Technique Tuesday: Swatching for Sweaters

Straight out of the wayback machine, this was the original swatch for my Tangled Up in Gray pullover, from Interweave Knits Fall 2017.

Straight out of the wayback machine, this was the original swatch for my Tangled Up in Gray pullover, from Interweave Knits Fall 2017.

On Technique Tuesdays, I’ll be tackling technique questions in knitting, questions about how to execute a particular thing rather than “how to think about executing a thing” (that’s for Thursdays). This fall, most of these questions will focus on sweater knitting.

In this week’s Technique Tuesday, I’m continuing my march through the dirtiest words in knitting. Last week we hit “at the same time,” and this week, we’re going to talk about swatching. But, in a kind of “we come to bury Caesar, not to praise him,” I’m here to try to liberate you from swatch jail, and help you make swatches that will actually help you make better sweaters. Which is, contrary to popular opinion, actually the point.

So: swatching. Obviously, we’re here because I design knitwear, and it is Down in the Rule Book that I am obligated to tell you that you should swatch, and that you should do certain things to your swatch. And this is true! But, I also live in the real world, was once not a knitwear designer, and was once both relatively resistant to swatching and really bad at it. So, what I really want to tell you is not that you “should swatch,” but why real, meaningfully predictive swatching can help you on your way to sweater happiness.

True story: many years ago (but not as many years as I would like), I was making a hat (swatching for hats is kind of a separate topic, but bear with me). I cast on about 20 stitches, knit about an inch and a half of the stitch pattern, measured it on my outstretched thigh, determined that I had more or less “got gauge”…and proceeded to unravel my swatch and knit my hat.

You get three guesses, and the first two definitely do not count, about whether my hat fit its intended recipient the way I intended it to fit them.

What did I do wrong? If your answer is that I (a) cast on too few stitches, (b) didn’t knit enough vertical distance, (c) did not block my swatch, (d) measured my swatch on a curved surface, or (e) all of the above, you’re correct (and we’ll talk about each of those things). But my real problem was that I swatched from the premise that I was taking a test: that I was trying to “get gauge,” and that if I did, I had magically come to the end of the question. Not only did this mean I ignored a whole lot of questions that, for sweaters, are as important or more important than matching the pattern gauge, but I also probably added an other technical sin to my process: I probably fudged my measurements because I was focused on matching numbers, rather than analyzing the knitting I’d actually done.

I know that swatching takes time (although, and I can say this till I’m blue in the face and some people will never believe me, it takes less time than ripping out your sweater because it didn’t fit), so how do we make it useful? We have to do two things: one, make it garment-focused, and two, make it meaningfully predictive.

How do we do that?

  1. Stop focusing on “getting gauge.” Instead, focus on reasonably predicting how you are going to knit the sweater. We knit differently when we knit small things vs big things, but I was taught that 35 stitches was about what you need to get something predictive of your sweater-knitting gauge, so I tend to stick to between 35-40 stitches, depending on the stitch pattern, and I aim to knit for 5-6”. Beyond that, think about consistency: use the kind of needles you’re actually going to use, and think about the conditions in which you typically knit and try to emulate them.

  2. Block your swatch! Again, you need to think about consistency with the kind of sweater you’re making, and how you expect to treat it. Some people say to never pin your sweater swatches, but, because I design densely cabled things, I disagree: I’m almost always pinning out the finished garment to open up the fabric and keep it from being many inches thick on my body, so I pin out my swatches to a similar degree to how I expect to pin the finished garment (I also find that if I pin the sweater the first time, that’s the shape it will mostly want to go back to on subsequent washes, so I don’t usually need to pin it every time). Let your swatch really dry, and don’t rush the process by measuring while it’s damp.

  3. Once your swatch is dry, before you do anything else, ask yourself if you (subjectively) like the fabric, and if you want it on your body. Sometimes I drape it off a shoulder or another body part, just to get a sense of how it’s going to hang. More often, I just kind of hold it up and play with it and ponder.

  4. If you subjectively like the feel of the fabric, test for structural integrity. Hold it up to a light source, and look at what you can see through it, looking for some daylight, but no holes big enough to poke a finger through. Then, hold down one horizontal edge, and pull on the other, and see if it springs back (you can do this either flat or hanging). Unless you’re looking for a very specific, super-drapey look, and you’re willing to do a lot of reblocking after nearly every wear, you’re looking for something with some resilience and spring to it. If you don’t like the feel of the fabric and/or it flunks these structural tests, you’ll need to try again, but don’t unravel this swatch just yet—you’ll want it for comparison purposes.

  5. Finally, if, and only if, you’re happy with the fabric’s feel and its structural qualities, measure your gauge. I like to move in an inch or so from each edge, because the edges of swatches get a little weird, and I like to measure both stitch gauge and row gauge at multiple points on the swatch. If you like the fabric and you’ve matched the pattern’s gauge, you’re off to the races. If you like the fabric and you haven’t quite matched the pattern’s gauge, you’ve got a bit of math to do and some decisions to make, which we’ll talk about later this week.

For most knitters I’ve talked to, viewing swatching not as a test they need to pass, but a means of predicting what their sweater will turn out like is super liberating, and it greatly increases their willingness to swatch (it certainly did for me!), and I hope I’ve convinced you to give a more predictive swatch a go in your next sweater project. Later this week, we’ll talk more in our sweater school series about some basic arithmetic and logic that can help you figure out what to do when you haven’t quite matched gauge, but you like the fabric you have (spoiler alert: it’s often less thank you think!).

What’s your best swatching tip? Any great swatch-fail horror stories? Tell me about it in the comments below…