Talking to a friend at the weekend I was reminded of the redemptive power of blocking your knitting.  My friend has made a lovely cowl neck floaty drapey cardigan.  She tried it on, decided she hated it and that she was going to pull it out and start again – again.  Thankfully, she brought it to a crafty day for a second opinion.  “Have you blocked it yet?” says I.  “No”, says she.  Hmmm.  What followed was me extolling the virtues of blocking something before you decide that you hate it and pull it to pieces.

So what is blocking?

Friendship's Flame - Blocking

Blocking is something that you can do to fibres after they have been knitted to help them achieve the shape and finish they are capable of having.  I like to think of it as releasing the potential of the thing I’ve knitted.  I knit a lot of lace which can look screwed up and nasty until it’s blocked.  If you’re making a garment where pattern pieces have to reach specific measurements, blocking is the way to get them there.  In my friend’s case, she thought that there wasn’t enough fabric to  drape the way she wanted.  I suspect that when she blocks her piece there will be at least another square metre of potential fabric hiding in there.  Blocking can also hide multitude of indescretions, particuarly if you’ve had to repair a mistake and you’re left with uneaven stitches – in the main these even out during the blocking process. There are 3 main ways to block something: Wet, Spray and Steam.  They all have their merits and are used in different situations depending on the fibre content of your yarn and the design you’ve knitted.

Wet blocking is the most ‘agressive’ method of blocking and can be used for natural and man-made fibres although the man-made ones don’t block terribly well.  Fibres that should never be wet blocked are super delicates and ones that have ‘dry clean only’ on their care labels.  Water can be the kiss of death for some novelty and fashion yarns so please check the label before soaking it.  You can use wet blocking for wool and wool blends, but remember to be gentle – the water should be warm not hot, place the pieces in gently after you turn the taps off and definately don’t swish them – heat and friction can cause natural fibres to felt.

Friendship's Flame - Finished

Run yourself a bath or bowlful of warm water depending on the size of your piece and submerge your fabric gently allowing the water to fully penetrate the fibres. Leave the piece for half an hour or so.  This allows the fibres to relax.  Carefully lift out your piece and press the water out gently – don’t wring it out.  The fabric will be most vunerable when it is in this state.  I like to lay mine on a towel, roll it up and press hard.  This squeezes out the water without agitating the work and leaves enough water in the fabric for the next stage of the process.  I then lay out white plastic liners on the floor – I’m lucky, in that I can pin straight into the carpet but there are other things that you can pin into, like a spare bed, or blocking board (plywood board that has a foam layer on top and fabric stretched over the top).  Children’s play tiles and interlocking home gym mats are good too.  The plastic layer will stop the water soaking into whatever is underneath and your piece will dry out more quickly than if you pin it straight onto a towel.  Once you’ve pinned out the piece you’ll need to make sure that it is undisturbed until it’s toally dry so do keep this in mind when choosing your blocking camp.  Next, you can gently stretch out your piece as you need to reach the size and effect you desire.  A rule, tape measure or pattern piece might help with this.  I find that pinning provisionally and then tinkering with the positions of the pins when you have a rough size is the best way to achive an even finish.

There are blocking kits available to buy that contain wires and rust-proof T-pins that can make this process much easier, but whatver you use to pin out your piece make sure they are rust proof and won’t snag delicate fibres.  As the piece dries, the pins will hold the piece of knitted fabric in the shape you gave it. Fabric blocked this way will have a little ‘relaxing’ potential, so if you have to reach a particular size bear in mind that you might get a little shrinkage once you pull out the pins.

Steam Blocking is similar to wet blocking in that you’re using water to relax the fibres, it’s just that in this case the water takes the form of steam.  This is one of the best ways to block fibres that shouldn’t really get wet, as well as for cotton which stretches unbelievably once it’s soaked.  It’s not suitable for man-made fibres as heat/steam are likely to destroy them, turning all of your hard work into a scary ball of melty mess.

Summer Night - Before Blocking

Fibre artists use different techniques when it comes to steam blocking and it’s a technique that is easily adapted for many purposes.  Often people stretch and pin their work to the desired shape and then begin steaming, using the steam to encourage the fibre to set the new shape. Others steam first and then pin out while the fabric is still warm, allowing the steam to relax the fibers and make it more pliable, which can be difficult for larger projects, but is quicker than wet blocking for smaller pieces.  Which way round you do this rests largely on the pliability of your fabric. If you can get it into the size and shape you need without the steam, pin first. If not, steam and then pin out, re-warming the fibres as you go if you need to.  The steaming method can be achieved in two ways.  In the first, slightly dampen a clean sheet, pillow case or other piece of plain fabric and place it over the piece you’re blocking.  Using a hot iron with the steam setting off, press very lightly on the sheet. You don’t need to press like you are actually ironing, the pressure needs to be just enough to heat the damp sheet and push the steam through to the knitting. You carry on doing this until the piece has relaxed into the shape you’re after or the sheet is dry.  You can also steam block without a protective layer of fabric. All that is needed is to your iron on steam and pass the iron slowly over the fabric being blocked, being careful not to touch the work with the iron, then pin it out if you haven’t already and leave it to cool and dry.

Summer Night - Blocking

Spray blocking is the most gentle blocking process and is great for expensive and delicate fibers like silk and cashmere, although I have to admit that I tend to use a very careful and gentle wet block even for cashmere, as I get a better result – I have however, found this out through trial and error and suggest you adopt a ‘gently does it’ approach in the first instance.  Spray blocking is also a  good method to use when you aren’t sure what kind of fibre content is in the yarn you’re dealing with or are suspicious of the instructions on the ball band.  For spray blocking all you need to do is pin the piece to the desired dimensions and spritz the whole thing lightly with water from a spray bottle. This way you can get it damp enough to relax the fibers, but not soak it wet through.  Once it’s dry you’re done.  If you can’t get your piece to the dimensions you want while it’s dry, try dampening it a little, pinning it out and then dampening again.  I find that this method can be tricky to keep consistant, and you can end up with areas that are more relaxed and have stretched further during the process than others.

Summer Night - Finished

Blocking can be a very time consuming and intensive process, especially if you’re like me and want to have everything just right.  Trust me though, the time you take to get the blocking right really is reflected in the finished piece and can make lace pieces really sing.  As to writing off an experimental or freeform design before you’ve blocked it – try to think of blocking as part of the creative process – a painter wouldn’t declare a painting finished until the thing was dry, or a jeweller before the metal was polished and this is a very similar thing.  Skipping the blocking process denies your work the opportunity to fulfill it’s full potential and prevents it from being as beautiful as it could be – you owe it to yourself and your work to spend a little extra time on the finishing process.

That said – some items don’t need much blocking at all – my Winter Landscape Cowl had a quick dunk and was left to dry out without pins, just to release the lace and allow it to find it’s true length.  So, go with your gut, see what your creative heart tells you and have fun 🙂

 

Friendship’s Flame was knitted by me from Ysolda Teague’s Ishbel Pattern.  Summer Night was knitted by me from Asami Kawa’s Summer Stream Scarf Pattern.
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