Before I presume to tell anybody how to set in a sleeve, a disclaimer: I don’t really know how to set in a sleeve. It’s one of those things that when I have to do it, I say to myself, what the hell, here goes nothing. I try to remember things I’ve been told about setting in sleeves. And I do the best I can, and generally feel OK about it after it’s over. After all, I have a sweater! It has sleeves!
The first thing I do, when faced with setting in a sleeve, is ask myself this question: do I have to do this? If the sweater is knit flat, in pieces, and the sleeve is knit flat, the answer is no. You do not have to fit a finished sleeve into an armhole. You can join the shoulder seams, then mattress-stitch that sleeve head into the u-shape of the armhole, and THEN sew the sleeve seams and the side seams of the body. You can do this with a traditional set-in sleeve in a flat-knit sweater, and you can also do it for a raglan sleeve in a flat-knit sweater. It’s unorthodox. It’s a bit fiddly and imperfect. But that’s the way I do it.
By now you can probably tell that I’ve knit a lot of Rowan patterns; Rowan sweaters typically are knit flat and in pieces. This method of construction has its pros and cons, its fans and detractors, but one thing it does not do is create tubes that have to be sewn into holes in other tubes.
But my Monomania cardigan is not constructed in the Rowan manner. The body of the cardigan is knit flat, but not in pieces. It is knit in a single piece from the bottom hem up to the armhole openings.
Designer Ann Weaver took advantage of this construction method to do gentle shaping decreases and increases that are hidden within the chevron pattern under the arms. (It’s genius, but it required her to write separate shaping instructions for each size.) When you get to the armholes, you work the body and the two sleeves separately to shape the openings. Then you join the shoulder seams, creating two holes where the sleeves have to be sewn in. The sleeves are tubes. You have to sew (or otherwise connect) them into the hole.
It’s a three-dimensional proposition, sewing a tube into a hole. You can’t lie the pieces flat, so it’s hard to get purchase on them; they wiggle around. The challenge is to get the tube and the hole lined up properly–smoothly and evenly, without bunching–and then to get them to sit still long enough to sew the seam. Over the years, I’ve tried regular sewing pins, safety pins, those wooden pins for knitting (the ones that look like tiny knitting needles), I even tried hair clips. None of these tools were 100% satisfactory: the knitting always wants to slip and slide a little. Metal pins want to catch on the yarn, or split it. Meh.
This summer, Ina Braun, a master knitter and teacher, told me about Clover Wonder Clips, and how useful they are in sewing Alabama Chanin garments, to hold armhole and neck binding on so that you can attach it with embroidery stitches. Clover Wonder Clips are flat on one side, curved on the other, and they grip very tightly. I soon discovered that the Clover clips are also fantastic for holding a garment’s seams together before sewing them with a running stitch. The cotton jersey used in Alabama Chanin garments is knitted, and it has a tendency to curl and move around, just like handknitting. While I was procrastinating setting in the sleeves on my Monomania, I saw my jar of Clover clips and realized they were my salvation .
Voila. Step 1: clip the center of the top of the sleeve to the center of the top of the tube, and then clip the center of the bottom of the sleeve to the center of the bottom of the tube.
Step 2: evenly distribute the rest of the sleeve around the rest of the hole, clipping as you go.
Monomania’s stripes made this much easier, because all I had to do was line up the stripes and clip, clip, clip–and the fabric was automatically distributed evenly.
Step 3: Back-stitch the neatly-lined-up edges of sleeve and hole together, removing the clips as you get to them. (I initially tried crocheting this seam, but it looked too loose and awful on the right side of the seam, so I unzipped it and did the good old-fashioned back stitch.)
I promise you it was not hard. I will never quite feel like I know what I’m doing when I back-stitch a seam, especially a curved armhole seam. Back stitch is not as precise as mattress stitch. But I got it done, and it’s fine. And thanks to the wonder of Clover Wonder Clips, the edges stayed put while I sewed.
So, onward to the neck edging, blocking and sewing on the buttons. Nearly there.