the perfect fit: sleeves

Edited 2/7/17:  I've updated this post here, with more concise instructions and better pictures.

Knitting top-down, set-in sleeves is a technique I learned years ago, and from that first time, it became my go-to sleeve construction.  This is the best way to get a perfectly fitted sleeve around your shoulder and arm.   It occurred to me that many experienced knitters aren't familiar with this simple and fool-proof construction.  This sleeve technique can replace any standard sleeve that has a bell shape at the top.  I've only used it with stockinette and garter, but I think with a little bit of planning, this technique could be used with more complicated stitch patterns.  

The sleeve scythe, or the opening where the sleeve is set into the body,  is totally customizable.  If this is a sweater you will be wearing right next to your skin, you might like the look of a more fitted sleeve.  If this is a sweater you will most likely be wearing over a shirt,  such as a cardigan, you'll likely want the opening a little larger to accommodate for that. Top-down set-in sleeves give you the freedom to change these measurements on the body of your sweater, but your sleeve will need no adjusting; your sleeve will automatically fit!  You'll never have too much sleeve and not enough sweater or vice versa,  avoiding any potential puckers around the sleeve scythe once and for all.  And, this sleeve will fit your arm too, because you can try it on as you go along.  

You can either knit your sleeves in the round or flat.  If you knit them in the round, seam both sides.  If you are going to knit them flat, leave them un-seamed.  For both, seam the shoulder seams.

Before you proceed, please read the entire directions below.

Start with the right sleeve, and using a circular needle with the right side of the back facing you, start at the underarm and pick up stitches all around the back arm scythe to the shoulder seam.  The ratio is 1 stitch per 2 rows, even at the underarm.  Pick up the same amount of stitches down the front arm and underarm.  If you have 30 stitches up the back, you will need 30 stitches down the front.  Now the knitting begins.  Turn your work and with right side facing, begin row 1.

Row 1:  Knit stitches up the front to 1.5" (for an adult, less for a child) past shoulder seam, wrap and turn next stitch.
Row 2:  Purl to 1.5" past shoulder seam, wrap and turn next stitch.  
Row 3:  Knit to your last wrapped stitch, knit the wrapped stitch, wrap and turn next stitch. Turn your work.
Row 4:  Purl to your last wrapped stitch, purl the wrapped stitch, wrap and turn next stitch. Turn your work.
Repeat rows 3 and 4 until all stitches have been incorporated into the bell.  Note, I almost always stop at the last 1/2" on each side of the side seam, the first cast off stitches at the underarm. These stitches do not need to be wrapped and turned, instead, simply knit "through them".  

If you are knitting your sleeves in the round, join for working in the round.  If you are knitting your sleeves flat, cast on one stitch each side for seaming and continue working to end.  For either way, you can add any sleeve shaping desired.  Generally, the decreases are made every 1.5-2 inches, but try it on frequently to get your perfect fit. Knit to desired sleeve length, adding the finish edging the pattern calls for; ribbing, lace, etc.

Directions for Short Rows, Wrap and Turn:
On knit side: Knit to the stitch you want to wrap, bring yarn between needles from back to front. Slip stitch purl-wise from left needle to right needle.  Bring yarn between needles again, from front to back. Slip stitch back purl-wise to left needle.  Turn work to begin next row.
On purl side:  Purl to the stitch you want to wrap, bring yarn between needles from front to back. Slip stitch purl-wise from left needle to right needle.  Bring yarn between needles again, from back to front.  Slip stitch back purl-wise onto left needle. Turn work to begin next row.

If you are familiar with wrap and turn short rows, you're probably used to "picking up the wraps".  In this sleeve technique, you DO NOT pick up wraps.  This gives a more "full-fashioned" look to the sleeve, which I prefer, however, you can pick up the wraps if you prefer that look.

See the pictures below for help with each step.  I hope you give it a try!  I bet you'll find yourself using it as often as you can!  (Please see this post for better pictures!)

This color does not represent the color at all, it's a very bright and cheery navy blue.  In this picture I've finished the short row shaping for the bell and now knitting down the arm and just starting my decreases.

A close up.  This sweater may not be the best one to show off the technique as the body has ridge panels on the side, but I think you can still get a good idea.  See, no puckers, and no seaming!

This picture shows the very beginning; I've just picked up the stitches and getting ready to knit the short rows.  The yarn is Rowan Fine Art in the most gorgeous shade of blue, just hate that it's looking so washed out and gray.  I'm pairing it with a strand of Rowan Kidsilk Haze in navy.  The fabric is incredible--it just about glows.  V. happy.

This shows just a few of the short rows at the beginning.  Again, maybe not the best sweater to show this technique because the stitch pattern on the body hides it a bit.  


I'm making Langestt from the Winterscapes book by Sarah Hatton.  I had the FA and KSH in my stash and knew it would be perfect. 

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12 comments:

  1. I understand and want to try, but was is "knit to the stitch to be wrapped"? Which stitch is this?

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  2. Hi Chris: I know, I struggled with my wording; this technique is more difficult to describe than it is to actually do. I edited my wording above to "Knit to the stitch you want to wrap", and hope that helps. I suggest you bookmark this post, and the next time you have a sweater that has sleeves that can use this technique, just take a stab at it. I'm sure you'll have success. Hope this helps!

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  3. love your tutorial on knitting sleeves top down! and that dress is going to be out of this world awesome.

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  4. I definitely think you should write a book!
    Carole

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  5. Invaluable information. Thank you for sharing. I'm bookmarking this.

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  6. I've heard of this, but never really knew what it meant. Thank you! I'm going to try this!

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  7. I've done alot of sleeves top down and love it with all the variations. What I'd like to know more about is necklines top-down. I've had some problem with a too-wide and drooping neckline. Can you refer me anywhere?


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    1. I totally know what you mean. To avoid the too-wide neck and the too low back neck, I do short rows on the back neck for about an inch or more. This will allow the neck to lie more gracefully and not droop. I would start the short rows about 1-2 inches past the shoulder seam (going into the front neck) and gradually work them so the last short row is about 5" long on the back. I do pick up the wraps when doing a neckline. Does this make sense? Next time I do this, I'll take pics and make a post about it. But I looking at my queue right now, I don't think I will be knitting any sweaters very soon that will use that technique. I couldn't find a link that shows how I do it, but I'll keep looking.

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  8. I have been enjoying knitting sleeves top-down for a while but I still found much useful info in your excellent post. I have a question about the ratio you recommend of one st for every 2 rows; it seems a bit low to me, especially in set-in sleeves. Do you pick up more stitches on the horizontal (bound-off) part of the arm-scythe? Do you sometimes find you need to pick up a different ratio to keep that section lying flat? Or am I overthinking the issue as I often tend to do? Thanks so much for any light you can shed on this.

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    1. Hi Laura,

      The 2 to 1 ratio seems wrong, but that is what works. I learned that way and have continued. As for the underarm, there are usually 3-5 stitches on each side for the horizontal bind-off, and I think I still do to 2 to 1. When I differ from that, and pick up more stitches, I find the sleeve is too roomy. Also, I don't mind ripping out an hour's work to get it right, so if I find it's too tight or baggy, I just go back and fix. Hope this helps!

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  9. Hi Kristen, Came to this post late as life has been unexpectedly busy (isn't that how life is?). So maybe its too late to ask a question. I have very little experience actually knitting short-rows except for one scarf, but have found that I prefer German short rows just because that is the way that my mind works. If you happen to know how to do those, could you tell me if they would also work since there is no picking up the wraps in your sleeve technique, and there may be that procedure inherent (embedded) in the German short row technique and therefore inappropriate for the sleeves (it's kind of magical how it works, and hard to wrap your mind (no pun intended!) around exactly how German short rows work.) Thanks Kristen. (And I too think you should write a book. You do this well.) Chloe

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    1. Hi Chloe

      I'm not really all that familiar with the German short row technique but I know so many people love it. I viewed a YouTube video and think it should work for the sleeves above. I would give it a try and see if it does, but if not, it's easy enough to go back to the traditional W and T.

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