Time to throw some clarity on that famous closing phrase at the end of most patterns: “weave ends and block to size”…
I am always amazed at the equally amazed looks I get from a lot of very experienced, or long time knitters and crocheters I come across at my classes and workshops, when I ask them if they have blocked their piece, or whether these measurements are taken before or after blocking.
I suspect some of you might be wearing that same look right now, as you are reading this!
The answer I usually get is: “I don’t know what you mean!” I then respond quoting the end of the pattern, followed by “oh, I just ignore that bit cause I don’t know what that means”, or “I didn’t do it because I don’t know how to do it”.
This might make you think that if they have been knitting and crocheting for so long without blocking, then it can’t be very important. And you may be right, it is absolutely fine not to block your finished projects at all. It won’t destroy them. And what you don’t know can’t hurt you either.
So why bother?
Well, as much as not blocking your items will not affect them (for now), you are passing by and missing a great (and very easy) opportunity to give your project a neat and crisp finished look, as well as turning it into the exact shape and size you meant for it to be, when you started it in the first place… Wouldn’t that be nice?..
Even those lucky knitters and crocheters, who somehow manage to work up a piece with amazingly straight lines and borders, and who, as if by magic, hit the right size measurements with perfect tension that happens to match exactly the gauge stated in the pattern, your project will of course look great until…. you wash it. Or worse, until the lucky recipient of your beautiful hard work washes it. Depending on the fibre content of the yarn you have used, the once tightly knitted or crocheted garment will either become an oversized piece with flappy, stretched stitches that have lost a lot of their beautiful definition, or worse, a shrunken and rigid garment that you will have to fight with, in order to get into it again.
Do I mean that you should not ever wash your knitting or crochet? Absolutely not. I am just talking about what you should do when you wash it FOR THE FIRST TIME, which is, simply, blocking. If done well, the blocking process should have “imprinted” the memory of your fibres, and by extension, the aspect, shape and size of your garment forever, and should make regular caring for your handmade projects a little bit easier in the future.
So how should you “block”, “press”, or “dress”?
You might have noticed that the first two of these seem to be used interchangeably in most patterns, while the term “dressing” will be more familiar to those who have experience in Shetland knitting, and especially in Shetland lace.
Essentially, blocking and dressing mean the same thing: wash your finished piece, lay it out to dry naturally, pinned to the exact size and shape required. You may pin it onto a “blocking board”, or stretched and pinned into place over a “dressing frame”, a more traditional way to do this.
The term “pressing” tends to refer more to steaming your finished knitting or crochet using an iron, or to simply iron it over a damp cloth. I am not a great believer in this method, for two important reasons. Firstly, different fibres react completely differently to heat. While most artificial fibres might melt or even burn, a lot of natural fibres will not tolerate heat well, and become flat, limp, and totally lifeless. Let’s not even mention mixed yarns, or all those times you have no idea what kind of fibres you are using at all, as the label was non existent to start with, or gone a very long time ago! Secondly, once the heat damage is done, it is absolutely IRREVERSIBLE. However many times you try to wash it into shape after that, the structure and elasticity of the yarn will never come back. I’m sure that some of you have used this method many times with great results, but unless you are sure of how your yarn will react (as well as the pins you are using!) to the heat, I find that wet blocking is just as easy, harmless and allows for more adjustments while the piece is slowly drying.
So how do I do my blocking? I said earlier that it was very easy. And so it is.! All you need is a clean tub filled with tepid water (not cold or hot so as to not shock the fibres), add a few drops of hand wash, or some “No Rinse” product specifically designed for woollen care, and drop in your piece of knitting and crochet. Press it down in the water until there are hardly any bubbles coming up, so you are sure that every inch of your project has taken the water in, and leave it there to soak for a few minutes.
This is when I normally fetch a clean towel (or a couple for big projects), and set up my blocking board, or drying area. This can be pretty much anything you want, or anything you have..! A spare bed in the spare bedroom, or spare bit of floor in a bedroom (with a door that stops any nosy cat or dog from the somehow irresistible temptation to lie down all the way across it), or even your dining table if the rest of your household is fine without it for a couple of days..! If you are using a carpeted floor or a bed, you may pin your damp pieces straight onto the towel; if you are using some furniture however, like a desk or table, you may want to use something to protect your furniture from the points of your needles. My dining table does have several “suspicious dots” all over it from using it for blocking in the past!
You can find a whole variety of “blocking boards” especially designed for cutting and blocking patchwork fabrics, hand knitted or crocheted garments online. They tend to be quite expensive, but have very useful printed straight lines and measurements which are handy to have when pinning your pieces down to a required shape or size. You can also use an excellent and much cheaper alternative to those blocking boards, like a large foam jigsaw normally used to provide soft flooring for children to play on. These are normally inexpensive (most sets cost under £10), easy to find in the kids section of most big supermarkets, and I love the fact that you can put together as many pieces as you like, according to the size of the piece you need to block, then take them apart again and store until the next time you need them. I have been using the same set for about 10 years now, they have not broken or torn apart (just riddled with needle holes!), and I use them each time I block anything, even on a bed, as I find the foam dries out quicker than towels.
So once my blocking area is ready, I take my towel and roll it out nearby. I pick up the piece that has been soaking in the tub, gently pull it out of the water by pressing it to get as much of the water out as I can (without wringing it!!), then I lay it out on the towel. Then I simply roll the towel in, pressing quite hard as I go, so that the towel absorbs most of the water remaining in the project; for large or bulky pieces, I use a couple of towels and even use my knees to keep the pressure on the towel as I roll it. Trust me, it does not damage your garment! Then I bring the rolled up towel to the blocking area and unroll. My project should now be just damp or moist, but not wet or dripping; if it is, I take another towel and repeat, but it very rarely happens.
Now all I have to do is lay down my project on the chosen blocking area, making sure it is stretched out to exactly the shape or size I want it to be, then I pin it in place using blocking or “T-shaped” needles. Blocking needles are inexpensive, yet absolutely necessary to use when blocking, for they are steel coated, and as such designed to be used on wet fabrics. Regular pins, or tailor’s needles, are very likely to rust, and the last thing you need after working so hard and long on your beautiful project, is for it to be ruined by unsightly rust stains that will never go away! For long, straight edges of blankets, shawls, or even jumpers, you can also use blocking wires, which come in different sizes, and which you can weave through the stitches along the edges of a piece to keep them straight, and kept down by blocking pins.
So there it is. Now I leave it and let it be for a couple of days, or however long it takes for it to be fully dry. I take care when I take the pins out to not fray the fabric and pull loops, then put ALL the blocking needles safely away until next time, and admire the results! My squares square, and they will stay flat, however much I play with them or throw them up in the air to check; my finished garment will be and will stay at the size and shape it is at. Yes, it is pretty wonderful…
This whole process might seem laborious when reading it, but it is in fact a very quick process: it can take me up to 15 minutes to block several small pieces at once, or maybe half an hour for a large one (jumpers, blankets, shawls etc..). So it really is, like I said, a very easy and quick way to add so much to your knitting or crocheting process, that it would be almost silly to skip it!
Should you block EVERYTHING??
Since I have just spent quite a little while explaining the various processes of blocking, you might think that this is a silly question, and that I am surely going to say “yes, block everything, all the time of course…” But no, I don’t think it is necessary to block absolutely everything. So how do you know what to block and what not to? Well, let’s have a look at the benefits and reasons for blocking your projects; if these don’t apply to some projects, I guess it is then NOT necessary to block them. I did say earlier that the two main reasons for blocking hand knits and crochet are for the neat, finished look of the project, as well as its perfect size and shape. So, in which way does it make your knitting look neat, or neater, for those of you who already magically “knit neat”?
Excellent stitch definition might be key for some projects like lace knitting, or elaborate crochet lace and motifs. If you have ever seen or made a knitted lace shawl or scarf before it was blocked, you will know that it doesn’t really look anything like the finished product, rather more like a messy, wrinkled piece with holes in it. (That’s what all mine look like, anyway…). So the complex lace patterns that you have spent on, are actually pretty invisible until you block and stretch the piece out to dry. Now all those eyelets and undulations make sense, and the points are pointing!
The same can be said for tiny crochet lace motifs, which need to be stretched in order to show their patterns. Traditionally, lace garments, especially Shetland lace, were “dressed” by being stretched out over the grass during the summer to dry, or stretched over a purpose made wooden dressing frame, found in different sizes to accommodate different projects. Large wedding shawls or “Ring shawls” were often stretched and pinned vertically onto a huge frame outside to show off the intricate patterns.
Blocking does not just improve the look of lace garments; it, in fact, improves the look of all knitted and crocheted stitches: it evens out all the bumps and gaps between the stitches, to produce a very even and neat fabric. Even simple stocking stitch looks better after blocking!
The second and very important benefit of blocking is shaping and/or sizing. As we all know, fibres react to being wet or washed, and this can lead to some of the disasters I mentioned earlier. So one of the first questions you should ask yourself when starting a project is this: is it to be worn, and if so, to be washed regularly? Because if this is the case, you should want to know what the yarn, and therefore the final product, will do and look like when it has been washed. And I know, I am not going to go into the internal struggle of whether you should swatch or not before you start a project, but all I will say is that, if you do win that mental battle and decide to do a swatch, this swatch will be a little useless if you don’t wash it before you use it..! The best thing to do is to take your stitch/rows measurements before and after you block it, so you can see the difference… You may be amazed by the results! Although most artificial yarns do not alter too much in size after blocking, a lot of natural fibres, especially wool, will “puff up” considerably once it has been washed, resulting in a larger fabric than before, An extra half an inch over a small swatch can totally affect the final size of the garment. So as they say, treat your swatch like you would treat your garment, so you should want to wash it too!
You can also use blocking to stretch your pieces to the right size and shape, or pin them as they are, if they are a little bigger already, to make sure they don’t stretch further. As natural yarns tend to have a good “memory”, they will keep their shape pretty much forever once you have blocked them properly. Jumpers and socks can be blocked flat or on specifically designed T-shaped jumper dressing boards, and sock blockers.
Blocking is also very useful if you are making pieces that will need to be sewn or joined together. I always recommend blocking the flat pieces of a garment separately before you join them, as it is much easier to match stitches and rows and sew edges together once you have pinned those edges to dry straight, flat and to the right size! No more annoying curling stocking stitch edges! The same can be said about crocheted motifs that need sewn or crocheted together to form a large piece, for a blanket for example. It is much easier, as well as space saving, to block a few small pieces at a time, rather than a huge blanket to block all at once at the end. The blocked individual motifs will also be much easier to join together, as they lay flat and are each exactly of the required size.
Finally, if you don’t think that blocking will improve the look or size of your project, then don’t do it! We all like to save ourselves some useful and precious time, and we all want to get on with the next project in line. There are a few things I don’t bother blocking, such as projects that don’t need to be worn. I have never blocked pieces for toys, or even cushion covers, as I feel the stuffing will stretch them and keep them in shape. Some fuzzy, or very easily felting yarns WILL felt further with blocking, so you might feel you can get away without blocking them, as they already obscure the stitches and the shapes anyway..
So….! I am hoping that, after this, there will be no more baby blankets that aren’t quite square and don’t fold up to match at the corners for you, as well as garments that don’t fit, or worse, used to fit!! I don’t like maths, and I never have, but I like TIME, so I do like these:
Deciding on a project = a long time (too much choice, too many patterns!)
Choosing my yarn / colour = quite some time!
Knitting / crocheting my project = hours and hours and hours
Blocking = 15-30 mins
Drying = 1-3 days of doing NOTHING
Perfect looking project = FOREVER