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!

 

To Swatch, or Not to Swatch

That is, indeed, the question.

I have a love/hate relationship with swatching – and frankly, so do most Knitters that I know.

And let’s face it, it’s no wonder, swatching is a gigantic pain in the butt.

Imagine:  you get back from the yarn store or a favorite local fiber fair* with an absolutely breathtaking skein of yarn that is just perfect for the pattern that you saw on Ravelry just the other day that you don’t think you can stand to live another day without.

You ball the yarn in an ecstasy of fiber-lust and open the pattern, so newly purchased and printed that you can still smell the ink drying.  You are so ready.  The pattern calls for sport-weight yarn and your new yarn in all its mind-numbing beauty is sport-weight and ready cast on. The pattern says to use a size 6 needle, and you have in your hand your favorite #6 – empty of stitches and aching to begin its work.

Everything is right with the world.

Then you see it.

The word gauge – your heart does a little jump and your stomach dips a bit. You know it’s decision time.  You want this project to go perfectly, but you want to start it now, not fuss around with swathes.

So, do you or don’t you?

In this world, I think there are three kinds of swatchers.

No, Never, Not Me

There are those who never swatch. They resent the time and bother, they have an inordinate fear of ripping out their work, and they know that they already know how to knit, so what on earth is the point?  These swatchers are almost belligerent  about  swatching  – they are the ones that when swatching comes up in knitting conversation snort loudly, mutter “stupid waste of time,” and immediately try to either change the subject or launch into tirades against swatching.  

Some of them like to endlessly argue their point, while others seem almost ashamed of their opinion and would rather hide it and talk about the weather.  The one thing all of these swatchers have in common is a closed mind. They do not swatch, they have never swatched, they will not even consider thinking about swatching, and they think anyone who does swatch is silly beyond all reason.

SPINFOOLISH SECRET: I will tell you a secret.  My personal opinion about these types of swatchers is that they have been badly burned.  At some time in the past, they had a bad swatching experience and they are still hurting. I believe that these swatchers are desperately hoping that someone will come along and give them solid scientific reasons why swatching is worthwhile and necessary, and convince them to begin swatching again.  I think their semi-belligerence hides fear.

Oh, My Giddy Aunt, YES!

Another kind of swatcher is one that always, always, always swatches.  Every time.  No exceptions.  These swatchers knit a perfect 4 inch by 4 inch square and weave in the ends.  Then they wash it, block it and wait (calmly and patiently) for it to dry. They then measure it carefully and memorialize their swatches in notebooks marking the date, time, location, relative humidity, and phase of the moon.

These swatchers seem to be the kind that can’t conceive of knitting anything without a pattern.   They are the ones that email me and wail “The pattern says to cast on, but it doesn’t say which TYPE of cast on to use! Help, what do I do?” They are the type that will blindly follow a pattern even when it’s clear that there is a typo or a better way to do the same thing.  I actually find these types of swatchers more annoying that the “anti-swatching” crowd.

This group tends to proselytize the joys of swatching: how their swatches are always right on the money, and how they have never had to undo anything due to a faulty swatch!  They are zealous in their fervor of swatch-mania and they are mad-crazy to convert you to their way of thinking.  A world without swatches is like a day without air.

Fencers

The last type of swatcher is a type I know well.  They sincerely believe in the good works of the swatch, but they are afraid to completely trust the swatch.  They have known good swatches, and bad swatches, and still have trouble telling them apart from a distance.  They have endured pain and reveled in the joy attached to swatches, but they still try to keep an open mind.

These swatchers try to take a middle of the road approach.  They do it sometimes, if they have the time or a good reason – like a new yarn, a new needle, or a new pattern stitch.  Sometimes they choose to forgo the swatch if they are rushed or feeling sure enough about the yarn/needle/pattern synergy.  They go with a half done/half hope approach.

Truth

And you know what? As zealous, confident, or laissez-faire as all three types of swatchers are I guarantee that all three end up ripping out sometimes, give away the occasional garments that don’t fit them, or sneak unfinished projects under the bed or in the back of the closet.

Here’s the biggest truth about swatching.

Swatches lie.

You have met Mr. Murphy, right?  He is the one that decides that it rains on your day off or to trip you up when you are walking across the new rug with a full cup of tea.  He’s the imp of the perverse that we are all acquainted with and never want to meet.

He is Mr. Swatch’s roommate.  They often hang out together.  And Mr. Murphy loves to play his naughty tricks on Mr. Swatch’s work.

The bald truth is that no matter how carefully you knit your swatch and no matter how carefully you measure your swatch your swatch is going to lie to you. Sometimes.

Not all the time, but enough of the time that it will annoy the heck out of you and give you a healthy respect for the lack of truth that swatches inherently carry in their stitches.

So why bother?

For me, it’s like buying insurance. No one enjoys paying insurance.  You work hard to balance what you could get from the investment you put in your insurance against the amount of pain you feel forking over your hard-earned dosh for it.  You pay good money for major medical all the while hoping that you never have to use it.

Swatches are the same thing.  No one knits a swatch hoping for it to mislead them, they create them in the belief that a swatch holds the potential to to save them from making mistakes – in sizing, in the feel and movement of the fabric, in the way colors work together…

Swatches hold the potential to cure all of knitting’s ills…so you swatch, and hope that you have put enough baksheesh on the altar of your favorite neighborhood knitting God.

Whether it actually works or not is not up to you – what’s up to you is to decide if you want to take out that insurance policy even though it might not always pay off.

Next time: the right way, the wrong and the Spinfoolish way to swatch – a guide.

*For those in the Roanoke area come by my tent at the Olde Liberty Fibre Faire this weekend!  Anyone who gives me their name and tells me something they liked, disliked or would like to see on the blog gets a free gift!!