Often at the end of a pattern there it is, that little directive: Block lightly
To a new knitter, this can be pretty confusing. What does it mean? Sometimes I picture those wooden alphabet blocks sitting atop my hand knits.
This, of course, is not what it means at all. Blocking describes the process of shaping your knitting post-knit (and also post wash). Basically, blocking uses water and/or heat to relax the fibres of your work so you can reshape them how you want. Animal fibres block the best, since their fibres are very slightly rough and tend to act a bit like Velcro. Plant fibres block decently. Synthetic fibres tend to not take as well to blocking since their fibres are smooth.
Blocking will help a garment fit better, it will even out stockinette stitch, and it can even help fix small boo-boos in your knitting (Two more rows on one sleeve than the other? No problem, block that). It’s easier to seam blocked pieces together than unblocked pieces, and blocked pieces will often have better drape than unblocked. If you are going to take the time to knit lace, blocking is a must! Look at this photo of a lace scarf. Half of it is blocked and the other half is not. The half that isn’t blocked looks like it isn’t lace at all. That’s a lot of time and effort wasted if you don’t block it and show it off.
Overall, blocking makes your knitting look more professional and polished.
To get started with blocking, you will need a few tools. At the very least, you need a measuring device, rust-proof pins and something to pin into. For rust-proof pins, most patterns recommend t-pins. T-pins are exactly what they sound like: pins shaped like Ts. For something to pin into, you can either buy commercially available blocking mats , or you can fudge it with a towel and a garbage bag. I used a the towel/garbage bag combo until I started knitting lace. After one attempt to pin out my lace, I said to myself “It’s time.”
If you want to get fancy about your blocking, you can also look at something like blocking combs (http://www.diamondyarn.com/accessories/134/) or blocking wires (http://www.diamondyarn.com/accessories82/). Both are intended to even your blocking and make smooth edges on your finished work.
There are several methods for blocking, and it’s best to get familiar with all of them because they are all used for different things and different fibres.
The first method is wet blocking. This is also what we do to a garment after we wash it. Wet blocking is the method to choose for synthetics and linen. It is also a good method for wool if you are careful, and probably the best method for wool pieces that are heavily cabled. The steps are pretty simple, really.
1. Before you get started, prepare your blocking surface.
2. Place the item to be wet blocked into a tub of lukewarm water. Let it sit a few minutes, but don’t agitate it! Agitation will lead to felting. Felting is the enemy.
3.When the garment is wet through, carefully remove it from the tub. Support it while you take it out of the tub, since wet fibres will stretch easily.
4. Place the garment on a towel and gently roll the towel up. Squeeze the towel, or gently step on it, but do not wring it! Felting is the enemy.
5. Lay the garment on the blocking surface. Gently shape it, and pin it in place. Let it dry.
If you want to wash your garment (and its a yarn that can get wet), before starting the steps above soak the garment in water with a gentke detergent such as Soak or Woolite Gentle.
The second method of blocking you should know is steam blocking. Steam blocking is great for fibres that shouldnt get wet, or fibres like cotton that tend to turn into limp noodles when wet. The heat is super bad for synthetic materials, though, so choose another method for these yarns. Steam blocking can be a powerful tool. With aggressive blocking, steam blocking can make stockinette lay flat (but make sure your fibre can stand up to it, first!).
You’ll need an ion with a steam function for this one (which is just about every iron ever, no?). This method is also sort of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” blocking method, since there are choices at every turn.
Firstly, you can choose if you want to steam first and then pin, or pin first and then steam. If your aim is to severly block the item, you may steam first to relax the fibres before you stretch them. If your aim is a light block, you may pin first (I usually pin first).
Next, you get to choose your steaming method: touch or no touch. For the touch method, cover the item to be steamed with a damp cloth. LIGHTLY touch the iron to the cloth, and iron unyil the cloth is dry. Be super careful not to crush the fibre. For the no-touch method, waves the steaming iron over the project, but dont touch it! 1-2 inches from the work is just perfect.
The last method is spray blocking. This method is the most gentle, and is best for delicate fibres such as silk, cashmere, mohair, alpaca, and fine merino. Its the safest method for wool pieces, even if they could probably stand up to the other methods. It is also the go-to method if you dont know the fibre content of the yarn you are working with. I used spray blocking on the scarf pictured above, it is qiviut and that stuff is PRICEY and I didn’t want to wreck it.
To use this method, pin out the garment and spritz it with a spray bottle filled with plain old water. You want the garment wet, but not soaking. Allow it to dry.
The last little tidbit I have to impart to you is that you dont have to block your project only when finished. Especially if your project consists of yarns with different care needs, consider blocking in stages. Block the hardiest part first, then add the bits with special care instructions.
Go out, block, and enjoy the benefits of well-fitting, professional looking garments!