A Simple Knitting Hack for Shoulder Seams

Filed in Skill Building by on August 21, 2014 12 Comments

Do you find patterns that call for stair-step bind-offs difficult to seam neatly? Have you ever heard another knitter talking about short row shoulders and had no idea what they meant? Would you like a simple method for neater shoulder seams? Then read on!

Options for Shoulder Bind-offs

Many sweater patterns (possibly most) call for some sort of shaping at the shoulders. Often it is believed that this is to accommodate the slope of the shoulder. But that is not correct.

Why Do We Shape Shoulder Anyway?

Head-Shoulder-Top View

Head and Shoulders looking down from the top

Shoulder shaping is actually a function of making sure the shoulder seam runs along a straight line from our neck along our shoulder. Using the sketch to the right as a guide, you can see the width of the shoulder near the point (green line) is much less than the width of the shoulder closer to the neck (blue line). As a result, to ensure a straight shoulder seam (dashed line),  the body pieces need less length near the shoulder point and more length the closer they get to the neck. It makes perfect sense, right?!

Why Do Lots of Patterns Call for Stair-step Bind-offs?

As a designer, our hope is to make our patterns as accessible to as many knitters as possible. Because not everyone is comfortable with short rows, we tend to fall back to the simple to explain and easy to execute method of binding off X number of stitches and the beginning of the next Y number of rows. Unfortunately, that form of finishing at the shoulder makes it a bit more difficult to seam. The transition from one bind-off to the next is challenging to make look neat.

What Is a Short Row Shoulder?

Short rows are rows of knitting that are not worked to the end, but instead are stopped short, the work is turned over, and the next row begins “in the middle” at the point of stopping short. So instead of creating various lengths of fabric by binding-off, the fabric length is altered by not working across the entire row. As such any stair-step style shoulder shaping can be converted into a short row shoulder. The advantage is when you are ready to seam the two pieces together, there are no gaps between the levels of stitches. The bind-off row is one entire row of bound-off stitches.

How Do You Convert Stair-step Bind-offs Into Short Rows?

Before making the conversion you need to be comfortable with the basic principles of working short rows. If you need a refresher (or first-time lesson), you can watch our tutorial here. To convert your shoulder bind-off directions to short rows do the following:

  1. However many stitches are to be bound off, stop short of the end of the row by that number.
  2. Place a marker so it is easy to see where the bind off would have reached.
  3. If  the piece is a back, repeat Steps 1 and 2 for the other side.
  4. Continue working Steps 1 & 2 for each row that a bind off is called for, each time stopping short the designated number of stitches as counted from the closest marker.
  5. Once all rows have been worked, work 1 or 2 more rows to incorporate the wraps at the point of the short row turns (fronts only need 1 row, backs will usually require 2 rows).
  6. Bind off all stitches.

And that is all there is to it!!! If you prefer to use a 3-needle Bind-Off to join the shoulder, just skip the last step and leave the stitches on a holder until the other pieces are complete.

 Will you ever use a stair-step bind-off again?

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Comments (12)

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  1. Linda says:

    Do you recommend using german short rows or a wrap and turn?

    • gwen_bortner says:

      I used wrap and turn on my examples, but I really don’t think it matters. Which ever method gives you the results that make you happy is the “right

  2. Paula says:

    Do you do the short rows on just the garment arm piece of the knitting or also on the back/front of the garment pieces as well?

    • Gwen Bortner says:

      I use them primarily for the shoulder shaping on the back and front. Use can also use the technique for shaping the sleeve cap, but that has not been my practice…although I am thinking about adopting it!

  3. Amy says:

    So, if you’re supposed to bind off 4 at the beginning of a row, should we do the short row the row before that instruction?

    • Gwen Bortner says:

      The real answer is be consistent. If you do it the row before, do the same on the other shoulders. Ultimately a row (or two) won’t make that much of a difference, especially if you are consistent on all the other pieces of the garment!

  4. Rosa says:

    I think you should do a youtube tutorial … I know I would definitely provide about a hundred hits! It’s hard for me to follow without seeing. Thank you for the idea though 🙂

  5. Lori McMeeken says:

    Hooray. I have been searching for this for some time .

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