Dressing a Shawl

I’m just beginning to recover from ‘flu – hence the long silence – and my friend Jan Clarke asked me to reprint an article I did about dressing shawls for Yarn Forward many moons ago. It was the final part of the Mystery Shawl, but all the following applies to all shawls. (If you have a curved shawl, flexible wires are invaluable…) So here it is:

Dressing a Shawl

After you have spent so long knitting your shawl. it is worth taking a bit of time to finish it properly….

What is dressing?

Dressing (or blocking) is basically drying a knitted lace piece under tension so that you open up the holes. The process turns a scraggy mess unto beautiful lace. Dressing is particularly important for natural fibres, plant and animal. It is less important for man-made fibres.

How is it done?

Basically you need to pull the lace out and fix it in this stretched position while it dries. In an ideal world, you need a flat space, a bit larger than the item to be dressed, into which pins can be stuck. The exact material doesn’t matter – it is a case of finding what suits you.

The shawl is washed and then placed wet on the surface. Starting from the centre, the knitting is smoothed out and pinned in place. It is then left to dry for 24 hours longer than when it feels dry.
In days gone by, people who knitted lace had shawl stretchers. These are frames of wood, which slot together and have nails knocked in every inch or so. These days there is much more improvisation! If you understand the basic principles you can find a way which suits you and your house.

Before You Start

First, make sure you have at least two hours, and preferably three, free. Remove pets, children, partners and all other distractions; take the phone off the hook. This is hard work. Get together the things you will need – pins with large heads, wires if you have them, a tape measure. Place the vice of your choice out of reach but in sight to spur you on. This is ONLY for when you have finished – wine or a malt will make your straight lines wiggly and chocolate stains….

Dressing Your Shawl

1. Wash the shawl. Mine is oiled cashmere, so I wash it in water as hot as my gloved hands can stand, using a good quality washing up liquid (dish soap). (This is milder than most products for clothes.)

01 wash

2. Rinse the shawl in water of the same temperature. Hot water doesn’t harm natural fibres, but quick changes of temperature do. Get rid of all the detergent, letting the water drain away rather than squeezing it out.

02 drain

When the water runs clear, put the shawl into a wash bag. Don’t lift the shawl (as this might stretch it) but take the bag to the shawl. An old pillow case works almost as well.

3. Once the shawl is in the bag, make it into a ball in the bottom, and squash the bag to remove as much water as possible. Now shake the shawl (still in its bag) and spin in the machine. I use the 900 rmp cycle.

03 spin

4. Meanwhile, prepare the surface. Here I am using foam play mats from Lidl. Note that I am using them ‘upside down’ – the flat side up – as I don’t want the ‘print’ of the right side to transfer to my shawl. You may wish to cover the mat with a sheet, especially if your shawl is white.

04 mat

5. This shawl has a square centre, so I am using dressing wires to define that square. This does two things: it makes sure that the centre is really square, and it makes stretching the borders easier – pulling the edges does not distort the centre. I have threaded the wires through the inner row of holes.

05 wires

6. Once the wires are in it is time to start pinning and stretching. The tiles tell me the centre of the mat, and I place the centre of the shawl so that its centre is the mat’s centre.

06 centre shawl on mat

7. Now pull the wires to make the centre square. After pulling them out roughly, start to pin. I work on one corner first, with two pins, one holding each wire. I then move to the other end of each wire, and pin that corner. If all is well, the fourth corner will be in place ready to pin. If not, I go back and move the pins and wires. Finally, for this part, place pins against the wires every few inches.

07 corner pins

The borders are more tricky! Before you start, accept that you are going to have to pin, move, re-pin and move again.

8. Start in the centre of one border, pull it out, pin it roughly in a couple of places, and then move to one of the corners. I pull this out, put in a couple of pins, then smooth out that section of border. Here I am using the top of the lozenges to help me line up the straight lines, so I put in a few pins as I go.

08 start border

9. Now start pinning each scallop. Personally I find it easier to move the pins once they are in, so I put one in each scallop of the section I am working on, then once that is done, I go back and move them to exactly where they should be. Some pins will be moved half a dozen times.

09 start scallops

10. Having done one half of the first border, I do the other, including that corner. I then move on to the next border round. I already have one corner done, so I work from the middle towards the ‘done’ corner, then to the other one. The third and fourth borders are worked in the same way.

10 complete border

11. As the fourth border comes towards being finished, you will begin to see where other bits need attention. This is a long, slow process. When complete, make sure you remove all unused pins, then reward yourself!

11  fourth border

12. Leave the shawl on the mat for at least 48 hours before removing the pins and admiring your work.

12  leave sm

In the real world – improvise!

Not everyone has a large enough empty space on which a mat can be placed for two days and nights. But once you know what the ideal is, you can work out how to do it to suit your circumstances. My mat is flexible, and I can fold it in half – not perfect, but much better than nothing.

13 folded mat sm

If you have a spare wall, cork tiles attached to it makes an excellent dressing board. If you have a spare double bed, use that. Cover it with thick, fluffy towels. – the fluffy is important. Start from the centre, and smooth the shawl out over the towels; friction will hold it in place.

14 on bed

Then pull out each scallop individually. If you need to use pins, make sure they are quilter’s pins – long, with a prominent head – so that you are less likely to spear your next guest.

15 scallops on bed

If space of any sort is at a premium, you can dress your shawl folded. Decide how you are going to fold it – one idea is to make use of the lines along the edge of the centre and at the mitres. If possible, pin the scallops, putting several layers on the same pin if this suits. It will take longer to dry, but take a lot less space.

16  fold in 4

If you need to speed up the drying process, use a hair drier! Don’t hold it too close, and keep the stream of air moving, much as you would when drying your hair. Remember to continue for a while after the shawl feels dry, then leave it in the open for 24 hours afterwards for the moisture inside the fibre to evaporate.

And if you have neither space nor time, consider pressing. This works very well if you are careful and methodical. Put a thick towel on your ironing board, or on the table. Place the shawl on this and cover with a terry tea towel. Put the iron down on this for a few seconds. Work from the centre out, doing one border at a time. Finish with the lace edging, pulling the scallops as you press. (If you are nervous of this, try it out with your swatch first.)


Only once the shawl is TOTALLY dry, cut off the ends. You have spent a long time on this, so store it carefully. Fold it gently and place in a cotton bag (an old pillow case is fine) along with deterrents for your local pests. Alternatively, roll the shawl round postal tubes taped together. For a white shawl, you may wish to put a layer of acid-free tissue paper round the tubes first, and between the layers of the shawl.

17 cut ends off

After wear, leave it folded carefully over a chair for 24 hours, then put it back in its bag. If you have dressed the shawl well, when it needs washing again you will not need to take the same amount of care – dry it flat, folded if necessarily, but you should not need to pin the scallops.

And the finished shawl:


A Word About Baby Shawls

A busy mum has neither the time nor inclination to take this amount of care with a shawl. If you want your shawl to be USED, use a GOOD acrylic, which can be chucked into the machine and tumble drier. If you give an heirloom shawl, OFFER TO LAUNDER IT. After all, the original Shetland shawls were sent back to the maker to be washed and dressed….


If you like the look of the shawl, you can see the pattern here, and buy the pattern here:

( You do not have to be a member of Ravelry to buy from the site.)


12 thoughts on “Dressing a Shawl

  1. Very interesting to see someone else do it. Thanks!
    My blocking boards are polystyrene sheets – the sort of white boards that come packed around washing machines and refrigerators. They are not quite as sturdy as the tiles or cork but mine have still lasted and lasted. They are light and easy to handle. The pins go in very easily. I store them against a wall.
    And they were free – the white goods store I obtained them from was only too happy to get rid of some.

  2. Thank you for this. I have not yet made a lovely shawl like that, but I have a sweet lace scarf almost done and now I’ll be happier ‘dressing ‘ it. Dressing it sounds prettier than ‘blocking ‘ it.

    Hope you feel better, and are enjoying spinning on your new wheel.

  3. A very clear and helpful description. The only extra tip I have is that I use some gingham checked fabric to cover my foam mats ( mine is my daughters’ excess school uniform fabric!) as this gives me clear lines to help measure to.

  4. Your comment at the end is so true about baby shawls. I dread to think back about what I did with the fine lace shawls that were gifted to me when my sons were born from Shetland lace in the 1980’s. I really hope my mother doesn’t enquire (though thankfully she knitted none of them but this doesn’t make me feel any better). I had three under three at the age of 22 and the shawls ended up in the top of a cupboard and eventually with house moves and wear and tear on them they disappeared. Later I had another son, who is 12 now and my grandmother gifted me a shawl she’d made with white acrylic which is still the same as it was when I got it. I ashamed of myself and I do treasure the acrylic shawl even though it is not quite the same as a pure Shetland lace one.

  5. This is a grand tutorial on dressing – thank you so much. And I didn’t know that traditional Shetland shawls were returned to the knitter for washing and dressing!

  6. That shawl edging is lovely. And I really enjoyed the tutorial, even though I have previously blocked a few shawls. Thank you.

  7. Thanks for the hint about using children’s floor tiles for blocking. I was able to use some I got for when our grandchildren visited to block an Orkney lace scarf I knitted from your pattern for North Ronaldsay wool. It looks much better.

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