Why Swatching Doesn’t Have to Suck

I’ve been having a flurry of swatching over the last couple of weeks, preparing for upcoming and future projects. It’s the sort of process that makes you really stop and remind yourself that actually, you really do love knitting, and even if you don’t think that all those little squares of wool are going to mean something right now, they will eventually. Probably. Hopefully. They’re like little wooly leaps of faith. Or maybe they’re like little square and floppy roulette wheels, where you take a spin and see if your gauge lands on 22 sts/4 ins or 24 sts/4 ins…aaaaaand, go! It’s possible I’m romanticizing this a little bit, but brace yourselves because I’m going in for a little more narrative action there.

The thing is, I don’t love swatching. Not really. I’ve done a lot of knitting and a fair few swatches in my time, and I still don’t love them. But I accept them and their purpose in my life, and wouldn’t want to have to do without them. I never used to swatch in the beginning (I was one of those insufferable knitters who “got gauge” and usually things turned out OK), but the more I venture into this knitting world, the more I have been willing to knit these little squares, especially before I dive into a new design project. If I care about getting a garment that fits me the way I intend it to, with the yarn I want to use, then…a-swatching I must go.

There are different proponents of swatching, and there’s no single way to do a swatch. In case you’ve never encountered this process before, I can tell you what I do, which is to cast on about 5-6 ins worth of stitches (usually between 35-40 sts, depending on gauge), work garter stitch for a few rows, then switch to stockinette for all be the 3-4 sts on each edge. I work until the little square has about 4 ins of stockinette in it, then I finish it off with a few rows of garter stitch before binding off. Then I wash and dry the swatch in the manner I intend to wash and dry the garment. After it’s dry, then I take a gauge measurement for the number of stitches and rows per inch, and along the way make certain decisions about what I like or don’t like about the way the yarn behaves.

Sept19-Swatches

Still, I know swatching – or knitting “tension squares” as it is also called – is one of those aggravations of our chosen craft. They delay starting the actual garment you want to knit, sometimes they use up yarn that can’t be reclaimed again for another project, and sometimes they just flat out lie. (There’s a reason why many of the top knitters out there will tell you that the only true gauge swatch is an entire garment.)

Yeah, sometimes those swatches just get no love for their service.

If you’re one of those knitters who doesn’t swatch and does just fine in the process, I commend you and say go ahead with your mad non-swatching knitting skills. If you’ve found a way to make the knitting process work for you in a way that avoids swatching, well, I raise my glass to you good madams and sirs. For me, knowing that swatches are not going to stop being part of my knitting life any time soon, I have started to think of swatches in more of a heroic role. Why must swatches always play the villain? They are indeed little noble steeds.

For example I think that, it’s not so much that swatches are delaying you from knitting your real project – they’re not evil interceptors from the other side of the line, getting in your way. No no, they are your own personal cavalry. They are taking the hit of time and yarn for you, to make sure you’re getting the fabric and gauge that you want in your garment. What if you were to start knitting your whole sweater, and get all the way through the back and halfway up the front only to finally admit that the alpaca blend yarn you’ve been working with feels sort of scratchy and is making you sneeze, even though alpaca never did that to you before, and you’re going to have to pull out the whole thing and give the yarn to someone else (which is now your only hope because you’ve used it already and can’t return the balls to the yarn shop any more), but not before you angrily mis-treat it a little bit during the ripping out part?

See, your little swatch was trying to save you from that. It wanted you to find that out while you were swatching, so you could change yarn sooner. Or maybe your swatch isn’t alerting you to the way the yarn feels – maybe it is trying desperately to tell you that, no matter how much you try, you’re not going to get pattern gauge on this yarn and that maybe you’ll have to adjust your pattern notes as a result, or the yarn, or both.

Or, maybe your swatch’s purpose is actually to speak sweet things to you, confirming your yarn selection and telling you how wonderfully smart you were to pick it, how pretty the colour looks while you knit it up, and oh by the way how fetching you are going to look in that sweater when it’s done.

If swatches could talk, man. I bet they’d tell us all to chill out.

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26 Comments

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26 responses to “Why Swatching Doesn’t Have to Suck

  1. bsveum

    Yeah, I’m one of those people with mad non-swatching knitting skills. I do see the point of swatching but I hate it because when I want to start a project, I want to start it RIGHT NOW. Most of the issues resulting in frogging come from crappy design (usually mine). : )

  2. LauraSue

    Oh wow. Now I’m imagining my swatches as little war horses going into battle on my behalf. I love it!

  3. See? They are such brave little things! ;)

    G

  4. I guess to be completely complete, I should measure for gauge both before *and* after washing the swatch! (I sometimes swatch. Mostly they lie to me; a real swatch is the first part of a garment. I’ve never washed and blocked a swatch. True confessions.)

  5. Hah! I love the image of my little knitted war horses! I’ve been a bit better about swatching now that I’m trying the whole designing-so-other-people-can-knit-it thing, as opposed to my previous ways of make-it-work-now-so-I-can-finish-this thing.
    Swatches are useful, if a bit of a pain in the bum.

  6. tinebeest

    My way around the swatching thing is knitting with the same wool over and over again :-) I can’t remember the last time I had to swatch because gauge mattered. I do lots of gansey knitting on 2mm needles these days…

    I will happily swatch when I need to, though. For me, it’s more of a date with the yarn than the cavalry charge. Sometimes the yarn and the project turn out to be star-crossed lovers, sometimes a match made in heaven :-) Romeo and Juliet with pointy sticks…

  7. It’s not the swatching that’s the problem- that’s relatively quick. It’s the blocking part that takes over a day, and really delays the knitting mojo…

  8. Elizabeth

    I don’t always not-swatch, but I couldn’t claim overall to be a swatcher. I take a philosophical attitude to the whole thing: if I have not swatched, I will rip it out when it goes wrong, and I won’t feel bad about it. After all, I could have swatched, and I didn’t. I’m okay with it.

  9. One thing that has turned around my view of swatching is to start wiht the yarn and figure out what kind of guage I want to knit it at. Swatching to find a fabric I like with that yarn THEN measuring the guage and looking for a pattern that requires that guage (or, I guess, designing one). Having some patterns in mind and something to aim for is not out of the question, but if I can’t knit this yarn to that exact guage (and getting stitch and row gauge can be complicated) doesn’t have to frustrate me. It’s more about figuring out what I COULD do with this yarn.

  10. Swatching has other duties besides achieveing gauge.

    Sometimes you might have the gauge spot on, but not like the drape or density of the fabric.

    Swatching is a good idea for seeing if a yarn is going to show off cables or textured stitches well.

    It’s good practice for getting your stranding rythm in sync before starting your garment, and for being sure your color choices look as good in the fabric as they did on the shelf. If I had swatched I would have known that Wheat and White look really, really different on the skeins, and really, really the same in the fabric.

    It’s great for testing how well a yarn will work with steeks, you might have to do a crocheted or sewn steek for extra stability (not that I’ve ever steeked – because the one time I wanted to the swatch said uh-uh.).

    A very noble steed indeed.

  11. Susan713

    I like your cavalry image. I’ve thought of swatching as taking the yarn on a date, getting to know it before I spend a lot of time with it.

    Sometimes I swatch in a casual way, (3 inches instead of 5-6 and not washing/blocking) if the garment is not fitted or is small (scarf, hat). But a sweater definitely needs the full treatment, in my opinion. I’ll buy an extra skein just for swatching if I’m designing.

  12. I am with you, kitten, even though I might have gauge, the piece might be stiff as a drum and how fun is that to wear?? Even though I don’t always swatch, if it is a yarn I am unfamiliar with, I prefer to know in a 4″ swatch than a whole sleeve later.

  13. Meredith MC

    I used to detest swatching, as it was taking precious time away from my latest project- but now I really enjoy swatching, and have a huge pile of 4″ knitted squares to prove it. I’m not sure how or why the transformation took place, but I’m grateful. Thanks for this post, as I’m off to swatch for my newest knitting adventure!

  14. barefootrooster

    thanks for this, glenna. i’m finding that in my actual work i’m dealing with sources from amongst the cavalry, and i love the idea of thinking of my swatches similarly. maybe i just need a system for saving/displaying them…

  15. GinkgoKnits

    I just knit a couple swatches. Both are in yarns for future sweater dreams while I’m stuck on sleeve island on another project. I rarely swatch for accessories but I do look at my lacework early on and figure out if I like the density of the fabric and if I’m close enough to gauge that I won’t need vastly more yardage than the pattern indicates. I think that a lot of people forget the importance of swatching in predicting yarn quantities — it’s a really bad lesson to learn when you’re half way through the project.

    Now, I have to go tell a swatch how brave it was for telling me that a yarn I love and a pattern I love are not going to be calling each other for a second date.

  16. Sue

    Swatching is making a sacrifice to the Knitting Goddess isn’t it? lol

  17. Heidi

    Hi Glenna,

    I really enjoyed this post. I’m a new knitter (not quite a year yet). I didn’t realize a swatch needed to be constructed in stockinette. What if I’m making a lace pattern?

    Thanks.

    ~Heidi

  18. I have tended to be a non-swatcher because my gauge is rarely off, but I’m mending my ways for larger projects — my “surprise” is not so much gauge but “stretch” in the yarn so I need to swatch and hang my swatches to see how long they’ll get with wear. Although I don’t think this is completely fool-proof either.

  19. AD

    I will admit, I have never really had to swatch. It’s like I have these magical hands and needles that hits every gauge on every project I have ever made… but then again, I make all gauge-less projects!

  20. Shilo

    I taught myself to knit and didn’t realize that I should teach myself to swatch in the process. Imagine my surprise when an adult hat turned into a hat suitable for a 3rd grader. Who knew that I had to worry about this thing called gauge?! And who knew that I knit so tight that I generally have to go up 2 needle sizes?! I actually went to my LYS to ask if I was gauging right because 2 needles sizes seems like so much… I think I need a knitting genie. You know, she’d pop out every time I have a pattern that I just can’t make sense of.

  21. ClimbingWithYarn

    I figured something out the other day. I have approximately 35 minutes of knitting at night (if I’m lucky) and about 5-10 while waiting at stoplights (yes…I car-knit.)

    A swatch feels like a huge amount of work but resistance is futile. I didn’t swatch the Northhampton Neckerchief and realized hundreds of stitches in that it was 7st/in instead of 5 st/in. It was just stockinette and I still cried when I frogged it. A 30 minute swatch beats redoing three weeks of work hands down.

  22. dutch margreet

    I always had the right gauge, when I was younger then fourty. Then the change happened to me and to the gauge, so beware, you young ones haha. When you are just a few hours away from finishing a project, mostly you know what will be next and you get restless to start that one. That is the right time to knit a gauge and while you washed it and it is drying and blocking, you can finish your current prokect because the unbearable hunger for the new one has become bearable. Result: one finished knitting and one gauge to prevent knitterly disasters. Momentarily I do not gauge. I am knitting for Eastern Europe orphanages and there is always a child fitting into the knitting as opposed to the other way around, so why bother. If the knitting does not have the right feel for children, all that yarn is going to acharityshop, There will always be somebody else who has the right pattern for it. You could use a ringbinder (the four wholes one, pushing the knitting over the midle two steel things) to keep swatches, yarnbands, gauge numbers+ needle nrs etc. together, so when knitting with a different colour from the same yarn, you will not have to gauge again (except for if your gauges are getting way off lately).

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  24. I love this post…I learned about swatching AFTER I finished my first sweater. Needless to say it didn’t fit quite right. From then on, I have always swatched.

  25. Liz C

    I only have the patience to do one swatch – one – and then I search ravelry to see what patterns fit my gauge.

  26. Bratbum

    I have never thought of a swatch that way. This could revolutionise my knitting and spending! Thanks very much