Blocking Animal vs Plant Fibres

Let's go over some key things to keep in mind when working with plant fibres vs. animal fibres, and tips to set yourself up for successful blocking.

When it comes to the fibre arts, a project isn’t finished until it’s blocked! This can be as simple as washing and laying flat to dry, or as detailed as shaping edges and smoothing out inconsistencies. But this process looks a little different depending on the fibre content, particularly when working with plant fibres vs. animal fibres. Let’s go over some key things to keep in mind when working with plant fibres vs. animal fibres, and tips to set yourself up for successful blocking.

Fibre Properties that Impact Blocking

Plant and animal fibres are structurally different, which affects not only your knitting, crocheting, and weaving but also the blocking process. While these may vary slightly depending on which plant or animal fibre you plan to use in your project, these properties generally hold true.

  • Plant fibres lack elasticity and memory compared to animal fibres. This means plant fibres will not stretch as much during the blocking process. It also means the unblocked piece will be more similar in size and appearance to the blocked piece than the same project would be in an animal fibre.
  • Animal fibres “bloom” significantly during blocking, while plant fibres usually do not. Blooming means the yarn fluffs up and the stitches expand/fill out. With a non-superwash yarn, the stitches will also meld together into a cohesive fabric. Plant fibres don’t bloom, though they may soften and relax. This means the final fabric in a plant fibre yarn will be looser and less structured at the same gauge.

With that in mind, let’s talk application.

Consider Blocking Before You Block

The process of preparing to block actually starts the moment you begin your project. In knitting and crochet, for example, the tension of the cast on or starting chain will impact the stretch of the finished piece. Appropriate tension for the intended fabric is important in an animal-fibre project, but even more so in one made with plant fibres. The way animal fibres stretch means they’re more forgiving. So, a cast-on that’s a little too tight can still be eased to fit or a cast-on that’s a little too loose can be smoothed into shape.

But plant fibres often don’t allow for these workarounds during blocking since they have little to no elasticity. This means it’s even more important to pay attention to the tension of your cast-on, since the width it will allow for is locked in from the start. Swatching will help you determine not only your gauge for your chosen stitch pattern, but how tight or loose your cast-on should be.

Speaking of gauge, consider how your intended fit and your gauge intersect with blocking. Compared to plant fibres, animal fibres can be molded more easily when blocking, but plant fibres will often keep their shape better. For a deeper look at how this impacts your gauge and chosen stitch pattern, check out my article for the SweetGeorgia blog, Yarn Substitution: Flaxen Silk for Wool. And for everything you need to know about blocking fabric, from cast-on to pinning out, be sure to watch Holli Yeoh’s School of SweetGeorgia course: Fundamentals to Finishing Knits.

The Blocking Process

The differences in animal vs. plant fibres impact the entire blocking process, beginning with washing. Water and heat affect the fibres differently because of their structures, level of natural oils, and other factors that are beyond this article. Use warm water for animal fibres (the heat relaxes the fibres, which helps with stretching and smoothing) and cool water for plant fibres. Wool wash is helpful for animal fibres, making them more receptive to moisture. But wool wash doesn’t have the same effect on plant fibres and, depending on the ingredients, can weigh them down with excess oils.

When pinning your project, remember that while your animal fibre pieces will stretch more, they’ll also spring back when unpinned if they’re stretched farther than they want to go. Even if the project isn’t overstretched, you may experience some relaxation of the blocked shape. Plant fibre projects won’t stretch in this way, but will keep their blocked shape, so be careful not to pull them larger than you want them, particularly for sized garments.

Let's go over some key things to keep in mind when working with plant fibres vs. animal fibres, and tips to set yourself up for successful blocking. Block with Confidence!

While blocking a different fiber type than we’re used to can feel intimidating, all it takes is a little forethought and a little simple science. With these quick tips in mind, I hope you’re empowered to go forth and block both your animal and plant fibre projects with confidence.

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