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Taking the mystery out of blocking

If there is ever a word that can cause confusion and even denial in knitting, it is “blocking”.

People will swear they have never blocked anything. Others will tell you that it is only for lace. While another group will assure you that blocking will solve all your ills, magically hiding mistakes or resizing a too small sweater.

None of these are true.

Most knitters will have blocked something even if they don’t know it and although blocking will improve the finish of your items, it isn’t a cure all.

What is “blocking”?

In the simplest terms, block is reshaping a piece of knitting by dampening it. This could be after washing, by spraying with water, by steaming or by soaking your piece. The shaping could be a small adjustment to get straight edges or persuade your stocking stitch to unroll, or it could be a more aggressive process to open up a lace pattern.

Blocking can involve pinning out your knitting or even stretching it but it doesn’t have to.

It is something to do before you finish your item, so before you weave in your ends or sew up. This is because blocking can change the drape or state of your fabric, and this can affect where your ends sit or the flow of your seam. However, on some occasions it may be worth spraying seams with water or steaming them to make them sit flatter.

Knitting and yarn on a foam board

Why block?

There are several reasons to block:

  • Making your pieces the right shape (including getting a 3D shape for a hat)

  • Opening up or evening out your stitches – for example gentle blocking can really improve the look of colourwork

  • Letting your cables bloom.

  • Opening up lace to create the final fine fabric

  • Ensuring your pieces are the right size.

What all these have in common is getting the best finish to your project, by making your stitches look as good as possible, and ensuring pieces fit together where you have to join.

Blocking methods

Piice of lace lnitting pinned out for blocking

There are various ways to block your items depending on what the item is, the type of knitting, the yarn used, and the result you want.

  • Wash your knitting (following ball band instructions) and lay it out flat, gently adjusting it for size. This is good for simple items without stitch patterns and items that have been worn or blocked before.

  • Pin your pieces to shape (not necessarily stretching) on a foam board or a folded towel and stray with water. Then leave to dry. This is good for getting the right shape and for acrylic yarns which don’t always like heat.

  • Pin out and cover with damp cloths, letting the moisture soak into to the knitting and then leaving to dry.

  • Pin your pieces to shape on a foam board or a folded towel and steam either by using a clothing steamer (the travel versions are good for this) or using a steam iron to through a damp cloth. Note, always make sure the knitting is covered by the cloth and never touch your steam iron to the cloth, let alone the knitting. Then leave to dry. This works well with cables, colour work and yarns where your yarns will bloom with a little bit of water and heat. Steaming can also be helpful for making stitches look more even.

  • Wet blocking by soaking your pieces and pinning out. This is best if you want to stretch out a piece significantly and open out lace. It is definitely worth watching a demo before trying this for the first time. We have a video in Knit School to help and we’ll be returning to this technique in our upcoming lace masterclasses.

To block you need something to put your work on. This could be a couple of large clean towels or foam mats. You could use play mats or specialist blocking mats which are more absorbent meaning your items will dry quicker. If your item needs more than a gentle reshape you will need pins to hold it in place. If you are going to block regularly, substantial T-pins are more useful than dress-making pins for holding your pieces in place. You can also find “blocking combs”, set of pins in a plastic bar which can be helpful for straight lines and squares.

Finally, if you are blocking large items like shawls, a set of blocking wires are very useful. There are straight and curved versions but you use them in the same way, by threading them through the edge of your piece and then securing them with a few pins.

How you block will depend on various factors:

Fibres – wool has lots of spring so can take some aggressive stretching and wet blocking but this would distort cotton or bamboo yarns. Acrylic yarns don’t like too much heat – so if you do steam them, do it from a greater distance.

Stitches – take care not to over stretch of flatten cables. On the other hand, lace stitches need opening up so take more blocking and pinning out.

The project – how much reshaping does your project need? A lace panel in a sweater will need to be opened out but you may not need/want to stretch you piece as much as a lace shawl where you will want a very light fabric.

But, and this is important, blocking will even out stitches, it will NOT make your item fit if you’ve knitted the wrong size (well not without causing other problems).

Our top blocking advice

If you are not sure what the best way to block your piece is or how much it will change under blocking, test various approaches on tension squares or extra swatches.

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