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.

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

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.

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.


Footnote (TITW Concluded)

Overcoming second sock syndrome, broken needles, dropped stitches, and shreddy yarn, I now have a pair of baggy, floppy, but very comfortable socks. I also can claim to have had the DPN (double pointed needle) experience to add to my attempts of twisting magic loops and juggling two circulars. In the end, I am still not entirely sold on either knitting socks or using DPNs but am still willing to get caught by the craze. As I told one friend, I may not have been bitten by the sock bug yet but I think I have been nibbled.

I did make a few discoveries in this process.

imagePerhaps my best discovery along the way: I can knit a little project and peddle at the same time. Why my knitting bag looks like it was designed to fit my excercise bike. At last I have mastered aerobic knitting and proven once and for all that knitting is good for you.

I have also discovered that I am a beast when it comes to needles. It was during this process that I learned my wooden Darn Pretty needles are in huge demand as they are no longer being made. After having snapped so many toothpick sized needles, there was no way I was going to put those pretty little wood sticks at risk. People selling these are taking offers, not setting prices. So that is what I did. When offers started to come in I knew they had to be sold or they would be the grandma’s china of needles; put away in a cabinet to gather dust because they are too far too dear to use.

It is not a discovery that when one sock is finished there is a whole other one to do. And it was not so much a discovery as an admission that, however certain I am that I will remember exactly what I did at each juncture, I never do. A thought for doing socks in the future: do a pair in tandem. Other than having to buy still more needles, what could be the downside? Sure I did not like the fiddly two at a time thing with two socks dangling off of two circulars, but I can definitely see the advantage to doing them in tandem: the legs on one then the legs on the other, the heels on one then the heels on the other, and so on. When I finish one I will be very nearly finished the other, and at every step it is fresh enough to remember what I just did. I might even get a matching pair.

I also discovered that being committed to a single method is just stubbornness and perhaps even silly. On my second sock I became less of a purist. When it came time to cast on stitches or hold stitches aside while I did the heel flap, it made a lot of sense to use a longer circular needle. Any time there is a large number of stitches, why risk having them fall off the edges just because one is comitted to using DPNs? Choose the right tool for the job I say, even if it means mixing it up a bit.

imageMy final discovery is that wood is nice but a brute belongs with metal. Not ready to throw in the towel–or the sock–I am doing the next pair with metal DPNs. I swatched with Chiagoo metal DPNs, Addi FlipStix, and Kollage Square DPNs. Although a very popular needle, I find the Karbonz tips catch the yarn so did not include them in the test. Metal is in my comfort zone. Every pair felt more secure and easier to handle than any of the wood needles I had tried, the stitches that came of the needle were meant to. My gauge was identical for the Chiagoo and Addi needles and only slightly larger for the square needles. I had no clear favorite. Well, maybe the Addi FlipStix because the colors are so fun. My decision is to go with the square needles as they felt really secure and easy to handle, plus I want to see if the claim of less hand fatigue is true.

So, I am going to try, try, try again with the DPNs (in metal) and hoping for improvement each and every time I knit a pair socks. The first few will not be gifts, no need to test someone’s honesty versus politeness in writing thank you notes. But gifts are a part of knitting so it will be improve or move on to something else. Perhaps a Christmas stocking or two. Same concept but no sizing issues, and absolutely no promises about sticking to DPNs.





Picking up the Pieces (TITW Part 4)

I really cannot blame the day’s polar vortex temperatures, by the time I sat down to knit my dexterity had more or less returned.  With temperatures in the single digits, I had donned sweater, fur-lined boots, shawl wrapped around nose and face, knit cap, cozy cashmere gloves, and topped it off with a below the knee, fake-fur-lined-hood-up-and-snapped-in-place down parka in preparation for my walk to the end of the driveway to collect trash bins.  The spouse, bless his heart, had put cut-up cardboard boxes not inside the recycling bin, or even between the bins, but on top of the bins where they could blow like dust in the wind.  And blow they did, scattered across neighboring yards like giant dead leaves.  The cashmere gloves that had seemed cozy while getting layered up were insufficient for gathering wet slushy boxes.  The chill gripped my face and fingers. The thought that cardboard will eventually recycle itself did flicker across my mind–and I sincerely hope the ones in the pond eventually do–but having our address on many of the boxes would make us rather unpopular in the neighborhood were I to just leave them.  Not an option.

With a newly lit fire roaring, a cup of hot tea consumed, and two hits of a rescue inhaler to offset the cold-induced asthma, I really cannot blame it on frozen digits.  Stitches still fell off the ends of needles and, when I started the double wrapped slipped stitches I realized that my skill in picking up stitches was not equal to the task.  I fixed one set of double wrapped stitches, poorly while lying to myself that I would never notice it in the finished work, and moved along even more carefully.  Just as the sun was going down and the day darkened, snap.  Another needle broke while knitting, dropping stitches everywhere.  I put it down, walked away, and did the one thing any rational person would do: got online and ordered some unbreakable metal needles.

The next day I grabbed the set of Dreamz needles I had on hand, picked up the stitches, put aside my despair, and moved on.  Happy to report that it has been going great, no dropped stitches, no broken needles, and the awkwardness is finally subsiding.  I even got a rhythm going with the double wrapped slipped stitches.  The rescue box arrived containing more of the lovely Lantern Moon Sock Sticks, the needles I have so handily been snapping to pieces. I had to admit, my top choice at the start was not the best choice for me. Shout out to Paradise Fibers, not only did they get these needles to me quickly, they were so nice about allowing me to return them.  For all that shopping, I may have found just what I needed hidden in my own collection of needles.

More polar vortex days on the way, but I will be by the fire knitting around and around and around until I reach a heel, trying not to think about the specter of the second sock.


Broken Arrow (TITW Part 3)

It is 12 degrees F heading for a high of 15 and a low of 8 today.  A pair of woolie socks would be very nice right about now, but I have miles to go before I wear.

Madness in the method.  I started by casting all stitches onto one tiny toothpick-sized needle, moved half the stitches to a second toothpick-sized needle, and started knitting with a third needle, introduced a fourth, and–high wire circus act–added a fifth.  I was so tempted to start with a circular needle, with all the space in the world to spread out the stitches to count and corral them, but I stuck with the method as described in the course video.  Adding each needle was like adding a ball with juggling but I stayed the course and got them all in play.

One newbie issue was to be expected, awkwardness with those little sticks and sharp points sticking out in all directions.  Having done a little needle test swatch knitting in the round helped prepare me but this time there were a lot more stitches and I was working in a rib pattern rather than a simple knit.  The first surprise was how easily stitches could fall off the needle to the front or the back.  Fortunately I am pretty adept at picking up dropped stitches but it was annoying to have to stop and fix them, hard to get a rhythm going when it is slip-slide, whoops, [expletive], inhale, fix time after time.

By squashing the stitches to the center of the needle before moving on to the next I have found they are behaving better.  Or perhaps they are just staying put because I have more rows knit to stabilize them.  We shall see if my technique has improved when I start the process again on sock number two.  Optimistically I am saying when rather than if.

The second sock syndrome still worries me a bit.  Will I really want to start this all over again when I finally finish the first?  With that in mind, I ordered a second set of these itty bitty needles thinking that next time it would make sense to work on two socks simultaneously: do the cuffs on the first then do the cuffs on the second, do the legs on the first then do the legs on the second, and so on.

As it turns out, it is a fortunate that I ordered more of these needles.  While fixing dropped stitches for the umpteenth time, I heard a horrible snap.  And with that snap came stitches falling off the center of the needle as well as the front and back.  Now I know why the included 6 needles in that pack. I thought it was because they were so tiny that they could get lost easily, but perhaps it was because they are just brittle little sticks and not long for this world. Thinking I was in no hurry when I ordered more I went with the very free but very slow shipping option. I will be holding my breath until they arrive. Snap or lose, my gauge would change if I substituted a different needle.  I need to stay with these for the duration and now I am driving without a spare tire.

Am I a punk knitter?  Maybe I do need to stop hugging trees and go back to metal.


Choose Your Weapon [TITW Part 2]

Planning phase (or procrastinating as it is allowing me to put this sock knitting thing off for a bit longer).

Before starting a knitting project there is a certain amount of planning required.  This might be my favorite time because I see my finished project only in my imagination–and it is always amazing–before being faced with any of the grim realities.  The which comes first, yarn or pattern, is a chicken and egg thing.  Sometimes it starts with finding a pattern to match a yarn and sometimes it starts with finding a yarn to match a pattern.  Chances are, in spite of the size of one’s pattern library and number of bins storing one’s yarn stash, having the one will lead to the purchasing of the other.  But this project starts happily for my pocketbook with a free pattern in a free KAL [knit along] class and re-gifted yarn from the shelf.  The next decision is which set of sticks are going to shape the string.

The first weapons were probably sharp sticks and fist-sized rocks.  Although my ball of yarn would work well as an item to pitch, hopefully I will not feel inclined to hurl it across the room during the course of this project. But I do need a set of sharp sticks. When it comes to knitting, I am totally into metal needles but this may be the time to stop rocking and rolling the heavy metal and become a mellow tree hugger.  Having passed through the many phases of bamboo, plastic, exotic woods, nickel, steel, straights, and circulars, I reach first for Signature Stilettos. The thought of knitting with tools called “stilettos” alone might be enough to make them my preference, but those brightly colored finger piercing sharp lovelies are what I reach for first and enjoy using the most.  If they came in size 0 or 1 the discussion would stop right here; I would grab one or two of them and use the other methods for knitting in the round–magic loop or knitting with 2 circulars–and abandon the notion of trying DPNs [double pointed needles].  This experiment would be at an end.

Those short little DPNs are going to feel awkward at first so I am going from Led Zeppelin to Dan Fogleberg, putting aside the slick metal and going for the less slippery woods.  That eliminates all the metal options, but thankfully my needle stash included a few options to try beyond the usual Clover bamboo. I started first with Brittany which were very nice but I think better for a slippery yarn; they were a bit too tacky and points too dull for the yarn I am using.  I next tried both the everyday Knitter’s Pride and the Mercedes of the needlecraft world, Dyakraft’s handcrafted wooden needles.  Either of those needles–with just the slightest preference for the Dyakraft–would have been a fine choice, but in the end the ones I felt most comfortable with for a combination of smoothness and sharpness were the Lantern Moon Sock Sticks, if one can call the feel of any set of size 0 itty bitty tiny sticks “comfortable”.

In the process of trying needles, I used different sizes and created a gauge swatch to calculate the number of stitches per inch each size needle produced with my yarn. Gauge swatches are one of those oft hated and scorned necessities, but without matching the size of my stitches to those specified in the pattern I would be doomed to failure.  I do remember my first pair of mutant, oversized socks and lesson learned.  This time the aim is for Golidlocks socks, not too big and not to small but just right.

Having reached the decision on which needles to use for this project I did what any reasonable knitter would do at that moment…I immediately went online and ordered more of them in different sizes.  Yes, I do harbor the illusion that I will have success and do this again.  And when I do, I will have the needles, in whatever size necessary, ready and waiting in my tool kit. I view it as optimism, not as hoarding.  As with patterns and yarns, it is all about planning for that magical day when I enter my workroom and find the pattern that matches the yarn that matches the needles. It could happen.  One day.


Toe in the Water (TITW Part 1)

I have not yet succumbed to the siren song of sock knitting. Opinions differ as to the best method for knitting socks, and few have opinions so strong as those of sock knitters. But with so many knitters turning out pair after pair, carrying their projects about in adorable project bags, and spending small fortunes on skein after skein of drop dead gorgeous sock yarn, I can only think that I am missing out on something fabulous and all engrossing. How do I go about mastering this?

I have made forays into the abyss before.  I took a class for knitting  two-at-a-time socks top-down on two-circular needles.  I bought the book. I knit a pair of men’s socks for my daughter’s boyfriend that were positively mutant–sized for a giant–and quickly frogged them back to their original state, a ball of yarn.  From cuff to toe I knit them again.  Although I would love to report a happy ending, practice did not make perfect and, although somewhat improved, they were just awful.  Nevertheless, I wrapped them up in pretty paper and gave them to him as a Christmas gift.  They broke up.

A year later I took a class for knitting two-at-a-time socks toe-up on two circular needles. I bought the book. I knit another pair of socks for my daughter’s boyfriend, toe to cuff and much better than the first, wrapped them up in pretty paper, and gave them to him as a Christmas gift.  They broke up.

My mother and I used to spend time knitting together when I lived close by.  She often spoke about how much fun she had knitting socks, well fun except for the darning heels part when my father wore through them.  Thousands of miles away and remembering those conversations, I was inspired to buy her a few skeins of sock yarn one Christmas.  Sadly, the last time I visited her she handed me the yarn, still in the gift box, declaring that she was no longer able to knit.  I brought it back with me and with great sadness put in on a shelf where it has sat for over a year.

Sock knitting has not brought me happiness.  Yet with watching pair after pair of socks come off needles in my knitting group, listening to a recent podcast from the ever encouraging Prairie Piper featuring the joy of knitting socks, and finding out about a free sock knitting class taught by the ever entertaining Lucy Neatby on Craftsy, it seemed like the right time to once more stick a toe in the water.  First, I did something that I rarely do with a Craftsy class, I watched it.  What inspiration it fired deep from within. Yes, I think I can take 5 little pointy sticks no fatter than toothpicks and create a foot covering.  Maybe even two foot coverings.

The box of sock yarn was right on the shelf where I had left it so many months ago.  I wound the skeins into cakes of yarn, ready to be confronted by 5 tiny pointy sticks and assembled into lovely socks.  I like my daughter’s current boyfriend very much. If 5 tiny pointy sticks do not lovely socks make, they will go into my own sock drawer.  If by some miracle they become the lovely socks that exist so vividly in my imagination, I will return the gift to my mother as socks in place of skeins of yarn.

No lifetime warranty included, she will have to darn her own darn heels.