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.