When I was a new knitter, I had no interest in blocking. I thought of it like gauge swatching; a colossal waste of time. As my knitting skills advanced, I grudgingly accepted the importance of swatching, but remained bull headed about blocking. Guys, I was 32 and had been knitting for exactly half my life before I blocked anything. Seriously. The epiphany came about with my first Fair Isle project (yes, it took me 16 years to work up to Fair Isle, so if you haven’t tried it yet, don’t be hard on yourself). I paid particular attention to keeping my floats loose, but the stitches still looked ridiculously wonky and the pattern was completely distorted. I did what we all do: decided that I wasn’t a good enough knitter yet to tackle Fair Isle, and put the hat in time out, in a dark corner of my stash where it couldn’t haunt me with its epic failures. Wait, not everyone does that? My knitting group cajoled me into bringing it a few weeks later, and they ALL chimed in that it would “block out.” So now my interest was piqued: what kind of witchy magic was involved with blocking that would compensate for crappy knitting?!?! I learned so much that night: first, that wonky knitting is not crappy knitting, and second, that blocking really IS magic! Just don’t ask how long it took me to start blocking my swatches! I still rarely do it… shhhh….
I am probably one of the loosest knitters you’ve ever met, I probably have the loosest gauge among my knitting friends, and I never learned to “tension” the yarn with my finger the way that everyone else seems to do naturally. Now that I’ve been knitting “my” way for so long, if I try to “tension,” everything gets all F&%*ed up and I end up with huge variations in my gauge over just a few inches of knitting. The moral of this sidebar is not to listen to your well-meaning knitting friends when they try to get you to change your knitting style if it’s working for you. Unless they’re telling you to swatch and block. I’ll vouch for them there.
There are a TON of ways to block knitting projects, and they all have their pros and cons. I’m not going to be able to tell you the exact perfect method that will perform miracles on each and every garment, because there isn’t one. I’m just going to tell you how I do it. Some of you already know and understand the mysteries behind blocking magic; I know several of our readers perform professional blocking services and I am in awe of your precision and patience.
Over the next few months, I’ll be showing you the different methods of blocking that I use. I have a
small growing pile of things ready to block, and I’ll walk you through as I do each one.
Lesson One: Lightly blocking a sweater to measurements.
You can use this method when you have a sweater that basically appears to be finished when you bind off. It looks like a sweater that’s just a bit wrinkled here and there from living in a project bag for so long, it’s well-made, and you could probably just wear it as-is.
Maybe you put it on and it fits, but it just doesn’t lie quite right; there are puckery spots and wonky things here and there that no one else would ever see, but your eye goes right to them. You find yourself
tragically sobbing in a corner vowing to never knit a sweater again a bit disappointed.
What you’ll need:
- a surface large enough to fit your entire sweater with its sleeves spread out to the sides
- plastic sheeting or garbage bags, enough to cover the surface
- towels, the older the better to avoid lint or towel fuzzies
- a clean and empty spray bottle
- gentle cleanser, such as Soak or Eucalyn
- a tape measure
- the pattern schematics (included in most knitting patterns)
- a pen
- pins (T-pins work best)
- a drink and some music – this takes a while, so let’s have fun!
Before you start:
I’ve heard that some people like to weave in their ends after blocking, but in my experience I’ve found that I had to re-block a bit afterward, so I weave mine in ahead of time. If I think there’s a chance of the sweater being too long or too short, I’ll leave the final end unwoven so I can unravel or add length without having to fish for a well-hidden end.
Mark your size in each schematic measurement.
- Turn on some music that you love.
- Spread the plastic on your blocking surface. I use our dining room table for most things, but have also used the floor in a pinch.
- Cover the plastic with the towels.
- Put a small squirt (maybe ¼ teaspoon) of your cleanser into the spray bottle and fill it with water. It’ll be pretty bubbly.
- Spray the towels with water, dampening the surface roughly the size of the sweater. Alternatively, you can use damp towels from the washing machine to save your hand from spraying a hundred times.
Here we go!
Buckle up everyone, you’re about to get a sneak peek of my design for issue eight : washington!
There’s one hard and fast rule: A stitch has a limited amount of stretch; it can stretch in any direction, but as its length is stretched, its width will shrink, and vice versa. Pick up anything knitted and stretch it tall and then wide, and you’ll see what I mean. The goal of this type of blocking is to gently mold the sweater into its perfect size and shape without significantly changing the overall stitch gauge.
Place the sweater on top of the damp towel, face down, gently spreading it out flat.
Spray the sweater until it’s damp to the touch. You’ll probably see tiny water droplets sticking to the fibers. Don’t panic if your house starts to smell like a wet sheep; it’ll fade as the sweater dries, but if it really bugs you, the scented Soak covers it up pretty well.
Gently turn the sweater over so it’s front side up, being careful to smooth the back so there aren’t any wrinkles. Similar to ironing, if you block in a crease, the only way to flatten the crease is to block the sweater again.
Position the sweater so it resembles the shape of the schematic and spray the front of the sweater about half as much as you did for the back.
Find your bust measurement on the schematic and divide it in half. Here, the bust circumference is 58”; divided in half you get 29”.
Measure side to side at the widest part of the chest under the arm, and gently manipulate the sweater to match the bust measurement.
Pin either side of the bust to the towel. If the stitches look as though they are stretched out, carefully put your hands inside the sweater to spread it out, essentially distributing the additional required width over the entirety of the bust stitches, rather than pulling excessively at the edges.
Spray across the bust now; the more you had to adjust the width, the more water you’ll need.
Next, look at the bottom ribbing. It shouldn’t pull the hem narrower than the last row of the body’s stitch pattern. Pin the ribbing, stretching it to match the width of the body. Again, spread it out and wet it.
As you progress through the different measurements, you may find that you have to readjust the pins as you go. Try not to get frustrated if this happens a few times – take a deep breath and a drink, then find your favorite jam on Spotify and have a little dance break.
Moving up, measure the length of the sweater from the underarm to the hem. In many patterns, this measurement is given for your working project, unblocked, so there *shouldn’t* be much adjustment needed. That being said, if you had to stretch the bust more than an inch or two to match the schematic, you may have lost some length. If this is the case, you may have to knit in the additional length if you can’t stretch it without distorting the stitches.
Moving outward, let’s look at the upper arms, along with the shoulder shaping. In this case, it refers to the raglan increase lines. Working on one side at a time, position the sleeves so the underarm is spread flat. On my sweater, the raglan line is puckering at the underarm, due to the nature of the increases (the slope of the increases changes as the sweater grows – there are formulas for this, but let’s leave that for another day).
Spray the underarm on the body side as well as the arm side, and really spray the raglan line. With one hand on the top of the raglan, and one at the underarm, pull gently until the line evens out. Measure the depth of the armhole as you go, and adjust to match the schematic. You’ll probably have to change the angle of the sleeve at this point to keep the underarm fabric from bunching up. Once the underarm and raglan line are smoothed out, pin the edges to the towel. If the fabric pulls at the pins, spray it and spread out as above until the pins and fabric are relaxed.
On to the sleeves.
Measure from the underarm to the end of the cuff against the schematic or your desired sleeve length. You can typically lengthen a sleeve by a few inches if necessary (I have orangutan arms and still do this to my store-bought sweaters), but as you add length you will lose some width. If the sleeve stays in place on its own from the weight of the damp fabric, there’s no need to pin it.
Alrighty, let’s check in. Your sweater’s body and sleeves are set.
On to the neck and upper chest. My sweater has a picked up collar that is puckering unattractively, but before I get to that, I want to make sure that the neckline underneath the collar is straight. I like to use a few pins here, because necklines usually involve a change in stitch pattern, needle size, or both, and that tends to encourage the transition spot to want to fold under or over. Soak this part with a cup of water if necessary to smooth it out, match the measurements, and adjust the shoulders as needed to maintain the proper shaping you’ve already done.
Depending on the style of sweater you’re knitting, you may or may not have wonky spots like my collar, and this is where you have to use your judgment. The more shaping that’s necessary, the more water you’ll need, but if you soak it too much, the stitches can become unmanageable. Tug at the seams to flatten them out, and fiddle with the collar until you’re happy with it, slowly adding a little more water as necessary to get the right shape.
Take a step back to admire your handiwork and look for anything else that seems imperfect.
Now that you’ve had a little practice adjusting the fabric to even things out, learning how much handling and moisture it takes to adjust the stitches, get in there and play with it, shaping it to your will.
Once you’re happy with the shaping, pour yourself a fresh drink and raise a toast to your achievement. Now don’t touch it until the next morning.
Once the sweater is completely dry, take a close look at your previous wonky spots. If they’re still a bit puckered or distorted, spray the spot and reshape it. If it’s being particularly stubborn, fold up a towel and place it over the area to add weight as it dries.
If the stitches and lines of the sweater look smooth, remove all the pins and try it on. Hopefully, you’re totally psyched with your beautiful sweater!
If you try on the sweater and it doesn’t bring you joy, before you shove it in a drawer to be hated forever and always, try to figure out why you don’t like the fit. Is it too narrow? Too wide? Too short? Too long? So much of this can be adjusted with blocking, especially with looser, drapey gauges. While you’re wearing the sweater, see if you can figure out measurements that would make the sweater fit you better, and repeat the blocking process to those measurements. Maybe you need an extra half-inch in the armpit, or just a touch more width at the shoulders. As long as the fabric is pliable, the stitches don’t distort, and you remember the rule about losing width as you gain length and vice versa, you can reshape the sweater at least an inch or two in either direction.
This method is also good for shawls that call for a “light blocking.”
After experiencing the true joy of a beautifully-finished sweater, I want everyone to know that magical feeling.
Don’t Knock It ‘Til You Block It.