The Thing With Swatching

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You learned everything about gauge and why it’s so important, and now you’re ready to make a swatch? Here’s what you should know about swatching!

A swatch is a first trial, a little preview of the project you’re about to begin, if you will. We make them for different reasons: to try out new needles or a new yarn; to see how specific stitch patterns, stitch pattern combinations, colourwork motifs or construction methods knit up when designing, improvising or customising; or to determine our gauge. Remember: the way you hold and tension your yarn, the style you knit, the needle size and material you use and many other factors all affect your gauge! There’s of course always the option of intentionally working at a different gauge than what the pattern states, be it because you prefer the fabric knit up at a different gauge or to customise the finished piece’s size (we’ll get to that later this month!), but for now, we’ll assume that you’re working from a knitting pattern that specifies a gauge you’re aiming to meet.

How to swatch

In order for your swatch to be actually helpful, it’s crucial to swatch exactly the way you will work your project later on as stated in the gauge section. That means using the yarn and the exact needles you’ll be using (yes, needle material might matter, too!), working your swatch in the stitch pattern that’s indicated in the knitting pattern you’re using, and taking into account whether the gauge before or after blocking. Let’s go back to our example from when we talked about gauge:

20 sts x 28 rows = 10 x 10 cm (worked flat in Stockinette Stitch, on larger needles, after blocking)

What we learned about the design from the line above was that 1) a 10 x 10 cm square of the finished piece has 20 stitches and 28 rows; 2) the parts of it that the gauge is measured over are worked flat and 3) in Stockinette Stitch; 4) it uses more than one needle size, the larger one of which is being used for the parts that the gauge is measured over; 5) the gauge is indicated after blocking. So to be able to measure your gauge and compare it to the pattern gauge, you’ll want to use the yarn you’re planning to use and the larger one of the needles that are being used, knit up a piece of fabric, worked flat and in Stockinette Stitch, that is big enough for your to comfortably measure how many stitches and rows are in 10 x 10 cm (we recommend casting on a number of stitches that you assume will give you a width of about 12-14 cm), and then block it.

So much for the theory behind swatching.

Now where do you actually begin if you’re not sure what needle size to use or how many stitches to cast on? A good starting point is taking a look at the needle size the knitting pattern you’re using lists, and your yarn’s ball band for a first guidance. A good knitting pattern will usually list a recommended needle size, and yarn companies will almost always specify a gauge and recommended needle size for their yarns, too. For our Ice Flowers pullover, for instance, the pattern lists the following needles:

4 mm / US 6 circular needle (or needle size to obtain gauge) with a cable length of at least 80 cm / 32”

3.75 mm / US 5 circular needle (or needle 1 size smaller than main needle) with a cable length of at least 80 cm / 32”

Ice Flowers is designed for BC Garn Semilla Melange, and the ball band states a gauge of 22 sts x 28 rows on 4 mm needles.

If you were swatching for an Ice Flowers pullover of your own, you’d want to get the pattern gauge of 22 sts x 32 rounds. In this case, both the pattern and the ball band list a stitch gauge of 22 sts on 4 mm needles, so I’d recommend trying a 4 mm needle first, and casting on 28-30 sts. If you were swatching for a project using the same yarn, but a different design with a different gauge, say Solène Le Roux’s Nest Pullover, worked at a gauge of 18.5 sts x 26 rounds, I’d recommend trying a needle size that is larger than 4 mm and casting on 22-26 sts, based on the ball band suggestions.

Ok, we figured out what needle size to use for our first swatch and how many stitches to cast on – now what’s the deal with stitch patterns and working flat versus working in the round? Why you should always work your swatch in indicated stitch pattern should be pretty self-explanatory: Stitch patterns contribute to how the finished fabric behaves, and the amount of stitches that are in 10 cm varies greatly from Stockinette Stitch to texture patterns, cable patterns and lace patterns. Exception: to prevent your swatch from curling, you might want to add 2-4 stitches in Garter Stitch at the edges and begin and end with a few rows or Garter Stitch. Now on working flat and working in the round: Have you ever noticed that your (row) gauge is different when you work in the round? It is for most knitters with stitch patterns that aren’t reversible (i.e. where inside and outside don’t look the same), even if just slightly, and that's mainly because our tension varies between knit and purl stitches. So if the project you’re swatching for is worked in the round, resist the urge to simply swatch flat – swatching in the round isn’t all that complicated, and we’ve got a tutorial to guide you through it, too!

On blocking

Yarns change when they’re being washed for the first time, some quite dramatically, others less obviously. We always recommend wet blocking, where, in a nutshell, you soak your finished piece in lukewarm water and a tiny bit of wool soap, then gently squeeze out any excess water and lay your piece flat to dry, optionally fixed with the help of blocking wires or pins. Another option would be steam blocking. Regardless of how you decide to block your finished piece, that’s exactly how you should block your swatch, too. When wet bloxking, we recommend giving the swatch at least 24 hours after it completely dried and you removed any pins or wires before measuring your final gauge after blocking as swatches often slightly change in size.

Depending on the type of project you’re planning to make, you might want to consider the weight that’ll affect it when worn or used and stretch your swatch accordingly. An adult size, heavy-weight pullover will likely grow length-wise when worn due to its own weight pulling it down, so we’d recommend stretching your swatch just a tad more length-wise than you would a swatch for lighter-weight or smaller projects, such as a pair of socks or a fingering-weight scarf.

A final note on blocking: we highly recommend making a note of your gauge both before and after blocking! Often, a pattern will instruct you to continue working until the piece measures a certain length, and this usually refers final length after blocking. So when your row gauge changed with blocking, you’ll need to take that into account so that your piece’s final length after blocking will measure the length stated in the pattern. Keeping in mind how your gauge changed with blocking will also be helpful if you, for instance, try on your work in progress to see how you like the fit.

Help, i didn’t get gauge!

You’re eager to begin your actual project, I know, and swatching isn’t half as much fun as the real deal, right? I hear you. But here’s the thing with swatches: the first one is only very rarely the right one. What’s a lot more likely to happen is that you’ll have to work your way through a few different needle sizes until you found the one you’ll get gauge with. If you can’t seem to find a needle size that works, you might want to consider trying a different needle material (such as metal instead of wood or vice versa), which is said to have quite the effect on your knitting.

Though I’m sure that you chose the yarn you’re swatching with for a reason, it might also be why you didn’t get gauge. Yarns differ greatly, and not every yarn is made for every gauge. A good place to start when choosing a yarn is making sure it’s roughly the same weight as the one the pattern is designed for, and if you’re curious to read more about yarn substitution, you’re warmly invited to head to the first part of our How to Work With a Knitting Pattern series.

Like with knitting in general (and life, for that matter), getting a good idea of what you actually like and what works for you is key, and we’ll take a look at gauge and swatching from a different angle later this month. Spoiler: you’re by no means at the knitting pattern’s mercy and don’t necessarily need to get gauge!