Walking in a Wooly Wonderland

A wooly wonderland
A wooly wonderland

Where does Art end and Craft begin?  Can there even be Art without Craft?  That's what I've been exploring for the last several months.  I learned craftsmanship so early in my life, that the discovery of art distracted me for a while.  Now, after attempting to juggle the two, I'm learning to balance them into new creation.


Teaching has always taught me more than I knew before, and thanks to our new Monday morning Knitters' Circle*, my knitting is growing apace!


As promised (to those who asked), here's the report on caring for knitwear that I recently completed for The Knitting Guild Association Master Level 1...


*all are welcome: ICCP office, Place Richèlme, Aix-en-Pce from 10-noon each Monday excepting school holidays.

Blocking and Care of Hand Knits

Blocking is a crucial part in the creation of a garment, although it’s an element of finishing that knitters often overlook.  The whole point of blocking is to enhance the fibers—not flattening the life out of them.  Properly executed, blocking will highlight crafting techniques, embellish stitch patterns, and establish correct proportions.  Therefore it’s important to recognize the general characteristics of the raw materials, and to care for the knitted pieces to their best advantage.  “Textile fibers appear in natural sources such as seed pods (cotton), animal hair (wool), or plant stems (flax).  They can be manufactured from natural fibrous materials such as wood pulp (rayon) or synthesized from chemicals with no resemblance to fibrous forms (nylon, polyester.)”[1]  Know the properties of each fiber you use so that you can treat them appropriately.

Mary Walker Phillips[2] points out the necessity of blocking a sample piece of knitting—the pattern swatch—to tell if the yarn is compatible with the stitches and patterns used.  “If the sample appears muddled looking, change the yarn to suit the design or change the needle size to create a more open effect.  If the sample appears crisp and clear in its design, proceed with the larger piece.”

She adds, “In conventional knitting, the yarns used have a resiliency that results in an even stitch, but the yarns used in creative knitting have relatively no stretch factor so that there is apt to be more unevenness in the knitting.  This unevenness will be taken care of by careful blocking in most cases.  This is not to say that sloppy craftsmanship will be corrected by blocking; no amount of blocking will remedy this fault.”  Keep in mind that “knitted fabric does not usually stretch in both directions at the same time.  What you gain in length, you may lose in width and vice versa,” according to Maggie Righetti.[3]

Because blocking can effectively even out stitches, it is wise to weave in any yarn ends within the garment before blocking.  Individual knitted pieces may be blocked before sewing up, and whole garments may be blocked after they are completed.  Use blocking to reshape after washing, or to open out lacy or ribbed fabrics.

Various reference books and articles will advise one way or the other whether it is better to block before or after seaming.  Righetti makes a fair point that, “one of the best effects that good steam blocking produces is to smooth out seams, joining, and areas where stitches have been picked up.  These areas cannot be steam-blocked until the garment is woven, joined, picked up, and finished.  Why bother to block twice when once will do?” [4]  I would add that this applies to any blocking technique, not just steaming.  I pin knitted pieces together before seaming—when I’m not knitting in the round—so pre-shaping isn’t an issue for me.  It is visually more straightforward to block a completed garment to shape and measurement than the separate pieces.

Maggie Righetti is adamant about prewashing any knitted pieces.[5]  Our hands are never completely free of oils, nor does the article in progress consistently avoid contact with dust and dirt.  For that reason, clean any piece before blocking, to keep from setting any stains.


For blocking, you will need:

·      A blocking surface.  See 1 (below).

·      Sturdy rustproof pins, and optional stainless steel blocking wires.

·      A ruler or tape measure.

·      Schematics and/or finished measurements of the garment.

·      A basin or washing machine, and optional colander.

·      Towels, and lots of them.

·      A spray bottle with cool, fresh water.

·      Possibly a steamer or steam-iron and pressing cloth.  (See 2 below.)


1. Prepare a blocking surface.  This can be as simple as several layers of towels on a flat area such as a table, bed, or a rug (provided that it is free of passing feet).  A foam blocking board marked in squares may make matching the correct measurements easier.  Vogue Knitting [6] suggests covering the blocking board with gingham fabric because of its evenly spaced checkerboard pattern.

Mary Walker Phillips[7] mentions an insulating material called ‘Celotex’ as a surface for blocking.  It is lightweight, rigid, and yet porous enough for pins to be easily inserted.  The 4’ x 8’ sheets can be cut to smaller, more convenient sizes, such as 2’ x 4’ (for easier storage, although 36”sq. is generally adequate for blocking sweaters), and can be placed side by side for a larger blocking surface.  You will need heavy paper to cover the Celotex, and masking tape or gummed, paper tape to secure the wrapping paper to the blocking board.  She recommends marking the paper in 1” squares to serve as measuring guides.  (Be sure to use a permanent marker, and allow the ink to dry thoroughly before placing the knitwear on the surface!)


2. Decide which method you will use to prepare the knitted pieces: (a) wet blocking/immersion technique, (b) misting, or (c) steaming. 

Natural protein fibers are obtained from animal sources.  Most fibers in this group are the hair covering—“Wool”—from animals such as sheep, mohair and cashmere goats, camel, llama and alpaca, vicuña and angora; the rest are animal secretions obtained from the larva or worm stage of the silkworm.  Hair and fur fibers have many properties in common with secretion fibers, but some characteristics are quite different.[8]  Animal fibers such as wools block well, so they require only a little moisture such as steaming or misting, although I prefer to thoroughly saturate the pieces with water, and wet block, as it seems to make shaping the weighted pieces easier on the blocking board.  As always, it is imperative to test the gauge swatch before attempting to care for the finished product.

Natural cellulosic fiber is a term that refers to the simple chemistry of the plant substances and provides a scientific method for comparing natural and man-made cellulose fibers.  In knitting yarns, this commonly includes cotton, flax (linen), and bamboo, among other less common materials.[9]  Viscose is a man-made fiber from wood cellulose, often added as a blend to cottons, and may be tested as such.  Slippery, non-stretchy fibers such as linen, cotton, and silk respond better to more moisture, which wet-blocking is the best method.  Washing, shaping and lying flat to dry are generally enough to block cotton knits.  I find that hanging on a clothesline with clips from the hem seams in a fresh breeze is more effective at regaining the proper length of the garment.

Synthetic fibers—acrylic, polyester, etc.—do not respond well to blocking; they hold their shape for only a short time.

Novelty yarns (highly textured): It may not be possible to block your novelty yarn.  If the yarn ball band doesn’t give care instructions to the contrary, then the result of testing the gauge swatch is the best indicator.

Phillips mentions special considerations for unusual fibers and textures in Creative Knitting;[10] such as soaking linen or silk in medium-strength starch solution before blocking to insure the hanging piece will hold its shape.

Fibers expand as moisture permeates the fabric, and with care and confidence, we can use this to our advantage.  But beware!  Over-confidence and carelessness can just as easily become destructive forces.  Ribbing, cables, and textured patterns should never be flattened to oblivion.  Successful blocking will encourage the stitches to stand up and be counted, so be sure to test the blocking method on the swatch before blocking the garment pieces.

Intricate cotton, silk or linen lace doilies and table coverings come immediately to mind when considering special care and blocking.  June Hemmons Hyatt includes a mention of ‘Sizing,’[11] adding, “This is the only occasion I can think of where it is permissible to press a knitted fabric.

“The traditional method of sizing a fabric of this sort relied on cold-blocking [immersion method].  Starch was dissolved in cold water and added to the final rinse water.  The item was stretched and pinned into place and left to dry.  Today, spray starch makes the job considerably easier….  Starch not only stiffens the fabric, which displays the stitch pattern, but it coats the fibers, protecting them from soil and making them easier to clean.  Old-fashioned starches are vegetable products and can attract insects in storage; if you are planning to store lace textiles that you customarily starch, was them first.  The newer spray starches are more often resins of one kind or another and don’t present this problem.”  Montse Stanley suggests [12] that, “Instead of starch, wall hangings and other decorative items can be treated with the laminating spray used for making window blinds.  This also helps to protect them from dirt.  Apply on both sides, but try on samples first.”

That’s not to say that every lace requires sizing.  It’s perfectly permissible to block without additional products.  Lipizzanknitter indicates that a lace pattern within a seed-stitch border (for example) should be stretched and pinned first, followed by the border.[13]  If only the border is pinned, then the edges will scallop and show the blocking points.


a) Wet blocking: Soak the pieces (or garment) in tepid water, or hand wash.  Support your garment from below as you lift it from the water as it can become very heavy when saturated with water.  Maggie Righetti cleverly recommends placing the item in a colander to drain.[14]  Gently squeeze out the excess water—NEVER wring or twist, so as not to distort the piece.  Roll it in a towel, spin it in the washing machine, or swing wildly in a clean pillowcase to centrifuge as much water as possible from the garment.  You want the piece to be damp, not sodden.


3. Spread the clean project on the clean blocking surface.  Straighten the edges with your fingers before you pin them to the proper shape and measurements, using sturdy rustproof pins (I use drapery pins) or stainless steel blocking wires to keep the edges flat. 

Blocking wires are run through the edges of the garment or individual pieces.  The wires hold the edges even and can be secured with just a few pins. Insert the pins into the blocking board at an angle from the center of the piece outwards at about ¼” apart.

Note: You may decide not to block ribbing if you want to maintain the elastic properties.  On the other hand, items such as a ribbed scarf, or a too snug neck or waistband, would benefit from pinned blocking.  The point is to pin the piece to the measurement you determine.

Check your measurements often, especially if you’re working coordinating sleeves, or back and front pieces.  The piece should be stretched taught but not too much as to distort the form.


b) Misting with a spray bottle and fresh water.  Pin the pieces to shape first, and then saturate the fibers with the fine mist.  Some fibers need more water than others, wool generally needing less than silk.  You may also want to mist a wet-blocked piece if it dries while you’re in the process of pinning.


c) Steaming. Place a damp cloth over the pieces already pinned; then steam with a hot iron held just barely above the damp cloth.  Do not touch the iron to the fabric, as the fibers may melt or scorch.  Synthetic fibers, such as acrylics, should not be blocked in this method because too much heat makes them lose their resilience and create a shiny surface.


4. Leave the project pinned and (in most cases) horizontal until thoroughly dry.  A current of air—a fan, a heating duct, or an open window away from direct sunlight, for instance—will speed the drying process.

Ratigan & Durant[15] advise placing a hand towel inside a sewn knitted garment to absorb excess moisture, and changing to a fresh, dry towel every 12 hours or so.

Do not place any type of weight, such as books, on your work, as it would flatten any knitted texture, or possibly set in wrinkles.


5. Remove the pins and continue with finishing techniques.


Care of knitted garments depends on fiber content; wool & silk are hair, so I use shampoo and treat the animal fiber as if it were still a living creature, washing in warm—NEVER hot—water.  Elizabeth Zimmermann says it correctly, “The water—both suds and rinse water—should be 98.6°F., or baby’s bath temperature.”[16]  If it’s comfortable when poured on your wrist, then it’s comfortable on tender skin.  Be sure to mix the soap well in the water before adding the garment, to make final rinsing less troublesome.  Mrs. Zimmermann adds, “Let your sweater lie in its soapy bath for a minute or two, to loosen the dirt, and then squeeze it gently a few times.  If you have the forethought to mark any particularly dirty spots with safety pins, these are easily found and attended to.  Expel the soapy water by squeezing gently, but NEVER by wringing.”  My automatic washing machine has a trustworthy cycle for this; suffice to say that we AVOID Heat, Moisture, and Pressure (agitation) unless we want felted fabric. 

In Ratigan & Durant’s Knitting Know-How,[17] it is suggested to, “Drain the water, fill the sink again and swish the garment around to rinse out the soap.  Repeat the rinsing until the soap is completely gone.”  Residual soap will hasten deterioration of any fiber.

Should you need to have your garment dry-cleaned, here’s a useful tip by June Hemmons Hiatt on how to determine dependability of the cleaning establishment: “Send something washable to the cleaners.  When it comes home, immediately wash it by hand—dirty water tells a sad tale.  Ask your cleaners how often they filter the chemicals and on which day of the week they are likely to be the freshest and then bring your fine garments in on a day when you can expect the best results.”[18]

In a desperate situation such as receiving an invitation for dinner when traveling without an iron, simply hanging your drapey little number over a damp towel in a steamy bathroom for awhile may be enough encouragement for the garment to fill its fibers and fulfill its glorious natural properties.

Mrs. Zimmerman also recommends, in the absence of a spin cycle, the knitted garment be placed in a net sack or pillowcase, swung around the head “in an apparently lunatic fashion, to extract the water by centrifugal action, ending up by rolling it in several towels and even more loonily jumping on it.  Anything to get rid of as much moisture as humanly possible—short of putting it in the dryer.  There is nothing more disheartening for a sweater than to lie in a sodden heap for any length of time.”[19]

To store woolens, pack the clean and thoroughly dry garments in a cedar chest or wardrobe with sachets of natural moth-repellants.  If using mothballs, read the list of contents; camphor is a natural substance, and less physiologically assaulting than chemically simulated compounds.  In addition to cedar, rosemary, mint, lavender, thyme, and bay are naturally repellant to most local parasites.  They must be renewed annually due to loss of essential oils.  Beware that the oils can stain your garments if placed in direct contact with the fibers.  It’s a good idea to wrap each item in white tissue paper before storing.

Do not store up for yourselves unwashed or slightly damp woolens, where moths and dampness destroy!  Lay up your treasures clean and dry, and celebrate the work of your hands, for it is a thing of beauty and very good.


I blocked my swatches…

            By immersing each 100% wool swatch in a basin of fresh water, giving a good squeeze and swish for the moisture to thoroughly permeate the fibers, and let it soak for about 5 minutes, before draining and gently squeezing the pieces, followed by swinging wildly in a mesh lingerie sack to expel excess moisture. 

            After that, I used a clear plastic ruler to shape each piece on a thick towel, pinning the center, the corners, and edges—the same way I stretch a canvas on frames for painting.  Lippizanknitters’ YouTube tutorial on blocking[20] taught me how to properly angle the pins from the inside of the swatch to the edge.

            It’s been a very hot summer, so the pieces dried in less than 24 hours.

[1] Joseph, Marjory L. Essentials of Textiles, 3rd Edition, pg. 13.

[2] Phillips, Mary Walker.  Creative Knitting: A New Art Form, pg. 35.

[3] Righetti, Maggie.  Knitting in Plain English, pg. 205.

[4] Joseph, Marjory L. Essentials of Textiles, 3rd Edition, pg. 206.

[5] Righetti, Maggie.  Knitting in Plain English, pgs. 205-206.

[6] Vogue Knitting editors.  The Ultimate Knitting Book, pg. 95.

[7] Phillips, Mary Walker.  Creative Knitting: A New Art Form, pg. 31

[8] Joseph, Marjory L. Essentials of Textiles, 3rd Edition, pg. 35

[9] ibid. Essentials of Textiles, 3rd Edition, p. 52

[10] Phillips, Mary Walker.  Creative Knitting: A New Art Form, pg. 36.

[11] Hemmons Hiatt, June. The Principles of Knitting, pg. 395.

[12] Stanley, Montse.  The Handknitter’s Handbook, pg. 205.

[13] Lippizanknitter. “Blocking Swatches for the MHK program.”


[14] Righetti, Maggie.  Knitting in Plain English, pg. 210.

[15] Ratigan, Dorothy T. & Durant, Judith.  Knitting Know-How, pg. 206.

[16] Zimmermann, Elizabeth, Knitting Without Tears, pg. 114

[17] Ratigan, Dorothy T. & Durant, Judith.  Knitting Know-How, pg. 206.

[18] Hemmons Hiatt, June. The Principles of Knitting, pg. 388

[19] Zimmermann, Elizabeth, Knitting Without Tears, pg. 115

[20] Lippizanknitter. “Blocking Swatches for the MHK program.”


It's a Block Party!
It's a Block Party!


Also, as mentioned in our discussions, here's the link to a great site from the Standards & Guidelines from the Craft Yarn Council.  You'll find answers to all your questions about what those cryptic abbreviations mean, and symbols deciphered!  Some of it's even in French and Spanish—thrilling to know we can share a common language for these things!


Yes, You Can Take it With You...

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