The merits of blocking knitting

The gansey is finished, a mere 7 months after starting. I can’t do the “big reveal” yet because it isn’t blocked, and therein lies a tale. I never used to block my knitting, I just didn’t realise what a difference it makes. I mainly used to knit heavy, pure wool, Aran-type sweaters and, although I’d give the pieces a press with an iron and a damp cloth before sewing them up into a garment, I didn’t bother about pinning them to size. My mother and grandmother never did, so I didn’t either.

Then, when I joined a knitting group, my fellow knitters instructed me in the gentle (or sometimes quite violent) art of blocking and its merits. Blocking is most important when knitting lace patterns in fine yarn, as the post-blocking dimensions and the whole appearance of the lace can be completely different from the “off the needles” state. But even a heavy sweater can be noticeably improved by the process. Not only is it possible to “set” the knitted piece to the required size (within limits), but the stitches are magically evened up such that even the work from a knitter with variable tension will look quite professional. In the case of lace, hard blocking opens up the design, making the work light and airy and revealing the full beauty of the stitch pattern.

The blocked shawl

The blocked shawl

I discovered this for myself last year when I blocked a shawl I’d knitted some 15 years previously in Rowan’s Kidsilk Haze and discovered that it was transformed into a light-as-gossamer wrap.

Sometimes blocking is not really necessary, such as when knitting man-made fibres like acrylic which has little “give” and doesn’t lend itself to being stretched. But it is absolutely essential for some designs, such as the Mini Bubbles scarf I made a few weeks ago.

Unblocked

Unblocked

Blocked

Blocked

Before blocking, the “bubbles” weren’t circular and the whole piece was lumpy and bumpy. During blocking, the overall size increased, perfect circles appeared and I ended up with a much prettier end result.  The change would have been even more dramatic if the yarn had a higher natural fibre content, this one was only 45% angora and the rest acrylic.

Blocking can be done in a variety of ways, but the common denominator is holding the edges of the piece in place while it dries out (wet blocking) or is steamed. The edges can be pinned or, better still, stiff wires inserted. Stainless steel TIG welding electrodes are supposed to be good, but I have yet to buy some. I tend to use dressmaking pins stuck into the carpet or, if the piece has long, straight edges, carbon fibre rods held in place with pins. I happen to have a stash of carbon fibre (and glass fibre) rods from an extended kite-making period some years ago.

So, how to block this gansey? Serious gansey knitters soak the finished jumper, squeeze it out in towels and then fit it over a specialised, wooden blocking frame called a woolly board that can be adjusted to the right size and stands upright. Such a frame costs almost twice as much as the yarn for my gansey, so I won’t be buying one. Nor can I be bothered to make one, as I probably won’t ever knit another gansey. That leaves me with several options:

  • soak it as above, then pin it out on the floor;
  • soak it and stuff it with a me-sized piece of corrugated cardboard covered in polythene;
  • pin it out on the floor and spray it with water;
  • use an iron and a damp cloth to steam it to shape; or
  • the rug method.

I know that if I soak 800g (1lb 12oz) of tightly-spun pure wool and lay it flat indoors at this time of year – summer is most definitely over – it will still be damp in a week’s time and will quite possibly have developed mildew. Spraying isn’t going to work, ganseys are famous for being able to “turn” rain and sea spray and are not easy to wet. I was going to use the steaming method but, like an idiot, I took the iron apart to cut off a damaged length of flex and I can’t find where I’ve put the little spade connectors that are needed to reconnect the cable. I bought a packet of them the last time I changed the flex, and I know they’ll turn up as soon as I buy some more so I am putting off doing it. Meanwhile the mountain of ironing is growing and my gansey is unblocked. But this gives me an opportunity to try my friend Jennie’s rug blocking technique.

Not long ago, I was round at Jennie’s house and I noticed a slight lumpiness as I walked across a rug on her sitting room floor. “Ah”, said Jennie, “I’m blocking a jumper.” She peeled back a corner of the rug and there was a polo neck sweater, looking beautifully flat. Jennie cast her expert eye over it (she’s a skilful knitter) and pronounced it not quite done. She told me she blocks all her non-lace knitting this way, just laying the dry garment flat on the floor, easing it gently to shape and size and then placing a heavy rug over it. She reckons that it takes about a week and walking across the rug only enhances the process. What have I got to lose? My gansey is now under a rug at the bottom of the staircase and I am trying to resist having a peek at it every time I pass by. When the darned spade connectors turn up, or the ironing mountain grows high enough to make me go and buy some more, I will finish off with the iron.

We have been decorating in every spare daylight moment this week. The room that was damp-proofed at the end of last year now has fresh Anaglypta wallpaper on the walls and a newly white ceiling. The walls still need to be emulsioned but we are leaving them as they are for a while to help us decide whether they should remain white or have a coloured paint applied. In days gone by we could redecorate a room over a Bank Holiday weekend, including gloss painting all the woodwork. The wallpapering alone took us seven sessions this time around, each one lasting between two and seven hours. I have been collapsing exhaustedly into bed every night, aching from head to toe. As my dear husband says, we’re not as young as we used to be.

Aviation ply

Aviation ply

I had to go to the eye clinic in Leeds again a couple of days ago and was given the good news that I don’t require laser treatment to smooth my cornea, it is apparently smooth enough to make any further corneal erosion unlikely. I celebrated by going to the timber merchants and buying a sheet of the 1.5mm aviation ply that I have had my eye on (the good one!). The 5ft x 5ft sheet rolled up and fitted into the car with no trouble, but when I got the roll home and laid it on the floor for a second while I considered where to store it, the cat ran into it and refused to come out. I expect I will find footprints in there when I unroll it, let’s hope they wipe off the birch. I see from the Airedale FabLab’s website that its laser cutter is back in action, so I must finalise my design for a wastepaper bin and book a Saturday session there.

About yorkshirecrafter

I live and work in West Yorkshire.  I've always enjoyed crafts of all types, from woodwork to lace-making.  I also enjoy anything mathematical, which makes knitting a favourite pastime, especially complicated designs.  I've been advising businesses and industry on environmental matters for 30 years and also have an interest in green living, especially where it saves me money. I live with my husband and our Maine Coon in a 100-year-old cottage that constantly needs something doing to it.  Fortunately, I enjoy DIY too.
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1 Response to The merits of blocking knitting

  1. Pingback: Welding rods and a Kool Leftie | YorkshireCrafter

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