This morning someone called the house while I was beginning the process of making up the Willow sweater, and described what I was doing, and the person on the other end of the line went completely quiet. Usually this is a sign that I am doing something most other people don’t do. I mean, I get the same response anytime I say something like "cleaning a drum carder" or "organizing my laceweights" – I’m used to it and it doesn’t flip me out anymore. I just don’t tell ordinary people what I’m doing with fibre a lot. I save it for my knitting friends. Now, the interesting thing is that the person that I was talking to this morning was one of my knitting friends, and she still thought I was acting freaky. She even went so far as to say things like "really?" and "every time?" I didn’t have time to explain to her then why I do what I do, and why I think it’s important, so if nobody minds I’m going to take a minute and to it now.
When I finish a sweater, before I sew anything up, I wash and properly wet block all the pieces. I know, I know. This is the part where everyone tells me that they don’t do it. That they sew everything up and then block, or they tell me they don’t block, or I find out that we define block differently, or they tell me they only steam block and never wet block (which is usually a lie) or… well. A whole bunch of stuff. Here’s what I do – this is what I mean.
First, all the pieces are done and they all go for a swim in cool water with Eucalan or Soak. (I like both.)
They go for swim before I sew up for lots of good reasons. For starters, now is a great time to find out that I was really, really wrong about the swatch. I would rather know right this minute that the sweater is much bigger after a wash – than find out after I’ve sewn the whole thing up and gone to all the trouble of doing button bands or edges or all that crap. If I find out things are really wrong now, it’s way less work to pull it back and redo the wrong parts now- rather than unpicking every seam first. (I know myself, and I know some of you. There are those of us who will simply never correct the mistakes if it’s too hard. We’ll jam it in the back of the linen closet or something. Things need to be easy-ish or I won’t do them. Knitting has to be fun.)
Also, I believe firmly and violently in wet-blocking- and I know some of you will disagree, but hear me out. For starters, if you are ever going to wash the item that you’ve made, then you might as well know now what water is going to do to it – because the day you’re wet blocking (whether you want to or not) is coming, and that’s the day that you wash it. (That’s why I don’t believe people who tell me that they don’t wet-block. If you ever wash it, then you’re wet-blocking.) In addition, I think we have a some confusion over the term "blocking". Blocking in knitting means the same as it does in the theatre, which is to say that it’s the determination of the proper positioning of the players. Blocking is sort of- putting things in their right places, and that’s all it is in knitting. This means that blocking does not (and I really, really can’t stress this enough) blocking DOES NOT mean stretching, and proper blocking can make things way, way easier to make up.
After the bath, the pieces come out, I lay them on towel(s) then roll up the towels and walk on them to get most of the water out. (You’d be surprised how well this works.) Then more dry towels go on my bed (which is where I usually block, that’s not important) and I start laying the pieces out. To do this right, I get some pins, a measuring tape and the schematics or instructions from the pattern.
Now blocking, in terms of a sweater, means putting things in the right place. So I start doing just that. I lay out the back, and then I look at the measurement for the length and width of the sweater, and I measure my sweater back and smoosh, guide or pat the thing until it’s the right measurements. If it isn’t working out – like it’s way longer, shorter, narrower or wider than I planned, I know right then and there that it’s not going to work out. I can let it dry and rip it back. If it’s right, I keep going. I make the armhole the right depth, the neck the right width, and as I go along I pin it to those measurements – and as I do that, I unfold, uncurl and pat down the edges of the sweater to make it just so.
Then I line up the fronts next to the back and do the same thing, making sure I match the armholes, fronts, total length and so forth.
When I’m done I move on to the sleeves, matching width, length.. .everything, again paying close attention to edges.
If there are pockets or fiddly bits, then I fuss to make them the right size and shape, and then pin them in place too.
The whole thing is designed to make making up easier. If I get the edges flat now, they’re way easier to sew, and my seams look fantastic. If the sweater has relaxed into it’s final shape, then I’m going to be more accurate when I pick up stitches for the button band. In my experience, if I sew stuff up first and then block it, I might have some nasty surprises. Like the front and back sag but the side seams don’t. That never happens if you sew it up after it sags. Or maybe the neck relaxes and is way too loose and you hate it. Better to know that before you go to do a neckband, right? Then you can compensate for it and get a better final product. Maybe you find out while you’re laying and pinning that for reasons known only to the universe and its system of checks and balances, that the sleeves are 8cm too long. Wet blocking and measuring before you sew it in and up means you make those changes now, before you sew it in and find out it’s not wearable. See where I’m going with this? I’m sure you do. Wet blocking ahead means that there are no surprises when you wash it later, and you – you are going to wash your knitting at some point, right? You’re not just knitting it, wearing it until it’s dirty and then throwing it away?
The friend on the phone this morning said "Man. What a huge pain in the ass. I never bother to do that" and I’ll tell you what I told her.
You already spend hours and hours knitting it? Why not spend a little more time making sure it’s nice? Blocking the pieces saves time in the sewing, saves time with picking up stitches for bands and necks and ensures I get no surprises that enrage me. It’s a crappy sweater prevention program, and yup. I do it every time.