Choosing a Size for Seamless Raglan Sweaters

Are you joining us for the Berroco Portfolio 4 knit-along? I’ll be there, and I’m knitting Allison Jane’s Isthmus Pullover.  I’ve already done a swatch (we encourage you to knit your swatch before the knit-along starts), and now I’m at the point of choosing which size I’m going to knit. Isthmus is a top-down sweater knit seamlessly with raglan sleeve shaping, which can make choosing a size a little tricky.

Typically with garments, you want to find key measurements and match them to the schematic and finished measurements for your pattern (I talked about this in the understanding ease post). You still want to do that with a seamless yoke sweater, but you may also want to take another look at one additional set of measurements. Before we get too far into this, let’s take a look at how the most common raglan-sleeve sweaters are worked. Since Isthmus is worked from the top down, I’m going to use that as my example, though the same thing applies to bottom-up raglans as well.

The sweater begins at the neckline. The pattern may call for a collar to be worked as in the case of Isthmus, or it may simply start to work the yoke. Almost immediately after working the collar or joining in the round for the body, you begin working increases. These increases create the front of the body, becoming wider to fit our upper torso and bust, as well as the sleeve caps, becoming wider to accommodate our upper arms. In most instances, these increases are paired, meaning when you work an increase for the front, you will also be working an increase for the sleeve. Some patterns call for what’s called a compound raglan, which changes the ratio for these increases, but we’re going to pretend they don’t exist for the purposes of this blog post.

Now, this rate of increase assumes that our bodies get proportionally wider all around—that means that as our busts get larger, so do our arms. This holds true to an extent, but it’s definitely not true in all cases. My bust is about 48″ in circumference, and my upper arms are typically about 16″ in circumference. But if I look at the schematics for most raglan sweaters, to fit my bust, I’ll easily have 3″+ of fabric in my arms, which for my personal style, is way too much fabric (maybe it’s just me, but it all tends to bunch up under my arms and that’s so uncomfortable). That’s why, when I’m choosing a size for a raglan sweater, I look at the total circumference of the body and compare it to my own circumference.

If that doesn’t make any sense, that’s okay—it’s a weird concept to understand. Take a look at this drawing I worked up. It shows a view of a top-down raglan sweater—if you were to stop knitting before you separate for the arms, put all the stitches on a long piece of waste yarn, and spread it out, the sweater would look something like this. The dotted lines show where the increases are for most sweaters, and the measurements are numbers that I might choose based on the numbers on the Isthmus schematic—the result would be the 50″ finished measurement sweater (it’s 50″ at the top of the bust). (I rounded the numbers to make them easier to demonstrate.)

If you add up the numbers along all four sides (25 + 25 + 18 + 18), you’d have a total circumference of 86″ (since we’re knitting in the round and technically forming the top of three tubes, we call it circumference; you could also call it the perimeter if you’re more geometrically inclined). I had one of the gals in the office measure me, with my arms down at my side, wrapping the tape at my full bust around my body (including my arms) and got a total circumference of about 62″. That’s a difference of 24″!

Another thing to factor is the yoke depth in a raglan sweater. You typically have to work many increases to get a larger size, so the yoke depth gets longer and longer. If you look at the schematic below, you see that the yoke (the part of the sweater that contains both the sleeve stitches and the body stitches) is fairly deep. That depth measurement is the point at which I divide for the body and sleeves. If I were to measure from the center of my neck (basically where the collarbones join) down over the fullest part of my bust for the size 50″ sweater (so I angle the tape measure to lay slightly over a part where my torso sticks out the most), I’d find that those measurements are about an inch and a half below my full bust line (the 50″ size has an 11″ yoke depth).

One other thing to remember—you end up sharing a handful of stitches between the sleeves and the underarms (you’ll see this happen after the “divide for body and sleeves” section, where you place a set number of stitches on waste yarn or a stitch older). This creates a bit of separation between the body and sleeve—if it didn’t happen, you’d have a dolman-style garment, that has no “dividing line” between the body and sleeves.

Okay so after all of that information, what are my options?

1—I go crazy and decide to knit the whole thing in pieces so I can control the rate of increases for the sleeves and body separately (I could also do a lot of math to figure out the compound raglan shaping, but that is about as appealing as knitting the whole thing separately; in other words, not appealing at all).

2—I could knit the 46″ size, which technically would have negative ease, but if I figure out the circumference for the total body in that size, it’s about 80″. Still a large difference between my total body circumference (18″ as opposed to 24″) but it will even out—you don’t want to knit exactly to your body circumference, because most of us move our arms around a good amount, so you want some extra fabric to allow for movement.

3—Begin with the stitches for the 46″ size, and increase the yoke depth to the measurement for the 50″, just to make sure there’s enough room for everything at the top. One of the beautiful things about top-down sweaters is that you can try them on as you go, so I could pull on the sweater after I separate for the sleeves and body to see how things are going. If I need to I can always pull back just a little bit and work a few more increases in the bust.

AND if I’m thinking that the 46″ may be snug around my belly and hips, I can work increases into the body as I knit, since the body features stockinette stitches at the side panel and I don’t have to work new stitches into the diamond panel.

Remember, all of this is predicated on personal style—if you prefer nice, roomy sweaters, just knit that! If you, like me, prefer a slightly more fitted look, you might consider some of this when choosing a size. There is a lot of information here, I completely get that, so please feel free to ask questions in the comments!

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