How and when to block?

This is maybe a little embarrassing, but I only recently learned that you should never seam a sweater before blocking it. Does everyone know this but me?

OK, I know many people don’t really know what blocking is (I know this both because I’ve had this conversation with longtime knitters and because everyone seems to be blogging about it lately). Here’s the deal: unless you’re knitting something complicated that doesn’t look at all like it should when you finish knitting it (I’m thinking lace, here), wash your new sweater with wool wash like you normally would, wrap it in a towel and stomp or kneel on it to squeeze more water out (pro tip I haven’t yet read on anyone else’s blog: microfibre towels work great), then dry it flat. Like you normally should when you wash a sweater anyway.

But wait! If your sweater isn’t seamless, you should block the pieces before seaming! Because the edges might not line up right until the work has been blocked. Apparently.

That makes some sense if you seam your sweater pieces together like a sewing project, with pins and such, but I don’t do that. I know what my approximate stitch-to-row ratio is, and I count stitches. Do other people do this? So then it shouldn’t matter so much whether the pieces have been blocked, because they’re seamed based on their proportions after blocking anyway.

And actually, no, I don’t think that argument makes sense at all. Knitting is stretch, and therefore forgiving. This is why increasing or decreasing every second row produces a diagonal, not a staircase. Similarly, when you’re seaming, if you’re seaming a selvedge to a top edge at a 3-to-2 stitch ratio, then realise you need to do 1-to-1 or 4-to-3 for a few stitches, you don’t end up with a seam that looks ridiculous. Selvedge-to-top/bottom seams on sweaters are relatively short, for the most part. If you’re knitting a long coat with the front knitted bottom to top and the back knit sidewise, yeah, maybe you should block first (or count and seam according to the stitch-to-row ratio).

There are a few reasons I prefer to seam first, block after, most of which I’m discovering now that I’m trying to do it right:

Reason #1: Stitches are more distinct before blocking

When you use mattress stitch, it doesn’t matter all that much if you split the stitches you’re catching, but it’s a little annoying. I like to be able to catch the stitches without prying them away from the rest of the work. This is admittedly only a problem with yarns that are pretty sticky anyway, and these days I mostly knit with superwash yarns that certainly don’t have this problem. But still. It’s why I always seamed first before.

Reason #2: Some projects require seaming a bit, then knitting more

The hoods on the hoodie that I’m working on are like this. Actually, I think any hoodie that isn’t worked as a seamless raglan (or I guess a top-down design, with the hood worked first) will have this issue: you need to seam the shoulders before proceeding with the hood. I suppose the block-first process is only really “important” for seams that match a selvedge to the top or bottom of your knitting, and shoulders are generally seamed top-to-top. But this is just an example. I’m also knitting a stocking stitch edging onto the hood for this hoodie, which requires seaming the top of the hood first, and that’s a selvedge-to-top seam. Should I block my sweater pieces, seam the hood, then knit on the edging and block again? I live in Auckland! It’s damp here! I’m too impatient to block this thing twice!


Tommy's hood, seamed before blocking, then knitted some more, then blocked

Reason #3: Projects that are seamed after blocking look kind of unblocked

Just the seams, but I don’t like it. I end up with a garment that I want to block again… except that I live in Auckland (see above)!


Icky puffy seams that need more blocking!

So I’m going to stop pandering to the people who make the rules about these things. Unless I discover that I’m missing something, I’m going to go back to doing it wrong.


5 thoughts on “How and when to block?

  1. I read your blog with relish, and it is a bit like listening to a nearby conversation in Spanish. I know enough French to catch a lot of it, and have the general gist, but the details are just delightful noise.
    Two things. Yes, I eavesdrop, shamelessly. And no, I never did learn any Spanish despite all your best efforts.


  2. Well, if you ever start to knit (in your old age, say), whatever you retain might suddenly become clear.
    Eavesdropping is a funny thing. Steffen will interrupt our conversations sometimes to eavesdrop (he also reads over people’s shoulders and even watches them enter PINs while he’s waiting to pay). I have a friend in Japan who says that the best thing about living in a country where he isn’t totally fluent in the language is that he doesn’t have to put any effort into NOT hearing other people’s conversations (which he finds incredibly boring).
    As for Spanish, that’s SO 2005. I don’t even speak Spanish any more (I do understand a whole lot of it). I did try to learn German for a bit, for obvious reasons, but that’s on hold (I do know a number of words for emergency and construction vehicles, though).


  3. Just wanted to quickly mention that it is ok to block before or after seaming up, no matter what you prefer. If you block before seaming however, you could steam (with an iron) the seams afterwards so they are tamed down a bit.
    Normally I block sweater pieces before blocking because I also heard that that is what you *should* do. But on my last sweater vest I only steamed everything to my liking and before closing up the shoulder seam. And what can I say? The vest was dry five minutes after and I could continue working the button bands uninterrupted.


    • Yeah, steam blocking is probably the answer. I’m just lazy about getting the iron out (we’re not the sort of people who iron our clothes, it seriously only gets used for knitting and the occasional sewing project).


      • Same here! I don’t care for ironing at all, so the ironing board is a household tool that is hidden away most of the time.
        But for crafting it is useful, so these are the occasions it sees the light of day.


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