Cue the collective groan. Everyone hates swatching and I know you are all thinking ‘why Myra, why do we have to swatch?’ And there are some really good answers to that question.
First, if you are knitting a garment I am sure you want it to fit it’s intended recipient. In order to ensure a good fit you need to know how many stiches and rows it takes to knit and inch. Most patterns will give gauge specifications for 4 inch/ 10 cm areas and that is becasue you’re not a machine and your gauge is going to vary a little bit no matter how consistant of a knitter you are. Additionally, your gauge might end up being something like 4.75 stitched per inch. It’s pretty hard to measure three quarters of a stitch but 20 stitch/ 4 inches is a much easier measurment.
Second, you will need to wash your garment at some point and washing hand knit garments takes some care. Felting your finished garment would be heart breaking but felting your swatch is a minor inconvience. Knitting a swatch gives you the opportunity to give your yarn a washing test drive.
Third, you get to see what your yarn will look like once it is knit up. Knitting an entire sweater just to find out that you don’t like the fabric would be very dissapointing. Yarn often looks differnt in a skein then is does once it’s knit up and knitting a gauge swatch will allow you to sample your yarn.
But what is gauge?
Simply put, knitting gauge is the number of stitches and number of rows in an inch of knitted fabric. In order to measure your gauge you are going to need to knit a gauge swatch, which can be torture. Knitting a sweater is so exciting and since I buy most of my yarn online I have to wait for it to arrive. Once I do get my yarn and pick out my pattern I don’t want to sit around knitting a swatch that I have to wash and block. But I know that knitting a swatch will ensure a good fit so I suffer through, most of the time….
Step 1: Pick Out your Yarn
While swatching with left overs of the same yarn weight might sound like a good idea this can actually get you into trouble. Just becaues two yarns are both considered worsted weight does not mean they will knit up at the same gauge. There is a fair degree of variation within yarn weights so make sure you swatch with the yarn you will be using for your project.
Step 2: Pick Out your Needles
The type of needles you use can have a significant impact on your gauge. I know that bamboo needles gove me a looser gauge than metal and shorter needle tips give me a tighter gauge than long ones. So picking out the needles I am going to use for my project and using those to knit my swatch is super important.
Step 3: Pick your Stitch Pattern
Your pattern will most likely tell you what stitch pattern you should knit your swatch in. Make sure if your pattern says gauge is measured over a particular texture stitch that is the stitch you use to knit your swatch. If your pattern does not specify the stitch your should use, knit your gauge swatch in stockinette stitch (knit on the right side, purl on the wrong side).
Step 4: Knit your swatch
You want your swatch to be bigger than four inches so that you can measure the stitches in a contigeous four inch area. I like to knit garter stitch borders on my swatches so that they lie flat. So if the gauge I am trying to hit is 20 stitches = 4 inches I will cast on about 30 – 32sitches. That way I can knit the first 3 stitches on either side in garter stitch and still have an area larger than 4 inches to measure.
Note: Knitting in the Round
If the garment you are knitting is knit in the round it is important that you knit your swatch it the round because your purl gauge is most likely different than your knit gauge. But don’t worry you don’t have to knit a swatch that is double the size. You can carry your working yarn along the back of your swatch like you would a colorwork yarn float. When it comes time to wash and block your swatch cut the floats down the middles so you can lie the swatch flat.
Step 5: Washing and Blocking
Once you’ve knit your swatch it’s time for washing and blocking. It is important that you wash your swatch the same way you will be washing your sweater. If you plan to machine wash your sweater don’t hand wash your swatch. Remember this is a washing test drive you want to make sure that this finished product will stand up to whatever washing routine your plan to use.
I am not a huge fan of superwash yarns, which means most of my garments require hand washing (or careful machine washing but that’s a post for another day). I use Eucalan lavender scented no rinse wool wash. I recieved this bottle as a gift a few years ago and I have used it on all of my hand knits with great results. I havn’t tried any other wool washes and probably won’t anytime soon because it is what my LYS carries. I cannot speak to the quality of other wool washes but there are other popular brands out there.
For something this size I fill a glass mixing bowl with room temperture water and put a few drops of Eucalan in it. I let my swach soak for about 20 minutes beacause it does not take long for the water to permeate something that size.
Once the swatch is finished soaking I gently squeez out any excess water. You never want to ring out anything hand knit. Once I’ve squeezed out all of the water I can I put small projects into my salad spinner and give them a spin, this removes a lot of excess water that you wouldn’t be able to get out otherwise.
*I don’t use this salad spinner for food. I am not a medical professional but I don’t think there is anything in the wool wash that would be dangerous, particularly if the salad spinner was washesd thouroughly, but there is often excess dye that comes off the yarn when is is washed and consuming yarn dye would most certainly not be good for you.
After the salad spinner I pin my swatch to the blocking my blocking mats. I use children’s play mats for blocking because they are made of the same material as blocking mats but are significantly less expensive. An individual child’s play mat will be smaller than a blocking mat but when I purchased these I found the difference in price to be substantial enough that I could purchase enough childern’s play mats to cover the same amount of surface area as a set of block mats and still save money.
If you don’t own blocking mats don’t worry. You can lay your knits out on a towel. However, if you knit a lot of lace projects I would recommend purchasing the necessary block materials because a good blocking is vital in achieving well defined lace.
Once you have set your swatch to block let it dry over night. If you live in a particularly humid climate or it is the middle of winter your swatch may require additional drying time.
Step 6: Mearsuring your Gauge
Now that your swatch is dry it is time to measure your gauge. All you will need for this is a ruler or tape measure and your swatch. Lay your swatch flat and make sure that you are not stretching it out. Place your ruler or measuring tape on top of your swatch and count the number of stitches in a 4 inch section. Make sure you count your gauge over multiple areas to get an accurate count. Repeat the process counting your rows.
Step 7: Write it Down
This is the most important step in measuring gauge. You need to write everything down. Your needle size and type, the yarn used, how you washed it, and your gauge. You WILL NOT REMEMBER IT IF YOU DON’T WRITE IT DOWN. I don’t care how good your memory is write it down.