Technique Tuesday: Should You Pick Up or Hold Your Neckline Stitches?

On Technique Tuesdays, I’ll be tackling technique questions in knitting (mostly about sweaters), questions about how to execute a particular thing rather than “how to think about executing a thing” (that’s for Thursdays). This particular one kind of blurs the edges between those two topics, but, since it’s the week of Stitches West, I hope we can let it slide. :)


Q: In a lot of sweater patterns, yours included, I see instructions to bind off across the back neck, and then pick up stitches for the neckband later (or, in a top-down sweater, to cast on the neck stitches and then later pick up stitches for a neckband along that cast on row). If I’m going to pick up those stitches again anyway, why not just leave them on a stitch holder or, for the top-down sweater, do the neckband first? Does it matter?

Like so many knitting and design questions, multiple roads seem like they lead to the same castle here, but actually lead to adjacent castles with slightly different furnishings. Does it “matter”? Yes. Does it matter to you and your project? Maybe.

In a bottom-up sweater (in pieces or not), conceptually, of course you can leave your back neck stitches on waste yarn, put them back on a needle and start your neckband pick up at the left shoulder, working your way around, and go on your merry way. You will end up with a sweater with a neckband. So far, so good, right?

But…here’s why I think you shouldn’t. Bear with me on a tiny bit of sweater-physics, but a lot of weight hangs off what’s called the yoke of your sweater, which is the region from armhole to neck. This is the structural, weight-bearing portion of the sweater, the part that keeps it on your body and ensures that it stays, well, a sweater. Bound-off edges, seams, and other non-stretching components add structural stability and soundness to that portion of the sweater, like steel beams do a roof. If you leave your back-neck stitches live, you lose a chance to put one of these metaphorical steel beams across the back neck of your sweater. Binding off and then picking up gives you another important place to anchor the sweater’s weight. This is particularly important for cardigans, where the back neck is the only piece that connects the right and left shoulders of the sweater.

On a top-down sweater, particularly a top-down raglan, you’re already a little short on structural supports, which makes it even more important. Doing the neckline last on your top-down sweater also gives you more choices about how you shape the neckline (with increases at the front before the sweater is joined in the round, or with short rows to raise the back neck). It also gives you a chance to call a bit of an audible at the end of your sweater-knitting process: necklines are funny things sometimes, and it can be really helpful to see how the sweater physically sits on your body before you commit to a particular length or ribbing strategy.