My Care and Feeding of Fine Fibers

No one in their right mind would seek to save money on clothing by knitting. And no one who is not a knitter would understand paying for the material costs for a hand knit sweater when online shops, brick and mortar store sales, and various discounters offer inexpensive machine made sweaters made from sturdy blended fibers. But for knitters who buy fine fibers and non-knitters who are lucky enough to receive a hand knit gift or feel flush enough to splurge on luxury knit garments, it is good to know the care and feeding of fine fibers for years of enjoyment.

I titled this “My Care and Feeding…” because there are many approaches and even more opinions on how to give fine fibers the loving care they deserve. This is what I have found works for me. The first section about blocking is for knitters who have just finished knitting an item and need to do the final shaping.  The sections on caring for finished knits are for anyone who has fine or hand knitted items and loves them enough to care for them.

The Final Finishing for Knitters: Blocking

[Non-knitters will want to skip to the next sections for care instructions]

When an item comes off the knitting needles, it is not ready to wear. Loose ends are woven in and snipped and the item is given a nice long soak in a quality no-rinse wash such as Kookabura Wash (my favorite) or Eucalan Fine Fabric Wash, both available on Amazon and in local knitting shops. Natural fibers such as wool really absorb water, and that combined with the natural elasticity of the fiber can be both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that stitches can be smoothed out, the garment can be shaped, and lace stitches can be opened up and pulled into place to display the lace, cables and ribs can be straightened, and longer can become wider and vice versa. This is referred to as blocking. A bit like going into the editing room after filming: if the acting is bad and the shots are out of focus no amount of editing can fix it, but if the shooting is basically sound the editing fine tunes it and brings it all together. So it is with knitting. Blocking brings out the best.

And the curse?  A piece of knitting saturated with heavy water is going to stretch stitches and shape all out of recognition. Without care, a sweater becomes a mini-dress. What I do is drain the water from the sink, immediately wrap the piece–all wadded up–into a bath towel and put the bundle into my top loader washing machine on the spin cycle only. I doubt this would work with a front-loader machine. Another option is to put the bundle into the bathtub and step on it to squeeze all the water out. Some people use a speciality device that is just a spinner. The point is to get out as much water so that the item is wet and pliable but not saturated and sagging.

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All those hours for this?
I use one or two blocking boards. Others have used interlocking foam pieces; there are interlocking blocks made specially for this purpose and a child’s foam floor puzzle also works for some. Another option is to put a sheet or blanket on the bed and lay the piece out on top. Some items require just a gentle shaping and straightening, others need a bit more encouragement to get into shape. My blocking

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Tugged and pinned into shape
boards have lines so I can align sides and keep things even. When something is stretched, it is important to note that fibers such as wool tend to shrink a bit when they dry and need help to hold things in place. When lightly blocking  I often pin parts in place to keep them shaped. Blocking wires can be useful, particularly for pulling out points of lace or keeping an edge perfectly straight. Pins and/or wires are essential to hold things in place for things that need to be stretched.

 

For lace shawls, I start from the top and gently shape the body of the shawl before working and pinning the bottom edge. If the pattern has a schematic, pay attention to the shape of the top. Sometimes the top is a straight edge but sometimes, as with many crescent shaped shawls, the top edges curl up like a villain’s mustache. When the bottom has a lace edge, I pull out the points if applicable and open up and even out the lace while pinning it in place. I tend to use a lot of blocking pins and would rather pin it into a frightened porcupine than fiddle with interweaving a lot of wires, but it is all personal preference and what is important is that it is put into and held in place while it dries.

I once took a drawing class where we spent three 3-hour class sessions with a pieces of charcoal and pages and pages of newsprint on an easel drawing straight lines over and over again. The lesson was to show us how we lie to ourselves that a line we have drawn is straight. That class may be the reason I knit and do not draw. They may have gone on drawing lines in subsequent classes, but after nine hours I dropped the class having learned the lesson. A long time bending over a blocking board with a lacy piece can lend itself to that same self deception. One only has so much patience. My final step is to photograph it on the blocking board because for some reason I can see distorted lines in a picture but fail to see them while nudging and pinning the piece into place.

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Lots of points, lots of pins
Another option is to steam block a dry item, which requires an iron or steamer that emits a lot of steam to moisten the work. I have not done this; after working with and dragging a piece of knitting around for weeks or months, it is more than ready for a good bathing and for that reason I always wet block.

I may be totally delusional, but I weave in and clip ends before washing and blocking with the belief that the knitting fairies will felt those bits into place in the process. Others swear that this should not be done until after blocking and still others say to weave in the ends before washing but clip the ends after blocking.

YouTube and Google searches will turn up lots of information about finishing and blocking knits. Many of the classes on Craftsy cover finishing and blocking.

Caring for Finished Knits: Washing

Dry cleaning chemicals are harsh on fine fibers. Even if a label says, “Dry Clean Only” I never dry clean fine fibers. For purchased finely knit cashmere or merino sweaters, I have a knit cycle on my washing machine that is very gentle and have had good luck with Wool and Cashmere Shampoo by the Laundress, a much gentler product than Woolite or the like. If I did not have a good machine for this I would definitely hand wash these sweaters.

imageFor more loosely knit purchased or hand knit items, I hand wash in cold water using a no-rinse product such as Kookabura wash or Eucalan, letting it soak for about 15 minutes then running some water over the item without handling it. As described in the blocking section above, fibers become saturated and heavy and the item should be handled as little as possible before getting as much water out of the now vulnerable piece as one can. Handling very little and very gently, I wrap the piece in a bath towel and put the bundle in my top loader washing machine on spin cycle. If I did not have a top loading machine, I would press out as much water as possible from the towel, even standing on it in the bathtub if necessary.

When the item is wet but not heavy with saturation, it is safer to handle the piece. Many natural fibers such as wool are very elastic. I find many of these fibers have memory and they often want to go back into place. Still, the piece needs to be given a reminder and the best way to dry it is to lay it flat and gently shape it into place. This can be done on dry towels on a bed, a dining room table on towels atop a waterproof tablecloth, or towels on a floor if not in the path of people or animals.

The list of thou shalt nots: Do not dry clean fine fiber. Do not use a harsh soap; use a gentle no-rinse product specifically made for fine fibers. Do not wash fine fiber in hot water. Do not machine wash in a regular wash cycle with warm or hot water; a washing machine may be okay if you use a delicate cycle that is really delicate and you use cold water. Do not put fine fibers in the dryer; lay flat to dry is best. If you “do” a “do not” your adult sweater may either become very thick and toddler sized or thinned, saggy, and stretched out beyond all recognition.

Products mentioned for washing can be found on Amazon or at local knitting stores or, for other options, you can always ask your favorite search engine.

Caring for Finished Knits: Storing

Heavy sweaters on a hanger may succumb to gravity over time.  These are probably best stored folded on a shelf or in a drawer. I currently have my shawls draped on a mannequin, I like to imagine that moths favor dark private places rather than being out in the open but I could be mistaken. I have read that moths are more likely to be attracted to fibers that are not clean, so I make it a habit to wash all our knits at the end of the cold season. Our heavy winter sweaters I store in plastic bins with cedar blocks. Our season spanning knits I store in drawers with cedar liners and/or lavender sachets.

Caring for Finished Knits: Repairing

Sock heels can be darned or, with some patterns, heels replaced, but I am not going to cover sock wear repair here. What I am going to cover is common problems with other garments from wear. There are tailors and re-weavers who can sometimes repair items, but many repairs can be made without requiring special skills.

When a garment is hand knit, there are yarn ends that have to be woven in and snipped. Sometimes these ends come loose. If it is an end, not a snag, the best thing is to pull it through to the inside or the side that is not normally seen. A crochet hook works best for this, but I have also been able to work a strand back through to the other side with my fingers. When it is on the side that does not show when it is worn, it is safe to snip the end while being careful to not cut any stitches.

A snag is when a stitch is pulled and it is like a loop coming up from the knitting. Never, ever cut this. Taking a crochet hook, gently pull the loop back through to the side that is not shown. Sometimes it is possible to gently urge the stitches back into place, but that does take a knowledge of how the stitches are joined together in the fabric. If it is a small snag, bringing it to the side that does not show may be enough. If it is a large snag, try to weave it in under other stitches to hold it in place.

Pilling is when all those little balls show up in places like the underarm of a sweater or the wrists of a sleeve. Sometimes they can be just pulled off by hand. There are shavers and combs made specifically for the purpose of removing pills, and they work fairly well. Really soft fibers with a halo are more prone to this, especially on something like a sweater that is subject to the rubbing and abrasion of being worn on moving parts. I have often improved things on a sweater, but I have never resolved the problem of pilling completely. It is just the trade-off for exchanging tightly twisted firm fibers better suited for sweaters with softer, cozier but less rugged luxury fibers.

Caring for Finished Knits: Reshaping

Sometimes mistakes are made in washing or storing a garment, changing its shape or size. If it is stretched or the stitches seem loose after washing sometimes you can tighten the stitches by breaking a rule: put it in the dryer briefly. This requires patience, dry it 5 to 10 minutes at a time or it could go too far the other way and you will be looking for a mini-me small enough to wear it. If the item is dry, I sometimes put it in the dryer with a damp towel for a few minutes.

If the garment has become misshapen or the stitches have tightened, sometimes it can be blocked back into shape. If you are a knitter, give your garment a good soak and read the section on blocking above. If you are not a knitter, find one and offer a bottle of wine or a box of chocolates in exchange for their blocking tools and expertise.

Loving and Cherishing Knits

With proper care, storage, and cleaning, hand knits can last for years. For those of us who knit, it is wonderful to see our recipients care for and enjoy our work. For those of us who have been recipients of hand knits, what could be better than years of being wrapped in something lovingly made by the giver, be it a parent, a friend, a beloved aunt or uncle, a loving partner, or even a stranger knitting to give comfort to someone unknown.

  

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