When I mention blocking your knitting, I get a lot of blank looks from my students, and concern about how to do it and what they need to make it happen. Although it can be a magical transformation, it doesn’t need to be mysterious. And although there are a bunch of gadgets (special mats and pins, forms, blocking wires etc.) sold specifically for blocking, you don’t need to use any of those to get good results. Some pins and a place to hold them will do, and sometimes you don’t even need that.
What does blocking mean anyway?
Blocking is actually a simple concept. It just means using water and/or steam to set the final shape of something after you knit it. As you knit, you make a new structure—a fabric—with your yarn. When the fabric gets wet, the yarn has a chance to settle into its new shape. Sometimes it can change quite a bit, expanding or relaxing in response to the tensions (or lack of) that are now on it.
In blocking we take advantage of the fact that the yarn can form new shapes, and influence those shapes in the direction we want. This can be as simple as gently stretching and patting a sweater so that it looks good flat, and leaving it to dry. Sometimes more dramatic blocking is part of what makes a pattern shine, like stretching lace as much as possible to make the most of the open areas in the pattern.
Essentially, blocking is getting your knitting wet, shaping it how you want it to be, and holding it in that shape until it dries.
Yarns, especially wool ones, can change shape much more easily when they’re wet. This is because of the structure of the fibers themselves. (If you’re curious about the science of wool and haven’t seen the wool article I wrote for this month’s Seamwork, check it out!)
You can also stretch/shape your object while it’s dry, and then steam it to set the shape. In general, I prefer the wet method for a few reasons. It’s gentler on the fibers, and gives them a chance to relax before being under tension. It also gives a good idea of what your finished project will be like when it’s washed later. A damp yarn object is easier to shape. And when you finish knitting something, it may have been dragged all over hither and yon and have oils from your hands (or sticky stuff from your toddler) on it, and washing it is probably not a bad idea anyway. (Hey—my favorite method for hand-washing is in that wool article too—good timing!) (And speaking of good timing, Karen posted an eloquent argument this morning about why you should wash/block a swatch before embarking on a big project. This is especially important when you’re making something like a sweater, where the final size/fit/drape is crucial to success.)
Does everything need blocking?
Not really. I do wash all my finished knitting projects, shape them gently with my hands, and then leave them to dry. But not everything needs to be pinned out, or to dry in an exact shape. Socks, for example, are meant to be a little smaller than my foot, and to take on the exact shape of my foot when I wear them, so I don’t see much point in carefully shaping them before wearing.
How do I block something without special gadgets?
Everyone should have sewing pins, they’re useful for all kinds of things. I’m not counting them as special equipment, but, it’s worth getting some with large, easy-to-see heads if you don’t have them already. I like plain flat-head pins for sewing, but they get lost in the structure of hand knits.
The only other thing you need is a surface where your knits can dry that you can pin into. A lot of times I use the same folded piece of flannel that I iron on. An ironing board or a couch cushion covered with a towel are good choices for small projects. For big items I stretch an old sheet over my bed (see below).
I tuck a doubled-over old sheet in tight over the bed covers. That provides enough tension to hold in place when I pin onto it. Plus it protects the covers from pin marks or any dye transfer from the yarn. (Forgive the weird indoor lighting. I wanted to show how I actually do this, but our bedroom is not ideal for photos …)
When your finished project is clean and damp, it’s ready to block. Stretch and shape it with your hands, patting wrinkled areas out, smoothing ridges parallel, etc. Pin in place any pieces that try to shrink back, away from the shape you want.
For this shawl, I pinned it at regular intervals along the straight edge, and intermittently along the other two edges. You may have to move the pins as you smooth out the whole project, and that’s fine. (This is my Indigo Boomerang, made with handspun. More details are on Ravelry, and pictures of it worn are also in this post on slowness.)
For the cowl at the top of the post, I wanted to stretch the lace sections, but not the plain knitting in between. I could have blocked it flat, a couple of sections at a time, and that would probably have worked fine, especially if I steamed it. Instead I decided to experiment with different sizes of rolled up towels, and found a combo which was the right size to block it around. I opened up the lace with my fingers while it was damp, and pinned the two edges parallel.
When your blocked knitting is dry, take out the pins and check out the shape. If there are any parts you’re not happy with, or little pulled areas from the pins, those are great places to steam. Hold your iron over the part you want to adjust (don’t flatten it) and fill it with steam. Then take the iron away and reshape it with your fingers.
Will I have to block my knitting every time I wash it?
Probably not. The most dramatic change takes place the first time the yarn gets wet in its new knitted shape. Unless something extreme happens to it, it will stay more or less how you blocked it, with the additional influence of how it’s worn. Lace may need to be re-blocked to look its crispest, but it won’t go all the way back to how it looked before you blocked it the first time. For most items, a quick smoothing/stretching with your hands, before letting them dry flat is enough. I like to drape bigger things like the shawl over the top of a wooden drying rack, using lower bars of the rack to hold the ends so that no part gets too stretched by gravity, or too folded and wrinkly, while it’s drying.
If your project does dry with wrinkles, a little steam will fix that right up.
I hope this helps demystify blocking for you! The more we can all understand what’s going on with our yarn at various stages and why, the more we can get the results we want. Happy knitting!