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Ravellings on the knitted sleeve -- Part I

To some knitters or would-be designers, there is nothing so daunting as designing a knitted sleeve that fits.

The problem with sleeves -- whether the simple, boxy drop-shoulder style, or those involving more intricate shaping -- is that there always seems to be a whiff of uncertainty about the finished product.

First, there's uncertainty in length. A knit garment body that winds up being an inch too long or short can be camouflaged or forgiven, unless you're particularly fastidious. But a long sleeve that misses the wrist by an inch is an aggravation, especially if it was knit from the wrist upwards. Knitting the sleeve from the shoulder down to the wrist makes lengthening or shortening easier, but you may not get an accurate measurement of the sleeve length until you have bound off and blocked the sleeve.

And then there's the uncertainty in determining a proper upper arm width. Both a too-narrow and a too-wide sleeve can be uncomfortable.


In sewing, the opening in the garment body through which the arm protrudes is called the armscye (pronounced "arm's eye"), which is a somewhat more graceful word than the "armhole" used in knitting.

Finally, there's the uncertainty of armscye depth. How much space do you need to allow freedom of movement for the wearer's arm? How shallow can you make an armhole without uncomfortably binding the shoulder? Knitted fabric, having some inherent stretch, can accommodate a slightly snug fit, but hand knitted fabric cannot compensate for gross misjudgment.

So, if you're in the position of having to add sleeves to an existing sleeveless vest or top, or designing a garment from scratch, how do you pick the right sleeve style, and how do you crunch the numbers to make the sleeves fit the body?

To answer these questions, you'll need to be acquainted with the common types of sleeves used for clothing, and what measurements to take. In this issue, we'll look at different types of sleeves and their respective pros and cons, and then discuss measuring and designing the simplest species of sleeves: drop shoulder and modified drop shoulder sleeves.

A sleeve primer

Drop shoulder

What it looks like
The drop-shoulder style has the simplest lines of any sleeve style. The body of the garment is usually a simple rectangle, with little, if any, shaping. The body width (the rectangle width) extends past the actual shoulder line of the wearer; in fact, if no sleeves were added to the drop-shoulder body, the shoulder portion of the garment would extend into cap sleeves. The armscye is not shaped at all.

The sleeve is also based on a simple rectangle, usually with a taper towards the wrist. The sleeve is shorter than the wearer's actual arm; the upper edge of the sleeve does not reach the shoulder. The length of the upper edge of the sleeve equals two times the depth of the armscye. Once assembled, the sleeve extends from the garment body at a right angle.

If the garment is knit flat (i.e., with the body in two pieces, a front and back), a drop-sleeve pullover is assembled by first seaming or joining the shoulders of the front and back body, then centering the tops of the sleeves with the shoulder seams, and sewing or grafting the sleeves to the body. The whole body is then folded in half at the shoulders, and the side and sleeve seams sewn.

Alternatively, once the shoulders are joined, the sleeves may be picked up along the side edge, centered around the shoulder seams, and knit down towards the wrist. This eliminates some guesswork about the length of the sleeves, since the garment can be tried on before the cuffs are bound off. (Of course, proper measuring and gauge measurement techniques would eliminate this guesswork as well, but picking up and knitting downward also eliminates the armscye seam.)

The drop-sleeve garment is also found in Norwegian-style sweaters, typically worked in the round. If the entire body is knit in the round, the armholes may be cut and fixed afterwards using steeking techniques. Otherwise, the upper body may be split into two at the armholes, and worked flat so that cutting is not necessary. The shoulder seams are then joined, and the sleeve is picked up all around the armhole and knit in the round towards the wrist.

Because all seamlines are straight, this style is easily adapted to be worked flat or in the round.

The simple shape of each piece makes for the easiest arithmetic in calculating increases, decreases, and sleeve length. The simple shapes also make it easy to knit from the top down (shoulder to wrist/hem) or bottom up (wrist/hem to shoulder).

The simple shapes also make it easy to centre colour or texture patterns without concern for interruptions. As there is no armscye indentation, vertical cable panels or colour designs can flow uninterrupted along the edges of the front and back. That's one reason you'll find many Aran-style sweaters take advantage of the drop-shoulder style, or its variant, the saddle shoulder. The only concern you may have with a vertically repeating pattern is ensuring that the repeats are not cut off at an unattractive point.

Because the seam between the sleeve and body is not intended or expected to lie at the shoulder joint, the drop shoulder style "forgives" an imprecise fit at the upper body.

Some people feel the lower armhole seam looks untidy. The drop shoulder can evoke visions of oversized, sloppy sweatshirts, because for the most part, drop-shoulder sweaters are quite loose-fitting.

The drop-shoulder style can also make the wearer appear broader than he or she actually is. This is partially due to the fact that the garment is likely quite loose-fitting, but also because the seam between the sleeve and garment body is almost horizontal, drawing the eye across the body. (If the sleeves are eliminated, as in a cap-sleeve garment, the extended shoulder of the cap sleeve will also draw the eye across the body, again producing the illusion that the wearer is wider than he or she really is.)

Although the sleeve meets the garment body at a right angle, the wearer rarely maintains a scarecrow stance with arms extended from the torso at ninety degrees. When the wearer stands naturally, with arms down at his or her sides, this means that fabric may bunch up in the underarm area, resulting in discomfort.

Drop shoulders are also generally unsuitable for tight-fitting or close-fitting pullovers. We'll explore the reason why in more detail in next issue's article on set-in sleeve shaping; but briefly, when the wearer's arm is extended, the distance required to travel from the neck, over the shoulder, and down the arm is shorter than when the arm is hanging straight down. When the arm is lowered, there must be sufficient ease in the garment upper body to cover that extra length in the shoulder. In a drop-shoulder style, that ease comes from a wider body.

Not only that, but a tight, rectangular body just looks and feels uncomfortable. Trust me.

Also, thanks to the generally loose fit of drop-shoulder garments, a short sleeve (or cap sleeve, if the sleeve part of the garment is eliminated) is likely to reveal foundation garments or less attractive body parts when the arm is raised.

The disadvantage of an "untidy" appearance or feel can be eliminated by substituting a modified-drop-shoulder style, which indents the upper part of the armhole seam on the body to more closely resemble a shaped armscye. The armscye seam may not rest exactly at the shoulder line, but it is at least closer to the shoulder.

The disadvantages of a tighter-fitting drop-shoulder garment can be alleviated by imcorporating an underarm gusset, which is used on traditional fishing ganseys. The gusset is a diamond-shaped insert that provides the extra ease necessary for natural arm movement. Since it is usually formed by adding extra increases to the body and sleeve at the underarm, it doesn't have to look like a diamond or an insert, but it can be decorated to look like one if desired.

Another variant of the drop shoulder, often used in combination with the gusset on gansey-style sweaters, is the shoulder strap. The strap is an extension of the sleeve along the shoulder; the front and back of the sweater are joined to this strap, rather than to each other.

If the sleeve extends from the rectangular body at a right angle with no seam, then the sleeve is a kimono sleeve. When knitting a kimono sleeve, the assembly method is similar to the dolman or batwing sleeve, described below.


What it looks like
The set-in sleeve style appears to have simple lines when assembled, but the shaping of the individual pieces is more complex than the drop shoulder. The shoulder area of the garment body is cut out so that the whole arm is exposed. The armscye begins at the side seam and curves towards the body in a gradually increasing slope (in other words, beginning with frequent decreases, followed by less frequent decreases), until the armscye line is more or less vertical. The armscye edge does not extend past the wearer's shoulder, unless the shoulder is intended to be filled out with a shoulder pad, or the garment is intended to be worn over other layers, such as a coat or jacket.

The sleeve tapers from the bicep line to the wrist. Above the bicep line, the sleeve cap gently slopes to the shoulder point. In knitting, the uppermost point is actually a bound-off edge, between two and four inches long.

The perimeter of the sleeve cap is approximately equal to the total perimeter of the armscye, which is greater than twice the armscye depth (unlike the drop shoulder). The height of the sleeve cap is less than the depth of the armscye. Sometimes, the sleeve cap perimeter is longer than the perimeter of the armscye. In that case, excess fabric can be gently eased in while sewing the armscye seam.

When assembled, the sleeve extends from the garment body at an angle significantly less than ninety degrees, which is closer to the usual position of the arm. Often, knitted garments are designed so that the sleeve cap and front and back armscye are symmetric; in reality, our bodies aren't that symmetric, but the stretch in knit fabric allows for this tiny cheat.

Because of the shaping of the armscye and sleeve cap, a set-in sleeve garment is usually knit flat. The front and back body are joined at the shoulders, and then the sleeve cap is sewn into the armscye. Because a curved edge is being matched to a (mostly) straight edge, neat sewing is sometimes a challenge. If necessary, any excess fabric along the sleeve cap should be eased (slightly gathered) to fit the armscye. Once the sleeve cap is sewn in, the body side seams and the straight sleeve seams are sewn.

Alternatively, the front and back body first may be joined at the shoulder and side seams, and the sleeve sewn into a tube along its long seam. The sleeve is then set into (hence the name, "set-in") the armscye, matching the underarm seams together and the centre of the sleeve cap with the shoulder seam. This is usually the order of operations used in sewing. In knitting, you'd use this assembly method if the lower part of the body was knit in the round, then divided for knitting and shaping the upper body.

It is possible to pick up and knit a set-in sleeve from the armscye down to the wrist, but this technique will require short rows to give the sleeve proper shape.

Because it more closely mimics the wearer's usual arm position, the set-in sleeve overcomes the main disadvantages of the drop shoulder: no fabric bunching in the underarm area, making for a more comfortable fit, and vertical armscye seams instead of horizontal seams, which promotes a more slimming look.

The shaping of the sleeve cap provides the necessary "space" in the garment's upper body required to allow for freedom of arm movement, without having to add extra room to the garment body in a manner similar to the drop-shoulder style. This means that the set-in sleeve style is suitable for tight-fitting or close-fitting tops. It's still good for looser clothing, as well.

If the sleeve is set into a short-sleeved top, the closer fit around the arm and shoulder means that raising one's arm does not reveal any, ahem, unappealing features.

The shape of the sleeve cap makes this sleeve the most labour-intensive to calculate and to sew to the garment body.

If the garment body is designed around vertical panels, then vertical designs will have to be interrupted or eliminated in order to accommodate the indented armscye.

Upper body fit is more important with a set-in sleeve garment; when choosing a size, care must be taken to ensure that the finished shoulder width will fit the wearer. If the garment's shoulders are too narrow, the sleeve cap will have to stretch over the wearer's shoulder; if the garment's shoulders are too broad, they may result in an odd, boxy profile.

Set-in sleeve garments may be combined with gussets for a better fit, and shoulder straps for a decorative look. The sleeve cap alone, or the entire sleeve, may be enlarged to add details such as a gathered cap or a shoulder pleat.

Normally, the sleeve and body are joined at a seam at or very near the shoulder line; depending on current trends, the seam may be extended beyond the natural shoulder line (often requiring the use of shoulder pads to fill out the shoulder area), or cut slightly inwards (a "narrow shoulder" look that was more popular in the late 1970s).

A summery variation of the set-in sleeve is the use of a sleeve cap alone to cover the shoulder, leaving most of the upper arm bare.


What it looks like
The raglan style is often associated with a casual or sporty look. Instead of positioning an armscye seam over the shoulder, the raglan sleeve seam slants from the underarm to the neckline, with the result that the back, front, and sleeve all taper towards the neck. Depending on the garment design, the upper edge of the raglan sleeve may form a substantial part of the neckline, and may be shaped to blend in with the curve of the front and back neckline.

Usually, the raglan seam edges on the front, back, and sleeve are straight lines, as they are formed by decreases (or increases, if knit from the top down) at regular intervals. Occasionally the seams may be curved either as a design feature, or as a tweak to fit in the correct number of decreases before running out of upper body or sleeve rows. The length of each raglan edge on the sleeve is approximately equal to the length of the corresponding raglan edges on the front and back, although it is possible that the sleeve edges may be a little longer, in which case any excess fabric may be eased in gently.

When assembled, the sleeve usually extends from the garment body at an angle less than ninety degrees, but not as small an angle as the set-in sleeve. The pitch of the raglan seams determines the angle at which sleeve and body meet. For example, it's possible to have a raglan sleeve that extends at a right angle from the garment body, if the seams are angled at forty-five degrees from the vertical.

If the garment is knit in flat pieces, the front, back, and sleeves are first knit. The garment is assembled by sewing the front raglan edges of the body to the front raglan edges of the sleeves (if the sleeves are not symmetric, the front raglan edges of the sleeves will usually be shorter than the back edges), then sewing the back raglan edges of the sleeves to the raglan edges of the back body. The underarm and side seams are sewn last.

If the garment is knit in the round from the bottom up, usually the body and sleeves are first worked separately from hem (or cuff) to the underarm. The live stitches of the body and sleeves are then threaded onto a long circular needle, with the live stitches of the upper sleeves lying between the live stitches of the upper front and back. Some underarm stitches on both the body and sleeves are left on holders or waste yarn. The upper body, with raglan decreases, is then worked in the round up to the neck. Because knitting in the round will yield a front and back neck of the same depth, often short rows may be added to the back to raise the back neckline by about an inch or so. The underarm stitches are then grafted or bound off together.

If the garment is knit in the round from the top down, the raglan lines of the upper body are shaped using increases, rather than decreases, to the bottom of the armholes (as with knitting from the bottom, short rows may be worked across the back to raise the armhole). At that point, the sleeves, front, and back must be divided out to separate circular needles, double-pointed needles, or holders; the front and back on one set, and each sleeve on their own set. When the body is worked using the front and back stitches, additional stitches are cast on at the underarm positions; similarly, underarm stitches are added when the sleeves are worked downward from the upper sleeve stitches. When the body and sleeves are complete, the underarm stitches are grafted or sewn together.

The lines of the raglan sleeve provide a more sophisticated style than the drop shoulder, while requiring only relatively simple arithmetic. But like the drop shoulder, the raglan style is also a forgiving shoulder fit--there's no armscye seam to align with the shoulder joint.

At the same time, the raglan sleeve is easier to calculate and sew than a set-in sleeve, while still providing some of the same fitting benefits. Thanks to the angled pitch of the arms, there's less fabric bulk under the arms, and it's not necessary to add as much extra ease in order to fit the garment over the shoulder area.

However, close and tight-fitting raglans with shallow armholes may still be uncomfortably tight, unless some other adjustments are made to the shoulder area; for example, by adding short row shaping at the shoulder point to allow for movement. Alternatively, the sleeve may be worked with extra wearing ease up to the shoulder, with a sleeve dart removing the extra ease once past the shoulder. These alterations will provide a better fit, but it does detract from the "forgiving shoulder fit" advantage.

The lines of the raglan make this style a prime candidate for knitting from the top down or knitting in the round, with only underarm stitches to be grafted or sewn together.

Also, either a pro or a con depending on your point of view, the raglan lines accentuate the shoulders, making you look broader than you really are. This aspect can be enhanced by working the sleeves in a contrasting colour.

If the raglan sleeves extend from the garment body at a ninety degree angle, or something close to a right angle, then some of the same fitting problems as for drop shoulder garments will arise: excess fabric bunching under the arms, and an unsuitability for tight-fitting garments. That problem can be alleviated by altering the pitch of the raglan edges to something greater than forty-five degrees.

Even non-right-angled raglan sleeves may feel tight and binding in a close-fitting garment, for similar reasons as for the drop shoulder: there's not enough room in the garment upper body to allow for the curves of the shoulder.

Because of the sloped raglan seams, vertical stitch or colour patterns are interrupted. For example, the decreases may interfere with an extra-wide central panel. However, the decrease lines also provide an opportunity for interesting design details.

If you're a busty body type, there's a traditional caveat against the raglan style. Whether you believe it (and whether you think it's a pro or con) is up to you, but some feel that the slanted lines of the raglan sleeve call attention to the bust area, highlighting an already ample figure. Other people don't believe this, and argue that it slightly diminishes the appearance of the bust; both sides cite the slanted raglan seams as the cause.

If you think it's a problem, you can try working different decrease styles to de-emphasize the seamlines, or use the yoke sweater variation instead.

A construction method peculiar to knitting is the yoked sweater, knit in the round. The yoked sweater can be considered to be a graceful adaptation of the raglan design, or vice versa. In essence, the yoked sweater is raglan shaping, distributed evenly around the shoulders and chest, rather than concentrated at four seamlines.

Like the drop shoulder and set-in sleeve, the raglan sleeve can be styled with a shoulder strap. In that case, the "raglan" portion of the sleeve ends sooner, and the strap extends from the raglan portion to the neck.


What it looks like
The dolman style has a sleeve formed integrally with the body, with only two substantial seams at the underarms. A generous amount of space is provided under the arms for movement, so the garment is usually considered to be very loose-fitting, even if the sleeve forearms are tight.

Knitted dolman styles are often designed as one-piece designs, to be knit sideways (cuff-to-cuff) or continuously from front to back. With this unitary construction, the dolman sleeves almost invariably extend from the body at a right angle. It is possible to alter this shape to provide angled sleeves with strategically placed increases and decreases or short rows, or alternatively by working the front and back separately.

Because of the shape of the pieces, dolman-sleeved garments usually knit flat. If a dolman-sleeved garment is worked from bottom to top in two pieces, for both front and back the body is worked from the hem to the underarm, where the sleeves begin; stitches are cast on at the end of a number of consecutive rows until the number of stitches added to each side of the body is equal to the length of the sleeve extension. Once half the circumference of the cuff measurement has been worked, the upper edge is gradually bound off over a number of rows (with neck shaping as required). If a less tapered sleeve is desired, the sleeve extension cast-on or bind-off rows could be worked over fewer rows. The front and back are then seamed along the underarms and over the tops of the sleeve and shoulder.

If the garment is knit in one piece from front to back (or back to front), the front (or back) is worked in a manner similar to the front (or back) of a two-piece dolman garment, but it is not bound off at the upper edge. Instead, the body on either side of the neck is worked, with neck shaping (decreases and increases) until the neckline on the back (or front) can be completed. Extra stitches are cast on in the middle of the next row to join the body back (or front) together; bind-off rows shape the lower edge of the sleeve, and then the body is knit to the back (or front) hem. To assemble, the garment is folded together at the shoulder, and the underarm seams are sewn.

If the garment is knit in one piece sideways (cuff-to-cuff), the first cuff is cast on, and increases shape the sleeve until the body begins; extra stitches are cast on at the end of two consecutive rows to equal the length of the body extension. When the depth for the neckline is reached, stitches are decreased or bound off to add the shaping; increases or cast-on stitches close the neckline on the other side. Two more bind-off rows create the body sides, then the sleeves are gradually decreased to the second cuff. To assemble, the garment is folded together at the shoulder, and the underarm seams are sewn.


As noted above, if you're a fan of sideways knitting, the dolman is perfect for a cuff-to-cuff sweater.

If you choose to knit the garment with the front, back, and sleeves as a single piece, it's also the simplest style to assemble, with only two underarm seams to sew. This makes it an excellent choice for lacy or holey fabrics (think novelty ladder or confetti yarns) that just don't seem to take seaming gracefully.

Dolmans also provide for continuity of pattern from sleeve to body, if the garment is knit sideways (there will be an interruption at the neckline), or over the shoulder, if the garment is knit from front to back.

The dolman sweater is easy to fit for similar reasons as the drop shoulder, as there is no cross-shoulder seam.

If you choose to knit the front and back separately, there will be a seam or join from the wrist to the neck. This is usually not a desirable construction technique in knitting, from the point of view of finishing. In an otherwise plain garment, that seam will become a focal point.

If the front, back, and sleeves are knit as one piece, the unitary construction means that there is no shoulder seam to support the weight of the fabric hanging down from the shoulders. This may result in pulling and stretched stitches in the shoulder area. Unitary construction also means that there will be a lack of symmetry in the knitted design. Knit stitches, having a "V" shape, have only one axis of symmetry. As the stitches march across your body from side to side, the "V"s will only point in one direction. If you knit the garment from front to back, then the stitches will be right side up on the front, and upside-down on the back. This is a minor inconsistency, but it's more noticeable with ornamentation that highlights the shape of the knit stitch, such as Fair Isle or intarsia.

Knitted dolman designs are usually constructed with sleeves extending at right angles to the body, so once again there's the problem of too much fabric bunching under the arm, leading to a top-heavy appearance.

Carrying the dolman style to the extreme, the batwing is almost a poncho with two extra seams. It's dramatic, and best suited to a fabric that drapes and folds well.

Choosing a sleeve style

Now that you're acquainted with the various species of sleeves, how do you pick the right one? Consider the pros and cons of each type of sleeve, keeping in mind your objectives in fitting the recipient and (if you're designing your own garment) design planning.

For example, if you're knitting for someone else and you don't know the recipient's actual size, the safest styles are the types that can be knit from the top down to allow for easy length adjustments, and that don't require a specific cross-shoulder measurement: the drop shoulder and raglan sleeve are best.

If you want a sleek, long-sleeved top that can slide underneath other jackets or sweaters, you need to minimize bulk under the arms. Pick the set-in sleeve or a close-fitting raglan or yoked design. These styles are also best if you want to knit a body-conscious design, with a nipped-in waist; waist shaping is lost on loose-fitting garments.

In general, when you're concerned with a good fit that complements the wearer (as opposed to a "safe" fit that will accommodate a small range of body sizes), set-in sleeve styling is almost uniformly an ideal solution to the problem of adding sleeves to a garment. It works just as well for close-fitting tops as for loose-fitting pullovers; it has style lines that are friendly to most body types; it requires minimal alteration to a pre-existing sleeveless design; and a well-sized set-in sleeve is always comfortable, with minimal fabric bulk under the arm.

However, if your intention is to incorporate a particular design feature, such as colour or texture or a different construction method, other styles may be more suitable. If you want to preserve the lines of a vertical or panel design, then a drop shoulder is your best bet. If you want to knit a garment sideways (cuff-to-cuff), the drop shoulder or dolman style is the easiest way to go. And if you want to knit everything in the round, with a minimum of picking up, grafting or sewing, the yoked and raglan styles would be your first choices, requiring just a bit of grafting or picking up at the underarm. Next best are the drop and modified drop shoulder, with sleeves that can be picked up from the armhole and knit down to the wrist.

Adding a drop shoulder or modified drop shoulder to a garment

To ease into sleeve design, let's consider the most basic body and sleeve shape. If you've got a loose-fitting vest pattern, it's easy to design drop or modified drop shoulder sleeves to fit.

If you feel a surge of panic when you see the length of the discussion below, don't worry! The actual steps are quite simple. If they were reduced to algebraic expressions, this discussion would in fact be quite terse. However, as we are seeking to postpone the introduction of algebraic expressions until absolutely required, these instructions are necessarily quite verbose. If you can't bear to read on, skip ahead to the précis.

Begin with taking measurements

Usually, a vest has an indented armscye; if the vest were shaped like a plain rectangle, a flange of fabric would extend over the shoulders. (Such vests have been known to exist, so we won't ignore them.)

From the vest design, you should be able to work out some basic dimensions that will affect your sleeve design:

a) upper body garment width (front or back);
b) armhole depth; and
c) lower body garment width (front or back).

These will come straight out of the pattern schematic or pattern instructions. If the garment is a true drop shoulder style, then the upper and lower body garment widths will be the same.

Next, to determine the length and shape of the sleeve, we'll need two more measurements:

d) wrist-to-wrist length; and
e) cuff circumference.

The wrist-to-wrist length is a measurement from one wrist, along the outside of the first arm, over the first shoulder, around the back of the neck, down the second shoulder, over the outside of the second arm, and down to the second wrist. In a finished garment, it's equal to the total cuff-to-cuff length across the garment and is independent of the location of the shoulder seam and the actual shoulder width of the wearer. The cuff circumference is the total length around the wrist of the garment -- not the circumference of the wearer's wrist.

These measurements can be taken a number of ways: from an existing pullover, if you can lay your hands on one; from magazine or book patterns; or by measuring the wearer's actual dimensions (or using a standard sizing chart, such as the Craft Yarn Council of America's standard sizing chart) and adding (or subtracting) the necessary wearing ease.

If you choose to work from the wearer's actual dimensions, the wrist-to-wrist measurement will be the same as the measurement of the wearer's body; however, if the garment is meant to be worn over something else, like a t-shirt or turtleneck, then these clothes should be worn when taking this one measurement. If you're working from chart dimensions and you wish to err on the side of caution, add another inch (2.5 cm) to this measurement. If the garment is meant to be worn over particularly bulky undergarments, add up to 2 inches (5 cm). It's usually safer to overestimate rather than underestimate this measurement.

To determine the cuff circumference, measure the circumference of the wearer's hand at its widest point; after all, the hand has to squeeze through the cuff. Unless you wish to have a particularly tight-fitting cuff, don't use a number much less than about 0.5 inches (1 cm) smaller than the actual hand circumference.


Sketch your schematic

Next, sketch a schematic of the body and sleeve. Graph paper is ideal; sketch the schematic to scale, if possible. Make sure the schematic is large enough to accommodate your numbers and notes. Wherever there is a change in the angle of a line -- in other words, where shaping begins or ends -- draw in a lighter horizontal line, cutting across your pattern piece. This divides your pieces into shaping zones, for which you'll need to fill in some dimensions.

Write in your knitting gauge in stitches and rows per inch (or cm), because it's handy to have that around.

Tweak the body shape and add a cuff, if necessary

If necessary, alter the armscye shape in a modified drop shoulder garment to a straight angled line.

There are two reasons to do this: first, if you have a horizontal armscye indentation, it's preferable that the indentation not be too wide. If it's too wide, you might wind up with a horizontal seam pointing straight at the bust area -- not good. If the indentation is horizontal, it shouldn't be any longer than about 2.5 inches (6.5 cm) in an adult garment. If it's deeper, consider changing it to an angled indentation, making the indentation shallower (this means the armscye seam will no longer sit at the shoulder), or converting it to a plain drop shoulder. Secondly, if the armscye shape is curved, it's easier to compute the sleeve shaping if the curve is turned into a straight angled line. The general objective of using a drop or modified drop shoulder design is to simplify the shape of all pieces.

To make this conversion: In your schematic, draw a straight angled line for the lower part of the armscye. Don't worry about the precise angle at this point. In your pattern instructions, note how many stitches are bound off and/or decreased on either side when shaping the armscye.

You'll still be decreasing the same number of stitches, but not in the same manner as provided in the pattern. Instead, you'll be decreasing the stitches consistently over a fixed number of rows. In total, aim for a number of rows that's equivalent to less than 3 inches (8 cm); preferably around 2 inches (5 cm), if possible. The more rows it takes to decrease, the more shaping the sleeve will require.

For example, if you have to decrease 10 stitches on either side and your gauge is 5 stitches and 7 rows per inch, try decreasing 1 stitch every other row 10 times. This will work out to 20 rows of decreases, or just under 3 inches. In your knitting instructions, across the back piece this would likely translate to "decrease 1 st at beg and end of row every other row, 10 times."

Or, if you have to decrease nine stitches on either side and your gauge is 3.5 stitches and 5.5 rows per inch (2.5 cm), you could try decreasing 1 stitch each row: you'd consume 9 rows or about 1.6 inches (4 cm), but the edge of the knitting might be quite tight due to the frequency of the decreases. You could also try decreasing 1 stitch every other row, which would require 18 rows, or 3.25 inches (8.3 cm). That's probably close enough.

However the armscye is shaped, make a note of the number of stitches decreased on one side to shape the armscye, and the total number of rows used for this shaping. You'll need these numbers a bit later.

If you're planning to add a cuff to your sleeve, then decide on your cuff depth and draw it into your schematic. If you're planning to use a simple rolled stockinette stitch edge, do not include the cuff from your schematic. The rolled edge adds minimal length to a sleeve.

Write in all the measurements you know, and calculate the ones you don't

On your schematic, write in the schematic measurements you know for each zone of your schematic. This will leave some dimensions that need to be filled in -- in particular, the main sleeve length, the upper sleeve width, and in the case of a modified drop shoulder, the upper sleeve length and shaping. Your goal now is to calculate the missing measurements: specifically, a number for every horizontal or vertical line on the schematic; in the case of a slanted line, the goal is to fill in two measurements: a horizontal measurement, and a vertical measurement.

To calculate the main sleeve length for a drop shoulder garment: Subtract the body width from the wrist-to-wrist measurement. Divide the answer by two. That's your sleeve plus cuff length. Subtract the cuff depth to get the main sleeve length.

To calculate the main sleeve length for a modified drop shoulder garment: Subtract the lower body width from the wrist-to-wrist measurement. Divide the answer by two. Then subtract the cuff depth. The answer is your main sleeve length. You'll account for the rest of the sleeve length later, when the upper sleeve shaping is calculated.

To calculate the armscye shaping for a modified drop shoulder: For a box-shaped armscye, subtract the upper body width from the lower body width, and divide by two. This is the depth of the indentation. You've already measured the armhole depth, labelled b.

For an angled armscye, more calculation is involved. While the total armhole depth is b, you can see that the armscye is divided into two parts: a slanted portion and a vertical portion. We need to know the dimensions of both in order to design the sleeve.

If you had to reshape your armscye as described above, you will have already calculated the depth of the indentation, as well as the height of the slanted portion. Some simple subtraction will give you the depth of the remaining vertical portion. Make sure your schematic includes not only stitch and row counts, but also the equivalent measurements in inches or centimetres.

If you didn't reshape the armscye yourself, then you'll need to make the calculations now since this information isn't always provided in the original vest pattern. Count the number of decreased stitches worked on one side to shape the armhole, and use your pattern gauge to convert this to a measurement in inches or centimetres. That's the indentation. Count the number of rows over which these decreases are worked, and convert that to a measurement in inches or centimetres. That is the height of the slanted portion. Based on this and the total armhole depth b, you can now figure out the height of the remaining vertical armscye.

Next, turn your attention to the sleeve. The simplistic shape of a drop or modified drop shoulder means that the sleeve should fit in a T-shape into the armscye or side seam of the body. It also means that once you've figured out the dimensions of your armscye shaping on the body, you've also figured out the dimensions of your sleeve.

To calculate the upper sleeve width for a drop shoulder sleeve: In a drop shoulder garment, the upper sleeve width is equal to two times the armhole depth b.

To calculate the upper sleeve dimensions for a modified drop shoulder sleeve: You can see that there are two upper sleeve widths: there's the width at the seamline where the sleeve meets the body, and there's the width at the widest part of the sleeve.

When the armscye is box-shaped, these two widths are the same: two times the armhole depth b. You just need a sleeve "cap" with a rectangular shape that will fit into the armscye. The height of this "cap" will be equal to the depth of the armscye indentation.

When the armscye is angled, these two widths are different, and the sleeve "cap" is shaped like a trapezoid. You can see in the diagram below that those dimensions you just calculated for the armscye shaping also apply to the sleeve: the widest part of the sleeve is still equal to two times the armhole depth b, the narrower edge will be two times the remaining vertical portion of the armscye, and the height of the sleeve "cap" is equal to the depth of the armscye indentation.

By this point, you should now have every horizontal and vertical dimension on your schematic measured, and every slanted line should have a horizontal and vertical measurement.

Convert all horizontal and vertical measurements to stitches and rows

Of course, you still need to calculate the increase and decrease shaping to be applied to the sleeve as it widens from cuff to body, and in the case of a modified drop shoulder, the upper sleeve shaping. However, it's easier to work those out if we convert all dimensions to stitches and rows, based on your knitting gauge, first. Do this for each horizontal and vertical dimension written on your schematic; if desired, add one, two, or more stitches, depending on how you like to work your seams, to each stitch calculation. (This is a minor bit of arithmetic, compared to what you've just accomplished.)

If you're planning to work your cuffs in a tighter stitch pattern, such as a rib, you'll need to make the stitch and row calculations based on your intended cuff gauge. If you're planning to use a simple rolled edge, make a note of the number of stockinette rows you're planning to work; at a worsted weight gauge, 6 to 10 rows is probably sufficient. For a thicker yarn, increase the number of rows.

At this point, if your design has a color pattern that you'd like to apply to the sleeves, you may have to tweak your sleeve stitch count to fit. If it's only a difference of a few stitches, go ahead and make the change. This will make the sleeve wider or narrower, so you will have to alter the depth of armscye on the body to accommodate the change; but don't make the armscye any more than about a half inch (1 cm) shallower without making sure it will still be a comfortable fit. If the difference in width will result in a change of 1 inch or more (2.5 cm or more) to the width of the sleeve, consider altering the color design, or using filler stitches at the edges instead.

Alternatively, if the sleeve you're planning to make will have textured stitches such as cables, you'll need to alter the stitch counts to accommodate the changes in gauge; that's a bit beyond the scope of this article.

Calculate the sleeve shaping

Finally, you can calculate the sleeve shaping. For a drop shoulder sleeve and a modified drop shoulder sleeve meant to fit a box-shaped armscye, this means the increases that shape the main part of the sleeve from the cuff (if any) to the widest point (the seam). For a modified drop shoulder sleeve meant to fit an angled armscye, in addition to the increases, there will also be decreases in the "cap" to be calculated.

To calculate the main sleeve increases: First, decide if you want to have all the sleeve increases more-or-less evenly spaced along the length of the arm, or if you want to increase several stitches at once immediately after the cuff (if there is one). For example, if the cuff is particularly snug, increasing several stitches in the next row will result in an easier fit to the lower arm, Depending on the number of immediately increased stitches and the thickness of the fabric, it might also cause a slight "blousing" effect in the lower sleeve.

If you want all the increases to be spaced along the length of the arm, determine the total number of stitches to be increased by subtracting the stitch count at the end of the cuff (or cast on row, if there is no cuff) from the stitch count at the widest point of the sleeve. Divide this number by two. If the number is a fraction, round it down to the nearest whole number. This is the number of increases that must be worked along one edge of the sleeve.

If you want to increase several stitches in the row right after the cuff and then space the rest out at the sleeve, make a note of the number of stitches to increase after the cuff on your schematic. Also write down what you expect your stitch count to be once this is finished. Subtract this new post-cuff stitch from the stitch count at the widest point of the sleeve. Divide this number by two, and if the number is a fraction, round it down to the nearest whole number. This will be the number of increases to be worked along one edge of the sleeve.

Now the increase spacing needs to be determined. You'll need the total number of rows to be worked in the main part of the sleeve, which you've either already calculated, or can do easily based on your schematic dimensions. In a drop shoulder sleeve, the number of rows will be the total number of rows comprising the sleeve, once the cuff is completed. If you're working on a modified drop shoulder, then the number of rows is counted between the cuff and the beginning of the sleeve cap shaping.

Divide the number of rows by the number of increases to be worked along one edge of the sleeve, as you just calculated. In theory, your answer will tell you how frequently to work an increase row: if you get an answer of 10, then you'll work 9 rows even, and 1 increase row, then repeat those 10 rows however many times are necessary. But in practice, things don't always work out so evenly. Most likely, you will have a remainder. Round down to the closest whole number, and use that as your increase interval.

For example, if you have 120 rows for your sleeve, and 17 increases to work, your calculator will spew out a number that rounds off to 7.06. You certainly won't increase every 7.06 rows; so take your number and round down to the next whole number -- in this case, 7. You'll work 6 rows even, then 1 increase row, 17 times: this makes 119 rows, with one more row to be worked even to reach 120.

If the whole number you calculated is odd, you will wind up working increases alternately on the right and wrong sides off the work. There's nothing wrong with that, but if you prefer to work all your increases on the right side (or wrong side), you can respace your increases to yield an even number of repeat rows, provided this does not result in an oddly-cornered sleeve.

From the above example, instead of 7, you could round down to 6: this means you'll work 5 rows even, then 1 increase row, 17 times total. This yields 102 rows of knitting, and means you'll need to work another 18 rows even in order to finish the sleeve. The 18 rows of knitting may result in an abrupt end to the sleeve shaping; when sewn up, you might notice an unpleasing "corner" along the sleeve seam. To eliminate the misshapen bit, simply separate the some of the later increase rows a little more. For example, work 5 rows even, then 1 increase row, 14 times total to yield 84 rows of knitting. Then work 9 rows even, then 1 increase row, 3 times more to yield a total of 114 rows; work the last 6 rows even. You have still increased the requisite number of stitches, but now there is not such a noticeable angle in the sleeve.

To calculate modified drop shoulder sleeve "cap" shaping: If the armscye on the body is box-shaped, there really isn't much calculation to do; once you've reached the widest point of the sleeve, you will work over the same number of stitches until the "cap" fits into the armscye, as described above.

If the armscye is angled, then the sleeve "cap" is also angled. From the previous foray into the sleeve schematic, you already know the height of the cap, and the final width of the upper edge, as well as the number of stitches and rows that match this shaping. What remains is to figure out the frequency of decreases over that set number of rows.

For a first estimate, try a calculating method similar to the one used to determine the sleeve increases. However, there may be a few wrinkles: you can't have more than a row or two of "remainder" rows left over; otherwise the cap won't fit. Also, if the number of decrease rows you need to work is greater than the number of rows available in the cap, you will have to tweak your numbers so that multiple-stitch decreases are worked on at least some rows. At the same time, you will want to have a consistent decrease rate -- no funny extra angles in your sleeve cap shaping. You may have to try some trial-and-error calculations of your own in order to get a decrease rate that fits. Once you've worked out the decrease rate for the sleeve cap, write it down on the schematic.

Write out the knitting instructions, if necessary

And that's it -- complete shaping instructions for a drop shoulder or modified drop shoulder garment! You may write out the knitting instructions, if desired, in "long form" (just like any other knitting pattern); however, your schematic notes now actually contain sufficient information for anyone to replicate your design in stockinette stitch.

To recap, these are the steps in designing a drop shoulder or modified drop shoulder garment:

1. Starting with your vest or body pattern schematic, and using standard sizing charts or actual measurements if necessary, obtain the following measurements:

a) upper body garment width (front or back);
b) armhole depth; and
c) lower body garment width (front or back).
d) wrist-to-wrist length; and
e) cuff circumference.

2. Sketch a large schematic of the garment body and sleeve.

3. Alter the armscye shape if necessary; and if the sleeve has a cuff, draw this in the schematic, and determine the cuff depth.

4. Write in all the dimensions that you know on the schematic. Calculate all the dimensions you don't already know, based on the numbers you already have, and write those on the schematic too. For each horizontal or vertical line, you should have one dimension; for every slanted line, you should have two.

5. Using your intended knitting or pattern gauge, turn all those numbers into stitch and row counts. Tweak the numbers to match a stitch or colour pattern repeat.

6. Calculate the sleeve increase and decrease instructions.

7. If desired, write out schematic notes as knitting instructions.

These instructions truly make designing a drop shoulder garment sound like more effort than it actually is. In fact, some of these steps are painless and quick, and take longer to describe than to actually carry out with the assistance of a calculator. The most laborious stage is usually step 6. If you are trying to center a color or stitch pattern on the garment, getting the right stitch count might be a bit tricky.

By the way, hang on to the calculator: you'll need it next time when we design a set-in sleeve.


You can explore the basic drop shoulder or modified drop shoulder garment shapes with these excellent references:

Szabo, Janet, Handbook of Aran Sweater Design. An excellent reference for designing Aran-style sweaters; includes discussions on proportions and selecting stitch patterns to fit your garment. The garment shapes discussed go beyond basic drop shoulder or gansey construction

Brown-Reinsel, Beth, Knitting Ganseys (Interweave Press, 1993). The correspondingly excellent reference for designing gansey-style pullovers. This book teaches you the traditional construction methods using a sampler-sized pullover before you embark on the real thing.



Jenna is molasses in January, and has an indulgent editor.

Part of her raging sloth is directed towards her efforts on