The Tip Jar: Swatch your knitting
Have you ever wondered why you should swatch your knitting? LoveKnitting investigates the battle between swatchers and non-swatchers.
Consciously, all knitters know how important it is to swatch up a tension square before beginning any project. This blog post started out as a how-to, but it turned into a why-to when I was knitting across the table from my friend Meghan. I asked her if I could photograph her knitting next to mine. Meghan’s is on the right, mine is on the left.
Beautiful color, great stitch definition, and you can’t see it in the photo, but the pattern is totally adorable. Why am I showing you Meghan’s knitting? Notice we are both knitting on size 3.25mm/US 3 double-pointed knitting needles. Her stitches could eat my stitches for breakfast, and again, the circumference of our knitting needles is exactly the same. She is knitting on worsted-weight yarn, and I am using sock wool. The fabrics have a similar drape to them despite the difference in yarn weight.
A tension square or gauge swatch determines how many stitches fit into any measurement (usually shown as a 10cm x 10cm, or four-inch square), so the knitter can determine if the item being knitted will be the intended size when it is finished. It is usually written as “stitches per inch,” “stitches and rows per inch,” or “stitches and rows in a four-inch square.”
Swatching teaches us so, so much about our yarn, our knitting style, and even the pattern we are about to knit. Yes, we hear it all the time: swatch, Swatch, SWATCH! But many of us choose to give it half of our effort for whatever reason. Is it boring? Slightly; you are knitting and washing a small square that never grows up. Is it a waste of yarn? Hardly. It is actually the greatest investment you could make in your knitting. Would you rather spend a pound or two on a swatch’s worth of yarn, or fifty on the yarn for a garment that was pleasant to knit, but ended up three sizes too big?
Maybe you get spot-on tension, or gauge, with the ball-band’s suggested tension every time. Many yarn companies give yarn to a test-group, and they arrive at their suggested tension on the ball-band by taking the average tension of the whole group. Maybe this is you, Joe or Jane Average. But what if the person who designed the pattern you just purchased is Joe or Jane Tightknitter? Be prepared to have a garment hanging to your knees. Even if you know the designer’s work, swatch your knitting anyway.
Maybe you have used this yarn before. Okay, then. Have all of your previous patterns had cables, lace, a combo of both in the same row, interesting twisted stitches, or increases and decreases at the same intervals? No? If you have never seen the yarn knitted up in a particular way, there is only one thing to do. Swatch your knitting anyway.
How many of us (myself included) has ever been so eager to start a project, that we just knit a few rows, plop the bit on a relatively flat surface while still on the needle, and counted the stitches from one side to the other? “That’s about right,” we think.
We swatch because half a stitch makes a difference. The example above is the wrong way to measure a swatch. The needle squishes the stitches and causes you to get an inaccurate count, and the non-flat surface also distorts the stitch count. The yarn above is DK-weight yarn, about 5.5 stitches to the inch. Suppose a slipover pattern called for 5 stitches to the inch, and I thought to myself, “Half a stitch won’t make a difference.” To get a waistband which is 36 inches (91 centimeters) around, I would need to cast on 180 stitches according to my pattern. Since I knit this yarn at 5.5 stitches to the inch and darn it I flat-out refuse to knit a second tension square, my finished piece will measure approximately 32.75 inches around. That’s an entire size difference, literally! Swatch your knitting anyway.
By the way, if you are ever in between needle sizes on your tension, try knitting the knit side with the larger of the in-between size, and the purl side with the smaller of the two. Sometimes, that fix will get you right where you need to be.
Now, swatching on its own is not quite enough: do it properly. We swatch to see how the yarn will behave when it is washed or gets wet. Below is a swatch, laundered and air-dried (because I do not machine-dry superwash wool; if you do, throw the swatch in the dryer), ready to be measured for tension. When you measure a post, be sure to measure it flat with a measuring tape. Measure it horizontally…
…and measure it vertically.
If you are knitting a scarf, there is certainly the appeal of not “needing” to do a gauge swatch or tension square. A scarf does not have to actually fit anybody, right? I bring you back to Meghan’s knitting and my knitting. If I knitted a scarf that Meghan designed, and cast on her suggested needle size without doing a tension square, my scarf would feel like upholstery fabric and be about half the width as the size she intended. Swatch your knitting anyway.
Bottom line: if you give your tension square half of your effort, you are also giving your garment half of your effort. Swatching is knitting, and knitting is fun! Go ahead and swatch anyway.
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Last updated: May 18th, 2016.