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The Best Way to Block Your Fibre Projects and Why You Should
There are as many ways to block as there are fibre types. And maybe that sentence, right there, is why so many people eschew the process altogether. Because there is no quick answer to the question “How do I block this?” Add to that the fact that most patterns end with the truly illuminating “To finish, weave in ends and block,” and you’re left with a sense that this “blocking” thing is only for those in-the-know.
Well, allow me to initiate you.
Almost everything I’ve read about blocking begins with the author’s pre-revelation story. Something along the lines of, “I used to think blocking was a waste of time…”. I’ve got one of those stories, too. Every born-again blocker does. So let’s skip that part and get right to the point.
Why you should block your fibre projects
Because it makes them look better. That is all. I don’t think it should need any more justification than that really. But okay: it can also make them fit, and feel better too.
If you’re still on the fence, I will tell you what I tell my 5 year old when he doesn’t want to try a new food: You can’t say you don’t like something (or in this case, you don’t find something necessary), unless you have tried it first.
There. That is why you should block your knitting/crochet/weaving/etc., or at least why you should try. Because if you haven’t tried it, if you are still shrugging it off, you are no better than a little kid turning his nose up at his mom’s homemade mac and cheese with truffle oil. I know, right?
Think about blocking as a set of techniques to be learned and then combined to uniquely suit each project; much in the way that knitting, crochet, or weaving is a set of techniques which you combine differently each time you make a new project.
Also, just as you develop a way of making your projects that is unique to you, you should also embrace the techniques of blocking that work best for you and develop your own blocking “sense.” I say this because the information on “how to block” that you’ll find out there on the world wide knitting web (and I’ve listed some of them at the end of this post) is as varied as the authors themselves. Each person brings their own experience to bear on the techniques they describe. So I encourage you not to take anything you read as gospel (including these words), and rather take the tools you find and make them your own. Again, try is the catchword here.
First of all, what is blocking?
Blocking is a process by which moisture (and sometimes heat) are used to straighten, smooth, and set fibre into its final shape.
I like to think about blocking techniques in 3 levels of intensity. This has to do with how deeply into the fibre you are permitting the moisture to penetrate. The deeper the the moisture gets in, the greater the effect on the fabric. Steam blocking (level 1) uses the least amount of moisture, but the greatest amount of heat. Wet blocking (level 2) introduces more moisture, but no heat. Washing (level 3) involves adding a mild detergent to the process. The detergent allows the water to permeate as deeply as possible, particularly for fibres such as wool which naturally repel water (my thanks to Donna of Wellington Fibres for explaining this during the Yarn Club meeting much better than I could have).
Steam blocking is my favourite, particularly since I was gifted a second-hand pro steamer earlier this year. When I steam block something, I put the item on my ironing board and use the steam from my iron or steamer (or spritz it with a spray bottle if my iron’s steam function is acting up again) to straighten out the stitches. I rarely pin the item, because for me steam blocking is not about setting shape. If I want to block something to a certain shape or measurement, I wet block. Steaming is about achieving even stitches and beautiful smooth fabric with perfect drape. To this end, I often “finish” my finishing by steam blocking an item that I have already wet blocked to the proper shape. I also steam block items that are going to be worn with negative ease, such as hats and socks, because in those cases the shape will be provided by the body part.
As you will see further down in the post, not all approaches are appropriate for every fibre type. Steam blocking shouldn’t be used on acrylic and other man-made fibres because the heat could ruin it (melty, yikes!). On the other hand, cotton is ideally suited to steam blocking.
Wet blocking involves saturating the item with water in some way and pinning it out into shape. It gives a bit more control over the final look of the item, and can fix things like rolling edges or the length of a sleeve.
Within the level 2 of wet blocking there are 3 degrees of saturation: spraying, wherein you pin your item out to the desired dimensions and then spray it down until it’s wet (I sometimes pat it down as I go to encourage the moisture not to just cling to the top of fibres like wool); wet-wrapping, wherein you soak a towel in water and then wrap the item in the towel to transfer moisture to it, then pin out the item to the proper dimensions; and immersion, wherein you actually dunk the item in a bucket or sink full of water and get it really wet, then extract the excess water either by putting it in you washing machine on spin or rolling it up in a dry towel and giving it a good squish, and again pinning it out to shape. You then let the item dry completely, still pinned.
Wait, what am I pinning it to? Oh, right. You can pin it to any flat surface that the pins can stick into and that you aren’t going to mind getting a bit wet. In the photo above you can see my Eramosa Vest sample pinned out on top of two big beach towels on the heavy duty carpeting that covers the floor in my workroom. I also pin things to my ironing board if they will fit. I have also seen people pinning things to their mattresses, as well as some excellent DIY blocking boards, and store bought options.
Above I noted that I like to follow up wet blocking with a little steam if the fibre permits, which is particularly useful for getting out the inevitable pin marks that result from wet blocking.
Wet blocking is suitable for most projects in some form or another, though it’s important to note that in the case of most fibres moisture can weaken them, so the more moisture you add the more careful you have to be when working with it wet. Read on for fibre specific guidelines.
Washing, as I mentioned above, is essentially adding detergent to your immersion wet blocking situation to increase the saturation of the fibre. This is an extreme blocking scenario that rarely comes up for me, but it’s good to know it’s an option if you’re in dire straights. I have also heard of people using detergent to try to soften their handmade fabric, or to fuzz it up a bit if that’s the desired effect. If you don’t want to spring for a dedicated wool wash, you can use baby shampoo, or something equally mild (now that’s knitting without tears!).
A note on swatches
I’m always tempted to just give my swatches a good steam and be done with it, they’re just squares after all. But in order to really get a sense of how your finished fabric is going to behave, you should block the swatch as you plan to block the finished object.
As I’ve touched on already, different fibres demand different treatment. You can let the project guide your hand somewhat when you’re making your blocking decisions, but if you’re unsure about a special fibre, I’ve made a little cheat sheet below (click the image to load a larger version). Some of the resources I’ve listed below also address the specific fibre issue in more detail.
One exception to the wool blocking guidelines is superwash wool. Because superwash has had its cuticle chemically stripped to stop it from felting, it has also lost its ability to bounce back into shape the way you might expect untreated wool to do. For this reason I avoid doing much more than pinning and spraying superwash initially, especially for larger items where the weight of the water could stretch things out more than I’d like. Once I do start putting my kids’ superwash stuff in the washing machine, I never hang it to dry, unless I want their sweater cuffs to hang to their knees.
There are some special blocking scenarios that are worth mentioning because they need a little extra special “technique” beyond what I’ve already described. The ones that come up most frequently for me are lace and stranded colourwork.
My dear friend and tech editor extraordinaire, Alison, refers to lace blocking as “aggressive blocking” because of the tendency to block lace within an inch of its life. You do this to maximize the visibility of the lace pattern, adding extra space to your yarn overs. If your lace is a symmetrical shape, such as a triangular shawl, you also want to block it evenly (no scalenes here!), so it’s helpful to measure and mark out your dimensions on your blocking surface. Lace blocking is where many of the specialty blocking tools such as wires and demarcated blocking mats do their best work.
Be prepared to also re-block lace after a period of use. Depending on the fibre, lace will begin to relax and will need a refresher course from time to time.
I do a lot of stranded knitting, and so my blocking technique for these projects has evolved from experience. I find that colourwork requires a bit more manipulation to settle the stitches in their happiest positions. Once I’ve introduced the moisture, be it from my steamer or my sink, I tug the piece this way and that to even out the tension of the stitches and the carries on the back of the work. When I’m satisfied that everyone is playing nicely, I reshape the item, pin it out if necessary, and once it’s dry I finesse it with the steamer or iron.
There is a lot of great experience-based information out there to draw on when you’re looking to dive into or expand your repertoire of blocking. Here are some that I found helpful:
- Tools for the DiY Knitter: To block or not to block… (includes great fibre specific info, plus a DIY blocking mat tutorial)
- How to Block Knitting: Wet Blocking and Steam Blocking Knitting Techniques (a good beginner’s overview from Interweave)
- Knit.101 Beginner Basics: Blocking (a very brief overview with a quick guide to different fibres’ heat tolerance)
- Blocking Lace (different approaches using different tools, includes video)
Anything I should add to this guide? I’d love to hear your blocking experience. Thanks for joining the party!
Mirasol Sulka: A chunky single ply in a beautiful blend of 60 percent Merino, 20 percent Alpaca, and 20 percent Silk, perfect for quick accessories. With the added benefit of supporting a school in a remote area of Peru, this is one yarn made for giving.
I have a rule in my house that Christmas music doesn’t make an appearance until the 1st of December. I invented this rule as a snotty teenager to stop my mother from spinning the tunes too long in advance and driving us all crazy. The rule is now observed in my own home to stop me from spinning the tunes too early and driving everyone else crazy… and the cat is in the cradle.
The retail world doesn’t know about my rule apparently because I’ve been coming home from stores with carols in my head for weeks already, and pretending I don’t have the holidays on my mind already is just inefficient at this point.
If you’re like me, and trying to tick off your list before the real madness begins, it’s time to knit bulky. I submit for your visual and tactile pleasure: Mirasol Sulka, a super soft and lustrous blend of Merino, Alpaca and Silk in a bulky single ply (or singles, if you’re a spinny type). The colour depth is fantastic, thanks to the different fibre types, and the softness of the spin means loft for days.
To jumpstart your creativity and get your fingers itching, I’ve rounded up some great quick pattern ideas that will take just a couple of skeins. PLUS, this yarn is on special now through the beginning of December for just $8.65 CAD for a 50g skein.
I’d love to see what you’ve done with Sulka, so stay in touch. Happy knitting!
Mirasol Sulka is just one of the heavier weight yarns that are discounted for holiday knitting. Check out all the great deals in the Black Sheep Sale while quantities last!
Starting tomorrow, I’m kicking off my holiday season with the 2nd annual Black Sheep Sale over at the Phibersmith online store. This is the biggest and deepest sale I hold all year, so make sure you check it out this weekend.
- FREE SHIPPING on all North American orders.
- 10 – 25 percent off all yarn
- 25 – 30 percent off tools & project bags
- up to 35 percent off totes, mugs, and t-shirts
This month at Yarn Club we talked about our favourite finishing techniques, and I demonstrated a few with my MacGyver’d projection camera so people could see what my hands were doing projected on the wall.
How you weave in your ends and seam up a project can make or break all your hard work. It’s rarely a yarnista’s favourite part of the project, but it’s worth knowing how to do it well: think of seams as the frame for your work. If they are sloppy or misshapen they will detract from your beautiful stitches.
I’ve gathered some resources here from around the web to help you perfect your finishing touches.
Planning for the final touches
There are a few techniques that you might incorporate into a project from the very beginning to make the finishing easier. Adding a selvage stitch or two to each side of a sweater’s pieces, and working these stitches up the length of the sweater in garter stitch, for example, will make seaming easier for some projects (like a lace sweater…).
You might also like to add a turned hem. Becky Herrick has a great post about turned hems on her blog Ramblings:
The other thing I want to mention in terms of planning for finishing is to BLOCK YOUR PIECES FIRST. Seriously. Before you weave in your ends even. If you’re not sure about blocking, that’s what we’re talking about at the next meeting. Then, when you’re done seaming/weaving/etc. BLOCK AGAIN.
Okay, now that I’ve got you all on side…
Weaving in ends
I didn’t know there was a “right” way to weave in ends, until I started the research for November’s meeting. But apparently there is. I certainly knew there was a wrong way to weave in ends, on account of that sweater I made that fell apart that time… and I knew that I had worked on my weaving in technique until I landed on one that a) didn’t come apart, and b) was invisible (even to me). If you’re where I am in terms of your weaving in, then maybe you don’t need to know the “right” way. If however you’re still at the “my knitting develops gaping holes over time” stage, then maybe the “right” way is a good jumping off spot for you:
As I understand it, the most popular seam for knitwear is the mattress stitch, and Theresa from Knitty.com has a great pictorial tutorial:
That said, my favourite seam is the back stitch. I default to this one for a few reasons, not least of which is that I was already familiar with it from embroidery before I ever started knitting in earnest. I stick with it because it’s strong and it’s not going anywhere – unlike a mattress stitch or running stitch, there’s no danger of it ruching, and it’s doubled up so there’s less chance of your seams pulling apart. Here’s another look from Knitty.com:
Another option is the whip stitch, although its application needs to be carefully chosen – it can have a pretty decorative effect, but it needs to look intentional because it will be visible and if not done with deliberation can look messy. Here’s a tutorial from Tamara at Moogly with both photos and video:
Have a favourite seam or weaving-in technique? Please feel free to share!
At the November 3rd meeting, the Yarn Club will welcome member Roxann Blazetich-Ozols who will lead us in a workshop to learn lucet braiding. The lucet is an ancient braiding tool dating back to Viking times, and we’re so fortunate to have an expert in this unusual technique right on hand. The workshop will teach participants the techniques required to produce a custom shawl fastener. Take a look at the beautiful examples Roxann has worked up:
Participants should bring:
- The shawl they would like to create a fastener for (if applicable) and any leftover or coordinating yarn
- 1 short knitting needle
- 2 buttons
- measuring tape
- own lucet if available, but practice lucets will be on hand for all participants
People were in a very sharing mood this month, which is what Yarn Club is all about. So many beautiful finished projects, and even a fibre-y book recommendation! Here’s the roundup:
Finally, Roxann recommended The Coat Route by Meg Lukens Noonan:
When journalist Meg Lukens Noonan learned of an unthinkably expensive, entirely handcrafted overcoat that a fourth-generation tailor had made for one of his longtime clients, she set off on an adventure to understand its provenance, and from that impulse unspooled rich and colorful stories about its components, the centuries-old bespoke industry and its traditions, and the master craftsmen whose trade is an art form. – from Amazon.ca
I was well into my knitting obsession before I heard someone refer to ripping something out as “frogging.” I was even further into it when I realized that “rip-it, rip-it” wasn’t the only way to go back and fix something, and boy was that a revelation. And to be honest, a bit annoying – here I was learning all the myriad and impressively plastic ways I could manipulate my yarn and needles, and it never occurred to me that there were equally creative ways to get myself out of a jam without just undoing hours of work. The knitting time I could have saved if I’d known what I know now from the get-go…!
To that end, this month’s round up of techniques and tips focusses on fixing mistakes without necessarily ripping back. That said, there are of course situations you can’t get out of without that sad un-ravelling and rewinding of the yarn. But that can be made less painful as well. Because it’s part of the foundation of easing frustrated knitting, that’s where I’m going to start.
Tension, and why it matters
Having nice, relaxed, even tension isn’t just important for getting gauge, or just important to your overall knitting health. Even tension is also the key to avoiding dropped stitches and frogging more efficiently.
Why? Well, when your tension is tight, dropped stitches hop off your needle and immediately start to ladder down your knitting. If you learn to ease up, the stitches are no longer under so much pressure and when one happens to slip off a needle, instead of responding to the pull of the other surrounding stitches, the stitch will simply sit there happily in its row, waiting to be slipped back on the needle.
Michelle Nguyen from Knitmuch.com provides 6 tips for relaxing your tension.
Davina from Sheep & Stitch created the above video to demonstrate some techniques to relax your tension.
Stitch Position – the next piece of the puzzle
Knowing which way the stitch needs to sit on your needle is key to getting any dropped stitches or ripped back knitting back on your needles without being twisted. Anastasia Wraight of For the Knit of It shows the “legs” of a knitted stitch here:
A stitch becomes twisted when the left leg is at the front of the needle. You can fix this by either slipping the stitch off and turning it around with the help of your needles, or by simply knitting or purling through the back loop to twist the stitch back to where it should be, without having to slip it off the needle.
Happy tension + happy stitch position = happy frogging
Relaxed tension and knowing which way to get the stitches straight on the needle revolutionizes your frogging. Suddenly you won’t be afraid to pull a whole row of stitches off the needle, rip it back to where you need to fix something, and calmly put the needle back through the stitches. No drops, no twists, no knitting-needle-based missiles. (Lace is the only exception to this guarantee.)
Frogging with a safety net
If the idea of pulling your needle right out still makes you want to curl up in a corner and rock, Theresa over at Knitty.com details a technique for inserting a needle as an afterthought lifeline.
Now let’s talk about those beautiful situations where you have no need of amphibious solutions…
Recovering dropped stitches
We start here not only because it’s a common problem, but also because the technique for recovering a dropped stitch provides the basis for going back and changing stitches after they’ve been knit, without frogging.
Terry Kimbrough at How Stuff Works offers the above quick illustrated demo of how to fix a dropped stitch with a crochet hook.
Anastasia Wraight shares the following video about saving a drop stitch without a crochet hook, in garter stitch.
Changing stitches without frogging
This same idea, of working a stitch back up its “ladder” without ripping anything out, can be applied to changing stitches – wherein you drop a stitch deliberately to alter its appearance. For example, changing a knit stitch to a purl stitch, or, in stranded knitting, changing the colour of a stitch.
Staci, from Very Pink, demonstrates how to change a knit to a purl. This same technique can be used in stranded knitting to change the colour of a stitch using the carried yarn at the back of the knitting instead of the yarn originally used to make the stitch. The result is a bit tight, because the carry doesn’t have as much yarn to work with, but it blocks out in the end result.
Changing a whole section without frogging
The concept of changing one stitch by dropping it down to the error and bringing it back up its ladder can and has been extrapolated to changing a whole set of stitches to fix, for example, a mis-crossed cable, or a lace motif. Twist Collective offers this excellent pictorial lesson on fixing a cable mishap.
Meanwhile, Laura Nelkin is the queen of saving lace mishaps:
A final note about lace
Although challenging, lace knitting has its forgiving qualities as well. Missed yarn overs are blessedly simple to fix.
Kephren Pritchett demonstrates how to fix a missing YO from many points in the process.
That’s it (for now). Any hot tips on mistake fixes, anecdotes, sob stories? I’d love to hear them.
Quick little fix for the Colborne Hat pattern. The “Increase for Slouch” section should read as follows:
Increase for Slouch
Inc rnd: [KFB, K1, P2], rep to end. (100, 105, 110 sts)
Switch to larger needle and work 1 rnd in *K3, P2* rib.
Work 7 rnds of Openwork Rib stitch pattern 4 times.
All patterns downloads are up to date as of October 4th, 2016.
If you have any questions, please get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org