How to Finish Knitting: Set in Sleeves

Finishing is a crucial part of knitting a sweater, and most of us have had to learn on our own how to accomplish neat looking, buttonholes, picked-up stitches, and so forth. We can take loads of classes about how to knit, but finishing skills classes are few and far between.

So I thought I’d have a little class on knitting finishing techniques here on Knitting Daily! I’m going to talk about setting in sleeves, which is one of the most challenging parts of finishing a sweater, and one that I end up having to redo more than any other.

An armhole opening and its buddy, the sleeve cap

There is a certain amount of easing involved in setting a sleeve into an armhole because the sleeve cap is not exactly identical in shape to the armhole. Traditionally, a sleeve cap is 1½-2″ shorter than the armhole depth, and the curve is more dramatic than the armhole curve.

This difference is really an optical illusion; if you measure each piece you’ll find that they are roughly the same length, it’s just that one is straight and one is curved. The straight armhole opening curves around the sleeve cap.

The problem comes when the sleeve cap and armhole opening don’t match up, i.e. one is longer than the other. For some reason, this happens to me about 90 percent of the time, and I can’t figure out why. It doesn’t seem to matter whether I’m knitting cardigans or pullovers, either. I follow the pattern directions and it still happens. So what do I do? I ease the sleeve cap into the armhole opening, and at this I have become an expert.

What do I mean by ease? I mean that I use mattress stitch to seam one stitch from the shorter piece to one and a half stitches of the longer piece. I don’t do this for every stitch, though, or else I’d reverse the problem and use up too many stitches on the longer piece; I ease the stitches about every fourth or fifth stitch.

It’s a simple thing to do, too. You just work mattress stitch as usual but you pick up three bars from the piece that’s too long and two bars from the other piece. To make the process more precise I start seaming from the shoulder and work down to the armpit and then do the same on the other side. This makes a couple more ends to work in but it’s easier on a small stretch to tell how much you need to ease in.

This trick also enables you to spread the eased stitches evenly so that you don’t end up with a bunch of easing at one end or the other. It’s important to spread out your eased stitches because putting them all together will cause the sleeve to pull oddly or even to pucker, which is never attractive.

One thing to note: if you find that you need to ease more than a quarter of the stitches, something is wrong. Either your sleeve cap is too short or your armhole opening is too long. Remember, the best case scenario is when you can set in a sleeve without easing at all, or by just easing a few stitches near each armpit.

I hope this method works as well for you as it does for me! For more neat-o tricks and some easy knitting patterns, check out Knitscene Easy, which is where I got the drawing and mattress stitch directions for this lesson. Knitscene Easy is part of The Knitscene 2010 Collection CD!

Do you have a tip for setting in sleeves? Share it with us below in the comments!


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