Knitting a swatch is considered sacrosanct to some; a waste of time to others; and still others just can’t get their heads around how or why to do it. I’ve addressed the most basic aspects of how to knit a swatch before, but today I want to talk about why. Because there are more reasons for taking the time than you may have considered.
1. Meet the fabric
To me, this is even more important than the standard reason cited for swatching (which I’ve thus demoted to No. 2). Casting on without swatching is like getting married at first sight. Think of the swatching process as you and the fabric getting to know each other first. If you’re using the yarn specified in a pattern, you might find out you don’t really like it, or would prefer it knitted at a denser or looser gauge. If you’re substituting yarn, a swatch will help you know if you’ve chosen well. What about your color choice — will the pattern (and the fabric) look good in that color, or will the yarn and stitch pattern drown each other out?
The purple swatch above was for a potential Bellows Cardigan. I loved the sweater pattern and the color of the yarn, but as soon as I knitted the swatch in that color, I knew that was not a garment I would wear, so I changed course before ordering a sweater’s worth of it.
You want to know that you’ll want to wear this fabric, so knit a big swatch, and block it. Wrap it around your forearm like a sleeve. Tuck it in the back of your shirt collar and wear it around for awhile. Or if it’s for a hat, tuck it inside another hat, pressed against your forehead, and see how it feels. (And don’t forget to abuse your swatch to see how it holds up.)
You also want to know that you’ll enjoy knitting it. The swatch in the upper left is Mungo, and the one next to it is a strand of Mungo held together with a strand of Pebble, which I thought I might like even better. I did like it better, but not so much that the added expense of the second strand was justifiable, plus I discovered that it would have been maddening to knit, as those two yarns are super clingy with each other. So the second swatch convinced me to stick with the first.
2. Check your gauge (or “tension”)
The only way to know what the finished dimensions of your knitted object will be is to know how big your stitches are. If you’re knitting from a pattern, and it states finished measurements, yours will only match those measurements if your stitches are the same size as those of the person who wrote the pattern.
Stitches are the building blocks of knitted fabric.
Imagine I’m hanging out with Monique and Tessa and I build a little castle wall out of blocks. The girls want to copy it, so I tell them how many blocks wide each of my rows is, and how many rows tall, so they can replicate it. If Monique is using the same blocks as me, her wall will match. If Tessa’s blocks are smaller, she will quickly realize that if she follows my directions, her wall will be smaller. If her blocks are bigger, her wall will be bigger. Same with knitting.
Knitting patterns include gauge so you can make sure you’re building with the right size blocks. If you don’t care how big your “wall” turns out — if you’re knitting a scarf or a shawl; or if the hat, socks or sweater you’re planning to knit can turn out any old size and you’ll find someone who fits them — then maybe don’t worry about it. But if fit matters, knit a swatch, block it and measure your gauge.
3. Try out the stitch pattern(s)
Becoming a more advanced knitter means continually tackling new challenges and developing new skills. Lace, cables, short rows, different increases and decreases. These things can look a little messy on first try, or maybe you just want to see if you can do it before casting on a large project’s worth. Try it on a swatch! The swatch in the center right above is my first swatch for my Amanda cardigan, and in addition to establishing my gauge, it gave me a chance to get comfortable with some cable motifs I hadn’t done before at that point — the diamond, the braid and the honeycomb stitch.
This is also a chance to discover things you might want to know before you officially get started. That swatch was on gauge but I didn’t like how the honeycomb looked a bit cracked, so I wound up going down a needle size and liking it better. On my second swatch for it, at center left, I also decided to test whether cabling without a cable needle would impact my gauge — and boy did it! If you look closely at that center left swatch, you can see that the bottom half of the honeycomb is sort of squashed, compacted. That’s the part I knitted without a cable needle. For the upper part, I did use a cable needle and it gave the honeycomb a more natural look. So even though that’s a ton of cabling, I had to make the commitment to do the entire cardigan with a cable needle — and I’m glad I knew that beforehand.
Likewise, if you’re doing colorwork you may simply want to practice first — but you might also find your colorwork gauge is different from your single-yarn gauge. So if you’re knitting, say, a sweater with a colorwork yoke and a solid-color body, you may need to use two different needle sizes to get the same gauge across those two different fabrics. (Many knitters need to go up one needle size for colorwork.)
4. Do your own math
If, like in the cable example in No. 3, you consciously decide to knit at a gauge different than pattern gauge, then knowing your gauge (the size of your stitches) in comparison to the pattern gauge is the way to control the outcome. Going back to those building blocks, once Tessa realizes her blocks are smaller than mine, she can choose to stick with my numbers and let the wall be smaller. If she wants to know how much smaller before committing, knowing the size of her blocks and mine will allow her to calculate that. If her blocks are half the size of mine, her wall will be half the size. If, on the other hand, she likes the look of her smaller blocks but wants to use them to make a wall the same size as mine, again, knowing the size (the gauge) of her blocks is the key. If her blocks are half the size, she’ll need twice as many. Or she might decide to build a wall like mine but to her own preferred measurements, which she can easily calculate if she has simply measured her blocks. If each block is 4″ wide and she wants to build a 20″ wall, she’ll need 5 blocks per row. Just like stitches! (Of course, if there’s a stitch pattern involved, you always need to keep its multiple in mind. E.g., a 6-st cable that repeats across the fabric would require a stitch count that’s a multiple of six.)
5. Buy enough yarn
There’s also the matter of yarn math. Pretty much every swatch I’ve ever knitted for someone else’s pattern has come in at tighter row gauge than theirs. If my building blocks are shallower than theirs, it will take more of them to reach the same height, right? If it takes me more rows to fill in a sweater than it did for the pattern creator, I’ll also require more yarn than they used. So again, you want to know a thing like that before you get started.
. . .
These 5 cases are largely focused on situations where you’re knitting from a pattern, but of course if you want to knit from an idea in your head, a swatch is the starting point. Swatching is a way to figure out what sort of fabric a given yarn might want or be willing to be. (“What happens if you hold two strands of Pebble together and try to cable with it?” See second-from-bottom swatch above.) And once you’ve knitted your yarn into a fabric that feels right for it, what sort of object does that little square of fabric want to become?
A swatch gives you the power to go your own way.
For lots more great tips, see the comments below.
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