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By Jessica Fenlon Thomas

To Block or Not to Block…

I used to think that blocking was something they did in football. I ignored the instruction "block garment pieces before seaming" because I didn't see the value or the point of it. Of course, it didn't help that many of the patterns that I chose didn't even call for blocking.

It wasn't until I had been knitting a while and wanted to even out my stockinette stitch that I learned how to block. That and, no matter what I did, even if the pieces measured so that the armhole fit, it always was uncomfortable, the fabric pulling strangely because I have a bust.

At the time, I was working at a yarn store. I asked knitting doyenne N for some solutions. As always, there were more than one. N suggested to me, "You could take apart the sweater, rip the front out to the beginning of the armholes and re-knit it with short row darts for the bust."

"That's never going to happen," I replied, not wanting to admit that I didn't know what a short row was.

"You could block it into shape." I looked at N blankly.

"You did block your pieces, didn't you?" Still looking blankly.

"Blocking makes your life so much easier. You shape the pieces into the way you want them to live, using steam or water. It makes your knitting more even and sets the stitches. And you can fix a lot of boo-boos that way."

So I went home, and cracked open my pristine copy of Vogue Knitting to the blocking section. This book was so detailed that I hadn't read it cover to cover. But there it was: how to block wool garments.

I didn't want to take the sweater apart, so I decided to wet-block. I filled the bathtub with enough lukewarm water to cover my sweater. After removing it, gently, from the tub, I used several towels to press the excess water out of the sweater.

I laid out my wet sweater on a garbage bag [to dry faster since the water doesn't soak into it and then have to dry back through the sweater]. Then I went to work with the plastic-wrapped newspaper I had prepared ahead of time. I stuffed the front of the sweater, shoulder through bust. It was amateurish, but it worked. No more bunchy lines running from nipple to armpit! Woo hoo!

This small success piqued my interest in the blocking process and what it can do for a knitter. I learned on my next project that blocking really makes my life easier. I have control over the fabric and how it hangs [its 'drape']. Seaming goes in a flash. The stitches have been set and I can see exactly where I need to insert the needle. I also have been able to make sleeves longer or make shoulders wider.

The fiber I'm working with determines how I block it. I work with wool, linen, silk, and cotton, or these fibers blended with human-made fibers. Each behaves differently based on their blocking treatment. Some fibers can be weakened or destroyed if you treat them the same way as others. Do not treat silk as you would wool.

Wool and other animal-hair fibers are built of protein. Each 'hair' of wool is a system of overlapping scales. The scales hold air inside the fiber. That's why wool is so warm. Also, wool fibers can absorb a ton of water without feeling wet because of its structure. Wool is strong and has a lot of memory -- it springs back to its original shape after it has been stretched. However, wool is weaker [more prone to breakage] when wet.

Blocking wool: I use one of these three basic ways to block wool garments.

1. Wet-blocking. Wet the pieces of the garment. If you have heavy cabling, you may want to press out the excess water using towels [NEVER WRING -- wool is fragile when wet and you can damage the fabric this way!] Pin them out to the desired dimensions and let them dry, usually over several days.

2. Steam-blocking. Pin the pieces out to desired dimensions, wrong side up. Wet an old sheet or pillowcase & wring out so it's damp. Using a hot iron, press lightly down on the pillowcase, forcing steam through the fabric. Continue until the pillowcase is dry.

Alternately, skip the pillowcase and set your iron to a steam setting. Float the iron over the surface of the fabric WITHOUT TOUCHING, forcing the steam through. Let the fabric cool and dry.

3. Pin/spritz blocking. Pin the pieces out to the desired dimensions. Using a spray bottle, spritz each piece until damp [but not soaking]. This is best for fine-gauge wools.

Wet-blocking is easiest for adding length. I just added four inches to a sweater sleeves and body by wet-blocking and re-proportioning the garment. It was a bulkier gauge sweater, and hadn't relaxed enough during steam-blocking. It finally looks good to me; the fabric has opened up and moves more now.

However, 'finessing' garment pieces can be done with a steam iron and some patience. Pin a piece [or the garment] as close as you can get them to be. Steam the crap out of it. While the piece is still warm & damp, stretch it a bit more, and steam onward. You can get stockinette stitch to lie flat if you stretch & steam it for quite some time.

Other animal fibers: I'm just touching on these -- take a look at the Alden Amos Big Book of Handspinning, or Vogue Knitting for more in-depth discussion of specific fibers.

Cashmere is extraordinarily fine, hence its legendary softness. It's more fragile and less elastic than wool, and gets weaker when wet. Just pin to dimensions, spritz until damp, and let dry.

Merino Depending on the denseness of the fabric, the pin/spritz method is the way to go. With heavy cabling? I would wet-block, but very carefully.

Alpaca gets weaker when wet. It has less memory than wool, and has a tendency to stretch out of shape, getting bigger. The weight of water in the garment while wet-blocking would make accidental fabric stretching more possible. I would pin the pieces out dry, and then get them pretty wet by spritzing, and then do any reshaping.

Mohair is weaker when wet. Pin & spritz. When all done, a good brushing will pull the halo up, soft & fuzzy.

Linen. Spun from the long fibers of the flax plant, this ancient fiber is one of my favorites. Linen is unique among fibers in that it is stronger when wet. Use the 'whap' method to add length to a linen garment: get it soaking wet, and then 'whap' it against the side of the tub/shower a few times. My favorite linen blend is also machine washable. It gets stronger and softens up over time. Wet-blocking is the way to go with linen.

Cotton. Quite weak when wet, and inelastic -- has no memory, which is why store-bought cotton sweaters tend to stretch out of shape. If you put a lot of structure in your cotton knitwear [and knit to a half-stitch tighter gauge] you'll overcome these tendencies! I steam-block most cotton knits.

Silk. Filaments of silkworm cocoons, this is the only fiber that involves killing the animal that produces it [at least for reeled, Bombyx silk]. Vegan knitters beware. There are non-silkworm killing silk fibers out there, however. 100% silk garments can grow since silk is inelastic and has little memory; I personally find silk best in a blend. Silk is very fragile when wet, so wet blocking is NOT recommended. Pin out to required dimensions, spritz, and let dry.

100% Human-made fibers. Avoid heat & steam -- you'll kill your knitting! Kill meaning remove all structure and turn it into a limp pile of fabric. Unless you want that, of course. Pin out and spritz, let dry.

Blends. I go the safest route -- pin out, spritz, and let dry -- unless its primarily wool with a touch of human-made, and heavily cabled. Then I wet-block.

What about fluffy fakes? And things like Chamonix, or Binario/Eros? Novelty yarns get blocked on a case-by-case basis. Non-wearables need not be blocked, unless it gets very out of shape, or looks like it does. I would not use heat. I don't like the smell of melting knitting, not to mention scraping the stuff off my iron. Pin out and spritz. Feathery yarns I have wet-blocked by actually handwashing in baby shampoo and blow-drying for fluffiness but your mileage may vary. When adding fluffy/furry trims to another fiber garment, block the garment pieces before you add the funky trim -- the furry stuff might not survive the blocking that the garment might need. Last of all, some yarns cannot get wet without falling apart -- Berrocco's Chinchilla has produced horror stories for many of my acquaintance.

Browse the archives of online listservs for various blocking horror stories, or surprises. Sally Mellville's rescue for Touch Me chenille is a shocker -- throw it in the washer and dryer! [see KnitU list archives or Sally's fantastic new book, The Knitting Experience #1: The Knit Stitch for more details.].

Last of all, blocking is involved in one of my favorite knitting tricks for making fabric drape more attractively. I usually do this on knits with a gauge between 4.5 & 6 sts/inch, and never on 100% silk or cotton. I swatch until I get gauge. I swatch large-scale, to test the hand and drape of the fabric as well as my gauge. When I start the garment, I use a smaller needle size. Yes, I'm knitting 1/4 to 3/4-stitch to the inch tighter, yes, the fabric is more dense, and the garment comes out smaller. But -- I block the pieces to their correct size -- and the fabric opens up and has incredible drape, usually much better than the swatch.

Blocking Tools

blocking pins/t-pins -- purchase from the yarn store; the ones you get at the hardware store will RUST -- unless you want little brown spots through that pearly pink sweater, drop the extra, minimal cash.

steam iron -- use distilled water to keep it from getting hardening of the water-arteries.

spray bottle -- from the grocery store or drug store. Whatever.

tape measure -- and yardstick -- remember my caveat from my last column -- most likely, that old sewing tape measure of yours has stretched and gotten inaccurate. To mangle a woodworking phrase, measure twice, block once.

blocking board -- well, most of the time I use the long end of my chaise or my bed. Any surface you can pin into. If you want to make one, use this simple recipe:

Shop

  • Go to a building center or hardware store and have them cut for you two 2-foot square pieces of 1" thick homosote.
  • Pick up a staple gun and LOTS of staples.
  • Buy 3 yards of 45" wide large-check [1" x 1"] gingham fabric at a fabric store
  • Pick up 6 yards of 3" wide linen tape, and a fat glue stick.

Staple

  • Wrap the linen tape widthwise around each edge of the two pieces of homosote. Use the glue stick to tack it into place, repositioning as needed.
  • Use the staple gun to attach the linen tape. Staple every 2".
  • Cut out four pieces of gingham 2 feet 2 inches square. Use the edge of one of the stripes as your cutting guideline so that the square has a grid of gingham inside.
  • Iron a fold 1" in from the outside edge [i.e. you are turning under and ironing down 1" -- or one gingham stripe -- on each edge. This eliminates the need to sew anything and reinforces your stapling edge.]
  • Starch and iron each square.
  • Take one square and, using the glue stick, tack the corners down. Then tack the edges down. Check it to make sure that your grid is still square.
  • Staple down the gingham.
  • Surface the remaining three sides of the homosote with the gingham in the same fashion.

Voila! You now have two blocking boards.

"Why homosote? It's expensive. My friend used foam core."

"You certainly can use foam core if you'd like. Homosote is sturdy, and incredibly absorbent. It will wick water away from your garment so it dries more quickly. And it's like a bulletin board -- you can stick pins in it easily."

"And the gingham?"

"Check it with a ruler to make sure, but that 1" x 1" grid will help you shape your garments more quickly. At least, the verticals and horizontals will help you keep different areas of the garment lined up with each other."

 
ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jessica Fenlon Thomas lives and knits in Pittsburgh, PA, where she works as the Education Specialist: Family & Children's Programs for the Carnegie Museum of Art.

She recently finished her MFA in studio art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where she developed and taught "Knitting for Artists" in the context of using knit techniques to produce expressive/conceptual art.

Check out her art work in the Summer 2002 issue of Interweave Knits, or her design with Lily Chin in Lily's book, The Urban Knitter.

2002 Jessica Fenlon Thomas