How to knit a sweater without a pattern: Round Two

So, it was only a matter of time before I had to try another improv sweater. Earlier the summer, I ordered some Malabrigo Merino Lace from Artisanthropy as I wanted to do some color mixing and make a fingering weight sweater. As September is already here, and I needed to continue working on my Christmas knitting, I decided to make a sweater as a Christmas present.

I chose two colors of Malabrigo Merino Lace: Lettuce and Autumn Forest. The gift recipient loves earthy colors but I wanted to make a sweater that could be worn any time of year, not just in the fall. A fingering weight sweater with elbow length sleeves would be just the thing. (Two strands of laceweight yarn equals a single strand of fingering weight yarn.)

Once again, I leaned back on lessons learned from Holly Chayes's Shawl Geometry, Book Two.  I wanted to make a simple top-down circular yoke sweater, so starting with Holly's formula for an Octagon Donut Shawl was a sensible jump off point.

After that, I kept going, stopping for frequent fitting with the intended recipient, and ended up with a perfect fit for her body shape. The "recipe" below is for a women's size large (approximately 42 inch bust) with minimal positive ease across the bust. Tips for making different sizes are also included. 

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The Sweater Recipe

Materials:  You will need a fingering weight yarn, or two laceweight yarns held together. I wanted to color mix, so I chose two shades of Malabrigo Merino Lace for my project. I needed six skeins of laceweight, but I did have plenty left over from the third skeins of the two colors,  The yardage on the Malabrigo Merino lace is 470 yards/ 429 meters.  If had chosen a fingering weight yarn, I expect I'd have wanted three skeins at around 400+ meters a skein.

You will want 16 stitch markers, a tapestry needle, scissors and either waste yarn or spare cables and stops (to hold sleeve stitches when the time comes).

I used circular needles in 3.5mm and 4 mm, and double pointed needles in 3.5 mm for this project.

Gauge: 5.25 stitches to the inch or 21 stitches to 4 inches/10 cm. 8.5 rows per inch or 32 rows to 4 inches/10 cm.

Needle size is a suggestion. Use what you need to achieve the correct gauge.

Neckline:  With a 4 mm circular needle ( or double pointed needles if you prefer), cast on 96 stitches, and join together taking care not to twist your work. Place your BOR marker.  Proceed as follows:

K2, P2 ribbing for 4 rounds.

Next round: (K1, yo, k1, p2), repeat to end of round.

Next round: (K3, p2), repeat to end of round. 

Next round: (Sl1, k2, psso, p2) repeat to end of round. 

Next round: K1, p1 ribbing for 3 rounds.

Place markers as follows.

(BOR, k1, pm, k1fb, k9, k1fb), * (pm, k1, pm, k1fb, k9, k1fb), repeat from * to end of round. (112 stitches)

Knit 5 rounds even.

Increase round: (sm, k1, sm, k1fb, knit to last stitch before marker, k1fb), repeat to end of round.  (128 sts)

Knit 5 rounds even.

Repeat the last six rounds until 304 stitches on the needles. Then knit 8 rounds after the last increase ( or until the bottom of the yoke comfortably reaches wearer's armpits.  Test fit as needed to be sure.

Divide for sleeves and body.  

Since the sweater yoke consists of eight wedge shaped pieces, it makes sense to use the markers as reference points for lining up the sleeves. I was starting with 304 stitches. I knew I wanted an underarm of about 18-20 stitches, and about 80 stitches for the sleeves. So I looked at how to divide up the available 304 stitches.

After a little fiddling,  I settled on 51 stitches for each sleeve (102 for both), leaving me with 202 stitches for the body before my armpit cast-on, on each side. 

The existing BOR marker can be centered in the middle of the right sleeve stitches. I decided I wanted 51 stitches reserved for each sleeve ( about 2/3 of the 80 stitches I planned to have in total.) So next round, I knit to 25 stitches before the Existing BOR and slid the next 51 stitches onto waste yarn or spare cable. (25, plus the stitch between the markers, plus 25 stitches on the other side.)

Next I CO 20 stitches for underarm (I used a cable cast on). Place a stitch marker halfway, between the 10th and 11th CO stitch (I also marked the halfway point with a little waste yarn to make the middle or the underarm section easier to find later.) 

I knit 101 stitches across the front, leaving centre front marker in place. Slipped the next 51 sts onto a spare cable. CO 20 stitches for the left under arm, placing a marker halfway as before. 

Knit 100 across the back.  Knit the 101st stitch and the first cast on stitch from the previous round together to tighten up the join. Work 9 stitches,  sm, k9, k2tog, work around to beginning of underarm cast on, knitting the 101st stitch from the back and the first cast on stitch for the left armpit together. K9, sm, k9, k2tog, knit to end of round. 

(238 sts for body: 20 cast on + 101 + 20 cast on + 101 = 242  You end up with 238 stitches because you decreased two stitches on the ends of both armpit cast ons.)

Knit 5 rounds even.

At this point, I decided I had a few too many stitches for the body than I needed for the fit I wanted so I had to decrease a few. I spread these decreases over the next few inches of knitting and did them around the armpits.

Decrease rounds.

K9, sm, k10, k2tog,knit to centre front marker, sm, k1, sm, knit to 12 stitches before left underarm marker, ssk, k10, sm, k10, k2tog, knit to centre back markers, sm, k1, sm, knit to three sts before end of round, ssk, k1. (234 sts)

Knit 6 rounds even.

Repeat decrease round. (230 sts)

Knit 6 rounds.

Repeat decrease round (226 sts)

Continue on in stockinette until body is about 2 inches shorter than desired length total length. The band will be about 2 inches wide.

Bottom band - Switch to 3.5 mm needles and proceed in the Barnacle Stitch as follows

Round 1: (k2, p2), repeat to end of round. 

Round 2: (k1, yo, k1, p2), repeat to end of round. 

Round 3: (k3, p2), repeat to end of round. 

Round 4: (sl1, k2, psso, p2), repeat to end of round 

Repeat this four round pattern to desired length, ending with round 4. Cast off loosely.

Note: By reducing your needle size on the band you eliminate the need to decrease stitches. Your bottom band will be a little fimer and smaller than the body fabric. 


Sleeves are made by using the stitches you reserved earlier, and picking up sufficient stitches at the cast on edge for the armpit, plus a few extra stitches to close any gap between these. Just make sure your stitch count is the same for both sleeves. If you have to fudge it a bit and cast on a few extra stitches, you can decrease at the underarm on the first round or so (i.e., don't stress over this.)

Starting at the middle of the armpit bottom, pick up 14 stitches, knit across 51 stitches on spare cable or waste yarn, pick up 15 stitches, place BOR marker (80 sts total). Knit until desired sleeve length, less two inches. (Note, you will be adding a 2 inch band to match sweater body band.)

I made the sleeve 40 rounds long. On round 41, I decreased the stitches by 25% so the cuff would be more fitted:

(K2, k2tog), repeat to end. (60 sts)

After the decrease, I changed to 3.5 mm double pointed needles,  and did five pattern repeats of the mock cable stitch, like I did for the band. Then CO loosely. Repeat for second sleeve.

Finishing up:

Weave in all ends. Handwash and block.

Adjusting for other sizes:

The beauty of top-down sweater construction is you have the ability to try the garment on at any stage. To do this, you will need to have a spare circular needle or the ability to add cable length between your interchangeable needles. That will let the working edge relax enough to make fit testing easy.

Knowing your gauge is necessary for estimating the stitches and rows you need to achieve your desired size.  Also necessary are accurate measurements of the intended wearer (bust, shoulder width, depth from neckline to armpit, desired neckline circumference, upper arm diameter etc.)

If you have these, you will know how long to continue increasing, when to stop increasing and how much further to knit your yoke before dividing for the body and sleeves. You will also know how many stitches you want for your sleeve width and how wide you want the elbow length cuff to be.

Key things to remember:

1. The shawl geometry works best with multiples of 16 stitches. If a number divisible by 16 doesn't work for your neckline, just remember to increase after your neckline is completed, spreading the increases evenly around the work. A simple kfb (knit front and back in the same stitch) will increase one stitch and minimize the hole created by the new stitch.

2. Consider how much ease you want your finished garment to have when making your initial calculations. If the intended wearer has a large bust to waist difference, you might opt for minimal bust ease and decrease a few stitches like I did in the upper body so there is less ease in the waist area. If someone has broad shoulders and prefers a looser fit, you might opt for 2-3 inches of ease in the body and calculate your needed stitch count on that measurement (i.e. actual bust measurement plus 2-3 inches).

3. Make sure the armhole depth is comfortable before dividing for the body and sleeves. Better to have a little extra depth than not enough, as you can decrease stitches under the arm as needed but you can't make the armhole bigger after the fact.

4. Body and sleeve length should be customized. No two bodies are exactly alike. The beauty of a handmade sweater of top-down construction is you can customize the length. Just keep track of what you are doing so you can replicate the second sleeve, or can recreate the fit for the recipient in another project of similar yarn weight. 

5. Always enclose care instructions with any handknit gift. Not everyone knows how to care for knitted clothing. Fiber composition is everything! Super wash yarn will not behave the same as yarn that is not treated, and natural fibres require different care from synthetics. Handmade garments take time to make and should last a very long time with proper care.


BOR - beginning of round marker

co - cast on/off  

k - knit       k2tog - knit two stitches together    kfb - knit in the front and back of a stitch

 p - purl      pm - place marker            psso - pass slipped stitch over 

 sl - slip     sm - slip marker        sts - stitches


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