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In large part, this is determined by how wide you want your saddles to be. They can be anywhere from 3" up to 5" (or even 6", but that's pushing it a bit). On my sweaters, I usually have saddles about 3 1/2" to 4" wide. There is a central cable pattern, which may or may not be the same as one in the body of the sweater, and it may or may not be flanked by narrower cables. It is, however, usually flanked by purl stitches. Joan Schrouder, in her top-down Aran design in Knitter's #16, commented that she didn't like the way the front and back looked when picked up from the vertical edges of the saddles, so she came up with this solution: she used a slipped chain selvedge on either edge of the saddle, then picked up as if to purl, which left a chain of stockinette stitches running along the edge of the saddle. It was a nice detail and served to delineate the saddle from the body.
[I can hunt down the instructions for the slipped chain selvedge, but I also have a solution, so hang on for a moment.]
What I like to do is flank the central cable on the saddle with a narrower cable -- perhaps a 2-stitch or 4-stitch cable of some sort. I put two purl stitches between the central cable pattern and the narrow pattern to either side. Then I use a plain stockinette selvedge -- knit the first and last stitch of every right-side row, and purl the first and last stitch of every wrong-side row. There are no purl stitches between this selvedge stitch and the narrow cable. When it comes time to pick up for the body, I pick up between the selvedge stitch and the narrow cable. The narrow cable runs down the edge of the saddle and provides a nice detail which is a bit bolder than Joan's slipped chain.
How does this apply to our project?
WORSTED WEIGHT KNITTERS: I took a look at my worsted weight swatch and I see two possibilities. One is to use the Four-Rib Braid as the central pattern on the saddle, flanked by a Little Twist Cable to either side. Another is to use a 24-stitch Aran Honeycomb as the central panel, flanked by a Right Twist to either side. Either of those options would give a saddle about 4" wide or so.
SPORT WEIGHT KNITTERS: There are several possibilities here, as well. One is to use the Off-Center Trellis as the central panel, flanked by a Right Twist to either side. The other possibility is to use a 32-stitch Aran Honeycomb flanked by a Right Twist on either side, OR a 24-stitch Aran Honeycomb flanked by the Inverted Gull Stitch on either side.
I leave this decision entirely in each knitter's hands (this is your sweater, remember?). As long as the resulting width of the saddle is in the right range, it really doesn't matter what cables are on the saddle.
For those of you knitting larger- or smaller-sized sweaters, you may have to play with the numbers a bit (use more or fewer repeats of the Aran Honeycomb, for instance).
20" minus 6 1/2" = 13 1/2"
Now I divide 13 1/2" by two, which equals 6.75". Each saddle will have to be 6.75" long.
You may use either a provisional cast-on for your saddles, which will allow you to pick up the stitches of the cast-on edge when you go to knit the neckband, or you can use a regular cast-on. I've done it both ways and really don't have a preference. The important thing is to Knit each saddle to the same row of the cable pattern, not just the same length. I usually do mine two at a time -- on one needle, but with two balls of yarn -- so they end up identical.
There you have it. As usual, questions are welcome. I know some of you prefer a bit more hand-holding, so don't hesitate to give a yell, okay?
Q & A:
Janet, when you measured your swatch across the Honeycomb and two complete Little Twist Cables you came up with 6.5 inches. Did you include the purl stitches on each side in your measurement? I'm trying to visualize this measurement as the Honeycomb and one Little Twist are side by side while the second Little Twist is on the other edge.
I did some extrapolating here. I measured the width of the Aran Honeycomb plus one purl stitch on either side, then the width of the Little Twist Cable plus one purl on either side. I added the width of the Aran Honeycomb plus two widths of the Little Twist Cable, because there is one on either side of the central Aran Honeycomb. That gave me the width of 6 1/2". It's not an exact science, truly. :-))
I have a question about the width of the saddles. Seems to me that if you go much over 2 1/2", then your neckline in front is going to be a lot lower. I guess I'm confused. I started another sweater and knit the saddles first. Then I started to pick up stitches and knit the back side first. So all the saddle was facing front which meant since the width of the saddle was around 3 1/2", then the whole front piece would be lowered that much from the top. I think I'm mixed up here. Can someone explain what's going on? thanks.
You're not confused -- it's a legitimate question.
When I envision saddles, I see them as laying across the center of the shoulder line. On a saddle which is 4" wide, then, there is a 2" drop to the front, and a 2" drop to the back (measuring from the center of the shoulder). If I understand you correctly, you see the saddles as laying closer to the front of the shoulder than the back, so that the drop to the back is 0" (or maybe 1/2" at most), and the front of the sweater drops by the same amount as the width of the saddle. I think it's just a difference in the way we see the saddles laying on the shoulder line.
Really wide saddles can be a problem. Deborah Newton talks about this in her book Designing Knitwear. She notes that if the saddle is too wide, the back neck will be too low for a good fit. Her solution is either to continue to work the back-neck stitches until their height equals half the width of the saddle, or work a portion of each shoulder strap across to the center of the back neck and join them. I have also seen a saddle which is started at one shoulder and knit across to the other shoulder. At the point where the neck opening occurs, some of the saddle stitches are bound off; these same stitches are cast on again at the other side of the neck opening. I think Barbara Walker talks about this style in Knitting From the Top.
Personally, I find the fit of my 4" saddles just great, which is why I use them so often. I don't like the back neck of my sweaters to ride up really high against my neck. However, the saddles only provide a 2" drop to the front of the sweater, which I don't think is enough of a "scoop" for me, so I do a little more shaping for the crew neck of my sweaters.
The old Mon Tricot stitch book had a diagram of a top-down Aran in progress; in that design, there is no front neck shaping -- the neck opening is basically the rectangle provided by the saddles.
Does this help to clarify things a bit?