On the Subject of Sweaters, Part 6: Knitting it Up

This post is Part 6 and the last of a series of weekly posts on the process of sweater knitting: not exactly the nitty gritty details and techniques, but the opportunities and decisions you may encounter on the way to getting a knitted sweater that works for you. Previously, the topic was modifying the pattern.

Knitting it Up
To the outside observer it must seem very strange to be writing a six-part series on sweater knitting, only to devote one of those parts to the actual knitting of the sweater. The fact of the matter is that there is a great deal of thought and planning that goes into knitting a sweater, but often times we don’t notice the planning because it so often happens in the background of doing other things. We browse websites and yarn shops over days or weeks, considering yarn and patterns, and while the process of determining our best fit and style is sometimes acquired by sitting down once and for all and figuring it out, it is just as often a gradual learning experience accrued over time.


Sitting down to knit the thing almost seems easy by comparison – just follow the instructions along with your own modification ideas – but you may well have the opportunity for personal discretion at this stage, too. Ideally, once a knitter gets to the point of actually starting to knit a sweater, one should at least have some sense of what style and method of construction it is going to entail, and this will help you to know if you have any leeway in how to go about starting it.

For example, if you’re working a top-down pullover, there is really only one place to start – at the top, with the neck – and that’s where the pattern instructions will start. Later on you might have some discretion about whether to work the sleeves first or the body, once you’ve separated out those two portions of the sweater, but in the beginning your only major decision will be what cast-on method you’re going to use. (And in fact, the pattern might even go so far as to tell you that part too, you never know.) Anything involving out of the ordinary construction (like, say, something that starts at the bottom left corner of the cardigan front and magically works all the way around so that you finish at the bottom right corner with a complete sweater – I’m making this up but you just never know), you should definitely follow those instructions step by step.


On the other hand, if you’re working up a pattern that is made in pieces and then later sewn together, you might have a great deal of choice about where to start. The pattern instructions will most likely tell you to start with the back piece, because that’s quite typical, but there’s actually no rule that says you can’t start with the sleeves, or the front(s). In fact, I usually prefer starting with the sleeves because they’re pretty quick to get done and over with when you have energy going into the project. The sleeves will also give you an early indication of how close you are to gauge. If you mess up on one sleeve it is fairly short work to go back and start again on a new needle size if necessary, but doing this on the much larger pieces that make up the back or front can be more arduous. Another advantage of starting with a sleeve is that, if there is any kind of pattern stitch like cables or lace or colour-work involved, the sleeve gives you a smaller canvas to try it out on. Then, by the time you get to the body, you’ll have gotten the hang of it.

Still, there is a lot of momentum in the first couple of days when you start a project, and you might well be the sort of person who prefers to use that momentum on the largest piece, to get it done and out of the way. It’s one of the many reasons sweater patterns tend to direct you to the back piece first, and it can be very satisfying. And don’t forget that there’s also no reason you can’t do more than one piece at a time – sleeves make portable projects, as Elizabeth Zimmerman always advocated, so you could reserve those for your on-the-go knitting and save the larger, more shaped pieces for work at home.

Ultimately, use your discretion to do what will work for you, as you would at every step of this process. Take the moment to look over the pattern instructions to get a sense of what you’re in for, and if there is flexibility in the construction, use it to your own advantage.


Hope for awesomeness, expect a few annoyances
The more leg work you do before you start knitting your sweater, the less likely you are to encounter problems during the knitting-it-up part – and indeed, this is often the case for knitters who spend time thinking about fit, size, gauge, and measurement before they cast on. Still, challenges do sometimes happen, and I would say that at least 80% of your challenges or frustrating moments are likely to happen in the first 20% of your knitting time with the project. It happens to all of us, and I can think of about half a dozen projects just in the last 6 months when it’s happened to me.

Here are some examples of dumb things that have happened to the best of us (probably you, too), at one time or another:

-Casting on the wrong number of stitches and then having to re-cast-on, or immediately increase/decrease extra/missing stitches in the first row

-Making an error in the establishing rows of a stitch pattern and having to rip back to get it right.

-Accidentally casting on with the wrong needle size, because all of your needles look the same and you forgot to double-check the size before you started, and you’re not entirely convinced it’s going to make enough of a difference to the final product to make you rip it out and re-cast-on with the right needle.

-Discovering that the yarn you loved in the skein and managed a tiny swatch with is turning out not at all how you expected once you started to work with it and you’re not enjoying the process at all.

-Discovering that the yarn you loved in the tiny swatch is now pooling entirely differently when knitted up in a large garment, and you need to pull back several rows so that you can start alternating skeins every couple of rows to stop the pooling.

-Getting to the waist of the body and realizing that you have carefully and accurately placed all of the decreases for the waist shaping…on only one side, but not both, and now you have to rip back.

-Discovering that even though you swatched for gauge, and knew what size you should be making based on gauge, now that you’re actually knitting it in pattern, the size isn’t turning out how you thought it would at all, and you have to rip out to cast on a new size. (This was me this past January, when I was knitting the Gwendolyn cardigan. I ripped out, re-knitted in a happier size, and all was well in the end.)

-Something else that’s happened to you (that you might want to tell the story of in the comments – we all have stories of triumph over knitting adversity).

-Something else none of us have thought of yet.


Vigilance in that first 20% of the project time is key. I point this out not to discourage you in advance, but to point out that the sooner you can identify what your mistake is – or if you’re making one at all – the sooner you can fix it and get on with things. The next time you discover a mistake in your knitting, remind yourself that it takes a knitter with some experience to recognize where the mistake is, and that you are capable of fixing it. If you’re baking a cake and realize, when it is half-finished baking, that you forgot the baking soda…there’s not much you can do about it at that point other than get out a new set of ingredients and bake a new cake. With yarn, you get a do-over. You can have five or six do-overs, even. It doesn’t make the do-overs any more enjoyable necessarily, but it still means they are possible, which is the important thing. You can’t say the same thing about all crafts, and it makes us lucky to be knitters.

Knitting world has a way to make that easier
Because there are a lot of knitters in the world, and a lot of sweater patterns, and a lot of knitters have made sweaters successfully, there is a lot of knowledge circulating out there that falls into the general tips-and-tricks category. Keep yourself aware of the tips you hear or read, and store them away in your brain if you think you might need them later.

I think a couple of things that are pretty consistent pieces of advice, particularly to the knitter less experienced with sweaters, would be:

-If you are working flat, put a removable marker on the piece in progress that will identify the RS of the work from WS. If you are working in the round, use markers to note the beginning of the round and the sides of the garment.

-If you are working with charted patterns, don’t hesitate to make your charts easier to read by making a working (personal) copy – add Row #s if the pattern didn’t come with any, blow them up to make bigger or easier to read.

-If (well, more like when, I suppose) you need to rip out a whole row/round, try ripping out a portion at a time, not the whole row all at once – especially if you are working with slippery yarn. It can make things a bit easier to take steps like that one piece at a time.


Listen to all the advice and take all the planning you like, but at the end of the day, remember to do as pleases you in the end, even if it does involve a few moments of trial and error. Knitting is our hobby and except for working with yarn and knitting needles, none of us are actually required to do anything, so. Go forth and knit away. It is true that sweaters are not the easiest projects in the world you can knit, but neither are all sweaters always the hardest things you can knit, and there’s nothing at all wrong with challenging yourself from time to time if it pays off in the end.

It has been a pleasure to write this little blog series and I hope it’s been a useful one for you! Certainly, I am neither the first nor the last person to blather on about knitting sweaters. I highly recommend taking advantage of other resources online, from your local library or yarn shop, and taking classes whenever possible to supplement and expand your knowledge. Goodness knows I’ll have to figure out something else to do with Thursdays on this blog. I’d better get cracking on some new Works In Progress to tell you about.

Happy knitting to all!




  1. I have really enjoyed this series, and found it useful – but I would LOVE to find out more about the ‘modifications’ stage. I don’t mean the measuring/deciding, I mean the how-you-actually-go-about-doing-the-calculations, recording etc. Pencil, paper and calculator? Spreadsheet? Pictures with scribbles? Would love some ideas around this, as I can’t work out a system that doesn’t have me frustrated to bits. I feel I may be missing something obvious….

  2. Rachel – that is a very good question! Though I also think there is probably no single answer, and it would depend on how you are best able to visualize the changes in your own notes. I like writing things by hand, and will often draw myself a little schematic to figure out what I want, and then mark up a photocopy of the pattern notes accordingly. Others may well have sage advice on this score, though!


  3. Thanks so much for this most excellent series! The printed versions are now in my “techniques” notebook.

  4. Thank you for this series! I’m focusing my knitting energy on creating better-fitting sweaters that I will wear more often, and your posts have given me a lot helpful tips!

  5. Loved your list of things that can go wrong in knitting up a sweater. My personal best? Knitting two left fronts instead of a left and a right. And of course not noticing this until I went to sew it together!!

  6. Thanks, I’m really enjoying your blog and it’s given me more confidence to stray from the pattern. I’ve knitted several things which I’ve been disappointed about for one reason or another and I’m definitely going to plan more before I dive in next time!

  7. Thank you ever so much for this series ! It came just in time for me, too.. couldn’t have wished for more 🙂
    Of course I still had to rip back several rows.. and am not fully confident that my ( second, now ) cardigan will turn out exactly as I had in mind.. but at least I feel prepared now 🙂 !

  8. Oh goodness, the sweater mishaps I have had. It is a toss-up between the time I picked a size with too much ease and had to rip out an entire fingering-weight sweater body, and the time I learned a valuable lesson about hanging swatches in superwash yarn and had to reknit an entire sweater.

    I mean, those are the rare exceptions, but they were certainly memorable.

  9. Thank you so much for this series. I am embarking on my first knitted sweater and the timing of this series couldn’t have been any more perfect. I have enjoyed it immensely!

  10. Knitsiam (aka Bonnie) · ·

    Long time reader; first time commenter. I’ve enjoyed reading (forever) but this latest series has been terrifically entertaining – and a great resource. Thanks for the (obvious) time and effort in putting this together…

  11. Thanks so much for writing up this series – it has so much helpful information (not to mention all the tempting eye candy, with the pictures of your own knitting!).

  12. Thank you thank you thank you for this enormously instructive series.

  13. Lynda in Oregon · ·

    Memorable knitting goof? I was making a top-down with a lovely shirttail hem. Got it completely done, assembled, **and** added the I-cord to the bottom edge. Tried it on … and ONLY THEN discovered that I’d “shirttailed” only the front of the sweater. RIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBIIIIITTTT!

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