Monday, January 23, 2012

Sweater shoulders: transform stair steps to short rows and radically improve shoulder shaping

4 illustrations, click any illustration to enlarge
Sometimes, a sweater pattern will have you cast off your sweater shoulders in "stair steps."  For a sweater worked in stockinette stitch, the directions might look something like this:
  • 16 sts on needle.  Purl to outer edge of shoulder.  Turn work. Knit side facing
  • Using ordinary chain bind off, bind off 5 sts.  Knit remaining 11 sts.  Turn work.
  • Purl 11 sts.  Turn work
  • Bind off 5 sts. Knit remaining 6 sts. Turn work.
  • Purl 6 sts.  Turn work.
  • Bind off remaining 6 stitches.  Shoulder bind off completed. 

In real life, these directions are going to get you the fabric illustrated below, with the bind off shown in DARK GREEN. 

Stair-step shoulders (bind off in dark green)

As you can see, this method of bind off creates "stair steps" at the top of the shoulder.  When you come to connect the shoulders to one another at the sweater top, this jagged fabric is difficult to sew up nicely.

How about if we use short rows instead?  Instead of that jagged edge, we'll make a lovely smooth shoulder top--a top which will be a pleasure to sew up when the time comes.

Before we begin, if you're a little rusty on short rows, you might wish to consider reviewing these illustrated posts:
The particular kind of short rows we are going to use for the shoulders are a mash up of ordinary wrap-and-turn short rows and Japanese short rows--we'll steal the wrapping and turning from the former and the slip stitching from the latter.

If all this sounds WAY complicated, hang on!!  This really is far easier than it sounds so far, I promise!   Even if short rows seem scary, it'll all come clear when we take this step by step. (You might even want to cast on a 16 st swatch and follow along.)
  • Step 1. 16 sts on needle.  Knit to within 5 sts of outer edge of shoulder.   You will now have 5 sts on your left needle and 11 on your right. 
  • Step 2. slip the stitch on the tip of the left needle (shown in PURPLE below) onto right needle.  (Slip this and all other slipped stitches "purlwise," which means slip the stitch from one needle to the other without changing the stitch mount--the RIGHT arm of the stitch should remain the forward arm.) Draw running yarn forward, slip purple st back onto left needle, draw running yarn to back again.  The running yarn has been turned into a "wrap" around the purple stitch.  The wrap is shown in RED, below.   Continuing to hold the running yarn in the back, slip the st on the tip of the right needle (shown in ORANGE, below) to the tip of the left needle.  You now have 6 sts on the left needle, and 10 sts on the right needle, as shown below.

Wrap the purple stitch with the red running yarn as described
above and then slip the orange stitch

Here is a closeup of the wrap and slip detail.

Close up

  • Turn work, purl the remaining 10 sts.
  • Turn work again and knit 6 sts.  
  • Repeat step 2, except that when you finish wrapping the purple st and slipping the orange stitch, this time, you will have 11 sts on the left needle and 5 on the right.
  • Turn work and purl these 5 stitches.
  • You will now have all 16 sts on one needle and you'll end up on the neck edge of the shoulder.
  • You will now knit across the entire shoulder top from neck edge to outside edge, all 16 sts, as shown by the DARK GREEN stitches below.  As you come to each wrap, fish around with your needles and "unwrap" the red wrap from around the neck of the purple stitch, placing the wrap on the tip of the left needle.  Then, k2tog the red wrap together with the purple st.  The TURQUOISE stitches along the top row in the below illustration  show where these two were knit together.  

In real life, these directions would get you the fabric below.  If you compare the final row (DARK GREEN) to the bind off in the first illustration above, you can see that the short row method yields a single smooth descent along the shoulder line: the jagged steps have been eliminated. 

Stair steps eliminated via short rows

You can now attach this shoulder to its mate by a three needle bind off, or you could bind it off via ordinary chain bind off on the next row, then sew the shoulders shut.  

PS:  Geek note:  If you intend to bind off anyway, you could just as well bind off the DARK GREEN stitches the last row.  In other words, that last row could have been worked as an ordinary chain bind off as it was made, instead of working this row and then working the bind off on the following row.

Good knitting, TK