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Tutorial: Blocking, or how to keep your lace in shape


So you have a new shawl, and you can't wait to wear it. You read the care instructions and find (if it's one of mine, anyway):

Hand wash only, lay flat to dry. Pin to maintain shape.

Uhhh...okay? What exactly does that mean?

The majority of my shawls are knit using a wool-based yarn, which means there is a lot of stretch. This also means they can lose their shape over time or with repeated wear. Don't worry, this is totally normal! 

Lace patterns are made up of rows of stitches like all knitting, but it also has deliberate holes and stitches knit together to alter the shape of the fabric. Wool likes to curl back up on itself, so sometimes it's necessary to stretch it back into shape. 

This is called blocking, and I always do this at the end of a project, and those initial project photos I post on this blog are taken very soon after that first blocking. If you purchase a shawl for yourself and want to keep that freshly blocked shape, here are some pro tips!

A finished shawl that has never been blocked. Yes, they always look like a messy blob!
A shawl in need of re-blocking:

How to wash your shawl

First, hand wash only. Most wool yarns cannot hold up to machine washing, and can result in a disastrous mess. Even a yarn that claims to be "Superwash" will end up with some fulling or felting (when the fibers of the wool rub together and stick) which can make your pretty lace into a heaping mess.

When I truly need to wash something, I will soak it in lukewarm water with a small amount of detergent (the milder the better, and wool wash like Soak or Euclan are very popular for hand knits, but any detergent for delicates will work). 

After soaking your shawl, dump out the water and gently squeeze out the extra water. Try not to agitate the fabric, because as mentioned above, rubbing the fibers together when wet can lead to them sticking together and distorting your shawl! It typically takes a lot of agitation to do this, so don't overstress about it, but do be mindful. You can also lay the shawl out on a towel and gently roll it up to get out the moisture.

I use a salad spinner to soak and wring my shawl. The spin action allows me to get as much water out as possible with minimal agitation.

If you don't truly need to wash your project but you want to re-shape it, use a spray bottle with a mix of water and either a little of that gentle detergent, or hair conditioner (what is wool if not hair, after all?) to get the wool damp enough to shape.

How to block your shawl

In this damp state, you'll notice that your shawl is very malleable! This is the point at which you want to lay it flat and pin it into shape. This can be done on a variety of surfaces, including an open space on your carpet (vacuum first so you don't end up with pet hair sticking!), a bed, or if you're really hardcore, on a foam mat like these flooring tiles. If you have kids, you may have some of these hanging around! As a high volume knitter, I typically use blocking mats for my shawls, but for my really big circular shawls, I don't have mats big enough and I just pin them to the carpet.

So now you are ready to pin the shape of the shawl. There are entire master classes on this for knitters, but I'm going to give you a brief run down. 

A couple of things to remember - first of all, your shawl is strong. For all it looks light and delicate, wool and other fibers (especially silk) can hold up to a lot of stretching. So don't feel scared to pull your shawl into the shape you want. 

Second of all, once you pin something down, you aren't wed to that spot. If you find the shape is lopsided or bunched up weirdly, you can always move those pins. I am constantly re-pinning points on a shawl to make it symmetrical, or to pull a portion of fabric tight enough that the lace pattern is clear.

So to start, lay your shawl out in the general shape you want. Usually you will have ends that taper off into points, so I like to pin those in place first. Depending on the shape of the shawl, you may want to start at the center point (for a triangle shape) or work down the curve from the ends towards the middle (for a crescent shape). Remember, you aren't beholden to a shape from your initial pinning! You may want to adjust these as you go along.

Find the part of the lace edging that naturally comes to a point or a curve. Use t-pins to stretch points out as far as the fabric will give, angling the pin back and perpendicular to the edge of the shawl to maintain that stretch. 

Pin the corners of the shawl first to anchor your shawl shape:

Angle the t-pin away from the body of the shawl; this will ensure the pin stays in place against the tension of the fabric pulling it back:

For a scalloped edge, insert the pin at an angle parallel to the edge of the fabric on either side of the convex portion, pointing towards the center of the curve, for a total of 3 pins in each hump (one on either side and one in the center pulling it taut):

When pinning from the corners to center or from the center point out to the corners, it helps to alternate from one side to the other to stay symmetrical. 

Once you have the shape you like, all you need to do is let it lay flat and dry! Once the wool dries it will maintain its shape for several months. If you start to notice the shape isn't as crisp as it once was, you can repeat the blocking process again and again as many times as needed!

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