victorious wool

Swatching Prowess, Part 2

Victoria Burgess

Have you ever picked a yarn, maybe from your stash, to use for a pattern and found you couldn’t get gauge with it no matter how many needle sizes you tried? I used to think that regardless of the type or quality of fiber I could make any yarn work for a project if it was the same weight as the suggested yarn. Somewhere deep in my mind I held onto that idea. I don’t know where I got this idea from, its not like its written in knitting how-to’s or anything. Perhaps it’s an extension of the idea that ‘as long as you swatch everything will work out.’ It seems like swatching is the loser on the battlefields of knitting and the generals will say whatever is needed to keep up moral. Knitters who swatch are always trying to get the non-swatchers to convert, to understand that their knitting lives will be better if you swatch. Its true, they will. But just making the square doesn’t mean a project will turn out as hoped. We must learn to read it correctly and discern what the fiber is telling us. Because so many knitters feel that swatching is a bother its a hard sell to get knitters to not just swatch but use the information learned from swatching to expand their fiber knowledge. Becoming a student of swatching is also becoming a student of fiber.

I recently tried to join the mystery knit-along by Hannah Fettig of Knitbot. I really didn’t have time or the money to knit the sweater but I wanted to join in the fun. I picked a yarn from my stash that I had enough yardage to make my size and I swatched. And I swatched. And I swatched. I went down from the original needle size, US 6 I believe, to a 3. I’ve had to go down many needle sizes in projects before so I wasn’t concerned. But when I told a knitting friend what I was doing she commented that she didn’t think I could squeeze another few stitches into the space of 4 inches, the yarn was just too think to allow it. I was struck for the first time that I actually couldn’t make the yarn work for the pattern. I’d never seen the suggested yarn in person and I didn’t know what it was like when knitted up. I realized it was probably more compressible (containing more air within the fiber) than the wool/mohair blend from my stash. What did I do? I gave up on the idea, feeling that it just wasn’t the right fiber or the right time to make the sweater. I actually didn’t feel any failure because I understood what hadn’t work and I chose not to take it personally. 

From that experience I learned, or rather was reminded, about an important truth about fiber and fiber blends. They have different qualities that actually make big differences in the material they create when knitted. If I don’t make conscientious choices when substituting one yarn for another I’m taking a risk with my project and my time. Clara Parkes’ books, The Knitter’s Book of Wool and The Knitter’s Book of Yarn are excellent places to start reading about fiber types and qualities. But when it comes to practical learning, you guessed it, swatching is your best friend. 

Recently I’ve starting knitting with woolen spun yarns and often have trouble finding the gauge needed for patterns. One friend commented, “you must be the loosest knitting in the world,” when I told her how many needle sizes I had to go down to in a sweater project. Not being a spinner I had no idea there were different ways yarn can be spun. Two standard ways of spinning are ‘worsted’ and ‘woolen’ spun and each are beautifully described in Brooklyn Tweed’s Foundation Series. Woolen spun yarns contain more air and have a lofty, weightless quality. When knitted up these yarns make very light garments, even in a bulky weight, while still being quite warm. When I blocked my first few swatches of BT yarn I was surprised to find that sometimes going down a size or two wouldn’t change the number of stitches per inch. The yarn ‘bloomed’ beautifully upon blocking, filling in the spaces in-between my stitches, and pushing me to continue to go down in needle size. The big question has been what do I do if going down in needle sizes changes the fabric beyond what was originally intended? Put another way, what if getting gauge changes the quality of the fabric produced so that its not the same as the fabric the pattern designer achieved with the same gauge? I don’t know the answer, at least not yet. 

My current goals are all about improving the quality of my knitting and trying to get more even, consistent stitches. I’ve been diving into the details of how each stitch is made and passed from needle to needle. I’ve changed the way I hold my yarn to great improvement. But the best thing I’ve done for my knitting is giving up my simplistic ideas of swatching and the search for the ‘silver bullet’ that will magically provide the answer to how to get it perfect the first time. As with so many things in life, swatching and gauge have proven to be far more complex. I always want the simplest answer but often it turns out that the longer it takes me to grasp something the deeper the understanding sinks in and the richer the experience of discovery becomes.