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How do I block a (insert item here)?

May 08, 2015

With all the knitters and crocheters coming in and out of the store, we start to hear a lot of the same questions. This isn't a bad thing (so don't stop asking those questions!), just a great indication of what things people find the most confusing about knitting and crochet. Since so many of you want to know about these topics, I have decided to start discussing them here on the blog. That way everyone can find the answers they need, even if they haven't yet had a chance to ask the questions!

Today I am going to talk about blocking, a topic that seems to confuse every knitter at one point or another.  What items need to be blocked? How do you do it? What are those pins and mats that everyone keeps talking about? Do I really need to buy a set of blocking wires?  Blocking is a BIG topic, so I'm just going to get started on it today.  This is the time of year that I wash (and block!) and pack away all my sweaters, so it makes sense for me to start there: How and Why do you block a sweater.  And, as I was asked just the other day, do you have to do this each time you wash a sweater?   As you read through this, keep in mind that this is all only my opinion, and there are going to be lots of people who do things differently and/or think my way is not the best one - and that is totally fair. Leave us a comment to tell us how you do things, and become a part of our discussion.  So let's get started...

Sweaters (and other non-lacey garments) are probably the easiest thing to block - all you really need are the sweater, some water, and a water-resistant surface on which to let it dry - and perhaps a few other bits and pieces.  Today, I am blocking two sweaters: my beloved green cardi, and my grey Emerald pullover.  Step one, throw them in the bath and leave them to soak for at least 20-30 minutes:

While the sweaters soak, we can cover a few details.  This method is called "wet blocking", and involves getting your item really wet - my approach is to soak the sweater in water for a good half hour.  With the addition of a wool wash such as Eucalan, you are technically also washing your sweaters, bringing them back into like-new condition.  Blocking a freshly knit garment will even out your stitching, and smooth out sections that are uneven, and help tame hems and button bands that don't want to lie flat (in most cases, anyway).  These things are also necessary after you've been wearing the sweater, since the very act of putting it own stretches the fabric slightly out of shape.  A quick soak in Eucalan will take all the dirt out, and add in a little bit of softness thanks to the lanolin that is infused into the soap (more about Ecualan in a bit).

You do need to be a little careful with wet blocking.  I keep my water fairly cool - warm enough that my hands don't freeze when I go to handle the sweater, but not so hot that it might encourage felting.  Fill up your sink or bucket (or bathtub, in this case), pour in the wool wash, and then add in your sweater.  I usually push my sweater under the water (gently, of course), unless it was made with a very delicate yarn.  Wet fibres are more delicate than dry ones, and can be easily damaged by too much agitation. Let your sweater soak for 20-30 minutes (go knit in the meantime!) and then you can come back and drain out the water.

If you have one, use a spare collander to scoop up your sweater before opening the drain - again, a wet sweater is more delicate, and you don't want to stretch out any part of the fabric (the bigger the sweater, the more likely this is to happen).  With the arms and collars and everything all secure in the collander, you can easily carry your wet sweater anywhere it needs to go - in this case, from bathtub to bathroom sink. Gently press the sweater to squeeze out any excess water, but be sure not to wring or twist the wet fabric.  I have weak hands so I'm not great at squeezing out excess water.  My approach is to roll the sweater into a towel, and then squeeze it dry by standing on it - save your hands for knitting, and put your feet to work for once!

The final step is simply to lay the sweater out on a water-resistant surface, and leave it out to dry.  Ideally, this is where you want to pull out those sweater schematics, and make sure all your measurements are precise.  On my Emerald sweater, for example, the wet sleeves tend to stretch long and thin.  I like a little more room in the bicep, so I gently pull the sleeve wider and shorter. Button up your buttons, and make sure the fronts and backs of your sweater are even (if they're supposed to be!).  At the very least, make sure your sleeves are pretty close to the same length.  :)   Now you just have to wait, and let the sweater dry... try not to put it in direct sunlight, as this might fade your colours.  It may take several days for the sweater to dry (especially in Vancouver when its damp), so I often turn the sweater over after a day or two.  Moisture will get trapped between the sweater and your drying surface, and this will just slow down the drying process.

Now that you see how easy it all is, you have no excuse not to block your sweaters.  In terms of fancy tools, your soap and your drying surface are the only really essentials.  As I mentioned, I like to use Eucalan wool wash (we have it in the store, just not online), because it dissolves after a short time, and doesn't require rinsing.  There are several other wool washes on the market, such as Soak, and Kookaburra.  If you can't get hold of one of these, baby shampoo can work, as will any gentle shampoo - use them sparingly and stay away from ones meant for 'dry or damaged hair'.  Despite the company's advertising campaigns, it is not recommended to use Woolite when washing wool - it has a high alkaline level that damages wool fibres and can encourage felting.

For a drying surface, you can use anything that is mostly waterproof. You can buy "official" knitting blocking boards, although they tend to be a little pricey.  My suggestion is to any hardware store and buy a pack of those puzzle-piece foam pads that are meant to be used as floor coverings in kids' rooms and garage spaces.  I have seen 'official' knitting blocking mats made exactly like this, that cost upwards of $40 for a set of 12-inch squares.  My pack of four 2' x 2' squares cost me all of $10, and (as you can see) are the perfect size for one of my sweaters.  For bigger items, I link them all together, and make a shape that best suits the thing I'm blocking.  And when they're not in use, they make a great yoga mat as well! :)

Having a mat like this makes it really easy to pin out any bits of your sweater, to help tame a curling button band or keep the hems even.  If you do this, however, make sure to get rust-proof pins - there is nothing worse than coming back to a now-dry item and seeing little brown rust stains next to every pin!  Rust stains do not come out - I learned this one the hard way!

If you prefer not to wet block (and there are lots of reasons why you might), there are other methods you can use.  For smaller, delicate items, you can try spritz blocking, where you lay out the item to the desired dimensions (pinning if necessary), and then dampen the fabric by way of a spray bottle.  The yarn doesn't get as wet, so it dries faster, but I find this to be pretty ineffective on denser fabrics.  Another method is to steam block something - lie it out on an ironing board or other heat proof surface, and then blast it with hot steam from your iron or hand-steamer.  This works really well with wool swatches - you can actually see the yarn bloom and uncurl.  There are two important warnings about using this method - do not touch the iron to the surface of the yarn, and do not use this method if the yarn contains nylon, acrylic, or other synthetic fibres. Or tencel, or rayon, or bamboo. Or anything rayon-like.  All of these fibres are heat sensitive, and will wilt or even melt from the heat.  The hot steam will ruin the fabric, and there's no way to fix it.  I really only use steam blocking for swatches, and even then I prefer to wet block them.  I have had sweaters grow considerably when washed, and at least you can (kind of) anticipate this result by washing your swatch the same way you're going to wash your finished sweater.  But swatches - and the necessity of making them - requires a whole other very long post, and I will leave that for another day!