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Picking up the sleeves

When back in the mists of time I stopped knitting in the round and divided for the armholes, I left the gusset stitches on a holder (1). I find that old gansey 5-ply yarn makes a pretty good stitch holder, so I just knit a piece of old yarn through the gusset stitches and forget about them for a few months. (One advantage of using old yarn is that it’s very flexible, and hasn’t got any pointy bits to jab me in unfortunate places when I sneeze.)

I always start the armholes by picking up a few stitches of the gusset first. This has a couple of real advantages. You see, if I start picking up the armhole stitches straight away, I tend to end up with a larger, looser first stitch (I assume this is a failing in my technique, but every time I start to pick up stitches without a run-in like this I can’t keep the tension as taut as I’d like and the result after a couple of rows is a very noticeable hole. This way I can start knitting with a new ball of yarn for several stitches of plain knitting, and for some reason the tension is much easier to maintain.) The other advantage is that I’m starting the gusset in the middle – which means that every time I decrease from hereon in, the decrease is happening on the same row on both sides of the gusset; otherwise the left side decrease would be out of sync with the right side by a row.

Anyway, you now have to get the stitches off the holding yarn and onto a double-pointed needle. Thread a needle (hereinafter “Needle 1″) through half a dozen or so stitches on the left side of the gusset (2), slide the yarn out from those stitches (3) and re-tie the yarn to prevent any stitches dropping off when you’re not looking (4).

Drop a good length of the end of the new ball of yarn you’re going to knit with into the armhole (5). (I tend to go for long ends of 4-6 inches to keep them out of the way, but that’s a bit excessive, I know – so long as you’ve got enough to darn them in at the end, that’s all you really need.) When you’re happy with the length of your yarn end, hold it in position by anchoring it between thumb and finger (6) to ensure a good tension on your first stitch – otherwise it will be too loose and you’ll end up with the dreaded hole, as mentioned above. Insert another double-pointed needle (hereinafter “Needle 2″) through the first stitch (7), and knit a plain stitch in the usual way (8-10).

Knit the rest of the stitches on Needle 1, until you have 2 gusset stitches left plus the purl seam stitch (11). Make a decrease by knitting the last 2 gusset stitches together (12-15). This helps to make a sharp diamond shape for the gusset, and also helps with your counting as you progress down the sleeve: because the first row is going to be your pick-up row, it won’t be part of the pattern – the pattern will start on the next row, which will be the first “real” row; so, by making a decrease on this row, you can keep the gusset and the pattern in sync as you progress down the sleeve. (Obviously you also have to remember to decrease when you reach the other side of the gusset too.)

And after all that, you’re ready to start actually picking up stitches – but at least you don’t have to worry about flabby yarn tension at the same time!

Insert Needle 1 through the first of the edge stitches, making sure you get all of it (16). It should look like an ear of wheat on the needle. (Usually the edge stitches are curled inwards a bit and are almost at right angles anyway, so they’re not that hard to see.) To pick up the stitch, just knit a plain stitch in the usual way (17-20) by inserting Needle 2 through the opening you’ve created, looping the yarn over it, pulling it back through and slipping the stitch from Needle 1 to Needle 2.

Repeat up the armhole for as many stitches as your stitch gauge demands (21). This is why it’s important to add an extra stitch on the edge of your armhole, because the row on the very end of each side is sacrificed as you pick up your new stitches – so always make your yoke 2 stitches wider than your pattern demands. You will notice the row next to them becomes very clearly delineated as you progress up the armhole (22 and 23), which is another way of telling you that you’re doing it right.

One point to remember is that your (horizontal) stitch gauge will be a smaller number than your (vertical) row gauge. In my case, I knit about 9.25 stitches to the inch, but get about 12 rows to the inch. So you have to be careful not to fall into the trap of picking up every edge stitch, or you’ll have about a quarter more stitches than you need, all too close together. I try to use landmarks on the yoke pattern to help me get the spacing about right – in this case, the ladder on each side of the yoke pattern makes a helpful marker. There are 16 steps on each ladder, so if I pick up some 9 stitches for every 2 steps I should be about right (78 divided by 16 equals 4.5).

The only other thing to look out for is that it’s very easy to pick up just half a stitch – easier than picking up a whole stitch, in fact. In this case, instead of the “ear of wheat” effect referred to above, you just get a single loop on your needle (24), and if the stitch is completed it stands out from the rest of the row (25). This is a Bad Thing and is to be avoided unless you wish your name to be a hissing and a byword in knitting circles.

And there you are. No sewing involved at any stage.

24 comments to Picking up the sleeves

  • Sue Rees

    My pattern tells me to pick up 160 stitches around the armhole including the gusset. I’ve done this and the sleeve is massive – looks like a puff sleeve! The pattern band is over 92 stitches once the 20 stitches of the gusset is worked out. What am I doing wrong or is it the pattern? I am knitting a size 44 inch Staithes gansey.
    Thank you

    • Gordon

      Hi Sue,

      Sorry not to get back to you sooner—sometimes in the working week I just lapse into a coma on the sofa in the evenings from which I have to be shifted with a broom handle.

      Can you drop me an email at gordon@ganseys.com with as much information as you can (depth of armhole and stitch gauge would be most useful and we’ll see what we can advise). By which I mean I’ll get Margaret on the case!

      Look forward to hearing from you soon,

  • Sue Rees

    Not sure if I posted my question so will try again!

  • Sue Rees

    Many thanks for your help. Thanks particularly to Margaret – the sleeves now look like sleeves and the Gansey is now finished. Just the lose ends to darn in! Without your great website I would have been very ‘stuck’. I might even knit another one!

    • Gordon

      Hi Sue,

      Glad we (ie, Margaret!) could be of help. Sorry not to reply sooner, but we were away and I’ve been knocked out with a cold this last week.

      I always think I could quit any time, but then I see another pattern I want to try. I should probably just accept I’m an addict…

      And remember, if you’d like to send us a picture of your gansey, we’d be happy to add it to the gallery.

      All the best,
      Gordon & Margaret

  • Tony

    Is the stitch that is knitted into when picking up for sleeves part of the 100% count of stitches (for the chest)? Or do you increase one stitch on either side of the front and back panels after half the gusset is created? I hope this isn’t a stupid question.

    • Godon

      Hi Tony, not a stupid question at all! I usually have one plain stitch either side of each of the fake “seam” stitches that run up the length of the body, which is extra to the stitches i need for the pattern, and when I come to pick up stitches around the armholes I use that one to knit into. In other words, yes, it’s part of the 100% count of stitches for the chest.

      But there’s no reason why you can’t increase a couple of stitches front & back when you divide for the yoke, it’s really up to you. I guess the important thing is to make sure that the stitches you knit into aren’t part of the pattern, so you’re not losing anything by it.

      Hope this helps,

  • Christine

    Like Sue Rees on the above comment, I had worked out that 160 stitches to be picked up for the sleeves would be about right, but I now think that is far too many and the sleeves would look wrong.. I,m knitting for a 40/42 inch chest with a tension of 9 stitches and twelve rows to the inch. I’m afraid that I need Margaret’s help here too.

    • Margaret Reid

      Hi Christine

      The number of stitches will depend on the depth of your armhole. If it’s 9″ deep, then 160 is about right (18 x 9st/” = 162). This does not include the gusset stitches.

      If it’s 8″ deep, then this will be too many stitches.

      Hope this helps, get back in touch if you have further queries.


  • Christine

    Thanks again Margaret. Couldn’t fnish this gansey without your website.

  • Suzanne

    To pick up stitches for the sleeves for a jacket
    From where do u pick the stitches?
    From the front and back? Of the jacket?
    I picked up 45 stitches from the front only
    I think it is wrong
    Please help

  • Deb

    Hi Gordon,
    I knitted all the way up to the neck on cicular needles and incorporated a knitted steek. Hence I didn’t have an “edge” to pick up. In the end I decided to use a crochet hook to pick up every stitch on my chosen line. Then knitted 2 together every 4th stitch to avoid the bunching. It appears neat but I’m only on my first full sleeve row so cannot tell what it will look like. Fingers crossed or it’s yet more unpicking.I have found that with a vertical pattern with columns of knits and purls plus cables the gansey is much closer fitting than I anticipated so I’m hoping that the sleeves will not be too small. I’ve already had to chop the body in half and re knit starting the gusset lower down to make the arm holes longer – I added the gusset length onto the sleeve measurement rather than the gusset width! Grafting 292 stitches to join back up to the original knitting was no fun.

  • Gordon

    Hi again Deb, that sounds like quite a project! One thing, blocking the gansey might well solve the tight-fitting issue. Although it’s not exactly a cure-all, vertical purl rows can pull the gansey in, and when I put one on as soon as it’s finished it’s often a rather tight fit. But once it’s been washed and blocked and dried, although it relaxes back a little, it’s still looser than it seemed.

    After your previous comment I’m keeping my fingers crossed that there’s no more unpicking to do—I think you’ve probably reached the maximum dose for an adult by now! Cheers,

  • Kathleen

    Hi Gordon. I picked up too many stitches on armhole and have knotted half the sleeve. Now the top of sleeve is sort of poofed out. Is it too late to rip out and start over on sleeves? I’m using wool yarn.

    • Margaret Reid

      Hi Kathleen
      It’s never too late to rip back! If you do decide to frog, I’d suggest restarting with a new length of yarn, as the old yarn will be crinkly from being previously knitted. (You can reclaim this yarn by winding it into a skein, wetting it thoroughly, and drying it with light tension.)
      Did you pick up the number of stitches required by the pattern, or are you doing your own thing? Sometimes the stitch pattern at the armhole edge draws it in slightly, making the sleeve look poofy, but this is sorted when the gansey is blocked.
      HTH, any further questions just let us know!

  • Jules

    Hi, I’m knitting the Beatrice Gansey from the Moray Firth project and its been a lot of fun. However, the number of stitches to pick up round the armhole seems very low to me – 98 plus 20 gusset stitches. I’m using Wendy Guernsey 5 ply and 3mm needles. I’m worried this might make the sleeve too tight. Others that I’ve done in a similar size have had me pick up around 120 stitches plus 20 or so for the gusset. Any experience of this pattern?

  • Gordon

    Hi Jules, I don’t have any experience of that pattern, sorry, but I’m glad you’re enjoying it!

    I’d say, stick with what you know works for you. So if you usually pick up 120 stitches for an armhole of comparable size, and you’re confident that’s your current stitch gauge, then I’d go with that and ignore the pattern. (Measure twice, cut once is a good motto – if I’m going against a pattern I do the maths carefully but if it checks out, I’ll always follow what I know works.)

    Best of luck!

  • Mrs L P Bilton

    Hi Gordon

    I’m doing my own thing with this gansey. It’s my first one
    I’ve done a rig * fur shoulder strap and ready to start the sleeves
    I just can’t find how to work out how many stitches to pick up for the sleeves though. Is there a formula?
    I’m using Frangipani wool

    Thanks so much

    • Gordon

      Hi there, what is your stitch gauge and how many inches are there around your armhole?

      I average 8 stitches to the inch with Frangipani, and my armholes are usually about 18 inches all the way round. So I pick up about 144 stitches for the sleeves – though, as young people (apparently) say nowadays, “your mileage may vary”.. 🙂

  • Lynne

    My gusge is 7-8 sts to the inch too. I can’t measure him cos he’s in Yorkshire and I’m in Berwickshire!! My son-in-law. Ans asking my daughter to measure is like wishing for the moon.
    I’ll follow your lead Gordon and go for 144-ish. Is that plus the gusset or including?
    Thankyou so much for your help
    Do’t know why my name has come up as MRS BILTON, I’m Lynne

    • Gordon

      Hi Lynne, it’s always good to have aliases, you never know when they’ll come in useful…

      That’s not including the gussets. I decrease the gussets at a rate of 2 stitches every 4 rows, then switch to 2 stitches every 5 rows for the sleeve itself. That gives me a nice, smooth narrowing of the sleeve down the arm, so that by the cuff I have more or less 84-88 stitches, which is my default cuff size.

  • Lynne

    Oh, BTW
    I mastered an invisible cast off for the 2×2 neck ribbing yesterday with a You Tube by Irina Revo. Here’s the link for anyone

    She’s new to YouTube tutorials but is excellent! Took me about 2 hours to get the swing of it

  • Lynne

    Brilliant – thanks Gordon, you’re a star.
    Will let you know how it turns out. Already got an order for a second one from hubby. Like I’ve nothing else to do. Ha ha

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