Advice on Blocking and Finishing a Cotton Sweater

I finally finished knitting a sleeveless pullover using True Blue Elle, a pure indigo dyed cotton. I’ve done a 3-needle bind off at the shoulders, which leaves the neckline edge and side seams. I used a provisional cast on and plan to add a rolled hem.

I plan to machine wash the sweater and so machine washed my swatches. There was 5% vertical shrinkage and 15% horizontal shrinkage which I allowed for in my calculations.

I’m uncertain how to proceed. I would make sense to machine wash the sweater before adding the neck edge/hem and sewing the side seams to remove any shrinkage. I have ends at the edges that have not been woven in, and I don’t like to do that until after blocking. This makes me nervous about throwing the sweater in the washer.

Any advice or suggestions would be appreciated. Thanks.

I would wash the unfinished body then wet-block or steam-block (my preference) to measurements. Measure each side of the body as you block and adjust so that the length matches on all sides. 5% shrinkage is really small and should be easy to manipulate on a wet piece.

I feel just like you about weaving in ends; also, I like to be able to use those ends in seaming if I can. The catch is that some cotton yarns will tangle awfully if the tails are left loose in the washing machine (Denim cotton being absolutely the worst). You can try making yarn butterflies, held in place by safety pins, and washing the pieces in mesh laundry bags. It helps… but only a little.
About the bottom edge: I am not sure why you’d want to add the bottom rolled edge after shrinking and blocking.
One final note: If any fading occurs, don’t you want it to happen at the same rate over the whole pullover? If so, you are better off knitting the collar and hem now so that everything fades at the same pace.


I’d finish it completely then wash it for shrinkage. If you wait to add neckline finishing, it will shrink additionally and you might have something weird as a result. Seam it, neckline it, roll hem it all as if you were going to wear it, then throw the whole thing into the wash & block process.

If however, you think you want to go your own way here, wrap your weaving-in tails around bread tie bobbins (the plastic tags with key-holes in them that hold bread bags closed in the supermarket) and secure with rubber bands before throwing your sweater in the wash.

Good luck.


Love the bread tie bobbin suggestion. Now I know what to do with the thousands rattling around my kitchen drawers.


I use them for the beginning tails in everything. Wrapping the yarn that way keeps it fresh for seaming-use at the end, no felted bits or frayed ends. Sounds like you’ll need a lot of WIP’s to take up all your thousands though, so I recommend you cast on something new right away!

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This is a great little tip!

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Hi there, as a veteran of many denim sweaters, I have done it both ways. Rowan recommends that you weave in the ends and wash and dry all the pieces before seaming and finishing. And then you usually have to wash it again to get the colors to match up, since it does fade when you wash it the first few times.

I don’t generally do that anymore. I find it far easier to finish the sweater and then give it the hot wash and hot dry treatment to activate the shrinkage. I learned from Belinda, who used to process all of ArtWork’s famous denim sweaters after they were knitted by hand in the UK. The knitters sent her back completed sweaters that had not been washed. Then the sweaters were industrially washed in batches. They came out great. Belinda always felt that Rowan made Denim seem more complicated to work with than it really is. I agree!

I am surprised to hear that it shrunk horizontally as I’ve never experienced that and I wonder if it was an effect of the size of the swatch. My sweaters shrink lengthwise by 10-20 percent (generally in the middle of that range), and very little, if at all, in width. The stitch gauge remains pretty constant pre and post washing.


Lots of great suggestions and advice here, thanks so much! After considering my options, I’ve decided to complete the finishing, toss the sweater in the machine and cross my fingers. All this, of course, after I finish July 4th dresses for my granddaughters.

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I remember your love for Rowan Denim from my early days following your blog. The swatch size may very well have to do with the horizontal shrinkage. I’m a lazy swatcher and did not knit the suggested 8" or so swatch. I wonder though if a good steaming would restore the horizontal gauge. Must try that.

Kay, do you find that the cotton sweater grows in length once you start wearing it? I made the Big Wave Tee out of a cotton yarn (not Rowan) and could wear it for about six hours after washing before the armholes got to an age-inappropriate size. What’s the solution–knit the armholes too small initially and wear it with confidence?

Wow, just realized that I have never knit a sleeveless or short sleeve sweater in Denim. My Whitby, which is a men’s large and heavily cabled (I think it’s something like 30 balls of yarn), does lengthen gradually with wear. When I start noticing that it’s getting long, I wash and dry it and it’s back where it started.

It makes sense to knit the armholes smaller to start with, but that would make me nervous!

An odd yarn to love, but I love it.

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It didn’t occur to me to make my armholes smaller. In fact, I knit mine longer to allow for shrinkage. I also slipped the first stitch st the armhole edges. Now i’m wondering if that will affect shrinkage or sagging.

It has always felt counterintuitive to me to wash cotton so it shrinks and then sew it up with yarn that hasn’t been washed but is going to shrink. I can’t get past a picture of puckered seams in my mind.

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I’ve given this a lot of thought and I think the reason it works (and it really does work, no puckered seams) is that when the yarn is knitted up, that shrinkage is occurring over yards and yards of yarn. The sewing-up yarn is not very many yards. The shrinkage is not enough to make a difference.

Anyway if it makes you nervous you can used washed yarn, either by skeining it and washing it or unraveling a washed swatch.

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