Thursday, March 13, 2008

Why block hand knits? Here's why (and how)!

includes 2 illustrations, click any illustration to enlarge
As to the "why" of blocking: here's a "pocket hat" (made of wool) before it is blocked:

Here's the same hat after blocking:
These pictures speak for themselves, no? 

As for how-to, blocking could make a little book in its own right. There are as many methods to block items as there are knitters, with strong opinions about the "right" way. Here's my own little process to get from unblocked to blocked by the full immersion (a.k.a. "wet-block") method. (For steam blocking, click here.)

1. Swish the newly made item in a sinkful of tepid (barely warm) water, using enough water so that the item floats in the sink loosely. No kneading, scrunching, or roughness: just swishing.

2. Once the item is completely wet, drain the sink and press the item against the sides and bottom to gently squeeze out as much water as possible.

3. Next, supporting the item in the hands and against the sink sides and bottom so it NEVER sags under its own weight, squeeze it snakewise--hand-over-hand.

4. Again supporting the item to prevent sagging, lay it out in a thick and thirsty bath towel. My first lay-out is rather rough, but at the least, I make sure no parts of the garment overlap one another. I roll the item and the towel together, lay the roll on the bathroom or kitchen floor, or even in the bottom of a dry bathtub, then step all over it, barefoot. Doing it in shoes would dirty the towel, doing this in socks would get the socks wet, doing this on a carpet will make the carpet wet--a LOT of water gets pressed out in this step.

5. Next, unroll. Again supporting the item, lay it out on a DIFFERENT dry towel. What happens next depends on the item's size.
  • For small items like hats, mittens, and kid's sweaters, pat, tug and smooth the item into shape and let it dry. With the "pocket hat" of the intro photos (which was knitted relatively firmly) I actually grabbed it at the brim and at the top and gave several mighty tugs lengthwise before smoothing.
  • Larger garments such as sweaters are sometimes tugged, patted and smoothed, or sometimes they are pinned out. Lace and other openwork with edges which have to be "dressed" into points and scallops are also pinned. For pinning, lay the garment, on its second towel, over a yielding surface--a bed, sofa, fridge box or thick carpet. If a carpet, maybe with a clean sheet spread out to avoid carpet dust in the project.
6. Allow the item to dry. Waiting for it to dry completely is actually the hardest part of all--at least for me. That damp, newly knitted item sings such a siren song! If it is really drying absurdly slowly, speed things along by switching in a new, dry towel, or putting the towel up on a flat-top laundry rack to improve air circulation. The hat of the illustration dried overnight on a towel placed on a laundry rack, cunningly positioned three feet above a hot air register. Knits dry even faster laid flat outdoors on a lawn chair when it is warm and windy, but do this in the SHADE. Knits dried in full sun bleach and become coarse and odd.

7. Elapsed time? 5-10 minutes (well, except for the drying of course--which takes forEVER). And, that's it. W-A-A-Y more professional looking than the same item in the "before" stage.


Q: Do I have to go through all this every single time I wash a woolen hand-knit?
A: Sadly, yes.The good news? It becomes second nature after a few times. Also, if washing a soiled item, start by swishing through soapy water. Next, swish through plain water (rinse twice). Then come all the other steps. For washing (but not for a first blocking) I personally use a drop or two of Dawn dish soap.

Q: Blocking or washing woolens makes me nervous. What if I ruin my garment by felting it?
A: Felting requites a combination of wetting AND agitation. You can't avoid wetting wool when you wash it but you CAN avoid agitation. Number one precaution: DO NOT WRING OR KNEAD!! Instead, swish, then squeeze gently but firmly. Also, I attribute a good deal of felting-prevention to step number 4--the barefoot walk all over the jelly-roll of handknit and thick towel. This really removes water effectively and quickly, but does not cause any rubbing or wringing action. Oh--one more thing: temperature shocks encourage felting, so avoid them. Make sure your water is always at a mild, tepid temperature. For this same reason, even if you want to speed along the drying, don't overdo exposure to hot dry air--a dryer, for example would certainly result in felting.

Q: What about blocking non-wool items?
A: Acrylics don't actually block. Instead, they are meant to be gently machine washed and gently dried--air fluff or low (delicates). To really make acrylic lay flat--such as lace, perhaps--consider steam blocking

Superwash wool is also meant to be gently machine-washed but is is meant to be dried on low (not air fluff). If you block superwash the same way as regular wool, it becomes stringy and grows much larger. 

Whatever hand knits you put through a drier, prevent pilling by turning them inside-out. If the item is large or delicate, consider a dryer-gament bag

Plant-based fibers grow when blocked. Here, prevention is your only true weapon, since pretty much nothing will restore bounce to a cotton, hemp or linen knit once stretched out. These fibers are more known for "drape" than "cling." Plant-based yarns need to be swatched, the swatch blocked and dried, and then the item knitted to the gauge the blocked swatch indicates. By this trick, when you're knitting them, these garments seem to be turning out somewhat small. However, afterwards, they are blocked to size. Alternatively, dry cleaning is less likely to make cotton, hemp or linen stretch. 

--TKYou have been reading TECHknitting on "why you should (and how you can) block hand knitting")