Top Down or Bottom Up?

My son in a bottom up (Ryuu-ki in Berroco Vintage) sweater and me in a top down (Lapis Yoke in Malabrigo) sweater

The first sweater I ever knit was a basic, seamless, top-down raglan cardigan. The pattern came from a beginner sweater class, and it has shaped my approach to knitting sweaters forever. I have no facility for sewing, and am admittedly a little short on patience, when it comes to finishing. There is nothing like seeing a sweater literally materialize in one piece on your needles.

Baby and toddler sweaters are among my favourite projects.  They’re quick and satisfying and small children can rock looks that would look silly on an adult. The sizing and gauge is also less of a concern; generally I make sweaters a size too big for small children, knowing they will always grow into it.  Fortunately, with a young son and 14 nieces and nephews, I have had lots of opportunities to knit itty bitty sweaters. I’ve experimented with a variety of patterns and approaches, and it’s all led me to one decided conclusion: top down all the way.

Bottom-up (or frustrating for the fingers)

I’ve knit some really lovely bottom-up sweaters. Notably Daniela Nii’s fair-isle dragon sweater (available for free) and Nikki Van De Caar’s maile baby cardigan (available on her blog What to Knit When You’re Expecting).  In both cases, I’m pretty happy with the results, but they haven’t become staples in my repertoire.  While the fair isle dragons and lacy leaves are lovely, the sweaters themselves were frustrating to knit.

The fair isle dragons on my son’s Ryuu-ko sweater (in Berroco Vintage)

For the uninitiated, bottom up sweaters are constructed from waist up; usually in three knit in the round pieces (abdomen and sleeves).  At that point, the three pieces have to be joined on a single circular needle and knit up in decreasing rows. Getting your fingers and needles around the armpits is torturous for me, and I’ve ruined more than a few hours of catching up on Homeland and Downton Abbey, complaining about this to my husband.

The other concern I’ve run into with bottom sweaters is the neckline.  My son (like many very young kids) has a big head, and top up sweaters have a cast-off edge at the neck, making them too tight to fit over his head. This can, of course, be fixed with a stretchy sock-style cast-off, but it gives the neckline a sloppy, slouchy look that makes me crazy.  In future, when I fall in love with a pattern or texture, I will be adapting patterns like these for top down construction.

Top-down (or the BEST way to make a sweater)

My son (at 10 months) in a Knitting Pure and Simple top down henley in Malabrigo yarn

I’m a complete devotee to top-down construction.  Early on, I used a lot of Diane Soucy’s fantastic Knitting Pure and Simple patterns.  The bulky neck down jacket, ballet cardigan and pullover henley were big favourites in my extended family.  I’ve made six of the jacket (!) for my son and all of his cousins under four.  It’s really fast, easy and practical.  The original three were made out of Dream in Colour and are beautiful, but even at Boxing Day Sale prices, they were expensive gifts.  The following three are Berroco.  They aren’t quite as pretty, but were a third of the cost and have washed quite a bit better.

My son’s bulky (raglan) jacket in Dream in Color yarn

Raglan construction seems to be the most common (the Pure and Simple patterns are mostly raglan).  It involves increasing along four raglan “seams” on either side of the shoulders.  It’s an extremely easy technique to learn, and easy to modify too. The hoodies below are the same pattern, and the decorative raglan was accomplished by putting a purl stitch in between the increase stitches.

Two raglan hoodies in Cascade Superwash Paints. The pink was modified with a purl stitch between raglan increases and a seed rather than garter stitch border

Yoke construction is often used to create colour work across the chest and shoulders.  Yokes are accomplished by increasing at intervals all around the chest, to create a poncho type top to the chest and shoulders.  I’ve only made one yoke sweater (Hannah Fettig’s Lapis Yoke), and it’s definitely flattering in a formfitting sweater like this one (although it’s a bit short everywhere, as you can see in the picture above).

I’ll be tackling set-in shoulders using Budd’s The Knitter’s Handy Book of Top Down Sweaters, after I finish my holiday knitting, and I’ll keep you posted.


4 thoughts on “Top Down or Bottom Up?

  1. Jenn @ knitwisepurlwise

    I have the same problem with top-down v. bottom-up. Do you crochet at all? I recently finished a bottom-up dress for my daughter, used a stretchy bind-off for the neck and then crocheted a very small decorative edge. It worked out beautifully and you can’t even tell that I used a looser bind-off.

    1. lisagono Post author

      It’s funny that you mention crochet, I’ve been trying to get to the intro to crochet class at my LYS for at least a year… mostly to do things like edges for my knitting.


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