Briar Rose Vintage KAL: Shoulder shaping

(Update: This post was eaten during the Blogger outage. I waited patiently starting yesterday morning when they said “Blogger was back” and said they were restoring the posts that were “temporarily removed” from Wednesday and Thursday. 24 hours later my post isn’t back and as of this morning they say “almost all” posts have been restored and now they’re working on comments. Gee, thanks! Fortunately my mom had a copy of this post in her RSS feed reader so I could rebuild it even though I know I’ll have to go back and make a coupe of tweaks. If at some point a second copy of this appears, I guess that means they finally did restore my post. What a mess. But I didn’t want anyone who really needed this post as a reference to have to wait any longer!)

Before I launch into my KAL post, I just wanted to say thank you so much for the condolences about my grandmother. Your replies have really meant a lot to me! I am so glad that I could share an important part of my family with you all in my post. 🙂

Now, how are you doing, knit-alongers?? Many of us are in various stages along the way. And there’s at least one knitter who finished her Briar Rose, in April no less. That’s right, Kate of Vintage in a Modern World finished hers, and it was her first sweater, too! Pretty great!

Many of you are already thinking about your collar, but before we get to that (soon!), we need to cover shoulders.

You may have already knit your shoulders per the pattern (a few of you have), but for those of you who are knitting a bit slower, I’m going to show you an alternative method to the way the pattern is written. If you’re bemoaning the way you worked the shoulders after reading this, don’t worry! What you did is perfectly a-ok. I’m just going to present another way to work them, and you can use this for future reference if you’d like to try it on another sweater sometime down the road.

Shoulder shaping

When you’re knitting a sweater from the bottom up, the shoulders are the last thing you do on the front and back pieces. You knit up to the shoulders, then you cast off a certain number of stitches over a certain number of rows. Usually not many rows—in the ballpark of 6 or 8 rows—but always an even number since you have 2 shoulders. This gives you a nice, gentle slope, mimicking the slope of your own shoulder.

Remember our old friend, the blank sweater?

See how the shoulders slope slightly down and away from the neckline? With slight variations based on style, this is pretty universal. It’s good to keep this in mind while you’re working your shoulders, in case you discover something amiss. Is your shoulder sloping up from the neckline? Time to examine your knitting and your pattern and see if you made a mistake!

When you get to your shoulders, you will have somewhere around 3 to 5 inches of knitting at each shoulder, depending upon the pattern and any tweak you may have made for broad or narrow shoulders, with the neckline stitches in the middle (recall that each shoulder and the neckline roughly make up about 1/3 of the stitches you have left at this point). If there is no shaping at the back of the neck (which is the case with Briar Rose) the pattern will read something like this:

When armhole measures 7 inches [or desired armhole depth], shape shoulders by casting off 10 sts at the beginning of the next 6 rows.

This is actually how our pattern as written has you shape the shoulders, I just added the notation about armhole depth since many of us are working our own rewritten version of the pattern. (In my case, the armhole depth of my rewritten pattern is 7.5 inches.)

What this has you do is cast off/bind off a small number of stitches (10 in this case) at the beginning of each of the next 6 rows. The 3 knit rows shape the left shoulder (though this is the right-hand side of your work when the public side is facing you). The 3 purl rows shape the right shoulder (the left-hand side of your work when the public side is facing you).

Once you’ve completed that, you cast off the rest that’s in the middle. Those remaining cast off stitches are your neckline, which is (obviously) between the two shoulders.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with working the shoulders in this method! It just means that when you’re ready to finish your sweater, you’ll have to sew the front and back shoulders together. There are several ways to do this, with two popular methods being mattress stitch with the right sides facing you, or backstitch with the wrong sides facing you.

Short row shoulder shaping

This all being said, there is another way to shape your shoulders, and it’s my preferred method: using short rows.

At some point in my knitting past I read this great article on Knitty on how to work short row shoulders. I’m not sure why, exactly. I think I read about the technique on Ravelry and wanted to learn more (my usual modus operandi). I liked the idea of not having to sew up my shoulder seams.

When you use short rows to shape your shoulders, those shoulder stitches are actually left live in your needles (i.e. not cast off), and you use three needle bind off to attach the front and back shoulders together. This is an easy technique that produces a nice clean seam, worked from the inside. You won’t need to fuss with a sewing needle.

If you’re new to short rows, it can feel a bit confusing at first, leaving stitches on the left needle and turning your work before you get to the end of the row. Butonce you master the technique you may never go back to normal shoulder shaping again. (I haven’t!) Just remember these two pieces of advice: 1) the shoulders slope down from the neckline (important to remember so you don’t build the shoulder the wrong way); 2) there aren’t very many shoulder rows, so if you screw it up you won’t be out much time if you have to rip back and try it again!

Let’s start with the back piece.

That’s the back of the sweater. Note I’ve measured to make sure I’ve hit my desired 7.5″ depth from my armhole, marked by the stitch marker at the lower right.

In case you’re curious, the stitch marker towards the top is one that I move along the way so I can eyeball the length of my work. I’ll make a note where it is, say, at 4″, then move it after another couple of inches, etc. The way I measure is by placing a stitch marker in the very first row after the armhole bind off row, and then carefully measure from that point, like this…

When you work short row shoulders, knit up to the same point in the pattern where it tells you to start the shoulders, i.e. “When armhole measures 7 inches, shape shoulders by…” in the case of Briar Rose. That’s what the above photo shows. I stopped knitting just before I was supposed to start shaping the shoulders.

What you’re going to do now is knit a series of progressively shorter rows. Short rows. Get it?

In Briar Rose, it tells us to cast off 10 stitches at the beginning of each of the next 6 rows. We know 3 of those rows shape the left shoulder and 3 shape the right shoulder. We also know at the end, we’ll cast off the neckline stitches that remain in the middle. We’re still going to do mostly that.

What we’re not going to do is cast off those 10 stitches in each of those rows. Instead, we’re going to not work them, leaving them live on the needle, and we’ll use the wrap and turn technique to make sure we don’t end up with gaps (which you’d otherwise get if you turned your knitting and started knitting back without working a wrap & turn). Later, we’ll conceal the wrapped stitches by knitting them together with the stitch they’re wrapped around.

This is approximately how the rows will be worked. I hope this gives you a good visual to see how these are, indeed, “short” rows. See how each arrow is a little shorter than the one before it?

For those of you who know how to work short rows, I’m going to write how I changed the instructions. Then I’ll go through how to work them for those of you who are new to this technique.

Shoulder shaping in my rewritten version of Briar Rose:

When armhole measures 7.5 inches [my desired armhole depth], shape shoulders by casting off 9 sts at the beginning of the next 6 rows. Cast off remaining 32 stitches [neckline].

Now, rewritten for short row shoulders…


Reworking for short row shoulder shaping:

When armhole measures 7.5 inches, shape shoulders as follows:

Knit across row until 10 stitches remain on the left needle. Wrap & turn.
Purl across row until 10 stitches remain on the left needle. Wrap & turn.
Knit across row until 19 stitches remain on the left needle. Wrap & turn.
Purl across row until 19 stitches remain on the left needle. Wrap & turn.
Knit across row until 28 stitches remain on the left needle. Wrap & turn.
Purl across row until 28 stitches remain on the left needle. Wrap & turn.

Cast off 32 stitches, picking up wrapped stitches as they come, and
continuing to knit across remainder of row. Place these 27 sts on a
holder [left shoulder]. Break yarn with a long tail to work 3 needle BO when corresponding front shoulder is complete.

Turn work, attaching yarn at center and purl across remaining stitches,
picking up wraps as they come and purling them with their stitch. Please
these 27 sts on a holder [right shoulder]. Break yarn with a long tail to work 3 needle BO when corresponding front shoulder is complete.

You’ll notice that in my version for short rows, I said to knit across until you have 10 stitches on the needle, even though in my rewritten version of the pattern I was casting off 9 stitches at at time. Why? Because when you get to those 10 stitches, you’ll wrap the next stitch, so ultimately you end up with 9 unworked stitches (and a wrapped stitch that gets counted in the next section of unworked stitches). So you knit to 1 stitch more than what your pattern would have to cast off. Make sense?

This would be a good point to mention that these numbers are not written in stone. If you worked to 9 stitches, then at the end found out your last section of unworked stitches had an extra stitch, the world would not come to an end. Trust me.

Wait! How do you do that wrap and turn?

It’s easy. First, read this simple short row tutorial on Purl Bee before you get started. It is short, to the point and exactly what you need to do. Plus it’s far better than the series of photos I tried to put together for you. LOL!

It shows you how to wrap and turn on a knit row and on a purl row, both of which you’ll need to know how to do. It also shows you how to pick up the wrapped stitch on the knit side and on the purl side, both of which you’ll also need to know how to do.

My explanation on the reworked shoulders

Okay, so I’ve written up how I would alter the back shoulders for short rows, per my measurements. The basic concept is that you’re working 6 rows, each a little bit shorter by the number of stitches you would otherwise be casting off in the pattern as written. You’re turning your work each time to start the next row, but you’re wrapping a stitch first so that it prevents you from getting an unsightly gap in your knitting.

Once you’ve worked those short rows, you have to cast off the neckline stitches, and you also have to knit (or purl) across all the remaining stitches on both sides one more time so you can knit (or purl) the wrapped stitches, otherwise your final knitting will have the little wraps still in place and look funky.

There are a number of ways to do this, but I opt for the same method as described in the aforementioned Knitty article on shoulder shaping.

Once you’ve worked your short rows for the shoulders (6 short rows, in my example), you cast off the neckline stitches. That very first stitch you’ll be casting off is actually a wrapped stitch as you’ll see, so it will be the first time you need to pick up the wrap and the stitch together, while you’re casting off that stitch. (Don’t worry, it sounds complicated but when your knitting is in your hands, it will make sense.) Why do you do it? Because you need to get rid of those pesky wraps. This is what a wrap looks like, hanging out around a stitch.

See how it’s really obvious and disrupts the nice sea of stockinette? You need to knit that together with the stitch it’s wrapped around, which will conceal it. The Purl Bee tutorial will show you in-depth how to pick up the wraps and knit them together with the stitch, but basically it’s kind of like working a decrease, like 2tog, where you’re just knitting two stitches together. You put your needle through the wrap, then the stitch, and knit both together as one stitch. Kind of like this…

(In the above photo, I was getting both the wrap and the stitch on the needle in preparation for casting off a stitch, in case you’re wondering why I’m doing that on the right needle. I was just about to slip them both over the stitch to the left, i.e. the furthest stitch to the left on the right needle.)

Continue casting off the number of stitches for your neckline as your rewritten pattern indicates. In my case, that’s 32 sts. (If you’re not sure how many that is, subtract away the number of shoulder stitches on each side from the number of stitches you had left on the needle before you started shaping the shoulder.) When you encounter another wrapped stitch, which you will just before you cast off your last neckline stitch, again pick up the wrap as you cast off that stitch. Then continue knitting across the rest of that row, still picking up and knitting wrapped stitches as you come to them.

Once you’ve done that, you can break your yarn (leave a long tail for your three needle bind off later) and place those stitches on a holder. It’ll look like this…

Now you need to go back to work one last row across the purl side for your other shoulder stitches that are still on the needle, purling those wrapped stitches as you come to them. Why? Again, you’re getting rid of those pesky wraps.

When you’re done, it’ll all look like this. Two shoulders ready for a three needle bind off, and cast off neckline stitches in the middle.

Alternately, instead of casting off the neckline and knitting across the one shoulder, then re-attaching yarn to purl across the other shoulder, you could break your yarn after you work the last short row and knit across the entire row from the beginning, casting off the neckline in the middle. It’s really a matter of personal preference.

What about the front shoulders?

The front shoulders are even easier. You won’t have to worry about the neckline stitches as you’ll have already been shaping it so you can get your head in, thus your left shoulder and right shoulder will already have been worked separately.

Shoulder shaping in my rewritten version of Briar Rose:
When armhole measures 7.5 inches [my desired armhole depth], shape shoulders by casting off 9 sts at armhole edge every 2nd row 3 times.

That “every 2nd row 3 times” part amounts to 6 rows, like for the back. Except this time, all you have left on your needles is the shoulder stitches, which in my case is 27 sts. You’ve already decreased away your neckline stitches. It says to do that at the armhole edge so you slope the shoulder the correct way.

As it happens the way I work short rows for the front shoulders, it ends up taking 2 less rows than the way I showed you to work the back, so just keep that in mind and start your front shoulder shaping 2 rows later than you did for the back. (And if you forget, it’s not the end of the world. How do I know this? It didn’t even occur to me until writing this tutorial that this was the case. So I have a whole lot of sweaters where the front is 2 rows shorter than the back. Hasn’t made a lick of difference…)

Here’s the only other thing you have to keep straight in your head: you don’t work the left and right shoulders starting on the knit side.

On the front left shoulder (i.e. your left shoulder), you work the short rows starting on the purl side.

On the front right shoulder (i.e. your right shoulder), you work the short rows starting on the knit side.

Why? So you have your shoulders sloping the correct way, down from the neckline in opposite directions, not shaping them both in the same direction. Yes, this means that one shoulder will be one row shorter than the other. You can throw in an extra row on the side that gets shortchanged one row, or not worry about it, which is what I usually do.

Reworking for short row shoulder shaping:
When armhole measures 7.5 inches, shape shoulders as follows:

Knit (or purl) across row until 10 stitches remain on the left needle. Wrap & turn.
Purl (or knit) across row to end.
Knit (or purl) across row until 19 stitches remain on the left needle. Wrap & turn.
Purl (or knit) across row to end.

(or purl) across entire row, picking up wrapped stitches as they come.
Break yarn and place these 27 sts on a holder to work 3 needle bind off
with back corresponding shoulder.

It only takes 4 short rows to complete the slope for the front shoulder , hence the extra 2 rows you
should knit before you work them. Then just as you did for the back, here you’ll knit (or purl) across all stitches on the last row to pick up the wraps and knit them with the stitches.

Three needle bind off

Once your back shoulders and your front shoulders have been shaped, you’re ready to work a three needle bind off on each set (front/back left, front/back right). Again, I’m not going to reinvent the wheel here, so I’m going to point you to this tutorial on the technique. It’s really easy, the easiest part of this whole post. Seriously. With the right sides facing together on the inside, you essentially bind off the front and back at the same time together. Look how short this section is, you don’t even get a photo. 😉

Final thoughts

I’ve showed you the techniques I personally use to work short rows on shoulders, but you could also vary it slightly if you’d like and if you find something works better for you. Play around with it a bit! Make note of how you did it so you don’t have to try and remember every time you get to a new shoulder.

Next up will be the collar, and I’ll hopefully be showing you two methods you can try depending on your preference. If I can’t get the post completed before the weekend, you’ll have it early next week. 🙂 As always, please let me know if you have any questions, or post in the Flickr group!

Online resources for this post:

  • Mattress stitch—General information on working mattress stitch seams.
  • Mattress stitch on horizontal seams—How to work mattress stitch on two horizontal pieces of knitting, such as  how you’d use it to seam a front and back shoulder together.
  • Backstitch—How to work backstitch to sew two pieces of knitting together. Note  backstitch is done with the right sides facing each other so you’re  working it from the wrong side.
  • Rewriting a pattern for short row shoulder shaping—How to figure out what you need to do to rewrite your shoulders for short rows.
  • Short row tutorial—Very straight-forward tutorial on how to work short rows and the wrap & turn technique.
  • Short row shoulder shaping video—For those of you who prefer video tutorials, this one really cemented the technique for me.
  • Three needle bind off—Clear instructions on how to work this technique to make a seam with 2 rows  of live knitting. Note you must have exactly the same number of stitches in each row for this to work.

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Golly, 5 Comments!

  • Working on the armholes now! And I thought the ribbing took forever!! I thought I was making good progress, and then decided to measure to see how far I was from 7-1/2″… Yup, a LONG ways to go and a whole other side. Darn purling – it slows me down!


  • Hi,
    I read your blog religiously and became inspired to try and knit a sweater (gulp!) I’m Chickasaw and have been a traditional Native beader for many years not having the faintest how to do anything else other than moccasins, buckskin dresses, and the like. I’m a total vintage girl and and incorporate many of the 40’s styles Indian jewelry from the reservations into my outfits.

    After I found a cute 1940’s cardigan pattern on Etsy I got started but then realized I would have to improvise since the the pattern photo only showed the front of the garment. Once I got to the shoulders I was so confused but this page helped me tremendously.

    I enjoy your blog, your tutorials, appreciation for the by gone era, and your beautiful marriage with Mel. Thank you.


  • I have visited many sites showing how to do short rows or shoulder shaping but none of them showed doing the entire back on the sweater so I was pretty happy when saw your method. This is one that I would use however my pattern tells me to hold 30 stitches on a stitch holder at the back of the neck to be picked up later or the crew neck shaping. How can I apply your method with this instruction? I would really appreciate any instruction as I really want to use the short rows for shoulder shaping; haw hated the stairs method for years because if messy seaming. Thank you for the great instructions thus far,
    Laura Gliden


    • Hi Laura, you’d approach it more or less the same way. Once you get to the point where you have the neck stitches on a holder, you just have to work one shoulder at a time. For example, knit across the back right shoulder stitches, knit across the neck stitches, then place the neck stitches AND the right shoulder stitches on a holder (or two if you like, to make it clear where each is). Then work the short rows on the left shoulder. When you finish up with the left and break the yarn, pick back up the stitches for the right shoulder and work those short rows.


  • I am so grateful for this tutorial. I simply could not make sense of shaping the shoulders on the back of my sweater until I saw your easy-to-understand photos and the well written directions. Thank you for saving my sanity!!


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