Knitted Cardigans: Wonderful, Wearable, Wardrobe Staples

A Short History of the Cardigan Sweater

The cardigan sweater is an essential part of the wardrobe for both men and women, and it has been for centuries. Cardigans are open-front sweaters, secured with buttons, zippers, ties, or simply left open.

The cardigan is named after Major General James Thomas Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan, a British earl who fought in the Crimean War. He and his troops wore knitted jackets, a style that forever after has been known as the cardigan.

From Coco Chanel to Mr. Rogers, the cardigan sweater has been popular through the years; it’s even a favorite of First Lady Michele Obama. She’s often photographed wearing sweater sets, which became popular in the 1950s. A sweater set is a small gauge cardigan worn over a matching tee or tank. At the same time in U.S. history, collegiate men wore cardigan letter sweaters, denoting their membership on a college sports team.

There are many patterns for knitted cardigans, and many knitting techniques specific to making them.

Button Bands

Picking Up Stitches Along Shaped Edges Illustration The Knitter's Handy Book of Knitting Patterns by Ann Budd, Interweave, 2004.

Picking Up Stitches Along Shaped Edges

Button bands are an important part of a knit cardigan. Some are ribbed, some use a folded hem, but every cardigan has a button (or zipper, snap, or eyelet) band.

In many cardigan knitting patterns, shoulder seams are joined and stitches are picked up from one hem, around the neck, and down to the other hem.

Picking up stitches (pictured at left and below) is an important skill to master when knitting cardigans.

Here is a helpful excerpt from The Knitter’s Handy Book of Knitting Patterns by Ann Budd, that shows you how to pick up stitches along straight edges such as bind-offs or cast-ons :

Picking Up Stitches Along Bind-Off or Cast-On Edges8838.pickup1.jpg-550x0“With right side facing and working from right to left, insert tip of needle
between last and second-to-last stitches, wrap yarn around needle (Figure 1), and
pull it through (Figure 2). Pick up and knit about three stitches for every four
rows, adjusting as necessary so that picked-up edge lays flat.”

Some patterns might say “pick up and knit ____ number of stitches” and some might simply say “pick up ___ number of stitches.” It’s really the same thing; “pick up” is the part of the operation where you put your needle into the knitted piece, and “knit” is the part where you wrap your yarn around your needle and bring it through to form a stitch.

Some knitted cardigan patterns call for knitting the button bands separately and seaming them to the sweater. And some patterns direct the knitter to knit the button bands at the same time as the rest of the sweater, often on a smaller size knitting needle. When this is the case, it’s a good idea to put a marker before (or after, on the right side) the button band to remind you to work the stitches on the smaller needle. Using a double-pointed needle is a good trick for this method because it’s small and you can stick it behind your ear to keep track of it.



The one-row buttonhole is a firm, structured buttonhole that is less likely to stretch than other buttonholes. Learn more about how to make a better buttonhole.

Buttonholes can be a knitter’s best friend or worst enemy. It’s all in the method you choose. At Knitting Daily our favorite is the one-row button hole.

For a child’s cardigan, or any cardigan with smaller buttons, the simple yarn over, K2tog buttonhole works really well. Remember, if you’re using thicker yarn, your buttonhole will be bigger and if you’re using smaller yarn, your buttonhole will be smaller.

Spacing buttonholes is sometimes a problem, and we’ve got a great solution: Eunny Jang’s deceptively simple buttonhole spacing method!


It’s a good idea to choose buttons after you make your buttonholes so you can choose the right size. Or, make a buttonhole swatch using your yarns and the needles you’re using for your sweater. You can test out buttonholes and choose your buttons accordingly; choosing buttons can be the most fun part of knitting a cardigan!

Knitting Styles

The Essential Cardigan is a classic wardrobe-builder.

The Essential Cardigan is a classic wardrobe-builder.

Cardigan knitting patterns come in a variety of styles. There are stockinette cardigans knit in pieces from the bottom up, raglan cardigans that you knit from the top down, lace cardigans, pattern stitch cardigans, and so on. Sky’s the limit!

You can choose to knit your cardigan with ribbed waistbands, stockinette hems, garter stitch or seed stitch edgings and wristbands. It’s fairly easy to customize your sweater. A great resource to have on hand is Ann Budd’s Handy Book of Patterns. It will guide you through different options for personalizing your cardigan.

Steeked Cardigans

One of the most impressive and fun knitted cardigan styles is the Fair Isle cardigan. In most of these patterns, you knit the body in the round, knit the sleeves, and then steek the body, which means that you cut the cardigan up the front. That’s right, you cut your knitting!

Steeked cardigan knitting patterns almost always call for 100 percent natural fiber yarn, most often wool, mohair, or alpaca. You need a yarn that has felting qualities so that when the steek is cut, the yarn won’t ravel.

The steeking process us fairly simple. Usually the pattern calls for the middle front 10 or so stitches to be knit in a simple Fair Isle pattern, such as a checkerboard. After the knitting is completed, the area is reinforced either by machine stitching or by crochet chain stitch. And then you cut the sweater up the front!

Then you work buttonbands, and voila; you have a fabulous Fair Isle cardigan. (There are a few more small steps, but you get the idea!)

Knit cardigan sweaters are a great wardrobe builder, so knit yourself a cardigan. Cast on today!

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