Blocking- a little sweater

All right, here we are. This post is going to be about blocking a wee sweater, not blocking all the things in the whole world. (If you’re truly in the weeds about blocking, can I recommend Kate Atherley’s crafty class about blocking? It’s solid. I’ve seen it.)

Four important things about blocking that are totally true

1. Blocking and stretching are not synonyms.  They do not mean the same thing. Blocking can sometimes involve stretching, like with lace, but most of the time it’s important to remember that blocking in knitting is like blocking in the theatre. The director will block the scene, choosing where the actors go, and putting things in their proper place – and that’s a good comparison for knitting. Blocking is finishing the piece, and that usually means a) getting it clean and b) putting all the elements in their proper place, whatever that place is.  I don’t know who started the idea that blocking and stretching are the same, but I think it screws a lot of knitters up, because they think that if something doesn’t need stretching, then it doesn’t need blocking – which is totally inaccurate.

2. Blocking will not fix essential problems with the construction of your knitting.  For example, if you’ve chosen a pattern or type of stitch that curls, unless you’re using a fibre that’s easy to convince and has little mind of its own (think of silk here, and the way it just lies where you put it) blocking will not fix the problem. Some knitted fabrics curl because stitches have a flat side and a curved side, and if you put all the curves on one side then that thing is going to curl up, and blocking can tame it a little, but cannot change that reality.  Similarly problems with rowing out can’t be fixed with blocking, and only very minor problems with fit can be truly fixed with blocking – if a sweater’s too small in the bust, then you can stretch it there, but the fabric is going to look different in that area if you take it too far.  (That’s because of #1. Stretching is not blocking. It’s stretching.)

3. Blocking involves cleaning. Yarn is dirty when you are done with it. Sometimes it has spinning oils or sizing in it, sometimes it sat on a shelf for a while, and it certainly picked up oils and dirt from your hands while you were working on it.  Yarn is effected by the spinning process, often compacted – and it doesn’t reveal  its true character until it’s been washed. Remember, blocking is finishing the work, and if it ain’t clean, it isn’t finished. For a lot of stuff, washing and laying things out nicely is all the blocking they need. Even if I am going to steam block something, I wash it and let it dry first – then go in with the steam. Think of blocking as an activity that is all the stuff that you do to a project after it’s done – not just something you do with pins and wires.

4. You know how some people’s work always looks beautiful, smooth and even, and you think they’re probably a much better knitter than you? If you’re not blocking, then the odds are that they’re not a much better knitter than you. They’re just doing the last step that you’re skipping.  (This is 100% always true when we’re talking about stranded colourwork. In that case, it’s not just tidiness. You can’t even tell if you’ve done it right until you block properly.)

So, here we have a wee sweater. I took it off the needles, wove in the ends, tidied things up and placed it on the table, letting it be what it wants to be.

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Clearly, it wants to be untidy. The fabric isn’t particularly smooth or even, the yarn has a lot of body and opinion, and the edges don’t want to lie down.  It’s also a lot smaller than my (washed and blocked) gauge swatch told me it would be. Nothing is wrong with this sweater though. It’s just not finished.

Step one: Bathtime. I filled the (clean) sink (I’d use the bathtub if my sweater was bigger) with tepid water and a little wool wash. (I like Soak and Eucalan equally – depending on what I’m washing.) I tossed the sweater on top and walked away.

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It’s important for knitted stuff to be fully wet to both get clean and be persuaded, and wool in particular takes a while to get really wet through. I wait for things to sink of their own accord, and that usually tells me that they’re good and wet. I let it soak for about 20 minutes, and sometimes a little longer.

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Step 2: I retrieve the wee sweater from the sink, and hold it all together, all its parts supported, and squeeze out the water gently.  Then I put it on a towel on the floor, roll it up inside, and press on the towel to dry it a bit. If it’s a sturdy thing I sometimes step on the towel. I think the fabric looks better already.

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Step 3: I lay a clean towel down somewhere flat and big enough, and start blocking.  This sweater has no elements that I want to stretch (like lace) and nothing that needs opening up. As a matter of fact, this sweater has that delicate ruching on the yoke, and if I stretch it, it won’t be as textured and pretty.  That means that for this, I won’t need any pins. The most important part of blocking has already happened for this sweater. The bath has smoothed and evened the stitches, helped the yarn settle in to its new shapes, and finished the wool.

Step 4: I spread out the back. I make it straight along the bottom hem, patting everything gently where I want it to be.

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Step 5: I close the front, lining up the necklines front to back, and making sure that I’ve closed it so that folds at the sides fall between the decreases that tell me where the sides are.  I fart with the sleeves to make sure they’re the same, folded truly along the midline of the sleeve.

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Step 6: I make sure it’s all lined up. Front edges to front edges, patting them into nice straight lines, sleeves extending at their natural angle, I pull a little horizontally, at the bottom edge and the cuffs of the sleeve, for this sweater I don’t want those parts to pull in, but flare a little, so I show the edges how I’d like them to be, fully releasing the cast off edges.

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Step 7: I get out the measuring tape. Are the sleeves the same length? No? I pat and push them until they are. Are the two fronts the same length? (You can usually tell that without the tape – but still.)

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Step 8: Finesse. Look for anything that isn’t quite right. I noticed this:

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The knitting was twisting a little, the sides weren’t even. See the little spiral? Fixed it by just patting the sweater front over a little. Now it’s a nice straight line.

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That’s it! Now I just leave it to dry – which in my house involves

Step 9: Keep the cat from lying on it until it’s dry.

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Wasn’t that easy?

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Convinced? I hope so. That’s a pretty big change for ten minutes of effort. Other kinds of garments will take more effort, or time, but really there’s not much that isn’t improved by this simple sort of blocking, if that’s all you have in you.

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There were a ton of blocking questions in the comments yesterday, so I thought I’d answer a few here:

Alison: But Steph, what happens as soon as you wash something? It needs blocking again. Right?

Yup, but usually the first time is the hardest, and after that it’s just lying it flat in a tidy way.  Lace would need a bit more, but well. That’s just the way lace is.

Josiphine: While you’re at it do you want to give me tips for blocking lace in the round?

Go here and have a look at how Judy Gibson did it.  It’s perfect. (I know that link is sort of old school, but it’s still pretty awesome. Judy’s on Ravelry as TiaJudy. You should look at her doilies.)

Robyn: i assume we’re speaking of wool here, not acrylic. which is what i use 95% of the time, with the hats i make and then give away. However, i do wash and dry every hat i make before i send it off to charity, so does that count?

Yes! That does count.  For acrylic, washing and drying is usually all the blocking it needs. It gets it clean, and helps the stitches smooth out. Acrylic totally looks better after blocking. Note: Acrylic (and nylon and polyester) yarn shouldn’t be routinely steam blocked – it’s heat sensitive, and can create permanent changes in the yarn.  There’s something called “killing” acrylic that you can do with steam/heat that makes it lie down forever, but it’s a one way trip, and you should experiment with a swatch first.

Jo-Anne: I have a cowl I just blocked, and the edges are still curling. I am thinking of blocking it again.

Sister, I have a little bad news.  Remember true thing #2 above? That blocking won’t change the essential character of your knitting? If it’s mostly stockinette (or any stitch that has most of the purls on one side and knits on the other) it’s probably always going to curl a bit.  Still, hope springs – it might be worth another shot if you didn’t fully block the first time. (Sometimes if things don’t get really wet because you were rushing you can have poor results.)

Several People: I don’t block because it often makes things worse, if by worse you understand that I turned a sweater into a dress with blocking or my hat turned into a hood.

I’m going to state an uncomfortable truth here. If you have a sweater or garment that gets way, way bigger after you blocked it (and it’s not superwash, which can be unpredictable)  then you had a sneaky gauge problem. Your garment was knit too loosely.  Sweaters that expand when they hit water are just revealing what’s been true about them all along – and if you didn’t block them, then gravity and movement would have just revealed that a little more slowly while you were wearing it.  Sometimes swatches lie because knitting is three dimensional. The roundness of the stitches makes it look like you’re getting gauge when you’re really not. When the work flattens out – through washing or wearing, then you discover that your gauge was way off.  This is the reason that you wash swatches. Make them reveal as many of their filthy lies as you can – before they sucker-punch you after the fact.

Again: Almost always -sweaters and garments that get sloppy and loose after washing/blocking aren’t a sign of a blocking problem.  They had a knitting problem you’ve just discovered super late.

All right, there you have it, and I have an almost finished sweater, so I’m off to root through the button bin until I find two perfect little ones. What colour do you think?