How The Swatch Saved The Day, or At Least, The Bonsai

Sandi's Wise Swatch

Thank you for the hilarious comments, and all the helpful suggestions, that were in the comments on Wednesday's post about the fate of the Bonsai Tunic. I did not realize that the resolution of a problematic UFO would be considered a "cliffhanger," but I should have realized that rescuing a sweater from the frog pile is one of every knitter's most…uh…breath-taking…adventures.

(By the way, because so many have asked the same question…to "frog" a project means to "rip it, rip it, rip it." Say that out loud to yourself and you'll hear froggie sounds, see?)

Fortunately for me, no frogging was necessary on my Bonsai. I came perilously close…but was saved by my swatch. Really. I made a little photo portrait of it above, resting on top of Norah Gaughan's original garment, with a little butterfly to set it off, just to show my appreciation.

So let us once again consider the lowly swatch. We grumble and moan about knitting it, we wonder if we can get away with knitting one that is five stitches wide and five rows long, we resent it because we feel that it takes time away from our "real knitting." However, every now and then, the Swatch proves its worth.
Norah Gaughan's original Bonsai Tunic

In this case, I was totally puzzled by how my Bonsai came out after I blocked it: too large, gauge way off, with an extremely drapey fabric (this would have been truly lovely for a shawl, but wasn't what I needed for the Bonsai). I got a little sidetracked by the whole switching-needle sizes issue, but that did not fully explain the problem.

You see: My swatch fabric did not look like the fabric of my finished garment. The swatch held its shape; it was firm; it was also delightfully soft with a bit of lovely "crunch," and had a nice sheen to it. My garment was more flowing, less crunchy, less firm. Same yarn. Same exact knitting needles. Same knitter.

As a reality check, I examined Norah's original sample Bonsai, which I was fortunate enough to have around the office. The texture and appearance of her garment matched that of my swatch. In contrast, her finished Bonsai and my finished Bonsai looked like they were made out of two different yarns. They weren't. Different colors, yes. Different yarns, no.

The key to this mystery was: How did my swatch differ from my finished Bonsai?

Blocking Tutorial (Part One and Part Two)

When I got the lovely bamboo yarn for the Bonsai, I dutifully sat down to swatch. I will admit that the swatching was accompanied by some impatient growling, some toe-tapping, perhaps even some less-than-knitterly utterances. I persevered, because I had never knit with a bamboo ribbon yarn before, and I wasn't sure which type of needles (wood, metal, plastic) would give me the best gauge results. I will further admit that I was such a Bad Swatcher that I did not follow my own swatch guidelines. What I did right: The swatch is done in three sections, each section knitted on a different size needle (set off by garter ridges). What I did wrong: Each section is barely 2" long— not enough to get an accurate gauge measurement. Bad me.

Nonetheless, I do get points for this next bit. Once I bound off, I proceeded to do what I always do with my swatches: I washed the swatch just as I would the finished garment. I do this so that if there are going to be any issues with shrinking, stretching, or fading, the swatch and I can have it out right then and there, and come to an understanding before an entire garment is produced. I washed the swatch the way I wash all my handknits: Fill the bathroom sink with lukewarm water, dash in a bit of no-rinse soap, let the item soak for a while, then rinse in cool water, and lay flat to dry. for this particular swatch, I also added a final bit of steam at the very end with my steam iron.

Anyone see where this is going yet?

Let's fast forward to the pieces of my finished Bonsai. I decided to use them for my blocking tutorial (Part One and Part Two), so I pinned them out on my fabulous blocking board, sprayed them until they were damp, and let them air-dry. I seamed up the whole thing…and found myself with a flowing Bonsai Tent (as seen in Wednesday's post).

Ta-Da! A Bonsai To Be Proud Of

The difference was that I soaked, rinsed, dried, and steamed the swatch, whereas I only sprayed the finished garment until damp and let it air-dry. Soaking the swatch allowed the water to completely permeate the bamboo fibers; after drying, the steaming applied just a bit of heat to set the stitches in place. My finished garment had not had the benefit of the full-on water-and-steam treatment.

Talk about an "A-HA!" moment. I popped my Bonsai into a sinkful of water, dried it, applied the tiniest bit of steam, and voila: my Bonsai is adorable.

Following your suggestions in several of the comments, I also sewed up the V-neck a bit (1.5" [3.8 cm]), which was the final finishing touch to customize this pretty top to my particular curves.

So I take it back. My swatch did not lie. It was telling me the truth the entire time, and I just wasn't paying attention.

The Swatch is good. The Swatch is wise. Listen to the Swatch.

Sandi Wiseheart is the editor of Knitting Daily.

What's on Sandi's needles? First of all: I believe that the Bonsai no longer counts as a UFO, so my UFO count is now down to 17. The pullover for my husband is nearing the armholes, and I think I need to work on a certain pair of lace socks.

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