Knitting a Sweater from Side to Side (Part 1)
You’ve probably made sweaters from the bottom up, and possibly from the top down, but have you ever tried knitting a sweater from side to side? This type of construction can also be referred to as knitting from “cuff to cuff” because these sweaters often begin at one sleeve cuff, are worked in one piece across the body (with neck and shoulder shaping) and down the second sleeve, ending at the opposite cuff.
Working a cardigan in this way will require binding off the stitches at the center front and then casting on the same number of stitches for the other front.
Knitting a sweater from side to side is a great way to ensure that patterns flow seamlessly from the sleeve to the body, or to make vertical stripes without having to use intarsia or stranded knitting. But these sweaters present some different types of challenges from bottom-up or top-down sweaters. In Part 1 of this two-part series, we will look at various construction methods for working a sweater from side to side. We’ll also see how the row gauge, rather than the stitch gauge, affects the shoulder and neck width measurements, and how important it is to keep an accurate count of rows on each section. In Part 2, we’ll look more closely at gauge and how knitting a fabric from side to side affects the drape of a garment. Once you understand the unique characteristics of knitting a garment from side to side, you will have another tool to add to your knitting arsenal.
Different Construction Methods
There are a few ways to construct a side-to-side sweater, in addition to the methods described above. If sleeves aren’t going to be worked along with the body, you could cast on the side-seam stitches, work increases for armhole shaping, then cast on several stitches at once to finish the armhole, work increases for shoulder shaping, work neck-shaping decreases, then increases, then work shoulder and armhole shaping to mirror the first side. Work a separate front or back (with different neck shaping) and sew the two pieces together at the sides and shoulders. To add sleeves later, you could pick up stitches around the armhole edge and work the sleeves from the top down or work the sleeves from the bottom up and sew them to the body.
For cardigan fronts worked side to side, you could begin at the side seam and work the armhole shaping, then shape the shoulder and the neck, then bind off at the center front. For the other front, cast on at the center front and work the shaping in reverse.
Working from the Edges to the Center
Another way to knit from side to side is to make two halves that mirror each other, with each half starting at a sleeve cuff and ending at the center of the body, where the two halves would be grafted (or sewn) together.
A cardigan made in this way would need to be joined only at the center back, leaving the fronts open.
Working from the Center Out
You could also start with a provisional cast-on at the center back and work out to the side seam and then bind off. With this construction, stitches are picked up from the cast-on and the other half is worked in the opposite direction from the first half. The front of a pullover could be worked in the same way. The fronts of a cardigan would be cast on with a closed (non-provisional) cast-on.
When knitting a garment from side to side, the row gauge is more important than it is when knitting a garment from the bottom up. It’s also very important to keep track of your rows. Consider the sleeves, for example. For both sleeves to be the same length, you will have to be sure to work the same number of rows for each and make the silhouettes identical, even though you are working one sleeve from the cuff up and the other from the top down. Thus, the straight section worked after the increases on the first sleeve needs to be worked before the decreases on the second sleeve. Be sure to keep track of your rows so that the straight sections are the same length on each sleeve.
For example, let’s say these are the instructions for the first sleeve:
CO 40 sts. Work in k1, p1 rib for 2″, ending with a WS row. Change to St st. Work even for 1″, ending with a WS row. Inc row (RS) K1, M1L, knit to last st, M1R, k1—2 sts inc’d. Rep inc row every 4th row 20 more times—82 sts. Work even until piece measures 16½” from CO, ending with a WS row.
When you work these instructions, make a note of the number of rows in each section so that you can work the same number of rows on the second sleeve. Begin by recording the number of rows in the ribbing. Then record the number of rows in the stockinette-stitch section.
Let’s say your stockinette gauge is 7 rows/inch. To work an inch, you would need to work 7 rows. But because you’re beginning with a right-side row and ending with a wrong-side row, you’ll need to work an even number of rows, so you’ll work 8 rows. (You could just as easily choose 6 rows—just make a note of whichever you do.)
The shaping section works like this. First work an increase row, then [work 3 rows even, then work an increase row] 20 times. Note that the first row and the last row in the shaping section are increase rows; the shaping section does not include another 3 rows worked even after the last increase row. To count the rows in the shaping section, count the first increase row, then [3 rows even + 1 increase row] 20 times = 1 + (4 × 20) = 81 rows. At our gauge of 7 rows/inch, the shaping section measures 11½” long.
Once the shaping section is complete, your sleeve measures 2″ rib + 1″ even + 11½” shaping = 14½”. To get to the finished length, you need to work 2″ even. This translates to 14 rows even. Because the even section begins and ends with a wrong-side row, you’ll need to work an odd number of rows total, so you’ll work 13 rows even. (I rounded down because I rounded up at the start of the sleeve, but it would also be fine to round up to 15 rows.)
Let’s say that you have successfully navigated the body and are ready to start the second sleeve.
The shaping on the second sleeve mirrors the first. There should be the same number of rows of straight or even knitting before the first shaping row, then the shaping should be worked with the same spacing and over the same number of rows as the first sleeve. Once the shaping is complete, work the same number of rows even to get to the cuff, then work the cuff as for the first sleeve.
For example, these are the instructions for the second sleeve:
Work even for 2″, ending with a WS row. Dec row (RS) K1, k2tog, knit to last 3 sts, ssk, k1—2 sts dec’d. Rep dec row every 4th row 20 more times—40 sts rem. Work even until piece measures 14½” from side BO, ending with a WS row. Change to k1, p1 rib. Work even for 2″. BO all sts in patt.
If the last body bind-off happened on a wrong-side row, the straight section begins with a right-side row and ends with a wrong-side row, which means you’ll need to work an even number of rows. At our gauge, this is 14 rows—one more than on the first sleeve, which is fine.
The decreases are worked in the same way as the increases were: the first decrease row, then [3 rows even, then a decrease row] 20 times, for a total of 81 rows—exactly the same as the first sleeve.
There were 8 rows even between the cuff and the first shaping row on the first sleeve. If you do the same here, you’ll begin with a wrong-side row and end with a right-side row, which means your ribbing will begin on a wrong-side row. That’s perfectly fine, but if you’d rather it begin on a right-side row, then work 7 rows even. Work the correct number of rows for your ribbing, then bind off.
Body and Shoulder
Once the first sleeve is complete, you’ll cast on stitches for the sides of the front and back of the body. Since you’ll only have one strand of yarn (the working yarn) available to use, you won’t be able to do the long-tail cast-on. (If, however, you’re in love with long-tail, you can add another yarn to use as the tail, then break it after the cast-on is complete.) The cable cast-on works well for the sides.
If there is shoulder shaping, it happens before and after a marker placed at the shoulder line (where the front and back meet). You’ll use increases to create the shoulder slope on the first shoulder and decreases to slope the second shoulder.
Neck Shaping on a Pullover
The piece is divided to create a neck opening. The stitches for the front (or back) are placed on a holder while the back (or front) neck is worked, then the held stitches are returned to the needle and the other piece is shaped.
Think of the neck shaping as three sections: decreases to slope the neck from the shoulder to its lowest point, a center straight section, then increases to slope the neck up to the shoulder. (For a V-neck, there would not be a center straight section.) This is another place where row count is important. The number of rows in the decrease section should match the number of rows in the increase section. And the total number of rows (decrease + straight+ increase) should be the same on the front and back, so that the front and back necks are the same width.
Neck Shaping on a Cardigan
Before addressing the neck, let’s talk about the front bands. You might think that if you have a 1″ wide band on each of the cardigan fronts, this would add 2″ to the width of the cardigan. But since the bands overlap when the cardigan is buttoned, two 1″ wide bands only add 1″ total to the front width. When you think about the width of each half of the cardigan, remember that half of the band width is allocated to each front; for a 1″ band, ½” is included in each front neck.
The back neck shaping on a cardigan is worked the same as on a pullover. Because there are bands on a cardigan, in order for the front neck width to match the back neck width, the total front neck rows (on both fronts) plus the width of one band should equal the back neck width.
Just like on a pullover, the decreases for the first half of the neck should mirror the increases at the second half of the neck. There should be the same amount of straight section on each of the fronts. (For a V-neck, there won’t be any straight section at center front.)
With a cardigan, once the neck shaping and any “even” section is worked (the neck is half a band width less than half of the back neck width), the front of the cardigan is bound off. This creates the center front opening. Then the same number of stitches are cast on for the second front. The neck shaping on the second front mirrors the shaping on the first front, just as it does on a pullover.
Finishing the Neck (Pullover and Cardigan)
Once both the front neck and the back neck are complete (and there are the same number of rows on each), rejoin the pieces by using one ball of yarn to work across all the front and back stitches.
Shoulder and Body
If there is shoulder shaping, place a marker at the front/back join and work decreases on each side of the marker to shape the shoulder. This shaping should mirror the increases on the first side.
When the shoulder is the desired width and has the same number of rows as the first shoulder, bind off the body side stitches—the same number of stitches as you cast on for the body after the first sleeve. The bind-off happens over 2 rows. At the beginning of a row, bind off the stitches for the side, then work to the end of the row. At the beginning of the next row, bind off the same number of stitches (because the two sides will later be sewn together) and work to the end of the row. This leaves just the upper sleeve stitches on the needle.
Matching Cast-On and Bind-Off Edges
If you are particular about matching the cast-on and bind-off at the cuff edges (and at the center front on a cardigan, although this won’t be apparent if you are picking up stitches for the bands), then you have some options. For ribbing, the Italian cast-on and tubular bind-off look the same. The long-tail cast-on looks very similar to the sewn bind-off. And a crochet chain cast-on matches the standard bind-off.
Pay attention to your row counts, make some notes, and you’ll have a successful side-to-side sweater!
Karen Frisa is a technical editor for Interweave’s knitting magazines. She likes interesting constructions that go every which way.
This article was originally published in knitscene Spring 2020.