I’ve been having a flurry of swatching over the last couple of weeks, preparing for upcoming and future projects. It’s the sort of process that makes you really stop and remind yourself that actually, you really do love knitting, and even if you don’t think that all those little squares of wool are going to mean something right now, they will eventually. Probably. Hopefully. They’re like little wooly leaps of faith. Or maybe they’re like little square and floppy roulette wheels, where you take a spin and see if your gauge lands on 22 sts/4 ins or 24 sts/4 ins…aaaaaand, go! It’s possible I’m romanticizing this a little bit, but brace yourselves because I’m going in for a little more narrative action there.
The thing is, I don’t love swatching. Not really. I’ve done a lot of knitting and a fair few swatches in my time, and I still don’t love them. But I accept them and their purpose in my life, and wouldn’t want to have to do without them. I never used to swatch in the beginning (I was one of those insufferable knitters who “got gauge” and usually things turned out OK), but the more I venture into this knitting world, the more I have been willing to knit these little squares, especially before I dive into a new design project. If I care about getting a garment that fits me the way I intend it to, with the yarn I want to use, then…a-swatching I must go.
There are different proponents of swatching, and there’s no single way to do a swatch. In case you’ve never encountered this process before, I can tell you what I do, which is to cast on about 5-6 ins worth of stitches (usually between 35-40 sts, depending on gauge), work garter stitch for a few rows, then switch to stockinette for all be the 3-4 sts on each edge. I work until the little square has about 4 ins of stockinette in it, then I finish it off with a few rows of garter stitch before binding off. Then I wash and dry the swatch in the manner I intend to wash and dry the garment. After it’s dry, then I take a gauge measurement for the number of stitches and rows per inch, and along the way make certain decisions about what I like or don’t like about the way the yarn behaves.
Still, I know swatching – or knitting “tension squares” as it is also called – is one of those aggravations of our chosen craft. They delay starting the actual garment you want to knit, sometimes they use up yarn that can’t be reclaimed again for another project, and sometimes they just flat out lie. (There’s a reason why many of the top knitters out there will tell you that the only true gauge swatch is an entire garment.)
Yeah, sometimes those swatches just get no love for their service.
If you’re one of those knitters who doesn’t swatch and does just fine in the process, I commend you and say go ahead with your mad non-swatching knitting skills. If you’ve found a way to make the knitting process work for you in a way that avoids swatching, well, I raise my glass to you good madams and sirs. For me, knowing that swatches are not going to stop being part of my knitting life any time soon, I have started to think of swatches in more of a heroic role. Why must swatches always play the villain? They are indeed little noble steeds.
For example I think that, it’s not so much that swatches are delaying you from knitting your real project – they’re not evil interceptors from the other side of the line, getting in your way. No no, they are your own personal cavalry. They are taking the hit of time and yarn for you, to make sure you’re getting the fabric and gauge that you want in your garment. What if you were to start knitting your whole sweater, and get all the way through the back and halfway up the front only to finally admit that the alpaca blend yarn you’ve been working with feels sort of scratchy and is making you sneeze, even though alpaca never did that to you before, and you’re going to have to pull out the whole thing and give the yarn to someone else (which is now your only hope because you’ve used it already and can’t return the balls to the yarn shop any more), but not before you angrily mis-treat it a little bit during the ripping out part?
See, your little swatch was trying to save you from that. It wanted you to find that out while you were swatching, so you could change yarn sooner. Or maybe your swatch isn’t alerting you to the way the yarn feels – maybe it is trying desperately to tell you that, no matter how much you try, you’re not going to get pattern gauge on this yarn and that maybe you’ll have to adjust your pattern notes as a result, or the yarn, or both.
Or, maybe your swatch’s purpose is actually to speak sweet things to you, confirming your yarn selection and telling you how wonderfully smart you were to pick it, how pretty the colour looks while you knit it up, and oh by the way how fetching you are going to look in that sweater when it’s done.
If swatches could talk, man. I bet they’d tell us all to chill out.