Learn how-to block knitted garments with Argyle Yarn Shop
First of all, what is blocking?
You’ve put plenty of time and love into knitting your latest project. You may have even unknit stitches or ripped out rows to make sure the finished result was picture perfect. Given all that work, if you knew there was a technique that took just a half hour more of your time and would greatly improve your satisfaction with the results, would you balk at it?
Blocking a finished piece means getting it wet, laying it out on a flat surface, and gently manipulating it into the size and dimensions you wish it to be. Once it dries, your garment will remain held in the form you shape it in.
Why block your knits?
There are a few reasons, which can be boiled down to two general benefits: It can dramatically change your knitting’s shape, and it can make the uneven even.
For knitters who feel that the tension of their stitches is a little irregular, blocking can help equalize the stitches’ appearance.
Even for experienced knitters, certain kinds of stitch patterns can result in a finished work that looks rumpled and bumpy, curled and puckered. Blocking flattens and smoothes all these out just as surely as when a wrinkled shirt is ironed flat with steam.
Blocking can make flat edges become crisp straight lines, and can make shapes like points, scallops, and zigzag really pop. It can also open up lace stitches so you can see the design more clearly.
It can also easily add to the overall size of your project. If you’ve finished a scarf or a baby blanket and the only thing wrong with it is that it’s too small, consider blocking it out larger instead of knitting more repetitions. We once turned a 6-foot scarf into an 8- foot scarf by blocking it! If you’re knitting a blanket in squares and they all come out different sizes, just block them all to the size of your largest square.
On the other hand, if your pattern calls for an exact measurement, like a sweater, you can use a tape measure to make sure it is laid out to dry to the precise measurements.
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Let’s get blocking!
First, get a basin to hold water in. Since at Argyle we’re blocking all the time we have a rubber tub set aside for that purpose. But you could use a sink if you make sure it’s very clean.
Fill the basin up with tepid water, never hot water. Next, you’ll need a wool wash, which is a cleanser and conditioner designed for delicate woolens and that does not require rinsing.
“But why add a cleanser when I’ve never worn it yet,” you ask? You’ll be glad you put it in, as the lanolin and essential oils in the wool wash act as a natural fabric softener, protect your knitting from repeated use and the elements, and help keep it clean for longer.
Please do find a cleanser enriched with lanolin, as products like Woolite will actually strip the lanolin out. Today we’ll be using “Wool Soap” from the company Twig & Horn.
Take the garment we’re going to block and drop it on in the tepid bath. You don’t need to fold it up or be fussy about its shape yet. Then, gently but firmly press the garment into the tub to saturate it with water. We want all of the little air bubbles to come out of it.
What you definitely do not want to do is rub and scrub, twist, wring, or dunk it in and out. Using hot water and agitating the garment too much will cause it to “felt,” permanently blurring the look of your stitches.
Meanwhile, let’s get our blocking pads set up.
Blocking pads are the surface we’re going to use to dry our garment on. Today we’re using the “Knitter’s Block” from Cocoknits. This kit comes with nine 12” wide (30cm) interlocking foam padded squares. The great thing about these is that the tops of them are made from an absorbant material that will let your piece dry thoroughly on both sides at once.
We can lay out the interlocking pads in different shapes depending on the garment. For a scarf, you can lay down all nine pads in a row, making it 12” x 108” (30 x 275cm) long. For a large square panel, you can make it three by three, a 36” (92cm) square. You can even make them into a triangle for a shawl. Because the stole we’re blocking today is going to be a little wider than 12”, we’ll set them down two by two.
It’s been 25 minutes, and it’s time to take out our garment now.
Similar to moments in cooking, this is one of those times when once you start you really shouldn’t interrupt it. If you think you might have to step away for a while soon, just leave it in the tub till you’re all caught up. It’s not going to oversoak.
Gently ball up and scoop out the garment, and compress your hands gently but firmly to squeeze out the excess water. Just like when you were squeezing out the air bubbles, you must not twist or wring it out. When you lift and move it, give it as much support as you can. If you pick up a soaked scarf by the edge, it will start stretching out in a way you’re not controlling.
We’ve gotten our stole so it’s no longer dripping, but we need it even drier before we shape it. Now we’ll throw down a drying cloth or towel and lay the garment over it. Let’s make sure there’s no twists and everything’s pointing in more or less the right direction, but we don’t have to be too fussy yet. Because the towel is shorter than the stole, we’ve looped it around in a U shape.
Now’s the time where we actually get fussy! We’ll lay the stole out onto our blocking pads in a straight line. Next, we’ll insert blocking wires into the edges of the stole. Blocking wires are really helpful when you want to make a really crisp straight line, especially when you want to increase its size. Today, we’re using the super-skinny, rust- proof wires from Fiber Dreams.
We’re inserting one wire into the outermost stitch and then threading it through every second or third stitch. Trust me, it will go a lot faster than it sounds! Ideally you would thread it through in a consistent sequence, but if the stitches are giving you too much of a hassle just do your best.
Before we soaked the stole, its stitches were so scrunched together and the edges were curling so much that it was only 8 1/2 inches (22cm) wide. Now that we’ve lain it down it measures a whole 14” (36cm)! Note that a thin yarn in a lace stitch like this will actually try to stretch out by itself when you pick it up; there’s no tugging involved. If the garment is too wide for your purpose, you can actually scrunch the material together and it will essentially shrink back to its original dimensions.
Now we’ll take those T-pins and push them through the stitches and into the foam blocking pads, spacing them out every few inches. These pins will keep the form of the garment from moving no matter what. Note that the pins have been inserted on the inside of the blocking wires, to keep the wires from migrating towards the center.
What would happen if we just put in the pins without the wires? In this case, since the garment is being stretched wider, all of the pressure would be concentrated at each pin, creating scallopy triangles. The wires here are evenly distributing the strain, leaving an even line.
To the right, you can see we are using the T-pins to make the diamond shape motif really pop at the edge. A good illustration of what we may usually want to avoid (pins under stress without wires), here we are actually doing on purpose.
When you pin them down, please resist the temptation to stretch the garment further than you want it to end up, falsely assuming that it will spring back a few inches shorter once it’s dried and unpinned. It won’t! When dry, it will be “frozen” in basically the exact shape you pinned it to be.
Okay, now we just wait and let it dry!
It often can take a couple of days for it to get bone dry, depending on the weather. If it’s been a while and you want your table/room/life back, you can set an electric fan by it, but I’d wait until it’s almost totally dry (i.e., some spots here and there are bone dry).
Compared to laying it out, we don’t have to unpin it gingerly, just zip out the wires and pop out the pins and get ready to admire your finished product.
Final step: Admire!
Check out the transformation below. Before we blocked this stole by Juniper Moon there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. The quality of the silk/merino yarn and of the knitting was tip-top. We just couldn’t see it, is all.
Look how the fabric before blocking is rippled and lumpy, the sides are curling into a corkscrew shape, the lace pattern is really a blur, and the points on the edge are mushy and flat. It doesn’t do justice to all of the hard work that was put into this amazing thing.
After blocking, all of the stitches are shown to have been even and consistent all along. The fabric looks smooth, the edges are crisp, and the material looks impossibly thin and elegant as it drapes on the mannequin. Each yarn over in the lace pattern is open and clear, and the points are dramatically sharp. The whole thing looks like a work of Gothic architecture, like something you’d see in a stained glass cathedral. You spent weeks, maybe months, on knitting a work you rightfully take great pride in. Isn’t it exciting to know that with just twenty more minutes of work you can transport it to the level of elegance that you dreamed it would be in your imagination when you cast on?
Below, let’s see a final example of the transformations of blocking, this time using the yarn Mechita by Malabrigo. Each of the three photos is before, during, and after blocking and the effect speaks for itself.
The reason we do this tutorial is not to sell pads, or wires, or wool wash, or whatever, but to let you know that if you’ve been feeling insecure about your finished results by comparing it to other folks’ results, it’s not necessarily because their skills are better than yours. It’s because they’ve had a secret weapon this whole time, which is the relatively easy technique of blocking, and you can definitely accomplish this!