I’ve wanted to write about this topic for a long time now. I think I’m finally ready to try and put my wisdom on this subject into words. There are people who love it, there those who hate it. For some, it’s a step they’d never skip, for others – something they never ever do. For me, its place is somewhere in the middle, something I decide on individually for each project (and make mistakes sometimes).
So what is a swatch? It’s a trial knit-up of your project. Usually, a square or a rectangle, knit/crocheted with tool(s) and yarns you intend to use for the project. Why? For several reasons. To determine your gauge/tension, to see if you like the fabric, or whether it matches the qualities required by the pattern (drapery or stiff for example). If you’re improvising, you may want to swatch for different stitch patterns, to try out techniques etc. Basically, it’s a small(ish) test to see if you like the results. and/or whether your gauge matches the one stated by the pattern.
How? If you research the topic, you’ll find very different advice. For me, the full version of a swatch is a square of 20×20 cm / 8×8 in plus a border at of 6 rows (top and bottom) and 4 stitches (both sides) – if the pattern is stockinette-stitch based (pure or, let’s say, lace) and will curve. Which stitch pattern to use – the one that your pattern mentions in the gauge/tension section, or the one you plan to use for most of the project. If most of the project is knit in round, so should be the swatch too. Ideally, you should wash and dry your swatch in the way you intend to treat the finished item (i.e. wash and lay flat to dry, or block, or throw it in the dryer etc). After your swatch is dry, you can measure your tension. If I want to be precise. I will take several counts over 15-20 cs, then calculate the average per 10 cm. This will give you a reasonably accurate result. I will do a separate post gauge – how to measure it and what to do, if yours doesn’t match the pattern.
When? Should you swatch every time, using the extended method above? I don’t believe so.
I don’t swatch for toys (maybe a small one, if I’m not sure which needle or crochet size will give me the right fabric). I don’t swatch for projects that are narrower, or have a separate detail that’s narrower than 20 cm / 8 in when I follow a pattern – I just start and rip if necessary. If you wish/need to, you can transfer live stitches onto a scrap yarn and wash/dry/block, and continues if happy with results. If I make up my own, I may do a smaller swatch to try out stitch patterns, or some details of construction.
For some projects I may do a smaller swatch. For others, I swatch, but don’t do wash/dry/block routine. For me, it all depends on the level of accuracy I feel is necessary. The rule of thumb is you need more accuracy for projects that have to fit more accurately (e.g. if a shawl is wider/narrower by 5 cm it’s not the end of the world, but if it’s a tight sweater – than it’s a problem). You should be extra careful if you are knitting with bulky yarn (when one stitch may be 1 cm or more of difference) and when you have a very large number of stitches, where 5% discrepancy is a lot of stitches.
Finally, some additional points I’ve learnt through my own mistakes:
- my gauge differs with my mood and time. So if I knit something a year ago, and plan to use the same needles, yarn and pattern, there’s no guarantee that today the outcome will be identical. Same goes for abandoned projects.
- some yarns behave very differently, depending on the batch and/or colour. So for very sensitive multi-colour projects, you may want to swatch in all colours – separately or in one piece
- never trust what yarn label says
- measuring gauge over less that 10 cm/4 in worth of stitches and rows is practically useless. For bulky yarns, you need at least 20 cm to be more or less accurate.
- if you’re bored making a 20×20 swatch, how crazy bored you’ll get making the whole sweater or 2-meter long scarf, or the 3×3 m bedspread? If you don’t enjoy making that swatch, maybe you should think twice about making the project.
That’s all I have to say for now, but I’m sure I’ll be editing this post more than once, as I remember other important stuff. It would be great to have questions and comments, too.