Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Breakdown
Top-down vs. bottom-up sweaters is one of the most passionately debated topics in the knitting world. As an avid sweater knitter and designer who loves both constructions, I firmly believe there’s a place for both—but when should you choose a top-down sweater pattern or a bottom-up one? There isn’t a simple answer, but hopefully, this article will take some of the mystery out of deciding.
Key Fit Points
Sweater construction isn’t just about top-down vs. bottom-up. What about seamed vs. seamless? Or the myriad ways to construct sleeves: raglan, yoke, set-in, saddle, and the list goes on. (Note that any of these constructions can be knit top-down or bottom-up.) While we don’t have time or space to deconstruct (see what I did there?) all of these, remember that all sweater types rely on a few key areas for proper fit. These areas are:
- Arm and body length
All these areas are impacted by the choice of top-down or bottom-up construction. With that in mind, let’s talk about the pros and cons of top-down and bottom-up construction!
Top-down Sweater Pros
Top-down construction has had a bit of a moment in the last few years. Ask a knitter their favourite sweater pattern, and 4 out of 5 answers would probably be a top-down sweater. While trends may account for some of this, there are still important technical reasons for the popularity of top-down construction.
- Ease of trying on as you go. While it’s certainly possible to try on a bottom-up sweater as you go, it’s harder to get an accurate idea of the finished fit because sweaters hang from the neck and shoulders when worn. Top-down construction completes these key fit points first, making it easier to test out the fit early on.
- No seams. Top-down construction lends itself particularly well to seamless sweaters, starting with one piece, the neck/shoulder area, and splitting into body and sleeves. This means less finishing, easier blocking, and a less structured fit. (The advantages of seamed sweaters will be covered in the bottom-up section.)
- Ease of adjusting body and sleeve length—one of our key fit points. This is fairly self-explanatory: knitting from the top down means knitting downwards toward the hem. Stopping short or adding more length while knitting is a snap. And if you decide you want more or less length after wearing the finished sweater, it’s easy to unpick your bind off and add/reduce.
Top-down Sweater Cons
That said, top-down construction also has some potential pitfalls.
- Lack of stability. The seamless construction that usually comes with a top-down sweater means less structure to support the weight of the fabric, since seams stabilize the garment and keep the stitches from distorting. In addition, a sweater’s weight is supported primarily by the neck/shoulder area. In a top-down sweater, this area is structurally weaker than in a bottom-up sweater, because cast ons are weaker and stretch more easily over time than bind-offs. Over time, you may find your neckline and shoulder area fits more loosely than desired. A few workarounds include: skipping the ribbing and jumping directly into the main body of the sweater, then picking up stitches for the ribbing at the end (both the pickup and the bind off will stabilize your neckline); crocheting a chain along the inside of your finished neckline; or knitting the ribbing, binding off, and then picking up stitches for the body from the bind off.
- Adjusting neck/shoulder fit is more difficult. Since this is the first part of the sweater you’ll knit in a top-down sweater, you’re locked into the neck circumference once you cast on. This has a cascading effect on the shoulder and armscye fit, i.e. if your neck circumference is too loose, the shoulder and armholes will sag, but if it’s too tight, the sweater may bunch under the armholes. If these fit issues are caught early enough, it’s possible to frog and restart, so check the schematic and your gauge, and recognize that you may need to do some unravelling. Be sure to take advantage of how easy it is to try on your sweater as you go!
I used some of these tricks to work around the cons of top-down construction when I knit Barocco by Stella Egidi (Ravelry link). I knew from the schematic that the neckline would fit a little closer than I wanted since I tend to like looser necklines than most people, so I cast on for the number of stitches after the first increase round and then jumped straight into the yoke chart, adjusting accordingly. After the entire sweater was finished, I picked up stitches from the cast-on edge and knit the ribbing. Pro tip: choosing a stable yarn can also help combat stretching in a top-down sweater! I used SweetGeorgia Mohair Silk DK in my Barocco.
Bottom-Up Sweater Pros
Bottom-up construction is the historic method for sweater knitting in most cultures with a long knitting tradition. And while it’s rarer to find in contemporary sweater patterns, there are some important reasons why it shouldn’t be discounted:
- Bottom-up construction is ideal for knitting seamed sweaters. Seams keep knitting stitches, which have a tendency to stretch lengthwise, from distorting with wear. This is why heavy-cabled sweaters in thicker yarns are usually seamed—the weight of the fabric will pull the sweater out of shape over time. Even seamless bottom-up garments are more stable than top-down ones; yoke and raglan sweaters knit from the bottom up are shaped with decreases in the neck/shoulder area, which are more stable than the increases used in top-down construction. And as touched on above, a bind off at the neckline will hold up better under the sweater’s weight than a cast-on.
- Ease of adjusting neck and shoulder fit. Because the neck/shoulder area is the last area worked before binding off in a bottom-up sweater, it’s easier to unpick and rework this part of the garment at the end of the process. This advantage should be given a good bit of weight since neck and shoulder fit can make or break the wearability of a sweater like nothing else.
- Structure and a more polished fit. This goes hand in hand with stability; the seaming and/or decrease shaping of bottom-up sweaters lends itself to more tailored garments. And it’s easy to make tiny fit adjustments while seaming that would be difficult to make in a seamless garment, where all the finishing is done on the needles.
- Knitting a sweater in pieces, whether for seaming or for joining later in the process, means it’s easier to carry around! Stuffing a whole seamless, to-down sweater in most knitting bags and lugging it around can get exhausting quickly (don’t write off the potential shoulder and neck strain of carrying around an overfull knitting bag).
Bottom-Up Sweater Cons
However, bottom-up construction also has its downsides, many of which are the reason why knitters prefer working top-down:
- Trying on as you go is harder. It’s not impossible, but trying on a sweater knit in pieces from the bottom up takes serious wrangling. Even seamless bottom-up sweaters are knit in pieces until the end, which means getting an accurate idea of how the sweater will hang is near-impossible until the joining is completed near the finish line. The trick to getting a good fit when you can’t try on easily is math: know your gauge, your measurements, and your personal fit preferences, and make sure you’re taking those into account as you knit. For everything you’ll need to know about gauge, check out Tabetha Hedrick’s Mastering Gauge
- Adjusting body and sleeve length is a bear. Because bottom-up garments are bound off at the top, body, and sleeve length are pretty much locked in once you start knitting the neck and shoulder area. Length can be removed by cutting length out of the garment and re-grafting the pieces back together, but there’s no good way to add. In keeping with the above point, know your gauge and your desired fit well, and be sure to give yourself the right amount of length while knitting.
- The seams and decreases that stabilize your garment will also add bulk, meaning your garments will not be as sleek and might be less comfy.
Top-down vs. Bottom-up? Which one’s for you?
The answer is: only you can decide which is best for you! Every knitter has different preferences, priorities, and issues they’d rather work around vs. others. The information above is just scratching the surface of sweater construction, but hopefully it’s a starting point for you to make your own, informed choices about the kinds of sweaters you want to make. Go forth, experiment, and knit sweaters!