October 08, 2011

How To Block A Sweater, Vintage Style

It's sweater weather and our cozy woolies are coming out of the closet! That means soon enough we'll be hand-washing and blocking sweaters once they've had a wearing or two.

What does it mean to block a sweater? Blocking means laying it out while wet, after washing, and shaping it and/or stretching it into the silhouette you want, with (hopefully) the measurements you want. To describe how to do this, I'm taking the liberty of quoting at length a favorite clothing care guide by Mablen Jones. In her words (with my notes in *asterisks*):

Blocking, the process of setting of altering the shape of a knit, is usually done after cleaning or laundering while the garment is still damp. It may be done at home by hand or by steaming with a steam gun at the dry cleaner's. Blocking can change the shape of a garment but not restore the number of shrunk inches. *Unfortunately once a knit is shrunk, it's shrunk.* If you or the cleaner makes a sweater wider in blocking you lose some of its length at the same time.

If your label says "tumble-dry", do not block the knit if you have tumbled it. Many synthetics not only do not need blocking, they also require the tumbling of machine drying to allow the fibers to return to their original heat-set shape. *If your knit is a loosely-woven one, however, put it in a mesh bag before drying. The tumbling action of a dryer is a likely place for snags to happen*.

  1. For all sweaters that need to be blocked after washing, make a heavy paper pattern from shelf paper of a brown paper bag before you wash the sweater for the first time. Lay the sweater down on top of the paper on a firm, flat surface and draw an outline around the shape.
    *We have almost always skipped this, though if you love the fit of a sweater, this is the way to preserve the exact silhouette.*

  2. After you have washed and thoroughly rinsed your sweater, pick it up out of the wash basin with both hands so that you evenly distribute its weight and don't stretch any one side or part. If you have machine washed it, remove it soaking wet before the spin-dry part of the cycle.
    *Here in Florida we sometimes spin-dry thick sweaters before removal, otherwise in our high-humidity climate the sweater will seemingly never dry. Better a spun sweater than a mildewed one.*

  3. Lay it flat on an absorbent towel and blot or roll it. You might use several thicknesses for heavy knits and also change the towels several times to remove more water and to speed drying. Although variety and department stores sell mesh sweater dryers for this purpose, I generally put my towels down on a plastic-webbed lawn chair that has spaces in the webbing.
    *Clever idea re the lawn chair! Those mesh sweater dryers are vintage items of their own at this point, since Ms. Jones was writing decades ago. Might want to check Etsy for one. They are convenient.*

  4. When the sweater is no longer dripping and partially dry, place the paper outline pattern on a table covered with toweling or on a padded ironing board. Lay the sweater on top of it and shape it gently with your hands. Draw together the waist and wrist ribbing, button cardigans closed, roll collars into position, and straighten out and extend the sleeves. Ease in edges or stretch them out to fit the paper pattern.

  5. Insert rust-proof straight pins (into warp knits only) upright (at right angles to the sweater surface) every 3 or 4 inches. If the knit pulls or buckles between pins, you may have to put pins closer together to avoid getting a wavy line along the edges.
    *This is done along the edges of the sweater. Basically you're making the "cookie" (the sweater) fit the "cookie cutter" (the pattern you made). When we block without a pattern, we just shape it smoothly without any pins. Pulling & buckling only happens if you are trying to reset it to a pre-defined shape, or set it to certain measurements. On that note, if you want to change its shape, be mindful if it's lined, that you are working within the lining's (non-stretchable) limits.*

  6. Leave the sweater pinned until it is dry. If you have blocked a pure-wool hand knit in this manner at the very first washing, you don't have to repeat the whole pinning procedure. When you wash it again, just dry it flat on a towel unless you have stretched it during rough handling.

Watch our site for an update of sweaters & outerwear posting in the next few days. Until then, enjoy those snuggly long sleeves!


Jones, Mablen. Taking Care of Clothes: an Owner's Manual for Care, Repair, and Spot Removal. New York: St. Martin's, 1982. Print.

Images from a wonderful World War II scrapbook. These were magazine prints, clipped and saved by a sailor as his version of 1940s cheesecake. So quaint!


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