Get Your Swatch On! (But remember, swatches lie!)

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.

Consider…

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.)

Swatches lie.

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.

Swatches lie.

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.

  • Extra step

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.

  • Math

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.

  • Needles

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.

  • Yarn

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!)

  • You

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.

  • Someone Else

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.

  • Pattern

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.

  • Flexible

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.

  • Rows

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.

  • Method

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.

  • Time

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 else?

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!

Making a Swatch: a Guide

The topic is making a swatch.  I have already talked about my idea of the three types of swatchers.  I also think there are three ways to swatch.  The right way, the wrong way, and my way. (Obviously there are more, but this is how I see it.)

The RIGHT way

If you do your research you will find that the avowed and generally accepted “correct” way to swatch is to cast on and knit a square that is four inches wide, by four inches tall.  It should be in the pattern stitch called for and have at least a four stitch(row) garter stitch border.  It should be done in the yarn you are planning to use for the project in question, and it should be done with the needles called for.  This swatch should be completed, cast off, and the ends woven in.  The swatch should then be washed, blocked, and dried.

Exhausted yet? I sure am.  This can take up to two days!  I know of a real life person who does exactly that – EVERY STEP – when she swatches.  She is a very methodical person.  She also keeps each swatch in a series of notebooks, so that if a pattern ever calls for that yarn with that sized needle she won’t have to redo the swatch. Sigh.

This is the “correct” way to do it, people. If this appeals to you – go for it.

The WRONG way

Is there a wrong way to swatch?  If the RIGHT way to swatch really turned you on then, believe me, any you might feel that any other way to swatch is not efficient or complete and therefore wrong.  But let’s think this through for just a moment.  What is the purpose of a swatch?

The correct name will help, it’s really called a gauge swatch.  Gauge is defined as the number of stitches you get per inch with a particular size of needle and a particular yarn.  The gauge is what defines the number of stitches needed to get the size garment that you are looking for.  This is pretty important, but gauge is so much more than that.

Gauge also defines the drape of the fabric you are planning to create – the size of needle in relationship to the type of yarn and the weight of yarn will greatly affect the drape of the material.  Sometimes even one needle size can be the difference between stiff and flowing, between comfortable and sagging, between tight and just right.

I will tell you a secret.  When I make myself a pair of socks I rarely make a swatch.  Why?  Because in my lifetime I have made hundreds of pairs of socks.  They were made with different patterns, different pattern stitches, different yarns, different needles, different moods, different situations, different sized feet!  Sock yarn varies a little, more than you might think but after all those socks I am very familiar with the differences.  I am comfortable making changes on the fly, and in the end if I have to start again, I am not really fussed, socks are SMALL.  I have also knit about that many sweaters for myself and others.  You know what? I ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS knit a swatch for a sweater.

Gauge will also allow you to substitute a different yarn from the one recommended in the pattern and, while it doesn’t ENSURE the same fabric, fit, and look as the original, it gets you a lot closer than just “eyeballing” the yarn and winging it.  So that is your answer: the wrong way to swatch is to NOT swatch.  Unless you have made a bazillion (or hundreds, see above) of something of roughly the same size, with roughly the same needle size, with roughly the same yarn, then you need to swatch to see and understand all the minute changes that needle/yarn/and you can create in the fabric you will create in your garment.

The bottom line is that swatching is worth the effort. OK. But TWO DAYS of effort? Really?

My Way

DISCLAIMER: Let me reiterate, this is how I myself do a gauge swatch.  This doesn’t make it better or worse, it makes it mine.  Every long term knitter probably does it a little differently – if you have your own method GREAT, if you don’t have a method and you are doing some research on options then this page is for you.

In a nutshell, this is what I do to swatch for a sweater, a shawl, a scarf or anything that I haven’t already made with that yarn and that needle:

  1. I cast on enough stitches to make a piece of knitting a bit MORE than one inch wide.
  2. I almost always do it on circular needles because when I measure having the swatch on the needles can distort it, but so can having to off the needle altogether, so I like to move it down the needle to the cable, I think this makes the measuring more accurate.
  3. I work in the stockinette stitch for a bit more than an inch (somewhere between 1.5 and 2 inches is plenty in my book). (WARNING: if the pattern tells you to get gauge “in pattern” then you must knit your swatch in the pattern stitch.  This WILL make a difference!!) Some people do their gauge in garter stitch.  I don’t think it matters much on the stitch count, but I like to get a good idea of what the fabric will flow like, and garter is a bit stiff sometime, so that’s why I stick with stockinette.
  4. I do NOT cast off. I don’t intend to keep the swatch, so I figure why waste the yarn? I move the stitches to the cable part of the needle and lay it all down on a flat surface (a book, a coffee table, my knee…).
  5. I lay the measuring tape on the swatch snug up against the cable so I can see how many stitches fit between the two lines that measure an inch, using the middle of the swatch. (Don’t measure the inch from one edge of the swatch, do it from the middle. Also don’t measure the inch from the end of the measuring tape, use an inch further in the tape.)
  6. I place one line of the inch I am using to measure (it doesn’t matter WHICH inch, just pick on toward the middle of your swatch) between two stitches.  Then holding everything still I count how many stitches there are between that first line and the next one that measures a full inch.
  7. I write that down. (Yeah, I know, you probably won’t have to do that, but I am old and easily distracted, and I have found through experience that holding numbers in my head is not a skill I currently have a firm grip on, so I write it down. Don’t judge, we all get older.)
  8. I pick up the swatch and play with it a bit (stretch it, squish it, fondle it) nothing really intense just a bit of loving appreciation for all it’s doing for me. (HINT: this is a great time to see if I like the feel of the fabric, the flow, the drape, the size of the holes…)
  9. Then I repeat steps 5-8.

I might repeat those steps 2 or three times until I am really confident that repeating it won’t get me a different number.  Then I have my gauge.

If I am not happy with the feel of the fabric or the way it drapes I will do a second swatch with another size needle, but more on that later.

But wait, we aren’t done!

Now you know how I do it, step by step, but there is a lot more to it than that.  There are any number of things that you need to keep in mind, consider, and work around when you make a swatch.  Don’t get excited yet… there is more, stay tuned!

 

Spinning Terms: Woolen Versus Worsted

This is part of a sometime series of emails that defines some terms and ideas related to spinning.

The first thing you have to understand is that “woolen” and “worsted” in the context of spinning does not mean what it does in the context of knitting, so just toss all your preconceptions out the window.  Worsted yarn and the worsted style of spinning are not the same thing.  “Worsted weight” yarn does not refer to the style of spinning but to the size/width/weight of the yarn. Yes, I know that it’s awfully confusing that they chose to use the same word, I’m sorry!! Don’t think about this as “worsted yarn” think of it as a style of spinning that happens to have the same name.

Worsted Spinning

Worsted spinning uses fiber prepared very particularly, so all the fiber is the same length, all the cut ends are facing the same direction and all the fibers are totally parallel.  Usually this is done by hand with combs or flicks, to spread out the fibers in the locks, but still keep them VERY, VERY organized.  Worsted is spun using the short draw or the “inchworm” method of spinning. In my strange little head I think of this as the “military” version of spinning.  Meaning that everyone is in their place, standing straight and tall, no questions asked, no deviations allowed.  Worsted spinning is tight, usually fine, smooth and not very soft.  The goal in worsted style spinning is to allow very little air between the fibers so it has a smooth dense appearance.  It will be strong but have a much harder “hand” than woolen spun yarns.  These types of yarns are not going to felt as much, or pill as much, but you really don’t want it next to your skin. This type of yarn works well in weaving.

Woolen Spinning

Woolen spun yarn uses fiber that is carded, either by machine or by hand, and the fibers are pretty much going every direction.  They are basically parallel, but not fanatically.  This feels to me like the “occupy wall street” version of spinning.  Everyone is there for the same reason, but still doing their own thing, not regimented in any way.  Woolen fiber is spun using the long draw method, and produces a “loftier” (or puffier) yarn that is softer and will keep you warmer because of all the trapped air.  This is like that yarn you snuggle up to in your LYS and go “ahhhhh” because it feels so good and is light and fluffy and wonderful. But it will pill like crazy, and won’t take a lot of wear and tear.

My Spinning

I like to think of these two styles of spinning as the two extremes.  99.9% of the time, 99.9% of spinners, are spinning neither woolen nor worsted.

What? 

Spinning is something most of us do for fun, enjoyment, and relaxation.  Our lives don’t depend on it, and we aren’t being watched by the “Yarn Police.”   As a result we do not prepare our fiber fanatically, and when we spin we use both the long and short draw.  Some people spin “more-wooleny” others spin “more-worstedly.”  Where your spinning falls along the continuum shouldn’t be important to anyone other than you.  If you are spinning something out of a long coarse fiber to use on a loom, you will probably spin closer to a worsted style.  If you are spinning something out of an alpaca, wool, silk mix to knit a pretty hat for a favorite friend you will more than likely spin more woolenly.  The bottom line question to help you decide how to spin is:  What do I want the yarn to end up looking like?  That will determine how the fiber is prepared, and how you spin it.

Another question you might ask yourself, if you don’t have an end result for the yarn you produce, is: How does the fiber feel like it should be spun?  After you have a bit of experience most fiber will tell YOU how it wants to be spun, you just have to play along.

Woolen Versus Worsted

I recently spun some lovely Coopworth.  This yarn was used to knit a sweater for my younger brother.  He lives in Maine and spends a great deal of his time outside in the winter.  He appreciates a good wool sweater, and will wear it a lot.  He doesn’t care how I spin it.  What he cares about is that it is warm, doesn’t pill too much  or get stretched out of shape, and that it lasts a good long time. Trust me I won’t be spinning him another sweater anytime soon.  Still trying to figure out how I talked myself into this one!!    I am spinning it more-worstedly because loft isn’t really all that important.  It will be woolenly enough to be warm, but worstedly enough to keep it’s shape and last a long time.

I recently spun some multi-purple fiber into a thick and thin yarn to use as an accent yarn in a project.  This was spun more woolenly because the use I had for the yarn was to look pretty, feel soft, and it won’t get much wear.  It’s only a small accent so the fit of the garment is not depending on the construction of the yarn.  I was going for a look and a feel, and so woolenly made more sense.

Sometimes when I sit down to spin I don’t have a particular project in mind.  I am just spinning.  Even when I do that I make a choice about which way my spinning will lean. I don’t really think “woolen versus worsted” per say but I ask myself: Will this be a good yarn for a shawl, or socks?  Will it be soft and pretty or a “work horse” yarn?  I think about this, almost unconsciously at this point, and my decisions works hand in hand with what the fiber is whispering in my ear, to inform my hands to do what they need to do to get the result we are looking for.

If you are a new spinner the best and worst advice you can get is “practice more!”  It’s the worst advice because you don’t want to have to practice more, you want your spinning to be effortlessly perfect, NOW.  It’s the best advice because it means you have a build in excuse to spin MORE! But really, the best and only way to consistently spin better and better is to practice.

HOORAY!!! I think I will go spin now.