Lisa’s List: 6 Armholes and How to Make them Work for Your Body
There are a lot of elements that go into a sweater’s fit. We talk about waist shaping and bust darts and ease and a host of other things when we talk about fit, but my firm belief has always been: fit starts with the armhole. And the kind of armhole that will give YOU the best fit is largely determined by your bust. What’s your bust got to do with it? Well, this week I’m going to walk you through 6 types of sweater armholes and what they have to do with your body, starting with the bust.
The basic concept here is this: The bigger the difference between your bust and your shoulder, the more tailoring you need in the body along the armhole edges.
If your bust is busty, you need a pyramid or a cone sweater type (see featured illustration) because you need a sweater that narrows from bust to shoulder. Have you ever worn a button-up shirt that fit you oh-so-cute in the arms and back, but gaped at the buttons on your chest? That’s because you’re wearing a rectangle that is SMALL enough for your shoulders, but too small for your bust. Convert that to a sweater and your only solution is to work heavy bust modification into the garment, and lovely as that sounds on paper, it just doesn’t work for most patterns with their lovely stitches and motifs mucking everything up.
Let’s flesh out this concept: Grab a tape measure and measure the circumference of your bust at the fullest point. Mine measures 39”. Now hold the tape measure behind your neck and measure from shoulder point to shoulder point, about where the armhole seam on a fitted T-shirt falls. Mine measures 14.5”. Half my bust measures 19.5,” so it follows that the front of my sweater by itself would need to measure 19.5” wide. But my cross-back measures 5” less than that. So a sweater that fits my bust will lead to excess fabric at the cross-back (a look we call “Dad’s sweatshirt”), UNLESS I decrease stitches between bust and shoulder seam. How do you decrease stitches in this area? Through armhole shaping!
I cover these concepts and a ton of other sweater elements in my book, Knitting Plus. This book was written for plus-sized women, but the concepts work for everyone—how to customize armholes, sleeve caps, lengths and widths, and tricks for modifying different sweater types. If you’re a knitting engineer, this is the kind of overly-specific and mathematical stuff you’ll love.
Six Types of Sweater Armholes
Let’s talk about the six basic sweater armholes, what they mean for your shape, and what type of fit each will give you.
1. THE DROP SHOULDER
The drop-shoulder sweater has no armhole shaping; it’s a rectangle from hem to shoulder. You know that big beloved Grand Canyon sweatshirt from 1995 in your drawer? That’s a drop-shoulder. The fit of a drop-shoulder should be oversized and sweat-shirty; it has no tailoring. If you’re large-busted and small-framed, this style will always look oversized on you, because to fit your bust, it’s going to be large everywhere else. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing—I have some glorious Aran sweaters from the 90’s that are oversized and YUMMY. Throw ‘em over leggings and you’re cute as can be. Now, if you’re athletic in build, or have a small chest and normal-to-broad shoulders, you can wear a close-fitting drop-shoulder sweater, as the half-bust to cross-back ratio is probably very close to 1:1. I.e., the smaller your abdomen, the less oversized a drop-shoulder will be on you.
When you’re looking at sweater models in magazines and such, be careful: if the model is small and wearing a drop-shoulder, the sweater might look more fitted and flattering on her than it will on you. As the pattern sizes up, that bust-to-cross-back ratio changes quite a bit, and on you it will end up oversized if you have a large bust. The drop shoulder offers no customizations for busts or shoulders, so you’ll have trouble controlling the fit. No point in adding highly articulated waist shaping to one of these guys, ya hear me?
You’ll look like Shrek with a rubber band around his belly.
2. THE MODIFIED DROP
To help nip in the rectangle a bit, we have the modified drop-shoulder. At most, you’d remove 2” at the bottom of the armhole, leading to a total possible reduction of 4” to the front. But most modified drops only remove 1” at the armhole, and then there is no further armhole shaping. So you have the same basic fit and effect of the drop-shoulder, with slightly less fabric in the cross-back. I would recommend women always go modified drop, and it’s an easy customization to add to a regular drop. Bind off stitches at the underarm, modify your stitch patterns to accommodate the reduction, and work even to the shoulder.
3. THE SET-IN
This, lady friends, is the sweater that gives you what you want most: ABSOLUTE FREAKIN’ CONTROL. The set-in just begs for customization. It wants to LISTEN TO YOUR BODY.
And here’s why: the set-in armhole seeks to narrow from underarm to shoulder via staggered phases of shaping that should follow the lines of your body. First, a straight underarm bind-off cuts away a notch, then regular decreases along the armhole bring the fabric in gradually. Once you’ve reached the desired width to fit your crossback, you stop decreasing and work even.
With this approach, you get the right width for both your bust and your cross-back. Ideally, you should aim for consistent ease at both points—say, 2” positive ease at the bust and 2” positive ease at the cross-back. The set-in is the armhole of choice for plus-sized women, large-busted women, and petite women. Tall and/or broad-shouldered women may want to REDUCE how much shaping they work in the armholes, as they may not need to reduce as many stitches between bust and cross-back. They may need to add depth to the armholes, as well. Generally, small-busted women don’t need to worry about customizing set-ins, as patterns will simply direct you to do fewer decreases in the armholes in the smaller sizes.
So everyone should love the set-in! It may require more math, measuring, and reworking, but the style ALLOWS for that kind of reworking like no other sweater armhole does. But remember, when you change the armhole in a set-in, you’re going to have to change the sleeve cap, too. Again, check out my book for help.
4. THE RAGLAN
As you can see in my handy infographic above, the raglan is one of the styles I’d categorize as a “cone.” A drop-shoulder is a rectangle; a set-in is a step pyramid, and the raglan is a cone.
The set-in and the raglan are both useful to women because they narrow from bust to shoulder. Most women benefit from that narrowing, as we’re bigger in the bust than we are in the shoulders. Now, the raglan is interesting because it requires 4 cones to work together: the front, the back, and sleeves 1 and 2. The way these cones are worked, joined, and shaped can differ greatly from one design to the next, but the basic effect is a tailored fit with a sporty look.
Where things become problematic is in people with unusual body proportions. Large bust, fleshy arms, narrow shoulders? Raglans could be weird on you. Petite or very tall? Could be weird. Fleshy arms but average otherwise? Trouble. The reason unusual proportions cause trouble is that the 4 cones of the raglan have to be worked over the same number of rows with the same number of decreases along the armholes, matching 1:1 across the seams.
If you need to work larger sleeves because of your arm size, and then work the same rows and decreases as the body, you will end up with too much fabric at the top of the sleeve, which creates a deeper neck on a raglan, which will change the whole look and fit of the sweater. If you need to change the depth of the yoke because of your height, you will interfere with the number of rows and the rate of shaping. These are not insurmountable problems; they just require some modification.
I recommend the raglan for women with “normal” proportions and for women who don’t mind reworking their patterns a bit. I would not aim for a highly customized fit in a raglan, but you can certainly get a more body-conscious fit in a raglan than you would a drop-shoulder.
5. THE CIRCULAR YOKE
This is a cone that really should not be “fitted.” It should FIT you, but give it some positive ease, please? Look at this thing; it’s like a Sesame Street character—a fun and floppy shape that requires YOU to give it life, from the inside. It doesn’t even really have armholes, as the circular yoke is predicated upon SEAMLESS CONSTRUCTION, whereby the sleeves and body are worked together in giant rounds as one piece. Because there is no articulated armhole or sleeve cap, this style has a kind of soft, shapeless look in the upper body, and does require some extra fabric, both in depth and circumference, to allow for comfortable movement and undergarments.
This style does narrow from bust to shoulder, so that’s good for the busty ladies, but like the raglan, the circular yoke can be problematic for people with unusual proportions. And it is a difficult style to customize. Any changes to sleeve size, bust size, or yoke depth will mess with the decrease rounds of the yoke and the stitch multiple, which is often tied to specific patterning in these sweaters. Think about those Icelandic colorwork sweaters all the cool kids on Instagram are rockin. Those colorwork patterns require very precise stitch counts and shaping rounds in the yoke.
I recommend the circular yoke for women with “normal” proportions, who like a slightly roomy fit (at least a couple inches of positive ease), and who can handle a sweater’s worth of knitting in their laps as they work in gigantic rounds above the underarm. By normal proportions, I don’t mean “size 6.” I mean that you don’t have body parts that differ greatly from the rest of your body when it comes to your clothing size. If you do have a disproportionately large bust and want to make a circular yoke, just know that the size that fits your bust may lead to a sweater that is generally oversized on you—but this can be a stylish and comfy fit in a sweater.
It’s a sweater, not a third-date dress, knowwhatImean?
6. THE DOLMAN
This sweater is a bit of a freak and rather hard to classify. Dolmans differ a lot in construction and silhouette, but my definition hinges on the sleeve to body joint (AKA the armhole), and in the dolman that is characterized by NOT EXISTING. The most basic dolman is a T shape in which the sleeves join the body at 90 degrees and just keep going. The sleeves become the body. This can be achieved by working cuff to cuff, or from hem to underarm and casting on stitches for the sleeves, then working the whole T together in long rows. Or any of 100 other ways people knit dolmans these days. Wacky designers.
Like the circular yoke, the dolman, with its seamless construction, offers less customization and less tailoring in the upper body. The fit should be roomy. Dolmans do well when they’re drapey and elegant, like batwing garments. The sleeve is often wide and dramatic. The waist and hem can differ greatly from the bust and cross-back, but ultimately the bust and cross-back can’t differ greatly from each other. To achieve a narrower cross-back, you’d have to work internal shaping in the upper body, and that sounds complicated—and what’s the point of a narrower cross-back when you have a big drapey kimono sleeve at the elbow? Embrace the ease. I recommend the dolman for any woman who has the confidence to wear volume, to swing her goddess wings around the room, and who doesn’t require her silhouette to look like a double-ended toilet plunger (or hourglass) in order to feel amazing. Knit sideways. Be a freak.
While we’re on the topic of fit and what makes us feel amazing, I thought I’d share this little number I knitted up for myself. This is the Lace Dolman Jacket and it is just that—a dolman. This thing was super-fun to knit and it is super-cute on me. But one side effect of the seamless construction—it doesn’t stay on very well. It tends to do that slip-off-the-shoulder thing, yknow?
But it pairs so well with little dresses and scoop-neck tees, I just love it. So one day, I tried belting it. And dude. Perfect closure, toilet-plunger waist, no slipping. Bangin, right?
What sweater makes YOU feel amazing?
(Originally published on March 16, 2017; updated on March 8 2019.)