Sunday, May 15, 2011

And then a miracle occurs...

Remember the old Far Side cartoon? 

Knitting lace is a lot like the formula on the blackboard.  To the left on the blackboard, you have the mathematic variables, the yarn, the needles, the pattern, the actual knitting of the lace, during which time you have an object that looks, at best, like an uninspired lump of yarn, and at worst like limp ramen noodles or a pile of used dental floss.  To the right on the blackboard, you have the solution to the formula, a gorgeous lacy finished project. 

Unblocked lace looking kinda "meh"  The Grateful Crane project linkand pattern link yarn: Debbie Bliss "Angel" 

"Step two" has a special name in knitting, it is called Blocking and is truly a place where miracles occur.  During blocking, lace opens up and reveals just the right balance of matter (string) and anti-matter (air).

I like to think of my knitting as my baby.  I conceived the idea for the project, it gestated for a while until I came up with the right combination of elements (pattern, yarn, needles), and as I knit it, it became an object in its own right, separate from me.  Just like a baby, sometimes a work in progress (WIP) is a darling, playing happily on the needles, growing by leaps and bounds, other times it may suffer from colic and need some gentle nurturing; still other times it may be a complete brat and earn a bit of a time out to think about its misdeeds.   

At some point, my "baby" will be all done playing on my needles.  Since it has a tummy full of the yummiest yarn I can provide, it is now ready for a bath and a nice nap. 

Giving your baby a bath  AKA a step by step guide to blocking your (wool) knitting:

These instructions are intended for wool or mostly wool items.  Read the label on your yarn before following this! 

1- start by washing out the sink - you wouldn't put a baby in a dirty bath, would you?

2- fill the sink with nice warm water and a little mild wool wash (gentle shampoo works also in a pinch). Make sure the water is not too hot or too cold. 

3- put your baby gently in the bath water, making sure to submerge it completely.  Hold it under the water for a minute, if needed, to let the air bubbles escape and ensure that it all gets wet.

4- let the baby rest quietly in the water for 10-20 minutes to ensure that the water penetrates and relaxes the fibers.  Do not aggitate the baby, they don't like that and may cry (or felt) if aggitated while wet.  This is a good time to make up a nice bed for the baby.  Interlocking foam pads (called Blocking Boards) are ideal, but if you don't have them you can make do nicely with any bed you aren't going to be using for a day or two or a freshly vacumed carpet.  Put down a few layers of towels to protect the bed or carpet (foam pads work better without towels).  For small items like hats or cowls (or sweater parts), an ironing board works great and has the advantage of being waist high, which is much easier than crawling around on the rug.

5- after the baby has been thoroughly soaked, pull the plug, being careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. 

6- while the water drains, prepare several towels for receiving the baby.  I use at least two, but bigger or bulkier babies might require more.  Spread the stacked layers of towels out on the bathroom floor.

7- gently but firmly squeeze the water out of your baby.  Don't wring or twist though, that would be mean and might cause pain, or worse, stretch the baby out of shape.

8- drop the baby -- err, gently lower the baby onto the nest of towels.  Spread it out a bit, allowing it to room to kick its little legs and arms, but try not to stretch it out. 

9- fold the bundle of towels over, tucking the little tyke in carefully.  Now roll the towels tightly and step on the roll, letting the towels absorb as much of the moisture as possible.

10-  bring the bundle over to the crib -- err, blocking mats and unroll.  If you don't have blocking mats, the bedspread or sheet or freshly vacuumed rug will all work fine.  You may want to lay down a few layers of dry towels to help keep the bed/rug dry, but be aware that those extra layers can make the baby take longer to dry.

At this point, the baby analogy really runs out.  If this were an actual baby, I would recommend tucking it in with its blanky and teddy and kissing it goodnight.  The management of this blog does not recommend or endorse yanking, stretching, and pinning out real babies.  To avoid being viewed as a sick and twisted person, I will now switch from "baby" to "FO" (finished object).

11 - smooth the FO out on the mats, approximating the desired shape/size.  I recommend making note of the pre-blocking dimensions at this point.  Note that it still looks pretty "meh", the only real difference is that now it is "meh" and wet.

12- select two directions most important for final shaping.  In the case of a shawl, these are most likely to be along the wing span (top edge) and along the spine (middle back).  For a sweater, it would most likely be the width and length of the sweater body.  Since this FO is a shawl, we'll start at the center back of neck and work out along the arms and down the center back,  stretching and putting in some preliminary pins.  I like to block lace quite aggressively, so frequently these first pins need to be moved as the entire FO begins to relax, stretch, and take shape.

13- if the FO has straight edges, blocking wires can frequently be threaded through the work to maintain a crisp sharp straight edge.  There are lots of options, ranging from pre-packaged blocking wire kits (most expensive and not necessarily long enough wires) to dental floss or cotton yarn (cheapest) threaded through and pinned taut like a clothes line. I use stainless steel (fairly rigid) and coated carbon steel (thinner and more flexible) welding rods that I picked up quite cheaply at Fleet Farm.  

This picture shows why I love blocking so much.  See how the pattern is opening up and emerging on the far right?  At the point when the picture was taken, I had threaded the coated carbon steel welding rod through the yarn overs along the border and stretched the wing out widthwise along the rod, pinning at intervals along the way.  Then I had stretched and temporarily pinned down the center back to maintain a fairly straight line.   Then I began working my way down the side, stretching out and pinning each point to make the scalloped edge.  Typically, I alternate top bottom side to side to maintain even tension.  In this case, however, I was so enraptured watching the lovely feather pattern emerge that I worked around counterclockwise from the left edge.

See what I mean about blocking being miraculous?  From "meh" to "ooh" by the magic of water and quilting pins.

14- once it is all pinned out, go around and adjust any pins as needed to straighten out a line or even out the scallops on the edging, etc.  Try not to obsess over this stage.  Then stand back and admire.  Make sure you allow the FO to fully dry before removing the pins. Once dry, the wool will "remember" the way you pinned it, although some yarns may do a little "bounce back" and lose some of the size you gained or the sharp pointed edges. 

15- take post-blocking measurements and photos and enjoy your post-miracle item!

So, to recap ...   Before                     
And After                     

About the shawl
This lovely shawl was a test knit for designer Joy Gerhard.  She called it The Grateful Crane after a wonderful Japanese fable and through July 31, 2011, she is donating 50% of the proceeds from the pattern sales to MSF (Doctors Without Borders) to aid in disaster relief from the earthquakes and tsunami in Japan.  Great organization, great cause, great pattern. 

While working on it, I kept thinking there was something familiar about the feather patterns.  Then one day, I looked up at the marchesite swan watch pendent from my Great-Aunt Jean and it hit me.  Joy may have named it The Grateful Crane, but to me, it is The Grateful Swan.

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