Today I have a big ol’ knitting tutorial for you!
I’m going to show you a technique I sometimes use to seamlessly knit sleeves that look set-in. If you’re not a fan of seaming, then it’s an awesome technique to have in your arsenal. I actually don’t mind setting in sleeves and do that more often than not. But I used this method on my Dragonflies Jumper and a lot of you were intrigued and interested in a tutorial. I decided to do it again for the Cable Pullover in my fitting and knitting a 40s pullover series, so I could share!
You knit sleeves like this by picking up stitches around the finished armhole, working short rows to form the sleeve cap, and then working the sleeve on down to the cuff. I first read about this technique in the book Custom Knits in 2008 and it’s a method many modern patterns use, but the concept of knitting a sleeve out from the armhole is by no means modern. It was traditional in more than one culture, and I’ve seen it in vintage patterns, too. In fact the 1944 pattern Campus Compliments Cardigan I posted free a couple of years ago has you knit the sleeves out from the armhole. But by shaping a sleeve cap with short rows, you really mimic the look of set-in sleeves pretty much exactly.
It can be referred to be slightly different names—top-down set-in sleeves, faux set-in sleeves, afterthought sleeves, seamless set-in sleeves. You get the picture. Sleeves from the armhole out with no seaming. If you’re not lucky enough to be working a pattern with instructions on how to do it, this tutorial will give you guidelines to do it yourself. It’s great…
- If you’re resizing a vintage pattern and feel queasy at the thought of reshaping a sleeve cap
- If you want to convert set-in sleeves to seamless
- If you’re adding sleeves to a vest
- If you just plain don’t feel like setting in sleeves
Everyone has their own special take on how to do this technique, so I’m just going to show you how I personally have come to do it over the years. This is a long and detailed tutorial for something that’s really quite easy to do once you get the hang of it. If you can knit in the round and follow directions, you can totally handle it!
- Your sweater, with shoulders and side seams (if any) sewn up
- Knitting needles the same size as you worked the body, but in whatever way you prefer to work in a small diameter (double-pointed needles, one long circular for magic loop, 2 circulars, etc)
- Locking stitch markers or safety pins
- A few regular stitch markers
Things to know
- How to knit flat (for the sleeve cap) and in the round (for the rest of the sleeve)
- How to pick up stitches along an edge
- Wrap & turn on a RS (right-side) row: Work in pattern to the stitch where you need to work the W&T. Slip the stitch purlwise to right needle, bring working yarn between needles to the front of your work, slip the stitch back from the right needle to the left needle. Turn work so the WS (wrong-side) is now facing you. Bring the working yarn back between the needles and starting working in the opposite direction. (You’ll now be working on the WS.)
- Wrap & turn on a WS (wrong-side) row: Work in pattern to the stitch where you need to work the W&T. Slip the stitch purlwise to right needle, bring working yarn between needles to the back of your work, slip the stitch back from the right needle to the left needle. Turn work so the RS (wrong-side) is now facing you. Bring the working yarn back between the needles and starting working in the opposite direction. (You’ll now be working on the RS.)
Note: the wrap & turns and how to hide the wraps will be shown with detailed photos in the tutorial.
First thing’s first: determine width of sleeve at upper arm
Figure out how wide you want your sleeve to be around your upper arm. If you’re not sure, measure a sweater that fits you well!
Some recipes for this technique don’t have you do this, they tell you at what interval to pick up stitches. (Some say one every stitch or every other stitch where you shaped the body at the underarm, then every 2 for 3 stitches after that, some just say every 2 for 3 stitches all around, etc.) I don’t usually like to do it like this. Why? Because I don’t want to end up with a sleeve that’s too baggy. I have skinny upper arms, and it’s easy for sleeves to get too big too quickly. So unless I’m knitting from a pattern that actually gives me top down sleeve directions, I approach it this way instead.
First, take your stitch gauge and multiply it by the desired width of your sleeve around the upper arm. That will give you the full number of stitches to pickup around the whole armhole. If you get an odd number (1, 3, 5, etc) you’ll have to round up in the second step. Then divide that in half for the front / back of the armhole. For me that looked like this:
Step 1) 6 stitches per inch x 12.5 inch width sleeve at upper arm = 75 stitches to pick up around armhole
Step 2) 75 ÷ 2 = 37.5 stitches to pick up for each of the front and back of armhole
Step 3) Since I can’t pickup half a stitch, round 37.5 up to 38 stitches. Pick up 38 stitches for the front and 38 stitches for the back of the armhole (totaling 76).
Makes sense, right? This will mean the sleeve at my upper arm will fit me exactly the way I want it to after blocking.
Mark the top and bottom of your armhole
I use locking stitch markers to mark the center bottom and top of the armhole. (You could also use safety pins, or make a loose knot with a tiny strand of contrasting yarn.) I personally put them about an inch in from the open edge just so they don’t get in my way when I start to knit. They’re just to let you know where the top and bottom of the sleeve are, not actually marking a stitch count or anything. You’ll need these as a visual cue.
Pick up stitches along armhole
Starting at the center bottom of the armhole (directly above where you marked), pick up the number of stitches you determined you need around your entire armhole. For me, the total was 76 stitches I needed to pick up around the entire armhole.
Use your top marker as a guide for the halfway point. So for me, I picked up 38 stitches between the orange marker at the bottom of my armhole and the green marker at the top. Then another 38 back down the other side. (And that totals 76.)
As you go, it’ll look like this…
You may find that you have to rip out your picked up stitches sometimes if you aren’t on track to hit the desired number of stitches you want. For instance, I was trying to pick up 38 each side, but twice I was approaching the halfway point with about 2 inches left and only a few stitches left to pick up to get to 38. So I just pulled them out and did it again, distributing them a little more. It’s pretty easy. I’d rather take the time here to even things out than to only pick up (for example) 2 for every 3 stitches and then run the risk of a sleeve that may not fit. By doing it this way, I know it will fit. Even if the stitches aren’t picked up at exactly an even interval guess what… you’ll never know it in the end!
Optional: if you’re going to knit a pattern stitch or have any other reason to mark the halfway point of the sleeve, go ahead and put in a marker as you pass the locking marker you put in at the shoulder. I did this because I’m centering a cable down my arm like the Cable Pullover pattern. So marking the very center top meant later on, when I had to center a 10-stitch cable at the top of the sleeve, I knew to start it 5 stitches before I hit that marker.
Once all the stitches are picked up, it’ll look like this:
Mark the end of the armhole shaping stitches
Once all the stitches are picked up, look at the bottom of the armhole You should be able to see your line of decreases where you shaped the armhole. Mark the end of these stitches with a locking marker. When you work the short rows, this is where you’ll stop. I used orange markers here:
Count the number of stitches from that marker to the center bottom of the armhole, and then place a marker the same number of stitches away from the center on the other side. You’re marking this on both the front and back. See?
Mark the top of the sleeve
You marked the bottom, now you’ll mark the top. You work the short rows starting on the upper third of the stitches. Remembering the number of stitches you picked up on each half (38 in my case), divide that by three. Round up or down to the nearest whole number if necessary.
38 ÷ 3 = 12.666, round up or down. I rounded to 12 stitches.
Mark that number of stitches away from the center top of the sleeve, on both sides. I used green markers. Now you’ll see what it looks like with markers at the top and bottom of the armhole:
Start working short rows
The first time you do this, it’ll feel a bit weird. You’re going to start knitting at the bottom of the armhole and work your way up to the marker just past where you marked the top of the shoulder, work a wrap & turn, work back to the marker on the other side of the marker at the top of the shoulder, work a wrap & turn, and go back the other way. Each row, you’ll work one more stitch than the last row, until you’ve worked all the stitches down to the orange markers. Don’t worry, we’ll walk through it all. But hopefully the below will help you see what the idea is here:
They’re called short rows because you’re never working on the full number of stitches on the needle as you create the sleeve cap. In this technique, as you can see from the above, each row technically gets one stitch longer than the last, but they’re still short of the entire number of stitches you picked up. (I know, if you’ve never done this, it feels funny leaving all those stitches on the right left untouched. But trust me here, it works, and you get to them at the very end of the sleeve cap.)
Start at the bottom of the armhole (you marked this with a stitch marker), which is your beginning of the round, and start knitting in the round. If you’re using the magic loop method, you’ll want to mark the beginning of the round with a marker. (And yeah, it’ll look rather like a uterus.)
If you have a pattern stitch, you’re going to have to work that out over the number of stitches you picked up… I did that, so as I went, I just knit in pattern from the beginning of the round. Again, it’ll feel kind of weird since you’re not going all the way around the armhole yet, but just trust that it’ll work out in the end.
To make this easier, let’s number the markers–one through four. I’ll refer to them by number as we go.
- Markers One and Four mark the end of the armhole shaping on the body
- Markers Two and Three mark the top 1/3 of stitches picked up around the entire armhole
Starting at the beginning of the round (at the center bottom of the armhole where you marked it), knit in pattern. When you get to Marker One, slip the marker. If you want to, switch it to a normal marker.
When you get to Marker Two, slip the marker. If you want to, switch it to a normal marker.
When you get to Marker Three (the marker past the top of the shoulder), slip the marker. If you want to, switch it to a normal marker. Wrap & turn the next stitch. Here’s how to work a wrap & turn on a right-side row:
You now have the WS (wrong side) facing you. Work back across the stitches at the top of the sleeve until you get to Marker Two (the marker at the top of the shoulder on the opposite side). Wrap & turn the next stitch. Here’s how to work a wrap & turn on a wrong-side row:
You now have the RS (right side) facing you. Work back across the stitches at the top of the sleeve until you get one stitch past Marker Three, which is the wrapped stitch. You’ll recognize it because there will literally be a wrap of yarn over the stitch, like this:
When you work wrapped short rows like this, you have to ‘hide’ the wrap. Pick up the wrap along with the stitch and knit them together, which will close a gap formed by working the short row. Slip your right-hand needle into the wrap and then into the stitch, and knit them together as one.
Then wrap & turn the next stitch. Continue working back on the wrong side at the top of the sleeve until one stitch past Marker Two, which is the wrapped stitch from the previous row. Again, you’ll recognize it because there will be a wrap of yarn over the stitch. But this time, it’s on the wrong side of the work, like this:
Again, you have to pick up the wrap along with the stitch, this time purling them together to close the gap. Slip your right-hand needle into the wrap from the back and lift it onto the left-hand needle, then purl them together as one.
Then wrap & turn the next stitch. Continue working back on the right side at the top of the sleeve until two stitches past Marker Three, which is the wrapped stitch from the previous row. As you’ve been doing, pick up the wrap along with the stitch, and knit them together to close the gap. Then wrap & turn the next stitch. And again, you’ll be going back in the opposite way.
See what we’re doing here? Just going back and forth, going one stitch further each row than the last. At the end of each short row, you pick up the wrap and work it together with the stitch it was wrapped around, then wrap the next stitch and turn your work, going back in the opposite direction.
So the short way of writing this is kind of like this:
(RS) Row 1. Starting at the beginning of the round at the bottom of the armhole and joining to work in the round, work in pattern to Marker Three (working on the RS, the marker after you pass the shoulder seamline). Wrap & turn the next stitch.
(WS) Row 2. Work in pattern to Marker Two (working on the WS, the marker after you pass the shoulder seamline). Wrap & turn the next stitch.
(RS) Row 3. Work in pattern to wrapped stitch. Pick up and knit* the wrap along with the stitch. Wrap & turn the next stitch.
(WS) Row 4. Work in pattern to wrapped stitch. Pick up and purl* the wrap along with the stitch. Wrap & turn the next stitch.
*Note: depending on your pattern, you may have to work a different stitch to keep this in pattern, but work the wrap with it regardless
You repeat Rows 3 and 4, working short rows each row on the right- and wrong-side rows to create the sleeve cap, until you get to the lower markers. As you go, you’ll start to see the sleeve develop!
Continue working in this manner until you get to the lower markers (Markers One and Four). You’ll know you’ve hit the last wrong-side row to work, because you’ll wrap the stitch just before Marker One. Here’s a reminder:
After wrapping the stitch just before Marker One, you’ll work back across on the right side until you get to the wrapped stitch, which should be just before Marker Four. Pick up that wrap with the stitch and knit them together, and don’t wrap the next stitch.
Just keep on knitting down to the bottom of the armhole. You’re done working short rows!
Continue working the sleeve in the round
You’re done with the sleeve cap! And you now start knitting on all the stitches in the round, knitting the sleeve down from the armhole. The only last thing you have to do relating to the cap is in that first full round: when you get to the last stitch you wrapped on your last WS row (it’ll be just past Marker One going in this direction), pick up the wrap and work it with the stitch. And then you can take out all your markers (except at the beginning of the round, of course).
You’ll have to work out when to decrease down the length of the sleeve, either figuring this out yourself or reversing the directions from your pattern if it has you knit from the cuff up to the sleeve cap.
And your sleeve will grow and grow, all from the armhole out. Pretty neat, huh?
Knitting a top-down sleeve with a stitch pattern
If you’re knitting a sleeve in anything other than stockinette (or reverse stockinette), you’re going to have to keep something in mind: as you get to the wrapped stitch on the RS,you won’t always be knitting the stitch and the wrap together. You might need to purl the stitch and the wrap together. It all depends on what the next stitch in the pattern calls for! So for that matter, you might need to work something else. If a k2tog is called for, you’d need to knit both the stitch to its left together with the wrapped stitch and the wrap. And so on.
Just follow your stitch pattern and do what’s necessary to keep that wrapped stitch in pattern when you get to it. And if you accidentally mess up, it’s really not that big of a deal. All the wrapped stitches are so close to the faux seam line you’re creating, minor issues are barely noticeable. And that’s a good thing. Like I said earlier, I usually set in sleeves, so working seamless set-in sleeves with a pattern stitch isn’t my usual thing, and I’m pretty sure I messed up picking up the wraps in pattern on one or two occasions. But no one ever has to know but us!
Knitting sleeves from the top down and working short rows to form a sleeve cap is a great technique. Doing it on a vintage or modern knit alike, it’s a seamless way to achieve the look of set-in sleeves when you don’t want to actually knit them separately and set them into the body. And sometimes, that’s pretty awesome.
So, if you haven’t already, think you’ll give seamless set-in sleeves a try? Hope you enjoyed this tutorial!