How to block your knitting (without too much mess)

Caution: this is a knitting post. In contrast to a couple of previous posts, there is absolutely nothing here about curing toothache by wrapping a sheep’s ear round your foot (or whatever unlikely combination of ailment and sheepy remedy you can invent) …

Way back when the world was young, my stash was noticeably larger (cough – it’s gone down and, cough cough cough, back up since then), and I had just started this blog*, I wrote a quick post about blocking. Both I and the blog are older now, but I am still being asked about blocking (or dressing’ or ‘finishing’), only now it’s when I’m doing my stint in the wool shop. So I’m going to risk repetition – but with a different garment and bigger pictures. And apologies if you’re a perfect blocker!

(I’m not, but my method works for me.)

Noro 1

This is part of a cardigan in Noro Silk Garden Lite that I have just finished knitting. I am currently in the process of picking up the front bands – well, I am currently in the process of picking up the front bands and swearing a lot because I’ve had to make a lot of corrections to the pattern – again. What is going on? Have people, even ‘big people’, stopped using tech editors and test knitters? Thank heavens I’m an experienced knitter, grumble, grumble…

Ahem. Blocking.

There are, I suppose four different ways to block or finish your work, and in theory the one you use should vary according to what you are doing. I generally use two of these, which I find suit almost everything. And neither involves huge amounts of disruption or the purchase of expensive kit.

shawl blockingThe first of the four is classic blocking, which has increased in popularity (or perhaps that should be prominence) relatively recently here in the UK, as it seems to be much more common in the US. It’s always been used for shawls, though, in one form or another, and often for lace work (though I’ll get onto ‘dressing’ in a mo). Essentially you wet the piece of knitting then pin it out firmly on a pad of towels and rugs (or an old mattress, or whatever), pulling it into shape until you match the measurements on the pattern schematic, and leave it to dry off. If you’re working in the round or creating a seamless garment, it’s not quite as easy (unless you use a frame – see below).

There are perfect blockers, people who do all this, who carefully damp their garment pieces, bit by bit, and pin them out to exactly the measurements of the schematic. I am not that person. I do block shawls and other lacework, but that’s because lacework looks like a pile of desiccated old cobwebs if you don’t. With a shawl, you extend the piece until the lace looks right, pinning it in the same way. You can buy blocking wires for shawls, but I tend to use a selection of glass-headed pins or T-shaped blocking pins.

(Be warned: shawl blocking will probably need redoing if you wash a piece, or just as time goes by. Some yarns are more stable than others, though. I have a Citron shawl in Malabrigo Lace that is now about half the size it was when blocked a couple of years ago – this is west Wales; we have high levels of humidity – but one of my eyelet shawls in Araucania Ranco is almost the same size.)

Shetland dressers

Shetland knitters with garments on dressing frames; courtesy Shetland Museum and Archives

This type of finishing shades into the second one, known as ‘dressing’, generally – though terms for this often seem to be interchangeable, and are also often very local. Fair Isle sweaters are still traditionally dressed on frames, but most of us don’t have access to these (though I’d love one, I must admit).

In places like Shetland, big hap shawls would also be stretched out on a frame, and I was given a great tip there a few years ago. ‘Use substantial cardboard cut to half the length and the full desired width of a lace scarf. Wrap board in many layers of parcel tape. Damp scarf and fold carefully in half with the card in between the halves. Tack the edges together carefully to match, gently stretching the lacework to do so, and leave to dry.’ Boom boom; it works. And sock forms, mitten forms, glove forms – all these are used for dressing smaller items.

The third type of finishing (allegedly, hah, almost finishing off) is one which no one should do because it damages the work you’ve spent ages creating, but which almost everyone has at some point. It’s standard, non steam, direct pressing and I’m still stunned by how many people have problems with their knitting because they’ve blasted it with direct, dry heat. One example I was once shown had even melted. Others have been burned, and the rest look sad and flat and lifeless. Even direct-contact steam ironing can be too much. Better is…

Four: my favourite. Steam pressing. (I’ve been known to steam small items over a kettle, but that doesn’t work for garments. Generally…)

steam pressing

Lay out the piece you need to deal with on an ironing board. Wet a tea towel or piece of calico or something of similar weight, and spread it out over part of the piece, being very careful to unroll any curled edges gently under the cloth. Carefully steam iron the cloth. Work bit by bit, moving the cloth and rewetting it as needed (I start in the middle and work out).

Don’t press too hard, don’t drag the iron over the surface hurriedly, and don’t hold the iron on any one spot for long. Oh, and don’t poke at it with the tip of the iron – quite easy to do when you’re dealing with a rolling edge. You almost need to tease the work out.

If your work is ribbed or cabled or highly textured, this technique will flatten it too much – my mother drummed into me that I should never, ever do this with a rib, and I still don’t. Deal with any curling edges in this way, but you can steam block without the cloth and with the iron held about a centimetre above the piece. I don’t seem to get the same nice finish, except on highly textured knits where steam pressing with a cloth wouldn’t be a good idea. And I don’t find it’s as effective for those edges. In those circumstances, you might also want to use classic blocking (I don’t; I need my floor space).

I realise I could have chosen something more evenly spun than Noro to demonstrate this, but here goes. The one on the left is unblocked, the one on the right is blocked.

And because that’s not 100% clear (I love Noro dearly, but even it isn’t), here are some gloves – sorry about the phantom hand, and pattern to follow, incidentally:

The contrast in the photographs isn’t as marked as it is in reality; the light is a bit difficult at the moment. I’m a huge fan of taking a bit of time to block. I can’t understand why people who don’t block or finish or dress or whatever (and there are many), don’t give it a go and see what a difference it makes. And I really, really want a sweater frame. I’m going to be back in Shetland in June…

*OK, it was only four years ago, but hey. Four years in internet terms is like, several millennia, man. I was revising my work website today and looking up what I’d done in the past when I realised I’d been one of the first people to get their publishers’ books on Amazon UK, in 1998. I went in to the studio early because I was so excited. I know, I know: life, get a….


2 thoughts on “How to block your knitting (without too much mess)

  1. Lydia

    I always blocked (pressed was the word we used then) my knitting using the damp down iron over damp cloth technique which worked jolly well. No measuring was done at all! However, after Ravelry I thought I ought to upgrade to a blocking board, which I made, so now I block on said board over a check piece of cloth and leave to dry. Works very well and covers a multitude of problems….. Are you off to Shetland for a holiday later in the year? Oh, one day perhaps I will go there, although I think the excitement of being surrounded by knitting heaven may well be too much. Hope the weather is holding up for you too…

    1. kate Post author

      I do exactly what you used to do, and I’m afraid that I still do. I reckon that id I’m knitting to gauge and have chosen the right size, then the measurements should be right. Interesting that you changed after exposure to Rav – it definitely seems to have spread back out again from the US.

      Yup, Shetland in June. Can’t afford it, but can’t not afford it either! Thre’ll be plenty of posts, I’m sure – and hopefully you’ll make it soon!


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