I’d recommend selecting a size that’s at least 4’’ / 10 cm larger than your upper torso, and larger is definitely okay! The seam of a drop shoulder sweater needs to be… well, dropped off the shoulder to avoid tearing when you move around. So 4” / 10 cm is truly a minimum; I prefer around twice that. (Full disclosure, here: I love super-oversized garments if the fabric is right, and I’ve happily worn a drop shoulder sweater that was 16” (40.5 cm) larger than my upper torso.)
If you think in a “close fit / average fit / relaxed fit / oversized fit” spectrum:
- 4-6” (10-15 cm) larger than the upper torso makes a close-fit drop shoulder sweater;
- 6-8” (15-20.5 cm) larger than the upper torso makes an average-fit drop shoulder sweater;
- 8-10” (20.5 – 25.5 cm) larger than the upper torso makes a relaxed-fit drop shoulder sweater;
- 10-12” (25.5 – 30.5 cm) larger than the upper torso makes an oversized drop shoulder sweater.
Here’s me in a “close-fitting” drop-shoulder sweater, and in one that I’d call an average fit:
One thing you might notice is that despite a difference of more than 4” (10 cm) in the full bust of the two garments, they look much the same when worn – at least in photos! The most obvious difference, once you know what to look for, is that the larger (dark gray) sweater bunches less through the bust and shoulder since the garment is large enough for all fabric to lay flat. The transition from torso to sleeve is smoother, and there’s a bit more sense of ease under the bust in the turtleneck.
Special note: Slim-sleeved drop shoulder sweaters. One style of drop shoulder top that was popular in ready-to-wear and moved to handknitting is the sweater with sleeves that fit very close to the arm. A sleeve with (say) just 1” / 2.5cm of positive ease in the bicep will necessarily have an armhole depth that’s shorter than your actual body. For this reason, slim-sleeved drop shoulder sweaters should be worn very oversized so as to move the arm/torso seam down toward the elbow, where it won’t tear. I think 12-16” (30.5 – 40.5 cm) is the right amount of ease for these garments.
Ok, back to a more typical drop-shoulder sweater: There are a couple of other fit aspects of drop shoulder garments to consider. Compared to a set-in sleeve garment, in addition to having more ease throughout the torso, drop shoulders:
- Typically have a deeper armhole than a set-in sleeve sweater, by at least one inch (2.5 cm). (More is totally fine.) This gives the shoulder room to move inside the garment rather than forcing the garment to move with the shoulder.
- Tend to have much larger biceps than a set-in sleeve sweater, since by definition of the construction the bicep is twice the armhole depth. (To seam a drop shoulder sweater, you fold the sleeve in half lengthwise, then pin to the armhole. It’s very much a insert-tab-a-into-slot-b type of scene.)
- Work better with longer sleeves since there’s a large amount of shaping involved in a drop shoulder sleeve compared to other constructions. I have no reservations about long and 3/4 sleeves, but elbow and short sleeves are a tough choice.
Choose a fabric with good drape, a roomy fit through the body with a generous armhole, and you’ll have a drop shoulder sweater you love to wear. Case in point: My fingering-weight all-Stockinette Catboat, above. If you’re looking to go further afield with your drop shoulder sweater, here are some final thoughts.
Drop shoulders and torso shaping.
Essentially, my shaping advice would be to continue in the same vein as in fit overall: Drop shoulder garments look most natural with less body-conscious shaping than set-in sleeve garments. One of the greatest joys of the drop shoulder resurgence, for me, was discovering that drop shoulder garments can look beautifully tailored and elegant. They’ll never look fitted overall, however. So I think it’s best not to try.
Here are the different torso shaping options, and how I feel about them in a drop shoulder garment:
- Straight shaping. These sweaters have a hip and bust circumference that are exactly equal. I think they make a good default choice for drop shoulder sweaters when you don’t have a specific preference.
- Tapered shaping. These sweaters have a bust circumference that’s larger than the hip circumference, with shaping worked along the side seams. Cocoon-style sweaters, where the top is exaggeratedly oversized and tapers to the hip, are great drop shoulder garments. Tapered shaping can also be useful when the wearer wants to appear that they are wearing a straight-sided sweater, but the bust/chest circumference is much larger than the hip. Choosing a tapered shape and adjusting the math so that the garment has the same amount of ease in both places (say, 4″ / 10 cm at each point) is the way to achieve this look.
- A-line shaping. These sweaters have a hip circumference that’s larger than the bust, with shaping worked along the side seams. Swing-style sweaters are a-line garments and work fairly well with a drop shoulder construction. Like tapered shaping, A-line shaping can be useful when the wearer wants to appear that they are wearing a straight-sided sweater, but the hip circumference is much larger than the bust. Choosing an a-line shape and adjusting the math so that the garment has the same amount of ease in both places (say, 4″ / 10 cm at each point) works the same here.
- Half-hourglass shaping. Half-hourglass is what I call the style where the front is worked straight from hip to bust, and the back uses vertical darts to remove a bit of width from the back waist. This can work well in drop-shoulder garments when you’d like to give the impression of a bit of a curve to the waist, without making it over-the-top. (The light gray V-neck I’m wearing above has around 2” / 5 cm of waist shaping on the back.)
All of these types of shaping will look very natural in a drop shoulder garment and I recommend any of them. Here are some examples of sweaters with straight, tapered, a-line, and half-hourglass torso shaping, respectively:
I wouldn’t recommend full hourglass shaping, where there are vertical darts on both the front and
the back, for drop shoulder sweaters. I can see one of two ways it might go: First, when the body of the garment is truly fitted to the waist and hips, which would look incongruous with the loose shoulders. Or second, where the garment is loose, but still has waist shaping on the front and the back. In this case, I think the shaping would be an awkward visual element in the most visible part of the sweater.
I won’t say you should never, because I’m not a ‘never’ kind of person, and your sweater is your own. But I’d recommend thinking carefully about whether it’s what you actually want before plunging in.
Drop shoulders and stitch patterning.
Don’t get me wrong! Drop shoulder sweaters look absolutely fine in plain old Stockinette. But I think they’re a great opportunity to play around with stitch pattern, as well.
The straight armhole means that lines of vertical patterning continue uninterrupted, which is great fun. Also, the width of the top of a drop shoulder provides a fun opportunity for horizontal patterning stretching onto the arms.
The only limit to stitch patterning on such a knitter-friendly canvas is your imagination. In addition to the pink cardigan above, here are a few examples from my own designs:
Drop shoulder sweaters are an incredibly versatile construction. They can be made dressy or casual, flowing and slinky or fluffy and cozy, super-plain or heavily ornamented. With a fluid fabric, a roomier fit, and shaping and stitch patterning that makes you happy? You’re sure to be wearing yours nonstop.