Swatching, or How to Avoid Getting a Sweater the Size of Manhattan

I’ve come to love swatching. I know. It’s crazy. But think of it this way: it’s knitting. It’s knitting with the purpose of making you a better knitter, learning about yarn and the fabric every yarn makes, and how that can make better finished knits.

I’m going to take you through my swatching process, complete with photos. I’ve tried many things over the years, and this is what works for me.

I haven’t learned it all on my own though. Most of my swatch boot-camp has come with practice, some success and a lot of failure, and some great advice from resources like:

Sandi Wiseheart’s SweaterWise
Yarn Harlot‘s Knitting Rules
Ysolda Teague: Little Red in the City

I’m swatching for Amy Herzog‘s Cooke Cardigan, which calls for worsted weight yarn knit at a gauge of 20 sts & 28 rows per 4”/10 cm square.

The first thing I’m going to consider is my yarn choice. The original yarn has alpaca in it. Alpaca and silk added to wool creates some drape. I’ve chosen superwash wool. Superwash also creates some drape, so I think I’m going to be fine.

I’m swatching with Merino Sock, doubled (working with 2 strands at once). One of my favourite, most worn sweaters is knit with this combination, so I know it will work. I’m also using a subtley variagated yarn, so working with 2 strands at once will help mix up the colours.

I almost always start with the recommended needle size and cast on more stitches than are called for. In this case, gauge is measured at 20 sts; I cast on 30. Gauge is measured at 28 rows of stockinette; I knit 35 rows.

My swatch:

Your swatch is practice for your sweater.

One thing that I’ve found to be important with swatches, is to treat the swatch the way you’re going to treat the sweater. If you’re going to machine wash and dry the sweater, make sure you machine wash and dry the swatch. If you’re going to soak the sweater, squeeze out the water and lay flat to dry, with no additional blocking — do that with the swatch as well. If you’re going to steam block or wet block the sweater every time you wash it: steam or wet block the swatch.

Because I’m not likely to wash or iron or steam block the sweater as I’m knitting it, I’m going to measure the gauge of the swatch BEFORE washing. This will let me know whether to expect any changes to the fabric.

One trick I find helpful in seeing if my gauge is on track, is to use contrasting yarn to stitch lines on each end of the stitch and row numbers:

Horizontally, there are 20 sts between the orange lines. Vertically, there are 28 sts between the orange lines. (to mark row gauge, I stitch through the centre of a line of stitches, count up 28 rows and stitch through the centre of that line of stitches)

So when I lay a ruler down, I can tell whether I’m on gauge or not:

(stitch gauge is 20 sts per 4”/10 cm – exactly what’s called for)

(row gauge is 29 sts per 4”/10 cm – off by 1/4 of a stitch per inch)

At this point, I make notes on a little tag that I will tie to the swatch when I’m done.

And wash the swatch:

I always make sure there’s lots of room for the fibres to expand and align themselves. Soaking really is magical.

When I removed handknits from water, I’m very careful to support the fabric. Wet fibres are very weak, and I don’t want any unnecessary stretching or warping of the fibres and stitches to happen. I have a large colander I put handknits in to transport them from water to where they will be blocked and/or dried. I gentley squeeze as much excess water out of the piece as possible…but DON’T WRING IT OUT. Gentle squeezing is enough.

I laid the swatch out on a small towel and rolled the towel up to soak up excess water. (with a garment, you may need to do this 2 or 3 times with fresh towels to get most of the water out). Then I laid the swatch out on a dry towel on a flat surface to dry.

(excuse the dark photo…it was really late!)

Once dry, I measure the swatch again. (there was no change to the gauge) And then I hang the swatch. Think about it. How many times will you be wearing your sweater while lying flat out on the ground? (Don’t answer that. I have very pristine views of all of you. Let’s not change that.) Most of the time you will be sitting or standing and gravity will have something to say about how your fabric will behave.

So I hang my swatch. You can use clothespegs or binder clips to clip it to a hanger. I use the shelving unit in our office:

I leave it overnight. Given 12 + hours, the fabric’s going to stretch as much as it’s going to.

And then I measure one last time.

Stitch gauge: dead on

Row gauge: dead on!

At this point have the celebratory drink/cupcake/chocolate of your choosing.

More often than not, you won’t get the result you want on the first try. Sometimes it’s way off. Sometimes your stitch gauge is fine, but your row gauge is way off. Many times I’ll knit swatches with a few different needle sizes in the same night, and put them all through their paces. I tend to be a very loose knitter, so often have to go down a needle size or 3 before I get gauge. And sometimes, when I knit 2 or 3 swatches, I may find I like the off-gauge swatch fabric better, or that row gauge is impossible to get. If I like the fabric and how it behaves, I will make adjustments to the pattern to suit the new gauge.

Want to join in on the gauge discussion? Have some tricks and tips of your own? Join us on Ravelry.


4 thoughts on “Swatching, or How to Avoid Getting a Sweater the Size of Manhattan

  1. Pingback: Make It Fit! (or, No, I’m NOT Wearing My Mother’s Sweater) |

  2. Pingback: And While We’re on the Subject… |

  3. Pingback: SHEPHERD! | barf green is best

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