No one does it alone.

I once read a book called Outliers (by Malcolm Gladwell) that gives his theory that no one succeeds by going it alone.  No one does it on their own. Even great or famous people who accomplish a lot or do great things in their lives are only able to do so because they met the RIGHT person, at the RIGHT time, in the RIGHT place. These people are great or famous because of a set of circumstances that happened to fit together completely right, not because they are smarter, stronger, wiser or better than the rest of us. (I thought it was a fascinating book!)

It really works with knitting. I am a perfect example: why did I end up a knitter (not a great or famous knitter, but a Knitter just the same)?


The people were RIGHT: I am a knitter because my Mum knits.

MumShe crocheted a lot when we were kids, but prefered knitting, so it was always around when I was growing up. I could have had a Mum who hooked rugs, or painted, but I had a knitting mother which obviously made a difference.

I used to babysit for some lovely little girls, and their Mum owned a yarn shop. The shop, Martha Hall Looms and Yarns, was part of their beautiful and old sea captain’s home in
Yarmouth, Maine. Once the little girls were in bed I could creep into the shop and smell the yarn. Back when I was a kid yarn had a lot more lanolin in it that we get in yarn now, and the smell was lovely.  I remember how large and intimidating I thought the looms were, and how you must have to be VERY smart to operate one of those. (That opinion hasn’t changed!!)

I wasn’t a particularly popular kid in school, so I had a lot of free time and spent most of it either with my Mum or at the yarn shop. On weekends, or when there was a sale, Martha Hall often had me help in the shop – and by help, I mean carry huge bags of yarn and sweaters out to customer’s waiting cars.  The cars always seemed big and black, driven by men in suits and the women always seemed to wear lots of perfume and jewelry.  So even when I wasn’t knitting, being around people who knit and who thought knitting was an important skill made a big impression on me.

I learned to spin because my parent’s took a trip and left me and my little brothers with a babysitter.  Looking back now she seems ridiculously young. She showed up with a backpack and a dulcimer.  She taught us all to play it (I think she had more luck with my brothers, it made very little impression on me.) but I remember when she pulled a spindle and some fiber out of her backpack. Like Mary Poppins, she had whole worlds in that backpack!  I was fascinated watching her MAKE yarn! Make yarn? Didn’t yarn come from a store?  She was obviously pretty creative because she grabbed a pencil and an apple from the table and made me my own spindle and taught me how to spin.  My spindle didn’t last long, and the ability to practice spinning left when she did – but the idea and feel of it in my hand lingered.  It was many years before I was able to spin again, but I doubt I would have tried if she hadn’t been my babysitter when I was so young.

None of the people my age knit as an adolescent (that I knew about) so it was like having a secret ninja skill. I might not get invited to parties, or get to hang out with the “cool” kids, but I didn’t have to buy my sweaters, I could make my own – in whatever shape, color or texture I wanted! I enjoyed that secret.

Really, the list of people are endless who play a part in making us who we are, but most of the important ones when I was growing up, were fiber people


The place was RIGHT: I spend my adolescence in Maine, where it’s cold.

MarthaHallStore.jpgMy town had a LYS where famous people came to teach classes (Elizabeth Zimmerman, for example) so the fact that people could be respected for being excellent knitters was an early revelation for me. I remember my mother going to some of the classes – and my mother NEVER went to classes, she was a stay-at-home mother without a driver’s license, so for her to go somewhere without my Dad was a big deal.

Our LYS owner paid me for babysitting for her girls, but she also paid me to work in the shop sometimes, and to knit sweaters for sale in the shop while I was in  junior high and high school.  I could never had afforded the high quality yarn used for the shop sweaters, and as a shop owner she had access to an amazing array of patterns.

This was pre-internet (I just dated myself, didn’t I?) so the only way to get patterns back then was to buy them in a wool shop or make your own.  Since money was pretty scant for “frivolous” things like patterns, I soon learned that I could imitate a pattern, or a sweater I saw on a kid at school, and make my own improvements as I went along.

Being in a place that allowed me to knit many, many different sweaters of different styles and with different wools gave me a huge amount of experience at a fairly young age.  I would have been unlikely to have enough experience to create my own patterns if I had not knit so many sweaters, and so many different kinds of sweaters.  It was also, sadly, an education in how some people will take advantage of your skills and your youth.  When I think of the beautiful sweaters I knit for a pittance that she then sold for hundreds of dollars it makes me sad. But it makes me proud as well, and I learned more about knitting and the business of knitter THERE than I could have learned at almost any other place, I think.


The time was RIGHT: Hand knitted sweaters were very “cool” when I was young.

Growing up with a mother from another country is always interesting. One of the more interesting things about being a small child with a “foreign” mother (even though she has been a citizen since I was small, that accent just won’t quit!) was that going to Grandma’s house wasn’t just a sled ride through the woods.

One of the fairly few times we went to visit Granny in England it just happened to be at sheep shearing time. What an amazing opportunity to learn about wool and the people and creatures that produce wool!  I remember so much about that trip! The shearers from New Zealand and all the interesting new words I learned from them.  The smell of the freshly shorn wool. The looks on the sheep’s faces as they jumped to freedom and weighed…nothing!  I have always been grateful that we went at shearing time!

It’s odd to me, thinking back, that owning and wearing hand knit sweaters was very fashionable when I was a kid, but actually doing the knitting itself was dorky and socially unacceptable to my peer group.

People at that time would pay a lot of money for a hand knit sweater from Maine. City people on holiday often stopped by the shop to purchase gifts for friends and relatives and paid what I thought were ridiculously high prices.

As a child I didn’t value them as HAND knit, because I had never purchased a sweater.  My Mum had always made our clothes and knitted our sweaters, and as I got older I had always made my own.  I couldn’t quite understand why everyone else wasn’t doing the same thing.  The value of hand knit sweaters from Maine came in handy when it came time to pay for college,  and made that little adventure possible.

I always spoke to my professors on the first day of class and told them that I had to knit during class in order to make the sweaters that made the money to PAY for the class.  I didn’t want them to think I was being rude. Most laughed and said that if I thought I could pass their class without taking notes then it was fine with them.  The only class I remember taking notes in was Biology, no knitting in that class! The rest were OK, I was an English major so I didn’t find it that difficult to not take a huge amount of notes.

What about you?

How did you become a knitter or a spinner or weaver? Think back on all the machinations of fate and time that allowed you to be interested in, learn about, and then excel at that skill.

I am always a little amused, and faintly sad when someone boasts to me that they learned to knit “from a book” or “all by myself.” What a missed opportunity!

How very sad that the time/place/people were not right for them to learn to knit from someone wonderful, in a place that appreciated their knitting, and at a time when it was considered a worthy thing to do with their time and talent.

Was there one person in your past that made it possible, or a group?  Was the location what made it happen or was it the timing of the learning?  There are so many small decisions and tiny happenstances that come through our lives that make things possible or impossible.

Take some time to think on how you came to be a spinner or how you learned to knit and stop a moment to give thanks for the people, places, and times that allowed it to blossom in your life.

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.


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.


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!!