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Blocking Tips: Acrylic and Other Non-Woolly Fibers

Dec 1, 2008

Note from Sandi: There were so many questions on blocking different sorts of fibers when I ran last week's posts on blocking that I decided to expand a bit on some tips I gave when this series was originally published in July of 2007. Here's a few thoughts on blocking non-wool fibers...

(Are you the kind of person who learns by watching? Episode 103 of the first season of Knitting Daily TV has a great lace blocking demo, and Episode 201 of the upcoming second season shows how to block large projects! Buy the Season One DVD or pre-order the Season Two DVD.)




Choose the right method for your fiber
Which blocking method should you use for which fiber?

Do you block acrylic and other non-sheepy, non-planty fibers? I've heard blocking kills them! What kills acrylic and some other human-made fibers is direct application of heat. So: Don't iron them. (If you must apply steam, keep the iron or steamer high enough above the fabric so you don't melt or scorch the yarn.)

But Sandi, tell us the ANSWER: Do you NEED to block acrylic? Welllll. Here's where I have to make an admission. I have not knit with acrylic yarn since I was a teenager, so I don't actually have any personal experience with this. What I do know is that many experienced knitters say you don't need to block acrylic. Given that, and given that I believe deep in my knitter's heart that blocking has miraculous results, if I were to knit something out of acrylic (or any other unfamiliar fiber, for that matter), I would knit five swatches--yes, five--and then try a different blocking method on each one: immersion, steam, spray, jelly-roll-of-wet-towels, and no blocking at all. I might use pins on one or two, and just pat out the others. After they dried, I would evaluate the look, feel, and drape of each swatch. The swatch I liked best would be my guide for blocking the finished garment.

What about cotton? Cotton is extremely non-elastic, so the key here is to be very careful not to stretch the fabric out of shape during the blocking process. If you use a wetting method that gets the knitting thoroughly wet, make sure to support the fabric so that it doesn't hang and get pulled by its own weight. And of course, cotton will shrink with the application of too much heat, so watch the iron/steamer/hot water and keep the temperatures low to medium. 

How about linen? Ah, linen...fiber of Egyptian queens and kings. Linen is extraordinarily strong, and surprisingly, is actually stronger when wet. For the Spring 2006 issue of Interweave Crochet, I designed a lace capelet out of a green linen. That capelet took me so long to design that I was horribly afraid of damaging it during the blocking process, so I read everything I could get my hands on about blocking linen. Here's the method I came up with, based on my studies: I soaked the capelet in hot water and organic liquid detergent for forty-five minutes, to allow the fibers to get thoroughly wet. Then I rinsed the garment in cold water--the shock of the temperature change allows the fibers to break down and soften just a bit. I repeated this hot/cold cycle a couple of times, then soaked the capelet in hot water one more time. While the garment was dripping wet, I placed it in a Tupperware container, sprinkled lavender buds over it, sealed the container, and put it in the freezer overnight. (Yes, I am totally serious.) Next morning, I rinsed the garment in warm water until the ice melted, then whacked it against the counter a few times to loosen things up. I spread it out on a rack to let it drip dry a bit; then I took a hot iron and ironed every little lace flower into place, letting things cool completely before moving them off the ironing board. I know this sounds totally and completely wacky, but all the sources I read said to subject the linen to a little bit of abuse in order to soften the fibers. And I'm telling you: That capelet is the softest, shiniest, most durable garment I have ever owned. It's completely luscious to the touch and a joy to wear.

Which wetting method did you use for the Bonsai? My yarn is Berroco Bonsai, an absolutely lovely bamboo ribbon yarn, with drape and a teeny, tiny bit of "crunch" that adds texture and memory. I blocked my swatch using my garment steamer (I LOVE my garment steamer), but I wasn't thrilled with the results. The heat seemed to take away a bit of the sheen of this lovely yarn. So for the back of my tunic, I used the spray method, and sprayed liberally until the fabric was quite damp. I was really happy with how it came out. REMEMBER: You might prefer how your garment looks when steam-blocked! It's YOUR knitting, not mine. Experiment to find a way that works for you.

On Wednesday: What do you use if you don't have a blocking board?



Sandi's Picks For The Holidays

I always think of the holidays as a time of storytelling--we tell the stories of our traditions, our families, and our beliefs in our celebrations and in our gatherings. I like to listen to stories on CD while I am knitting and travelling--audiobooks make the stitches and the time fly by. May I suggest two audiobooks of knitting stories for you? Knitting Memories and Knitting Lessons, both edited by Lela Nargi and distributed by Interweave Press, are collections of tales by famous knitters such as Clara Parkes, Teva Durham, Vicki Howell, Trisha Malcolm, Kathryn Alexander, and more, narrated by an Audie-award winner (an Audie is the Oscar of the audiobook world). Listen to an excerpt from Knitting Memories; we have an excerpt from Knitting Lessons online as well. Look for these audiobooks at your local yarn shop, or buy them in our online store.





Sandi Wiseheart is the editor of Knitting Daily.

What's on Sandi's needles this week? I took my Leaf and Nupp Shawl to Alabama with me, as well as the Aran Slippers. How far did I get? Check back later this week for photos!




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Comments

Helen Hayes wrote
on Jan 11, 2009 8:04 PM
I am excited to knit the BABY'S FIRST SOCKS as my third daughter is having twins in May, and another friend just a few days after her. Thanks for the neat patterns you feature.
KatrinaT wrote
on Dec 22, 2008 4:20 PM
I wanna abuse my linen Aleita Shell the way you suggested to get it soft and drapey, But I 'm using a cotton linen mix. Can I do the same thing, or will the cotton shrink? Hep, please
Abby@2 wrote
on Dec 3, 2008 5:19 AM
I knitted a lacy shawl with a wool-acrylic and the blocking was a failure. I find that anything with a tendency to curl will not stay uncurled if knit in acrylic or acrylic blends. I still use acrylic for things like afghans, but only because of the economy.
on Dec 2, 2008 9:30 AM
Wow Sandi, those were some good tips! I'm going to do some experimenting with my blocking now. Thanks! ~Chris
BarbaraG@2 wrote
on Dec 2, 2008 8:00 AM
I have found the gentle application of steam improves the appearance and drape of acrylic yarns. Emphasis on "gentle."
Lois Newton wrote
on Dec 2, 2008 6:15 AM
Again, the best way to block acrylic yarn that I've found is take the finished garment to the dry cleaners & have them steam press it. MUCH easier than doing it yourself, and only costs a few dollars!
TeresaK@3 wrote
on Dec 1, 2008 7:50 PM
Love the hair!!
SaraH@2 wrote
on Dec 1, 2008 7:30 PM
I knit a lace scarf from Victorian Lace Today using 100% acrylic yarn, I think it was called Lacette. I wet blocked and pinned it out, just as I would a wool lace shawl, and let it dry overnight. It did pull back in just a little, but I stretched it to death to start with. Overall I was quite happy with how it turned out.
SusanP wrote
on Dec 1, 2008 6:59 PM
IIf blocking with steam, hold the iron at least 1/2 to 1 inch above the knitting and keep the iron moving. Do not let the weight of the iron rest on the knitting, otherwise textured stitches like cables get flattened - permanently. Acrylic doesn't have the spring that wool does so it stretches out, especially if loosely knit. The only way I know of to restore it is to wash it and dry it in a dryer. The dryer helps bring the garment back into shape. Don't forget the fabric softener - otherwise, talk about static cling! You could light up Times Square with the static! If possible, choose an acrylic/wool blend. The wool gives some "life" to the yarn both in appearance, wear, and longevity.
MarieG@2 wrote
on Dec 1, 2008 6:13 PM
For children's items I use an 80/20 acrylic/wool yarn. Blocking makes a world of difference in appearance of the finished garment. I lay it on a towel, spritz it good with cool water, another towel on top and pat vigorously. No more heat for me - I once steamed a ribbed armhole on a wool/acrylic vest - you can guess what happened. Permanently stretched out!!!
KatherineH wrote
on Dec 1, 2008 6:11 PM
The first time I mentioned blocking to the grandmother who taught me how to knit (and who learned how to knit in school herself), I had to explain it to her. She had never heard of such a thing, and was stunned that anyone would spend so much time fussing over finished knitting. To her, it meant that you hadn't done it right in the first place. After several attempts at blocking that left the blocked fabric looking the exactly the same as it came off my needles, I think she had a point. I've had several friends proudly show off items after very elaborate blocking that I saw on their needles, and they look about the same to me (just with the ends darned in). There is no "more even stitches", "more professional appearance", or "less curling" for most pieces. Pinning out lace or pressing colour work I can sort of, kind of, justify, or giving certain fibres a special wash to soften them, but a lot of the rest of the time it just seems like pure superstition to me. This article and the ones preceding it go over the different methods in great detail, but I'm still bewildered as to why you didn't just knit it evenly in the first place.
HLAleo wrote
on Dec 1, 2008 5:10 PM
As a poor homemaker and knitter, I've used acrylic yarn many times, sometimes for sweaters too. You do have to block it just like any other yarn. It's not the type of yarn that causes a need for blocking, but the stitches. Knit stitches are taller whereas purl stitches are wider so they're going to cause the piece to curl. Whenever I've made something with acrylic that needed to be blocked I pinned it to some cardboard, on top of my ironing board, spray it with water and let it air dry a bit, then I wold steam it with my iron, sometimes pressing if it was not blocking well. The key is to use a thin towel or cloth if you're going to be steam blocking any type of yarn, not just acrylic. I've never noticed any scorching when I've had to do this, although it did pick up an odd smell - it went away with washing. Like fabric, you should use a heat setting on your iron that would be used on a synthetic material.
AllisonK wrote
on Dec 1, 2008 5:05 PM
Sandy, Canada must be agreeing wit you! Your new haircut really suits you! Ok, and thanks for the linen tip -- I have some in stash with plans for a spring thing.
BethanyH wrote
on Dec 1, 2008 4:31 PM
I don't have a blocking board. I use the top of my dryer and a piece of cardboard from an old box. I wrap the cardboard in a towel and pin through this to the cardboard. I can't wait to see what other things you suggest!
AmyK wrote
on Dec 1, 2008 3:51 PM
Sandi, I just noticed your cute new picture. LOVE the darling short "do" with bangs. So flattering! Didn't know where else to post that. Amy in Loozyana
Dtalke214 wrote
on Dec 1, 2008 2:38 PM
What about yarns, like silk, that are dry clean only? How do you block those?
DeniseC wrote
on Dec 1, 2008 2:32 PM
I have had good success with acrylic/wool combo yarns and blocking. Jsust enough wool to hold, I don't apply direct heat. PS - Sandi you new profile picture looks great.