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The Best Way to Block Your Fibre Projects and Why You Should
There are as many ways to block as there are fibre types. And maybe that sentence, right there, is why so many people eschew the process altogether. Because there is no quick answer to the question "How do I block this?" Add to that the fact that most patterns end with the truly illuminating "To finish, weave in ends and block," and you're left with a sense that this "blocking" thing is only for those in-the-know.
Well, allow me to initiate you.
Almost everything I've read about blocking begins with the author's pre-revelation story. Something along the lines of, "I used to think blocking was a waste of time...". I've got one of those stories, too. Every born-again blocker does. So let's skip that part and get right to the point.
Why you should block your fibre projects
Because it makes them look better. That is all. I don't think it should need any more justification than that really. But okay: it can also make them fit, and feel better too.
If you're still on the fence, I will tell you what I tell my 5 year old when he doesn't want to try a new food: You can't say you don't like something (or in this case, you don't find something necessary), unless you have tried it first.
There. That is why you should block your knitting/crochet/weaving/etc., or at least why you should try. Because if you haven't tried it, if you are still shrugging it off, you are no better than a little kid turning his nose up at his mom's homemade mac and cheese with truffle oil. I know, right?
Think about blocking as a set of techniques to be learned and then combined to uniquely suit each project; much in the way that knitting, crochet, or weaving is a set of techniques which you combine differently each time you make a new project.
Also, just as you develop a way of making your projects that is unique to you, you should also embrace the techniques of blocking that work best for you and develop your own blocking "sense." I say this because the information on "how to block" that you'll find out there on the world wide knitting web (and I've listed some of them at the end of this post) is as varied as the authors themselves. Each person brings their own experience to bear on the techniques they describe. So I encourage you not to take anything you read as gospel (including these words), and rather take the tools you find and make them your own. Again, try is the catchword here.
First of all, what is blocking?
Blocking is a process by which moisture (and sometimes heat) are used to straighten, smooth, and set fibre into its final shape.
I like to think about blocking techniques in 3 levels of intensity. This has to do with how deeply into the fibre you are permitting the moisture to penetrate. The deeper the the moisture gets in, the greater the effect on the fabric. Steam blocking (level 1) uses the least amount of moisture, but the greatest amount of heat. Wet blocking (level 2) introduces more moisture, but no heat. Washing (level 3) involves adding a mild detergent to the process. The detergent allows the water to permeate as deeply as possible, particularly for fibres such as wool which naturally repel water (my thanks to Donna of Wellington Fibres for explaining this during the Yarn Club meeting much better than I could have).
Steam blocking is my favourite, particularly since I was gifted a second-hand pro steamer earlier this year. When I steam block something, I put the item on my ironing board and use the steam from my iron or steamer (or spritz it with a spray bottle if my iron's steam function is acting up again) to straighten out the stitches. I rarely pin the item, because for me steam blocking is not about setting shape. If I want to block something to a certain shape or measurement, I wet block. Steaming is about achieving even stitches and beautiful smooth fabric with perfect drape. To this end, I often "finish" my finishing by steam blocking an item that I have already wet blocked to the proper shape. I also steam block items that are going to be worn with negative ease, such as hats and socks, because in those cases the shape will be provided by the body part.
As you will see further down in the post, not all approaches are appropriate for every fibre type. Steam blocking shouldn't be used on acrylic and other man-made fibres because the heat could ruin it (melty, yikes!). On the other hand, cotton is ideally suited to steam blocking.
Wet blocking involves saturating the item with water in some way and pinning it out into shape. It gives a bit more control over the final look of the item, and can fix things like rolling edges or the length of a sleeve.
Within the level 2 of wet blocking there are 3 degrees of saturation: spraying, wherein you pin your item out to the desired dimensions and then spray it down until it's wet (I sometimes pat it down as I go to encourage the moisture not to just cling to the top of fibres like wool); wet-wrapping, wherein you soak a towel in water and then wrap the item in the towel to transfer moisture to it, then pin out the item to the proper dimensions; and immersion, wherein you actually dunk the item in a bucket or sink full of water and get it really wet, then extract the excess water either by putting it in you washing machine on spin or rolling it up in a dry towel and giving it a good squish, and again pinning it out to shape. You then let the item dry completely, still pinned.
Wait, what am I pinning it to? Oh, right. You can pin it to any flat surface that the pins can stick into and that you aren't going to mind getting a bit wet. In the photo above you can see my Eramosa Vest sample pinned out on top of two big beach towels on the heavy duty carpeting that covers the floor in my workroom. I also pin things to my ironing board if they will fit. I have also seen people pinning things to their mattresses, as well as some excellent DIY blocking boards, and store bought options.
Above I noted that I like to follow up wet blocking with a little steam if the fibre permits, which is particularly useful for getting out the inevitable pin marks that result from wet blocking.
Wet blocking is suitable for most projects in some form or another, though it's important to note that in the case of most fibres moisture can weaken them, so the more moisture you add the more careful you have to be when working with it wet. Read on for fibre specific guidelines.
Washing, as I mentioned above, is essentially adding detergent to your immersion wet blocking situation to increase the saturation of the fibre. This is an extreme blocking scenario that rarely comes up for me, but it's good to know it's an option if you're in dire straights. I have also heard of people using detergent to try to soften their handmade fabric, or to fuzz it up a bit if that's the desired effect. If you don't want to spring for a dedicated wool wash, you can use baby shampoo, or something equally mild (now that's knitting without tears!).
A note on swatches
I'm always tempted to just give my swatches a good steam and be done with it, they're just squares after all. But in order to really get a sense of how your finished fabric is going to behave, you should block the swatch as you plan to block the finished object.
As I've touched on already, different fibres demand different treatment. You can let the project guide your hand somewhat when you're making your blocking decisions, but if you're unsure about a special fibre, I've made a little cheat sheet below (click the image to load a larger version). Some of the resources I've listed below also address the specific fibre issue in more detail.
One exception to the wool blocking guidelines is superwash wool. Because superwash has had its cuticle chemically stripped to stop it from felting, it has also lost its ability to bounce back into shape the way you might expect untreated wool to do. For this reason I avoid doing much more than pinning and spraying superwash initially, especially for larger items where the weight of the water could stretch things out more than I'd like. Once I do start putting my kids' superwash stuff in the washing machine, I never hang it to dry, unless I want their sweater cuffs to hang to their knees.
There are some special blocking scenarios that are worth mentioning because they need a little extra special "technique" beyond what I've already described. The ones that come up most frequently for me are lace and stranded colourwork.
My dear friend and tech editor extraordinaire, Alison, refers to lace blocking as "aggressive blocking" because of the tendency to block lace within an inch of its life. You do this to maximize the visibility of the lace pattern, adding extra space to your yarn overs. If your lace is a symmetrical shape, such as a triangular shawl, you also want to block it evenly (no scalenes here!), so it's helpful to measure and mark out your dimensions on your blocking surface. Lace blocking is where many of the specialty blocking tools such as wires and demarcated blocking mats do their best work.
Be prepared to also re-block lace after a period of use. Depending on the fibre, lace will begin to relax and will need a refresher course from time to time.
I do a lot of stranded knitting, and so my blocking technique for these projects has evolved from experience. I find that colourwork requires a bit more manipulation to settle the stitches in their happiest positions. Once I've introduced the moisture, be it from my steamer or my sink, I tug the piece this way and that to even out the tension of the stitches and the carries on the back of the work. When I'm satisfied that everyone is playing nicely, I reshape the item, pin it out if necessary, and once it's dry I finesse it with the steamer or iron.
There is a lot of great experience-based information out there to draw on when you're looking to dive into or expand your repertoire of blocking. Here are some that I found helpful:
- Tools for the DiY Knitter: To block or not to block... (includes great fibre specific info, plus a DIY blocking mat tutorial)
- How to Block Knitting: Wet Blocking and Steam Blocking Knitting Techniques (a good beginner's overview from Interweave)
- Knit.101 Beginner Basics: Blocking (a very brief overview with a quick guide to different fibres' heat tolerance)
- Blocking Lace (different approaches using different tools, includes video)
Anything I should add to this guide? I'd love to hear your blocking experience. Thanks for joining the party!