What is blocking and why should you care?
Blocking is a technique to manipulate your knitted or crocheted fabric into its final, desired shape and encourage it to stay that way. You can use blocking to stretch the piece to the correct size, to even out stitches or smooth uneven tension, or to open up lace stitches or textured details that are hidden away.
Blocking is transformative, and uses the addition of moisture and manipulation to alter the stitches, the shape, and for some fibres even the yarn itself. Both Ruth and Joy love the way that blocking alters a piece, helping hidden details spring into sight, causing fibres to plump up, and adding size and drape to a piece.
The three modes of blocking are wet blocking, steam blocking and spray blocking. This article focuses on wet blocking because it’s the most common approach, and is particularly well suited to natural fibres like wool.
Do I have to block?
Well, you know our first rule here at The Yarn Queen is that there are no rules! So, if you don’t want to, then no, you don’t have to block. But the best way you can make a decision about whether or not to block is to understand what it does so you can decide if you want the outcome.
Blocking will significantly transform the look of your object if it has lace, scallops or points, or lots of shaping. However, something that is in garter stitch or stocking stitch with little shaping may not show a dramatic change if blocked.
I personally don’t bother blocking stocking stitch or garter cardigans or sweaters (although I do wash them, and shape them carefully before leaving them to dry), although I might steam block any lacy features in them, and I would only block socks if they had a really detailed lace that I wanted to open up. Many people don’t block socks as they don’t get seen a lot and your feet keep them in shape while in use.
The choice is yours about what to block, and how – you are the one in charge!
If you are worried about getting started with blocking, consider practicing on a swatch. There are advantages to blocking your swatch the same way you will block the finished object.
How to wet block
You will need:
- A clean basin, sink, or tub large enough to hold your item fully submerged. I usually use the bathroom hand basin.
- Clean, dry towels. Ensure they are colourfast, avoid red or bright towels or anything brand new.
- Rust-proof t-pins. These will get wet so the rust proof part is important! Some folk make do with sewing pins and you can use these in a pinch but these tend to be weaker and prone to rusting, so use with caution.
- Wool wash (check that it is suitable for the fibre you are using)
- A tape measure (if you are aiming for a specific size)
- Your pattern schematic (if you are using this to determine your size and layout)
- Rust-proof blocking wires or blocking combs (wires are especially useful for long straight edges, or highly decorative scalloped edges; and combs are especially useful for garments)
- Blocking mats (you can get custom knitting blocking mats! But EVA foam camping bedrolls, or EVA foam floor tiles are great budget options that are just as effective.)
- Custom blocking shapes such as sock blockers, a balloon, or a plate (this will make sense shortly!)
The “wet” part
- Fill your basin with water. The temperature should match the recommendations on the yarn. As a rule of thumb, the warmer the water, the more likely you will get colour runs, felting, or shrinkage. I use cold most of the time.
- If you are using wool wash, add this to your water.
- Submerge your piece fully, gently squeezing air out until the piece is fully saturated. Do not wring, agitate, hold it under running water, or otherwise get jiggly with it – all of these things can lead to felting or damage!
- Leave it to soak in accordance with the yarn instructions. If there are none generally speaking 10 – 15 minutes should do it.
- Once it is soaked, lift your item out of the water. It will be heavy so ensure you support the weight as much as possible so that it doesn’t stretch out. Gently, without any wringing, squeeze out as much water as you can.
- If you are using wool wash that needs to be rinsed out, you will need to resubmerge the piece once or twice in clean water to rinse the wash out. Remember to be gentle and never wring or agitate. If you didn’t use wool wash, or are using a rinseless one, you only need to submerge it once.
- Once you have squeezed as much water out as you can, put your item on a towel (or two) and spread it out as much as possible. Then roll it up, pressing extra water into the towel. You don’t want to dry it out too much. It should still be damp when you pin it out, but it should not be sopping or it will be too difficult to work with.
The “blocking” part
- Set up your blocking location. You need a soft surface to pin into. This could be your blocking mats, EVA foam tiles, a carpeted area or even a mattress covered with towels. For smaller items you may be able to use a corkboard. Depending on the item, the fibre, and the air temperature it could take a couple of days to fully dry, so set it up somewhere where it can be undisturbed during that time. Only do it on your own bed if you are prepared to sleep on the couch!
- Make arrangements to remove your pets from the object frequently, or embrace the addition of custom fibres to your item. Honestly, what it is about cats and sitting on blocking?
- Spread your item out into an approximation of the ideal shape for your finished item.
But wait! Don’t walk away and leave it to dry yet. Now it is time to secure your piece into that shape using your pins, wires, and combs!
Pins only, or pins and combs
Pins are the minimum requirement for blocking your piece. Make sure you invest in good ones, like these pins from Knitpro.
- Work in sections, pinning key points like corners. If the piece is symmetrical, ensure they are balanced. Then add more pins in between the existing pins, and repeat, adjusting the shape of the item as you go. On straight edges you may need to use extra pins to prevent scalloping forming between your pins.
- On straight edges, you can also use combs to act as lots of close pins on the straight edges to help reduce scalloping. Combs do not offer much advantage on curved edges or points.
- If you are shaping a circular shawl, pin four compass points, then pin between each of those, then pin between each of those until your piece is secured.
- If your piece is pointed or scalloped (either on a curved or straight edge), pin the points of the scallops.
Adding blocking wires
Blocking wires are not required, but once I tried them I never looked back. I love the way they keep straight edges perfectly smooth and prevent unwanted scallops, and how they help keep the points evenly proportioned. My absolute favourite are the Lazadas blocking wires, which are flexible and easy to store.
- For straight edges, carefully thread the wire along the selvedge stitches at short intervals, then lay your piece down and manipulate it so that your edge is perfectly straight. Insert a few pins between the wire and the piece to anchor the wire in place.
- Wires can be used on some curves, but you will need to use your judgement to see if the shape of your piece will work with the wire. Insert your wire into the selvedge stitches, then gently curve your wire into the desired shape and insert pins between the wire and the fabric to anchor the wire in place. If the curve will not tolerate a wire, pin without one using the instructions above.
- If your piece is pointed or scalloped, run the wire through the points and shape the wire. Then pin the wire in a few places to secure it; this helps keeps the points evenly proportioned.
- You may have some curves where the wires won’t work. You can use a mixture of wires and pins (or even wires, pins, and combs!) to achieve your desired shape.
Custom blocking shapes
Some shaped items, such as socks, beanies, or berets, are best blocked on a custom shaped blocking item. There are specially shaped sock blockers for socks. For beanies you can use a balloon (just don’t pin it!), a bust (head sculpture), or a bowl upside down on a vertical object like a glass. You can use a dinner plate to shape a beret.
Measuring and adjusting as you pin
If you are aiming for a specific dimension, use the pattern schematic and your tape measure and check key measurements as you go. Adjust your pins and remanipulate your fabric until you’ve pinned it into the exact size and shape you are aiming for.
If you are aiming for a specific size and shape, you may find it is helpful to pin and measure key axes. For example, if you are blocking a sweater to size, start by pinning each side seam at the correct width, then the hem and neck at the correct length, then the cuffs, then go back and fill in the gaps with your extra pins. It is easier to adjust when fewer pins are in place.
You may not be aiming for a specific measurement. In that case, aiming for the shape and proportion you want and eyeballing it is totally acceptable!
Stretching as you pin
When pinning your work, you will need to add some tension into your fabric. (In places where you don’t want to add any tension, such as ribbing, or areas where you are trying to minimize any size changes, simply arrange into shape and let dry)
For sweaters and cardigans, you are most likely going to add only a little stretch. However many blocked items will relax or “bounce back” a little once removed from the pins. You may want to pin to 5 – 10% more than the schematic to allow for this. If you have lace details in the garment, you could pin those parts out in addition to pinning the edges, to apply a bit more stretch to the lace and open it out.
For shawls and scarves, especially if they have lace, you may want to pin with a bit more stretch, to really allow the lace stitches to open up and show off all your hard work. Many of these items will block to a much larger size than they were when they came off the needles.
Remember, however, that yarn is at its most vulnerable when wet. If you block too aggressively, you may break fibres, so keep your work taut without overstretching it.
Let the object dry fully before removing it from the pins. Remove the pins, and ta-da! You will have a beautiful, blocked object with crisp points and gorgeous straight edges. You may find it relaxes a little over the first day or two. Keep it stored neatly and it will retain its blocked shape for ages.
Many wool items do not need to be washed regularly. Once your item is ready for a wash, or you have found that the blocking has slowly relaxed out and it is no longer to your preferences, repeat this process!