Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Swatch Me!

Over the past few weeks I've encountered several knitters who expressed concern about a current project. "I can't use these needles...they aren't big enough," said one. "Why does mine look different from yours," asked another, while the third simply stated, "I don't like the fabric I'm getting."

My question, to each, upon hearing their plaintive cries for help: Did you knit a gauge swatch? And what do you think they answered? Right. Not one had worked a swatch, though like good knitters they had the decency to look sheepish (surprise pun!) about it.

Lest you think I'm a judgmental b**ch, let me tell you that: (a) I'm intending a teasing tone, not a stupid-people tone here, and (b) I myself have sung the no-gauge-swatch blues on several occasions.

For instance, my Shapely Tank, a free pattern from White Lies Designs, turned out to be neither shapely nor a tank. I substituted a Rowan cotton-and-silk yarn for the one called for in the pattern -- before I understood the characteristics of different fibers -- and ended up with a baggy tunic destined for unraveling.

Had I swatched AND washed AND blocked AND hung my swatch up overnight to test the effects of gravity on the fabric, I might still be wearing that top, my first-ever "sweater."

Now that I've been designing for a while, I know the importance -- the complete and total necessity -- of swatching. When I work up a design, I make a swatch, including washing and blocking it; then I base my final pattern numbers on the gauge measured from that little piece-o-knit. So I want knitters to swatch before making one of my designs, because if they don't, they're likely to be unhappy with the results.

My love of the swatch has carried over into my personal knitting life, as well. Recently, for example, I spent a goodly amount of money on some gorgeous Classic Elite "Soft Linen" and a Dolce Handknits pattern for a cute summer cardigan.

I know my gauge when working with DK-weight yarns, and wanted to jump right in and start knitting. But the yarn wasn't cheap (to me, anyway) and I knew I'd be sick if I did all that knitting and found the sweater didn't fit.

So I worked up a 6 x 6" gauge swatch, washed, and blocked it. Then I hung it from a curtain-top with a couple of clothespins to see if it stretched. After all that, when I cast on, I felt pretty sure that I'd end up with the perfect, crisp, summer sweater to chase the icy chill of even the frostiest air conditioning.

Now, I know there are many, many knitters who just can't be persuaded to knit gauge swatches. Maybe they're just too excited to spend the extra time, or (my favorite excuse) they'll say, "I always knit to gauge." But whose gauge do they knit to? The truth is: There is no set-in-stone, universal gauge. Honestly.

Every designer -- every single knitter -- knits to his or her own gauge, depending on yarn weight, fiber type, stitch pattern, needle size, needle material (bamboo, metal, cassein?), and even the enthusiasm with which they block their garments. Some people stretch the hell out of their sweaters and pin them, while others just pat them into shape.

So next time you consider casting on a new project -- unless you've knit it before with the same yarn OR you know from dozens of pairs of socks that 64 sts on a 1.5mm needle always fits you OR you're making a scarf or other non-size-dependent item -- please consider knitting and "dressing" a gauge swatch.

Make it fun. Have a little swatching party with some friends or just put your favorite movie on the telly and crack open your tastiest treats. Hold the booze, though, at least until you've finished knitting the swatch.

Because as lovely as it may be, a wine-induced glow is bound to increase your risk of knitting at an ultra-relaxed gauge. Once you've bound off, though, pop those corks. And while you're at it, raise a glass to the oft-maligned gauge swatch, won't you?