To Block or Not to Block?
This plainish baby shawl will block out to be quite lovely, but as of yet, it looks like a lumpish bag. The yarn overs have shrunk up and don't display the lace motifs, and the small flower spray has sunk between the cables and is obscured. That is the object of blocking, or dressing, as it is also called: to open up the knitted fabric so that the motifs not only show up, but the piece achieves that wispy, airy feel we all love. I will primarily discuss the blocking of shawls, but the same principles also apply to blocking lace garments.
Here's my dream for blocking lace shawls:
Unfortunately, Bob the Builder just doesn't stop by here, so my chances of coming up with one of those beauties, (the frame not the shawl, I'm still hoping for the shawl,) is pretty slim. Lack of a dressing frame doesn't mean that the knitter can't do an excellent job of blocking, though. I use the bed, because I find it easier on my back, but a lot of people shift their stacks of yarn around and use the floor.
It may not always be necessary to wash a shawl before blocking, but as a general practice, I like to wash things. One exception for me has been some of the mohair lace shawls that I've made. They knitted up quickly, and I just pinned them out and either lightly steamed them, or sprayed them with a little water to help them hold their shape. That worked just fine.
When I do wash the shawl, I generally start by running a piece of soft cotton string through the lace points on the edging of the shawl. Using the string allows me to approximate the method of the Shetland knitters. Next, I wash it by hand, then spin it nearly dry in the washer. I place it in a zippered pillow cover for the spinning part. Some people use nylon cord to run through the lace points, but I like the soft cotton string, though it can be difficult to find.
Depending on the type of shawl it is, I pin it out on my bed, measuring carefully as I go. I like to have a flannel sheet on the bed when I'm blocking something, because it seems to "catch" the yarn better. I use a yardstick to measure all the dimensions to try and get it as close to the geometric shape it's supposed to be, as possible. (I've never gotten one perfectly shaped yet, but I'm still trying.) It would be nice to have a sheet to use, whether on bed or floor, that was marked off in squares, to help with the shaping, but I haven't found one, so far. Drying time with finer yarns is quite brief, sometimes no more than a couple of hours, but it increases with heavier yarns.
Differently shaped shawls or scarves may require slightly different blocking techniques. For instance, if you don't have a lace point edging on the piece, you may want to use blocking wires, which will block without creating points. I also use wires rather than the string method, whenever I don't want pointy edges and especially when blocking a lace garment. I pin only the wires or the string, not the knitting. Here's a picture of the corner of a shawl stretched out and drying.
Thankfully, shawls don't need to be washed very often, because they must be re-blocked each time they are washed. I probably wash my shawls more often than most, because my cats love them as much as I do, and they leave quite a bit of themselves in and on the shawl.
I've been asked if it is possible to stretch a piece of lace too much. I believe it is possible to stretch it so far that it loses it's airy look, and just becomes, well - stretched out looking. (I also believe I have done exactly that, at least twice.) To avoid over-stretching, I do check gauge as I block, comparing what I'm getting with the gauge called for by the pattern. I try not to go beyond that gauge, and it seems to have worked. I'm not a great gauge-checker when it comes to lace shawls, however, it can be valuable information during the blocking process.
One other valuable technique is to keep child and animal traffic away from the shawl of scarf while it is blocking. Unless of course, you have a dedicated blocking cat like Emily!