Thursday, September 3, 2009

Yarn on Thursday: Why Not Iron?

So, after drooling over the lovely Westinghouse ThermoColor Iron, I realized that I don't really iron. Even when I quilt, I tend to finger-press my seams. The only things that I ever really need to worry about laying flat are the things I knit. But you don't iron knitting. Then I paused: Why shouldn't I iron my knitting? I only know that I shouldn't, because Everyone Says So, but why? There are a lot of different opinions on the subject, for certain. Lots of people feel that iron + knitting = HORRIBLE BAD DON'T EVER EVER EVER, but without solid backup as to "why not?"

Sarah Peasley steam blocks some knits. has the following to say:
Different knitters use different techniques when it comes to steam blocking. Some people stretch and pin their work to the desired shape before steaming, using the steam to help set the new shape. Others steam first and then pin, allowing the steam to relax the fibers and make it more pliable.

The method you use may depend largely on the flexibility of the knitting. If you can get it into shape without the steam, pin first. If not, steam and then pin.

The steaming method involves slightly dampening a clean sheet or other piece of fabric and placing it over the knitting. Use a hot iron to press very lightly on the sheet. Don't press like you are actually ironing, you're just pushing the steam through the sheet and into the knitting. Continue this process until the sheet is dry.

You can also steam block without a protective layer of fabric. Just set your iron on steam and wave the iron slowly over the knitting, being careful not to touch the work with the iron. Then pin if necessary and leave to dry.
So, it's all got something to do with the flexibility of the knitting? And an iron should never actually touch knitting? So, no one ever does, that's it?

Clearly, some people do, and it's a good way to lose a sweater sleeve. (As an aside on that little tiny post, you should check out the AMAZING yarn-needed plug-in-the-numbers table that you can use. I've bookmarked it, myself!)

And some people really shouldn't. Did you know corn melts? I didn't. But it does, so don't iron it. Wash it; dry it; don't iron it. (The important note there is "if you're going to do it to the finished article, do it to your gauge swatch." Wash it. Dry it. Iron it. Run it over with a herd of angry daschunds. But find out what's going to happen to the completed item BEFORE you start.

A comment on a KnittingHelp thread said: "This article says that you should iron everything, but if you iron acrylic, even at a low temperature, you'll ruin the texture, so that however soft it was when you started, it will come out from under the iron feeling like a dish scrubbie. Acrylic doesn't benefit much from blocking, anyway, but if you do block it, you have to wash it (Unlike wool, acrylic can go through the machine) and then lay it (mostly) flat to dry.(A couple of folds to make it fit on the towel aren't going to hurt anything.) Don't iron it, and don't ever stick it in the dryer. If something is uncomfortably hot, then it's hot enough to ruin acrylic." Since I have the cheapest dryer Sears sold 10 years ago, with just "on" and "off", and I've been washing & drying my acrylic sweaters the whole time without any noticeable difference in softness, I dispute this. (Actually, I checked my poncho. It's softer.) Pilling happens like mad, but, thus far, I will state from personal experience that Red Hart Craft Yarn, Hokey-Pokey, and Caron Super-Soft will wash & dry if you don't think about it. Your results may vary.

So, you'd think you can't block acrylic, right? Wrong. Pat Stevens's method of blocking acrylic, shown over on, works just fine. The author notes that blocking acrylic is forever - unlike wool, which needs to be reblocked after washing, acrylic, once heated into its new shape, it's going to stay there, so you'd better get it right the first time.

Over on one of the many forums (at this point, I can't recall which), a comment about the sheer hell ironing a lace tablecloth would be in the following comment from OfTroy: "You don't iron them, you block them. Stretch them out (using blocking wires if you have them) or pin them them out if you don't.. and let them dry stretched. It used to be, hand laundries used to have huge frames for blocking curtains (knit or crocheted) and coverlets (again knit or crocheted) - I remember them from when i was a kid. The frame were adjustable, (thing of something like a canvas stretcher) and they had pins all round --think of frame made from something like carpet tack strips (the kind for wall to wall carpeting); the lace got mounted on the frame, and then stretched taunt to dry (in the sun light sometimes! out on the street, or up on the roof top) (things have changed so much in the past 50 years!--its amazing what my childhood memories contain!)" Wow. Big adjustable blocking frames - doesn't that sound cool??

Anyway, we now know that corn melts, and acrylic heat-sets permanently, based on personal testimony. What about wool? Well, come to find out, a lot of non-knitters take it to the dry cleaner, and they iron it, just carefully: "WOOL: Most should be dry-cleaned unless care label indicates otherwise. Wool scorches with too hot of an iron. Wool should be iron on the wrong side. To protect wool from moth larvae, be sure wool garments are clean when you store them." The expert opinions at indicates that for wool, heat, and little agitation is the important thing. (We-all know this is because we don't want things to felt and/or shrink). AHA! FELTING!!

No, wait, there's a video of someone ironing felted stuff here. Hm. - searching "iron + knit" gets this list. From there, we get... a nice little warning: "Always check the tag of the garment to ensure you know what you are planning to iron. Items made out of cashmere or silk should never be steam blocked since it can damage the sweater. Garments made out of wool can be accidentally felted if you're not careful." The bit about blocking knits gives some of the same warnings that have been disproven above; this one appears to be more comprehensive, and correct. Microwaving - well I hadn't thought about cooking my knitting.

So, I'm not getting the answers I want. After all, my iron has a WOOL setting. I have a bunch of "not good enough" swatches of Patons Classic Wool to play with. So, much to the amazement of my husband, I got out the iron and ironing board and played with some of the swatches. (When I ironed some of his shirts afterwards, he demanded to know who I was and what I'd done with his wife.)

Here are the results of Ironing My Knitting. I used my trusty little Sunbeam iron, first on a set of swatches without steam ("dry"), then with steam on the second set. (I did all the dry swatches first, of course.) The iron, on the "WOOL" setting, was applied DIRECTLY to the knitting - it wouldn't be "ironing" otherwise, and that's the whole point of this experiment. Care was used to smooth out the edges of each piece as well as the center (whether or not it worked), and there was no evidence of smoldering or burning.

You be the judge as to whether or not it's a good idea. Note: these swatches were ironed only, NOT blocked. Nary a pin has touched these little darlings!

stockinette, dry
stockinette, steam
garter stitch, dry
garter stitch, steam
cables, dry

cables, steam

lace, dry

lace, steam

Some side-by-side comparisons, so you can get a feel for just how much difference the steam made on the second set of swatches:

You can really see how steam flattens out the stitches. I think I've discovered why I can always tell store-bought mass-produced/machine-made cables from handknit - the big ol' manufacturing process irons their stuff before distribution. Store-bought cables are always flat looking; I'm gonna bet it's because they're actually pressed, and probably steam-pressed at that (although steam as you see, isn't necessary).

My vote? It's going to depend on the way you want your finished item to look. I think while I may *steam* things in the future, I will NOT be ironing; I want my handknit stuff to be fluffy-looking. Buy what the hey, try ironing a test swatch, and if you like the look (and it doesn't melt or catch fire), go for it.

Okay, now I know.
I can sleep tonight.

1 comment:

  1. Hope Sarah gets to see your blog post! But, don't ask her about her progress on MHK. That's a sore subject!


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