Blocking a Lace Shawl

To me, a lace shawl is not a finished object until it is fully blocked.

I know why some people do not like blocking — it’s a bit tedious. And on a big shawl, I have been known to crawl around the floor blocking for over an hour only to stand up with what seems like a permanent crouch (lesson here: as with anything else — move around/stretch every 20 minutes or so!!)….so contrary to popular belief, blocking is not one of my favorite activities.

But, as my friend Trish says, “Blocking is magic”. It is, I think, the single most transforming thing you can do to a knitted lace garment. The nasty spaghetti that comes off your needles suddenly transforms into a lacy, gossamer, beautiful thing.

Would you rather put this around your shoulders:

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Or this?

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It’s the same shawl, Red Rock Canyon by Romi Hill (knit out of Old Maiden Aunt Merino/Silk 4ply).

IMG_3298I’m not a blocking expert by any stretch of the imagination, but over the years, I have literally blocked hundreds of things. So, here are some thoughts (and opinions) about how I block a lace garment, using a sample shawl, shown here in the pre-blocked state (you cannot see the lace motif very well, the edges are not straight…)

Step One: Weave in ends, but do not cut the tails of ends. This is probably pretty obvious, but if the goal with blocking is stretching the heck out of it, then the ends that you’ve carefully hidden will likely pop out. (The ends will be trimmed after blocking).

Step Two: Soak the garment in wool wash (I like Soak, Kookaburra and Eucalan and have used all. If I had to pick one, I would pick Soak because the other two products have lanolin in them and I knit shawls out of 100% silk too) for 15-30 minutes. Why wool wash? Because your hands have been all over your lace shawl, and the shawl is dirty. Why 15-30 minutes? Because that allows the fibers to be completely saturated and become as malleable as possible. I have, by accident, left an item soaking overnight, without any apparent damage — but I really try not to do this!

Assemble your materials at this point: Blocking boards, covered bed, wires, pins, thread, measuring tape, spray bottle…whatever you are going to use.

Step Three: Gently squeeze the water out of the garment, and roll it up in a towel like a burrito. (At this point, if this were a sweater, I would stick the burrito and put it through a spin cycle. With a lace garment though, I do not — only because it dries fast enough without.)

Now the fun can begin.

First, a little about the surface to block on. It needs to be a flat surface that you can stick pins into. I have foam blocking boards which fit like puzzle pieces. I do recommend these if you plan on knitting many lace shawls because they are convenient, but it is not necessary. I am very curious about the roll-up blocking mat with a grid surface on it because I think it may make achieving exact measurements easier, but I have not yet tried one out. I have enough open surface and enough of the boards to block a relatively large garment in my apartment, but I know many people who have blocked on their beds. I have also supplemented edges which have eked out of the blocking surface with dog beds and rolled towels. And, for large square and circular shawls, I’ve made a square donut with a lone block in the center to secure the center of the shawl.

Once the blocking surface has been identified and pets shooed away (my dogs know that yarn and fiber are for humans and not for dogs — “leave it” is a very essential command in their repertoire as you can imagine having to walk through streets of NYC), the actual garment manipulation can begin!

IMG_3314Step Four: I like to start by laying out the piece in the approximate shape on the blocking surface first, to make sure that I have a plan of action (and that I’ve laid out enough foam blocks to accommodate the shawl). This example is pretty easy because it’s a triangular shawl — but even with a triangular shawl, you want to make sure that you know what dimension the shawl should be…i.e., the depth of the shawl vs. the width of the shawl. The sample here should block out to exactly half a square, which means that I should block the depth of the shawl at half the width of the shawl.

Step Five: Secure the “main” straight edges, if any. I like using blocking wires for squaring off any edge that should be straight on a shawl. This cuts down on the measuring, and makes holding a straight line easier. I have many different kinds of wires, from flexible wires to extra long wires, to extra thin wires, but the set I use the most are the cheapest, sturdiest set of wires that are about the diameter of the cable on a knitting needle. In the case of a triangular shawl, the “main” edge would be the top edge of the shawl. For a square, it would be the diagonals or the edges (I usually pick an edge to start from). And, of course, for a circular or a crescent shawl, there isn’t one.

IMG_3316The trick with using blocking wires is to make sure that it is threaded evenly and often through the edge of the garment. I generally weave through every stitch, because I put a tremendous amount of pull (I don’t say I block like a thug for no reason) on the garment and I want that force to be distributed evenly throughout a straight edge.

 

IMG_3317Secure the wire (and not the garment) onto the blocking board. I usually put the pins in at an angle away from the direction that you will be pulling on the shawl. I love using U-pins for this.

 

 

You can achieve a similar effect by threading a smooth thread (like crochet thread) through the stitches and pulling it very taught across the straight edge. I used to do this before getting wires, and if I ever knit a king bed sized lace thing, I can see myself using thread again — it works!

Now, if you don’t have wires and just have pins, I would pin the garment as straight as possible, and use a straight edge in the final stages of blocking (not yet though, you’ll be moving these pins around at least once.)

Step Six: Work on the edges of the shawl. Many people use blocking wires through the points of the shawl, but I actually like the flexibility of using pins

IMG_3319First, I pull out the center point. I’m pulling the shawl taught, but not really hard (yet).

 

 

 

IMG_3322Then, I pull out the point on either side about half way from the top edge of the shawl to the point. I like to pin out several points equally on the left and the right of the center line first to get balance on the shawl.

Next, I pin out one side,

then the other.

All this I do with just eye and feel. The lace pattern should be very evident now, and now, you can start REALLY blocking.

Step Seven: Channel your inner thug. Adjust all the pins, pulling the shawl as taught as it will go in all directions.

IMG_3324When it feels like the shawl cannot be pulled any tighter — and this will be evidenced by either pins starting to pull out or the blocking board starting to curl off the ground — take out the tape measure and make sure things are pretty even. Then, make sure all the pins are secure, and if the blocking board is curling, weigh them down.. and let dry.

 

 

IMG_3325Sometimes, particularly with lace weight yarn, the shawl will almost dry during this process. A spray bottle filled with water is handy to wet down the garment if this happens. (Happens to me all the time with large shawls).

 

 

 

IMG_3326Let dry completely. When you unpin and take the wire out, it’s likely that the shawl will rebound a bit.

 

 

 

Trim the woven in ends, and voila!

 

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Strategies for different shapes: It would be impossible to cover all shapes, but there are some things I like to do with certain shapes.

  • Circular shawls. Once the first series of pinning is completed, I like to have a length of string or yarn that is secured at the center of the shawl, and use it as a guide to make sure each point that is pinned out is equidistant from the center. I used to put the metal loop at the end of my tape measure though the central T-pin, but I find that a piece of string is a lot easier to manage.
  • Crescent shawls. Usually, if you pull the points out hard enough, the spine of the shawl does not need much stretching/pinning. This is the shape that I probably do the most free-form blocking on, and depending on how the edges of the shawl is knit.

I hope this helps!

 

7 comments
      • Proof I actually read your blog. Thank goodness for RSS readers!

  1. Vera Tannenbaum said:

    Thank you for such an easy to understand explanation of blocking. I am very impressed and feel that I will purchase the blocking tools which you described and see what I can do. Your tutorial has encouraged me to want to block my lace work and feel confident that the outcome will be pleasing.

    • Thank you so much. I think you will like the result! (The good thing about this is that you can always wet down your piece and try again 🙂 )

  2. Jeanne May-Ackerman said:

    What a wonderful post Kei!

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