Tin Can Knits have recently released a short-row addendum to Flax and Flax Light, their popular free top-down raglan sweater patterns. I was excited: what a great resource to refer someone to when they're struggling with the fit of a raglan sweater neckline. But, to my disappointment, the way they've added short rows to the design doesn't really address this at all.
In this blog post I dissect the reason for top-down raglan fit issues and share two approaches to fix them, one with short rows, the other without.
The Problem: Asymmetry
It all boils down to the same reason as for circular yoke fit issues: the sweater is symmetrical front to back whereas human anatomy is not.
To recap fit issues with round-yoke designs: the human torso needs more fabric to cover the back than the front. This causes circular yokes to dip backwards, exposing the back neck and making the front neck ride too high. To remedy this, you need to fill in the space exposed at the back either by raising the back neck or lengthening the back yoke (or both) with short rows.
The reverse is true with raglan sweaters. In an unmodified raglan sweater the neck opening is rectangular: wider at the front and back and narrower at the two sides where sleeves go. The back neck is already plenty high enough — that's not the problem. The issue with raglan sweaters is that the front neckline is too high and too straight to fit comfortably on a human body. In order to fix this, you don't need to add more fabric to the back; you need to take fabric out of the front. Here's where short rows come in.
The Solution: Short Rows to Lower the Front Neck
Remember when I told you to make the short-row wedge in a shallow U-shape to prevent a hump at the back? For raglan sweaters you want to forget it. Because we're taking excess fabric out of the front instead of adding it to the back, the short-row wedge needs to be inverted. To improve the fit of a top-down raglan neckline you need to start with shorter short rows that get longer and longer.
To do this, work the neckband and a couple of rounds to get the raglan increases going, then start short-row shaping. Here I've worked the neck ribbing deliberately in a contrasting color so you can see what's going on.
Start by making the first short-row turn just a couple of stitches into the right front after the front/sleeve division marker. Purl across the right sleeve, back, and left sleeve stitches and make the second short-row turn in the corresponding position on the left front.
Work back and forth, making the short rows gradually longer and longer each turn. At first, work just one of two stitches beyond the previous turning point and then at a rapider pace when you get towards the base of the front neck. (Remember this is a raglan so you'll also be doing raglan increases at the same time.)
Continue in this manner until you have approximately one third of unworked front stitches remaining. At this point your short rows are complete and you can resume working in the round. Notice how the back and sleeves are several rows longer than the mid front.
Level the bottom edges of the front and back to see the difference. On such a small-scale swatch the front neck drop isn't much but you can imagine how it would take shape on a full-sized sweater.
The short-row approach to fixing fit issues has some obvious advantages. First, you can work the neckline treatment first and don't have to go back to it in the finishing stage. Second, you can work the entire piece from the top down and don't have to worry about changing knitting direction.
But this approach also comes with some disadvantages. Take out your favorite T-shirt or sweatshirt and measure the front neck drop, that is, the difference between the front and back necklines. It is surprisingly large and, ideally, this distance (multiplied by your row gauge) is how many short rows you should do. In order to get that rounded scoop neck, you'd first have to work some distance vertically before starting the smooth curve at the base of the neckline. This is impossible to do with short rows because you can't stack the short-row turning points in the same position each and every row. At best you'll be able to get a shallow V shape.
One of my raglan sweater designs, Torran, uses the short-row approach for an improved neckline but I think it could be a lot better. That pattern is due for an upgrade anyways and, in addition to adding more sizes to the pattern, neckline fit is another thing I need to address.
A Better (Fitting) Way: Staggered Start
For this approach you only cast on stitches needed for the back, two sleeves, and a couple of stitches on each front. Work back and forth for a few rows and then gradually start increasing stitches at the front neck edges. When you have approximately a third of the neckline stitches remaining, cast them all on at the center front and join the work in the round. (This requires some forethought and math to get the two neckline edges to meet at the right height.)
Does this sound familiar? If you've ever knitted a traditional bottom-up sweater pattern, they have you bind off the center neck stitches first, then work the left and front sides of the sweater separately while binding off additional stitches at the neck edge. The staggered start is the same but in the opposite direction, casting on new stitches instead of binding them off.
The disadvantage of this approach is that you have to pick up stitches for the neckline treatment later on. If your sweater has cables, for instance, this change in knitting directions can throw a spanner in the works. Another disadvantage is that you have to work back and forth for a few rows. But, come to think of it, you have to work back and forth while doing short rows, too.
On the bright side, these same disadvantages are also the advantages of this approach. Because you're working in flat first, you're able to create that vertical edge that's impossible with short rows. The staggered start approach allows for a deeper, anatomically better fitting neckline similar to your favorite T-shirt. And by picking up stitches from the neck edge last, you're also adding structure and stability to the sweater and creating a neckline that is less likely to stretch out over time.
Which approach is better? I think that's ultimately a matter of taste. If you dislike picking up stitches, choose short rows. If short rows scare you, choose the staggered start. Just be mindful of the fit issue you're facing, what causes it, and choose the right way to fix it.
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