Three Practices Used in Ready-to-Wear You Might Not Want to Use at Home

Except for the rich greens of the heathered yarn, the wool jersey above is very close to what William Lee might have knitted on his invention, the knitting frame.

Knitting frame, exhibited at the Framework Knitters' Museum in Ruddington, England. Photo credit: John Beniston at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Soon after the invention of this precursor to the knitting machine, cut and sew knitwear (made from yardage produced on a knitting frame) gained a reputation for being poorly made and not as desirable as fully fashioned sweaters. In those early years full fashioning (shaping the garment with a series of knitted increases and decreases) could only be accomplished with hand knitting.

Though most ready-to-wear (RTW) full fashioned sweaters are now knitted in factories on industrial machines, factory-made cut and sew sweaters still have the reputation of being cheaply made. Some of the time the reputation is deserved, but quality sweater making, where the cutting and sewing is used strategically, does exist. Handmade sweaters, of course, are still highly valued today.

(There’s also another industrial knitting technique currently used to produce sweaters. Special advanced machines can produce knitwear in one piece with few or no seams. Sometimes referred to as 3D knitting, this category of knitting was first introduced by the Japanese company Shima Seiki under the trademarked name of wholegarment knitting.)

Making a cut and sew sweater at home is another story. It’s not really the same as factory produced cut and sew. You do it your way! Make it quickly and easily on the overlocker, or sew with great attention to detail and clean finishes. The latter is especially good when using a luxurious fabric or if fit is crucial. You can also use any combination of these methods in the same garment.

While many industrial cut and sew techniques easily transfer to home sewing, here are three practices used in RTW production that I don’t usually use on my own sweaters.

The Neckband Seam on the Side

Ever notice how there’s almost always a seam on the left side of the neckband on a cut and sew sweater? It’s because of the way they're constructed at the factory. The neckband is attached after the right shoulder is sewn but before the left shoulder is sewn. A neckband can be quickly attached this way, because the sewing is practically in a straight run. It’s very efficient and that seam on the left side becomes a continuation of the shoulder seam. Nice.

Nice, except that I rarely make my sweaters this way. I find that since I’m usually stretching the neckband to fit the neckline, I get a more evenly distributed band by dividing my band and neckline in fourths and placing the neckband seam in the back. (See video at end of that post.) If I’m doing a v-neck, I place the seam at the front v. Also, I love the look of bulky knits and I’ve learned to love working with them. Avoiding a major intersection of bulk in such a visible place is always my goal.

Neckband seams on sweaters

Sewing Sleeves in Flat

I love sewing sleeves in flat as is done in production sewing of sweaters. With this method, after the second shoulder is sewn and before the side seams are sewn, each sleeve is attached to the garment at the top. The underarm seam and side seams are then sewn in one run from cuff to hem.

However, if I’m unsure of fit when working with an unfamiliar fabric or a totally new pattern I’ll sew up the side seams with a basting stitch first and check the fit before the sleeves are attached. I always baste with garment colored thread so I don’t need to remove stitches if the sweater fits. Then, with side seams sewn, once I'm happy with the fit, I set in my sleeves.

<rant> Are any flat pattern makers who make commercial sweater patterns specifically for home sewists reading this? Some of you put far too much ease in the sleeve cap. It’s truly not needed for a sweater knit. Really! Unless it’s a design for puffy sleeves, sweaters don’t require ease in the sleeve cap. There. I said it. Thank you for listening. Feel free to email me to discuss further. </rant>

The Three-Eighths Inch Seam Allowance

I’m willing to use the three-eighths inch seam allowance only on certain types of sweater knits: anything that doesn’t fray too much like a relatively stable double knit jacquard (perhaps in wool). Some people do just fine with ⅜ inch seam allowances, I know, and it’s used successfully in industry. But my advice for anyone new to cutting and sewing sweater knits is to increase the seam allowance to one-half inch or more. For one thing, sewing close to the edge can result in rippling seams when using particular fabrics and sewing machines. If your fabric tends to fray and you need to make adjustments that involve unpicking a seam more than once, your entire seam allowance can become a bunch of scraggly, unknitted threads. Honestly, this has never happened to me because... I take precautions. But it can happen! Be kind to yourself. Increase a ⅜ inch seam allowance before you cut.

I know that making a garment look like ready-to-wear is the goal for some sewists. I say learn from professionally made garments but, when you can, take time for fitting and careful construction. You may just find your sweater looking better than ready-to-wear.

Further Reading

Learning the Skills

My online workshop How to Cut and Sew a Sweater will be open for registration again in a couple of months. It's the only online course of its kind. I teach students to evaluate the properties of the sweater knit fabric, choose the sewing pattern, then cut and sew, fitting the sweater along the way.  Click for further information.


Time Sensitive - You Could Win This Fabric and Free Enrollment!

Thanks for your participation! The giveaway is now closed. No more entries, please. @purpleyarn is the winner of the giveaway! Congratulations!

I’m happy to announce that my How to Cut and Sew a Sweater online workshop will open again for enrollment in just a few days. To celebrate (and spread the word) I’m doing an #OJollySewASweater giveaway on Instagram! Are you on IG? Here’s what you could win:
  • The sweater kit pictured above. It’s 100% color-grown (not dyed) cotton sweater weight jersey, matching rib fabric, and a couple of additional notions you’ll need to sew a sweater. The fiber was grown, ginned, spun and knitted in the US. The O! Jolly! sweater kit will be shipped to you, free of charge, anywhere in the world.
  • Free enrollment in the How to Cut and Sew a Sweater online workshop. 
Here’s how to enter:
  1. Follow @ojolly on Instagram
  2. Either repost the Instagram announcement of the giveaway using #OJollySewASweater, OR leave a comment below the Instagram post tagging 2 friends who’d be interested.
  3. Sign up on the #OJollySewASweater entry form 
Please follow all 3 steps in order to qualify. Read the complete rules on the entry form.

You must complete all steps of your entry by Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018 8PM ET (US Eastern Time). Winner will be selected using and contacted on Thursday evening Sept. 27, 2018 by email. Important: Winner must respond to my email within 48 hours to claim gifts or another winner will be chosen. Winner’s Instagram handle will be posted on IG and in one promotional email as the winner.

Current enrollees are welcome to enter with the understanding that they’ll transfer the coupon code to a friend, (no retroactive coupons!) and the sweater kit is yours to keep, of course, if you win. 

This promotional giveaway is in no way sponsored, endorsed or administered by, or associated with Instagram.

Good luck!


Tips for Using Commercial Sewing Patterns with Sweater Knits

I love it when someone reaches out to me with a question about sweater knits -- either about making them or sewing them. And if I don't have the answer, there are usually a couple people I can ask, who can provide an answer or at least give a suggestion that will lead the inquirer in a good direction. I feel that I end up learning when someone asks a good question, even if I thought I already knew the answer. The act of composing an answer makes me organize my thoughts. I also think about the process or situation a little more carefully and with a different point of view. I'm inspired to try new things.

The question I get asked most often is, "What's a good sewing pattern to use with sweater knits?" I used to not have an answer, because I didn't use commercial sewing patterns. In the old days, all the sweaters I made were fully fashioned; that is, I used to shape each piece on the knitting machine as I constructed the fabric, analogous to the way a hand knitter makes pieces of a sweater. When I started making sweaters with the cut and sew method, I simply used my own pattern blocks, either freshly drafted or traced from an old sweater or t-shirt. I'd start my answer to the question with another question. "Do you have a t-shirt pattern?" I'd ask. "You can use that," I'd say. And if a t-shirt has a fit you'd like for a sweater with deep enough armholes, it can work.

Back in 2013 I was asked that question so often, I thought I'd better try a sweater knit with a commercial t-shirt pattern and see how I really liked it. In 2013, there were no Toasters or Tabors to recommend. There were no Megans or Blackwoods.  The first commercial pattern I ever used for a sweater was indeed a t-shirt pattern, Sewaholic's Renfrew Top, pictured at the top of this post. Why I chose a pattern company that catered to the "pear-shaped woman", when I'm more of a rectangle, I don't know. But it was the #1 pattern of the year on Pattern Review at the time when I was looking for a pattern. I felt confident that I could easily alter the pattern to fit me, which I did. I also made another change to the pattern. I'll get to that one in a moment. What was important was that when someone asked me for a recommendation, I could recommend from personal experience.

Debbie of Lily Sage & Co sews a Megan Cardigan in O! Jolly fabric, definitely not a t-shirt sewing pattern!

My self-drafted basic top with lace instead of cuffs and bands

My Pinterest board of commercial sewing patterns suitable for sweater knits now has 81 pins. (No, I haven't tried them all.)

Here's the important part: true sweater knits can vary greatly. One sweater knit is not necessarily just like another. That's why sometimes your neckband can look a little wonky, even though you followed the pattern instructions correctly, and last time (with a different fabric), it was perfect. This variety in fabric behavior is what makes fabrics forever interesting and fun. And challenging. But readily managed. Please keep reading.

Yes, there are many commercial sewing patterns from the majors and independents that are suitable for sweater knits -- t-shirt patterns, sweatshirt patterns, and now more than ever, patterns written specifically for sweater knits, both pullovers and cardigans. Sometimes, depending on your particular fabric, a few good decisions and tiny tweaks can make your sweater, even better. If I had to choose my favorite tweak I make to commercial pullover patterns, it would be the get-your-neckband-to-lie-flat-every-time tweak. It's the same technique I used when making the Renfrew. It's a matter of going "off pattern" just a little to determine a good length and width for the band for the fabric you're using. Then you can go back to the pattern, following the instructions for neckband installation. Easy.

I've put together a group of five more tips that will help you sew a better sweater, and I've made the list available as a free download. Are you looking to dive more deeply into sweater knits? When you get your download, be sure to join the email list to learn about my online course How To Cut and Sew a Sweater. Download 5 Tips for Using Commercial Patterns with Sweater Knits now.


This is an updated version of a post first published on this blog in July 2016