I know that swatching is a contentious topic with a lot of knitters. When I first started knitting (listen to me, I talk as though I’ve been doing this for 20 years, not four), I didn’t make swatches, but that was because no one told me to do it!
Honestly, when I learned to knit I made a garter stitch scarf and then a basic hat and some mittens and it was all in a class with sufficient hand-holding and it worked out great. Then, because I’m not the sort of person who sees a utilitarian usage for more than the 5 hats and 15 scarves I already owned BEFORE I started knitting, I realized that if I was going to make things for myself (and dammit, I was going to make things for myself) they were going to be sweaters. Which is cool. I love sweaters. My sweater shelf (and the dresser in which I keep other sweaters) is overflowing. And exactly none of the sweaters on my shelf were knit by me.
That’s right. 3+ years later, I still have never knit myself a wearable sweater.
Now, I don’t say that I haven’t knit myself a sweater, because I have. Three of them, in fact. The problem is, all the sweaters I’ve made myself are in the bin (lbr, cardboard box) of things that don’t fit. Why is that? Well … partially, it’s because I use acrylic yarn in inappropriate ways, but also it’s because of swatching.
Here’s the thing. If you’re going to take the time to knit something gorgeous so you can have a beautiful piece of whatever, you sort of need to make sure that you’re knitting it to the right size, and if you’re following a pattern (or if you’re making up a pattern) you need to know what that size is. So … it’s important in my hat making, for instance, that I know how many stitches to the inch I’m getting so I end up with hats that are the right size for human heads (accidentally knitting on US5s instead of US3s aside). The only way to do that is to figure out how many stitches I knit per inch. Cool? Cool.
I actually first did a swatch when I wanted to substitute a yarn in a pattern. The yarn wasn’t the weight the pattern called for (but was the right fibre, so I thought the drape/shaping would be similar), so I needed to figure out what I needed to do in order to get gauge. Here’s the thing … that sweater STILL doesn’t fit. (That’s a wholly frustrating experience because a LOT of math was involved in that ish, and I’m super annoyed that it’s too SMALL, of all things. But that’s for another time, since I spent way too much on that yarn to *not* rip it out and try again.) For a while I just dumped the sweater in my box of shame and let it languish (not as long as the one I have to fix BEFORE that one because I made it before I knew how to swatch at all. It’s coat length, too. Delightful.), but since I’ve been listening to podcasts, I’ve gotten some insight that seems ever so obvious.
Wash your swatches.
That’s right. Wash your swatches. Wash them the way you would wash whatever you are knitting with that yarn. Because here’s the thing, right. I spend all this time swatching away to try to get the right gauge so that my garment fits, and then I wash it and block it and sometime in my blocking process I either realize that this sweater is either WAY bigger than I thought it was or it’s WAY smaller than it’s supposed to be. Why? Because the yarn is relaxing.
The podcast I got this from (they touch on it in several episodes, and I have no idea which one they really talk about it the most in … sometime in 2008-2009 is the best I can give you) is the Knit Picks podcast. There’s one episode where Kelley really explains what goes on in your fibre from the time it leaves the sheep until you wash it that’s really enlightening. The thing to remember is that even after it’s put on a skein and then wound into a ball and then knit into an object, the fibre is still all tense. It’s been through a lot. Once you get it in the water and let it just hang out and then let it dry on its own, it relaxes into the shape it wants to take … which is rarely the shape it had when it was on your needles. This, in turn, means the gauge you so painstakingly worked to get is now WRONG.
Solution: Wash your swatches, check your gauge again.
I recently did this with the swatch of Malabrigo Rios I showed you a few days ago. I knew I needed to get 18 stitches and 20 rows to 4”. So I knit up a swatch of 24x24 on US7 needles, did a few rows of garter to separate, then did it again on US8. I measured the gauge, and both were close (the 8 was closer), but neither was right. Ordinarily, this would have been super frustrating for me (and probably included swearing followed by me trying to recalculate the pattern math (incorrectly, lbr here) to get the sweater to match my gauge). But! Because of the podcast, I didn’t panic. I put the end caps on my circs, then tossed the swatch in a sink full of cold water with the tiniest bit of soap, let it soak for 5 minutes, rinsed it, and set it down on the blocking board and pulled it out so it was almost flat. That evening, it was fully dry and I measured gauge again. Turned out … size 8 was perfectly on gauge and now I’m happily knitting along on a delightful sweater.