Swatching Checklist (And Boo To The Swatch Police)

The Swatch is not just an annoying little politeness ritual, taught by the Ms. Manners of Knitting. It is literally a sample of your finished knitting, akin to the fabric samples you see in furniture stores. Ever bought a sofa using one of those samples, only to feel a bit shocked at how the floral pattern looked once it was spread halfway across your living room? Yeah. We can all live without that kind of shock therapy in our knitting, thank you very much—and that’s where a good swatch comes in. If done correctly, a bit of knitting in a properly-sized square can tell you a lot of things about what is going to happen when you cast on those 432 stitches for your husband’s raglan pullover! But the information you can glean from The Swatch is only as good as The Swatch itself.

Here are some tips for successful, accurate swatching.

1. Make your swatch big enough.

Ten stitches wide and four rows long is not enough. Why? Because the cast-on row, the bind-off row, and the edge stitches can draw in your knitting considerably. My rule of thumb is four inches long: one inch to work off the effects of the cast-on row, two inches to get the rhythm of your knitting even enough for a gauge measurement to be accurate, and then another inch before the bind-off to offset the effects of that row. Same rule applies for the width: Make the swatch wide enough so you can measure in the middle!

But at what point is it smarter to actually forgo the swatch and just make the item? Mary asked that question, and then went right on to give a great answer: “This must certainly be true for baby socks! Turns out the wrong size? Change needles sizes and just try again!” Thanks, Mary. Couldn’t have said it better myself. Socks, baby items, purses…you may decide that some items do not require a gauge swatch, and that’s completely up to you! There are no Swatch Police. I promise. (If there were, I would’ve been locked up in Gauge Jail years ago.)

Now is not the time to measure gauge!

2. Don’t measure on the needles.

The needles are going to pull on the top row of live stitches, distorting the rows and stitches below them. (You aren’t going to wear your sweater while it’s still on the needles, are you? Nope.)

3. Use the same needles for the swatch as you would use for the actual project.

I knit more tightly on bamboo needles than I do on plastic ones. Similarly, anyone’s knitting speed and rhythm is going to be different on dpns than on circulars. This is one common source of problems for folks who do a swatch (on dpns) only to find they cannot get gauge on the entire project (worked on their circular needles). Be consistent.

Corollary: If gauge is given in the round, work your swatch in the round. Think about this: Stockinette worked flat means that half the rows are purled—and what if your purl gauge is a bit off from your knit gauge? That would cause the gauge of a flat square to be different that the gauge of a tube—because stockinette worked in the round is only knitting, no purling.

4. Measure the swatch BOTH before and after it is blocked. Here’s why:

You want to know what water is going to do to your knitting. Will it shrink it or stretch it? Either way, wetting and drying your swatch before measuring will let you know what to expect from blocking your finished piece.

All the schematic measurements and finished measurements given in knitting patterns are taken after the garment is blocked. The tech editor re-checks and re-measures the blocked, finished garment, and then double-checks that the stitch counts given will produce the sizes in the pattern. If you want to know what finished size to make, or you want to know how your yarn and stitch choices will affect the finished piece of knitting, you have to have a swatch that is blocked just as the finished garment is blocked.

You want to know how your before-blocking knitting measures up to the post-blocking piece, particularly in terms of length. Most knitting patterns will say something like “Knit until piece measures 13” from cast on”—but this is UNBLOCKED knitting. What if it shrinks lengthwise after you block it? If you know beforehand how much your swatch shrinks when blocked, you can make adjustments in length as you knit, avoiding a nasty, too-short surprise later.

Last but not least: Banish The “Swatch Police”

Yes, you should swatch—but if the Swatch Police are the only reason you are swatching, then where’s the fun in that? Knitting is supposed to be our little corner of the Fun World, and although swatching is important for all kinds of technical reasons, the last word in why you swatch needs to come from you yourself. Give yourself Swatch Encouragement in whatever way works for you: plan to use your swatches for beautifully clever projects; reward yourself with a lovely journal to keep your swatches in (and watch your collection grow!); think of swatching as your personal knitting design time.

How do I motivate myself to swatch? It’s all knitting. I love to knit, and swatches are knitting, and so when I am swatching, I am knitting—and thus just doing more of what I love.

Sandi Wiseheart
Editor, Knitting Daily

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