Generally, blocking is used in connection with needlepoint but sometimes cross stitch needs blocking, too.
I think needlepoint is more susceptible to being pulled out of shape for the following reason: (1) needlepoint is often worked "in hand"; (2) some of the needlepoint stitches cause quite a bit of distortion because the "pull" is always in the same direction (basketweave produces least distortion, in my opinion); and (3) most stitchers tend to "pull harder" on needlepoint than on cross stitch.
Wash your work, even if it doesn't "look" dirty. Despite your care in washing your hands before starting to stitch, skin oils have been deposited on your work anyway; these oils act as magnets for dirt. Even though you may not see any soil now, it will appear later, after your work is framed and "aged" a little bit. (It's kind of like a spot on the rug. You didn't notice the spill when it happened, but you know it -did- happen because now it's attracting dirt and causing a spot.)
Orvus Equine Soap (Proctor and Gamble) is recommended for washing your needlework. Yes, purchase this at your local feed or tack store. You might be able to get some at the vet's. I understand it is also sold as a "quilt wash" under some quilt-y name at an incredible mark-up in price. If the big size is too much for you to use in this lifetime, share it with a large number of friends--the price will go 'way down! Even if you splurge and buy a whole jug, it's still cheap ($5 for a l-pound container, about a pint).
Put just a little--a capful--in several gallons of water and leave the piece to soak about 60 minutes. If a lot of dye is released by some of the dark threads--unlikely there will be very much, but if it troubles you-- remove piece from this soapy bath and draw a fresh one.
If you don't have Orvus, use a mild -pure- soap (like Ivory); last choice is a dishwashing detergent (such as Palmolive). DON'T use Woolite; it contains "brighteners" which will eventually ruin your work by eating away at the fibers and fabric. Laundry detergents also contain these agents.
Swish your piece around gently a couple of times, but don't agitate it vigorously. Rinse well by soaking in successive changes of fresh water. Then rinse some more. You don't want to leave any residue in your work. Such residue will discolor your work in time, just as skin oils + soil do.
After the extra-thorough rinsing, lift the needlework from the rinse water. Don't wring. Lay the work on a clean white terry cloth towel. Roll like a jelly roll and set aside for 15 minutes so the towel can absorb most of the moisture. Unroll and place face-down on another clean towel (I prefer a fabric dish towel for this purpose-clean, of course!). Iron the piece dry from the back side. Turn over to the front and touch up only if necessary.
Leave your piece on the ironing board to dry entirely (overnight). DON'T pick it up!! You must wait a little longer!
If your piece is out of square, you'll need to block your work. With cross stitch, it shouldn't be too far "off." You should be able to work it back into square with your hands. Needlepoint sometimes requires some energetic yanking or stretching into shape on a special blocking board.
First, make sure that you have cut the piece exactly along all four sides. If necessary, clean this up by clipping precisely between the same two threads all the way down the side.
Dampen the piece. I use a brand-new squirt bottle, well-rinsed; the kind Windex comes in. (If any of the dark colors run when you dampen the piece, you'll have to rinse and go back to the previous steps about rolling in terry towel, etc. I have never had this problem when just dampening the piece to iron it, however.)
With your hands--and using a T-square or drafter's square or some other reference for a 90-degree angle--work your piece back into roughly square.
Place the work face-down on the [clean] ironing board top and pin the piece to the ironing board with stainless steel pins--they're not hard to find at a fabric store. Just pin right down into the ironing board pad. As you pin, work the fabric into good square, using the right-angle as your reference. Now let the piece dry completely, pinned down. Remove pins and iron the backside, as described above. Mist, if necessary, to remove any creases (though you shouldn't have any) or "belly-buttons" left by the pins (these should be small and in the very edge of the border). Don't iron over pin-heads; they'll melt.
Allow the piece to dry thoroughly before removing from the ironing board. If this doesn't do it, repeat the process until your piece is truly square.
You may need to touch up gingerly the right side with the iron. You probably will need a presscloth for protection.
Using a scroll frame helps a lot in keeping your work square as you stitch it. But you have to have your fabric mounted on your scroll frame good and taut.
To assist in finishing a needlepoint piece as a pillow so no unworked canvas shows at the seam and the seam is stable, work three "sacrifice rows" of background beyond the area indicated by the pattern.
copyright 1996-99, Martha Beth Lewis
Contact me about reprint permission.