I have compiled a list of things I have learned from knitting swatches over the years. In knitwear, swatches are imperative! In knitting toys or blankets, it isn’t as imperative unless you are knitting to certain dimension requirements. I’m going to discuss why swatches are so important for knitting garments and what they tell you about the fiber you are using.
Tip 1: Only buy 1 skein of your desired yarn.
Never buy more than 1 ball of yarn for a project until you are certain that this is the yarn that will work best with your pattern and lifestyle. The reason why is very simple, if you buy all the yarn for a project and then after knitting a swatch, find out it won’t work for your project, you could be out $60 – $200 with a pile of yarn and no project for it. I’ve done this so many times and this is how you feed the stash. If you are a minimalist or you just don’t believe in wasting money, only buy that one skein. If it isn’t a match made in heaven, chances are that you aren’t out more than $20 and the upside is that there are plenty of one skein projects out there to repurpose the yarn with and since you already knitted a swatch, you will know if that yarn will be suitable for a future project.
Tip 2: Pattern in the round, means a swatch in the round.
If the project you are working on is knitted flat, then knit your swatch flat. If your project is knitted in the round, knit your swatch in the round. I cannot tell you how many times I did not swatch in the round for a project that was supposed to be knitted in the round. Every time I failed to swatch in the round, I ended up with a garment that fit poorly. The reason why you want to swatch in the manner that you are knitting the project in is because your tension is different for a purl stitch versus a knit stitch. Knit stitches tend to have a higher tension than purl stitches do. When you are knitting plain stockinette in the round your stitches will all be tighter than flat stockinette, resulting in a smaller garment, when you are purling reverse stockinette in the round, your stitches will all be looser than flat reverse stockinette, which means a larger garment. Ysolda has an ingenious way to swatch in the round and this is the way that I swatch in the round.
Tip 3: Purl your needle sizes into your swatch and use 1 swatch for many needle sizes.
When knitting your swatch, start with the needle size that the pattern calls for, knit stockinette for 2 rows, on the third row continue the stockinette, but purl for as many stitches as your needle size (ex. 8 purl stitches for a size US 8 needle), continue knitting 2 more rows of stockinette, then begin knitting the swatch based what stitch your pattern calls for. After you have knitted 4 inches, switch your needles to one size smaller. Repeat the stockinette rows and the row that marks the needle size, then knit another 4 inches. Next, knit with a needle size larger than your pattern calls for and repeat the same process once again. You can do this for as many needle sizes as you want to try out with the yarn in order to obtain the correct gauge needed for the project.
Tip 4: Test wash your swatch at least two ways (Well Intentioned and Realistically) and measure the gauge
Treat the swatch as you would the garment you are going to knit. This means that if you are well intentioned about hand washing but have already felted a garment or two in a laundering accident, be realistic and treat that swatch as bad as you just might treat it. First, wash and dry that swatch as you intend to care for the garment. Most yarns recommend hand washing and laying flat to dry, some are machine washable. When laying the swatch flat to dry, do not stretch it out, let it lay as naturally as possible. After washing and drying the swatch, lay it on a flat, hard surface. Spread the swatch out, so that it is laying flat, but do not tug on it and pull it taut. Measure the gauge…count the stitches across 2 inches, then divide the count by 2, or count the stitches across 4 inches and then divide the count by 4. The resulting number is your gauge. Next, treat that swatch badly, then when it is dried, lay it out again, measure it and make your calculation again. I’ve seen fabric grow from washing and I have seen a fabric shrink from washing. After this process, you will know exactly what needle size you should use based on your laundering habits. The swatch will also tell you if the yarn you have used is going to be too much maintenance to be realistic as well as if the yarn dye bleeds a lot.
Tip 5: Take note of how the fabric looks with the stitch pattern and whether it meets stitch definition or drape requirements.
Knitting a swatch lets you try out the stitch pattern before knitting the whole project. By the time you get to knitting the project, you will have the knit pattern memorized or you will know that the stitch pattern will never be memorized. After knitting a gauge swatch you can realistically determine if this project will be a joy to knit or a pain in the rear, just because of the stitch pattern. A swatch allows you to make a decision on whether you want to embark on the project and whether or not you want to embark on it with the yarn you have chosen. For instance, sometimes you will knit a gauge swatch of cables with a yarn that doesn’t have very good stitch definition and the cables look flat and undefined. The good thing is, since you only bought the one skein, you don’t have to suffer through the project with the yarn you picked out. Another example is when you want to knit a garment with a lot of drape, but you find the swatch to be stiff and have too much stitch definition to drape properly no matter how many needle sizes you go up. A swatch is worth its weight in gold!
As you can see, there are at least five things a swatch can tell you, more often than not it can tell you even more than this short list. Let me know in the comments what knitting a gauge swatch has told you before embarking on a project.