Patterns are often designed to be knit in pieces and sewn together, even though it’s entirely possible to knit them all at once. Why is this? There’s an overriding mind set that it’s easier to only focus on one piece at a time, which completely overlooks the fact that sewing is actually a separate skill from knitting. Having to sew the pieces together means learning and mastering a whole new skill set.
Many knitters have a pile of knitted pieces waiting to be sewn up into the finished products as proof that they don’t enjoy the sewing as much as they do the knitting. If you are one of those, you don’t have to suffer through the sewing (or worse yet, the guilt-inducing knitted pieces waiting to be sewn). You can switch to knitting items in one piece. If you really don’t want to do the figuring yourself, you can find patterns written for knit-in-one-piece sweaters, but it’s not that difficult to learn how to convert conventional patterns.
With a simple drop-sleeve pullover, conversion will be very easy, since there’s no shoulder shaping. You’ll knit the front and back in the round on a circular needle until you reach the underarms, then split the front and back and knit them separately. Pick up the stitches for the sleeves around the armholes and knit them down to the cuff, reversing the sleeve shaping and decreasing as you work down. Knitting from the cuff up, you generally increase two stitches every so-many rows—knitting from the top down, you do the same thing, just decrease instead. For a cardigan, knit back and forth in rows, working across one front side, then the back, then the other front side (placing markers between the pieces). With a set-in sleeve or a raglan, the sleeves could be knit up from the cuff and joined to the body at the underarm; then the entire sweater would be knit in one piece up to the shoulder.
You may also want to eliminate the seam stitches—most patterns will add an extra stitch to each side edge that will be sewn up in anticipation that that stitch will be “lost” when it’s sewn up.
NOTE: It’s extremely important that you read and understand an pattern before trying to convert it. You don’t want to have to rip back a lot of work because you failed to notice a crucial direction for, say, working buttonholes in the right front that wasn’t mentioned in the back or left front instructions.
If your pattern has side shaping in the body, working the body in one piece has the advantage of making it very simple to have your shaping rows all line up exactly. It will take some extra effort to make sure you are working the pattern correctly, but this can be resolved with the use of idiot tags. Read your pattern carefully, then write out the side shaping instructions for each piece, and pin them to your work. Use yarn markers (a small piece of yarn in a contrasting color tied around a couple of stitches) or safety pins to mark your increases/decreases; this will make it much easier to keep your place in the pattern.
Remember to eliminate seam stitches and continue to figure their absence into the pattern instructions.
When dealing with a raglan shoulder, one-piece conversion is not only easy, it’s easier than knitting them separately and then having to sew them together. Knit the body and sleeves up to the underarm, and put the underarm stitches on holders (pieces of contrasting-color yarn work quite well). Then knit across each piece to join them together—front, right sleeve, back, left sleeve—placing a marker in between each piece, which will mark the points for the decreases. Typically, raglan shaping is worked every other row, so follow the pattern and work the decreases every other round. At the point of neck shaping, switch to working back and forth in short rows—that is, you’ll stop working the stitches in front of the neck and work back and forth in rows again on the sleeves and back.
For set-in sleeves, the body can be worked first, and the shoulders joined using a three-needle bind-off (or kitchener stitch). Then the sleeve stitches will be picked up around the underarm, reversing the shaping (remember to eliminate the seam stitches). I prefer working the sleeve from the bottom up and joining to the body at the underarm; following the pattern’s shaping instructions is easier than reversing them, and this works better for sweaters that use some kind of pattern or lace stitch. Put the underarm stitches on holders instead of binding them off (they can be grafted together using kitchener stitch later). Place markers between the arm and body pieces, and continue to follow the pattern shaping, decreasing as instructed.
When the sleeve cap is reached, there are two options. First, keep the sleeve stitches “live” and join them to the body by decreasing them with a body stitch every couple of rows. Second, work the body and sleeve caps separately and graft them together afterward.
Seamless patterns are out there, at least to begin with it might be preferable to follow an existing pattern and get the general idea of how it works. There are books on the subject: Elizabeth Zimmerman’s Knitting Without Tears deals with seamless sweaters worked from the bottom up, while Barbara Walker’s Knitting From the Top not only deals with seamless patterns, but teaches how to knit them from the top down. Ravelry.com has an advanced pattern search that allows you to look for seamless patterns. They also have several groups devoted to one-piece knitting; Seamless Knitting is a good one.
Seamless knitting may seem daunting at first, but it’s a skill worth mastering. You can do it!