Killing Me Softly

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Woo-hoo! Pink Cotton Candy is off the needles, “killed,” washed, dried, and ready to be given to the new baby girl. I think it turned out quite nice, in spite of being knitted out of Red Heart acrylic yarn. It still has a bit of the plastic sound to it, but after “killing” it, the drape is wonderful. Check out the drape:

Perhaps you are asking What’s all this talk about killing? I’ll explain. Acrylic yarn is basically a plastic made from petroleum. Garments made from acrylic can go into the washing machine and dryer and come out great–no felting, no shrinking, and little in the way of pilling. Although over time some acrylic yarns will fuzz and start looking pretty tatty, acrylic wears pretty well. It is a good choice for baby garments because it is so easy for the new mom to care for. She can just toss the acrylic garments in the washer and dryer because acrylic yarn has good “memory” and retains the shape it had when first knitted.

Wool and other animal-hair fibers are different. Although they also have memory, an item knitted from wool yarn, for example, if stretched when wet and allowed to thoroughly dry while stretched, will retain the stretched shape until the next time it is washed. This means that the garment has to be restreched each time it is washed, but it also means that the size and shape of the garment is flexible to some degree.

A garment made from acrylic yarn can also be stretched while wet and allowed to dry. But as soon as the tension is removed, the garment will spring back to its original shape. If one is making a lacy pattern, this type of yarn memory is a bad thing. Lace needs to be stretched out to open up the holes that make the pattern lacy. Acrylic can be stretched out to open up the pattern, but it will not hold that shape even when allowed to dry while stretched.

The only way to get acrylic yarn to retain a shape different from the original knitted shape is to set it with heat. This process is usually referred to as “killing” because it kills the ability of the yarn to spring back to its original shape. “Killing” is permanent. Once you set the shape of the acrylic garment with heat, it will never go back to its original shape. There is no room for error. With wool, if you don’t like the look of the blocked item, you can wet it and start all over. With acrylic, there is no second chance.

Another caveat–Acrylic is plastic and high heat will melt the yarn and make it crisp and crunchy. Great care is needed in “killing” acrylic. There are several different ways to block an item made with acrylic yarn.

Here’s how I blocked Pink Cotton Candy. I threaded blocking wires along all the edges and used flower-headed quilting pins to pin it out on the bed to the dimensions I wanted.

(Sorry, I didn’t take any photos of the blanket while it was pinned out.) It is very important that the item is stretched and secured to the shape and look you desire because once you “kill” the acrylic, that’s it. There’s no going back.

After securing the blanket in the shape I wanted, I placed a wet hand towel that I had wrung out by hand on top of a section of the blanket. Then I gently pressed the towel with my steam iron on high heat, picking the iron up after only about 3 seconds and placing it down again. Don’t move the iron back and forth as this will stretch out the stitches and lock them in place. Pick the iron straight up and place it straight down. Be very careful that you do not touch the yarn directly with the iron. The heat from the iron will melt the yarn and, trust me, you do not want to do that unless you want a garment that feels and sounds like Easter basket grass.

After pressing the entire section, let the towel cool, then re-wet it and wring it out. Place it over another section of the garment and repeat the pressing. Do this until the entire item has been blocked. Remove the towel and allow the item to dry.

The yarn’s original memory is now dead. And its new memory is permanent. You can now machine wash and dry the item and it will forever retain its new shape. You will also notice that the item has a wonderful soft drape that you never dreamed of in an acrylic yarn.

There you have it. If you have been dying to knit a lace shawl but insist on having the convenience of throwing it into the washer and dryer, and if you are willing to knit with acrylic yarn, and if you don’t mind that plastic feel and sound that are  inherent in acrylic yarn,  find yourself a nice lace weight or fingering weight acrylic yarn, knit your shawl (swatch first and kill the swatch in order to determine which size needles to use), block it with heat, and never look back.  Wow, was that a run-on sentence or what?



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