Knitting by Judy @ 11:55 PM

unblocked swatches
unblocked swatches

Dear Knitnana,

I love the Star Of Evening shawl you are knitting with Zen Yarn Garden in the Meezer colorway. Thus my reply — Why?!?!? – when you emailed that you were ripping it out. Because, you said, it’s superwash so it can’t be blocked.

My first thought was… Really? I don’t recall every pondering this particular question before. Certainly the socks I knit — which are mostly some variety of superwash merino — benefit from the blocking I give them at their first bath so that they photograph well.

And that got me thinking. Why can’t it be blocked?

Animal fibers shrink and felt (with varying degrees of success or failure, depending on your point of view) because of tiny scales on the fibers that open up and then lock together. Wool is made washable by one of two different processes: either an acid bath is used to strip off the little scales, or minute amounts of polymer are used to glue the scales down. The wool loses its ability to felt. But does it lose some other essential wool-ness that allows it to be blocked?

Obviously an experiment was in order.

blocking swatches
blocking swatches

I knit two swatches using a chart from one of those wonderful Japanese stitch pattern books. This is the second book in this series that I’ve purchased. I don’t read or speak a word of Japanese. But the books have beautiful photographs and charts, and illustrations of what the more unfamiliar chart symbols mean, so an adventurous knitter can puzzle it out. The patterns appear quite unusual and lovely to my American eyes. The first book is all knit patterns, mostly lace and cables (often combined). This book is 1/2 crochet, with not only patterns for larger objects, but some gorgeous edgings and appliqués. Many of the knit patterns feature embroidery, beading or two color stranded or slipped-stitch knitting where one of the yarns used is metallic (are you drooling yet?).

I chose a pattern mostly at random, but avoiding the beads and embroidery and such. It was a 16-stitch/8-row repeating pattern. I added an extra repeat of the first 6 stitches so that my swatch was symmetrical, plus a 2-stitch garter border on both sides, plus an extra stitch to match an extra in the pattern – total 27 stitches. I repeated the rows three times, or 24 rows, plus a 2-row garter border on both ends – total 28 rows.

Both swatches were knit on the same needles — US #5 (3.75mm) from my Denise set.

blocked swatches
blocked swatches

The first picture shows the unblocked swatches. On the right is STR in Blue Brick Wall – a 100% Superwash merino fingering weight sock yarn. Every good experiment needs a control. Mine is on the left. I couldn’t find any non-superwash wool in my odds and ends. This is Frog Tree 100% Alpaca fingering weight. It’s approximately the same WPI as the STR. It’s not wool, but it felts if you so much as breath on it hard, so as a control it meets that test. I had hopes that it would block nicely.

You can see that both swatches are approximately 4″x4″ unblocked. I think you can also agree with me that they would benefit from a bit of blocking. But not too much, because this pattern has some dimensionality that I don’t want to lose.

In the second picture, I have wet-blocked both swatches by pinning them out to 5″x5″. I felt that a 25% increase in both directions was probably sufficient. It opened up the YOs, but didn’t completely flatten the pretty twists on each side.

After pinning, I gave both swatches a goodly spritz with water, then left them for 24 hours to dry.

close up and personal
close up and personal

At the appointed time, I unpinned the swatches. To make this a really fair test, I picked up both swatches and tossed them around a bit, as though they were objects that I might wear for a day. After scrunching and tossing and smooshing and all, you can see in the third picture that both swatches lost a fraction of an inch in size – not much bounce back here for either yarn. On a 60″ wrap, it would work out to less than 1″. That doesn’t seem excessive.

The last picture is a closeup so you can see that, despite the difference in the texture of the yarns themselves, the stitch definition after blocking is pretty similar. (I also just noticed that in the last two pictures the alpaca swatch is upside down.) The alpaca bloomed a tiny bit, and the finished swatch is softer. Which is no surprise because it’s alpaca and the STR… isn’t… although it’s a very nice, smooshy wool.

Both swatches still have quite a bit of give in them. I think I could have blocked them more severely, but I’m not sure that I really would have wanted to. I’m quite happy with the results of both swatches.

So I think, by the results of my little experiment, superwash wool blocks quite well. Of course, your mileage may vary. When in doubt, it’s always a good idea to knit a swatch, block it, and the decide if you like the results.

Thanks, Knitnana, for bringing up such an interesting question. I can’t wait to see what yarn you decide to knit your shawl from and the results (which I am sure will be lovely).


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