Top Down — Why?

Sabine is a paradox.  It looks interesting, but fits like crap.  I wore it briefly on Sunday to a Hanukkah festival and received more comments in 30 minutes than I have for any other knitted item I’ve made.  What gives??

Sabine is a simple, top-down raglan.  Over the years, I’ve made no bones about my contempt for the top-down raglan.  Easy to make, yes, but the fit sucks.   The back invariably rides up so the sweater doesn’t hang level.  Plus, the underarms are bulky.  Top-down cardigans fit even worse than pullovers; if they’re not buttoned up all the way, the fronts don’t hang straight but, instead, flare to the back.  I’m probably going to get hate mail for this next comment: I think the February Lady Sweater looks wonky and unattractive, primarily because it flares to the back at the bottom, causing the fronts to hang funny.

The rationalization that the top-down raglan sweater requires almost no seaming rings hollow for me.  It’s akin to saying, “Yes, my sweater fits weird and looks like crap but who cares because I didn’t have to sew it. Yay!”  Where did this aversion to simple mattress stitch originate?  I know EZ has probably helped perpetuate it, but her most successful seamless sweaters were knit bottom up with round yokes and short row shaping at the bottom hem and neck to get a better fit. True, clever knitters like Jody have improved on the top-down technique, but in my opinion no amount of fiddling gives the same fit as most set-in sleeve sweaters.

I like projects with minimal finishing as much as the next knitter.  However, I typically don’t knit something that looks “just okay” simply because it promises minimal finishing.  Unless the sweater has a lot of stranded colorwork, why do people knit top-down style sweaters?

Admittedly, I’m guilty as charged because I’ve made both Sabine and Tivoli.  But both of those projects were driven by a sense of optimism, not conviction.  What’s your excuse?  Discuss.

And since I can’t possibly have a post without a photo, here you go.

Picture 002

A little ditty I made on Sunday night.

Knit in pieces and sewed together, of course.

37 Responses to “Top Down — Why?”

  1. Susie on 19 Nov 2008 at 2:53 pm

    Such a shame, as the sweater looks gorgeous in your photograph. You say you received more comments on it than any other sweater – were they negative?! Or did other people like the look of it on you?

  2. margene on 19 Nov 2008 at 3:02 pm

    I’m inclined to agree but I do enjoy my FBS and it was saved with some good blocking. The yarn sucks, however. That bear could not be cuter!!

  3. Carrie on 19 Nov 2008 at 3:10 pm

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels like the FLS is a supremely unflattering knit.

  4. carla on 19 Nov 2008 at 3:13 pm

    My first sweater (Wicked) was a top down raglan, and it was such a disaster I’ve been afraid to try that construction again. Plus, I’d rather sew a seam any day than have a whole sweater hanging off my needles.

  5. Carole on 19 Nov 2008 at 3:25 pm

    I’ll admit that I don’t really enjoy sewing seams but I think sweaters knit in pieces make for a better fit, too. It doesn’t really take that long, either.
    Of course, I did make a Feb Lady Sweater for Hannah and it does flare in the back but I think that’s the look of it – swingy and fun.

  6. elizabeth on 19 Nov 2008 at 3:42 pm

    IMO – Top down raglans are popular because you can try them on as you go (also true of bottom-up sweaters) and (this may be the key) knitting top down gives you a lot of progress initially. Before you know it, you’re at the waist.

    I think the FLS looks really great on some people, and really awful on others.

  7. pumpkinmama on 19 Nov 2008 at 4:09 pm

    I wish you’d tell us how you REALLY feel – none of this hemming and hawing ;-)

  8. Erin on 19 Nov 2008 at 4:14 pm

    Totally agree. Raglans look horrid on me without some serious alterations. And even then I gravitate towards seaming.

  9. Sharon on 19 Nov 2008 at 4:19 pm

    I agree – not a fan of FLS, either. I think it only looks good if you’re thin and boob-less. If, however, you have any sort of womanly curves and bumps, it’s not going to look good.

    The bear is adorable.

  10. Loribird on 19 Nov 2008 at 4:31 pm

    While I’m a fan of raglan sweaters, and of seamless knitting (after sewing for years, I like creating fabric in the shape I need it – especially if that shape is tubular,) I have to agree that the fit often leaves *ahem* much to desire. The only real bonus I can think of is that you can try on the garment easily while making it…
    Top-down raglans are quite good for children,however, given that they tend to be shaped more like tubes. Or hangers.

  11. Cabbage on 19 Nov 2008 at 4:46 pm

    Well, I actually love mattress stitch, but I am apparently unable to execute any other seaming stitch properly (except Kitchener, does that count?) and therefore end up with shoulders and sleeve caps that don’t look so hot. I make it work, because some sweaters are better knit in pieces, but it’s just not very pretty! I admire anyone who can do backstich well, or whatever it is you use to do shoulders and sleeve caps.

  12. sylvia on 19 Nov 2008 at 5:34 pm

    Thanks for speaking out. A group I knit with are going to start knitting the FLS sweater as a group in about a week. I have read everything I can on the blogs and ravelry on this sweater trying to like it. For the most part, I think it looks really like a cheap non-fitting garment on most. To me a buying a bargin sweater for every day knock-around is a better use of my $$ and time than knitting something like it. The bear is precious!!

  13. Ivete on 19 Nov 2008 at 5:44 pm

    Woohoo! I totally agree with you about TDRs. I think their extreme popularity is due to laziness and immediate-gratification tendencies . . . it’s rare that I see one that’s truly well-designed, most of them look like they were thrown together with little to no thought, and proudly!

  14. Norma on 19 Nov 2008 at 5:59 pm

    The ONLY FLS I’ve seen (and did I mention I saw 3,339 of them at Rhinebeck?) that I like is Margene’s — and I think that’s because she’s so tall she can carry it off. I also dislike the variegated or semi-variegated yarns that so many people have chosen to do it in…. Why? With a lace? I just don’t like the look. But to each her own.

    I’m a seam girl, too. It didn’t take long for me to get there, to realize the structure that seams give is soooo important to the garment.

  15. Marcia on 19 Nov 2008 at 6:01 pm

    We have an Emperor’s New Clothes* situation here, methinks! You are right. I’ve done two TDR’s in the past year that, in a word, flare out in the back. Not too badly because I did ribbing at the bottom on both, but a little short-row shaping wouldn’t have hurt. EZ usually did throw in that shaping and I like the looks of most of hers, but they were bottom up. And thank you for saying what I didn’t dare…that February thing only looks good on two people (I’m not naming names) and babies!
    *You are the little boy, of course!

  16. Dorothy on 19 Nov 2008 at 6:11 pm

    The couple top down raglans I have made worked well for me. I was careful to add short rows in the back on my way down, just like EZ says to do when knitting a seamless sweater. And the cardigan had negative ease and was meant to be worn buttoned.

    What I dislike about many TDR patterns is that there’s no attention to neckline — we are not symmetric front and back and none of our purchased sweaters are either.

    Would it be too much to ask for a photo of you wearing Sabine? What kind of comments did you get?

  17. Elliott on 19 Nov 2008 at 6:17 pm

    I have an aversion to mattress stitch (and Kitchener, etc) because every time I try to do it, not only do I have to redo it fifteen times, it’s lumpy, bulky, uneven, and hangs like it’s been grabbed by a toddler and dragged boobwards.

    Therefore I only knit seamless, since my picked-up-stitch lines are about eighty times more satisfactory, even at their lumpiest.

  18. Karen on 19 Nov 2008 at 6:25 pm

    I’m so glad someone said something about the FLS. I was beginning to think it was just me that wasn’t crazy about it.
    I have been sucked into knitting top down raglans. The third is in progress. The first I live in but it is far from perfect. The main thing it has going for it is it fits. The other sweaters I knit before it fit poorly and I had little idea how badly until I put them together and tried them on.
    Your bear is so cute!!

  19. Cheryl S. on 19 Nov 2008 at 6:28 pm

    I have seen a few FLSs that I’ve liked, but most of them I haven’t cared for, and I wouldn’t do one for myself. I must admit that I love my Green Gable sweaters. But they’re fitted and short-sleeved, so maybe that eliminates some of the problems. I’ve been looking through Custom Knits, because I was intrigued with the idea of the sweaters that are top-down with set-in sleeves, or saddle shoulder. Those might be interesting to try.

  20. Elizabeth in Apex, NC on 19 Nov 2008 at 6:42 pm

    TDRs usually strike me as fitting like a sweatshirt, which can be fine but a lot of work to knit.

    I have to tell you my husband’s response to the picture of the ditty… “Wow! Is that a coin? Is that a dime?? Wow, that seems… improbable. Certainly unadvisable.” Ha! What does a non-knitter know of the pride of accomplishing the impossible?! I think he – the bear – is darling!

  21. DeeAnn on 19 Nov 2008 at 7:08 pm

    Interesting opinion. I’ve never had a raglan fit, but always thought it was just me, even if they look nice on others, they make me look like a complete frump.

  22. Grace on 19 Nov 2008 at 7:35 pm

    I thought it was only ME! I made a Mr Greenjeans sweater (from and it just doesn’t look right on me. And I love the yarn that I used (Dream In Color Classy). I feel justified now in frogging and making something with a bit more structure.

    I do like the bottom up sweater knit in the round–I made a scandinavian cardigan that way and I LOVE it.

  23. Kathy on 19 Nov 2008 at 8:31 pm

    I haven’t got past the “Hanukkah festival” — in November?!?!?

    My only regret is that we can’t discuss this post in person. And the merits of scarves v. cowls.

  24. Mary on 19 Nov 2008 at 8:48 pm

    I think the FLS is unflattering in an adult size as well. Adorable on babies =/= attractive on grown women. Also, I feel that seaming has been unfairly maligned. I find it enjoyable, except for when I can’t get things to fit together. But that is easily remedied by choosing well-written patterns.

  25. Wendy on 20 Nov 2008 at 5:26 am

    After reading your thoughts on top down sweaters and sweaters with minimal finishing I want to throw my arms around you and screech “Sister!”

    But I’ll resist.

  26. Chris on 20 Nov 2008 at 5:37 am

    I’ve never knit a top down raglan, but I sure got a kick out of your “sweater fits weird…” etc. :) The latest sweater pattern I chose is a top down raglan but I’m working it a la Jackie Fee: bottom up fit as you go. I’m using the pattern as a visual, not as directions. Your post makes me glad I made that decision.

  27. Meredith on 20 Nov 2008 at 9:11 am

    IMO- the great thing about knitting -and our current plethora of talented designers- is that there are a lot of different styles to choose from. Thankfully, if the FLS isn’t your cup o t, you never have to knit one. I think it looks cute on a lot of people.
    I knit a top down, set in sleeve pullover (Sahara) and I love it, and loved knitting it. The main problem I had is that it’s knit flat til below the underarms,and then joined for working in the round, and my stockinette in the round is much more even and neat than flat. And it was really obvious- until I blocked it.

  28. Stephanie B on 20 Nov 2008 at 10:03 am

    I have attempted one raglan sweater, but have yet to finish it becuase i don’t think I will ever wear it. I dislike sewn shirts with raglan so I am always hesitant to knit one due to the time you put into it to get a cruddy sweater. But I do like the lack of seaming, but I would assume that as with most things, you get better with practice.

  29. Miriam on 20 Nov 2008 at 12:14 pm

    Don’t we expect with ANY sweater patterns to make adjustments for ourselves and our own bodies? I expect to add short rows to fit a top-down raglan, just as I expect to add length to sleeves for every sweater, and add hip and waist shaping for bottom-up cardigans.

    I think it’s a little hostile to completely dismiss a whole category of sweater knitting because of this. You say that you prefer the fit of a set-in sleeve, but someone in the world prefers the fit of a raglan to a set-in sleeve.

    Personally I love mattress stitch, but I can see the appeal of having a sweater knit in the round (whether top down or bottom up) if you have a different purl gauge than a knit gauge, or if you are brand new and you don’t know about selvage.

    *shrug* To each their own, really.

  30. Shannon on 20 Nov 2008 at 3:45 pm

    I’ve noticed that I don’t care much for the FLS in most of the pictures that I’ve seen of it, and I suspect that it’s partly because the FLS transitions from garter to lace in the least flattering place ever, right in the middle of the bust. It’s cute on kids because they don’t have breasts, but on 90% of adult women it creates line where there should be a curve. That’s my theory, anyway.

  31. TLC on 20 Nov 2008 at 7:24 pm

    This post (and the comments) have been informative and discouraging. I have never knit a sweater before and cast on for my first one last week. Can you guess which sweater I picked to be my first? The Februaty Ladies Sweater. So I am feeling a little worried that this sweater will look awful but I don’t want to rip it out as I am quite a ways through the garter stitch yoke. Plus I think it is a cute pattern. Before I cast on, I looked at a lot of FLS on Ravelry and decided that mine needs to switch to lace above or below my bust because I don’t like how it looks with the transition is at the fullest part of the bust. I picked this sweater because it looked do-able as my first sweater. I am not afraid of seaming. SO my question is… for a first time sweater…what pattern would you recommend. P.S. I think I better add some shortrows to the back of my FLS. I wouldn’t have known to do that thanks for the idea.

  32. etherknitter on 21 Nov 2008 at 4:39 am

    I guess I’m a seam fan. (I love posts like yours that just come out there and hang out the opinion for potshots.) There is something so satisfying (altho slow) about how mattress comes together.

  33. ohsewcrafty on 21 Nov 2008 at 12:41 pm

    I agree, both that the FLS is generally an unflattering sweater (though I do think the tiny and/or thin can pull it off), and that seams are generally a good thing. Granted, my background is sewing but seams add structure and stability. As for the raglan shape, it’s ok IMHO, but the armscye/set in sleeve fits the body much better.

  34. Andrea on 22 Nov 2008 at 9:25 am

    You and the above commenters may have just saved me some heartache. I confess that I was thinking of making an FLS–I liked the look of it on some people, I could use a cardigan, and it seemed like such a do-able project. But you’ve reminded me that there are very few raglans (top down or not) that look nice on me; I’ve read that the bust fit is the major issue, but for me I think it has more to do with the shoulders/neckline. I have big square shoulders and thanks to some serious weight gain, a largish bust/arms/belly. It would probably be a huge (no pun intended) flop, even with modifications. I looked back at some of the Ravelry projects and agree that it looks better on the very slim people.

    I will confess that I try to avoid seaming when I can, but I realized recently that it’s not so bad, and I do okay at it when I’m well-rested and in a patient mood. Paradoxically, it’s easier to do a good job with plain smooth yarn where the mistakes will show more. My most difficult seaming jobs have been mohair/novelty/superbulky/etc. Maybe I need to think more about the seams/no seams question when I’m choosing the yarn.

  35. Lara on 23 Nov 2008 at 11:59 am

    I do agree with you on the sweater thing. I have knit TDR’s that fit great and others that fit horribly. I think you get the best fit with a sweater knit in pieces but the key to that is learning how to seam correctly without bulges and thick seams. It takes time to master it – but once you do it makes for a fabulous sweater.

  36. suzie sparkle on 03 Jan 2009 at 11:09 am

    It’s a shame you don’t like the top-down raglan technique. Two of my best-fitting and favourite garments I knitted are freestyle TDR:

    I take your point that without adjustement you can get the back higher than the front but short-rows take care of this nicely. I also got bulky underarms the first time I used the technique, but reducing the frequency of increases solved this problem.

    I have always liked the fit of raglans in general.

  37. Elena on 10 Apr 2010 at 12:00 pm

    I don’t get this discussion at all.
    I can see why someone prefers to kit in pieces because they don’t like to hold an entire sweater on one circular needle.
    But….what is all this about bad fit?
    You can shape knitting whether it is bottom up or top down. You can shape it whether it is circular or in pieces. That is the entire point about knitting! Why would anyone insist on knitting a tube without shaping and then complain that it doesn’t fit well? If it doesn’t fit, why don’t you shape it to fit? You can do that in any knit, you know.I have knit seamless sweaters on circular needles bottom up & top down that are shaped either at the sides or on the front or back, wherever needed, for curvy bodies that come in at the waist. What is the problem here?
    There is nothing inherent in knitting top down that would make a cardigan hang wrong in the back! If you are able to knit a cardigan that doesn’t hang wrong bottom up, you ought to be able to shape it exactly the same way top down. You can make any kind of neckline shape top down as well. It doesn’t need to be the same front & back! As for bulk in sleeves in seamless sweaters, surely that is a knitting deficiency rather than an issue int he basic technique. It is possible to pick up stitches so that there is no bulk whatsoever.