Why you swatch

You know when you are knitting away, using yarn that matches the pattern, and you’ve got the same gauge as in the pattern and it’s all going swimmingly? And in a passing moment sort of way, you wonder why you bothered to swatch in the first place.

And then, you finish the project, and wonder why it doesn’t quite feel right. It’s the size it’s meant to be, but it’s stiff. It reminds you of cardboard. It doesn’t drape. It’s not very comfortable to wear. Or it’s more holey than it ought to be, it kind of sags and stretches and doesn’t keep its shape. Our first reaction is often to blame ourselves. “My tension must have been too tight/loose.” Or “I chose the wrong yarn”. But hold on a minute – you went to the trouble of doing a swatch. You got gauge. You didn’t have to fiddle anything. So was it really your fault? Or was it the pattern’s fault? Or, was it the yarn’s fault?

Assuming that your yarn is the same fibre and weight as recommended for the project, the fault often does lie with the yarn. Or more precisely, the recommended tension on the ball band that you used as a guide when selecting your yarn.

The yarn company has, for reasons known only to itself, decided to put a tension recommendation on the ball band that is definitely not correct.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen quite a few yarns sold in New Zealand that are like that. I don’t know why they do it, but it makes for hair-raising stuff when you buy yarn – is it going to knit at the right gauge??? I wonder if it harks back to the days when knitwear doubled as outerwear and also had to last a long time because clothes were expensive. The garment had to be as windproof as possible and as durable as possible, which meant you knitted to a tight tension – which did not always equal comfort. Maybe these yarn companies are still using tension recommendations from half a century ago.

In fairness, I do also know that sometimes the finished yarn that comes back from the mill is not quite the weight that the yarn company specified. And because they printed the labels before the yarn was spun… there ends up being a small issue with the tension specification.

Gauge, tension, whatever you call it in your part of the world, it’s the same thing. It’s the number of stitches you would personally knit to a set length. It is most commonly measured per four inches, or 10cm. For example, a DK (8 ply) weight yarn normally knits anywhere between 21 – 24 stitches per 10cm (4”), depending on the actual weight of the yarn and your own knitting style. Basic stuff right? What every knitter knows.

Your tension/gauge swatch is your guide – if you can knit the set number of stitches per 10cm as noted in the pattern, you can be relatively certain that your project will come out at the size you have chosen to knit. Unless the yarn weight is not appropriate for the recommended gauge. Because let’s face it, you can squeeze those little beggars into 10cm… and it will be what the pattern says. But it might not end up feeling like it’s meant to – as in the scenario I’ve just described above.

So what can you practically do? How do you know what tension is right for your yarn? Even though it’s relatively easy to work out whether a yarn is a fingering/DK or chunky weight for example, which gives you an idea of the standard gauge for a yarn of that weight, it’s practically impossible to know exactly what gauge you should knit it to by holding it in your hand. As well as your own physical knitting style, it also depends on the stitch and pattern you choose.

Personally, I now take tension recommendations on the ball band with a grain of salt. I’ll use it as a starting point, but after I’ve knitted a reasonable sized swatch, and washed it (because often the washing process helps to bring out hidden qualities in the yarn, softness, realign the stitches into nice uniform lines and sometimes show that the yarn shrinks or blooms just a wee bit after washing), I hold it in my hand and decide whether the fabric is the feel I want.

It might be technically correct, ie. the right number of stitches and rows to match the pattern instructions, but is it as supple as I want my project? Is the stitch pattern looking like it’s meant to? Are the stitches a nice even closeness, not too tight to be stiff, but not too loose to be see-through? And quite often, the answer is that I need to go back to my needles and try again. Sometimes I go up a size needle, sometimes I go down.

To illustrate my point, this is a yarn I picked out of my collection at random.

Forever Green, Elan Organic Merino.  OK, maybe not so random. I’ve had this yarn for a while, and intended to knit it into something for my son when he was younger. But even though it’s an organic yarn, and sooo soft, I’ve been discouraged from knitting it by the fact that it says it’s a DK yarn, but it looks for all the world like it’s sport weight. So I put off knitting it for fear of a knitting disaster.

However, I’ve pulled it out of its home from time to time, and admired it’s pretty, soft colours and intriguing softness, sniffed its sweet sheepy scent, and wondered about what it would be like to knit with…

Feeling in need of a little indulgent something the other evening, I decided it was time to bring it out of ‘hold’. First, I knitted a swatch with a classic 4 ply/fingering needle (3.25mm).  25 stitches x 34 rows over 10cm.  Hmm. OK. Nice stitch definition.

But let’s see what a classic 8 ply/DK needle (4mm) does:

23 stitches x 30 rows over 10cm.  Look at how the pattern stitches are flat and lack definition. Holding it up, there was just a bit too much light coming through the fabric for my liking. Funnily enough, this swatch came out closest to the ball band’s recommended tension of 22 stitches to 10cm using 4mm needles. Even so, I felt it was a little too loose. Like it would stretch out of shape soon after knitting. It also didn’t look ‘finished’.

So I knitted another swatch, using 3.5mm needles:

This is the tension I like. It’s a pity that you can’t get “virtual feel” through a PC. Because if you were to hold this swatch in your hands, it’s the ‘aha!’ moment. This tension shows off the yarn’s soft and cushiony nature, giving a supple yet even fabric, the stitches are close but you can still just see through them, but not so much that it’s windproof-less. And the pattern stitches still look defined without sacrificing the fabric’s drape. To me, the ideal garment tension for this yarn is 24 stitches and 32 rows over 10cm on 3.5mm needles.  This confirms that it is actually a sport weight.

However, this doesn’t mean you should only use this yarn at this tension.  You could use 4mm needles where you might want a looser stitch (such as in a baby blanket in garter stitch), or 3.25mm needles when you want a slightly firmer finished project and big stitch definition. I wouldn’t know this unless I had bothered to swatch.

Once, I hated swatching with a vengeance. Grumble, grumble, waste of time, takes so long, waste of yarn, growl, growl, I just want to start my project!

There are many reasons to like swatching now. I’ve learned to appreciate the art of anticipation:

1. It’s practice. Learn a new stitch/technique without fear of stuffing up the actual project! Or work out if there’s something about the stitch/pattern that needs modifying.  For example, it would have been helpful to try out the pattern instructions as part of my swatch before I started my project, as in Twisted Stitches.

2. Discover the yarn’s properties and make sure that it is the right match for the project in mind. Particularly important if using a yarn from your collection, and not the yarn specified in the pattern. As in my discovery in Death of a Project.

3. Experiment with gauge, to make sure the project you’re about to spend 1000% more time on than this little piece will come out the way you want it to.

4. “Try before you buy” – now the stitch pattern is in 3D in your hands, is it still as desirable as the project you fell in love with on the page?

5.  Make friends with the yarn and find out what it’s capable of.

6. It’s therapy. I can knit relatively mindlessly, lost in the hypnotic trance of the rhythmic swish of my knitting, the gentle click of the needles, watching the yarn curl around the needles, the feel of the yarn threading through my fingers, the magic of seeing a ball of “string” turn into beautiful fabric, enjoying that comfortable, blissful, “soothed gut” feel of a contented knitter. No need to worry about how it’s turning out – it’s time to just enjoy the actual process of knitting.

7. And if it doesn’t turn out, it’s comparatively not that much time down the drain. Look at it this way – all knitting is also learning.

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