Lengthening a Sweater Through Sweater Surgery

by Ivete Tecedor

Ever finish a sweater, try it on and realize it's much too short? Don't start ripping it yet, here's a way to add length to the body without having rip your work out. It's a little scary, but with some patience and a little care it's completely doable by most knitters who are comfortable with finishing and grafting.

The photos are of a sweater I knit that came out 2" too short at the hip. It has a garter stitch border, which you can't unravel from the bottom, so I decided to cut the garter stitch off, pick up the stitches and knit 2" onto it, then sew the new bottom back on.

First step is to decide where to cut the sweater. In my case I knew I wanted to add stockinette above the garter border, so I decided to cut it on the second row of stockinette above the garter. Why the second and not the first row? Because the row you cut will be unraveled and if I did the first one and messed something up, I'd have to go into the garter stitch. By cutting the second one, I am free to mess it up for one entire row before messing with the border (not that it would have been the end of the world to have to reknit some of the garter stitch, but it's much easier to see what you're doing on stockinette than on garter stitch).

Having decided where to cut, I selected a side seam stitch and snipped the yarn:

Snip a stitch

Then I started picking out that row of knitting, putting the live stitches that result on 2 separate circular needles, one holding the stitches on top and one holding those on the bottom:

Pick up loops

To make unraveling easier, I used a sewing needle to help pull the strand of yarn out of the stitches. If you're not sure you'll have enough yarn, keep the tail intact as you unravel, but if you know you won't need those few yards, snipping the tail when it gets too long will save you some time. For me, I cut the tail about every 20 or so stitches, or when it got longer than about 8".

It takes a LONG time, but slowly you start to get across the row and accumulate stitches on your needles:

More stitches on needle

My sweater was knit in the round, so I just kept going until I got all the way to the beginning. If you're doing this on a sweater with side seams, you'll have to first open up the side seams to the place where you start unraveling, and you will need to repeat the process once for each side of the work.

Eventually (it took about 2 hours for me) you end up with 2 separate pieces of knitting, each hanging off one needle:

Finished picking up stitches

It is always the case when you do this that you will end up with one fewer stitch on the top needle than there is on the bottom needle. This is because of the way the stitches are formed, and there is no way (that I know of!) to avoid it. So don't freak out when you count your stitches, you didn't drop one!

After the border has been liberated, put the body away for now and rejoin your fresh yarn to the needle holding the border. Knit as normal until you've added enough length. If your sweater has a stitch pattern, you'll have to think a little harder about this step so that when you rejoin, the pattern will work out right. In my case the pattern was stockinette with garter stitch side panels, so it was really easy to re-establish the pattern and work my required 2".

Once you've finished knitting the required additional length, bring the body needle and the border needle together and start grafting the stitches back together. Again, this is easier if you're dealing with stockinette, but it's not impossible to do if you've got a stitch pattern going. In some cases you may be able to do a loose 3-needle bind off, but you might want to try it on a swatch first to make sure you don't get an obvious ridge. Once you start grafting the two pieces together, this is what it looks like as it gets "zipped up" (assuming you're a righty like me):

Grafting sweater back together

Work slowly and carefully, paying particular attention to your tension -- you want this new row of stitches (grafting is literally creating a row of stitches between the needles) to look as close as possible to the rest of the sweater. Good lighting is particularly useful in this step! It took me less time to graft the stitches back together than it did to rip it out, but it still takes a very long time.

Eventually you get all the way back around to the beginning, which is where you have to deal with the one-stitch-fewer problem. For my sweater, I just sewed two bottom-needle stitches to one top-needle stitch and it wasn't visible. You may have to play around with yours to see what's the least visible way to deal with the extra stitch. If you have side seams, you can just secure the extra stitch by sewing into it and it'll go away when you sew the side seam back up.

If you've done a good job with your grafting, the new row should be indistinguishable (or at least almost indistinguishable!) from the rest of the sweater:

Done grafting

All that's left to do now is weave in the additional ends and enjoy your sweater!

In the end this process took me about 7-9 hours from start to finish. My alternative would have been to rip out the yoke and knit 2" onto the body, then reknit the yoke again. It definitely took less time to perform surgery than it would have taken to reknit the yoke, but reknitting the yoke would have been easier (and less stressful!).

When deciding if sweater surgery is right for your project, keep in mind not only the time comparison but also the difficulty level, the tediousness of grafting, and the stress level. Only you can decide if this method is right for your project, and I truly hope you never have need of this article! But if you find yourself in a similar situation as mine, I hope you'll be able to use my experience to remove some of the trepidation and doubt that comes anytime you take scissors to your knitting!

Good luck!

Haute Finishing is a series of technique articles focusing on small details for your knitting projects. If you have a specific technique or question you'd like to see covered, email me at yivich(at)gmail.com. I can't cover everything that's asked but I will take into account popular requests for inclusion in future articles.