If you’re a knitter who knits sweaters or shawls, or other items intended to fit either a large portion of your body, or to be worn over a portion of your body in a very fitted manner (sweaters apply here, also knee socks or long gloves), this means you’ve encountered the directive to pay attention to gauge. Usually this means that before you start knitting the pattern, you’ll need to make a gauge swatch. Or a tension square, depending on your lingo.
Much of the time, this step can deflate some of the New Project Joy we get from sitting down with a new pattern and a (possibly large, possibly expensive) pile of yarn, possibly at the beginning of a shiny and bright day off, or at the beginning of a full hour of obligation-free time after dinner. Maybe you envision casting on the project right then and there and magically having half of the body of the sweater done before bedtime, because man, this project is going to be so awesome. And then, perhaps, you read the notation about pattern gauge or an accompanying note about the need to work a gauge swatch just to be sure, and wonder out loud, “do I have to swatch?”
Now, this is knitting world. In knitting world, no one really has to anything. If you truly have to do something, chances are you don’t really need to ask yourself about whether you need to do it – you’ll just go ahead and do it. So it is with swatching. You might know exactly what gauge you will get with a particular combination of needles and yarn, and you can skip swatching. (So it is with me and Cascade 220 – I know that 4.5mm needles + Cascade 220 = 18 sts/4 ins, quite reliably. I’ve swatched enough times to confirm that in the past, and I feel comfortable skipping the swatch, with that knowledge in mind). On the other hand, (and more likely) you might not be entirely sure of your gauge, and in this case your swatch will do much to inform the success of your project.
The truth is, you could skip the swatching step and see how it all turns out, provided you are willing to live with the consequences – and those consequences could very well reveal themselves in the form of a sweater that does not fit you the way you intended. However, the more I knit (and design), the more I am personally in favour of swatching. You get a lot of information out of those little squares, and if you keep them around after you finish the project, you can still have access to that information later. I have started tagging my swatches with the needle size I used to work it up, and that helps me out if I want to use that same yarn again another time.
(Swatches from my Northside Pullover, in Tanis Fiber Arts Green Label Aran, in ‘olive’.)
I have now come to look at swatches as end results in themselves. It’s okay if I don’t turn the swatch into something else later on (though you could, if you wanted – patchwork quilts out of many swatches, mini change purses out of single swatches folded over and sewn up along the sides, and so forth), because it has done its job just being a swatch. Swatches will tell you your gauge, give you a sense of how the yarn feels in your hands, how pleasurable (or not) it is to work with, how nicely (or not) a variegated colour looks in knitted fabric as compared to the skein, how well the yarn drapes (or doesn’t) when worked at that gauge, and can help you to knit both a stockinette swatch and a pattern swatch (like in the Northside pullover swatches, above). If you’ve got a pattern that tells you both a stockinette gauge and a pattern gauge, that’s something worth paying attention to.
Swatching does take up yarn, though, so there’s no way around that. Committing to swatching means being willing to buy a little bit of extra yarn for the project, or otherwise be willing to rip out the swatch to put back into the project if you haven’t got the extra to begin with. Or, you could even just buy one ball of yarn up front, swatch it up, and then go back for the project’s worth of yarn (or not) if you’ve decided you like it well enough (or not) to commit to it for a whole sweater.
Are you a swatcher? What’s something you’ve learned from a swatch lately?
Have a great weekend, knitter friends!