More progress on Motley.  I am almost three quarters of the way done with the framing element.  In this case, a Regia sock yarn in a deep charcoal grey.


I’m still on the first 50g ball of Regia, and you can just make out what has not yet been knit in the upper right of the photo (click on it to enlarge).

After this comes the multicolor edging, probably a plain saw-tooth, about as deep as the strips are wide.  I’ll have to play around and see what looks best.

I’m flying by the seat of my pants here, and explaining exactly how I’m working the corners and filling in the edge triangles will be a challenge.  When I post the final write-up of this project it will be more of a method description than a finished full pattern with explicit directions, quantities and the like.

Questions from the Mailbag

Nili asked a couple of thought provoking questions on my post about the difference blocking made in my Lattice Wingspan project.  First she asked:

I bought some inexpensive acrylic yarn to play around with and am knitting a good sized sample of feather and fan stitch. If I keep going it could be a scarf. My question is, is there any value to blocking synthetic yarn? Will it respond to the blocking?

I attempt to answer.

There are as many answers to the question of blocking acrylic as there are types of acrylic yarns, multiplied by the uses to which it is put, and squared by the number of knitters, worldwide.

First, on fiber types:

Wools and high-wool-content blends have the memory/bounce-back property.  The fibers have a natural elasticity and respond to changes in tensile stress and to a lesser extent, humidity.  They return to their cozy, unstretched state upon washing (more or less).  This is also what keeps the elasticity longer in ribbings knit from high content wool.  Other protein fibers also display the stretch and bounce back property, although many are not as elastic as wool.  Silk is the exception in that it doesn’t stretch very well.

Most acrylics on the other hand, do not have the same stretch and bounce back properties as wool and high-wool content blends.  They can be stretched, but once set that way under heat and tension (aka “killed”), they will never return to their original shape.  There are exceptions.  High tech man made fibers are invented every day, and many acrylics contain a modicum of something elastic to keep ribbings true and offer a more “wool-like” experience.

Cottons, linens, ramie and other plant-derived fibers behave differently, with different shrinkage properties and performance characteristics under blocking.

Next, on blocking methods:

There are a zillion ways to block.  Wet, dry, under tension vs. gentle pat out, with and without steam, and so on.  Different methods are better suited for different fibers, or different uses.  For example, the wet-block high tension set up used for lace to spread it out is not appropriate for a dense, cable knit sweater. A pat to measurements and non-contact steaming to relax it might be perfect for that Aran knit in wool. 

What blocking does:

It evens out stitches, reduces (but does not totally eliminate) curl.  It makes edges lay flatter and seaming easier.  It coaxes the piece into the shape desired, although it cannot correct major size or proportion problems. 

If a wash/wet block method is used, it removes hand grime any residual spinning oils from the yarn, and casual dirt from the piece.  In general, it yields a more professional final appearance, and removes some of that “loving hands at home” look. 

To answer in specific – blocking a lace scarf knit from acrylic:

How I’d proceed would depend on the acrylic I was using.  You’re lucky because a lace scarf doesn’t need to end up being the exact dimensions that a garment body might require.

The best advice is to knit a small swatch that uses both the cast-on and cast off of your final project, and test out your method.  You may find that damp block with blocking wires and pins, using non-contact steaming (an iron set to low heat) spreads out the lace and fixes it in that shape.  Or you may find that doing so stretches the lace body a tremendous amount relative to the cast-on and cast-off edges, which end up looking cupped and puckered.  

I’d probably attempt some sort of blocking on the thing, knowing that even if the ends puckered oddly, there are fall back positions.  The most aggressive (and for knitters, controversial) way to fix that problem would be to toss the thing on a sewing machine and run three or four lines of machine stitching across the end, just before the cast-on or cast-off row.  Then (horror of horrors) cut off the puckered end.  The raw edge will be secured by the stitching, and can be made neater with a row of encapsulating crochet, or used as a base for fringe, or a knit-on edging.

Also what type of cast on creates a soft, loose base? I’ve found stretchy ones suitable for ribbing but I’m looking for one suitable for lace. I tried long tail with a larger needle as well as spacing the stitches out wider on the needle. It’s still pretty firm. What can I use instead?

I attempt to answer Nila’s second question without resorting to another indeterminate diatribe.

Lace cast-ons can be problematic.  As you note many are too tight or are not stretchy enough for the wide spread of lace, or for the aggressive blocking that makes it look best. There are many simple and exotic cast-ons that can be used for knit from end to end lace. There’s another bunch that are great for center-out motif lace, but that’s for another post.

In general, for lace garments, the stretchy cast-ons are usually enough, especially when they are worked with a needle two or three sizes larger than the needle size that will be used for the bulk of the lace.  But for things like shawls and scarves which are blocked until they scream, even a stretchy start is often not enough.

Simple lace cast-ons:

I won’t get into the really exotic methods, because most of the time the simple ones outlined here work well enough for me and my projects. 

I usually work some sort of provisional cast-on because most of my scarf and shawl pieces are finished with an applied edging, which is quite easy to knit onto the loops that result when the initial edge is released from its provisional mooring.  My favorite provisional start is crocheting on, which is easy to zip out for remounting the stitches on a new needle. 

On the rare occasion when I want the edge to stand alone, and I need extra stretch, I will work the same crochet-on cast-cast on, but using a hook closer in size to my working knitting needle, AND working a crochet chain stitch BETWEEN each stitch mounted onto my knitting needle.

Another method I use is a variant of the cable cast-on.  For this one I also use a knitting needle two  sizes larger than my lace needle.  Put a slip knot on the left hand needle.  Insert the right hand needle into that stitch and draw a loop through it.  Slide the new loop onto the end of the needle and before you snick the yarn up tight, insert the right hand needle into the new loop.  Repeat drawing a new loop through the new stitch until you have enough stitches on the needle.  If you were to insert the needle tip in between the old stitch and the new stitch, you’d be doing the classic cable cast-on – aka “knitting on”, but by making the new stitch in the loop of the previous one, you make a more airy and  more stretchy edge.

Finally, on occasion the most convenient method for starting narrow lace pieces is the simplest one of all – the half hitch cast-on (aka “Looping On” or “Backward Loop Cast-On”).  It’s the stretchiest of all, and can be made even more so by using a larger needle.  It does however produce a very flimsy edge.  I use it when I cast on stitches for a lace edging, when I intend on working the edging completely around something (scarf, baby blanket, etc.), and plan on joining my final row to my first row via grafting.  Yes, I could use a provisional cast-on for this and end up grafting onto live stitches, but there are usually very few stitches at the start point of a narrow band of edging, and doing so wouldn’t be worth the effort.  One caution on this – the stitches in the next row coming back HAVE to be regular knits or if they are purls, they need to be worked through the back of the loop. Otherwise the half hitches will collapse.

To sum up:

Lace cast-ons are largely a matter of personal preference.  There is no one perfect method for every piece in every yarn.  Knitters being passionate people, will each advocate their own favorite, and armed as they are with pointy objects – can be formidable in their discourse.  The answer here is the same as every other answer in knitting.  Give it a try, make a swatch and abuse it.  See how you like the method for the piece at hand, with your chosen material.  Preferences are as situational as they are personal, and there is no single correct answer.

4 responses

  1. Excellent and informative. Thank you!

  2. Hi Kim,

    Your answers to my questions are amazing–full of much more information than I would even have known to ask. I definitely am more knowledgeable now, thank you very much!

    Since you included the outrageous solution of sewing across a tight cast on and cutting the end off I will mention my outrageous blocking replacement method for synthetic yarn scarves: wash by hand or toss into the washer then dry in the dryer. Evens out the stitches beautifully.

    Thanks again,

    1. Nili – Thank you for the iconoclastic hint! 🙂 Washing is pretty standard here, but I’ve never finished an acrylic scarf in the dryer. It’s another tool to add to the toolbox and pull out when the circumstances warrant. Happy knitting! -Kim

      1. Iconoclastic! That made me laugh out loud, Kim. And I can’t believe this super novice could add anything to your already ginormous toolbox!

        There is one downside to using the dryer to finish an acrylic scarf: it comes out with very regular stitches, looking like it was knitted on a machine.

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