutorial on knitting a yoke sweater to get started on your own yoke design.

Set-in sleeve and drop-shoulder sweaters

Set-in sleeve and drop-shoulder constructions are quite similar. Drop-shoulder garments have little to no underarm shaping; the body is a box, and the sleeves are picked up and knit from openings on either side. Set-in sleeves have a little more shaping in the front and back body pieces, as well as in the sleeve cap itself.

Construction process for a mostly-seamless drop-shoulder cardigan. Illustration.

It is possible to work set-in sleeves and drop-shoulder garments mostly seamlessly.

  1. Working from the bottom up, work the body tube in the round for a pullover, or work back and forth in long rows for a cardigan.
  2. From the underarm point to shoulders, work the pieces for fronts and backs in rows.
  3. Next, seam the shoulders to join back to front.
  4. Finally, pick up and knit around the armhole opening, and work the sleeves in the round from shoulder down to cuffs, finishing with neckline and/or button bands.

As you can see, this construction incorporates both bottom-up (for the body) AND top-down (for the sleeves) construction methods. You can try out this kind of construction by knitting the Bowline pullover, Playdate cardigan, Jones cardigan, and Peanut vest!

Construction process for a seamed drop-shoulder pullover. Illustration.

Set-in sleeves and drop-shoulder constructions can also be knit in pieces and seamed. Typically pieces would be worked bottom-up, though top-down is also possible. When seaming the garment, you will join fronts to back at the shoulders, seam sleeves to body pieces at shoulder, and then seam body sides and sleeve underarms, finishing with neckline and/or button bands.

The drop-shoulder style is a classic. Check out some of our designs that feature this construction and click a pic to get the pattern!

Hybrid constructions

There are a wide array of hybrid constructions – methods that combine and mash-up aspects of the typical construction types described above. Of course, we have explored a few!

The Lush and Caribou cardigans share an enjoyable mash-up of methods. You work the patterned yoke band first and then pick up along the edges, working upward to to neckline and downward through sleeves and body to the hem and cuffs.

Detail of the Lush cardigan's leafy lace yoke band which is knit first.
Lush Cardigan Pattern

Our Low Tide top is knit bodice pieces first and then the body is worked in a single piece from a pick-up line along the bottom of the bodice pieces, with shaping that creates a swingy silhouette.

Low Tide Cardigan Pattern

One stitch at a time – you can do it!

Sweater knitting can feel a little daunting at times, but the truth of the matter is that your sweater will be made stitch by stitch, step by step. Just get started and continue one step at a time; you will (sooner or later) be enjoying your own hand-knit creation – or an entire sweater wardrobe! Still not convinced? Check out all our sweater knitting resources to learn more.

If you enjoyed this tutorial, sign up for email updates, so we can let you know when new tutorials and patterns are available! We send knitters a helpful and inspiring email once or twice a month (and it’s easy to unsubscribe if you discover they’re not for you).

~ Emily

Alexa’s wearing her Marshland sweater, and I’m wearing my Compass sweater!

No comments yet

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: