This post is wordy and photo heavy. Sorry about the crappy lighting.
So you found a sweater pattern you love. You spent the money on the yarn and you spent days, weeks, maybe even months knitting. Now that you have all these pieces in front of you the feeling of knitting joy and accomplishment has been replaced by the dread of what’s to come... seaming all those pieces together.
Really, I don’t understand the dread. You knew when you started knitting that at some point you’d need to put it all together. Instead of looking at the seaming job as some overwhelming new project in itself, try to turn your perspective toward something a bit more attainable. After all that hard work its finally time to pull it all together. Its the final step in a list of steps you’ve already completed. Don’t lose your momentum now when you’re right around the corner from proudly wearing the sweater you fell in love with the day you bought the yarn and the pattern. This should be a moment to savor... the moment when you realize your vision. This is the time for you to pat yourself on the back! Look at what you’ve done! Thousands of neat and tidy little stitches all lined up just waiting for you to partner them with a new neighbor so that they can all be one... from individual stitches to one successful project... all done by you!
Don’t sell yourself short! Do a crappy job now and you’ve wasted time and money and missed an opportunity. Maybe you aren’t real thrilled with how your pieces look and you’re worried that you’ll be disappointed once its all sewn together. A little stage fright maybe? Well, one of 2 things is going to happen...either you’ll go through the motions properly and surprise yourself with just how lovely your finished project is, or you’ll have a chance to learn from mistakes. Look back at each step of the project... what parts are you unhappy with? What could you have done differently? What will you watch out for next time?
You’ve come this far... you can’t stop now. Besides, when you die and your family and friends find all the yarn you have hidden around the house they’re gonna think you’re nuts... if they find a bunch of little knitted thingers that apparently have no purpose or value stuffed in there too... they’ll have proof.
I’m going to ramble on about 2 things... blocking and seaming a set-in sleeve.
First up... blocking.
I firmly believe that step one of a neatly finished project is a good blocking. All the handling while you knit and all the mushing around in your knitting bag has pushed and pulled it all out of shape. Any knitter who has done any amount of lace work probably knows that knitted lace doesn’t look anything like knitted lace until its been blocked firmly. Likewise, textures, cables, and even ribs should be blocked to bring out the full depth of their stitches.
Now, some of you probably squeaked a little when I mentioned blocking ribs. True, ribs are meant to be stretchy and I am in no way advocating the death of stretchy ribs by stretching them to the point of no return. Blocking is not the same as stretching, at least not to that degree. I don’t like super clingy ribs at the bottom of my sweaters and honestly, neither do my kids, and they are my #1 inspiration. I love the look of K2, P2 rib especially but I normally do block it out a bit. A gentle blocking will not remove all the stretchiness but will eliminate the super-cling. This is a matter of personal preference when we’re discussing functional ribbing at hems and cuffs but what about all over rib patterns? Again, a gentle blocking will open and neaten the pattern without completely removing the stretch factor as we’ll see in the piece I’ll be using to demonstrate.
Let us also keep in mind that I am referring to blocking natural animal fibers like wool, alpaca, and blends. Many times I’ve gone on tangents about how much I dislike acrylic and this is one of the reasons. Acrylic cannot be blocked. Period.
I prefer to soak all the pieces in a wool wash and then spin them out in the washing machine. Steam blocking is also acceptable. I normally steam seams and button bands when they are completely finished sort of like a final polishing.
Small items can be blocked by pinning them to a thick towel but I prefer a blocking board. A large blocking board can be as simple as what I use... a big piece of foam insulation from the hardware superstore. I bought a 4 by 8 foot sheet and broke it down into one large piece for garments and one small piece for swatches. There’s another piece left that Mac Daddy and Son the Younger are using to help them build a model airplane. The board is covered with a piece of cotton that is pinned into place so I can remove it when it needs washed. You’ll also need a container of T-pins. (Quit looking at the mess behind the board... we live here don’t ya know :-)
When I’m not using the board I put it in the basement but since Toby enjoys testing his claws on knitted fabric I have to lean the whole deal up against the wall in the master bedroom closet and keep the door shut when there is something pinned to it (ask me how I figured that out). During nice weather I often put it outside to dry out of direct sunlight and somewhere that the local wildlife isn’t likely to poop on it (ask me how I figured that out too).
Many times I have looked at a finished, unblocked piece of knitting in disbelief at the sloppiness of my own work only to be pleasantly surprised by the same piece after blocking. Look at the difference in appearance of these 2... blocked on the right, unblocked on the left...
Now, hopefully you washed and blocked your swatch before you started this project to make sure you are knitting to the gauge specified by the pattern. Fast forward to the end of the pattern... there should be a schematic or at least some written measurements so you know the desired dimensions of the pieces upon completion. Let’s assume you swatched your particular collaboration of stitches and are spot on for gauge. Why then, when you are finished knitting, is that dang sleeve too narrow according to the schematic? This is the “block pieces to measurements” part.
Lets look at these 2 sleeves. The one on the left has been blocked to measure, the one on the right has not.
According to the pattern these sleeves are supposed to measure 15.5 inches at the widest part directly below the initial sleeve cap shaping bind offs. Not only does the unblocked one just look sloppy, its not measuring appropriately.
The blocked sleeve is measuring correctly...
Here you can see the back, which has been blocked, and the front side that has been blocked fit together nicely. The other front half.. not so much.
Take a good look especially at the armhole edge and shoulder bind off. Its obviously going to be difficult to sew these together neatly and smoothly.
You can clearly see that blocking makes a big difference.
Now onto the set-in sleeve...
I learned how to sew in a set-in sleeve when my older kids were babies by sewing fabric rather than by seaming knitting. I had done a fair amount of sewing by then but still gagged a little when I would get to the part of the sewing instructions for the sleeve cap where it would say “ease sleeve cap to fit”. To me “ease to fit” meant pin and re-pin and curse and get frustrated and finally settle on a not-quite-right set-in sleeve cap. That is, until my mom (technically step-mom but who’s keeping score) showed me how to ease and pin it properly. That’s why I’m showing you. There’s probably a million other places to find this out and maybe you already know anyway but for those of you who get a little queasy looking at sleeve caps here ya go...
Its not much better than fitting a square peg in a round hole when you look at it from here. Its funny to sit here and look at that and try to wrap your head around the fact that its all shaped like that on purpose. Its all shaped like that because we’re all shaped like this. Weird.
I’ll use counting bears to demonstrate. Sounds funny now but you’ll see in a minute that having the colors to refer to will be helpful.
The trick is getting that cap to “ease” into that hole evenly. Lumps are bad, stressed and stretched stitches are bad. So how do you get it all smooth and even?
At first its all based on there being a few non-negotiable points that need to line up. Sleeve caps and the holes they fit into both start with some initial bound off stitches and are then shaped with decreases. Those initial bound off stitches on the sleeve cap need to be paired with the corresponding bound off stitches on the body at the arm hole. If 7 stitches were bound off at the beginning of the sleeve cap there should also 7 bound off stitches at the armhole beginning. This is a non-negotiable point. Another non-negotiable point is where the center of the top of the sleeve cap needs to meet the center shoulder seam. Once these points have been marked everything else can be worked in... one step at a time. Finding a point that is halfway between 2 already established points and matching it with its corresponding point on the other side will set you on your way to a smooth join.
This is where Tater’s counting Bears come in...
Now the Blue Bear family can show us points located between the previously established Green points.
Now, I know this all "seams" a little silly but “bear” with me (bad pun... I know)... lets replace all the bears with coil-less pins...
and connect the points on the sleeve cap with the points on the armhole...
Now it still looks a bit funny but lets discuss... set in sleeves are shaped the way they are shaped so that they will lay flat on a 3 dimensional body... not a flat table top. If we use our origami skills, however, something really cool happens...push the sleeve cap up into the armhole and let them come together naturally like this...
At this point small adjustments can be made if necessary. Don’t move any of the non-negotiable spots though. The top of the shoulder is a prominently visible area. Make sure the sleeve cap in this area lies flat and smooth. Adjust pins as needed and add more if you need to.
Now its starting to look like these 2 pieces may come together. If we were sewing 2 pieces of fabric together we would have placed them with their right sides together and the wrong side facing out. We would have sewn around the carefully pinned armhole and then turned the whole deal right side out thus leaving a seam allowance on the inside.
Since we are seaming 2 pieces of knitting, we will instead need to “butt” them up against each other but we’ll still have a small “seam allowance”. Basically this seam allowance is a stitch from the edge of each piece that will end up on the inside of our seam. Its very difficult to correctly “butt” the edges of a sleeve cap and an armhole together while they are flat on a table. The process of determining certain definite points, easing in the other points, and pinning the crap out of the whole thing makes it a lot easier. Now that we are pinned securely we can begin to seam the pieces together.
Beginning at the underarm edge you’ll first need to seam the “flat” bound off part . Graft these stitches 1 to 1 just like a shoulder seam or the seam of a sock toe (for all you sock knitters). Take one stitch from the sleeve side and one stitch from the body/armhole side. Seam the entire flat part stitch for stitch so it is flat and smooth.
You’ll need to change to a mattress stitch approach as you run out of flat bound off stitches. The run from here to the top of the sleeve cap will require a bit more patience. If you look carefully you’ll see that the piece on the right of our seam (the sleeve cap) is slightly larger than the part on the left (the armhole).
That means that we’ll need to take a little slack out of the right side piece as we go. This is what they mean by “ease to fit”. Use a mattress stitch (picking up the bar between the very edge stitch and the second stitch from the edge). To take more fabric in one stitch pick up 2 bars from the right piece but only one bar from the left piece.
Now, this isn’t an exact science and you’ll have to eyeball your progress. Don’t look at the entire sleeve cap and armhole... just concentrate on the small area from where you are to the next pin. Take an extra bar from the right every other stitch or so and see how it goes. Your seaming thread can be pulled out just as easily as a few knit stitches. It pays to back up a few stitches now than to be stuck with a puckered and stressed sleeve seam later. Once you’re happy with the appearance of a section remove the pin and move on.
Work your way, patiently, to the sleeve cap top. Here, you’ll again be working with bound off stitches on the sleeve cap side.
Continue down the other side working toward the other underarm bind off area. Work this area the same as you did the first few stitches at the beginning... stitch for stitch.
Sew the sleeve length seam and sweater side seam stitch for stitch (mattress stitch).
Results... graciously modeled by Daughter the Elder.
There are a few things that make seaming easier and neater whether you’re dealing with a sleeve cap or not. Selvedge stitches are a single stitch at the edge of a knitted piece of fabric that are intended to be eaten up in the seam. Patterns may or may not specify this stitch. If you’re dealing with a simpler stockinette design chances are the designer has already figured for a selvedge stitch in their initial calculations and won’t even mention it. A more complicated texture pattern may specify a selvedge.
Also, never work increase or decrease stitches on the very first or last stitch of a row unless you are specifically instructed to do so. Keeping shaping stitches away from the edge will not only result in a nice detail but also leave your edges undisturbed. Make your shaping stitches one, 2, or even 3 stitches away from the edge but do keep it consistent. I usually place a stitch marker at each edge where I want to remember to make my shaping stitches.