Swatching – friend or foe


After posting a swatch of some knitting recently I’ve gotten several emails asking questions about swatching.  I do not claim to be any expert, but here’s the answers to the questions/comments I received from my point of view.

Do I swatch for everything? — absolutely not. Shawls, scarfs, hats, mittens I never swatch for – with one exception.  I think the only shawl I ever swatched for was the one I’m currently working for the mystery KAL – and in that case your “swatch” was part of the first clue – you actually used it.   But knitting that swatch for the shawl reminded me of why I never used to like swatching — because you have to meet someone else’s gauge,  not your own gauge.  I was using the same yarn as the designer did, the same size needles and my gauge was too small.  I do not knit tightly so it makes me wonder how someone can get that gauge on that needle with the same yarn.  And that’s what can make swatching frustrating.   If you’re like me, you want to get on with the knitting and not have to do multiple swatches.  I ended up going up a needle size and consciously knitting even looser than my norm to get gauge for that pattern.

When you do a large swatch like for your new sweater, do you worry that you might need the yarn in it to finish your project? Do you leave the swatch as is and or rip it back to use later?  I always worry I might run out of yarn whether it’s socks or sweater or any other project.  Clearly I’ve run short on some socks but I never swatch for those – just have some socks with different colored toes.  I have some scarfs that were not as long or wide as a pattern stated — clearly because I didn’t swatch to get the designer’s gauge but not a big deal.  So far I have never had to rip out a swatch to use in my sweaters but that is mostly due to the fact that my sweaters are made using Amy Herzog’s program which is very different from swatching for a regular pattern and because I use CF, I’d like to keep my swatches in tact for future reference if possible and not have to rip them out  which is explained later.

Do I make my swatches all a specific number of stitches/rows?  If you look at the photo above – clearly I do not. 🙂  These are from my swatch box.   Some are “pre-CF” meaning before I starting making sweater patterns using  CustomFit program and some are ones used for “CF” patterns.   The littles swatch in lime green texture at the upper right – that little swatch was before I started using CF.  That sweater is still in pieces (not all pieces complete) in the closet.  That swatch was also done before I understood how much “drape” can change the look of the project.  Not only will that limy green sweater probably not fit correctly, the textured stitch pattern in it as shown in the swatch makes the “fabric” more stiff and probably would not end up being a comfy cozy sweater.  Eventually the sweater will probably get ripped back.      The darker green swatch – that swatch was for my first CF sweater and still a little on the small size (I wasn’t convinced yet that swatching would be to my advantage yet — I was so wrong!  – but that’s why that swatch is smaller.  I don’t have a set number of stitches I use but I think most of my swatches – of course depending on what weight yarn I’m using – are anywhere from about 55-80 stitches wide and 5-6″ worth of rows.

Larger swatches are more accurate for me.  And when swatching you have to get to that place where you are not concentrating on making a swatch — the first swatch I made for a CF pattern I was paying so much attention to – truly concentrating on making nice even tensioned stitches every stitch — that is soooo not  how I really knit.  LOL If it’s just stockinette stitch, my hands go on autopilot.  I don’t constantly watch what I’m doing – I’m staring out a bus window  (or looking at the guy across the aisle and wondering does he have an earbud for a phone in or is he just talking to himself?) 😉  or I’m home watching tv.  If I pay too much attention to the fact that I’m swatching it does not turn out in my usual knitting gauge. So a larger swatch helps you get into that zen knitting place so you get a true gauge in that swatch.
Now most of the rest of these comments relate to CustomFit system sweaters – because that’s where swatching really all made sense and became painless for me  and because it has totally changed how I make sweaters — actually it has mostly changed the fact that I DO now make sweaters and enjoy making them.
What is that white line stitched on the swatch?  I got this question a lot when I posted that swatch when I was working on that sweater.  It’s thread and it marks out the area where I counted stitches.  For CustomFit, you do NOT need to meet someone else gauge, you do not need to use the same kind of yarn the designer did, you do not need to use the size needles the designer did.  You choose the yarn you want to knit, you choose a needle size you think will work and then you knit a swatch to see if you like the resulting fabric and if that fabric will work for the type of sweater you wish to make.  You will see in the top photo I posted that there’s a couple swatches that look the same (same yarn) – that’s because after the first swatch I wasn’t sure I liked the resulting fabric — it might have been too loose and had too much drape for what I was thinking of making or it may have been the opposite and too stiff looking — so I did a  second swatch and changed the needle size to see how I liked it.  Okay back to the white   CF info suggests you mark out an area line that and then count the stitches within that area and the rows within that area.  I marked that first swatch but I don’t bother to mark them off any more.  I just check several places within the center to make sure I’m getting the same row and stitch count.
The other wonderful thing about CF — how you count stitches and rows.  Rather than standard patterns where you need to get so many stitches per inch, you just count your stitches and then look at what that measurement is in inches is. Quilting rulers are very hand for this.   So rather than trying to figure out 30.5 stiches and 25 rows equals 4 inches and having to get meet that gauge, in CF you could count out 30 stitches and then look to see how many inches it is and if it’s 4+5/8″, then you enter that into the program – no counting half stitches or quarter stitches.  Same for rows and you do not need to measure the same distance (so it does not need to be a 4″ x 4″ area you are measuring).  You can count out 25 rows and if that measures 3+1/2″ – those are the numbers you use.
So with those measurements – stitches per a certain measurement, rows per a certain measurement, you add in how big the overall swatch measures and how much it weighs in grams, add all that info to your measurement chart in CF and the style sweater you want to make – pullover, cardigan, or vest; vee neck, round, boat or scoop neck; long or short sleeves or somewhere in between, flared straight or tapered sleeves — lots of choices – and a pattern is generated with your swatch info using your measurements.  Love this program.
swatch1Do I swatch in pattern?   It depends.  For CF swatching is done with stockinette stitch.  Some patterns do not alter that swatch but some will affect it.
In this blue swatch – a summer cardigan I’m ready to block and start sewing together.  I did swatch the lace inset I was going to use up the front of both sides of the cardigan.  I tend to knit lace a bit more loosely  but as you can see from the swatch it didn’t really alter the fabric so was good at the same gauge.
One time I should have swatched the pattern stitch and didn’t – those two swatches in the brown tweed yarn – I was going to make a sweater with cables up the front but I didn’t swatch the cables.  I have the back of the sweater done – which is plain stockinette, and when I started the front the cables don’t show up at all.  The particular type of yarn does not make them pop and stand out and since I’m not a fan of making cables in the first place, I’m certainly not going to make them if they are going to fade into the sweater!  So that sweater is in time out – I will probably just make the front plain, which is fine, but lesson learned.
What are the holes in the swatch.
swatch3You can see four holes in the top of the blue/yellow swatch.  As I said earlier, I like to keep my swatches if possible.  That’s because if I decide to make another CF sweater and use the same type of yarn, I can refer back to that swatch.   The green swatch that had the white thread on it – that’s Wollmeise DK yarn so if I want to make another Wollmeise DK yarn and I want the same short of drape as that swatch has, then I already know what my gauge will be and won’t need to re-swatch but will need to know what size needles I had used to get that gauge.   I’m getting better at adding that info into Ravelry project pages but sometimes don’t so in the case of the blue/yellow swatch – the four holes means I used a US size 4 needle. Most of the other swatches are marked differently (because I hadn’t learned this method of marking them yet) and the rest have knots tied in the starting or ending thread tail – so four knots would indicate a US size 4 needle,  3 knots a size 3 needle etc.
Do I block my swatches?  Absolutely.  You need to know how that yarn will react with blocking.  Some yarns bloom, some grow in length  and shrink in width and all those changes will happen to my sweater when it’s done.  CF uses the “blocked” gauge measurements so you block/wash your swatch however you will great your sweater and then take your gauge measurements.  If it’s superwash and you will put your sweater in the washer and dryer, then I would do the same to my swatch.  I usually just soak the swatches, squash out the water and let them dry  – which is how I would care for the finished sweater.  No pinning out of the swatch  to a certain size – I just sort of smooth it flat so the stitches are looking even and let it air dry.
If you want to learn more about CF – the link to the website is above and there’s a great discussion board on Ravelry where I’ve learned so much more – a very valuable resource.
ETA – I just had to go back and look at that blue swatch – the picture looks like it has coffee spilled on it.  Sure enough.  Did I mention that they sometimes become mug rugs for my coffee cups while I’m working in  the sewing room if one is left out — clearly I slopped my cup on that one.   Oh and swatches do also make great Barbie doll afghans/blankets — or so I’m told my some little girls who have visited and taken some home with them. 🙂

5 comments on “Swatching – friend or foe

  1. Thank you so much for taking the time to explain so much about swatching and how you do it. This was so beneficial to me in many ways. I learned how to mark needle sizes on swatches, how and why to wash/block your swatches and so much more. I am printing this out to share with a friend and for my future reference to remind me. I may not remember it all later. My brain tends to get crowded with all sorts of good information, but as I get older, some of it gets pushed into the closet of my head and doesn’t get found easily when I need it!

Comments are closed.