Once finish knitting and binding off a lace shawl, you may be a bit ‘at a loss’ for how to finish the project. If you haven’t blocked before, simply follow along with these instructions and 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 bocking because it finally reveals the beauty and structure of the lace pattern after you have invested so much time and effort into the knitting.
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)
- a surface to pin the shawl out onto
- blocking wires (not strictly necessary, but they make the process a bit simpler)
::: how to wet block 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.
- 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).
- 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 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 the piece out and pin it. 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.
- 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.
November 7, 2021 @ 12:28 pm
If you don’t have the foamy things, will it work to pin to a towel? Or what can you pin it to if you are blocking for first time. I don’t think cardboard…? If pinning to towel, how does the towel dry? Would blowing a cool fam in it make it dry faster?
November 8, 2021 @ 4:18 am
There are a number of things I’ve pinned to which worked: a bed, a carpeted bit of floor, a big piece of cardboard. You could put a towel underneath if you like. The best way to make it go faster is to just wait (haha…). Actually, if you can get it dryer before you pin it out, that will make it faster. So if you use two towels, getting it so it’s just barely damp before you pin it, that’ll help it dry faster.
September 22, 2021 @ 1:18 pm
Thank you very much details and photos of lace shawl blocking. Explanations only go so far. And I’m sure you are correct that the plaid jammy pants improve the outcome. And I have lots and lots of pins (will probably never buy the rods.) Thank you again.
January 15, 2021 @ 10:08 am
Thank you for this helpful guide. I just completed my first shawl that has points and needed this information. Your visual guide is very effective with the explanations. I love your patterns but tutorials as well.
October 20, 2020 @ 12:52 pm
for a low cost alternative, you can try stainless steel welding rods. you need to clean them off with 0000 steel wool and grind the tips blunt, but save more than 80% of the cost of the cheapest set i could find. and you can pick them up ine at a time at a decent hardware store.
Whatshername in PDX
April 16, 2021 @ 1:28 pm
Or you can use powder coated plant support stakes from the garden center. They are cheap, too and less likely to stain the fabric.
PS. I started using my spin cycle in the washing machine to squish out water better than a towel can.
April 23, 2018 @ 2:57 pm
Hi. How do you know how MUCH to block something? Is there a ratio or formula (i.e. 1/2 again it’s unblocked measurements… or twice…)? If you stretch aggressively one direction (say along the top edge of the shawl, or down the center line of a triangular shawl) it affects how much you can stretch it in the other direction. So how do you figure out exactly how much to stretch one direction so you get a comparable stretch the other direction?
April 25, 2018 @ 10:37 am
Hi Dana – great question, but I have a rather unsatisfying answer: when it comes to lace it’s all how much you like it. I like a pretty hard block for my lace, to really show it off, but you might prefer a little less. You don’t want to block your shawl so it’s too big to wear, for example.
February 13, 2018 @ 3:00 pm
This was extremely happy with this info. I am knitting my first wrap (shawl) and it has straight edges, which now it’s about 2 metres long, are folding inwards. Can’t wait to finish and try ‘blocking’ for the first time. I’ve been knitting for over 30 years, and still learning new tecniques.
November 21, 2017 @ 4:13 pm
Hiya, I am currently knitting a lace scarf that consists of two pieces. They are supposed to be either grafted together or bind off separately and then sewn together AND THEN blocked. But in my mind, it would make more sense to block the two pieces separately and then sew them together. I just worry that the seam won’t be elastic enough for the blocking. How would you do it? I feel a bit lost atm :( Thanks you
November 22, 2017 @ 9:28 am
Hi – It depends on how you seam it. If you use a kitchener stitch it should be pretty stretchy. I might block the pieces first and them seam them though.
November 11, 2017 @ 8:17 am
Currently blocking the shawl I’ve made for my wedding outfit. Thank you so much for this wonderful tutorial!
November 1, 2016 @ 8:15 am
Best tutorial I’ve seen. I’m off now to put it into practice!
October 27, 2016 @ 7:28 am
I use guitar strings as blocking wire!
May 10, 2018 @ 9:53 am
June 15, 2016 @ 2:23 am
Thank you for this great tutorial. I have some strong (unused :)) fishing line that I think I might be able to use in place of the blocking wires. I have not blocked using wires before so it’ll be interesting to see how this works.
June 2, 2016 @ 9:34 pm
String for hedge trimmers makes great blocking wires. Get the kind with a round cross-section, in a moderate weight.
January 6, 2016 @ 5:10 pm
This may sound very silly…but can you use jewellery wire instead of blocking wire or will it tear/split the yarn?
January 6, 2016 @ 7:45 pm
I think you would want something thicker than jewellery wire, so it will hold taut (although I don’t know that much about jewellery wire so I could be wrong)
November 1, 2014 @ 1:34 pm
Thank you for the great tutorial. I have been knitting for years but this is my first lace project. Even though I have blocked many garments, it was good to be reminded.
July 3, 2014 @ 8:19 pm
This is very helpful! Thank you!
July 1, 2014 @ 4:55 am
Very timely, my first shawl is almost finished! Thank you.
June 27, 2014 @ 2:30 pm
Thanks for this detailed tutorial, a great reference for lace beginners. The first shaw I blocked was Estuary, and I did not do a great job because I was afraid to pull hard on the yarn. I have improved since but still find blocking a difficult process, and quite lengthy. But it does make a world of difference, and so worth the time and efforts spent.
June 27, 2014 @ 11:17 am
In a pinch, I’ve used 14″ long straight needles as blocking wires for smaller sections.
June 28, 2014 @ 11:35 pm
That’s a great idea, especially for the ends of scarves or stoles!
June 27, 2014 @ 2:30 am
thanks for this amazing tutorial !!
June 26, 2014 @ 9:21 pm
Would you please let me know when your doing a tutorial for blocking a top down cardgian sweater or pullover. Thank You
June 28, 2014 @ 11:36 pm
We do have a sweater blocking tutorial planned for the future… Get our email updates and you’ll be notified when it is online!