Hello! This is Kate with her Technical Editor Hat on! The topic of blocking came up a few times when I was editing the patterns for this most recent issue, and I thought it was worth discussing…
The word “block” tends to send knitters into a bit of a tizzy. (It did me, for years. I’m not ashamed to admit it.) It seems so complicated, with all these pieces of equipment like mats and wires and pins and buckets and towels and special washes and goodness knows what else.
The word “block” is actually a very general term: think of it like “cook”. When you “cook” dinner, sometimes you use the oven, sometimes you use the stove-top, sometimes you use the barbecue, sometimes you use the slow-cooker, sometimes you use the microwave – heck, sometimes you don’t even use any equipment at all, you just take some bread and lay slices of meat or cheese or beautiful garden-fresh tomatoes on it.
How you cook depends on the ingredients and the recipe; how you block depends on the yarn and the project.
The good news is that for the vast majority of types of yarns and projects, there is a very simple answer: wash. That’s right, just wash whatever it is. Of course, you’ll want to pay attention to the washing instructions for the yarn: if it’s wool that’s inclined to felt, hand-wash; if it’s a cotton, or a man-made fiber, or a wool that’s treated to be safe in the washing machine (i.e. “Superwash”), then you can throw it in the machine.
(And if you’re worried about washing wool, remember that sheep get rained on. Washing wool does not ruin it. Quite the opposite: wool LOVES water. Wool NEEDS water. What felts wool is not water, it’s the agitation; it’s rapid temperature changes — i.e. pouring very hot water into cold — or the sort of agitation that a top-loading washing machine creates.)
Washing a knit piece is actually rather miraculous: it evens out your stitches, it smooths the fabric, and tidies up your edges, it makes your fabric lie flatter, it opens up the lacework, it brings your cables into shape, it relaxes your colorwork. It beautifies!
But it’s also necessary: it gets the dog hair and coffee stains out, it gets rid of any unfixed overdye (I had blue feet once for a couple of days because I wore a pair of socks made of hand-dyed yarn that hadn’t properly been fixed, and the dye bled onto my feet), it removes any moisturizer than you might have applied to your hands before you started knitting. It removes any sizing that might have been applied to the yarn at the mill, any dust that might have gathered on it from the yarn shop.
And washing the pieces is super-important before you sew up. It makes it easier to sew because pieces lie flatter and edges curl less. But even more than that, a proper washing brings the fabric to its final shape and size. Just as when sewing with woven fabrics, you prewash to preshrink before cutting so that your seams aren’t puckery, you want to prewash your knit pieces before you sew them up so that the seams are tidy and neat. After all, if you sew up and then the pieces stretch out with a first wash, then you’re going to have lumpy and funny-looking seams.
Fibers and fabrics can change pretty radically with washing: a superwash wool, especially one that is knit loosely, tends to stretch out, linen and hemps soften, silk blooms and relaxes; garter stitch will relax vertically, ribbing relaxes horizontally.
What this means, of course, is that when you’re knitting it, your fabric might not look the way the finished project will… I remember when I was just starting to seriously knit as an adult, I couldn’t figure out why the knitting on my needles never looked as good at the knitting people in my LYS were wearing: I just assumed (like everyone does) that it was because I was a rubbish knitter: nope, not true. It’s just that I hadn’t washed the pieces yet. When I’m working on something, it’s crumpled and uneven and untidy and scrunched up and often pretty awful-looking. But once I wash it, it looks much nicer! (You don’t think that the lovely Electricity hat looked that smooth and neat on the needles, did you? There is absolutely no chance in the world it did. That hat’s been washed and steamed. And Cameo Flower was absolutely a crumpled mess when it was being knitted.)
It also means that your fabric on your needles might not be sized the way the finished project will be, either… if you’re working a piece of lace, you know this instinctively, it’s smaller on your needles than when done. (Which, by the way, means that you need to measure your swatch after it’s been washed the way you intend to wash the finished project; listed gauges are always blocked gauges.)
Now, there are some projects for which you need to do more than wash: and this where the mats and wires and pins and all that goodness come in. Lace needs to be stretched to open up all the lovely yarnover holes: to do that, we get the piece good and wet – I soak it in lukewarm water for a good twenty minutes, roll it in a towel to wring it out, and stretch it out, pin it and let it dry in its stretched state. A yarn that has elasticity and a memory (wool, silk, other animal fibers), will “remember” that stretched position when it’s dry and be gorgeous. And colorwork often needs an additional steaming to tidy up any bumpy areas.
But true confession: the only projects I pin out this way are lace shawls. I don’t bother pinning garment pieces (gasp!) because I’m not going to pin them out every time I wash the thing, so I don’t want to set a precedent I’m not going to keep up with.
There are some yarns that need some treatment in addition to washing. Man-made fibers, for example, don’t stretch or change shape or relax with washing, so we apply steam to those to smooth, even out, open up those fabrics. But I still always wash: after all, I’ve still been eating chips and sharing the couch with the dog and spilling coffee, no matter what yarn I’m using.
There are times when a pattern might suggest specifically not to stretch or manipulate something too much: the designer of the Attention Span hat, for example, suggests being careful not to squish or flatten the lovely texture of the Entrelac. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have a wash: after all, it’s a winter hat, chances are it’s going to get snowed or rained on at some point!
And a garment is going to need a wash at some point, is it not? Indeed, I can’t think of anything you will knit that won’t need to be washed at some point. Most things will be worn many many more times after washing than before, yes? So knit with that in mind: make it look good after washing! More the point: let the washing make it look good! Seriously, if you’ve not been happy with how your pieces look when they’re done, try giving them a wash: I guarantee you’ll see a difference.
(Want to learn more? There’s a Craftsy class!)