Most knitters have strong opinions on today’s subject: Swatching. They love it, they hate it, some always swatch, some never.
I think you’d find that most knitters fall into one of three categories:
1) The Serial Swatchers: these folks swatch for every project they knit no matter how large or small. They probably have a whole basket full of pretty swatches at home.
2) The “It Depends on the Project” Swatchers: these are knitters who swatch for certain projects, but not others. I definitely fall into this category. I ALWAYS swatch for sweaters, but rarely for small accessory projects (this has, of course, come back to bite me in the you know what on more than one occasion. ahem).
3) The Non-Swatchers: the category of knitters who NEVER swatch. For anything. Some people like to throw caution to the wind and just take their chances.
For sweater knitting, my personal rule is ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS (did I say always?) swatch. Presumably, you’re investing a large amount of time and money into a hand knit sweater and you want it to fit. Sure, there are other things you’re going to want to consider and choose to ensure you get the right fit, but gauge is the first step.
I’m going to take you through the process I use when swatching. It’s not the only way, but it’s what works for me!
Look at your pattern. Somewhere on the first page or two there will be a section that gives the materials, gauge and suggested needle size(s). Read the gauge CAREFULLY. Is the gauge in stockinette stitch? Is it in some other stitch pattern? You’ll want to knit your swatch in whatever stitch the pattern specifies. For example, if you’re knitting the Rocky Coast Cardigan you’ll want to swatch in the cable pattern.
Choose how you’re going to knit your swatch. Is the sweater mostly knit in the round or is it knit flat? If the pattern is knit in the round, you should swatch in the round. Unless you’re 100% sure that your gauge is the same flat as it is in the round, it’s really essential that you swatch in the round.
Let’s take a minute and talk about swatching in the round.
The swatch on the left was knit “flat” (stay with me here, I’ll explain in a second) and the one on the right was knit as a small circumference using magic loop. The problem with the one on the right is that it’s really too small around to effectively measure gauge over 4 inches. You could just make it larger, but you’d use a LOT more yarn in order to make it a full 8 or 9 inches around and it would take longer. So…there’s a trick you can use to swatch in the round, but have it be a flat swatch! First: Using a circular needle (preferably the one you’re going to use for your sweater) cast-on enough stitches for 5″ or so (so, if your gauge is 20 sts/4inches, CO at least 25 sts). Knit to the end of the first row. When you reach the end, slide your knitting to the other end of the circular needle…do not turn your work. Your working yarn will now be at the wrong end (the left). Pull a length of yarn behind your knitting (leave enough so your swatch will sit flat) and knit another row. Continue in this manner until your swatch measures 5″ tall!
Choose the needles you’re most likely to use for your sweater. Many knitters achieve different gauge on different types of needles. If you’re planning on knitting with bamboo, swatch with bamboo. If you’re going to use your Addi interchangeables, swatch with those.
Are you a tight knitter or loose knitter? If you’re typically a tight knitter, you may want to swatch with a size up from what the pattern suggests. Loose knitter? Start with a size down. The needle recommendation in the pattern is just that. A recommendation. Try not to get caught up in using the same needle size as the designer.
Cast on for your swatch! Like I mentioned above, make sure you cast-on some extra stitches so that you have about 5 inches of fabric (or even more, if you’d like) to work with. You want to be able to comfortably measure your gauge without using the stitches on the edges. I also like to do a garter stitch border on my stockinette swatches (do 3 or 4 rows of garter stitch at the top and bottom as well as 3 stitches of garter stitch on each side) so that they lay flat, which makes it easier to measure your gauge. So, if your pattern gauge is 20 sts over 4 inches, cast on 30. You’ll have a few extra for measuring ease and 6 stitches for a garter stitch edge (3 on each side).
Continue your swatch for at least 5 inches. Bind off.
Measure your gauge. I like to measure my gauge before and after blocking so that you know what to expect when you’re actually working on your sweater. Use a ruler, stitch counting frame (we have these at the shop!), tape measure or other gauge measuring tool. Count the number of stitches you have over 4 inches as well as the number of rows. Write these numbers down.
Each little “V” represents ONE stitch. For row gauge, flip your measuring device 90 degrees so it runs parallel to one row of stitches.
Think about how you’re going to wash your finished garment? Will you soak it and lay it flat to dry? Is it machine washable? Will you be putting it in the dryer?
Wash your swatch. I usually just soak mine with a little bit of wool wash and room temperature water for 20 minutes in a mixing bowl. You can use your sink or whatever you have handy. If you’re going to machine wash your finished sweater, toss that swatch in the washing machine. Squeeze the water out of your swatch…you can take up the excess water with a towel if it’s really dripping.
Dry your swatch. If you’ll be laying your sweater flat to dry, do the same with your swatch. I usually pin the corners very lightly just to help it keep it’s shape and prevent it from rolling. Machine drying your sweater? Throw that swatch in the dryer.
Next Wednesday we’ll talk about measuring your gauge on your finished swatch and what to do if it doesn’t match the pattern gauge!
Before I go….a couple more swatching tips and tricks:
- If you want to swatch with more than one size needle, go ahead and do it all on one swatch! Put a garter stitch ridge when you switch needle sizes. (see photo above).
- Want to swatch with multiple needles but don’t want to lose track of what size needle you used? Make eyelet holes that correspond to your needle size. For example, if you’re using a US size 6, make 6 eyelets by doing [YO (yarn-over) K2TOG (knit 2 together)] 6 times:
- Use Ravelry to keep track of what needle size and brand of needles you’re using to swatch. That way if you swatch and then move onto another project for a while, you can go look up exactly what you used when you come back to start the sweater.