Sunday, March 02, 2008

A Summary of Garment Blocking Tips

We would like to offer a brief, and hopefully useful, summary of blocking tips. This post focuses on the yarn lines that we carry because those are the ones that we are most experienced with, but I am sure that you can use these tips on other yarn lines as well. I will do my best to show you pictures as soon as we get a chance, and I’m sure this post will go through several edits.

I confess, blocking is my least favorite activity and from speaking to our customers, I can see that I am not alone … nevertheless, I am convinced that swatching – and blocking – are necessary evils so that you can make sure that your finished garments fit-to-size and meet your expectations. I have found this to be the case for hand and machine knit garments, as well as for crochet projects, which are the types of projects where I have experience. Wouldn’t it be awful if you invested your time into making a garment, only to find that it didn’t meet your intended objectives because of the wrong long term care, or because it wasn’t blocked properly to begin with?

Once you gain experience working with a given fiber and with blocking, it turns out to be fairly automatic (albeit still tedious).

Before working on a project, it is useful to decide how the finished garment will be cared for over the long run: will it be hand or machine washed, or dry cleaned? This will provide insights into how to block the garment before joining the various pieces, or if you are working on a lace scarf or shawl, to set the shape and lace details in place. And I can’t stress this enough: before you embark on a project, it is always worth your time to make and block a good-sized swatch. The experience that you will gain during this process will not only make you an expert in working with your choice of fiber, it will yield consistent finished garment results. After all, you need to pin down your finished garment gauge results, in your own "working hand," to make sure that they meet your tastes and garment requirements.

Blocking Materials

Over the years I’ve tried a variety of different blocking materials, and here is a summary of the ones that I have found most practical and thus use today:

Blocking frame

After years of fiddling with a series of commercial offerings (and then auctioning them off on eBay), one day about three years ago I finally walked down to Pratt Institute, located in Brooklyn, NY. They have a large offering of art and design courses, a marvelous art supply store, and best of all, they are located just a few blocks away from Sarah’s Yarns. I bought their largest Canvas frame kit and one of their large packages of duck material that was big enough to cover the frame. When I returned, I assembled the frame and hand-stapled the duck material to it very taught while making sure that the duck threads were “straight,” which is very useful as a visual cue during blocking (at least for me).

Now here is the most useful thing I did: every six (6) inches down each of the sides of “blocking side” of the frame, I hammered-in a series of 3/8”diameter, 2-inch long nails. This is useful in order to “anchor” the fishing nylon or other strong, cost-effective thread that you can use to thread through the edges of garments in order to obtain clean, straight edges (description below).

My personal blocking frame is really big, no doubt, and here in New York City we all have space problems. But I can store it by standing it up behind one of our storage racks and then when I need to block something I can just pull it out and it is ready-to-go … and it is light.

2-inch Stainless Steel T-Pins

You can buy these at any sewing notions shop. I have been ordering notions at a pretty good price for years from Atlanta Thread and Supply. Their prices and delivery times are reasonable. I use these primarily to set in curved sides like armholes or necklines, or lace and other scalloped edges.

Tapestry needles

I recommend that you should have these in various thicknesses and lengths to meet several garment gauge requirements.

Fishing Nylon or a 100% Nylon Sewing Thread (for very thin-gauge delicate lace garments)

Over the years I’ve blocked using T-pins only – and then I wanted a faster method to get “straight edges really straight.” I tried a number of different blocking wire sets, but here’s what I didn’t like about them:

  1. More often then not, the wires left an unsightly and sometimes permanent “residue” on my garments if they were being wet-blocked. Now I didn’t want to invest all that time making a lace heirloom garment – only to have it ruined right-at-the-end.

  2. Even when I used floral wires or the Home Depot stainless-steel wires, which do not leave a residue, the straight edges of the garments were never “perfectly straight.” They were straight when viewed strictly from the top, but depending on how you threaded the wires through the edges, you could wind up with a “wavy effect” that was obvious to me when viewing the garment sideways or at an angle. Some people don’t mind this effect, but alas, my nature dictates otherwise.

  3. I like doing things quickly.

I think I have found the perfect solution, at least for my tastes: I use a tapestry needle in a size that meets the “garment gauge” and thread either fishing nylon or 100% nylon sewing thread through the straight edges of the garment, depending on the garment type (fine gauge or bulkier), and then anchor the nylon in place using the nails that I hammered into the frame. Nylon is slippery, but if you use an “8” anchor method across two sets of nails, or some of the knotting techniques used by fishermen (my grandfather taught me a few when I was fishing with him as a little girl), you will obtain reliable results.

I always verify that the straight edges are really straight by using a carpenter’s level that I can anchor temporarily with the aid of the symmetrical sets of nails on all sides of the blocking frame. At the moment I don’t know anybody else who is this picky, but as I’ve grown older my eyes just don’t work the same, so I feel compelled to use all the help I can get … aside from my reading glasses, which keep increasing in diopters.

Spray Bottle

Available at many places, and very useful for a variety of blocking applications.

Steam Iron … Or A Steamer

If you aren’t wet-blocking and need to use steam, you’ll need one of these. The advantage of a steamer is that some of them come with attachments of varying sizes, which is helpful if you are trying to localize the steam as you steam-and-block your garment. Years ago I bought a Eureka Enviro-Steamer which turned out to be really useful for all sorts of chemical-free (and very fast) house cleaning projects – especially in bathrooms, and in the dreaded kitchen. I did a Google search and found a model called the Eureka 370A Enviro-Steamer that seems to be the equivalent to what I have. I’m sure there are other steamers available that are made by other manufacturers and that are perfectly suitable.

Blocking Methods

Wet Blocking

I prefer to wet-block my finished swatches and garments almost all-the-time. Please understand, however, that since we are in the business of buying and selling yarns, we are constantly running quality assurance trials for many reasons, especially to test color-bleading, and especially in yarn lines labeled as “superwash.” If you intend to dry-clean your garments only, then you can use the Steam Blocking or the Spray Bottle blocking methods.

I humbly believe that wet blocking enables you to set garment dimensions and shaping best. The other nice thing about wet blocking is that as you work on a garment, it is inevitable for dust and/or residues from your hands to “get stuck” or “rub-off” on the fibers of your garment. When you wet-block a garment these are eliminated and your blocked and finished garment will be ready-to-use (or give away as a gift).

Wet-blocking involves the following basic steps:

  1. Soak the garment in a diluted solution of a very mild agent (like Woolite, Ivory Snow, Eucelan … or Shampoo). Proportions of agent-to-water depends on the agent used.
  2. Rinse gently. Eucelan is a no-rinse wash, but I always rinse it out anyway because I’m always worried about the very sensitive skin that one of my children has.
  3. Depending on the type of fiber, you might like to soak the garment pieces in a diluted solution of fabric softener (I use hair conditioner for wools, cashmeres and kid mohair silk because they come out silky-soft).
  4. Final, gentle rinse
  5. Lay each garment piece on a towel, and then roll to soak out the excess moisture gently
  6. If the fiber type supports machine-washing, then machine-wash instead of the above steps (make sure that you tried this on a swatch prior to starting on your project to properly determine your finished project gauge).
  7. Block-and-set the garment pieces using your T-pins and/or nylon threads (or blocking wires)
  8. If you have the space to lie your blocking frame out “flat,” then you can just wait until the garment pieces are dry. Otherwise, I keep rotating the blocking frame every 1 to 2 hours to make sure the pieces will dry symmetrically … but then New York City has a fairly high humidity level.
  9. After drying-and-joining, you might want to steam out any wrinkles … if you are using an iron, do not lay the iron directly on the fibers because depending on the fiber they could felt. Another option is to hang the garment in the bathroom, turn on the shower to let out the hottest water possible, close the door, and come back in about 10 minutes. By the way, I use this method for quick-ironing jobs for my children as well!

Steam Blocking

Steam blocking is much simpler then wet-blocking, of course:

  1. Pin and/or thread-and-anchor your garment pieces to size, and

  2. Steam to set the shape

  3. If you are using a steam iron, steam from about 4 to 6 inches from the garment to avoid felting

Or you can steam your garment pieces as you pin and/or thread them in place to make them more “malleable,” but be careful not to burn yourself and not to overstretch the pieces … unless you are working with lace scarves and shawls, in which case stretching is desirable, but not too much ...

Then just wait a couple of hours or until the garment is dry and then it is ready for joining, or in the case of scarves and/or lace shawls, you are done.

Spray-Bottle Blocking

If you have decided that your finished garment will be dry-clean only, then this is the easiest method. Much like steam-blocking except that you don’t have to worry about getting burned:

  1. Pin and/or thread-and-anchor your garment pieces to size, and

  2. Use the spray bottle to moisturize lightly to set the shape

Or you can use the spray bottle on your garment pieces as you pin and/or thread them in place to make them more “malleable” if you find this easier. Then just wait until the garment is dry and then you can join the pieces, or in the case of scarves and lace shawls, you are done.

Recommended Blocking Methods For Several Yarn Lines

The recommendations below apply to some of the yarn lines offered by Sarah's Yarns. Click on any yarn line to view details.

Classic Elite Provence 100% Mercerized Egyptian Cotton

Wet block, hand washing

JaggerSpun Heather Lines

Wet block, hand washing, hair conditioner before the final rinse will yield very soft results.

JaggerSpun Maine Lines

Wet block, hand washing, hair conditioner before the final rinse will yield very soft results.

JaggerSpun Super Fine Merino 2/18 Lace Weight

Wet block, hand washing, hair conditioner before the final rinse will yield very soft results.

JaggerSpun Super Lamb 100% Merino Superwash

Wet block, but the washing takes place in the washing machine at normal cycle, cold water.

JaggerSpun Zephyr 2/18 wool-silk lace weight

Wet block, hand washing, even though I prefer to dry clean garments made from this fiber.

JaggerSpun Zephyr DK 4/8 weight wool-silk

Wet block, hand washing, even though I prefer to dry clean garments made from this fiber.

Mission Falls 100% Superwash Cotton

Wet block, but the washing takes place in the washing machine at normal cycle, cold water.

Mission Falls 1824 Superwash Wools

Wet block, but the washing takes place in the washing machine at normal cycle, cold water.

Punta Del Este Yarns, Montoya Beach 100% Lace Weight Linen

Wet block, but the washing takes place in the washing machine at normal cycle, cold water. This fiber is very sturdy, and it softens and becomes drapier after washed.

SY 100% Bamboo

Wet block, hand washing

SY Superwash Superfine Merino Bamboo Silk Blend

Wet block, but the washing takes place in the washing machine at normal cycle, cold water.

SY 100% Organic Cotton

Wet block, but the washing takes place in the washing machine at delicate cycle, cold water.

SY 100% Silks, both DK and Worsted Weight

Steam block, and I always dry-clean these garments to ensure that the silk sheen endures.

SY 45% Mongolian Cashmere/55% Silks

Steam block, and I always dry-clean these garments to ensure that the silk sheen endures.

SY Kid Mohair Silk

Wet block, hand washing, I use hair conditioner before the final rinse and then rinse it out. The resulting garments are silky-soft. Some of our customers prefer to spray-water block. I choose to dry-clean these garments over the long-run.

SY 100% Mongolian Cashmeres, 2-Ply Fingering and 4-Ply DK

Wet block, hand washing, hair conditioner before the final rinse will yield very soft results.

SY Cashmerino (20% Mongolian Cashmere, 80% Superfine Merino Blend)

Wet block, hand washing, hair conditioner before the final rinse will yield very soft results.



Please feel free to contribute your comments!

7 comments:

|chee-uh| said...

These are great tips! I will be sure to pass them along...:)

Anonymous said...

Sarah! I've been "sweating it out", not wanting to block my silk/wool shawl for fear of wrecking it (the swatch I blocked didn't look so great after washing...like the identity of the yarn got lost).

Thank you so much for such a lengthy and intense article!

Christine

Sarah's Yarns said...

Hi Christine,

Thank you so much. I think we all are afraid of blocking our garments! But try blocking a small swatch until you get the results that you like, and then follow the same procedure on your shawl ... write those down. I have been told that blocking is "an art." I think it is more a matter of experience with a given fiber base and then following a procedure. In today's economy, I believe it is well worth the investment in time because you will save a lot of money by making truly unique garments at a fraction of the cost. Please feel free to contact me if I can be of help. Best wishes!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for all the great information. I am working on a Swallowtail Shawl, and since I have never blocked lace, will definetly use your blog post as a guideline. Also, I wanted to tell you that the SY cashmere scarf, knit for DBF was a HUGE hit, he is asking "whats next on the needles?"

Anonymous said...

Sarah,

Your fairly extensive blocking (for blockheads) beginners' talking points makes good sense...photos of your Pratt Institute enabled blocking frame with straight duck threads and nails placed at intervals would be useful for those attempting to emulate.

Some questions I have re: Jaggerspun Zephyr 2/18 and wet blocking of hand-dyed versions thereof...

1. Do hand-dyed versions necessarily emerge with less luster or sheen and less fuzz--what can hand dyers and/or knitters do to restore luster and fuzz; and

2. Do hand dyed versions of Zephyr 2/18 necessarily bleed when first soaked & wet blocked...and what can/should hand dyers and/or knitters do to prevent such bleeding.

Scott in Montreal

Cynthia Holder said...

I was wondering with spray blocking how much water to how much fabric softener (Downey) do you use Thanks

Sarah's Yarns said...

Hi Cynthia,

Preferably use plain water and spray until just damp on the surface. If you use a fabric softener like Downey you can use something like 1/4 tsp per pint. Hope this helps.