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House of Cardigans

When staring at my pile of sweaters, I am faced with a certain truth.  I don’t wear pullovers very often.  In my climate, and indeed in any climate with the innovation of indoor heating, at least part of the day is just too warm to be comfortable in a heavy pullover.  To remedy the situation, I’ve turned my attentions in this issue of Frankenknits to cardiganizing. The first two projects fall into the “quick and dirty” school of refashioning.  They’re fun and fast and  great ways to get creative with a pullover that’s lost its lease on life.  The third project is perhaps a bit more painstaking, but well worth the effort.  By following the steps outlined below you’ll be able to turn even a cherished sweater into something once again wearable.

First up on the chopping block, a sweater that either needs to be buried or reincarnated...a rather boring off-white V-neck pullover.  Furthermore it’s got some lingering stains, and even after a last ditch trip through the washing machine it didn’t get truly spotless, did felt it slightly.  What to do?

First I cut off the ribbing on the bottom along with about 4 inches of the body, bringing the sweater to a cropped length.  Because the trip through the machine had made the fabric a bit denser, I didn’t worry about just cutting it and it all stayed put just fine.  The truth is that sweaters don’t really unravel instantly on you, and with a bit of care, you can work your Franken-magic without much worry. I cut off the V-neck collar to open up the neck a bit and sliced up the front.  Remember that once you cut off the collar, the opening will grow, so err on the side of cutting off less than you think you need to.

From there the sweater went into the dye pot with some Kool-Aid.  Four packets of Black Cherry for the body and 2 packets of Orange for the bottom of the sweater that will be used as the collar.  I simply submerged the pieces in a pot of simmering water with the drink mix and allowed them to stay there until the water turned clear.  It took about 30 minutes.  You can learn more about Kool-Aid dyeing in an earlier Knitty article I wrote. If your sweater is made of cotton rather than an animal fiber, you can dye it using a tie-dye kit readily available at your local craft emporium, usually in both primary and bright colorway options.  Use a single color or mix the color of your choice, if you’re not channeling Jerry Garcia.  Follow the directions in the dye kit to get the result you’re after, whether it’s a solid color, a gradation of colors or a shibori technique.

After the pieces were dyed, rinsed and dried, I pinned the ribbing to the neckline to create the collar.  Because I knew my seams and edges would be visible and unfinished on this sweater, I chose to use the reverse stockinette side as the outside of the sweater, yielding a more deconstructed look. Because the collar will fold over, pin the right side of the collar to the wrong side of the sweater, then sew close to the edge.  Trim the seam and then fold the collar over to the right side.

To finish the edges, I simply used the sewing machine to sew around the open edges of the sweater ¼-inch and ½ -inch from the edges.  You might also use close zig-zag stitching to create lettuce edging as in the child’s shrug shown below.

Vintage buttons and ties created from the collar trimmings (with a line of zig-zag stitching down the centers of the ties to prevent fraying) finish the sweater.

I used similar techniques to turn a small women’s pullover into a shrug for a little girl.  I cut the sweater off to shrug length and made a vertical incision  to open the front.  I trimmed the sleeves down to the right length, comparing them to an appropriately sized garment. I turned each side of the front under about an inch and sewed them in place.  To mirror the new width on the front, I made a single box pleat at the center of the back, stitching it in place by machine.  A sweet detail that improved the fit.

To close the shrug, I didn’t want to overlap the already bulky buttonbands, so instead I made a single buttonhole with the sewing machine.  From a spare piece of wool felt from a previous project, I cut a rectangular tab and stitched it down opposite the buttonhole.  Buttons on either side make a functional and whimsical closure.

All unfinished edges along the bottom and sleeves were given a lettuce edging by simply zigzagging around them with a very short stitch.  Stretching the fabric as you go will make your edges curlier still. Because there were a couple of rips in the sweater, I zigzagged them too and highlighted them by sewing buttons at the tops.  In this way, what were accidents seem like intentional details.

On one sleeve I added some simple flowers but cutting circles out of contrasting felt and tacking them in place with more buttons.  The result is fun and sweet, and a great way to hand down a sweater that’s not being worn.

While these two cardigans were largely sewing projects and done, frankly, without a lot of finessing on small details, the final project of this cardigan triptych, features many skills that you might be willing to try on a more cherished sweater and indeed is standard operating procedure on sweaters with complex colorwork like Fairisles.  The sky blue funnelneck was well made with high quality wool.  But it was too big and heavy to be anything other than a coat for me.


The first step was to find its center.  Counting the stitches, I found the middle and marked it with a contrasting thread.  After checking to see that I’d gotten it right, I used the sewing machine to sew in the ladder between stitches on either side of my marked line.  I made a second seam one stitch out on either side.  You’ll make a total of four lines of stitches, two on either side of the marked line, one stitch apart.  Uttering a few words to the knitting deities, I snipped up the center, exactly where my contrasting thread ran.

Now you have a cardigan and all that remains is finishing the edges. First, verify that your sewing has done its job.  If it doesn’t seem firm enough, you might wish to go over the seams again or to bind the edges with zigzag stitches or a serger if you have the technology. With the right kinds of yarn, over time the loose ends more or less felt together and the edges are quite sturdy, but now is a good time to add an ounce of prevention if you are worried.

This technique is called “steeking” and is commonly used on complex colorwork sweaters worked in the round. You can find more information on the technique by following these links, including information lots of options for those who want to work without a sewing machine: 

There are a number of ways to go from here to finish the front of your cardigan.  If you have yarn to spare from shortening the body or sleeves of the sweater or from altering the neckline, or if you want to use a contrasting yarn, you can knit on buttonbands.  Just as you would with a sweater you knit with two front panels, pick up stitches along the front edges and knit the buttonbands as desired.  If you are working at the same gauge as the sweater, you’ll want to pick up about three stitches for every four rows.  Pick up your stitches in the ladder between the second and third stitches, so that your lines of stitching will fold under to the wrong side of the cardigan.  If you are changing yarns, check your gauge over the stitch pattern you plan on using (for example 2 x 2 rib) and pick up the appropriate number of stitches per inch.

Rather than knitting on buttonbands, I just wanted to have cleanly finished edges, and to my mind, nothing does that better than grosgrain ribbon.  To attach the ribbon, align one edge with the second line of stitching on the right-side of the cardigan with the other edge of the ribbon overhanging the cut edge of the sweater. Sew it in place using blind stitch as you would to hem a skirt. When that’s complete, fold the ribbon under to the wrong-side of the cardigan, making your fold one stitch (or one half stitch for bulkier knits) in from where you attached the ribbon.  Finally, use the same sort of stitches to tack the second edge of the ribbon to the wrong-side of the sweater, being sure to keep the ribbon flat and unpuckered. The result will be a tidy and sturdy edge that resists rolling. Later, you might add a zipper, a large button and crocheted button-loop, or a knitted frog closure made with a long length of i-cord.


Visit to see Kristi chop things up, share your ideas and projects, and be inspired. And bring your own power tools.