Theory Thursday: Why Tailored Shoulders?

On Theory Thursdays, I’ll be tackling (in brief) a question about design theory/overall approach/yarn selection, etc. These aren’t really “technique” questions, in the sense of how to execute something in your knitting, but they’re questions to think about before you get started. This one is the start of a two-part technique-and-theory combo: today, we’ll be talking about the “why’s” of tailored shoulders, and Tuesday, we’ll talk about mechanically how they work and how to seam them.

Like all of my set-in-sleeve sweaters to date, Presidio features a tailored, or “fully fashioned” shoulder construction.

Like all of my set-in-sleeve sweaters to date, Presidio features a tailored, or “fully fashioned” shoulder construction.

Q: So, when I look at your set-in-sleeve sweaters, a lot of them seem to have the shoulder seam on the back. What’s that about?

You’re right, they do! All of my set-in-sleeve sweaters published to date use “tailored” (also called “English Tailored” or “fully fashioned” shoulder shaping, which means (among other things), that the shoulder seam is shifted to the upper back, and the front of the sweater runs across the top of the shoulder (and the top of the sleeve cap). If you take a spin through your closet, this is a common feature in ready-to-wear sweaters, and probably most commercially-made sweaters you have (especially if they’re cardigans) are designed this way. So, why do it hand-knitting? Here’s a few reasons:

  • Fit (and flattery!): First and foremost, this construction tends to produce a sweater that, for most people, anchors really well on the shoulders and stays there (again, this is a thing that is super important for cardigans). The slope of the shaping mimics the structure of the back neck and shoulders (as Michelle so beautifully demonstrates in the photo above). It hangs along the bone structure of the upper back, giving your sweater back a really nice point to drape from (especially nice if you’ve got an “interesting” sweater back, like we have here on Presidio). Everyone’s body is different, but for most people, this produces a sweater that has seams that align such that the sweater looks like it fits, which is critical in a set-in-sleeve sweater, which really needs to fit the wearer’s shoulders.

  • Flattery and comfort, part 2: Positioning the seam on the upper back instead of the top of the shoulder helps for another reason. At least at most hand-knitting gauges, seams are…kind of big, to be honest. This isn’t a problem, but it does mean that we want to think carefully about where they hit on the body, so they aren’t hitting in an awkward spot. Rolling the seam backwards onto the upper back prevents you from having a big ridge right on the top of your shoulder, which is usually more comfortable and more attractive.

  • Ease of use: This is a big one. Without getting into too much detail about the mechanics, shaping a sweater this way is just plain easier—mathematically and functionally (and remember: sweaters = fashion + math). Instead of working short rows or stepped bind offs to shape the shoulder, you’re able to just use decreases to shape the shoulder this way, which is much more straightforward (even though short rows are not scary, and you should try them). The top of the front is now able to mold its way over your shoulder (with no need for shaping) as it wraps around to seam at the upper back, so the sweater drapes and fits well without the need for additional shoulder shaping. You can also pass on the back neck shaping, because this method almost automatically (because math) positions the top of the back neck at about the right spot. This minimizes the number of “at the same time” instructions in your sweater pattern, which is a straight-up everybody-wins situation.

  • Ease of use, part 2: I get it—from a purely emotional perspective, knitting a set-in-sleeve sweater from the bottom up in pieces and putting it together requires a deep breath and a little bit of a leap of faith (and maybe a glass of wine, if that’s your deal) at the end. I have had students, knitter friends, and even occasionally my saintly mum express concern that they’ll get to the end and the sweater “won’t work”—that is, that the armhole won’t seam together properly. This is kind of tragic (because knitting sweaters this way has all kinds of advantages, and because knitting is supposed to be fun). Seaming your armhole should be like defending your doctoral dissertation—if there’s major uncertainty about whether or not it’s going to work, things have gone awry at some point earlier in the process.

    There’s a relationship between sleeve cap height and armhole depth in every sweater (which we won’t belabor here), but this particular sweater construction makes that relationship explicit and super clear. Many sweater patterns will tell you sleeve cap instructions in rows, and then armhole depth in inches, which, if you don’t fill in some key blanks, is an invitation for all kinds of mischief. In a sweater patterns with a fully fashioned shoulder, all you need to do is this: make sure you’ve worked the same number of rows on the back before you start your neck shaping as you have rows in your sleeve cap. Your front should be as long above the armhole as the back, plus the same number of rows it takes you to cover the width of the top of your sleeve cap (pro tip: this is why we knit the sleeves first, so we know what this is in reality, not just in the conceptual world of the schematic). Again, I’ll talk more about how this relationship works on Tuesday, but, at least in my experience, even though there are lots of ways to make an armhole that works, this kind of clear, simple relationship between sleeve cap and armhole greatly reduces the likelihood of surprise at the end of your process.

  • I think they look pretty: There, I said it, but, again, as I said yesterday, you have to want to wear the thing for it to make sense to make the thing. I want people to see these sweaters and say, “omg, you made that?” and the polished, ready-to-wear-style finish that this shoulder shaping method yields is, aesthetically, a thumb on the scale in that direction in my book.

Tuesday’s Technique post will talk more about how to actually seam these kinds of sweaters, and about the semi-magical armhole math that makes them work, but this is a reasonable overview of what this kind of shaping is, and why I’ve come to rely on it so extensively. As always, if you’ve got questions on this or any technique or theory question, leave a comment below, or send me an e-mail!