Or, How to Block Any Lace Shawl.
Or, Block Me, Amadeus, Part II
Or, Majoring in Lace, Part 234312321.
The usual disclaimers apply - strong opinions lie ahead, these are opinions only, based on my experiences, your mileage may differ, and so on and so forth.
Onward. Blocking, or dressing, is absolutely necessary for any piece of knitted lace - even sculptural lace patterns in close-knit cotton or linen need gentle blocking to persuade them to take shape, and shawls, scarves and stoles usually need aggressive tugging and stretching to encourage the patterns to bloom. The complex relationships between increases and decreases in lace fabrics - sometimes far apart from each other, sometimes right next to each other - create innumerable stresses on the fabric: some portions are bias fabrics, some pockets puff out from many adjacent increases; some areas want to pucker in from many adjacent decreases. The resulting piece, fresh off the needles, is ripply, bubbly, nipply...fugly.
Blocking, of course, smoothes out the pliable, forgiving fabric into a perfectly flat, airy, and open fabric with beautiful drape - and, to some extent, "sets" the stitches in their stretched position. How to go about evenly, efficiently and accurately blocking an enormous, awkward piece of fabric, though? Here's how I do it:
Soak the finished wrap (ends darned, but not clipped) in lukewarm water with a dribble of wool wash. (I use rinse-free stuff, but good baby shampoos work just as well, though you need to add a rinse cycle. I've been using this Soak stuff lately - I bought it on a whim, and have been pleased with the way it smells and the way it leaves the fabrics feeling. It's pricey, though - I'll probably go back to Johnson's Baby when this bottle runs out). Fill a sink basin with warmish water, add just a little soap (if the water feels slippery, it's too much), and poke the knitting under the surface. If the knitting is dirty, it's alright to squeeze some suds through the fabric - but don't agitate or rub or otherwise manhandle the wet piece, unless you're looking to felt or break something.
Drain the knitting and rinse (if necessary). Pull the plug in the sink basin, and let the soapy water run out. Press the wadded knitting gently against the side of the sink to express some water. If a rinse is needed, refill the basin with water of the same temperature (don't let the running water hit the knitting), gently swish, drain, and repeat until the water runs clear.
Express nearly all the water by rolling the knitting in a towel. Now, an important point: knitting is tough, but it's not invincible. Whenever the damp fabric is moved - from sink to towel, and from towel to blocking surface - it needs to be supported. Protein fibers are weaker when wet than when dry, and there is an off chance that a dangling bit could pull out of shape or a fiber could break under its own waterlogged weight. Transport wet knitting in a colander, or two hands, or in some other way that leaves no hanging or spilt-over parts.
To get the knitting almost dry, roll it in a thirsty, thick bath towel, and stand on it (salad spinners work well, too).
Prep an appropriate blocking surface. For something as large and unwieldy as most shawls and stoles are, a blocking board just isn't big enough. Fresh sheets on a double bed will work, though, or a just-vacuumed carpet (usually, I cover a blocking surface with an oilcloth before blocking, to hurry drying and discourage water from seeping into a porous surface. With barely-damp lace, though, it's not a concern). Make sure you have room to maneuver around the perimeter of the knitting.
And make sure you have pins - lots of pins. I use small quilter's T-pins: they are cheap, rustproof, and easy to handle. Some shawls will need literally hundreds of pins during blocking - forget schmancy pins that cost $2.99 a 12-pack, and get cheapies that cost $2.99 a 100-pack.
(Did I mention that this post was going to have a lot of photos?)
Pin out the main corners of your piece. For a triangle, this means the top corners and the bottom point; for a circle, the four compass points; and for a square or rectangle, the four corners. Note that this is where you determine the finished size of your shawl - pin one corner first, then gently pull the opposite point until it feels just slightly stretched (but not taut). Pin the other corner or corners in the same way, checking with a big T square to make sure your angles are straight. At this point, you can tell whether you have pinned too tight, or too loose, and it is easy to make adjustments.
How aggressively you block is largely a matter of preference. With good wool, I block very tightly - often, the knitting rises very slightly off the blocking surface as it shrinks and dries, pulling taut like a drumhead. You should consider several things when deciding how far you can push it: 1) the integrity and structure of the yarn. I feel less comfortable blocking singles very tightly than plied yarns; cobweb yarns than laceweight yarns; shoddy yarns than good, solid yarns. 2) Fiber content. Some fibers, like alpaca, are particularly weak when wet. 3) The knitting gauge. Very loose gauges can really be opened up. Closer gauges won't tolerate heavy stretching. 4) The stitch. Allover lace patterns with patterning on every row look best when opened up as much as possible. Small lace motifs in a mostly stockinette or garter ground probably won't need heavy blocking.
In all cases, the point is to open up the crumply lace fabric, not to significantly stretch the stitches or fibers themselves. I've never snapped a thread during blocking, but it does happen; it's ridiculous to tread as if on eggshells, but don't go in there screaming banzai, either.
Bisect each section between pins. Hold a straightedge against the two flanking pins for accuracy.
Keep going until it looks right. If your edges are to be pinned out into points, you will probably be done fairly soon. If you have straight edges, keep pinning again and again at section midpoints until there is no scalloping or pulling.
Let it dry undisturbed. Unless you live in a particularly cold or humid climate, the piece should be dry within a few hours. Unpin and clip any hanging ends.
- This process will, of course, need to be repeated every time the shawl is washed. The wrap might also need re-blocking after a period of time in humid air. It really doesn't take that long; it took me about 15 minutes to block the shawl above, from soak to final pinning.
- Blocking wires or string can be used to simplify things a little; they are particularly useful along straight edges, and where adjustments need to be made that would otherwise mean moving dozens of pins. With blocking wires, thread the wire along the straight edges, and use just a few pins to hold it in place. If using string, run a very long (longer than the perimeter of the stretched wrap) length of crochet cotton along all edges of the dry shawl, leaving a long loop at each corner. Pin out the loops and arrange the knitting along the taut string, pinning as you go.
- Starching is an option for extremely delicate shawls (like, gossamer weight yarn in very open stitches patterned every row): barely damp knitting should be soaked in a very weak solution of cornstarch and water. I think, though, that starch should be saved for doilys and antimacassars.
- In Shetland and parts of Russia, shawls are blocked on great wooden frames: a length of cotton is threaded on a tapestry needle, and the shawl is tethered to the frame with a loose whipstitch through every point. I want to try this someday - whenever I have enough space to justify 6" squares lying around the house!
- Store shawls on an open shelf, folded between two sheets of acid-free tissue paper to minimize creases. Never store a dirty shawl - that's asking for moths.
Now, the shawl itself - that right there is the sum total of my Christmas knitting, Evelyn Clark's Swallowtail Shawl from the Fall '06 IK, in my own handspun. It's going to my grandmother, who taught me to knit when I was very small. This has been an odd year for me, bad in some personal ways, but good and better than good in some professional, knitting-related ways. It seems appropriate and respectful and satisfying to give her something that shows my gratefulness - and that I am still learning so many things.