How to swatch

Posted on March 01, 2016 | 2 comments

Swatching, Step 1Do you know what one of the most important steps to a successful knitted garment is??

... apart from choosing the right yarn for the project, reading the instructions beforehand, deciding on the custom modifications you want to make, understanding the instructions and the stitch pattern, ... ?


In German, this is called a "Maschenprobe" ... a stitch sample. In English, this is either a swatch or a tension square. At our KnitNights, as many friends start knitting with our yarns, we often get asked how to do it correctly. So, I think, this topic is more then blog-worthy...!

Most German knitting patterns indicate the gauge over 10 cm, most English ones either over 4 inch (which translates more or less into 10 cm -- careful if you're knitting a fitted garment in fine yarn, you might prefer to go with the original measurements intended by the designer!) or 1 inch. To me, larger is always better, so I never go below a 10 cm swatch. Also, if you're swatching generously, the added bonus is that you can better judge the resulting fabric ... is it too dense? Or just rightly so? Too much drape, not enough? When I started doing the Castle Pullover in Siide-Flauschig, I did two swatches. The first one, with needle size 5mm,  seemed too *drapey* for a fitted sweater. So I redid the swatch using 4.5 mm this time and liked it much more. And, before you have to ask, yes, designers do add the yardage needed for swatching in their specifications regarding yarn usage, don't worry.

So, step 1 of the perfect swatch is to guesstimate the number of stitches to cast on. I usually take the number of stitches given for 10 cm and and cast on those and half as many, just to be on the safe side. As you can see from the first pictures on top, I usually knit a "framed" swatch: first three rows are in garter stitch, then stockinette (if that is what is asked in the pattern!), but the first and the last three stitches remain in garter stitch. Apart from just looking neater this way, it also allows the final, washed and blocked stockinette fabric to lie flat... but this is absolutely a matter of personal preference, so don't feel pushed into doing it this way!

The second step though ... there I must say, I would indeed like to push you into doing that from now on... knit an indication of the needle size used into your swatch!! It is endlessly annoying if, after it's been knitted, washed, blocked and hanged, you have your beautiful, perfect little Swatching, Step 2swatch lying in front of you - and you can't remember which size you've used! So - can't remember where I got the tip from, might have been Ysolda - I started to add yarn-overs (followed by a k2tog to get rid of the extra stitch right away) into the swatch on the third row of stockinette. As I'm used to size my needles by mm and you get half and quarter number, I knit one yarn-over per full mm-number, and a purl for the quarter sizes... so 4.75 mm would be, on the same line: 4*(yo, k2tog), 3*(knit, purl). Those who measure their needles by US-sizes do have it a bit easier, they can just knit a (yo, K2tog) per number.

Swatching, Step 3Next step: measure the swatch! Easy, peasy, you'd say ... yes, mostly. Usually, I take several measurements of the swatch, using a small wooden meter, it makes it so much easier. And yes, I do take several ones, both of the rows and the stitches, just to make sure to have a trustworthy number in the end. Give it a try, your stitch and row gauge will very likely be different, depending on where on the swatch you're taking the measurement from.

You want to measure even more accurately? No problem, there's another way to do it as well. Swatching, Step 3bAs it might be difficult to count quarter and half stitches that might occure using thicker yarns, you could sew a thread along a certain number of stitches and rows, making it more or less square. You have now fixed the number of stitches and can measure how many centimeters or inches this rectangle measures at different points - and again calculate the median. This method is especially useful if you're knitting a patterned swatch as requested by the designer -- counting stitches there might prove quite difficult, think of cables or such. Measuring from pattern repeat to repeat is the way to go in those situations.

So, the swatch has been knit, you like the fabric, you're ready to cast on... wrong! Don't do it, you'd be missing out on an important aspect of swatching.

Most yarns consist of protein fibres, such as sheep - think merino -, goats, llamas or even bunnies (angora-bunny!). These fibres are essentially built the way our hair is, not flat or slick, but with structure, scales and crimp. Especially wool is well known for its characteristic uptake of water. When wet, these fibres will soak up a lot of water, grow, move, try to settle into the fabric created by us knitters (and, in the process and much to our relief, it might even make our knitting more uniform, get rid of those bigger and lumpy stitches). So every yarn behaves different when washed for the first time, and before you cast on for your sweater, cardigan or even just a hat, you want to know what the fabric will be like after some use -- and take those measurements to get your garment the right size!!

So, off it goes into lukewarm water with some soap... let it stay in for quite some time please. All Siidegarte yarns do contain silk ... well, we are "Siidegarte" after all, the "Garden of Silks" ... and silk is well known for its adversity to water. So your swatch needs a good, long soak to really get throughly wet. After some time, take it out of the water and let it dry thoroughly. Sometime, depending on the yarn and the pattern, it will need a few needles to keep it lying flat, sometimes a good pat will do. This is called "blocking the swatch". Some designers will specify the "blocked gauge" in their patterns, others will give both, blocked and unblocked. This is especially important if you have a heavily laced or cabled project where the swatch needs to be worked in that pattern... giving the unblocked gauge for a stockinette swatch then often helps you to choose the right yarn before you go into too extensive swatching.

Now do count your rows and stitches again -- I usually write down all my gauge notes in the project pages of Ravelry ... more about this though in a later blog post.

Only after it has been well dried comes the third stage ... you need to hang your swatch for a certain time. Again, this has to do with the specific characteristics of the yarn you've used. Protein fibres, like wool, will hold up to everyday gravity and stretch really well due to their build: the scales of the hair will cling to each other and give stability to the fabric. But if you have superwash-treated wool, so is mashine-washable, it might grow as those scales have been "burnt" away. On the other hand, those slick cellulosic fibres like linen and cotton really do tend to grow with wearing. Either case, to be on the safe side, you will want to know the final, "gravity"-tested gauge of your fabric.

Get some clothes-pegs to put weight on it and let it hang for half a day or so.... it doesn't really matter for how long. Now measure again using your favourite method, this now is your final gauge with which you can start making the  calculations for your garment.

And, another advantage of doing a swatch? Swatching lets get you accustomed to both the yarn and the pattern, especially if it is an complicated one, on a small scale, before going too far ahead with the project and maybe having to rip back due to some errors in the beginning. Either way, swatching is fun and does nothing but help you get a perfect finished object, or FO! Enjoy!!



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  • Wendy

    Thank you — I think this is the best explanation as to how to block and why. I’m always excited to start a project & often tempted to not knit a swatch. Sometimes things work out, other times they don’t. After reading this, I will definitely take the process more seriously. After all, if you spend time and money on a project, you want to have an enjoyable and wearable end product.

  • Rosemary

    Very clearly and well explained. It will surely be of great help to many knitters!


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