I try really, really hard to remember how I felt as a beginning knitter trying to get into knitting from patterns. Each new project seemed like it was full of new techniques to learn and puzzling instructions to try to de-code. It really shouldn't be that hard for me to remember....I only knit for the first time in 2007. But a lot has happened since that first lesson, and I really have immersed myself in it. So, as much as I try to remember how I felt back then, I know it's easy to forget that feeling of everything seeming new, confusing & sometimes overwhelming. And sometimes I receive a question through Ravelry or e-mail, or just have a conversation in person with another knitter, and it reminds me of how much I have forgotten about being a beginner.
I had just such a conversation this past weekend with a good friend of mine. She's taking on her first adult sweater project and we were talking about swatching. I think she generally makes either projects that don't require fit or goes with the "it'll fit someone" approach to knitting. I don't get the impression that she routinely does swatches before she begins. But after spending a good chunk of money on the materials for her sweater, not to mention the fact that if she's going to put in a number of hours to make it, she wants it to fit her properly, so she jumped on the swatching bandwagon and whipped up a couple swatches in different needle sizes to see what sort of gauge she was getting.
She had a lot of questions about swatching, and I'm sure she's not alone, so she inspired me to write down all the things we talked about as she went through the process, and a few things that occurred to me afterward.
Swatching Tip #1: Use the exact yarn & needles that you intend to use for the project.
I know, you may think that this goes without saying, but I mean use the exact yarn & needles. If you are making a sweater out of composition book grey tosh sock yarn, don't swatch with whiskey barrel tosh sock yarn. This might seem crazy picky, but different colorways can actually soak up different amounts of dye, which can result in a difference in gauge. Similarly, if you want to use your US Size 3 Addi Turbo needles for your project, don't swatch with your US Size 3 Knit Picks nickel-plated set. These needles are super-similar, but they are not the same needle. So don't make the mistake of swatching with one of them when you actually intend to use the other on the actual project.
Swatching Tip #2: Your gauge then is not necessarily your gauge now. Swatch again.
I have heard the legend of the knitters who keep their swatches in some sort of organized storage system so if they want to make a project now from the same yarn & needles that they used on something last year, all they have to do is pull the swatch out of the box and remind themselves what their gauge is. The problem is threefold (at least!) First, are you sure you know exactly what needles you used to make that swatch a year ago? Second, are you absolutely sure that the yarn is exactly the same as it was when you made that swatch? As in, the batch that is currently being produced is identical in every way to the batch that was produced a year ago? And third, are you sure that you knit with exactly the same tension now as you did a year ago? I don't know about you, but my tension can vary for many reasons. It might be tighter around Christmastime or at the end of the school year when my life is very busy, while it might be looser in the middle of the summer when my main job is being at home with my kids while they are on summer vacation, and our days are generally pretty laid-back. It can vary day-to-day depending on whether I'm in a hurry to get a project finished, or if I'm watching a tense tv show, or if I'm enjoying a relaxing, long drive with my husband at the wheel. There's no way I'd assume that my tension at this moment is identical to what it was one month ago, much less an entire year ago.
Swatching Tip #3: If you want to be able to wash the finished object and still have it fit, you must wash your swatch.
Many yarns relax when they are washed. If you don't work your project based on blocked gauge, you're asking for your project to turn into a giant, oversized monstrosity once it's washed.
In the same vein, if you plan to steam-block your finished object, you need to steam-block your swatch.
If you are going to machine wash or dry the garment, do the same with the swatch. Plan on hand washing? Hand wash the swatch using the same soap & water temp that you'll use for your finished project.
Swatching Tip #4: Swatch with a consistent needle type.
If you are running through a few different needle sizes, you might have a little trouble getting a good reading on different gauges if you swatch with a metal needle for one size, then a bamboo needle for the second size, and an acrylic needle for a third size. There's nothing wrong with using different types of needles, but the different materials may change your tension as much as the different sizes do. So, for instance, your US #3 bamboo needle might give you larger stitches than your US #4 metal needle will.
Swatching Tip #5: You must swatch in the same way the project will be worked.
Will you be knitting something flat? Then make a flat swatch.
Knitting a large project (like a sweater) in the round? Your swatch needs to be done in the round, preferably using magic loop (since you won't be making your sweater on double-pointed needles).
Are you making something small on dpns, like mittens or a toddler hat? If you want to make a swatch for a very small item, then go ahead and swatch using the dpns. Though often people figure that if something is quite small, they'll just go ahead and take their chances with gauge, knowing that they won't lose a ton of work if it turns out the wrong size and they have to redo it.
Swatching Tip #6: Start with fresh (unused) yarn for each swatch.
If you swatch with one needle size and don't get the pattern gauge, you'll need to work another swatch. But don't just unravel the swatch you just did and reuse the yarn, start with the other end of the skein and use fresh yarn for your second swatch. It might not make a big difference, but I'd rather just begin from the same starting point with each swatch so I know I'm comparing apples to apples.
Swatching Tip #7: What do they mean when they say the gauge listed is for a ribbing pattern "slightly stretched"?
Normally, you want your ribbed stitches to stretch out a bit. If your sweater cuffs were so big that the ribbing on them didn't have to stretch at all to fit around your wrist, you'd think they look weird. But how stretched is slightly stretched"? I can't really tell you that. It's really up to the way you want the fabric to look in the spot that uses that "slightly stretched" stitch pattern. So stretch it out as much as you see fit, then measure. Hopefully, the pattern will give you a second stitch pattern to also use as a checkpoint for gauge, so you can choose your needle size based on the other stitch pattern, then swatch with the appropriate size for the ribbing (many times you'll be asked to go down one needle size from the "main needle" used to achieve pattern gauge in order to work the ribbing) to see if you like the way it looks.
Swatching Tip #8: Your swatch needs to be bigger than 4" x 4".
Yes, gauge is given as the number of stitches that make up 4" horizontally and vertically, but it is assumed that you are measuring away from any distorted edge stitches. I aim for a 6" x 6" swatch plus a border (usually seed stitch to make it lie flat), so if the pattern gauge says 24sts x 34rows = 4" x 4", I cast on at least 44 sts and knit until the swatch is more or less a square. That gives me 36 stitches for the pattern stitch (stockinette or whatever) and 4 stitches on each side for the seed stitch border. So when I'm measuring the innermost 4", I'm more than an inch away from any edge stitches, which gives me a "true" reading of my gauge. Or, as true as I can get, because....
Swatching Tip #9: Sometimes swatches lie.
Despite your best efforts, sometimes swatches are just jerks. I remember when I was working on the Leap of Faith pattern. My first step was to swatch the patterns I wanted to use (stockinette, 1 x 1 ribbing, and the cable detail), then I did the math for my size and wrote down the bare bones instructions. I had swatched in the round using the exact yarn and needles I was using for the sweater, and I had made a good-sized swatch for the stockinette portion so I could be sure of my gauge. Still, once the project was complete and I measured my gauge again, I found that it had changed by 1 stitch per 4 inches in most places, and 2 stitches per 4 inches in other places. I was lucky that I still liked the fit, so I just kept the numbers and adjusted the ease the pattern was intended to have, but it was a little bit of a curveball to find my gauge had changed so much from the swatch to the actual project.
So, the best thing you can do to keep an eye on lying swatches is to write down your gauge before as well as after blocking. That way, you can measure occasionally as you work to make sure you're still matching the pre-blocking numbers, and be confident that your gauge will match the blocked (pattern) gauge once you wash your finished object.
Swatching Tip #10: Sometimes you might not need to swatch.
Do I really care if my scarf is 4" or 5" wide? Probably not. Is a gauge that is 1 or 2 stitches off pattern gauge really going to make my mittens unwearable? Nope. Swatch for a blanket I'm making to throw over my couch? Nosiree. Swatch for a baby hat? Um, the hat is the swatch. If it doesn't fit, the baby will grow, or I'll undo it and spend 90 minutes recreating it in a different size. Sometimes size just doesn't matter, or the scale of the project is so small that to swatch is to double the time you might need to make it. In some cases, swatches really might be more bother than they're worth.
If you're making a larger project though, please do yourself a favor and work a gauge swatch. Yes, it delays the fun of making the actual project for a day or two, but if you find that your gauge is way off, it's much better to find that out after an hour or two of swatching rather than after 8 weeks of working on a sweater!