Fab Drop-Shoulder Sweaters

The 1980s were a decade full of Uncomfortable Drop Shoulder Sweaters for me: Garments that technically “fit”, but where the silhouette and the materials combined into something that was… …well, that was pretty uncomfortable and stiff to wear.  In response, I internally categorized drop shoulder garments as “nope” and went upon my merry way for a couple of decades.

And then, drop shoulder garments started coming back in ready to wear shops, and they were amazing. Fluid, light, fun to wear, dress-uppable and dress-downable. Hand-knit drop shoulder patterns soon followed.

Since then, I’ve seen a pretty wide range of wearability in the resulting hand-knit sweaters, and so this tutorial breaks it all down. I’ll cover What materials work best for a drop shoulder, how they should fit, and some different shaping and design options.

Closeup of a light gray drop shoulder sweater so that you can see the shoulder seamGreen v-neck drop shoulder sweater, worn close fittingWoman smiling next to a window wearing a striped drop-shoulder cardigan.Woman in a wooded area wearing a light gray drop shoulder sweater with a lace pattern on the body, loosely fittingWoman on a beach wearing a loosely-fitting gray textured drop shoulder pullover

Choosing yarn and stitch pattern.

Let’s start with materials. One of the biggest problems with my 1980s sweaters is that they were all created from thick, stiff yarns. Mine were either worsted or aran-weight acrylic, wool (that was a bit scratchy to be honest), or 100% cotton.

Why don’t those fibers and yarn weights make a great match? The truth is, you’re carrying a lot of fabric around your body when you’re wearing a drop shoulder sweater. Most of us will be a lot more comfortable if that fabric is fairly squishy and has a good drape: If the fabric is too stiff, it winds up feeling like you’re walking around with towels under your arms.

So what makes a fabric stiff or squishy, have good drape or not? The most important factor is the fiber content of your yarn. Drop shoulder sweaters really shine when your yarn has at least a little of one of the following fibers:

• Alpaca
• Silk
• Linen
• Viscose / bamboo / rayon / modal / tencel / etc.

Even 5% of one of the fibers that have good drape and fluidity will help the garment hang and swing beautifully as you move through your day. (It’s possible to have too much of a good thing, though. Yarns made primarily from those fibers are better suited to accessories than garments.)

Here are a few photos of drop shoulder sweater fabric examples that use these fibers:

A woman at the seaside in a bright green drop shoulder cardigan.A woman in a drop-shoulder pullover next to a rock wall, with fabric that drapes under her armCloseup of a smiling woman in a linen drop shoulder turtleneckWoman against a plain white wall wearing an open drop shoulder cardigan

You might further consider working with a finer-gauge yarn. Many knitters prefer the extra fabric under their arms to be as thin as possible – and a fingering-weight fabric takes up a lot less room than a bulky-weight fabric. (The samples above are all close to DK weight; I typically don’t use anything heavier than worsted, and then rarely.)

Finally, since drop shoulder sweaters have a lot of structure inherent in those seams, you can absolutely get away with knitting your yarn a little bit loosely for its size. (Not too loosely – it needs to hold up under its own weight – but my “poke” test is less important here.)

Drop shoulders and fit.

Drop shoulder fit starts with a fundamental tension: The shape of a drop shoulder armhole is almost entirely straight, and the body wearing it is curved. Further, there’s a nice stiff seam (or line of picked up stitches) along that straight armhole. If a drop shoulder hand-knit is worn too close to the body, when that stiff straight seam meets a curvy shoulder joint, the seam will rip. (It’s also extremely uncomfortable.)

Close-up of a very snug drop-shoulder sweater

While we made it work because that’s what you have to do at a book photoshoot, this drop shoulder sweater is far too snug for the model’s shoulders, causing the neck to pull wide and the seam to constrict her range of motion. This is true despite the garment being fairly roomy through the torso.

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:

The author in a drop-shoulder sweater that has a close fit through the shoulders, and barely-skimming fit through the body.The author in a slightly roomier drop-shoulder 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:

A woman in a straight-sided drop shoulder cardigan next to a window.A woman next to a rock in an oversized, tapered-shaped, drop shoulder cardigan. A woman in a swing-shape drop shoulder cardigan, viewed from the backA woman next to a rock wall in a slightly fitted drop shoulder pullover
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:

Closeup of a smiling woman in a linen drop shoulder turtleneckA woman, seated, in a drop shoulder turtleneck with lace patterning at the neck.View from behind of an allover lace sweater with stockinette sleeves.Closeup of stitch patterning on the gray pullover seen in other photos.

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.