Steam Blocking

DSC_7326I finished all my Slipstream projects with a little steam. From talking to other knitters, I gather that approaching precious wool with a hot iron can be daunting. I’ll try to take away some of the mystery – and fear – by sharing my methods.

OK, first I have to do a scary disclaimer.

WARNING: Irons are very, very hot. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions. If you try to copy what I do when I steam block, it is entirely at your own risk. Irons are very hot. Steam is very hot. Anything near or in contact with steam or a hot iron will also get very hot. Heat can damage you and your knitting and anything else within reach. I cannot take any responsibility for the results of anyone copying or failing to copy the steps I make when I steam block. Once again people, follow your iron manufacturer’s instructions.

This is not a set of instructions. This blog post is merely an interesting read about some aspects of steam blocking. To paraphrase from children’s TV: Do not try this at home.

Phew. Now everyone is properly nervous. Where was I?

Rivulet Cowl - wool, textured and would stretch under its weight when wet. An ideal candidate for steaming.

Rivulet Cowl – wool, textured and would stretch under its weight when wet. An ideal candidate for steaming.

I like to gently steam some of my hand knits when they are finished. I typically steam textured projects where I don’t want to lose that texture. Moss stitch and its relations I will usually steam to prevent the bumps from sinking into the background. Similarly, I prefer to steam cables and their friends to keep them rounded. Sometimes, for a tiny project, a shot of steam is all it needs – especially when it’s a last-minute gift and there isn’t time for anything more elaborate.

I wet-block lace, unless I have a rare reason not to do so. I wet-block garments made all in one piece because steaming is too fiddly and too risky – too much of it is hot and damp, thus liable to scald or move horribly out of shape.

Sometimes I end up using both methods. I have been known to try steaming and find it isn’t up to the job and then wet blocked it. And sometimes I wet block a project, but I’m not happy with the finish and then a little steam can fix the problem. Typically, steam is very good at fixing curling, especially on wool. It heat-sets the fibres where you want them. Think hair-straighteners, rollers and perms. Think bespoke suits and catwalk tailoring. Heat and water can fix most hair-related fibres in exactly the shape you want.

Careen Capelet - wool/silk blend, which I steamed to preserve its shape and texture.

Careen Capelet – wool/silk blend, which I steamed to preserve its shape and texture.

I’m a bit more cautious about steaming silk with a domestic iron because it’s too hard to control, compared to using the kind of steam-pressing setup you’d find in a big studio (a blog post for another time perhaps). I might steam a wool-blend containing silk though.

I wouldn’t risk applying much heat to anything with a lot of synthetic fibre in it, in case the fibre melts onto the iron and ruins both things. A typical sock yarn with 20% nylon is something I would expect to steam.

Cotton and other vegetable-based fibres can of course be steamed; the highest settings on an iron are for cotton and linen. However, my knitting is not a smooth table cloth or a shirt. I don’t want to blast it into submission by pressing it flat. It loses all its character. I’d expect to treat it like wool.

So, I’ve chosen a project to steam, such as the Slipstream Cowl I just finished. It’s an ideal candidate. Small, textured, and Whimzy Twisted MN is mostly merino with a little nylon.

Firstly, taking a deep breath and revealing all, let’s look at a “before” sample. It looks reasonably good, though I say so myself, but it could definitely look more professional. That rib at the top could do with blocking to make it settle down into its rib structure. The bind-off isn’t the best. The stocking stitch is pretty even, but it could be a smoother field of stitches. Those special stitches could be more even. This is the sort of thing that blocking fixes. It makes the knitting settle down, relaxing the loops and evening-out tension. It makes the difference between a nice project and a professional sample.


The “before” photo.

I have two methods, which I’ll describe. There is the Steam Iron or the Spray & Dry Iron.

Steam Iron

I normally use a domestic steam iron, ironing board and a pressing cloth. A pressing cloth is a fancy name for a tea towel – in my house. Ideally it is linen because this can take the most heat, but my cotton tea towels do the job fine for my hand knits. I always use a pale or white cloth for fear of residual dye transferring and fixing, though this is technically very unlikely. Mostly it’s habit and the fact that I care more about my hand-knits than my tea-towels!

1. I am not about to touch my knitting with my hot iron, trust me. I set my iron to somewhere foolish in the cotton/linen range, but only so that I can get it to make plenty of steam. Also, my iron has a steam-boost button and I’m trigger-happy with it. I always make sure I have plenty of water in my iron before I start.


My steam iron, with steam boost button on top.

2. I lay my project flat with my pressing cloth on top. Ignore wrinkles in my pressing cloth. (No I don’t iron my tea towels; there is knitting to be done.)

Project tucked safely under a pressing cloth.

Project tucked safely under a pressing cloth.

3. I waft the steam iron over the top of my pressing sandwich for around 5-10 seconds depending on the project. I’m hoping it’s possible to see a shadow under the iron’s plate – it’s barely touching the highest wrinkles in the cloth. The iron stays a few millimetres/eighth of an inch above the knitting. I really do not want to squash my knitting!! But I am giving it a big shot of steam. The cloth is protecting the knitting from the dry heat of the iron, but allows the steam through.

My iron hovers over the sandwich while I blast the steam boost button.

My iron hovers over the sandwich while I blast the steam boost button.

4. I have a peek to see how it’s doing. Here, there’s something dubious about the top edge, near the right. I don’t think my bind-off was as even as it should have been. I can fix that by prodding the damp wool gently into place (protecting my fingers if it’s hot) and giving that area another steam (through the pressing cloth every time).

Check to see how it's doing and if there are any trouble-spots.

Checking to see how it’s doing and if there are any trouble-spots.

5. Rather than turning a cowl over to the other side, I usually make a half-turn and repeat the process, and then again, and then one last time, so that I don’t get a fold line. Push it into place where necessary. Sometimes I might get out a tape measure and push or pull the work around to get what I want. The warm, damp wool will just go where bidden.

Half-turns for a cowl, so that there are no side-creases developing.

Half-turns for a cowl, so that there are no side-creases developing.

I steam my hats by putting a robust ceramic bowl or plate inside them, just as many knitters do for wet blocking a hat. Then I steam over that on the crown “side” and brim “side”. I might also steam the brim with the hat flat and treated like a cowl – I’d stay away from the crown with the steam though. I try to move my project around a bit to avoid setting a crease in anywhere, unless it doesn’t matter. Mitts I just treat laid flat. They’re stretched when worn, so any creasing has always come out in the first wearing – for me.

Once steamed and I’m happy with how it looks, I leave it to rest and dry off completely. There is a bit of residual dampness that needs to be gone.

Spray & Dry Iron

I know not everyone has a steam iron. I have just tried a variation on my method, using a dry iron but with a spray to dampen my project first, so that the steam comes from within the project. I really liked this approach. I got much more steam for less blasting with the iron. I could have used a plain water spray, but I wanted to try Flatter, new from Soak (I got mine in the UK from Purlescence). It’s meant to be for pressing your laundry, or quilting, but apparently knitters have started using it for blocking. I had to try it.

I chose the new Yuzu fragrance and I am thrilled to find that the citrus smell has lingered. In the interests of journalism, I’ve just given my cowl another big sniff and it is still definitely still Yuzu-scented, two weeks after steaming. It’s done a great job of masking the chemical-y smell of your averaged hand-dyed yarn. It smells way better than my other Slipstream projects in the identical or similar yarns, which were steamed with just water.

1. I gently spray a fine mist over the side of the project I am about to steam. I’m not aiming to saturate it, just adding enough to make some steam. It’s just one squirt on each bit of the knitting, maybe two.

I spray lightly the side I'm about to block.

I spray lightly the side I’m about to block.

2. I waft the iron over the pressing cloth sandwich, as for my steam iron method. I move the iron around for about 5-10 seconds, turning that spray to steam.

My iron hovers over the cloth, protecting the knitting.

My iron hovers over the cloth, protecting the knitting.

3. I keep checking and turning my project, spraying any dry bits as I go. I “gently reshape while damp” just like those sweater labels say, when necessary. Now it looks much more “finished”.


Finished. Even textures, even stitches, tidy shape.

It needs leaving to dry completely before I can photograph it. The steam has done its magic…and now you get a sneak preview of one of the Slipstream Cowl samples! See you on Friday for the big reveal…and a Slipstream surprise.

Slipstream Cowl, in Whimzy Twisted MN, Lost Meadow.

Slipstream Cowl, in Whimzy Twisted MN, Lost Meadow.

2 thoughts on “Steam Blocking

  1. Reblogged this on minutiae and commented:
    Mostly I do wet blocking, but this blog post on steam blocking makes me think I’ll give it a shot (pun intentional here).

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