I have explained my vision of the three types of swatchers, and I provided a hopefully helpful guide to the step by step of swatching, but now we have to talk about the elephant in the room. Yes, the big fat elephant in the room: swatches lie.
If you go online and look up your bank balance you are looking for a number. A specific number that matches the number of dollars you have held in that account. If you looked up your balance and the computer said “Wow, man, we think you have about $4,000 some odd dollars in there! Go you!” this would not make you a happy camper. This would not instill confidence or trust that the bank was dealing with you or your money in an acceptable or expected way.
If you went to a book store and saw a book that you thought might be interesting you might look at the back (or the front flap in a hardback) and read the brief description of the book, or to read an excerpt. If the ONLY way you could find out about the topic or story covered in the book was to read the WHOLE book you might find this a bit disconcerting. You don’t want to read every word of every book you see, you want to skim through the descriptions until you find a book that appeals to you or covers the information you are looking for.
This is how I see swatching. (Welcome to my world, scary isn’t it?) The “correct” way to make a swatch is like looking at a bank balance and expecting to see an exact number – a specific answer – this yarn and this needle will always make this cloth. Not making a swatch at all is like the only way you can find out if you will create something that will fit is to knit every single stitch and hope for the best. I don’t like either option.
The elephant in the room here is that neither option works. Yup. And this is why. (You might want to take notes here, this is important.)
It’s true, I have said it before, and I know it’s horrifying. It’s like your bank telling you that there is $100 in your account and then when you spend $80 telling you “Ha, ha, just kidding, you only have $40!” Or like the dust cover on the book telling you that the book of sweater patterns (in a a simple lace) that you just bought actually contains a step by step guide to breeding earthworms. When you are told something you want to believe that what you have been told is true, correct, trustworthy. But as far as swatches go, they don’t.
You also know that I think of swatching as an insurance policy that you buy, hoping that you don’t have to use it. But you don’t just go out and buy the first insurance policy you see advertised! No! You do a little research, you find out what you need, you decide what extras you are willing to pay for, and you make in informed decision.
Here then, are a few additional things you need to think about, make decisions about, or just be aware of when you make your swatch.
I think that there is a serious flaw in our mindset as “knitters” that so many of us think of swatching as an optional, extra step. Some knitters think that because swatches lie there is no value in their creation. Some knitters think that it takes too long to make a swatch and are not willing to use valuable time they could be spending creating the goal garment. “Knitters” (note the capital K) know that simply isn’t true. Most Knitters know that with some obvious exceptions (like socks for me) Swatching is not optional. It’s not extra. It’s necessary – not just to do it, but to learn from it.
I hate math. It’s just not my thing. If you look at my old report cards I got great marks in math right up to the third grade. (I have read that this is very common with girls, I hate being “normal” but there it is, very clearly in my grades!) From then on my marks in math go down. So having to do math when I knit is one of the downsides to the “sport” as far as I am concerned. But when it comes to swatches think about this: if you are making a sweater that is meant to have a chest measurement of 40 inches and your gauge is off by even 1/4 of an inch your sweater could be anywhere from 26 inches around (if your gauge is a quarter of an inch too small) to 46 inches around (if your gauge is a quarter of an inch too big). Even if your gauge is only 1/8 of an inch off you have a range of 10 inches between the biggest and the largest size that gauge error could create. When you think of all the work you put into a garment like a sweater I think an insurance policy really sounds like a good idea.
Try to always use the same needle to make your swatch that you intend to use to make the garment. Why? Some people knit tighter on metal needles (because they are a bit slippery) and looser on bamboo or wooden needles. Maybe you know that you don’t usually do that, but maybe you will do that with this particular yarn/needle combination. More insurance.
If you are using a simple, smooth, commonly used yarn that you have used many times before – say something like Cascade 220 – then it’s unlikely that your gauge swatch will, under ordinary circumstances, come up with any really historic surprises for you. But what if it’s a boucle yarn, a handspun, cotton vs. wool, alpaca vs. silk? Any type of yarn can throw you a curve ball if you don’t think about it. Here’s a good example: remember I said I rarely do a swatch when I make socks? The exception to this rule is when I use a yarn that has a lot of stretch to it. I once made a pair of socks from a brand new yarn that came out that had rubber or elastic or something in the yarn that gave it “bounce” and was said to be great for socks. I learned two things from those socks: knitting with yarn that stretches makes me knit looser so the socks where too big, and that yarn creates a much harder fabric than I imagined with the needle size they recommended. Those socks banged around in my sock drawer for about a year before I threw them out. I think I wore them twice. (Note my OTHER huge mistake: I wasn’t a mindful knitter then, I either didn’t try them on or ignored the warning signs that I wasn’t going to be happy with the results. Big learning from one small pair of socks. In retrospect, I appreciate that, at the time, I was quite annoyed!)
NEVER, never, ever knit a swatch when you are angry, sad, excited, in a hurry, depressed, tipsy, on a boat that is rocking a lot, while someone is watching you, or at any time that motions or emotions could effect your knitting. Because they can and they do. I met with a “Knit Night” group of knitters many years ago and we were talking about gauge one night and I told them my opinion about not knitting a swatch when they had been drinking and one of the ladies SWORE that she knit the same. So we did a test. She knit a small swatch. Then she had a glass of wine and she knit another one. You honestly would NOT believe the difference one glass of wine made. And she was really paying attention – making SURE that she knit the same. Motion and emotion definitely effect the way you knit. If you base all the math of an entire sweater, baby blanket, or shawl on a small piece of knitting you do when rocking on a boat, or angry at your hairdresser your whole project will be effected. Believe it.
If you and a friend are making the same item: same size garment, same needles, same yarn… Do not trust her gauge to satisfy your needs. Everyone knits differently. Your gauge is the result of how you, the yarn, and the needles interact with the stitch pattern. If one of those variables is different (say, a different person) then the gauge will be different. OR it might be exactly the same. So many times in my sock classes we will have four students and myself all making a guage swatch as the first step. We are all using the same yarn and the same needles and yet more often than not we can have as many as three different gauges from our five different swatches. Don’t trust someone else’s gauge – do your own.
The pattern stitch you use to create your gauge makes a difference. If the pattern does not specify then they expect you to do the swatch in stockinette. But sometimes the pattern will state the gauge “in pattern.” That means that when you do your gauge you must use the specific pattern stitch they tell you to. Different pattern stitches will produce a different gauge: 20 stitches on a size ten needle in stockinette and 20 stitches on a size ten needle in a 2×2 cable will give you a drastically different gauge. The designer knows this and has done her math accordingly. Do the swatch in the stitch pattern they recommend.
Be flexible, especially if you are using substitutions. If you are using the same yarn as the pattern then just checking your gauge with the needle size they recommend is enough. But if you are using a different type of yarn then that calls for a different type of swatch. If the pattern tells you that you should use size 7 in your pattern then when you do your swatch do it in a size 6 – work your 1.5-2 inches of knit then CHANGE to a size 7 (at this point I also change to reverse stockinette so I can see where the change occurred) and do another 1.5-2 inches, then change to a size 8 (and go back to stockinette). This way you can learn a lot about your substitute yarn. Do you like the way the fabric looks: is it too dense, or too loose? What about the drape: is it hard or too sloppy? This is the time to decide if you like the way it looks, not after you have knitted 2 inches of ribbing and 6 inches of the sweater.
You will notice that I have not mentioned the number of rows in my swatches at all. That is because I pay no attention to the number of rows. If I knit a sweater that has too many stitches, making it too wide, there is nothing I can do but rip it out and start again. If I knit a sweater and it’s not quite long enough to suit me (when I work the proscribed number of rows) then I can add more. No fuss, no muss. The only time the number of rows could be potentially important is when you are decreasing or increasing a large number over a specified number of rows. I have found that this is rarely a problem and not one worth worrying about if you use a modicum of common sense and mindful knitting. If you are concerned about the row count then by all means pay attention to it, but always use common sense: there is no reason to change the size of the needle when just knitting one or two rows more could get you to the same place.
Let’s say you knit using the English style (you throw your yarn) but you want to learn how to use the Continental style (picking the yarn) and you have decided to learn by knitting a sweater. My advice: don’t. If you want to learn or perfect a new method or style of knitting then make a scarf, or a cowl – something that having exact gauge is not necessary. Do not use a swatch, or a large garment as the testing ground for your newly learned method of knitting. The gauge you have at the beginning as a new learner and the gauge you have at the end as an experienced learner will be so different that your sweater has very little chance of fitting right. A correlation to this is if you are thrower, don’t pick when you do the gauge, and visa versa.
If you are excited to start a new project but you have a limited amount of time so you decide that you WILL take the time to make a swatch, but you will rush while you do it. Don’t bother. Remember that the swatch is your insurance policy, making a swatch in a rush with no mindfulness is like buying insurance and not checking to see if it’s for a boat, a car, or a motorcycle until it’s too late. If you are going to do it slow down and do it right. Your swatch is a PART of the process. You wouldn’t make a sweater for a friend for her birthday but leave off the second sleeve because you ran out of time, right? That makes no sense. Neither does making a swatch in a hurry.
What have I forgotten? What other issues, concerns, problems or mistakes can arise while making a swatch? What else can negate your insurance policy? Tell me, I want to add to my list!