Jessica Fenlon Thomas
or Not to Block
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
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.
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."
never going to happen," I replied, not wanting
to admit that I didn't know what a short row was.
could block it into shape." I
looked at N blankly.
did block your pieces, didn't you?" Still
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."
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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
wool: I use one of these three basic ways to
block wool garments.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
'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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
is weaker when wet. Pin & spritz. When all done,
a good brushing will pull the halo up, soft &
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
iron -- use distilled water to keep it from getting
hardening of the water-arteries.
bottle -- from the grocery store or drug store.
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
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:
to a building center or hardware store and have
them cut for you two 2-foot square pieces of 1"
up a staple gun and LOTS of staples.
3 yards of 45" wide large-check [1" x
1"] gingham fabric at a fabric store
up 6 yards of 3" wide linen tape, and a fat
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.
the staple gun to attach the linen tape. Staple
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
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
and iron each square.
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.
down the gingham.
the remaining three sides of the homosote with the
gingham in the same fashion.
You now have two blocking boards.
homosote? It's expensive. My friend used foam core."
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."
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