Designing a Side-to-Side Sweater

As a teenager, my first foray into knitting garments began with a side-to-side, garter stitch pullover for my boyfriend. It seemed easy and straight forward, knitting the whole garment in one piece. But in retrospect, it was a little too ambitious a project, with my limited understanding of gauge. The results were unexpected, one sleeve was oriented higher than the other. I can’t remember how I handled the situation, but I laugh now at my failure. This misadventure didn’t deter me from continuing along my knitting journey.

Designing and knitting a side-to-side sweater presents challenges from the more popular bottom-up or top-down garment. Although the side-to-side sweater design follows the same planning processes as for the other types of construction, there are key points to consider when knitting or designing one. I’m not delving into the details of writing pattern instructions for this style; I’m just addressing these main points.

Typical Side-to-Side Construction

The most common type of side-to-side sweater construction is knit “cuff to cuff”. This style of sweater begins at one sleeve cuff, working in one piece across the body including the neck opening and shoulder shaping, then down the opposite sleeve, ending at its cuff.

Schematic of typical cuff to cuff sweater construction

Fabric Characteristics

Because gravity pulls on a knit fabric, a side-to-side garment will behave differently since the stitch patterns are now oriented in the horizontal direction, rather than vertically. For bottom-up sweaters knit in garter stitch, the ridges tend to be pulled apart, so the garment stretches or expands widthwise, and is more noticeable in loosely knit garments or ones knit in a heavy, drapey yarn. Garter stitch also contracts lengthwise, so when it’s used in a side-to-side construction, the fabric doesn’t stretch out by gravity, because the rows are now running vertically. Because ribbing has ridges like garter stitch, it too tends to stretch out in side-to-side projects.

Stockinette fabric has both widthwise and lengthwise stretch, but tends to be more stable in the vertical direction, than the horizontal direction. Therefore a stockinette fabric worked in a side-to-side sweater will stretch more than in a bottom-up garment.

Colourwork fabrics knit with floats or strands of yarn on the backside, like Fair Isle give horizontal stability to the knit fabric. Stranding yarns work well in side-to-side garments with the pattern running vertically. The different pattern direction adds visual interest.

Although the different types of pattern stitches exhibit these characteristics in side-to-side garments, using resilient fibers or ones that hold their shape will alleviate these fabric qualities. When designing any knit garment, the yarn and fibers its composed of, pattern stitches, and style work together to achieve a successful project.

Importance of Row Gauge

You notice that as you are knitting a side-to-side sweater, the rows run vertically to form the width of the fabric. In the other sweater constructions, the stitch gauge is the important number to determining the garment’s width measurements. But in the side-to-side sweater, the row gauge, rather than the stitch gauge is what is used to calculate the widthwise or horizontal measurements of a sweater. You must keep an accurate row count to obtain the desired garment measurements.

As you can see from the above schematic of a side-to-side sweater, vertical measurements (as the sweater is worn) must be converted into stitch numbers, and the horizontal measurements converted into row numbers, the opposite of a bottom-up sweater.

I suggest drawing your side-to-side schematic, as you would for any garment, and then use your gauge from the test swatch to convert measurements into stitches and rows, and knit right from this schematic.

Shaping Sections

In a cuff to cuff sweater, after the first sleeve is completed, you’ll cast on stitches for the sides of the front and back of the body, and bind off stitches on the opposite side edges. The cable cast on method is one of the best techniques to add these extra stitches. Try to keep the cast on and bound off edges similar in tension to the rest of the garment, not too tight or too loose, otherwise you may end up with flared, puckered or uneven edges. When shaping sleeve side edges and neck opening, you need to mirror the shaping on the opposite side, so they match up and look the same.

My intent for this post is to make you aware of the differences of side-to-side sweater design from the more common sweater construction methods. The key differences include how this style affects the knit fabric, the row gauge is used to calculate the sweater’s width measurements, and making sure to mirror the shaping of garment sections.

Designing a side-to-side sweater is not any more difficult than other types of sweater styles. Use the same planning steps and a detailed schematic. You are simply converting vertical measurements into stitches, and the horizontal measurements converted into rows.