Knitting a Swatch

I used to not be the biggest fan of knitting swatches.

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It seemed like an extraneous step. Since the items that truly need a good gauge match is a sweater, I had always started sweaters with the sleeve, using it to make sure that my stitch and row counts would not produce a garment that was too big or too small.

I was also convinced that a gauge swatch “lied”. The tension on my knitting, while it does not vary wildly, do change due to mood, what’s on TV, weather, anything. From that viewpoint, a swatch was not very useful. While there were many who sang the praises of a large (8″x 8″) piece of a test fabric in order to overcome the variability in your knitting due to environmental factors, I was not convinced.

I still think all of these things.

And I think much of what I disliked about swatches was rooted in the “you must” part of the “You must knit a swatch” part of the sentence.

I started changing my mind a few years ago about knitting swatches. I’m not sure what the actual turning point was. I think I was trying to decide between two different yarns for a project, and they varied wildly in fiber content both from each other and from the suggested yarn in the pattern. This was the first time I knit a swatch to get a feel for what the knitted fabric would be like, rather than a test to see whether I needed to alter a pattern.

I think that thinking about knitting a swatch as part of the creative process was really helpful. It wasn’t a waste of time, but a part of the project itself. Somehow, this changed the status of a swatch as a “must do” to a “want to do”.

And then, while bopping around on the Internet, I saw this photo. (It’s Jared Flood, of course.) THAT’s a SWATCH???? It is beautiful, isn’t it? Of course, the cynic in me says that the piece was knit for a photo, but I think not. If you do a search for “swatch” on that blog, you will see many many examples of these “swatches”. They are each beautiful — knitted beautifully, blocked perfectly, and clearly used to look at the textures, the fabric, the color — and very much part of the design process.

And then, of course, there’s The Swatch Queen of the World, and what she thinks about these knitted pieces of fabric. Clara Parkes tests yarns for all of us, knitting swatch after swatch, “wearing” these swatches, and road testing yarn after yarn.

If that wasn’t enough, I started spinning. I cannot tell what a yarn is like in the skein. I have to knit it at different gauges, block it, hang out with it, before I know exactly how the yarn is going to act in a garment. It appears I am well on my way to joining the swatch brigade.

So, here I am, and as I am hosting a bit of a Knit-Along with a couple of my friends, to impart some swatching “tricks” that I have picked up along the way.

1. Knit a swatch that’s big enough but not too big. For me, this is a fabric that is somewhere in the vicinity of 4″x 4″ or slightly bigger. i like to make it big enough so that if I feel up to it, I can sew up a few edges and make a little pouch out of it. It’s nice for gifts or housing reading glasses. 4″x4″ also makes a pretty nice sized coaster.

2. Border the swatch in garter stitch (from Jared Flood’s photos). It will keep the fabric from rolling, and it makes me feel good that the swatch looks less like a swatch and more like a little object on its own.

3. Either make purl bumps or pair yarn-overs and k2tog for as many stitches as the size of your needle. (from Elizabeth Zimmerman) This way, we don’t forget what size needles we used on the swatch.

4. Block the swatch. There are some yarns (cormo, Brooklyntweed yarns, super wash merino) that drastically change on the introduction of some water and drying time. It really is well worth it to block your swatch (soak it, squeeze it dry, pin it to dry)  to see what the fabric will end up looking like. There are people who recommend that you weight the swatch to see whether the fabric will have memory in a garment…I’ve not done this, mostly because I have already learned the lesson about knitting a sweater out of 100% alpaca (as in, don’t do it unless you mean to have a dress).

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5. Measure the gauge by counting whole stitches on your swatch, measuring it, and doing math to get to the right unit of measurement to compare your gauge to the stated gauge of the pattern (from Amy Herzog). What was that? Amy has you outlining a piece of your swatch (the area you are counting) with a contrasting piece of yarn, which I have found very useful. Then, all you have to do is measure the dimensions of the area, translate it to what the # of stitches or row/4″ would be.

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So, in the above swatch, I’ve marked off an area that is 21 stitches wide and 27 rows in height. The width of the rectangle marked in yellow is 9.8 cm and the height is 7.5 cm (equivalent to 3.86 inches and 2.95 inches, respectively). This gauge would be equivalent to 21.7 stitches (21/3.86 x 4) and 36.6 rows in a 4″ square.

The stated gauge for the garment that I want to knit is 24 stitches x 37 rows. At 22 stitches and 37 rows to the same size, I have a few decisions to make. Do I like the fabric of the swatch? To me, I would not mind the fabric being a bit denser. If I liked the fabric, then I would adjust the pattern to fit the fabric (by knitting a different size, or adjusting the pattern to exact measurements, taking into consideration that I have a border of a lace pattern that needs to fit within a certain multiples of stitches.).

Will I knit another swatch? Probably not. I will start the garment with the sleeves though, so if I’m still more than a stitch off gauge, it won’t be too painful to rip out.

Happy knitting!

 

 

 

2 comments
  1. Judy said:

    My favorite takeaway from a Jared Flood lecture on EZ’s percentage system is that a swatch is like “a first date with your fabric,” You get to see what you like and what you don’t like. I’ve loved doing swatches ever since.

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