Chock-a-Block: Tips on Blocking Handknits
My handy guide to cast-on methods last month turned out to be very popular, so we thought we’d try to provide similar guidance for another FAQ: blocking.
For the vast majority of your knitting, blocking is so simple. And the benefits are remarkable. Blocking tidies up your knitting, evening out stitches and smoothing the fabric. And blocking brings the fabric to its finished shape and size.
Blocking: It’s Not What You Think
The word “block” has come to be closely associated with stretching and pinning, and these types of tools…
Blocking mat, t-pins, wires, and pin combs, oh my.
But these tools—and the stretching they are needed for—are only required in a limited set of circumstances. Let’s take the wonder-process of blocking step by step.
Step 1: No matter what you’re making, the first step is washing.
Washing gets the dog hair and cookie crumbs off—crucial if you’re giving the item as a gift. Washing even removes excess dye to prevent it running down your face when your brand-new hat gets wet in the rain. Washing is crucial to moth prevention. Washing is inevitable, but it changes your FO. Accept the change that comes with washing, anticipate it, plan for it! That is, measure (and match) gauge after “blocking” swatches, and then when the knitting is done, “block” the pieces to bring them to the right size.
If you’re working with a delicate, hand-wash only yarn, fill a sink or container with lukewarm water and appropriate wash product and let the item soak for 15-20 minutes. Rinse if required (some wool-washes don’t need rinsing).
If it’s a washing machine-friendly yarn, feel free to stuff it in the machine. (The yarn label should tell you how to wash; if not, err on the side of caution and hand wash with a wool-safe wash product.)
In the MDK Shop
Step 2: Get most of the moisture out.
If you’ve machine washed, the spin cycle will take care of this.
If you’ve hand washed, you can roll the piece in towels and squeeze firmly, or even stand on it. And if you’ve got a front-loading washing machine, or a top-loader and can bypass the agitation cycle, you can use the spin cycle after hand washing. YES. I put even the most delicate lace shawls through the spin cycle of my machine. They use centrifugal force, and the faster the spin the better; the piece is held against the side of the drum, and the moisture is flung out. (A salad spinner works in the same way, and can also be used for smaller items.)
Step 3: Dry.
Unlike the other steps, what you do here absolutely depends on the project, the fabric, and the yarn. It’s still pretty straightforward, but for some projects, there might be an additional step, or a specific piece of equipment used.
Ultimately, your objective here is to only do what you intend to do when you care for the piece in its normal life.
Stretching and pinning should be a deliberate choice, because if you stretch to get a specific size or a finished look to the fabric, you’re going to have to stretch and pin every time you wash, to get the same results. Let me reiterate: If you need to stretch your wool sweater to fit, you’ll need to stretch it every time you wash it.
Some yarns—animal fibers and silk, specifically—can be stretched out when wet. It’s not just the fabric that stretches, but the actual yarn—up to 25% for some fibers! And if you pin out the wet fabric and let it dry, the piece will stay in that stretched position until it gets wet, when it will return to its original size—or nearly, anyway. This is entirely doable for something like a lace shawl that isn’t washed often, but it would be a massive hassle to have to pin out a kid’s sweater after every washing.
For other fibers, stretching and pinning is pointless: Cotton and synthetic fibers don’t have any stretch, and no matter how carefully you pin them out to dry, they won’t remember the stretched-out size or shape. (This is why we mostly use animal fibers or silk for lace shawls.) There are other ways to make those fabrics tidy.
Yes … if your project is worked in pieces and sewn up, wash the pieces before you seam. Your seams will be neater.
Yes … even if it’s something that doesn’t need to be sewn up, wash the pieces before you declare it done.
Yes … wash before you weave the ends in. If the fabric is going to shift, better to weave in on the fabric in its finished size/shape/state.
“But but,” you say, “I see pictures all the time on Instagram of sweaters pinned out for drying!”
True! And on Instagram everyone’s make-up is perfect and there’s never any dog hair on the furniture and no half-empty coffee cups on the table. You can make garments (and other projects) a little bit tidier if you pin them out (carefully avoiding setting any precedents of unwanted stretch, of course), but if you’re not going to have the sweater photographed for a fashion magazine, you’ll find that the difference is minor and just not worth the fuss.
“But but,” you ask, “What about sock blockers?” Nah. Same for using balloons for hats. If an item is worn with negative ease—that is, it stretches to fit—you don’t want to make it larger before wearing, as you could be throwing the fit off. Sock blockers are a nice way to display your socks for photography, and can be a handy drying rack, but that’s it. Sock blockers date back to a time before superwash, and they were a tool to help stave off felting. They’re just not necessary if you’re working with machine washable yarns, or if you’re hand washing carefully.
My one hat blocking exception is for stranded colorwork berets and tams: those are bigger than the head that is to wear them, and the fabric will need a stretch (or steam)—traditionally on a dinner plate, which is fun—to tidy it.
Do … pay attention to your washing product. A lot of the detergents and laundry additives that advertise their stain-fighting abilities have enzymes called proteases in them. These destroy proteins – like food stains. The problem is that wool and silk are protein fibers, and these stain fighters will actually damage your fabric. Chose ones that are labelled as “wool-safe.” And no, the one with “Wool” in the brand name is not necessarily your best choice. Although it doesn’t have proteases in it, it’s harsher than it needs to be, and can strip moisture out of the fiber.
Do … use a mesh laundry bag for larger items that you’re putting in the machine. This keeps them all together, and stops things from getting tangled on the agitator or other clothes. And if you’re washing or spinning a knit before weaving in ends, it reduces knots and tangles.
In the MDK Shop
Do … consider the drying surface. Laying a damp item on a bed or carpet will slow the drying process, as the air can’t circulate around it. Consider a laundry rack … or the dog’s crate.
be sure to ask your dog for air rights.
For smaller items, I’m a big fan of the clippy hanger, especially the one from Ikea that looks like an Octopus.
an action shot from my bathroom on laundry day! The sock with the hanging end is just off the needles, waiting for the ends to be woven in.
The Short Answer
Blocking frames and wires and mats and pins and combs: unless you’re knitting a lot of lace shawls, you just don’t need them. Wash the pieces, let ‘em dry. Easy and so, so worth it. Don’t believe me? Maybe this photo will help you see:
the sleeve on the right has been washed and dried flat, the one on the left is just off my needles It’s lumpier, and has dog hair and cookies crumbs on it.
(Unstaged, I promise!) The edges are smoother on the washed sleeve, which will make it easier to sew. There’s even a slight difference in the color, as some excess die came off with the wash.
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