Thursday, March 27, 2014

Mental Block

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.

29 comments:

  1. My heritage was learning to knit as a child from women (my mother and grandmother) whose busy lives left no time for blocking -- garments went from needle to back, as far as I remember. So I don't think I ever blocked a garment until about 10 years ago with the whole supposed revival of knitting. Reading the many books that became available and the wonderful proliferation of knitting blogs, I started coming across this notion of blocking and . . . . my knitting has been transformed! Such a small amount of work for such a large transformation, especially taking into account the hours that have already gone into a garment.

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  2. I love this comment - it never occurred to me that in days of yore, wet blocking would have been considered a luxury - maybe even a waste of time! But I find it especially interested that you never did it till reasonably recently and yet, now you're a total convert.

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  3. Wet blocking all the way. Maybe it's just the way I knit but lace? Absolutely! Colorwork? It's all wobbly w/o a good soak and a whap. Cables? Wet block and whap! whap! whap!

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    1. Wait - do you smack those cables??

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  4. I usually steam block. Steam is water and penetrates really well, without causing the fabric to be a PITA when I'm threading in the wires. This is for yarns that are meant for hand-knitting though. For machine-knitting yarns that are full of oil, yes, washing is a must. Notice I said washing, not wet blocking necessarily. You could wash it, let it dry flat, then steam block if you wanted.

    I'm not particularly passionate about this subject. This is how I do it, others may do it differently. I think this is one of those areas where results speak for themselves.

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    1. Oooh, very good point - results do speak for themselves! I would likely use your method of steam blocking after washing because I'm fussy about washing wool before I wear it. I take it out and about while I'm knitting and I just feel it's grimy otherwise.

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  5. I have no experience as a knitter so I have no idea if it would be useful or not for your purpose, but when I hand wash my wool and silk fabrics and sweaters I use this to get the excess water out before air drying. It doesn't use heat so it doesn't dry it completely, but there's no water dripping either. Depending on fabric thickness and the humidity that day my silks will then completely dry in less than an hour and wools in a few hours.

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    1. That is such a cool gizmo! I don't know if it might be too strong for hand knits - like it would stretch the stitches, but I want one just because it looks so generally useful!

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    2. It uses centrifugal instead of tumbling motion to dry them so it is actually quite gentle. I've used it for everything from wool suiting to silk georgette to 8-denier pantyhose with no ill effects. I love it because it saves me so much time and I'm not dealing with water dripping everywhere after hand washing something.

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    3. I've been to spas and pools where they have one of those for your bathing suit - it really works!

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  6. I pin the garment pieces to my blocking board based on the measurements and using a LOT of T-pins. Then I fill a spray bottle with VERY hot water and spray the whole thing over and over until it's quite wet and then let it dry. This wet blocks without the immersion stage and avoids all that flopping and rolling and stretching. This is somewhat similar to Alexandra's method and for similar reasons. To me, soaking wet just creates an unnecessary problem and I'm happy with my results and hers are spectacular which is quite encouraging.

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    1. Very interesting idea, M! I can totally see the value of that method, especially with the things that go mega-limp and stretchy on being immersed. Also, would be far easier to pin and use wires on a dry item.

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  7. I am absolutely a wet blocker! Even if I don't get out pins, everything is soaked in wool wash, rolled into towels, and then laid out in shape to dry.

    The only exception, I suppose, is socks, which tend to go from needles to feet (unless they're a gift). They go straight into the wash after that, so it's not a big deal.

    It is so satisfying to see the way ribbing perks up and straightens out, and how nicely cables plump after they've had a good bath. Which is to say nothing of lace! What a transformation.

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    1. I've heard this again and again - even the peeps who block everything, don't do it with the socks. I have to say, my socks look SO much better after blocking, I cannot forgo the experience. I think they may be the things that benefit most from blocking - even though I completely take your point about how they go in the wash almost immediately anyway - and they have so much negative ease.

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  8. My Mom knit continuously through my childhood and I don't think she ever blocked anything. She also never used the iron when she was sewing. She would give a garment a final press (also the first press!) and call it finished. I don't know if she wasn't taught these skills or if she thought they took too much time or effort.

    I learned to press as I sew in Home Ec. class and could see the improvement it made in my finished garments so that is a part of my sewing. When I picked up knitting as an adult I asked friends about blocking. Steam blocking sounds like less trouble and I started with that. It is a significant improvement over unblocked work. I have since been convinced to try wet blocking, and even though it is more trouble, it gives an even greater improvement for the finished garment. So, I agree with the YH - blocking is part of finishing and wet blocking is the way to go if you have the time and space to do it.

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    1. Did your mother's garments look good, nonetheless? Or do you think that they would have been much better presented with more pressing or blocking?

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    2. My Mom's handwork always had the look of 'loving hands at home'. She sewed because at that time it was an inexpensive way to dress herself and her kids. I don't think there was much joy for her in sewing and she gave it up when we grew up and she could afford to buy what she wanted for herself. I do think she enjoyed knitting, but it was the actual knitting process itself. She disliked seaming the pieces together and I think any further finishing would have just taken time from getting on with the knitting of the next project.

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    3. I totally get that. And hopefully she took up the top down, seam-free sewing at some point :-)

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    4. Meant "knitting" not "sewing"!

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  9. I always wet block; usually I block the pieces before sewing them together. I cannot imagine unblocked lace or color work, they would look really unfinished and unprofessional. I don't block socks, however, I think it's silly since they will stretch on the foot as needed.

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    1. I like to block the flat knitted pieces before seaming also. It's easier to put everything together when it's the same size and shape.

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  10. I wet block everything except stuffed animals and the occasional cowl - I just haven't figured out how to block a cowl efficiently.

    I do it for the finished look and shaping, but also because I knit while I commute by mass transit, so I appreciate the good cleaning aspect.

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    1. Cowls are tricky - Sara (Hamilton Chicklets) is having that issue having just made the Oshima sweater. The cowl is big and a bit hard to handle in blocking.

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  11. Mmm...I'm a flip-flopper. And I certainly don't block everything. Never socks and often not hats because I like them fluffy and slouchy. On sweaters it all depends on the stitch and on how lazy I'm feeling. For real. But I do find wet blocking to be effective, even if a total pain!

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    1. Valid way to go! I mean, they're yours to enjoy in the way that suits you. And your knits look lovely either way!

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  12. Generally, I am a fan of wet blocking, but depending on the project and the yarn I may wash or submerge the piece, or I may pin it to a board and spray it until it is soaking wet. I have also steam blocked. I do believe that blocking is important and the improvement in the results for the effort put forth are well worthwhile.. Blocking also has the effect of evening out the tension should I have experienced some variations in gauge due to stress or a second glass of wine..

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    1. I'm going to try that method of pinning and spraying till soaking wet. Myrna does that too and it sounds like a good solution with the items that turn to mush when you submerge them in water.

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  13. I love wet blocking and feel very happy now that the method has the YH verification! It does make a real difference.

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