How to stretch your sweaters (properly)

Friday, March 17th 2017
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I've always rather liked domestic fixes to knitwear.

Darning holes, removing pilling, slimming bodies: I've consistently practiced and written about them all over the years. (Posts at those links). 

But being introduced to Love Cashmere up in Hawick, Scotland last year changed all that. Their service for repairing, washing and altering was so good (and such great value) that it undermined any argument for doing it at home. 

In October I wrote about giving them two cashmere sweaters to repair, and mentioned that they also slimmed down the fit in the waist at the same time. 

For £29, the results were fantastic, so I subsequently asked them to try another service on another two pieces: this time, stretching. 

Now I had tried stretching knitwear at home also (post, back in 2014). The method is pretty simple: wool stretches particularly when wet, so you spray the piece to make it damp, then stretch the sleeves of body and hold it for a few minutes. 

But there were several issues.

It was hard to stretch the body without distorting its shape; the results were mixed, with some knitwear not stretching at all; and even when it worked, it was hard to achieve more than half an inch consistently. 

This wasn't really surprising. The amount knitwear will stretch depends on several things, primarily the fibre (cashmere, merino etc), the elasticity of the yarn, and the way the garment is knitted (tightness, or structure such as cables). 

Anything with silk, linen or cotton in it, in particular, will hardly stretch at all. It's why those fibres are often used to give a garment greater stability.

Distortion in the shape of the piece is best controlled with variously sized racks - which is what Love Cashmere uses. It's called boarding.

You can see the racks above. They come in a range of sizes, and one from a larger size can be inserted into a smaller piece to stretch it.

If you want to add greater length to the body or sleeves, weighted paddles can be used to hold the piece in place (below). 

Generally the garments will be left on the rack for around an hour. They are then dried and - the crucial bit - put back on the rack to steam them. 

It is this steam pressing that has the greatest chance of locking in the new shape, particularly in terms of the stitches. The steam relaxes them initially, and then cool air is pulled through to set their new size and shape.

Without the pressing (shown below), the stitches relax over time (a few hours/days). This will always happen to an extent (even after steaming), but it should be minimal.

It was this last point which was the biggest issue with my domestic, amateur attempts. 

Even with all this work, most garments cannot be stretched by more than an inch in the sleeve or body length.

But anyone that has bought a lovely sweater in the wrong size (as I have, more than once) will know that an extra inch can be the difference between wearable and unwearable. 

Needless to say, Love Cashmere's results were good. I gave them a cashmere hoodie from Al Bazar and a cashmere half-zip top from Simone Abbarchi. Both gained half-an-inch to an inch on sleeves and body. 

If you want to alter knitwear, stretching is not the best option.

Much better to buy something that is a little too big in the waist, for example, and have it taken in. Knitwear is akin to outerwear like suede and leather in that respect.

But if the aim is rescuing a beautiful piece - as it was with my first piece around moth holes and pilling - £29 is definitely worth the money.