I’ve always learned that a textile—whether woven, knitted or sewn—is never finished until it’s washed. Immersing a textile in lukewarm water with mild liquid detergent, and then NOT playing with it while it’s in the water, allows the fibers to relax and to slip into place. Especially in knitting, any unevenness in the the stitches or little “incongruities” are worked out and resolved… magically! It all comes out in the wash.
For this tutorial we are blocking a large hand knit shawl. I’ve used a wool/silk singles (Mushishi Yarn by Plymouth and made in Italy) in a slate blue and brown, size 9 needles, and a gorgeous ring lace stitch pattern passed down to me by my mentor. Katharine Cobey sent along a one-page chart that she created defining the rows of this 8-row repeat. This stitch must be available in books.
I followed the shape for knitting a triangular shawl where you cast on six stitches and keep one side of the triangle stable (not increasing or decreasing stitches), and, on the opposite edge (and at the same time) increase one stitch every other row until you reach the desired length and width. My finished shawl measured 60” wide with 81” on the stable edge, and 108” along the increased edge. I interspersed garter stitch with ring lace at random. Apart from this shaping and the stitches, there is no “pattern”—I made it up.
The following photos illustrate the steps involved. Blocking evens out tension across the width of the piece, helps the work lay flat, adds a professional look, and allows knitted lace to truly “open up.”
These “before” and “after” images show why blocking is necessary.
In the first image shown, the work is still in progress and is on the needles. The yarn is pretty enough and the shawl is underway, but the “rings” are not visible. The second photo shows the finished piece after miles and miles of knitting and AFTER a final blocking. The lace is open, rings appear, and the garment is flat and well-shaped. Big difference!
You must wash before you block. Immerse the item in water that is warm to your hand (not too hot and not too cool) with your favorite detergent (shampoo, Dr. Bonner’s, Dawn dishwashing liquid or other). I use Kookaburra Wash, a natural agent made of tea tree and orange oils. Do not play with the textile. Wool + warm water + agitation is the perfect combination to create felt, which you do not want. Your beautiful stitches will become enmeshed in a thick irreversible mat.
Let the item soak 20 minutes in its sudsy bath and leave the room. Return to drain the water and gently squeeze excess soap and water out while avoiding wringing or twisting. Support the garment’s weight (either with a pail or with your hands) and then fill your sink again with clear lukewarm water. Do not let the water splash directly onto your piece. Again, allow to soak for 10-20 minutes before you drain and gently squeeze again. I was taught to treat the washed item as a lamb: avoid extremes in temperature and handle it gently. When excess moisture has been removed, roll the piece in a towel to dry further. If you are not blocking, after squeezing, simply lay the piece out on galvanized (stainless) screening so that air can reach it from all sides, keep it away from direct sunlight, and allow the piece to dry naturally.
Blocking lace is a bit more tricky. You will be using thumbtacks, pins, rulers and blocking wires to precisely align the work to its true dimensions and fixed edges. The idea is to straighten all edges and to expand or gently stretch the lace while wet, so that when it dries, it will retain its shape. You’ll need to pushpin it to a surface to make it lay flat. I’ve heard of using a wooden floor, thick carpet, or foam rubber blocking mats but the material that works best for this purpose is “homasote board.” Homasote is a sound-proof fiber board with a smooth working surface that resists buckling and warping. It can be found in construction supply shops in 2-, 4-, or 8-foot sheets. (As one example, one 24-inch by 4-foot sheet currently costs $12.28 at Lowe’s.) It is lightweight, strong, stable, may be adhered to a wall, and is easily pinned.
I found ideal conditions in my friend Arlene Morris’ studio. She has a bright airy art studio with one wall covered by an eight-foot sheet of homasote. With her permission, I took down her artwork and gathered my tools.
Tools included long-nib silver pushpins, 35” knitting blocking wires, a large T-square ruler (16” x 48”), one straight-edge ruler (18”), a pail, a small stool to place tools on as you work along, and scissors for last-minute touch-ups of threads gone astray.
It’s a bit unwieldy to get this wet woolen mass neatly pinned to a wall, but persevere. I used lots of pushpins evenly spaced and worked across the top first. My ruler defines a line and I only worry about one area at a time.
Alternatively, you can thread blocking wires through the work at regular intervals as close to the edge as you dare. Putting it out to the very edge might have elongated some stitches. Play with what feels right. Using the blocking wires allows you to use fewer pushpins. Keep measuring across the work for consistency. As lines fall into place, you may need to pin and re-pin your work.
A T-square ruler is ideal for tackling the vertical edges. Again, lots of pushpins hold the work in place. The knitting is still quite wet and somewhat heavy. A pail catches errant drips.
The work is beginning to straighten as I work across the shawl. I use a few pushpins at the top just to support the weight as I work. Then, I unpin several and use my ruler to find straight lines once again. You can see the lace really opening up. That’s when “rings” appear!
I go over and over my pinning, adjusting lines and edges. Sometimes I use my hand to work the knitting into its rightful place. I found it satisfying to use both thumbtacks and wires.
At this point, all edges are blocked. The process has taken at least an hour and a half, and I am ready to go home and think about a new knitting project. Meanwhile, I’m so glad I blocked.
Several days later, I unpin the left side and hold the work out. The shawl unfurls its great length and beauty and the ringed stitch maintains its shape. Beautifully! The shawl is finished and ready to wear.