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.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s