Over a couple of recent posts, the venerable Yarn Harlot (Stephanie Pearl-McPhee) has unapologetically set out her perspective on wet blocking newly-finished knits.
The upshot (though, really, read the posts - I can't provide a better synopsis) is that wet blocking is the only way to go when it comes to final finishing of one's beloved hand knits.
These YH posts have elicited some very interesting comments, for example, one wherein the commenter described blocking as the difference between homemade and handmade. Strong words! Another commenter referred to Catherine Lowe, the owner of a new England yarn operation, whose philosophy is unique. Apparently, Ms. Lowe believes that one should knit a garment "too small" and then "couture block" to size (a theory with which I don't suspect the Yarn Harlot would agree, as Ms. Pearl-McPhee posits that blocking and stretching are not the same activity).
What I can tell you is that I fall into the category of knitter whose gauge grows mysteriously as she goes. The YH references this "type" in her post, the type that fears blocking due to the potentiality for massive garment growth after submerging in water.) As a side note, given that I always wet block, and I have certainly experienced horror as my sweaters turned into short dresses (at least until they dried and recovered), I'm actually down with the philosophy of knitting "too small". Now that I've started doing this - within careful parameters and not in any way as an alternative to doing the math - I'm finally making sweaters that fit. (Keep in mind, I also enjoy very close fit and I'm short, so this method suits me well.)
Here's the thing - wet blocking is divisive!
In full disclosure, I completely concur with Ms. P-M: wet blocking is not optional. IMO, it's the final step on one's path to knitted-object completion. I spend lots of time soaking and pinning and smushing and measuring. I roll wet wool - which smells hideous, btw - carefully, in multiple towels, to protect my precious stitches as they absorb excess water. I watch that blocking garment like a newborn. I fuss and I do think it's worth the outcome.
I'm on one end of the spectrum.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who espouse something between no blocking and steam blocking* (something I sense the YH doesn't consider blocking, even though many fantastic and knitters of gorgeous finished garments do).
I've steam blocked a variety of garments in my day. They looked much better after steaming than before. But they did not look half as good as they would have, had I wet-blocked them. There's something about using water to remove hand oils and extra dye as one actually cleans a garment that may have landed on some dicey surfaces in the course of knitting. There's something about pinning it out to size, or positioning carefully for optimal fiber recovery as the garment dries flat. The impact on the finished product is alchemical.
In all the instances I've steam blocked, I did so because I intuitively knew my final fabric was going to grow and morph. Sure, it saved my ass in the short-term, but I still needed to wash those knits eventually - at which point, my fears were generally realized. Now I knit on smaller-than-suggested needles (I don't even swatch on the recommended needle size, no point). I make the smallest size (rather than the 2nd smallest - which is my best size on paper). I often also use a yarn with thinner gauge than is called for. As I go, if I feel things are getting loose, I change up the pattern to address the issue. I'm not saying that my challenge is everyone's - I mean, many knit very tightly, and for them my plan would be a disaster - but for me it's made the difference between things I can't wear and those I love.
And keep in mind I do swatch! Swatching just isn't that useful for me, 90 per cent of the time. Because I'm a "responsive" knitter - because I consider the garment every step of the way (vs. swatching followed by knitting what I see on the page by rote) - and because I'm not afraid to make changes as I work - this produces better outcomes for me than any other method I've tried. Of course, if anyone has alternative suggestions - I'd love to hear about them.
You might believe that wet blocking can occur when your first wash the garment, after you've worn it for a while My perspective is that this does your fabric a disservice. When you wear before blocking, you alter the fabric in such a way that blocking may not be optimally effective when finally you undertake it.
At any rate, I've engaged in lively debate with my knitting friends about this topic, on a number of occasions, and I'm always amazed by the disparate and passionate opinions. I should concede, I've seen gorgeous finished projects that were steam blocked and I can't imagine there would have been any benefit, other than washing, to wet blocking those projects because they were so perfectly produced in the first place.
But I'm curious to know about you! Do you wet block? Steam block? Never block? What's your rationale?? Let's talk!
*As you likely know, one should be very careful using steam to block synthetic fibers. Synthetics tend to melt which will, at very least, change the way your fabric feels and wears.