tips tricks and techniques

… or: how I learned to block to give my knits a truly professional appearance.

First, let me admit two things — I don’t always swatch and I don’t always block.

I don’t always swatch because I’ve been knitting for 40+ years and I have a pretty consistent gauge with the combination of needle size and fiber content. So I swatch when I’m making someone else’s design and want the fit perfect; but this is not often since I mostly design my own.

Blocking: again, because I’ve knit for so many years (and I produce many things each year), I have pretty consistent gauge. One of the great reasons to block is to even out the knitted fabric so all the stitches look the same — with consistent, constant gauge, my stitches are the same size and so I can avoid the extra step of blocking. Also, some yarns don’t block well — 100% cotton, many acrylics and some of the new-age fibers don’t hold a block or may even be ruined by blocking. ALWAYS TEST YOUR SWATCH IF YOU’RE NOT SURE!

But there are still times I block:

  • lace work to open out the lace and sharpen the edges of the garment
  • when I work color-work to ensure that the stitches are evened out and there is no puckering
  • when the garment needs freshening up
  • when the garment needs a bit of something to improve the overall look.

    unblock and blocked
    So when should you block:

     when your knitting is uneven — to make the fabric smooth, with all knit stitches showing as perfect Vs
     when you do color-work — often knitting with 2 or more colors per row, you’re going to get some rippling and unevenness. Blocking improves the overall look of finished color-work, making sure the stitches are smooth and even
     when you do lace — to make the lace pop (as shown in the above picture
     when you want to freshen up the garment (yes, you can block even years after a garment is done!).

    So, how do you block?

    There are many different methods of blocking, but my preferred method is wet-blocking: where you saturate the piece (always making sure to support the piece so the yarn does not get stretched because even the hardiest fiber is weakened when saturated with water), blot to just-damp (never twist or wring the item; instead, lay the piece on a large towel, roll up and pat to remove as much moisture as possible), and then pin out (using long, rust-proof T-pins) on a blocking board (or towel covered bed/carpet). I find lace blocking wires are indispensable for blocking pieces to have nice straight edges and even curves.

    Another, quicker method is to use a steam iron or steamer to block certain spots or freshen up an entire garment. For instance, if you put your sweater on a dress-form, you can steam out any creases, re-fluff the stitches, and make the sweater look perfect. You can also steam with the knitted piece on a towel or blocking board (with or without pins depending on the amount of blocking needed). Some use a damp towel over the spread-out garment and then iron the towel, allowing the steam to permeate the fibers. I worry about this method only because sometimes you can “crush” the knitting or the yarn reacts to the hot, heavy pressure and flattens or gets shiny.

    Always test first!

    Tips on blocking –
     Always run a test on your swatch to ensure it can handle the way you’re going to finish off the garment. One of the first things to do before you begin a project is swatch and then finish the swatch JUST AS YOU WOULD DO the finished garment. If it doesn’t work, you have only “wasted” a small amount of time and yarn. This is definitely prefereable to waiting until the thousands of stitches are bound off and your finishing method ruins all the work.
     use cold water and never vary the temp of the water! Natural fibers felt when plunged into different temps of water. I always use cold water but tepid or even slightly warm is fine. Just make sure your soak water and rinse water are the same relative temperature.
     do NOT agitate or wring the garment — twisting and agitation assist the felting process. Unless you want a felted tea-cozy, just don’t do it.
     always support the wet garment — don’t let it stretch out or put undue stress on the wet fibers. Cashmere is particularly susceptible to breaking when wet — don’t ask how I know!
     use stainless-steel T-pins and/or steel blocking wires (always wipe with a dry cloth before the first use as sometimes there is a bit of manufacturing gunk remaining). You don’t want to leave rust stains on your masterpiece.
     take notes on what worked and, more importantly, what didn’t to avoid having to “keep re-inventing the wheel”

    Finally, know your fibers –
    1. wool can be wet-blocked or steamed (altho superwash doesn’t always block out well — test first); wool is weakened with water so avoid stretching and then breaking the fibers
    2. non-elastic animal fibers (cashmere, alpaca, quiviut, etc) can often become limp after blocking (so rely on good seaming and edges that will contain the garment) but, sometimes that’s exactly what you want for a flowy/drapey scarf
    3. cotton can be wet-blocked or steamed but I find it often just needs a light touch to avoid overly stressing the fibers
    4. rayon or viscose yarns should have little if any heat/steam applied to them as it crushes and cooks the yarn
    5. bamboo, hemp and soy — little if any elasticity means that when you block these be careful not to over-block as once the fibers are stretched, you may not be able to get them back in shape.

    Have I convinced you to try blocking? You’ll be amazed as the results …sig block

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