Thursday, April 7, 2016

Getting to Know You: The Power of the Swatch

Welcome to our new tutorial series from guest blogger Knitting Sarah! Sarah is a popular blogger based in Wisconsin, and she will be sharing her knitting know-how with you in this ongoing series. Enjoy!


From our very first stitches, we hear the word ‘swatch’ a lot. At first, the idea seems a little like torture. You’ve just learned to knit and instead of getting started on a fantastic new project, you’re told you need to knit a – let’s be honest – boring square of fabric first. Sometimes it takes all the discipline you can muster to force yourself to knit that swatch. There are some important reasons why we swatch, wash, and block our swatches, though – here are a few.

Achieving Gauge
The most common reason you hear for swatching is to ‘get gauge’. Simply put, gauge is a standard for measuring. As handcrafters, we all have our own touch with how we hold our yarn and needles. This means while you might knit a given yarn with a US 6 needle and get 16 sts and 26 rows over 4 inches, I might use the same needles and yarn and get 18 stitches and 28 rows over 4 inches. It doesn’t seem like a big difference, but when it comes to getting a sweater or a pair of socks to fit it can have a huge impact. When you’re working an existing pattern, matching the recommended gauge insures that your finished project will turn out the correct size. 

Intricate cables in Lhasa Wilderness yarn.
Beyond Gauge
Understanding gauge is the most common argument for creating swatches, but it isn’t the only reason they’re helpful. Swatching with yarn is a lot like holding auditions. It allow you to get an idea for how a stitch pattern looks knit up in a certain yarn. Yarns are unique – some really pop with cables and some just lose them, some lend themselves to intricate lace and some don’t hold that openwork – the list goes on and on. Whether you are a designer developing a new pattern or a knitter who is browsing existing patterns, swatching can be an enlightening process that helps you really make the most of any yarn.

Swatching & Your Hands
There’s no doubt that there are a lot of technical reasons to make swatches, but what about the more subtle tactile elements? Beyond gauge, beyond finding the perfect pattern, swatching lets you get a feel for a yarn in your hands. Think of it like stretching before you go for a run – creating a swatch lets your mind and hands warm up to the feel of a yarn. If you knit a 4x4 inch square (or larger) before you set off on a new project, not only do you have all the technical gauge & stitch pattern questions answered you’ve now taught your hands how that yarn behaves. With this confidence and increased comfort level, you’re less likely to need to make multiple starts at your project and more likely to create a project that is consistent from start to finish.
Don't be afraid to try a few different stitch patterns in your swatch (shown here in Himalayan Trail yarn).
Blocking Matters
Let’s say you’ve made it through the process of knitting a swatch. You’ve hit the recommend gauge and you have a solid feel for the yarn in your hands. You’re done and can cast-on your project, right? Not quite! Most patterns offer the recommended gauge for a swatch that has been blocked. For some patterns this means a quick steam block, for others it refers to a full wet block for your swatch – really it comes down to the designer’s method so read your pattern carefully. Why does this matter though? Let me tell you -- if you thought different yarns felt different in your hands when you knit them, just wait until you see how they react when they’re washed! Different fibers, even different breeds, will wash up in their own unique way and don’t even get me started on fiber blends! One might bloom where another might contract, one may have excellent memory while another might just kind of relax. This can fundamentally affect gauge and how a stitch pattern looks in a finished project. The only way to know for sure that you’ve got a true handle on your yarn is to take this last step with your swatch: wash it, block it, and let it dry. Only then can you accurately measure your gauge and make a final assessment of the stitch pattern.
Tip: the bathroom sink is the perfect size for blocking your swatch in Allure.
The Swatch is Done, Now What?
Congratulations! You’ve knit your swatch, washed & blocked it, and you’re knitting away on your project. It looks phenomenal and you’re over the moon that you took the time to work your swatch. But now you have this swatch lying around – is it just trash? What do you do with it? You have options! You certainly can frog it and keep it if you think you might be tight on yardage for your project. You could take good notes on your needle size and what type of yarn it is and store it for future reference. It’s easy enough to pin it up on your inspiration board or maybe tuck it in a binder. You could even start a scrappy blanket and add your swatches to it as you finish with them. Really, there are loads of possibilities for giving your swatches a second life.

It may seem unnecessary, but swatching is an integral step in successful knitting. Once you accept the importance of creating swatches, you’ll really be able to take your knitting to the next level and get the most out of every skein.

Sarah Chy is a Wisconsin-based knitter, spinner, writer, and small-scale family adventurer. You can keep up with her latest crafty projects and family hijinks on her blog, knittingsarah.com.

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