Dr. StrangeGauge

or:

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Swatch.

I know. I design mostly shawls and other things that don’t really “fit”. The general opinion is that you don’t need to swatch for such items, but I would like to try and convince you that you do.

First off, let’s talk about Drape. Drape is how the knitted fabric hangs and moves. In the dictionary we are talking about the definition number 10 as opposed to the things out of which Scarlett (or Carol Burnett) made her dress.

I saw it in the window and just couldn't resist it.

I saw it in the window and just couldn’t resist it.

It is stiff or flowy? When something is said to have “good” drape that means that it flows, moves and forms to whatever it is hanging over. The opposite is a fabric that has body and can hold its own shape. Note I didn’t say that this is “bad” drape. In my opinion “good” drape should be the drape that you want for a particular piece. If you are trying to make a pair of felted slippers then flow-y isn’t exactly the drape you are going for.

The gauge (as in number of stitches per inch on a certain sized needle) that is given on a ball band is not necessarily the drape you (or the designer of your pattern) are looking for. The ball band gauge given for sock or fingering weight yarn is usually developed with the assumption that you are making socks. The fabric the yarn company is going for is one that can stand up to the wear and tear of being worn on the foot and usually has very little drape.

But how many patterns have you seen that call for using fingering or sock weight yarn in something other than a sock? Like, maybe, I don’t know … a shawl? A fingering weight shawl pattern can call for needles in the range of 5 (3.75 mm) – 7 (4.5 mm) as opposed to the typical 0 (2 mm) – 2 (2.75) range that you are going to find on  your typical ball band. The designer has chosen the needle (and therefore gauge) that provides the appropriate drape for their vision.

In Uffish Thought - a shawl by Barbara Benson

If you want your piece to move like this – swatch!

Unfortunately your needle combined with your yarn and your needle size might not produce the same results as the original knitter. Every knitter has different tension so even if you are using the exact same yarn and the exact same needles – your gauge might be different. Which is why you need to swatch. You need to match the gauge the pattern calls for to the best of your ability if you want your results to match the original piece. And by knit a swatch I mean you need to knit a swatch that is around 4 x 4 inches (10 x 10 cm), 5 x 5 (13 x 13) is preferable – but I do try to be realistic.

When I am swatching I look at however many stitches per inch the pattern calls for and multiply that by 4 or 5 and then add 4 stitches (for a garter selvedge). I then work it 4 or 5 times the row gauge per inch. If I were knitting something that needed to really fit I would then  wash and block the swatch, but for a shawl I do cheat and simply pin it out the way I think I will the final piece. Often without taking it off of the needles. That cable works just like a blocking wire!

So as you can see, I have serious opinions about drape. My second point is much simpler to explain. You simply have to ask yourself a question:

Do I like running out of yarn before I run out of pattern?

If the answer to that question is no then you need to swatch. The yardage called for by a pattern is based on the assumption that you will be knitting to a certain gauge. If your gauge is off you might end up using more yarn and poof you suddenly need to buy another skein of yarn. If you can find it.

So there we go. My argument for embracing the swatch. Honestly I sometimes feel I spend more time swatching out my ideas than I do actually knitting finished pieces and really it makes no difference to me. I love knitting. I love the process of knitting and it doesn’t matter if it is a swatch or a shawl I am still knitting!

Have I convinced you? Were you already die hard swatcher? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

3 thoughts on “Dr. StrangeGauge

  1. I’m a diehard swatcher, and I’m trying valiantly to change customer attitudes at the LYS where I work. It’s hard.

    Somewhere in the process of learning to knit for so many people, gauge and swatching get pooh-poohed as “meh, if you have time… but just whip up a swatch, see if you like it, and you’ll be fine”. When I explain that the gauge is the final measurement of a part of a larger swatch that has been **washed and blocked**, it’s like I’ve introduced myself as the Jabberwock. People back away accordingly. I won’t go into my full soapbox speech about the folks who then say that knitting math is SO HARD, but that’s a sore point, too (and I’m a liberal arts major with no great affection for mathematics).

    • Oh my, I just found this comment in the queue. I am so sorry for the delay in approval, thank you for commenting.

      I am right there with you on the no-great-affection for math part, but it is a necessary evil.

      When someone asks me if they *have* to swatch I respond with a question of my own. I ask “Do you like running out of yarn?”

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