Master Class: Perfecting Collars
Updated: May 4, 2022
If you're working from a pattern with a basic crew neck, and you'll like something a little fancier, read on! If you've knitted collars before, but they haven't turned out the way you wished, read on! This article includes options for working a variety of collars to ensure a successful fit.
Types of Collars
There are 51 types of collars classified for garments in dressmaking, and all of them apply to knitwear! Collars can seamlessly wrap entirely around the neck, like cowl type collars with lots of drapey fabric, the edges can open in the back, or more commonly open in the front. They can also overlap at the center.
It All Begins with the Neckline
Collars and necklines share a symbiotic relationship and the neckline must be planned properly in order to accommodate the desired collar. The below chart helps you pair the proper neckband with collar.
Options for Working Collars
Collars can lie flat, flop over, stand up, or wrap around the neck. They can be worked as an extension of the body, picked up and worked at the end, or knitted entirely on their own and sewed onto the finished neckline. Each method serves a different purpose and has advantages and drawbacks.
Collars worked as an extension of the body are the simplest as you just continue knitting from the body. These are most commonly found on sailors’ collars where you continue knitting each front half and the back 8-12” higher than the neckline then bind off. When the shoulders are sewn together the excess folds over and lies on the body like a blanket of extra fabric. You will also see this on shawl collars from deep V-neck cardigans . These are simple but do not provide stability. They have a tendency to open up the neckline and allow the garment to pull down the shoulders.
Collars that are picked up around a finished neckline create a flexible join at the body with little bulk. This is the most commonly-used technique. The front and back necklines are worked as you normally would by binding off and decreasing stitches until the shaping is finished. After the pieces are blocked, and shoulders joined, stitches are picked up around the neckline and the collar is worked from the base of the neckline out to the desired length, then all stitches are bound off.
Collars can also be knitted as a separate piece, then sewn on which adds stability and is good if you have a heavy or bulky collar since you can avoid struggling to flip and move the entire garment. The neckline however will be more rigid and the pieces will need to match exactly to prevent one from being stretched or gathering/bunching. You'll cast on the same number stitches that you normally would have picked up.
The collar stitch needs to have substance in order to hold the collar or lapel in place. Ribbing, Seed stitch, Moss stitch, Garter stitch, or another heavily textured pattern all allow the collar to lie flat. If you are using a stitch that tends to curl, you will need the support of a hem or facing. If you are working the collar as an extension of the knitting, you do not need to use the same stitch pattern. You can knit to a certain point, then change to a new stitch pattern for the portion that will become the collar. A cabled sweater with a Moss Stitch collar is gorgeous and easy to do. This is useful when working a vertical shawl collar on a cardigan for example.
The best fitting collars follow the shape of the neckline. It is for this reason that so many collars are worked by picking up stitches around the neckline. When you use a proper ratio for picking up stitches, the added collar will fit into the neck without stretching or bunching either of the fabrics. Another tip for a perfect fit, is to raise the back of the collar so it sits up a bit higher than the front. This keeps the collar from pulling and allows it to cover the neck effortlessly. You do this by working short rows along the beck neck at the base of the collar for 1-2” rise for short collars and up to 4” or more for large shawl collars. For fold-over collars, in order to achieve a good fit and adequate coverage, you will need to knit more than double the width desired. If you want a 3” collar that folds over and you knit 6”, you will lose some in the curved fold. This will prevent the folded portion from completely covering the join to the body so to completely cover the join, you’ll want to knit closer to 8”.
Shaping the Collar Points
Collar points should spread evenly without pulling. They should look natural when lying flat and should not be stiff with a tendency to curl. If you have picked up stitches along a neckline, work short rows for the back neck if desired, then increase stitches at the beginning and end of the rows until the collar length is reached. Then bind off. A good formula to use is to increase one stitch at the end of every 4th row. This allows the collar to lie flat and form a good shape. If you are knitting the collar separately then sewing it on, a bit more planning is required. You will need to calculate the number of stitches necessary for the collar at the neckline edge, then add stitches for the shaping at the tips, which are going to be decreased back out. If your collar overlaps at the front, figure on at least 2” for a tidy, narrow overlap and up to 8-9” for something more pronounced. If you have swatches, hold them on top of each other to simulate an overlap to get a good idea of the best overlap width for the weight of yarn and stitch pattern you’re using.
Shaping a Collar
Larger collars like shawl type collars or cowls, benefit from being widened as you knit. This allows the collar to gather, drape or lie properly. A very high collar, like a turtleneck, is the same circumference at the base of the neck and bind off, and has a tendency to stand up. If you want drape or folds, then widen it as you go. The best way to widen a collar and maintain the established stitch pattern is to switch to a larger needle. If you are working a shawl type collar, you will pick up stitches and work back and forth in rows to the desired length, then switch to a larger needle and work 1-2” to create fullness. On cowls, use circular needles and pick up stitches around the neckline, work to the desired height, change to a larger needle, work 1-2”, then change to a larger needle again and work another 1-2” and continue increasing until you’re ready to bind off.
The second method is to use increases evenly around. If you're using 2x2 Rib, you can increase one stitch evenly around then work in 2x3 Rib for an inch, then increase again and work in 2x4 Rib. It does not work with every stitch pattern as some will become distorted with increases. In the below collar, you’ll notice that the ribs are the same, but the increases were made into the purl stitches between each rib for a more subtle look.
A collar adds weight and this stress is felt at the neckline. The larger or heavier the collar the more stability you will need here. If you are working with a very large collar, pair it with a narrow neck width to prevent a sagging neckline. In order to slip the garment over the head easily, pair tight collars with wider neck widths. For an artistic effect, consider working the collar in a different color, different yarn or unusual stitch pattern. Collars don’t always need to open in the front. Try a back-opening collar or a side split collar. Instead of working completely around the neck at the base, start at the side and work back and forth in rows to create a split collar, then use buttons to let the wearer adjust the amount of coverage they want.
Do attach or work the collar after joining the shoulder seams.
Select reversible stitch patterns for collars that will be visible from each side.
Use heavier yarns to create thick, wide, fold over collars so they will maintain their shape.
For drapey collars, select a fine yarn in a fiber blend that provides good drape.
Attaching the Collar
Picking up stitches: When you pick up stitches with the right side facing, the ridge will be to the inside of the sweater. Be careful though that the collar does not open to reveal the inside of the neck. If it does, you will want to pick up stitches with WS facing so that the pick up edge is concealed under the collar.
Sewn on collar: If both sides will be seen, such as with a collar that can be worn standing up or folded over, it’s preferred to knit the collar separately, then use a whipstitch to sew it to the neckline so no seam shows.
Many patterns can be modified to change the type of collar without interfering with the basic sweater pattern or shaping. You have probably already done this without giving it too much thought. A turtleneck sweater can easily be changed to a crew neck by knitting to a shorter length. Branch out and try a side split neck, a cowl, or change a basic ribbed V-neck to a fold over shawl. Before working a crew neck, consider adding a peter pan collar. For an example of a modified V-neck with squared bottom and fold over shawl collar, see the Appalachian Pullover in this issue.
I hope you enjoy exploring the world of knitted collars and that these tips will help you create a finished garment that you can be proud of both artistically and technically.
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