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Swatch for Success

Posted by Churchmouse Yarns & Teas on

"Swatch, swatch, swatch!" is one of our most common refrains. Because we absolutely believe it's the best way to get to know your project before you begin it! A few hours spent knitting, measuring, blocking, and measuring again could save you countless hours (not to mention some money) down the road. In this post, we'll share our favorite swatching method and how it can help your project succeed!

Swatching will help you:

  • ensure your piece turns out the intended size;
  • ensure your fabric has the desired hand or drape (i.e. not too dense and stiff, nor too sheer and floppy, just right for the look and feel you're after);
  • test your finishing techniques;
  • practice caring for your new piece;
  • and test the pleasure factor—are you enjoying this yarn? With this needle? In this stitch pattern?

To help you get the most helpful information out of your swatches, we recommend that you:

  • Make a nice, big swatch;
  • Measure and record your 'raw' gauge;
  • Wet block your swatch to desired gauge, then let it dry and rest;
  • Measure your 'rested' gauge;
  • And then keep your swatch as well as a record of all your measurements!

Useful to have on hand: A pencil, our Design Swatching Worksheet, Tape Measure, Swatching Wires, T-Pins, Fork Blocking Pins, and a blocking or ironing board.

OUR FAVORITE SWATCHING METHOD

You might find different recommendations for how to knit a swatch—this is our favorite!

Step 1: Decide how big you want your swatch to be. We like nice, big swatches—at least 6-8''/15-20 cm square—because they make it easier to get a nice feel for the fabric and to imagine the effect of the whole piece.

Step 2: Take the number of stitches per inch specified in your pattern and multiply by 6 (or 8). This calculates the approximate number of stitches needed for a 6''/15 cm or 8''/20 cm wide swatch. Note: Adjust this number if you're swatching for a pattern stitch with a particular repeat.

Step 3: Cast on loosely using a stretchy, neutral cast-on that will not affect the gauge of your swatch. We've used and liked the cable cast-on and the e-loop cast-on (either the thumb method or the finger method). Or use your personal favorite!

Step 4: Work all stitches in your specified stitch pattern (it's often stockinette stitch, but not always) for approximately 6''/15 cm to 8''/20 cm in length—enough to make your swatch square. Make sure that you don't use garter- or slipped-stitch edges as these may influence your row gauge. End with a wrong side (WS) row and note the number of rows worked. Cut yarn, leaving a tail that's long enough to wrap around your needle as many times as you have stitches, plus 8''/20 cm—this leaves enough yarn for the sewn e-loop bind-off (see below).

Step 5: Next, loosely bind off your swatch. Because it's a little harder to find stretchy bind-offs, we recommend using the sewn e-loop method—we trust it to not affect stitch gauge.

SEWN E-LOOP BIND-OFF

To bind off using the sewn e-loop method:

  1. Thread tail through darning needle.
  2. With right side (RS) facing, insert darning needle KNITWISE through the second stitch on left needle under the needle from front to back. Pull through, leaving a little slack.
  3. Insert darning needle PURLWISE through first stitch. Pull through, leaving a little slack. Let stitch off the needle.

Repeat steps 2 and 3 until one stitch remains. Slip last stitch KNITWISE, pull through, and let off the needle.

MEASURE RAW GAUGE (i.e. before blocking)

Once you finish your swatch, it's time to take a preliminary measurement of your stitch and row gauges. While gauge is sometimes given as 'stitches per inch,' we always measure gauge over 4''/10 cm. If your gauge is even a quarter stitch off, it may not show up over 1'', but will reveal itself over 4''. This tiny difference can add up to inches in a finished project, resulting in a piece that doesn't fit or that you don't like! It's important to note your 'raw,' or pre-blocked, gauge so that you can make sure your raw gauge stays consistent as you're knitting.

Before you begin your measurements, pat your swatch into what the fabric wants to do naturally, straight off the needles. Pin the four edges to a blocking board to make sure the edges of your swatch don't curl.

To measure raw stitch gauge, you'll place pins 4''/10 cm apart across a row at the center of your swatch. Do NOT include stitches near the sides of your swatch in your measurement—they are never quite true.

Place your first pin a little in from the left edge between two full stitches. Place your second pin 4''/10 cm to the right—it may fall mid-stitch.

Count the stitches between pins, including partial stitches. (In our stockinette stitch example shown, each 'V' is one stitch; there are 18 full stitches in 4''.)

To measure raw row gauge, you'll place pins 4''/10 cm apart along vertical columns of stitches at the center of your swatch. Do NOT include stitches near the top and bottom of your swatch in your measurement—like stitches near the sides, they are never quite true.

Place your first pin a little up from the bottom edge, at the very bottom or top of the 'V' of a stitch. Place your second pin 4''/10 cm above—it may fall mid-stitch.

Count the rows between pins, including partial stitches. (In our stockinette stitch example above, each 'V' is a stitch in one row.)

Tip: Poking a needle tip into each stitch can help you see—and feel—as you count. 

Whether you are determining your stitch gauge or row gauge, be sure to measure in several places. Jot down the results and take the average. Remember to keep your raw gauge measurements on hand so that you can check that your knitting stays consistent.

WET BLOCK YOUR SWATCH

After you measure the 'raw' gauge of your swatch, it's time to block and process it the same way you will care for your finished project. This helps to make sure you won't get any surprises the first time you clean your piece! Also, depending on your yarn's fiber content, its fabric can change dramatically after wet blocking.

To wet block your swatch, first soak it for 15-20 minutes in cool water with a little no-rinse wool wash (like Eucalan or Soak Wool Wash). Then, squeeze (do not wring) your swatch to remove as much water as possible. Roll in a towel and squeeze firmly until damp-dry.

Next, lay your swatch flat and pin to desired gauge (using Swatching Wires, T-Pins, or Fork Blocking Pins). When it's damp, you can make your swatch behave just about any way you like. You can use wet blocking to help you open up your gauge if it's falling somewhere between whole numbers. If you're blocking something slinky or superwash, you may need to nudge your fabric in a little. (P.S. If you're blocking under any tension, pin frequently enough to prevent scalloping at the edges!)

MEASURE DRIED & RESTED GAUGE

Once you've pinned out your damp swatch to the desired gauge, let it dry thoroughly. Then, unpin it and let it rest overnight on a smooth surface. This will let your swatch do what it wants to do (i.e. relax or bounce back or stay true).

Repeat the measuring process. Compare your measurements of your raw gauge, your blocked gauge, and your rested gauge. Has your gauge changed?

WHAT IF I DON'T GET GAUGE?

We often find ourselves betwixt and between a too-tight gauge or a too-loose gauge. Or we are able to get stitch gauge, but not row gauge. Now what? If you're even half a stitch off over 4'', your finished garment may be several inches larger or smaller (in some styles, that might mean the difference between sizes S and L). If you're even half a row off over 4'', your finished garment may be several inches longer or shorter than intended. You'll have spent a lot of time and money on a sweater you'll never wear! Here's some guidance on finding the right gauge:

  • If you have too many stitches or rows per inch, your stitches are too small or tight. Try re-swatching on a larger needle. If you have too few stitches or rows per inch, your stitches are too large or loose. Re-swatch on a smaller needle.
  • If your gauge is falling somewhere between whole numbers, you may be able to open up (or loosen) the gauge a little in the blocking as we mentioned above. Pin the swatch so that it is forced into stitch and row gauge. (P.S. Remember, you won't know whether this blocked gauge will hold until you've rested your swatch.)
  • In most cases, we think it's more important to get stitch gauge than row gauge. Stitch gauge determines body fit (unless your piece is knit cuff-to-cuff). Your row gauge will effect the length of your piece (body, sleeve, armhole, neck depth), but you can adjust the number of rows you knit to correct for this. (If you're knitting a piece from cuff-to-cuff the opposite holds true.)
    • To determine the correct final length of your project, establish your blocked and rested row gauge from your swatch. Then, multiply the rows per inch/cm by your desired length and knit to that number of rows, no matter what it measures. Finally, block the finished piece to your desired length. If the fabric is slippery or has weight, hang your swatch to dry and see if it changes. (Clips on a skirt hanger could be helpful here; a pin or needle slipped into the stitches at the bottom could help mimic the weight of a finished piece.) All this will give you a sense of how your finished piece will behave.

SWATCHING FOR FABRIC

While a primary focus of swatching is getting gauge, it's equally important to get a fabric that you like, especially if you're substituting a yarn that's different from the original design. Your swatch will allow you to make sure you're creating a fabric that you like and that's appropriate for your project—sheer or dense, drapey or springy. (In our Churchmouse Classics patterns, we usually tell you why we chose the yarn we did and what sort of fabric you're aiming for—dense, structured, loose, sheer—so you can make smart substitutions.) Swatching for gauge gives you a sweater that fits; swatching for fabric gives you a sweater that's gorgeous!

AND SO . . . SWATCH, SWATCH, SWATCH!

You may have to swatch several times before your blocked gauge is just right and you have the fabric that you like. We promise that it's worth it! And if the yarn you've chosen just doesn't work for your pattern, try a different yarn. If you love the fabric, perhaps a different pattern? Be sure to keep and label all of the swatches and Design Swatching Worksheets that you make. They're a good record of past experiments, and what you liked and didn't like about them. Over time, you'll learn a lot about how different yarns behave!

Embark on the swatching process with curiosity and patience—remember, swatching is the best way to gain an understanding of your own knitting style, how your yarn interacts with your stitch pattern, and how your piece will turn out after blocking. Swatching can also help you to play with colorways, try out striping sequences, practice colorwork motifs, see how different yarns blend together—etc, etc, etc! Plus, it's a great way to gain confidence in your work from the very beginning of your knitting adventure.

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