To Swatch or Not to Swatch?
I think that the more I knit the less I know about knitting which is, of course, one of the most amazing things about knitting. However, there are basics that remain mostly the same and swatching is one of them!
So, what is this ‘swatching' you speak of?
In relation to knitting, it refers to knitting a tension / gauge square (swatch) which allows knitters to check that if they use the same yarn, needles and stitch on the same number of stitches and rows as a pattern designer, they get the same size square. This means the pattern will (most likely!) turn out as expected. For example, when you see “Tension: 22 Stitches * 28 rows stocking stitch, 4.00 mm needles to 10cm" it means that if you knit 28 rows on a 22 stitch piece using 4.00 mm needles you should have a square that measures 10cm by 10cm.
I came late to swatching. I used to see Tension on patterns and think ‘naw, it’ll be fine’ and skip straight to knitting. Then last year Isla Davison of Brit Yarn & Louise Scollay of Knit British had their #scollayalong! It was such a fun knit-a-long and the cardigan was gorgeous but I wanted it in a yarn with quite a different tension. So off I swatched and now I'm a convert!
However, I don’t always swatch and I want to share some questions that I think about when I am deciding whether to swatch or not.
My #scollayalong swatch
First things first: Am I really that bothered?
Does the size matter?
I am convinced that all knitters have a jumper somewhere that fits either Barbie or Stay Puft from The Ghostbusters because tension wasn't their primary concern when they started knitting it! Mine is a sweater I made in secondary school that I could pull down over right down over my knees when seated. Great for watching TV in, not so much for wearing out (although I did wear it out!). I also have a shawl which is more hankie sized (still not sure what happened there) but I also have other shawls and blankets where there was no hint of a swatch and they turned out fine. So, every time you start something you just need to decide whether or not you want it in the size specified in the pattern or if a little more or less would be just fine too.
Banbh, the TLYC Dovestone Piggy - no swatching done & he's a babe!
Can I get more yarn if I run out?
Very closely related to whether or not size matters is will I have enough yarn? If something calls for X metres of yarn and you only have X metres of yarn, you need to be pretty sure your use of yarn is the same as that of the pattern. Recently, I knit the Drachenfels shawl in the pattern yarn & needle size. I know I'm a loose garter stitch knitter but I didn’t check the tension and with one row to do with Colour 1, I ran out of wool and had to improvise a little. No one to blame but myself!
For expensive yarns, running out just before can be pricey if you have to buy another ball or skein but then, you’ll always find a use for the remaining 95% so maybe needing just a little more is a good excuse rather than a problem!
Yes, I ran out but it's not too obvious (!?)
If I get into trouble, am I able to improvise?
The more experienced (and/or brave!) a knitter you are, the more likely you are to be able to recover during knitting if your tension turns out to be off. There are lots of things that can be done either to shape your way out of trouble or magically require less yarn - cast off early in shawls and toe up socks (less effective in top down socks!), ¾ length instead of full length sleeves, a shorter roll neck, a slimmer cowl – all great ways to rescue yourself. If you are a confident steeker, you could always go for a bit of snipping to do some shaping but if steeking isn’t for you, swatching may be ; )!
That's how I decide if I'm bothered about tension! So, if you aren’t overly worried about size, confident that you have enough yarn (or can get more) and are happy to compromise on different bits, then you can probably throw caution to the wind! If you are bothered, you may still not need a tension square but have a wee look in at the next few questions to see if you should go directly to swatch!
So I am bothered, now what?
Just a few more things to consider before swatching on or swatching off!
Are you a new knitter?
Going for a 'Do as I say rather than do as I do' approach I always encourage new knitters to swatch! I'm a meanie but it encourages fortitude ; ). I do it for two reasons – knitting something and having it turn out a mess might turn someone new off knitting FOREVER and that would be terrible! Also, as a new knitter, unless you are one of the amazing folk who begin like they were born that way, your tension may take a while to settle and knitting a swatch will let you know.
Are you generally a ‘to-tension’ knitter?
My lovely Mammy-in-Law (MIL) knits samples for TLYC and she recently did the capelet from the Illustrious DK book. I usually swatch before I do garments for the shop so I can say whether something turned out as per tension or not but I would never ask my MIL to swatch because everything she makes turns out beautifully. When she gave me back the capelet, I measured her tension out of curiosity and it was perfect! If this sounds like you and you are using the yarn for the pattern, then you may be able to proceed without swatching ... I do it sometimes ; )
My Mammy-In-Law's tension perfect knit (buttons sewn on by me, way less perfect!)
Are you using the yarn for the pattern or substituting?
I am definitely not looking for an award for the following statement but I think that if you are knitting a pattern with the yarn that the pattern was written for, you are more likely to get an item that is closer to the pattern without swatching than if you use a substitute yarn without swatching (really, no prizes please!). However, there are soooo many beautiful yarns out there, it's hard not to stray! Therefore, if you are substituting, particularly between yarn weights, a swatch is definitely a worthwhile investment. My favourite shaped jumper is supposed to be knit in Rowan Kid Classic but it is even nicer in WYS Fleece & I was glad I swatched or it would have been another jumper for Stay Puft!
Are you changing between different stitch types?
This is just something to think about, particularly if different stitch types are being used interchangeable throughout - such as lace and garter stitch. In that case, it may be useful to check if you have accurate, or at least consistent, tension for both. Otherwise, you may get narrow bits then wide bits which can't be blocked out.
Is it Fair Isle/colourwork? (Or insert own nemesis in here!)
I love Fair Isle but it likes to give me back chat by being too tight, particularly where there are bands of Fair Isle between stocking stitch panels and those tight bits are always where I don't want tight bits! Some great designers have worked out that people often find that and have built the possible differences into shaping during the fair isle bits to save me from myself but it is definitely one to watch for.
Also, something that snuck up on me recently was changing from one knitting needle type to another while doing colour work! I knit the Illustrious DK Beatrice pattern which is knit in the round until the arm hole shaping then knit flat - all in gorgeous houndstooth colour work. I finished it, put it on and oh! Turns out my tension for knitting colourwork in the round is different to when I knit it flat ... Picture included here, you'll definitely see it!
It may not be Fair Isle for everyone but if you are doing a pattern with your nemesis technique in it, perhaps it's one for a swatch!
You won't have to look that closely to see it .. although thankfully the houndstooth almost hid it!
Is this ‘special’ yarn?
Special yarn deserves a swatch so you get the best out of it.
Is the yarn really suited to the pattern?
This isn’t quite about tension but it is a good use a tension square. I recently used the most gorgeous twist sock to make a lace capelet for over a dress for a wedding. Of course I didn't swatch so I ran out of wool, it draped incorrectly, weighed about 4 stone (pattern originally for lace weight, used 4ply!) and I had to buy a cardigan for over the dress! The yarn is now waiting to become the socks it should have been, I learnt a gorgeous new lace style but a swatch would have told me no and saved me quite a bit of time! : )
4 Stone capelet!
So I have decided to swatch, what now?
When I was planning this post I was going to cover details of how to swatch, what to expect and some other details. Then I saw that Rachel, from Porpoise Fur, had written a guest blog post over on the A Yarn Story blog that was far superior than anything I could have written so I recommend that you pop over there to get some great how to swatch detail and you could have a browse through the A Yarn Story shop - they have some lovely yarns too : )
I’d love to hear about swatching successes and less successful experiences and do a follow up here so please share below, or contact me on Facebook or via email!
Now, I need to do some WYS Aire Valley DK swatching for those his and hers matching jumpers I threatened promised Simon. with.