Fearless Sweater Modification

How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Flat Pattern Construction by Modifying It

I have a confession to make: I’ve never knit a sweater flat. The first sleeveless top that I made was in the round, and ever since I’ve never seen a compelling reason not to knit all of my sweaters that way. Oh, I certainly knit certain parts flat and sew them together, but with every sweater I’ve made there’s always been an “in the round” component (whether it was written into the pattern or not). I see the benefits of circular construction to be numerous: For one, seeing it in “body form” helps me visualize if it looks the right size, and if I still have doubts, I can try it on. For two, I personally hate knitting flat. It’s not that I dislike purling, it’s all the turning back and forth. It breaks my rhythm, and I always end up with my yarn and needles a tangled mess. And finally, knitting in the round means I have that much less finishing work to do when I bind off the last stitch.

Recently, I just finished a sweater that I started a year and a half ago–my oldest and only UFO has now become an FO. It’s the Gatsby Girl Pullover from the Fall 2006 Interweave Knits. I fell in love with the sweater in the magazine instantly, but I was a little hesitant to knit it because the pattern is written for it to be knit flat and sewn together (like most magazine sweater patterns for some reason). Ultimately, my love of the sweater won out, and I dyed enough Swish Worsted Bare a vivid red to make my own Gatsby Girl (you can listen to Kelley and me discuss this process in Episode 38 of her podcast).

Modification time!

My first “in the round” modification came right away. I saw no reason to knit the body flat in pieces, so I subtracted a couple seam stitches on each side and cast on all in the body stitches to knit in the round (it was at this point of seemingly endless 1×1 ribbing that the sweater languished on the needles for a year). I knit in the round until I reached the decreases for the armholes, at which point I knit the front and back separately back and forth.

Once I had sewn my shoulder seams, I had another modification decision to make. The pattern called for the sleeves to be knit in 1×1 ribbing flat from the bottom up. I had had enough of 1×1 ribbing, which takes me 10 times longer than stockinette, so I decided to do my own thing. I decided to knit the sleeves in stockinette at a bigger gauge (the ribbing gauge was very tight) to make the sweater be done sooner! Because of the change in gauge, I was worried about the sleeve caps fitting into the armholes, so I decided to pick up stitches around the armholes and knit the sleeves top down in the round instead of flat. Since the sleeves are set-in, I knew that some short row shaping would be involved too.

Warming up the left side of my brain

If I weren’t changing gauge, I could have just proceeded with my sleeves using the stitch counts from the pattern. That would be too easy though! First, I did a swatch with my yarn in stockinette using size 5 needles (instead of the size 3s I had been using). My gauge in the 1×1 ribbing with size 3s had been 7sts/inch, and that’s what the pattern numbers were based on. My new gauge in stockinette with size 5s was 5.5 sts/inch. The number I needed first was how many stitches to pick up around each armhole.

I calculated this number by taking the finished measurement from the pattern diagram at the widest part of the sleeve (before the pattern decreased for the sleeve cap). This measurement for my size was 11.5 inches. 11.5 x 5.5 = 63.25, which I rounded up to 64 stitches.

64 was my magic number for picking up stitches, but what about the short rows? How wide should the top of my short row sleeve cap be? Again, I consulted the pattern diagram and noted that the sleeve was bound off when the top of the cap was 2.75″ wide. 2.75 x 5.5 = 15.125, which I rounded down to 15 stitches. These 15 stitches would be the length of my first short row, and I would center them on the shoulder seam.

Bring on the short rows

With my new stitch counts noted, I was ready to begin my short row sleeve caps. First off, I needed to pick up my 64 stitches. I counted the stitches/rows around my armhole and determined that I needed to pick up about 1 stitch for every 2 stitches/rows. Picking up stitches is more of an art form than a science, and all that mattered was that I had 32 on the front and 32 on the back and that the stitches were evenly spaced without any gaps or crowding. I began picking up my stitches about 14 rows before the shoulder seam (7 stitches, half of the 15 of the first short row) and worked my way clockwise around the armhole until I had 64 stitches on my circular needle. At this point I shifted the first 15 stitches I had picked up (the ones centered at my shoulder seam) to another circular needle. (I prefer the two circular method of circular knitting*, and it works well in this case where I had my “active” short row stitches on one needle and my on-hold stitches on the other.)

With my 15 stitches in hand, I began my short row sleeve cap. Basically, I knit back and forth across the sleeve cap, wrapping one more stitch from my other needle each time and transferring it to my active needle. I made sure to keep my wraps loose enough to make it easy to knit it (or purl it on the wrong side) together with the picked up stitch. As I worked the wrapped stitches, they created a nice decorative edge to my armhole as shown.

I continued to work the short rows until I reached the bottom of the armhole and the remaining un-worked stitches on my second needle were the stitches that are flat across the underarm. In my case, this was 11 stitches. Instead of wrapping and turning, I just continued across these stitches, knitting 5, placing a marker, purling 1 at the side seam, knitting the remaining 5, and continuing around (remembering to pick up my last remaining wrap when I got to it). The marker I placed marked the new beginning of my round, and the purl stitch created a faux seam, on either side of which I would place my sleeve decreases.

Sleeve customization

The beauty of knitting sleeves from the top down is that it’s easy to make your sleeves fit perfectly—a blessing for those with arms longer or shorter than the mythical average person. You just knit and try on the sweater until the sleeve is the length you want!

Some calculations are necessary if you’re altering the pattern though. In my case, the pattern was written for ¾ length sleeves, but I wanted to make them elbow length. To calculate the decreases, I measured around my arm just above the elbow where I wanted the sleeve to end, which was 9 inches around, and the length of my arm from the armpit to just above the elbow, which was 7 inches. I knew that my current sleeve circumference was about 11.5 inches (remember the calculations of the widest part of the sleeve from the pattern?), so I needed to decrease by 2.5 inches over the length of 7 inches. 2.5 x 5.5 = 13.75, which I rounded to 14 stitches. I would be decreasing one stitch on either side of my faux seam, so two stitches per round, so I needed a total of 7 decrease rounds. My row gauge was 7.5 rows/inch, so the length of my sleeve would be about 53 rows. 53/7 = 7.57, which I rounded to 8 rows. I would need to decrease by two stitches every 8 rows.


Once I finished my second sleeve, I was done with the sweater. There was no seaming or sewing the awkwardly shaped sleeve cap into the armhole. I wove in the ends and was done. And the beauty is that I finished the sleeves in less than a week. It would have taken me months were I to have knit them in 1×1 ribbing, and I probably would have lost steam with the project altogether. Today I am happily wearing my heavily-modified and just-right Gatsby Girl Pullover.

More reading

To learn more about the techniques used when modifying this sweater, I recommend:
Short Row Tutorial
Circular Knitting Explanation
Jacquard Dyeing Tutorial
Kelley’s Podcast, Episode 39 on Picking Up Stitches

*HINT: I didn’t have two sets of my size 5 Options tips, but there’s a work-around with interchangeable needles like this. The needle size only really matters for the needle you’re knitting the stitches onto. Thus, once I was done with my short rows and was once again knitting in the round with two circulars, I screwed my size 5 tips onto the right side of each circular cable (as you’re holding them to knit), and my size 4s onto the left side of each cable. <