Tools of the Trade:
HandWorks Dressing Wires
Blocking is one of those intensely personal things, like swatching and even knitting itself. Some of us have a laissez-faire, spritz-and-stretch attitude that suits us just fine—while others are not content until they have pinned and starched and ironed every yarn-over into total submission.
How we block is a personal choice driven by our own philosophy and desired outcome, but it is also influenced by what we're blocking. A basic hat, mittens, or scarf may not deserve the same kind of treatment as, say, Judy Gibson's extraordinary Rose of England tablecloth. And some fibers (cashmere, qiviut, and American Bison) require more care when wet, while others (wool, silk, and mohair, depending on how they're spun) enjoy the challenge of being stretched to the last inch of their life.
But blocking does have one universal truth: Lace, or at least 99.9% of the traditional lace out there, requires it. Lace is traditionally knit using fine yarn and proportionately larger-than-normal needles, producing a crumpled and aimless piece of fabric that just won't look right until you've stretched it wide open. And when you do, as if by magic, all your hard work reveals itself in a beautiful pattern.
Blocking has a second truth: A few simple tools and techniques will make it a lot easier. The first thing that makes blocking easier is if you have a large, clean, padded surface onto which you can pin your piece. I like the portability and flexibility of the Knitter's Block blocking kit, but others prefer solid blocking boards or the steadfast reliability of a carpet or large mattress. This part is up to you—but you do need a large smooth surface that can handle getting a little wet and being poked by pins.
The second tool that will become your fast friend: Blocking wires (or, as they're called in England, "dressing" wires). When blocking lace, part of your goal is to create an even shape with clean edge lines. In cases where you want those lines to be perfectly straight, you can pin down each edge stitch. But think about it: How many stitches went into that shawl? How many pins will you be manipulating?
The other problem with the pin-by-pin approach is that blocking tends to be an iterative process where you stretch and set, then stretch some more and re-set, then stretch some more and re-set until your shawl stretches no more. If you must undo and re-set hundreds of pins for each side, you'll quickly go bonkers.
Fortunately, our forebears created blocking wires. Several folks offer them in slightly different kits for knitters, most of which have different lengths and thicknesses of wire. Here I look at the HandWorks Dressing Wires kit from HandWorks NorthWest. It was originally developed by intrepid lace-knitter Myrna Stahman (author of Stahman's Shawls and Scarves) for the Boise Zonta Club, a global women's service organization. But when the Zonta Club discontinued the project in 2005, HandWorks NorthWest took over the helm, with Myrna's blessings and guidance.
I should note that these kits don't do away with the need for pins altogether—this kit comes with a pouch of 30 nickel-plated blocking pins. But in this context you use the pins to hold the wires, not your knitting. The kit also comes with a brief information packet explaining how best to use the kit for blocking knitted fabrics.
The HandWorks Dressing Wires kit retails for $45 and is only available from HandWorks NorthWest. As of this review, shipping is an additional $8 for Oregon, Washington, and California; $10 for all other U.S. states; and $19 for shipments to Canada. A portion of the proceeds from each kit are donated to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.
Ordering is far from the one-click reality we've come to expect: You'll print out an order form and mail it in with check or money order. Your kit comes in a long, slender, and very sturdy tube.
How They Work
What follows is my personal protocol for blocking a straightforward lace shawl using the wires in this kit. As I've already mentioned, each person can have distinctly different ways of doing things. This is mine. The shawl you see here is Evelyn Clark's Shetland Triangle from Wrap Style knit in my Clara's Garden colorway of Helen's Lace from Lorna's Laces.
I like to start at the top, establishing that line and then working my way down. In this example, the top needs to be blocked into a straight and smooth line. My shawl was too wide for a single wire, so I chose two full-length medium-thickness wires, one for each side of the top.
I ran each wire through border stitches along the top. I find it easier to choose a stitch slightly in from the edge, and to be extremely consistent in always picking up that stitch. This helps ensure that the wire pulls the whole shawl with it and doesn't just elongate the loose edge stitches and create an unintentional ruffle effect. (If you knit socks, this is the same reason you may avoid picking up the absolute edge stitch along a heel, since it pulls open and creates gaps.)
Once both sides were strung on the wires, I pinned them at the center point with the blocking pins and pulled up the sides, like wings. (They're not quite horizontal here.)
Then it was simply a matter of standing back and waiting for the fabric to dry. Some people do more at this stage: they may spritz the shawl with more water, or they may place a moist towel over the shawl and iron it, or give it a good shot of steam with the iron. That's up to you.
Do-it-yourselfers, if you're tempted to make your own blocking wires, just be mindful of a few issues. First, they must absolutely be made of a rustproof material. You are winding them through a wet fabric and letting them sit. You do not want your heirloom shawl to be peppered with brown rust spots.
Second, you'll need to be able to sand down the tips of each wire until they are very smooth. Lace yarn is extremely fine, and animal fibers are more fragile when wet—so you do not want to run any risk of snagging or breaking a strand of yarn as you run your wire through it.
And third, for rectangles and triangles, you'll need a wire that is reliably straight. If it comes that way, great. If you think you can make it straight, be sure to try first.
Tip of the Wire
The example I just showed you used only four wires and didn't even begin to show what is possible with this kit. But hopefully it gave you a glimpse of its usefulness. If you like to knit lace, blocking wires will make your finishing much easier and much prettier too.
Is your lace knitting worth a $45 set of blocking wires? I realize it may seem extravagant, and for some people it may be out of reach. I'd consider it a long, long-term investment in your knitterly future—on par with a ball winder or umbrella swift. Considering the amount of time and energy that usually go into most lace projects, I'd say you deserve to have the perfect projects, and blocking wires will take you there.