how to knit a set-in, top-down sleeve

February 06, 2017



I originally published a post on top-down, set-in sleeves a year or two ago.  It was time for an update with better pictures and more concise instructions!

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.  While this sleeve technique is rarely written into patterns, it can be used in any pattern to replace a standard sleeve that has a bell shaped cap 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 and adjust if necessary 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 of your sweater.  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.

Row 1:  Knit stitches up the back to 1.5" (for an adult, less for a child) past the shoulder seam, wrap and turn next stitch. See below for how to make a wrap and turn.
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" to 2" on each side of the side seam, the first cast off stitches at the underarm and perhaps an inch before those as well. These stitches do not need to be wrapped and turned, instead, simply knit "through them" and incorporate into your round. If I want a slimmer sleeve (even factoring in that I have adjusted my sleeve scythe) I will leave the last 2" unwrapped. However, usually I only leave the last 1" before and after the side seam unwrapped.

Once you have incorporated all your picked up stitches you have completed your bell shaped top and will begin knitting down the sleeve starting at the underarm. If you are knitting your sleeves in the round, join for working in the round. You can use small 9" circulars (my preference) DPNs or magic loop. 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 purl-wise from right needle 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 purl-wise from right needle to 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!

Pick up stitches all around the arm scythe at the ration of 1 to 2.

Begin your short rows. You'll notice I have a marker at the top.
I didn't include it in the instructions because it's not necessary.

As you continue your short rows, the bell of the sleeve grows.


When you are done shaping the bell with short rows, you will knit the sleeve down.

You can knit the sleeves flat or in the round.  The picture above shows a sleeve that is being knitted in the round, but the previous pictures show a sleeve that was knit flat.
In the demonstration project I did not have a 9" circular. Now I have a nice selection of the 9" circulars, my Christmas gift this year. In the photo above you can see them in use, knitting the sleeve down in the round, getting ready for the first decrease.



This sweater is a loose fitting sweater and the sleeves are not meant to fit tightly around the upper arm.  I hope my instructions will show you 
I finished this sweater last summer and it's taken me this long to get this post written.  The pattern is Soho by Martin Storey from Easy DK Knits, a book I'm totally in love with--so many beautiful and classic patterns to knit and wear everywhere.  I made my first Soho more dressy with Kidsilk Haze Eclipse and ended up wearing it so often, I figured I would love to wear it knit in a more casual yarn. Enter Pure Wool DK--it's perfect for our cool summer nights.  




To make a comment, click here.
Thank you!  Kristen

Edited on 2/8/17:  Good timing!  Just this morning, Kate Davies published a great post on this same subject! 



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15 comments

  1. Thanks for posting a nice tutorial.
    I've always done my set in sleeves with the "traditional" way of knitting the shaped cap and sewing them in, as is done with sewn garments, and I still like them that way. I've always wanted to post something about why I like them that way, but I'm too lazy :) I'll post these comments instead :)
    My basic problem with the top-down method is that it is still a tube that sticks out of the arm hole. The short rows shape the top, but you still end up at the end of the shaping with the same number of stitches that you pick up at the arm scythe. If you picked up at the standard ratio of 2 stitches every 3 rows, you would end up with too wide a sleeve at the top of the arm, so I understand why you pick up at 1 stitch every two rows. However, at that ratio, you are picking up stitches that is tighter than the arm scythe rows, so there is some "scrunching" of the arm scythe and some stretching of the sleeve top. It probably isn't really that obvious on a finished sweater, but I feel that with the traditional method you can get a perfect match in tension by knitting the perfect height and length of the sleeve cap to match the arm scythe. I also happen to like skinny sleeves, but a roomy arm scythe, so I wouldn't want to tighten the arm hole in by picking up too few stitches.
    As a side note, I believe there are methods where people pick up more stitches around the arm scythe to match the tension, but do some decreases along with the short rows to get a smaller sleeve opening by the time you join.

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  2. Hi Betty, Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I can see you love knitting and making a good fit as much as I do!

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  3. Thank you for this post, Kristen! I have it bookmarked along with your original. I am thinking about trying this out on Cruden, a steeked vest pattern that I think would look really cute with plain sleeves. We shall see!

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  4. Thank you so much for this tutorial, Kristin. I much prefer top down sleeves as it is so much easier to adjust the length. Your instructions are concise, clear and appear very simple.

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  5. Kristen, this tutorial is excellent! I didn't think about using this approach for seamed sleeves, have only used it for sleeves knit in the round, so thank you for suggesting that! What a genius idea!

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    1. Aww, thanks. Not my idea, but I've made so many now that I have my own technique that works for me!

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  6. I really enjoyed reading this post. Some great tips and it was also interesting to read Betty's reply. Whilst I have knitted sweaters with a top down set in sleeve it has only ever been when it has been part of the pattern. I have never converted a pattern which has been knit in pieces. Definitely worth trying.

    Coincidentally this morning I received my weekly email and pattern update from Kate Davies's Inspired by Islay club. The pattern, Ardmore, is a modern take on a gansey with set in top down sleeves and Kate mentions in her notes that a new post in her blog later today will have more details about sleeve caps in it.

    It will be interesting to compare her notes with your tutorial. One of the great things about knitting is that there is always more to learn and new techniques to try.

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    1. Thank you! I cannot wait to read what Kate Davies has to say!! Thank you for alerting me!

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    2. I just read her excellent post, and she explains so eloquently why this particular technique works so well! Thanks again for alerting me to it. I've amended my post to include a link to her post.

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    3. You're welcome. I am glad that you enjoyed Kate's post. I found it very interesting too. You're right Kate always writes so eloquently and it one reason why I like to buy her books. They are so much more than a book of patterns.

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  7. This is the best tutorial I've read on this subject so far. It makes sense! Thank you!

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  8. Kristen, would you make a utube video of this process. I would like to try using your technique but am a novice knitter and a visual individual. I would appreciate it. Thank You.

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    1. Hello! I am a little bit shy about making a video. I've been trying to muster the courage to take a video of me showing my sewing and knitting rooms, stash and all, but I'm terrified to get behind a camera. I'll think about it but I don't see myself doing it anytime soon. Have you searched youtube?

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  9. Kristen - thank you so much for this excellent tutorial. I'm new to knitting sleeves straight onto a garment and felt that short row knitting into every stitch was going to result in too big a sleeve. I was thinking I should probably SR to every other stitch from halfway down. x

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  10. Best thing I have learned since picking up knitting needles!! AWESOME!

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