I started my sweater for the DCS Pigskin Party (a great KAL that runs through the NFL football season hosted by my friend and fellow podcaster of the Down Cellar Studio, BostonJen). I picked yarn and then changed my mind. I started with a list of about 15 sweaters and using a very complicated bracket type strategy, narrowed down my options until there was one left, Corrugated Box by von Hinterm Stein. I plan on wearing this casual sweater with jeans (read, I will wear this sweater a LOT). So you can bet your bippy that I swatched for this project.
I heard you all moan there, I'm I mom and I can hear everything! Give me a chance. You spend all that time picking just the right color of yarn to fit into your wardrobe and compliment your skin tone. You held yarn up to your neck and asked your friends (or perfect strangers), "Does this compliment me?" You spent a significant amount of money for a sweater quantity of yarn. You poured over Ravelry patterns for hours like I did, sending texts and emails to friends asking for options and they only give you more great options you hadn't seen. You will spend hours knitting the sweater and hopefully wear it for years. So please set yourself up for success by swatching.
Swatching is preparation. You wouldn't sign up for a half marathon and think, "I probably don't have to prepare for this. I think I got it. I did do that little jog across the parking lot to get out of the way of that car the other day, so I know how." (Note: If you did sign up for a half and said those words, message me, because we need to have a Come-To-Gym-Moment.) No. just because you know how to knit a sweater doesn't mean that you don't need to prepare every time. Each sweater is different, each yarn knits up different and each gauge could be different.
Not only should you swatch, you should swatch the right way for your project. If your project is knit in pieces and then sewn together, you can swatch flat (knitting to the end, turning the work and knitting back). If you decide to knit a sweater that is knit in the round, then you should swatch in the round. This is so important because typically you will get more stitches per inch when you knit flat than when you knit in the round. This is because when we turn our work, our purl stitches are usually done with less tension than the knit stitches. This is just the way most of us knit. Some people work very hard to learn to keep the tension consistent but I don't think that's necessary. If you know your purl stitches are more loose, then you can adjust in other areas as I'll talk about below. (See how I pulled you along there? Oh the suspense!)
Here is a little tutorial I did on how I knit my swatch. I started out knitting a flat swatch so that I could compare the flat and in-the-round swatches for your benefit and really drive my point home. (LIE: I always forget to knit my swatch in the round until half way through, but it is always a good reminder on why it is important). I then did a purl row to indicate where I switched to knitting in the round.
1. Cast on for your swatch. You need to use needles that you would knit in the round with. DPNs or circulars will work just fine but the length isn't important as you will see below.
Patterns usually show gauge in 4 inch increments, so if the pattern says, "25 sts = 4 inches" then I cast on 25 sts plus 5 to 10 more because I want my swatch to be at least 4 inches. Then I do a few rows of garter to keep the bottom from rolling while I'm trying to measure my gauge at the end of the process.
2. Knit across your swatch. I do 3 stitches of a garter on both sides to keep the edges from rolling as well. To do this you would ideally knit 3 sts, knit across until 3 stitches remained, knit 3 sts and on the next row you would purl 3 sts knit across until 3 sts remained and purl the last 3. Of course, I don't remember to do this every row, so there are always places where it doesn't garter perfectly. We are going for function here, not form, so no worries.
3. Re-position your yarn. Pull your work across the needle so that your work is now on the other side of the needle. It looks like you are ready to start another row but your working yarn is still hanging from the left side.
4. Drape the yarn. To give you enough drape in the back, pull the yarn across to the needle and then pull up a couple of inches to give it some extra slack. This will ensure that the yarn isn't too tight and pulling the knitted fabric. If it is too tight, you won't be able to lay the fabric down and get an accurate measurement. If you do run into it pulling you can always cut the yarn after you have washed it. I loop it loosely so that I don't have to cut it. If I run out of yarn, I can still unravel it if I need to.
5. Reattach your working yarn. Make sure the loop hangs down the back and the working yarn comes up from the bottom and attaches to your yarn ball. How many times have I knit the loop yarn instead of the working yarn? Ummmm....well I ran out of fingers. Also, don't worry that your edge stitches are wonky and loose. Tighten them a little but don't worry too much about them. The middle, where you are going to be measuring, is fine.
6. Continue on your merry way. You want a decent sized height for your swatch. Now, I do admit to not knitting a full 4 inches high, but you need at least 2.5 inches to measure your row gauge so you know how much your rows will shrink up when you wash your sweater. You should end with a few rows of garter at the top before you cast off.
7. Measure your swatch. "Aren't we going to wash the swatch first?" Nope. But don't freak out, we are going to wash it. You need to measure the stitches over 4 inches (then divide that number by 4 to get the rows per inch). Make sure you try to use the stitches in the center of the swatch because your edges may be wonky (see below wonkiness). Then measure the rows per inch. Write this down along with the needle size on your pattern. You will forget. You will misplace your notes. You will be sure you knit it on this needle until you go to pick up the needle and all confidence is lost.
8. WASH THE SWATCH! I don't care if you have to take this swatch into the shower with you and use it as a washcloth, wash that baby! Wash it the way you want to wash your sweater. If that is loofah style in the shower then so be it. I wash my more sturdy sweaters in the washing machine in a mesh bag or a knotted pillowcase in a pinch to keep them safe from velcro, buttons, and zippers of everyday laundry. The yarn I know isn't going to hold up as well I will hand wash while putting the back of my wrist to my forehead and whining in a Scarlett O'Hara voice about how I hate to handwash. "Why I just don't see why I should wash it by hand when they've made these newfangled machines to do it for me. (HUGE sigh and look of disgust)" I do have a "handwash" cycle on my fancy washing machine, but truth be told I'm too scared to try it. Too newfangled for me!
9. Block and dry the swatch. You should also dry the swatch in the way you want to dry your finished garment. I tend to air dry nearly all of my sweaters (though my helpful husband sometimes unknowingly throws one in the dryer). I don't usually block my sweaters so I don't usually block my swatches. I will lay it out and push the edges down so they don't roll. When the swatch is completely dry, I pop it in the dryer for 10 minutes like I do with my superwash sweaters. It just snaps them back into place a bit.
10. Remeasure the swatch. Now that your swatch is dry you can remeasure your stitch and row gauge. Write this information on your pattern too and make sure you label it as Post Wash so you know.
The bottom swatch was knit flat on size 4 needles and came out with an after wash gauge of 5.375 sts/inch. The top part of the swatch was knit in the round on size 4 needles and came out with an after wash gauge of 5 sts/inch. Well that's not much right? Let's look at the difference over a larger area. If I have 170 stitches, 5 sts to the inch would be spot on for my 34 inch bust. If I used the same number of stitches at a gauge of 5.375 I would have only 31.6 inches around for my bust and it wouldn't fit.
Don't forget to really look at the swatch. Is it stiff? Does it drape in a way you like? Think about the overall look you are trying to acheive and think about how we talked about the fabric density in The Right Weight Yarn for Your Next Sweater. Did the yarn start to pill or felt? Maybe you want to reconsider the yarn choice if you are making a garment you hope to wear a lot. Did the dye bleed? If you are making a color work item, it is important to know if your colors are going to bleed. I would hate to see you knit a red sweater with white snowflakes and the whole thing ends up pink. You could do a citric acid soak as mentioned by Jasmine of the Knitmore Girls or use a color catcher if the water is only slightly tinted. Sometimes the yarn just needs to be washed again, but either way it's good to know what you are getting into.
Are you super excited about swatches now??? Nah, me neither, but it has to be done. As Tom Hank's character (kind of) said right before he walks in to meet Meg Ryan's character in the coffee shop in You've Got Mail, It HAAAAS to be! Ok, that one was a stretch but in my mind I say it the same way.