Once you’ve finished knitting and binding off a lace shawl, you may be a bit ‘at a loss’ for how to finish the project. You followed the directions but it doesn’t look quite…right. If you haven’t blocked before, simply follow along with these instructions to get started.
Blocking is not difficult, and perhaps, like me, you will discover that it’s one of the most satisfying of the parts of the process! I love blocking because it finally reveals the beauty and structure of the lace pattern after you have invested so much time and effort into the knitting.
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This post covers:
- Why block?
- Supplies: what do I need to block my shawl
- 8 steps to blocking a shawl
- Alternatives to blocking wires
Why is it necessary to block lace?
Lace stitch patterns are full of holes (yarn-over increases) and corresponding decreases (like k2tog, ssk, sl1-k2tog-psso). These increases and decreases warp the fabric, pulling it this way and that, and often creating a very 3d texture to the finished fabric. So when you finish a piece of lace knitting, it is often all lumpy and you can’t really see the beauty of the lace pattern clearly.
Here’s an example in photos… this is the yoke portion of a Lush cardigan which I’m currently working on:
In order to reveal and clarify the structure of lace, it is necessary to stretch out the fabric. But if you simply stretch it when it is dry, it will spring back. When you block the lace it stays flat, stretched, and open for much longer.
After weeks of wear, a lace shawl may need to be re-blocked in order to stretch out and open up the pattern again. Superwash wools (like hand-dyed sock yarns) are very springy, and more likely to need to be re-blocked. Non-superwash wools tend to ‘hold a block’ (ie stay stretched and open) for longer. While there are other blocking techniques, I believe wet blocking is the best method for most lace articles.
Wet blocking supplies
- lace shawl
- pins: stainless steel is generally recommended, but I often use regular old sewing pins. The important thing is to choose a pin that won’t rust.
- a surface to pin the shawl out onto: this can be pretty much anything, a bed, the floor, some fancy blocking boards, a piece of cardboard, etc.
- blocking wires (not strictly necessary, but they make the process a bit simpler)
How to wet block your shawl
- Prep your shawl: I recommend weaving in all ends before you start blocking. That way the woven-in end will be stretched at the same rate as the rest of the fabric, and will be ‘set’ in place by the process.
- Soak the shawl in lukewarm water: If your shawl has multiple colours, it is safest to include some white vinegar in the soaking water, and pull the shawl out after 10-20 minutes, before the colours have a chance to bleed into each other. You can also use wool wash (like Soak) or the conditioner that you use in your own hair if you want to wash or soften the fabric.
- Squeeze out the excess water: Once the piece is fully saturated (10-30 mins is generally sufficient, but you can leave it longer if you like), lift it out and gently squeeze out as much water as you can. Don’t twist or wring the shawl, because when fibres are wet they are more fragile and prone to damage and breakage… and you wouldn’t want to tear this exquisite lace piece you’ve just spent hours and hours knitting!
Lay the damp shawl out on a towel, roll up the towel, then stomp on it to squeeze the majority of the water out of the fabric. When you unroll the towel, the shawl will probably feel quite dry. You can use a second towel to get it even drier if you like (this may shorten the drying time required).
- Thread the blocking wires (optional): If you are using blocking wires, thread them in and out through the straight edges of the shawl. See the tips below for alternatives to blocking wires.
- Lay and shape it: Lay the shawl out on the bed, floor, or blocking boards that will be your surface to pin into. I have successfully pinned out on my bed, on my carpet, and into cardboard… Alexa is fancy… as you can see she has special foam blocking boards that work really well for the purpose!
- Stretch and pin: I like to start at centre back, and pull each corner out the same distance, measuring with a yard stick. Once I have the corners pinned, I assess whether the shawl is stretched enough, or if I can pull it a bit further in each direction. I like to block lace very aggressively, because I feel it shows the pattern best, and the lace looks better after it has come off the blocking board. The lace will shrink back somewhat after it is unpinned.
After the corners have been pinned down, I pin along the blocking wires at the straight edges, and lastly I pin out the scalloped edges of the shawl. It is generally pretty obvious what points of the scalloped edge should pull out, and which are concave. Study the finished photos of the lace, or just go with trial and error. Some patterns have more of a natural curve to them than others, but you can often create a gentle scalloped effect just by creative blocking, or vice versa you could try to straighten the edge out.
- Let is dry: Once you have finished pinning, leave the piece to dry FULLY before unpinning it. If you unpin before the shawl is 100% bone dry, the block will be much less effective. During the drying process, the fibres shrink and pull together, and more and more tension will be put on the pins. Sometimes a few of them will ‘pop’, so it might be a good idea to check on your blocking shawl a couple times a day, to ensure that the pins are still holding.
After you are sure the shawl is dry, unpin it, and take some lovely photos of the finished result! I think part of the reason I find blocking so immensely satisfying is that I LOVE the way lace looks, and blocking reveals that beauty. The way the fabric feels and drapes is often completely different after blocking as well… And you have a beautiful finished piece!
Alternatives to blocking wires
Before I owned blocking wires, I would sometimes use a thin, smooth but very strong lace-weight yarn (I used a silk lace, but cotton would work too), and using a blunt needle, I would thread this cord in and out along the straight edges of the shawl. Then I would tie loops in the ends of the cord, and pin the cord out, creating a taut line that ran through the edge of the shawl. I could pin at a few intervals along this cord, but the line created would be much straighter and more consistent than if I had simply placed pins at a few places.
Another alternative (which I’ve used in the past) is simply to use LOADS of pins along the edges that you’d like to be straight.
The main point is this – don’t let your lack of blocking wires put you off blocking… I knit plenty of lace shawls in the years before I finally invested in a set of blocking wires.
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