Behold the Power of the Swatch

Like most knitters, I hate to swatch but I’ve come to find that this little piece of knitted fabric actually makes the difference between a successful project and one that might not be. Not swatching is like deciding to roll the dice in Monte Carlo – you might win big and be pleased with the results, or you  might break the proverbial bank and go home unhappy.

For those of you who are not knitters, let me explain. Swatching is the process of taking the needles and yarn that you plan to use for a project and knitting a trial size piece of the fabric so you can measure its ‘gauge.’ The gauge is a measure of the stitches per inch in the fabric, which determines its size. Gauge will vary from knitter to knitter based on how they tension the yarn.

Behold the all-powerful swatch. Doesn’t look like much, does it?

So why do we hate to swatch? There are lots of reasons:

  1. It wastes yarn. After all, the yarn I’m using for the swatch could be used in the project. This is exacerbated if I fear that I may not have bought enough yarn and therefore I might need it later.
  2. It delays the start of my project. After all, I want to get started! This swatching thing is slow and takes too long.
  3. I am a bit of a knitting rebel and I hate doing things just because others tell me to. Even if those others might be very smart and have learned from experience. (I didn’t say I was a smart rebel…)

With all of these factors against it, why do I still swatch? Because I’ve learned the hard way that not swatching leads to bad results and there’s nothing more heartbreaking than finishing a sweater and finding that it fits Chewbacca or Barbie, not the intended recipient. However, I like to think of myself as a tactical swatcher. I don’t swatch for every project, and I don’t swatch endlessly in pursuit of exactly the gauge specified by the pattern.

So how do I swatch? Here’s a few ideas you might find useful in your swatching tool kit:

  1. I always swatch for garments that must fit, such as sweaters and vests.
  2. I do not swatch for things where fit isn’t important, such as dishcloths, baby blankets, scarves or cowls. I also don’t swatch for socks, because I figure that the cuff will be stretchy and I will knit the length to fit the foot anyway. (Full disclosure: This did bite me once, but I’ve made probably a dozen pairs of socks and I can live with the occasional rippage).
  3. I learned the hard way that you must always block your swatch. Block it the same way you will your finished sweater, which in my case means soaking it in water for about 15 minutes to get the yarn wet all the way to the core, and then arranging it the way I want it. I failed to do this once and the yarn stretched by probably 30% when I blocked the finished sweater. Hence, my reference to the Chewbacca incident.
  4. I don’t swatch endlessly to get the perfect gauge. I’m a fairly loose knitter, so I usually drop down a needle size to begin with. Once I get the swatch finished and blocked, I measure the gauge and figure out how much different I will be than what the pattern specifies. If I can live with the difference, then I dive in. If not, I may swatch again to get closer, or I might move up or down a size in the pattern to get a result that I like. For example, if my gauge indicates that my garment will run large (which is typical for me because I’m a loose knitter), I’ll do a little quick math to figure out how many inches different it will be, and then adjust the size I’m knitting accordingly. The inverse is also true, if you’re a little on the tight side so your knitting will run small, then move up a size in the pattern.
  5. I save the swatches and don’t weave the ends in. That allows me to reuse the yarn if I need it at the end of the project. Fingers crossed, I haven’t had to do that so far but it makes me feel better to know that I have it if I need it. I then stash the finished swatch in a corner of my office so I have it in case I ever need to make a repair on the sweater.

The math for #4 is surprisingly easy. Take the gauge specified in the pattern and multiple it by the number of stitches cast on. That will tell you the width of the cast-on row once knitted, as specified by the pattern. Take your own gauge times the number of stitches to figure out what your result will be. This gives you a rough indication of how different your gauge will be from the gauge specified in the pattern.  Then, take a look at the pattern and see if you’ll be happy with the result. This part is a judgment call, and if you’re off by more than an inch or so, you’ll probably want to reswatch with different needles. Also, take a look at the shape of the garment and make sure that a variance will be okay. If it’s close fitting or tailored, you may need to keep swatching. If it’s meant to be fairly loose and blouse-y, your result may be close enough. In my case, my body’s shape varies widely from what any pattern will specify anyway, so as long as it fits when I’m done, I’ll be happy, and that’s really the point of swatching in the first place.

So, next time you go to start a new project, think about whether or not to swatch. If it’s a garment and you’re tempted to skip it, think about the risk you’ll be taking. If you can live with it, then dive in. If not, think about swatching tactically so you get the result you’re looking for. If you come up with any other hints on swatching, please feel free to leave them in the comments. We can all use to learn a little more, even rebels like me.


Talking Like Pirates

As I’ve said before, I love holidays. I particularly love those that are just for silliness and fun, not serious and not laden with emotion. Take Christmas, for example, it’s such a significant holiday that many people find it to be quite an emotional burden, loaded with guilt, sadness, or loss.

But today is a totally different type of holiday and in fact, it’s my favorite kind. It’s International Talk Like a Pirate Day. I have no idea how this started or whose crazy idea it was, but I think it’s awesome. After all, how often do we get a day when we all get to step out of our usual serious selves and just act silly? We should have one of these at least once a week; we all might be better people for it.

So, I don’t know how you’ll celebrate this very special day. I don’t have an eye patch or a parrot to sit on my shoulder (and I suspect that Westies object if you try to press them into this sort of service), so I’ll have to make do with posting silly things on Facebook and generally reminding myself that life doesn’t have to be all that serious. Of course, I also have work to do, so the day can’t be all fun, but adding a bit of lightheartedness certainly can’t hurt.

And as for you, if you do happen to have the eye patch or the parrot for your shoulder, stop on by. We’ll get out the rum and do it up properly.

Shiver me timbers!

Happy Pickle Day

In my household, we celebrate some offbeat holidays. In fact, I’ll make pretty much anything that I can into a holiday, especially if it involves fun food, sangria, or presents.

For example, at the turn of each season, we celebrate with Westie Haircut Day. Now, I’m not sure that the dogs consider this to be so much of a holiday, nor likely does my husband, who ends up holding the business end of the clippers most of the time, but I always feel good because we’ve made something nicer. The shedding stops, if temporarily, and the Westies look all trim and neat in their haircuts.

Now that fall is approaching, we’re starting to celebrate the cooling of the weather and the arrival of fall foods. I won’t lie, fall is my favorite season. I don’t care for summer all that much, especially summers like this one when the temperature hardly dropped below 90. I get hot and uncomfortable, and let’s face it, no one wants to see me with that many clothes off.

Winter is also a bit of a drag. The first snow is lovely, as are Thanksgiving and Christmas, but when you work from home, there’s no such thing as a snow day. It just means more shoveling and the inconvenience of having to put a coat on every time you leave the house.

So, fall it is. My favorite season. And with fall comes what? Home canning, at least at my house.

On Sunday, we celebrated Pickle Day. My hubby and I went to the local farmer’s market and bought a large bag of cucumbers. My daughter also tried some spicy pickled green beans at the farmer’s market so we decided to give those a shot too, and picked up several pounds of green beans and some jalapeno peppers.

Once home we started the process of sanitizing jars and lids, washing the veggies, and getting the pickling brine ready. My husband is the star jar packer so he packed all the cucumbers into their jars. Caitlin packed the beans, and pretty soon we had jars ready to go into the canner.

We made quarts of whole pickles, pints of sliced pickles, and pints of spicy pickled beans. The result was a lovely bounty on the counter.

Nature’s bounty and a bit of summer put away for the cold months.

I love the way the food looks in the jars. Beautiful.

Jars full of goodness.

Horse Sense

There are a number of things in my life that I’ve watched others do and wanted to do myself but never got the opportunity. In many cases, they’re even things that I’ve paid for my kids to do, all the while wishing it was me.

A few years ago, I realized that while some of these things are adventures that only a kid can really enjoy, a lot of them are not. There are, in fact, many chances to try things you’ve always wanted to do, and as I’ve discovered, no one will laugh at you for wanting to learn them even at my somewhat advanced age.

About 10 years ago, it was piano lessons. I paid for years of lessons for my kids, who really didn’t see the benefit and didn’t enjoy them. At the same time, I felt jealous because I’ve always wanted to learn to play the piano and I missed the opportunity because we couldn’t afford it when I was young. However, thinking logically, if you have the money, most teachers are not going to refuse to teach you just because you’re 35. So, I found at teacher at a local music store, and I took lessons. I completed all three levels of the adult piano course and while I’m no prodigy, I’m proficient and I enjoy it.

Advance that picture by another 10 years. Parker Colorado, where we live, was originally a cattle town and while it’s more of a small city / bedroom community now, it’s still surrounded by grazing cows and all things equestrian. Since I’ve lived here, I’ve been thinking about taking riding lessons, and a few weeks ago I decided to take the plunge. With the help of my friend Lorna from Illinois (a real horse person, who owns horses, rides frequently, and even barrel races), I found a local ranch where I could take lessons. My husband has been kind enough to come along for the ‘ride,’ and he is taking lessons too. Last night, we completed session 2 of our ground work, so at our next lesson, we get to saddle up and ride. It’s not that I’ve never ridden before, in fact I grew up around horses, but the chance to learn how to do it well is something I’ve always wanted.

It’s an interesting adventure, learning things that most people either learn as kids or never do.  But, it’s an affirmation that I sorely needed. I am feeling my age in other ways, so it was good to be reminded that even as we age, we’re never too old to try something new or learn a new trick.

So, for this old dog, I wonder what it will be at 55? What about you? What have you always secretly wanted to do and thought the opportunity was gone? As I can personally attest, it may not be too late after all.

Why Spin?

“Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.”    ~Luke 12:27

I love this Bible verse, probably partly because of the spinning reference but also because it reminds me that I don’t have to earn grace, it’s a gift to me.  There are a lot of days when I need to hear that, because confident person that I usually am, even I have doubts about my own self-worth sometimes. Now, rest assured, dear readers, that today’s blog isn’t going to be a Bible lesson, but I thought it was an interesting place to start on the topic I want to talk about today.

As most of you already know, I’m a hand-spinner. I’ve been asked many times why, usually by people with an incredulous look on their face that implies ‘Why on earth would you want to do that?” After all, I could buy yarn. Recently, I’ve also started buying whole fleeces and processing them by hand with a drum-carder. When I tell people I do this, I get the same look, only with usually with a note of concern that says something like “She’s really gone off the deep end here.”

Rest assured, dear readers, that I am well enough informed to know that I can buy yarn. In fact, if you’ve seen my stash, you’ll know that I’m very well versed in the process. So why do I spin? I thought I’d take the opportunity today to bust a few myths about spinning and see if I can articulate, for you and for myself, why I spin.

There are a number of myths about spinning out there, as evidenced by the questions people ask when they find out that I spin. Here’s just a couple. If you’re a spinner, I’m sure you’ll be able to add a few more in the comments.

1) Spinning is cheaper than buying commercial yarn. Um, no it’s not. In fact, by the time you invest what I have in equipment alone, you would find that spinning is actually quite an expensive hobby. That doesn’t count classes and workshops to improve my skills, or the fact that much of my handspun ends up decorating my office rather than being made into garments.

2) I’m reviving a lost art. I kind of wish I could say this, and I hear it a lot, most recently in the elevator of a hotel at Stitches Midwest when I happened to be carrying a spinning wheel. The truth is there are thousands of spinners across the world, and not only do we do it the old fashioned way, there are many innovations being made both in how to spin and in the technology of spinning. There are a number of spinning wheel makers quite happily turning out new wheels each and every year, and lots of us buying them. So, no, spinning is neither lost nor dying.

So why then, do I spin?

1) It’s a connection to history. Especially with my antique wheels, but even with my modern ones, when I spin, I feel connected to all the generations of hand-spinners who went before me. My family is lucky, though, that they don’t rely on me to turn out enough yarn to keep them warm all winter. I can’t imagine what it was like for the women and men who did. In those days, families were large with lots of children, and just the knitting alone had to be a huge investment of time.  Once I realized how much work it is to make the yarn and then the cloth, I realized why Roman soldiers threw dice to see who got Jesus’ clothes. They were of real value.

2) It’s relaxing. When I spin, it calms me and I get into a state of flow. I am focused and yet at peace. It’s very difficult to be upset or angry and keep a spinning wheel going at an even pace. It requires just enough focus to keep me interested but lets me hold a conversation or watch an interesting program at the same time. (Although I’ve discovered that anything with subtitles is a challenge…spinning does require that you watch what you’re doing from time to time).

3) It gives me the joy of the truly handmade. You’ll find very little plastic in my house. I have a love of handmade objects and will buy handwoven baskets instead of plastic every time (although clearly I buy fewer; handmade is expensive). In my kitchen, you’ll find metal and glass mixing bowls and the pottery ones are my favorite. I don’t have a lot of them but when I use them, I feel connected to the person who made them and using them gives me joy.

4) I have always aspired to be a farmer, and by buying fleeces straight from the farmer, I get as close as I can while living in the ‘burbs.  While my HOA has a pretty strict rule about livestock (darn them), this way I get to visit the farm, meet the farmer and his flock, and take home a little bit of their product to turn into something useful.

So why do I spin? I guess it’s a bit more complicated than I thought. Or maybe it’s like my son used to say, “Call it a hobby and you too can have a sweatshop in your living room.” Working in technology leaves me feeling disconnected from the hand-made, the real, the essential. Spinning, knitting and handling fresh fleeces brings me back to reality.

Or maybe I just always wanted to be Laura Ingalls Wilder. That’s a possibility too.

Busting the Creative Block

Well, so it’s apparently not just knitter’s block that I have at the moment but writer’s block too, since I have successfully managed to avoid both my knitting and the blog for an entire week. It’s not by intention, it’s just that I tend to blog when I have something to write about, not something to whine about, which seems to be my case at the moment.

I did manage to get myself to cast on a baby blanket this weekend for our newest church member. I’m sure she won’t notice (being all of a week old), but I feel it’s a somewhat uninspiring job. At my level of knitting, I ought to be doing Fair Isle baby sweaters, but this lovely little lady is going to get a fuzzy bias blanket. It will be warm on the upcoming snowy days, but I know I could do better. That said, having cast on anything is progress over sitting here waiting for inspiration and a sense of motivation.

I have wound the yarn for the Brunello cardigan. It’s also sitting here waiting for me to get up the gumption to work on it.

In the meantime, though, I’m trying to be a bit forgiving with myself. Certainly, this must happen to most people at some point. I cast about for some clever ideas on how to re-assert your creative self, when I found this quote from Ray Bradbury and I realized that I might be making this harder than it needs to be.

“Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t “try” to do things. You simply “must” do things.” ~ Ray Bradbury

So, what will I do about this creative block?  Nothing big, or splashy or pronounced. I’m going to sit down and keep working on the bias blanket until I start to feel like casting on something else. Maybe I’ll leaf through a few books or my stockpile of copies of Love of Knitting. I’ll sew the buttons put on the last sweater I finished. And I’m sure, as quickly as it went, the creative spirit will come back.

At least I hope so. I miss her.