What Is a Raglan Sweater?

Raglan sweater

Sarah E. White

The raglan sleeve is a classic sweater style that is noted by its shoulder seams that run across the front of the chest. It's a very comfortable shape that allows for easy movement, which is why you will often see it in athletic wear. 

Knitters love working a raglan pattern because they are often created in a single piece from the top-down. It's a terrific project if you're interested in learning advanced shaping skills and there are many wonderful patterns to choose from.

What Is a Raglan Sweater Sleeve?

The raglan sleeve is a popular choice for casual knitting projects. Raglan shaping is usually worked from the top-down and involves a long, slanted (or sometimes curved) seam running from the neck to the underarm.

Raglans have no shoulder seam; the expanding sleeve cap becomes the shoulder of the garment. The shaping of the sleeve must match the front and back shaping so that all the pieces fit together properly.

Raglan is a great design because of its seamless nature. As June Hemmons Hiatt says in her classic book The Principles of Knitting: "Because there is no seam or join of any kind at the armhole, a garment with a raglan sleeve allows very comfortable movement and adapts easily to different body proportions."

The raglan style is a popular choice for sewn garments as well. You will often see it in athletic clothing and other casual styles.

How the Raglan Got Its Name

The style is named for Fitzroy Somerset, also known as Lord Raglan. He was the commander-in-chief of forces during the Crimean War in the 1850s (another commander lent his title to the cardigan sweater).

Somerset lost his right arm in the Battle of Waterloo, and it is reported that he wore a jacket with a raglan sleeve after the injury. Some people have speculated that the raglan style was developed because the sleeve was a better fit on his armless side than a traditional shoulder and sleeve. 

Fun Fact

Richard Rutt's "A History of Hand Knitting" book reports that the term raglan was first found in the dictionary in 1864, nearly a decade after Lord Raglan's death. It originally referred to sewn garments and, according to Rutt, raglan sleeves in knit garments were first seen around 1912.

Shaping Raglan Sleeves: The Good and Bad

A great article on sleeves from a 2004 issue of Knitty covers the pros, cons, and considerations of knitting raglan sleeves. The article notes that they offer a sophisticated style with relatively easy math. Raglan sleeves are also less bulky than other styles, and they're a great style to use when knitting from the top down in the round.

There are a few common problems with the raglan sleeve:

  • You can end up with a lot of extra fabric under the arm.
  • They may feel too tight on a garment that's meant to be close-fitting.
  • The lines also interrupt colorwork. Many times, the colorwork on a raglan sweater will be in the main body or stomach area of the pattern.

A top-down, seamless raglan design typically begins with stitches for the neckline. These are often divided into those that will become the front, right sleeve, back, and left sleeve. 

  • Raglan increases typically happen on either side of a center seam at the edge of the sleeve stitches.
  • One-piece raglans often begin with increases from the neckline. The sleeve stitches are then put on hold while the body is worked.
  • Some raglan sweater patterns are worked in flat pieces that are seamed together.
  • Raglan sleeves can be used when knitting cardigans as well as the more common pullover.

Because raglan shaping produces such a clear line on the front and back of a garment, the increases used to add width are often decorative.

  • Yarn overs may be used on many women's garments.
  • A cable or similar decorative feature may be worked along the raglan line to bring more emphasis to the shaping.

Raglan Knitting Patterns

The raglan sleeve is used in countless knitting patterns. The sweaters are very comfortable and rather easy to make, particularly for experienced knitters. Due to extreme shaping, it is important to follow your pattern very closely. A few mistakes can lead to an odd fit or a complete disaster when it's time to finish the sweater.

  • Raglan Sleeve Cardigan: Joan Wilson's pattern for 18-inch dolls is a great way to practice your raglan technique on a smaller scale.
  • Flax from Tin Can Knits: A classic raglan style, this pattern has a fantastic ribbed pattern running down the sleeves. It's available as a free Ravelry download sized from newborn to 4XL so that you can knit one for everyone in the family.
  • Color Blocked Striped Raglan: You will have a lot of fun playing with color in this basic raglan sweater pattern.