SGY Roundtable: How And Why (Or Why Not!) Do You Swatch?

Swatch_Main_Image

Swatches of handspun yarn in the colourway Tapestry… Do you swatch before you knit?

Welcome back to another installment of the SGY Roundtable blog post series! In this bi-weekly column, we want to share with you the current discussions and thoughts of some of the fibre artists around the studio.

In our last discussion, we talked about what how we make time to craft. We shared how important crafting time is in our lives, a few tips how to squeeze a few rows between bus stops and baby naps, and also why it’s crucial not to over-do it. Knitting time is very valuable, and one of the ways we may choose to spend it is swatching. A curse word to some, a mandatory measure to others, swatching is a step in the knitting process that some love and others loath. I was really curious about where my own co-workers stood on this topic…

So this week, the topic we brought to the table was…

How and why (or why not!) do you swatch? Have you ever had a swatching disaster? How do you prepare your swatches?

Ginny:

I have a great recent swatching history mostly because 1) it’s been years since my initial forays into full sized garment making and 2) it’s been years since I knit anything bigger than a shawl, and accessories are indeed merciful when it comes to gauge. I will not ponder long on the first sweater attempts I made… we will leave those to lie, unwearable and misshapen, wherever they were discarded years ago. I will refer you to Liisa’s post on yarn replacement as a reference point as to why DK weight cotton is not always the Best Idea Ever and allow you to make your own conclusions as to the nature of those lost garments.

When it comes to basic shawlettes, hats, fingerless gloves, and socks (the bulk of my projects), I’ve found that just casting on and measuring the first few inches is completely feasible. I’ve amassed enough metal needles that I’m not going to switch needle material if I switch sizes and when it comes to swatching in the round, I’d rather just cast on two dozen more stitches and start a hat or sock outright instead of doing those half i-cord style swatches and then cutting (!!!!) the floats in the back to allow me to measure gauge. I’m too paranoid that I’ll end up regretting the loss of yardage and the technique never yields consistent results for me.

For more important pieces (such as the sample knit for Grace’s Buchanan Shawl) I will do a smallish swatch to verify that my gauge matches what the designer requires for the pattern. Note that with the Buchanan Shawl, I ended up going up to a 4.0mm needle to get gauge. For a piece that would be photographed and displayed as an example of the pattern it was essential that I got gauge; if I were making one for myself, I probably wouldn’t have blocked and measured a swatch for it.

Ginny_BuchSwatch

The cast-on chart and a few lace repeats of the Buchanan Shawl in Coral Rose on Merino Silk Fine

That being said, the on-the-fly technique works for me when the project is small and I’m semi-familiar with the yarn. With handspun, it’s ideal to set and swatch the yarn to get an idea of what you’re actually spinning. Swatching my handspun Falkland in our December 2013 club colour, Marju, gave me the confidence that it would spin up into a fluffy, well-balanced, heavyweight single, and reassured me that I didn’t need to ply my handspun with this particular fibre.

Ginny_Falkland

A delicious cake of single-ply Falkland

With garments, I’ve learned that knitting a large swatch (ideally 8 inches by 8 inches or more), preferably in pattern, is essential. It’s also not enough to soak it, pin it out, and measure it once it’s dried. Hanging the dried swatch with a bit of weight attached to the bottom with a clip is illuminating when it comes to row gauge!

Ginny_WeightedSwatches

Hanging and weighting down your swatch will give you a better idea of how your finished piece will stretch out with wear

A densely knit piece, particularly in wool, will bounce back and retain a lot of its shape even with the weight of several hundred grams of yarn pulling at the shoulders and neckline. Silk and silk blends, however (particularly our Merino Silk Fine and Aran weights) will not bear their own weight without noticeable stretching. The resulting row gauge may seem counterintuitive but after the piece has been wet blocked, and then (ideally) hung on a hanger and heartily steamed, the resulting piece will show the importance of weighing down your swatch.


Liisa:

I am not a swatcher.

It’s not that I’m too impatient to swatch (although it totally is). It’s mostly the fact that swatches tell me nothing.

Through my vast experience with yarn I’ve learned that no matter how much I swatch, and how accurately I think I swatch, the truth is always far more complex and elusive than a scaled-down flap of fabric.

Basically, swatches lie.

See, this is what happens when I swatch:

I’m super excited about starting a new project, so my 30-something stitches are very deliberate and even, and when I’m working them I’m happy, and comfortable, and content, and everything is dandy, and my knitting looks awesome.

This is what happens when I actually knit:

My stitch count is 300 per row, which alters the way my hands and fingers move during long stretches. There’s weight from the fabric, which changes how effortless everything feels. There’s added friction from the needles, which affects my gauge in ways that can’t be scaled down. I get bored halfway through a row, which makes the first part look perfect and the second part sloppy. I knit right after a heated stash-related argument with the DH and I’m channeling all my well-justified holy rage into my poor needles, which makes my tension twice as tight as the day before. The subtle drape of the yarn becomes exponential after row 77. I space out and stop paying attention. My hands get sticky. Stuff happens. Voodoo happens.

All these random factors affect what the finished, blocked gauge of the project will be – not to even mention what the gauge turns into after weeks or months of actual use. And so, no matter how big the swatch is, it’s never an accurate representation of the finished fabric, unless the swatch is the same size and shape as the finished fabric, and used to the same extent as the finished one, in which case spending all that time and effort on swatching is just… silly.

If I’m working with a brand new yarn, or trying out needles I have no experience with, I’ll play with them for a bit to see how they behave. But beyond that I’m confident enough with my intuition and my experience with different yarn and needle combinations to do what I think will work, and usually it does – if not, well… such is life…


Grace:

I didn’t swatch for years. I can’t say I have one good story about made me start swatching – there was no major knitting disaster that made me swear off jumped blind into a project. I managed to make quite a few successful garments without testing the properties of my yarn and I only frogged the occasional misshapen hat or mitt. I think I started swatching more to satisfy my ‘Type A’ nerdiness than to make me a better knitter.

I taught myself to knit, so I didn’t have role models to ingrain into me the importance of swatching. I would knit an entire garment, try it on, and if I didn’t like it then I would either rip it apart or give it away. I discovered that when a sweater was a complete disaster, it actually didn’t upset me as much as when it was ‘slightly amiss’. I would finish a sweater only to find the fabric didn’t hang quite right, or the yarn would pill, or the lacework might have looked better on bigger needles. I kept onto these projects because I had invested so much time into them, but I was never truly happy with them. I had been impatient and just cruised along without properly taking a look at my work, and some of my final projects were just… ‘meh’.

Eventually I wanted to take a little more control over my knitting. I started to change existing patterns to make them work with the yarn I wanted it to work with, not the yarn the pattern called for. Sometimes this meant substituting worsted yarn for DK, or wool for cotton. I started knitting swatches strictly to help me figure out the math so I could re-work an entire pattern to fit my gauge – and it worked!

Grace_Bridgeward

Grace swatched for countless hours while working on her Bridgeward Leaves shawl pattern.

Re-working existing patterns helped me learn how to start designing my own patterns. I began to understand guage, drape and construction. I swatched so I could experiment with texture, lace motifs, and figure out what would be the best yarn to use for a specific project. I find when I am designing a pattern, creating a swatch becomes a relief rather than a burden that has to be undertaken before I cast on. It’s my chance to experiment before committing to a giant project.

As I worked with different styles of yarn and types of fibre, I became a bit of a “yarn construction” nerd… I wanted to understand why yarn behaves the way it does.

Enter spinning.

Spinning has made swatching more than a means to an end… it has become a fun little project within itself. It’s my first opportunity to see how my handspun will react to cables and eyelets, how the colours will pool or repeat, and how drapey or elastic my yarn is. It’s a critical step in my spinning process for any major project; before I spin an entire pound of fibre, I will spin a small sample, finish it, swatch it, wash it, and block it. Only when I am happy with the final result will I proceed with the rest of my fibre supply.

Now that I can appreciate the value of swatching, I swatch for any project that requires exact gauge or the involves my own handspun. Considering the months of free time I could be investing in a project, a teeny afternoon of swatching seems like a small piece to pay.


Felicia:

For a person who never swatches, I feel like I’m always swatching!

Usually, when I’m starting a new shawl or garment, I have a rough idea of how the yarn will perform with the needle size based on previous finished objects, so I don’t worry too much about swatching. Shawls are flexible in terms of finished size, so it’s not a disaster if the gauge is slightly off.

For garments, I used to be super stringent about getting gauge. In fact, I wouldn’t start a project unless I hit the designer’s gauge right on. It became such an obstacle to knitting, that I have a binder full of patterns that I’d like to knit but haven’t gotten around to finding the right yarn that will get me the right gauge. It’s ridiculous, I know. Now, I tend to circumvent the issue by choosing patterns that are more “easy fitting” rather than needing to be strict with the gauge.

Knitted Lace Swatches

Lace swatches in everything from 100% silk to cashmere

The one time I really worked hard at swatching for a shawl was for my wedding shawl. All the swatches were to test out different lace yarns to see which one had the hand that I was looking for. I tried everything from pure silk to pure cashmere and ended up choosing our Merino Silk Lace. In my rough hands, the pure silk yarn shredded to fuzz… so it’s a good thing the swatch told me so before I went ahead and tried to knit an entire shawl with it.

But now, I’m working on a lot of my teaching samples for my spinning workshops and for that, I’m doing tons of swatching. Swatching with your handspun is the best way to make decisions about how to use your yarn! And for me, I’m keen to see how my colour blending experiments turn out.


There we have it! I find it fascinating to learn about my fellow SGY team members’ knitting habits and why they choose to work the way they do. Do you swatch? Why or why not? Please share with us on here on the blog, or on Twitter and Instagram! Stay tuned for for our next topic, to be delivered to you two weeks from today!