Yes, sweaters & cardigans have been knit on straight needles for centuries. You can’t knit a seamless sweater with straight knitting needles though. Instead you knit separate pieces and stitch them together at the end.
Here are the pros & cons of knitting a sweater with straight needles vs in the round with circular needles, plus my favourite flat knit sweater patterns.
How to knit a sweater with straight needles
You knit a sweater with straight knitting needles by knitting 4 pieces and then stitching them together. This is known as knitting a sweater flat. You knit 2 larger pieces for the front and back and 2 sleeves. Then you seam all the pieces together to make your sweater. The construction is similar to joining pieces of fabric together with a sewing machine to make a top.
You can use standard length straight knitting needles (14 inches or 35 cm approx) to make a sweater. Often, you’ll need 2 sizes: one for the main fabric and slightly smaller size needles for any ribbing at the neck, cuffs and bottom.
Note that you can also use circular needles to knit sweater patterns that are worked flat. You can always use circular knitting needles for knitting back and forth in rows just like with straight needles. I now use circular needles for everything, whether knitting in the round or not. If you haven’t used circulars yet, I’d highly suggest giving them a try. If you’re curious about other uses of circular needles, see my circular needles vs straights guide.
Advantages of knitting a sweater flat in pieces
A sweater knit flat and seamed together has more structure than a seamless sweater. The seams can help it to hang better on the body and keep its shape better over time.
More design & fit options
In fashion, how a garment is cut makes all the difference. Sewing and dressmaking patterns are made up of several flat pieces which are sewn together. So it makes sense for knitwear to be constructed in a similar way.
A sweater knit from multiple pieces gives more possibilities for design and fit, whereas one piece sweaters knit in the round are more limited & don’t automatically flatter all body shapes either.
Knitting a sweater in the round can get cumbersome in the latter stages. You end up knitting the 2nd sleeve with the rest of your sweater hanging around the place. When you knit a sweater a piece at a time, it never gets too bulky and is easier to take on the go.
You also have the option of blocking your sweater a piece at a time. If you’re concerned about the size, you can start by knitting a sleeve which doesn’t take that long. Then wash and block it to be sure about whether your garment will fit well. Blocking each piece separately is also handy if you’re short of space.
Disadvantages of knitting a sweater in pieces vs in the round
You can’t try it on as you go
You’ll have a lot of stitches on your needle when knitting the front or back of your sweater. So your knitting will be bunched together and you can’t easily judge the width in the early stages. Even later on, you can’t just try on your work in progress jumper like you can if you are knitting a sweater in the round.
However, I’ve found that early try ons of circular sweaters can be misleading. Plus you never really know for sure how well it fits until you wash & block your finished garment.
If you have a similar weight jumper that fits you well, you can measure this against your work in progress front or back to check if you are on track.
Most sweater knitting pattern instructions start with the front or back, but my tip is to start with a sleeve instead. It’s the quickest piece to make, and is a good way of checking your gauge. If you really hate swatching, you can even dive straight in and use the sleeve as your gauge swatch instead.
If I’m concerned the size looks wrong, I wash and block my first sleeve before going any further. I then compare my folded sleeve piece with a similar weight jumper that fits well. Or I pin it together or very roughly stitch it together every couple of inches with a contrast thread & try it on to check the fit.
You need to stitch the pieces together at the end
When you knit a seamless sweater in the round, you can just bind off and wear it like magic. However, when you knit a jumper flat, there’s significant assembly time involved in stitching the pieces together at the end. It can also be tricky to do neat seams and get a professional finish after all your time and effort knitting.
The bonus is that the seams will give your garment structure and keep it in shape. While it’s tempting to rush this, it’s well worth taking your time as it can make all the difference to the end result. Mixing a bit of stitching with knitting adds variety too (although the novelty fades when you’re on your 3rd attempt at setting in a sleeve!).
More purl stitches
Lots of popular sweater knitting patterns are mainly stocking (stockinette) stitch. When you knit a sweater in the round, this means lots of mindless knitting and no purls at all. But when you knit your sweater in rows back and forth, you’ll need to purl every 2nd row.
Now many knitters prefer knitting to purling, myself included, but this has never put me off knitting a sweater worked flat. But, if you really hate purl rows, I’d suggest knitting a sweater in the round instead. Knitting time is precious, so make sure you enjoy every row.
Is it better to knit sweaters in the round?
Whether knitting seamless sweaters is better than the traditional seamed sweater method is a controversial topic. Knitting garments in the round is very popular these days, but several high profile designers still swear by seamed sweaters.
Patterned yoke jumpers need to be knit in the round on circular needles, but otherwise it’s personal preference.
If you hate purling or seaming, you’ll love knitting pullovers & cardigans in the round. Many sweater patterns are mostly knit in stockinette stitch, so you just keep knitting round and round. Perfect TV knitting to unwind after a long day.
Personally I still knit garments both ways. I knit tops in the round because I love Scandi style yoke sweaters & being able to try on as I go. However, the sweaters I wear most often have usually been knit flat in pieces. I find the structure from the seams gives a better fit and shape. Psychologically I find knitting garments in pieces quicker too. Each round in the body of a seamless sweater or cardigan seems to take forever!
I encourage you to try knitting both a seamless sweater in the round and a seamed sweater in pieces and see which you prefer.
Recommended flat sweater knitting patterns
While seamless sweaters in the round are all the rage these days, there are some stunning modern sweater knitting patterns for straight needles too.
My favourite knitwear designer is Julie Hoover, who has several modern sweater patterns knit flat in pieces. Her patterns are understated, timeless classics you will wear forever. What I love most is the superb fit and it’s no coincidence that all her garments include seams. Several sweater patterns are knit in pieces from the bottom up, so you can knit them with straight needles. Others start from the bottom up with just the main body knit in the round. Then you split the back and front at the underarm and work back and forth up to the top. The sleeves are knit flat too & then the pieces are seamed together at the end.
So far I’ve made 2 of her sweaters & both are an excellent fit. The Veneto striped sweater is knit flat in 4 pieces and suitable for adventurous beginners. The neckband is knit in the round as it’s added at the end after the pieces have been joined together. But you could knit it back and forth in rows if you prefer by adding it a bit earlier instead. Other Julie Hoover flat sweater knitting patterns include Keller, Martine and Harden.
Most Rowan jumper and cardigan patterns are knit flat in pieces too. This iconic UK knitwear brand have patterns from famous designers including Arne & Carlos, Kaffe Fassett, Kim Hargreaves & Martin Storey. Most Rowan sweater patterns are designed for straight needles, with all pieces knit flat and then joined together at the end. Usually even the neckline is knit on straight needles, with no knitting in the round or need for any circular needles. They have patterns to suit all fashion tastes and knitting levels, from beginners to advanced.
You can browse & buy Rowan jumper and cardigan patterns on their website. They have recently started doing a few seamless sweater patterns knit in the round and it’s not obvious which ones they are. So here’s a Ravelry search showing all Rowan sweater patterns that can be knit flat. Even better, here’s a list of Rowan free flat jumper and cardigan patterns. You’ll need a Ravelry account to view these, but it’s free to join & I highly recommend it. Warning: you could easily spend half your life on there!
I’ve knit a few Rowan cotton sweaters on straight needles to date. Handknit cotton sweaters behave quite differently to wool ones & can easily go out of shape. So if you prefer fitted tops, I definitely recommend only knitting cotton sweaters in pieces with seams to give them as much structure as possible.
My favourite cotton sweater is this Rowan Lunaire 4 ply jumper pattern by Martin Storey pictured above. I’m still wearing it over 5 years later & it has kept its shape superbly. I also have a full review post of knitting a Rowan chevron jumper flat in pieces with DK weight cotton.
Finally, another rich source of sweater patterns you can knit on straight needles is older books and magazines. Circular needles are a relatively modern invention and seamless sweaters are newer again. So you could find some great flat knit sweater patterns in your local library or charity shops (thrift stores).
Yarn Substitution Tips
Note that Rowan and Julie Hoover patterns both use luxury yarns that are expensive and may not be available near you. It’s usually easy enough to substitute with yarn to suit your budget. My top tip is to search for the pattern on Ravelry. The Yarn Ideas tab will quickly show you all the yarns knitters have used to make it, in order of popularity. You can also search for the pattern yarn on the excellent YarnSub.com, which will instantly give you a list of similar yarns within your budget.
The one gotcha with older or vintage patterns is that the yarn is likely to be discontinued. But prior to the 2000s, there was much less variation among knitting yarns. So if your Ravelry & YarnSub searches fail, you can usually substitute any modern yarn that knits to the standard weight gauge. For example, if the vintage pattern uses DK weight wool, just look for DK wool that knits to the standard DK gauge of 22 stitches and 28 rows on 4mm needles.
I hope this post has helped you understand the advantages and disadvantages of knitting sweaters with straight needles vs knitting seamless sweaters in the round. Each way of knitting a sweater has its merits & gives us more beautiful patterns to knit. If you have any questions or want to share your thoughts on the seamed vs seamless sweater debate, I’d love to hear from you. Just leave a comment below.