All Shapes & Sizes: Tips for Shaping a Top-Down Knit Shawl

The shawl has become a near ubiquitous staple in the knitter’s repertoire. After much dithering over whether I’d really wear such a thing, I fell headfirst into shawl mania, designing and knitting a plethora of warm and cuddly wraps that I now wear nearly constantly. My preferred method is knitting top-down because I’m impatient — a shawl grows quickly when you start from a small nub.

There are a lot of possible shapes a top-down shawl can take, and all of them are controlled by two main factors: rate of increase and placement of increases.

In the following post, I’ll discuss some of the most typical ways that top-down shawls are shaped, as well as some less common possibilities.


Grand Lake pattern by Kristen Hanley

All of the tiny sample shawls that I knit started the same way, with a garter tab cast on, and grew outward though the placement of increases. I used yarn overs for all of my increases to make them easy to see, but any increase method of your choice will work just fine.

Ready? Let’s get started with creating a perfectly shaped top-down knitted shawl!

The basic triangle

A common starting point for shawl knitters, the top-down triangle shawl is simple to shape and easy to wear. In its most basic form, the triangle is shaped with four increases on every right side row, and no increases on every wrong side row. For the purposes of this tutorial, we’ll be thinking about how many increases there are for every two rows; in this case, it is four increases for every two rows.

To shape the triangle, the increases are placed alongside the top edge, and on either side of a center spine stitch. In practice, this means working the top edging, then an increase, then working to the center stitch, placing an increase before the center stitch, then after it, then working to the top edging on the other side and placing an increase before it.

1. Triangle 4inc

The basic triangle

For a wider, shallower triangle, we can double the rate of increase along the top edge, knitting the same four increases on every right side row, but adding two to the wrong side row, on either side of the top edging. The rate of increase for this shallow triangle is six increases for every two rows. One interesting effect of increasing on every row is that the yarn overs are less visible along the top edge.

2. Triangle 6inc

The wider, shallower triangle

Both of these two triangles were knit using the same yarn base, on the same needles, and with the same number of rows, but the purple triangle is twice as wide as the brown one.

Knitting a wider, shallower triangle can be great for those times when you’re worried about yardage. Because more of your yarn goes to width rather than length, it will take fewer rows and fewer stitches to end up with something wide enough to wear as a wrap.

Playing with placement

The two triangles above demonstrated how much of an impact rate of increase has on your shawl growth.

Now let’s take a look at what happens when we play with the placement of the increases:

  • The magenta shawl below is shaped using the exact same rate of increase as the basic triangle; that is, four increases for every two rows, and just like our basic triangle, all of the increases are on the right side row.
  • However, for the magenta shawl, although all of the increases in my first row were identical to those in the first row of my basic triangle, from there out, I moved the center increases outward diagonally, creating a triangle in the center panel rather than a spine.
  • At this small size, the shape is not unlike a half circle, but if I were to keep knitting it, that center panel would widen and straighten, creating a flat edge along the bottom of the shawl.
3. Rounded 4inc

Rather than a single triangle, this shawl is shaped with three

It’s also possible to play around with the placement of the increases on a shawl that has six increases for every two rows, like our shallow triangle.

For the teal shawl below, I worked my increases on either side of three spines, with no increases along the top edge. The result was a shawl that was shaped like the basic triangle, but with two extra triangles along the top, making this shawl easy to wrap around the shoulders. I worked the increases only on right side rows, but with six increases on every right side row, this is the exact same rate of increase as the shallow triangle.

Had I angled the spines differently, the shaping would be different, even with the same number of spines.

5. 5 points 6inc

Five points

Faroese shaping

The traditional shawl of the Faroe Islands is a little more complex than the one I am showing below, but the principles are very similar.

  • Rather than a center spine, a Faroese shawl has a center panel, usually shaped itself with increases and decreases within the center panel.
  • In my example, my center panel is a garter stitch column with no shaping, and the rate of increase along the top edge is consistent throughout, so this is simply a variation on our basic triangle.
  • Like the basic triangle, there are four increases every two rows, and the placement is nearly identical, substituting that center column for the narrow spine stitch.

To create a center panel, you make a longer garter tab than the one used for my other examples, and pick up more stitches along the side. Because I was making a miniature shawl, I made my center panel only six stitches wide, but in a traditional shawl, it would be much wider.

Although the Faroese shawl grows at the same rate as the basic triangle, the center panel makes it wider with fewer rows. The proportion of the column to the rest of the shawl will change with more rows, appearing narrower as your shawl gets wider.

4. Faroese 4inc

Faroese shawl

The half-pi shawl

If you want a shawl that is a true half-circle, rather than the three triangles shaping of the magenta shawl, there is no better method than the shaping of Elizabeth Zimmermann’s pi shawl. The basic premise behind the traditional pi shawl, a full circle, is that the distance between the increase rounds doubles after every increase row. For a half circle, the principle is the sample, and the main difference is that the sample is knit back and forth rather than in the round.

For my sample, this worked out to increases every 2, 4, 6, and 12 rows, with the increase row worked on the last row of the section. This is not an exact doubling as in the pi shawl worked in the round, because I chose to work my increases only on a right side row, which meant that I needed my numbers to all be multiples of two, (a traditional pi shawl goes 3, 6, 12, and so on).

The increases are worked every other stitch along the shawl body. In between increase rows, there are no increases worked along the top edge, unlike with the other shawls shown so far.

6. Half Pi

Half pi shawl

A couple of comparison shots

There is a myriad of ways shawls can be shaped. I’ve highlighted a few, and I hope you’ll go out and have fun with them! 

Below, I grouped shots of my miniature shawls to show how different the same rate of increase can be.

4inc group

All of the above shawls are shaped with four increases for every two rows

6inc group

Both of these shawls are shaped with six increases for every two rows

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