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23 April 2015

All About Blocking

I don't know about you, but when I get up in the morning and look in the mirror, I look .... well, let's be kind ... I don't look as tidy as I did when I went to bed!  My hair, especially, seems to have a mind of its own.  One side looks like Mr. T; the other side looks like John Lennon in the early years of the Beatles.  (Or, for you younger folk, like the guys from Hansen before they grew up.)  A few minutes with a damp comb generally smooths things out and leaves me looking, if not like a million bucks, at least presentable.

The same thing happens with knitting, crocheting, needlepoint, embroidery, piecework ... just about any handcraft that involves fabric and/or string will have its just-out-of bed moment.  That moment is usually when you've set the last stitch and sewn on the last button.  After laboring intently for hours over that perfect pink baby sweater, you cast off the last stitch and find that it looks a bit lumpy.  Or your cross-stitch sampler is more of a parallelogram than a rectangle.

There's a solution for this, and it's called blocking.  Blocking, simply defined, is a technique of gently arranging a piece of handwork so that it conforms to the required shape and/or measurement of the finished pattern.

African Flower blocks before blocking -- see how the edges
curl up?  That's from being crocheted with a firm
tension in a circular path.
Don't get me wrong:  blocking will not help you if you've knitted a third arm onto that perfect pink baby sweater.  It won't help you if you've taken a 1/2" seam allowance instead of a "scant" 1/4" allowance on your quilt pieces.  (What the heck is a "scant" 1/4", anyhow?  I never did figure that one out.)  Blocking isn't meant to rectify big mistakes; it's intended to correct the natural phenomenon that occurs when the body heat of your hands meets the fibers of your work.

When I was young and thought I knew everything, I tossed my head at the idea of blocking.  I had a very incorrect notion that blocking was for people who made mistakes in their handwork; and, being young and arrogant, of course I didn't make any mistakes.  (I'm much older and a wee bit wiser now, and have no problem acknowledging my errors!)  I know now that even if every single stitch in a piece of handwork is perfect, blocking is still a good practice.  I finally learned the science behind this, and here's why you should be blocking.

Your body temperature hovers, on a good day, around 98.6°F (we're discounting hot flashes or fevers here).  As you work with yarn, linen, embroidery floss, fabric, etc., the heat of your hand causes the natural fibers of your materials to expand a teensy-weensy bit.  (Working with acrylic yarn?  I'll get to that in a minute.)  As those fibers expand, they become more susceptible to being pulled and tugged.  Even the pressure of an embroidery hoop, or the weight of a knitted item dangling from a needle, is enough to pull these gently-warmed fibers a teeny bit out of place.  And over the course of a row, or many rows, those teeny bits can add up to create a somewhat lopsided finished product.  Manmade yarns are not as susceptible to the warming of your hands, but they are still susceptible to excessive pulling/tugging, or dangling from a knitting needle.

Blocking supplies (pins not shown)
So what supplies do we need to block?  We need moisture, something to pin to, and something to pin with.  I have a large "blocking board" that's simply two 12"x48" sheets of Styrofoam™ insulation (available at home improvement stores).  I also have two smaller blocking boards made of 12" square cork tiles.  Each board is two tiles that have been glued together with wood glue to make a sturdy unit.  I use large T-pins on the large blocking board, and normal ball-headed pins on the smaller boards.

Blocking board with hexagon guides
There are a few options for adding moisture to the process.  When I'm using the big blocking board for a garment, I use the immersion method.  You can find very good instructions for this (and many other things!) on the TECHknitter blog*.  The most important thing to remember when using the immersion method is NO WRINGING and NO TWISTING!  Moisture + agitatation = felting, and we'll talk about that in another post down the road.  When I'm blocking individual blocks, like the ones for this African Flower bedspread project that has taken over my life and occupies my waking moments and my dreams, I use the smaller boards.  I've drawn the exact measurements of each hexagon onto the board with a Sharpie™ marker, and I pin each block to those measured lines.

African Flower blocks pinned to blocking board
Then I take a spray bottled filled with distilled water, and -- using a wide mist spray pattern -- lightly mist the pinned blocks, just enough to dampen the fibers.  Why distilled water?  Because it contains no chlorine, no mineral deposits, etc.  The moisture relaxes the fibers, and as the damp fibers dry, they get all snuggly-wuggly with one another again and form the desired shape/dimensions.

Same blocks, after blocking.  Now they lie nice
and flat, with all the corners aligned!
Remember the crocheted and knitted doilies that our grandmothers or great-grandmothers had on every flat surface?  You might also recall Granny dipping those in sugar water or starch, stretching them out on a towel laid on the bed, and pinning them in place to dry.  Granny might not have called it blocking, but that's what she was doing, with some stiffening thrown in for good measure.

At what point in the process should you block?  To be honest, I usually do it twice.  For garments that are sewn, I'll block each piece individually to the dimensions established in the pattern.  This gives me a nice, flat sleeve or bodice to work with when it comes to the neck-stiffening job of sewing seams.  Once the garment is completely seamed, fasteners and trim added, etc., I block it again.  It comes off the board looking as spiffy as one could wish.  For items created with blocks, like the ones shown above, I block the individual blocks (try saying that three times fast!) for the same reason I block individual garment pieces -- to give myself a nice flat plane for sewing.  Then I block the finished product.

That pretty much sums it up.  If you do other handcrafts in addition to knitting and/or crocheting, and want to learn about the blocking process for those items, I suggest doing an Internet search with the term how to block needlepoint (or a quilt or embroidery, etc.).

*ONE LAST NOTE:  If you're a knitter, you absolutely must visit the TECHknitting blog.  You'll find solutions to (literally) hundreds of tricksy knitting problems.  If that blog ever disappears, I am doomed!!  I've been tempted to print out every entry, just in case .....  You can find a link on the right of this page.

Questions/comments about blocking?  Please use the comment form below!  And until next time ... cheers!

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