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Anatomy of a Top-Down Set-In Sleeve Sweater

Top-down set-in-sleeve sweaters are becoming increasingly popular, but many knitters are unfamiliar with their construction. I thought it would be helpful to explain how this type of sweater is worked, and to offer illustrations that will make it more easy to understand. This first post will be about working the back and front, and an additional post on working the body and sleeves will follow.

Working the Back

In most top-down set-in-sleeve patterns, you will begin by casting on stitches for the back of the sweater. If there won’t be any back neck shaping, then you will cast on all the stitches that you will need for the crossback (the total width of the back at the shoulders), which includes both shoulders and the neck.

If the pattern calls for back neck shaping, then you will cast on stitches for each shoulder (working with a separate ball of yarn for each shoulder), and will work the neck shaping given in the pattern. On the final row of neck shaping, you will work across the left shoulder stitches (the left shoulder as you would wear the piece is the first shoulder you work on when the right side of the back is facing you – patterns usually refer to right and left as you’re wearing the piece, not as the piece is facing you), cast on a number of stitches for the center of the neck (assuming that this is a round neck—a v-neck may not have a center stitch to cast on), then continuing with the same ball of yarn and cutting the second ball, join the right shoulder stitches and work across them to the end.

Whether you worked back neck shaping or not, you will continue to work back and forth on all the crossback stitches until you reach the length given in the pattern.

At this point, you will begin shaping the left and right armholes. This usually begins with increases worked at each armhole edge (i.e., at the beginning and end of the row) on every right-side row. Depending on the pattern, you may then follow the increases with a number of 2- or 3-stitch cast-ons. When you have completed the armhole shaping as given in the pattern, you will cut the yarn and place the completed back on waste yarn. Or if you have a spare circular needle of the same size (you can use a shorter one as long as all the stitches fit on it), you can just leave the stitches on the spare needle and start working on the front with a separate needle of the same size. (You could also use a smaller size circular needle as a holder for the back stitches, as long as you remember not to knit with it, since that would change your gauge.)




Working the Front

Once the back is completed and the stitches are placed on hold, it’s time to work the front. The pattern calls for you to pick up the front stitches from the stitches that were cast on when you first began to work the back; make sure you don’t pick up stitches from the stitches that you cast on for the armholes, nor from the back stitches on hold. If you worked neck shaping for the back neck. then you will probably be instructed to pick up 1 stitch in each of the stitches that you cast on for each shoulder. If you had no back neck shaping, but cast on stitches for the entire crossback at one time, then you will need to count in from each side (armhole) edge and place a marker to mark the end of the shoulder stitches (and the sides of the neck). For the right front, you will pick up the shoulder stitches from the side (armhole) edge to the first marker with one ball of yarn. For the left front, you will join a second ball and pick up stitches from the second marker to the armhole edge. Now you should have the front shoulder stitches on the needle, ready to work front neck shaping.

At this point, it doesn’t really matter whether you are working a pullover or a cardigan. You will be working back and forth on each side of the front until the required neck shaping is complete (where you’ll join the fronts for a pullover), or until the length at which you are to begin armhole shaping (in the case of a very deep neckline).

If you are working a shallow neckline, then you are likely to complete all the required neck shaping before beginning the armhole shaping. If you are working a pullover, you will cast on stitches for the center of the neck and join the pieces as you did for the back. If you are working a cardigan, you will continue working back and forth on the separate fronts. In either case, you will work back and forth until the required length at which you begin the armhole shaping. Then you’ll shape the armhole as you did for the back. Cut the yarn attached to the right front if you’re working split fronts.

Note that in the case of a deep neckline, the neck shaping may not be completed until well after the front and back have been joined; if that is the case, keep careful count of how many neck increases you have made. In my Basix patterns, I give you the number of stitches that you will have by the time your armhole shaping is complete; your numbers should match mine if your row gauge exactly matches mine, and your measurements exactly match mine. However, you may find that your numbers don’t match mine exactly; they might be off by a few stitches. Don’t let that worry you. If you have a slightly different row gauge from what the pattern called for, or if you measurements are slightly different from mine, that can easily cause you to work more or fewer neck increases by the time you complete the armhole shaping. The important thing is to make sure that your total number of neck increases matches mine when the neck shaping is complete.




I hope this gives you a better understanding of how a top-down set-in-sleeve sweater is put together. My next post will talk about working the body and sleeves.


11 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Top-Down Set-In Sleeve Sweater

  1. Great post. I am huge fan of top down knit sweater patterns but not with the sleeves normally.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you like the post.

  2. Very well done! Clear communication inspires me to knit.

    1. Thanks so much! I’m glad you found it helpful!

  3. Thank you so much. I didn’t understand about working from the top down. And it sort of feels as if I should be standing on my head to read the schematics. But it is becoming clearer. I can’t wait to see how the sleeves turn out. Maybe I can finally finish that sweater I started an age back. It is possible that the UFO is of legal drinking age by now. I wonder if I’ll still fit? –

    1. You’re very welcome. I think working top-down can be intimidating at first, which is why I wrote the blog. I was hoping it would make it clear for first-time top-down knitters, so that they would feel like this was a construction method they could try (and actually succeed at). LOL about the UFO. Blocking can be a knitter’s best friend. Or live dangerously and frog. [gasp!]

  4. Hi Sue. I love your instructions for the method of knitting a top-down sweater, the instructions are so clear and well illustrated. I have one question though; could one use a provisional cast-on for the very first step of casting-on for the back? There would then be live stitches available for picking-up and knitting the front, thus eliminating the ‘seam’ at the shoulder.
    Thanks for your brilliant blog and patterns.

    1. Hi Juli,
      Thanks for your comments and question. You can definitely use a provisional cast-on at the beginning. The reason I choose not to is because I think it’s important to have that seam at the shoulder. The shoulder is one of the primary stress points of the sweater, and I think the seam gives it more strength and stability. That said, if you want to use a provisional cast-on, go for it. I promise not to tell the pattern police. 🙂

  5. Hi Sue, I think this will help a lot. Thank you for taking time to answer me.

  6. Hi Sue. Thanks for rescuing me with these super-clear instructions. I didn’t have a clue where to go – i.e. where to pick up the shoulder stitches – after doing the first back piece, but now I understand. Thank you.

    1. You’re welcome Pat! I’m SO glad you found the tutorial helpful! Happy knitting! Sue

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