It’s almost a swatch

I have a small admission to make.  I started this new sweater without swatching. I know I always say you should swatch, for lots of really, really good reasons, some of which have nothing to do with fit,  and to be completely honest, I thought about not mentioning that I didn’t swatch.  It wouldn’t have been a lie or anything, just an omission.  Then I thought that maybe it would just be better if I told you why I didn’t, and why I’m okay with it, and maybe someday you would get to skip a swatch too.

Reason to swatch: You need to swatch to get your gauge, so that things fit properly, and because the only way your project will use the amount of yarn that the pattern says, is if it’s the gauge the pattern says.

beforewash 2014-11-05

Reason to ignore this: I am making a top down sweater without a pattern, and I can make it fit.  If things aren’t coming out right, I’ll adjust. I am the master of my destiny.  Also, no pattern, no yarn amount.  I’m guessing.  If I’m wrong, swatching won’t help.

Reason to swatch: You need to know how many stitches you’re getting to the inch if you’re making a top down sweater without a pattern, because you need to know how many to cast on.

Reason to ignore this: I am a good guesser, with lots of guessing experience.

Reason to swatch: It’s not just about gauge. It’s about how the fabric feels.  How will you know if it’s too loose or too tight or too sheer or, kinda strange? Do you want to make a strange sweater?

Reason to ignore this: I never assess that in the unwashed swatch anyway.  It’s pointless to like the unwashed swatch. Read on.

Reason to swatch: You need to knit a swatch so you can wash it, because gauge, and what the fabric feels like can change drastically after knitting has had a bath.  You want to know that before you knit a sweater that comes out as a freakin’ surprise after you wash it.

Reason to ignore this: I admit, that’s pretty compelling.  I can’t totally ignore that. What I can do is start my sweater, knit for a while, then wash and block it on the needles to see if there are any surprises.

afterwash 2014-11-05

I’m glad I did.  The gauge did change enough that I would have had an ill fitting sweater, and I actually thought I might be knitting this too tightly, but I love the washed fabric.  That’s a step I’ll never skip. If I’d have based this sweater on my unwashed fabric, I would have had a sweater that was too big, and too loosely knit.  I would have been seriously annoyed.

Reason to swatch: If you’re making something where you do something every certain number of rows, then you need to know your row gauge so that things end up the right length.

Reason to ignore this:  I’ll try it on a lot.  If it’s getting too wide before it’s long enough, I’ll screw with the rate of increase.  (It’s kind of getting too wide now.  I’ll skip some decreases so it gets longer without getting wider now.  Especially in the back. I’ll keep some extra width in the front.  It’s where my breasts are.)

fronton 2014-11-05

Reason to swatch: Something I’ve forgotten to control for that a swatch would have totally revealed that will rise up later and bite me hard on the hind parts.

Reason to ignore this: The worst thing that can happen is that I’ll have to pull the whole thing out and start again.  I can live with that, because I’m not the kind of knitter who wouldn’t.  Some knitters won’t rip things out, not even when they aren’t very good, and it’s those knitters who need to swatch the most.  If you don’t have it in you to take the whole thing back to the beginning when you took the risk, you’re better off risking less.

Knitter, know thyself.  Then skip a swatch, if you can.

(PS. This will really, really not happen very often.)

(PPS. I really think you can’t skip the washing part at all.)

(PPPS. If this sweater looks a little familiar, it should.  It’s inspired by the Easy Raglan from the The Green Mountain Spinnery Knitting Book .  I have heavier yarn, and want the sweater to fit a little differently, but I loved the cable details.)

(PPPPS. Thanks so much for your sympathy for Sam’s wee Hedgie. She’s feeling much better, and the funeral was lovely – or so I hear. The service was private, which was fine. The deceased was very cute, but dreamed of nibbling yarn, and we weren’t close.)

79 thoughts on “It’s almost a swatch

  1. I knitted my first swatch recently, after 5 years of knitting. It took 4 years for me to figure out that I knit loose, and all of my going by the needles suggested on the ball band was giving me a loose fabric (no wonder my hat wasn’t so warm!).

    Since I am someone who will turn things back into yarn, I’ve gone back and frogged some ancient projects that were finished but hadn’t gotten much use. I can knit them back up with the appropriate gauge. I feel that this is a perfectly reasonable choice, but oh did I feel like I was a little off my rocker scavenging the ancient history of my knitting for failures and spending my time pulling them back and turning them into yarn. Things I’d knit 5 years ago!

    Now if only I could find a use for the pile of under-plied DK that I purchased before I knew what I wanted in a yarn I could properly correct those mistakes of my ill-spent knitting youth.

    • It is possible. using a dinner fork as a spindle, to give your DK a little extra twist. I have done this many times. Pull out a couple of yards of yarn, slip knot onto the fork, catch a backwards loop in the tines, spin the fork. Undo the loop and wind the now-tightly spun yarn onto the fork. Pull out a couple of yards… Until the skein is done. I also untwist yarn to separate the plys and re-twist as singles when the yarn is ww and I want fingering fir a baby sweater, for example.

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  3. I hate swatching – seems like such a waste of time except when it isn’t for all the reasons you list. That’s probably why I knit a lot of socks and baby items . . . all those things matter less!
    Glad for Sam’s improvement!

  4. We discussed this at Knit Night last night…and there are some very strong opinions on swatching or not! Can’t wait to share your thoughts with them! 😀

  5. “It’s where my breasts are.” Such a simple, common sense statement that totally made me LOL. Thanks! And your sweater looks like its going to fit you perfectly! Knit on, swatchless.

  6. RIP little Marty! 🙁

    Screw swatching! I figure if I knit something that doesn’t fit me right, I’ll give it to someone it does.

  7. I hate swatching, but love sweaters. It’s a bad combination. Unless you are one of my female relations, in which case it means you are offered garments reasonably often which I have made but which turned out not to fit me.

    Here it’s the guinea pig that eats the yarn. But only the nice stuff.

  8. Have you considered a brief stint of short-row work to accommodate the…accessories? Gives a bit of extra length, needed, and room, needed, without messing with what you do not wish to change. Same logic and structure as the darts in a sewn garment. jdu

  9. I tend to swatch only for switch gauge, which, given how I tend to knit, I can almost always predict. There’s only so many times you can knit fingering weight yarn on 4s before you start to be able to guess your stitch gauge.

    And I have developed a number of patternless patterns that obviate swatches beyond that, which I adore. Nearly everything I do from hats to sweaters has at least some side-to-side component that defines its size.

    • I love the Harlot’s writing even though not a knitter but want to say I always look forward to comments from you and rams. Just a little extra spice!

    • Hey Presbytera, I am struggling with toe-up socks and I read your linked post (and enjoyed it very much). What is that type of beginning (8 sts for 8 rows, pick up around) called? Because it certainly sounds easier than the cast-ons I’ve been trying. Thank you.

  10. Does your doctor know that Sam got sick at the same time that her hedgie passed away? I wonder if there is some connection there? Just a thought…. I do hope she is on the mend…sounds like a really mean bug.

  11. Totally with you on not swatching for a top-down, and totally with you on washing swatches. I have the old Green Mountain Spinnery book with that pattern and love it (and the yarns) a lot. Also with you on ripping back. In the words of EZ, it’s so “purifying’.

  12. I didn’t wash my last swatch and when I went to wet block, I knew I was in trouble. Fortunately, I didn’t have space to do the whole thing at once, so it was just the front and I smushed it back to the right dimensions. The other pieces I steamed. But I think I now am looking at a lifetime of dry cleaning for this particular sweater.

  13. I’m a lazy person and often don’t swatch properly. But I don’t have any of the great reasons named here for that. But you make a very compelling case, and in this instance I totally get it. In my case I should simple be less lazy and take the time to do a proper swatch in the future.

  14. I confess it. I almost never swatch. And I knit sweaters constantly. (twelve this year alone). After washing and blocking, they all fit exactly as I intended them to. I generally don’t tell people this stuff, because it feels like I’m contributing to some sort of knitter delinquency. I liken it to being the grandma who never measures the ingredients for her recipes yet produces good results anyhow. It’s great when it works out, but it’s not an approach I’d recommend, you know?

    Like you, I have several mitigating circumstances that help justify my swatchlessness:

    I have favorite yarns that I use frequently, and because I knit many sweaters, I have a very good idea what kind of fabric will be produced with a given needle size and how that fabric will behave without needing to swatch. I’m pretty good at guessing based on the texture and heft of yarns, too, if their fiber content and structure are familiar. In fact, the only time I do swatch is when I am using a completely unfamiliar yarn or a completely unfamiliar lace pattern that I absolutely can’t predict.

    I also know roughly how many stitches I need for various fits, and I measure and try on all my sweaters like crazy. It helps that I almost NEVER knit in pieces- I’m all seamless, all the time, for me these days, but back when I did an occasional seamed piece, I would clip the pieces together with a billion coil-less safety pins and try it on like that. I also use the first couple of inches of my project as a de facto swatch. I’d far rather take a risk and rip out three inches of sweater if I don’t like a fabric, but HAVE three inches of sweater if I do than spend time on a swatch- which is always time spent working on something that isn’t your sweater whether you get the fabric you like or not.

    Last, I am the queen of making it fit- I know how make changes in shaping, and I never follow directions over my own preferences or the observed behavior of my garment, so precise gauge just doesn’t usually matter too much to me. With some patterns I have to do a little math or complicated counting to make them work out right, but I’m ok with that.

    Lastly, I don’t swatch because I hate it. I know it’s not reasonable, but it’s how I feel, and I don’t knit to feel angry and resentful. I suppose if I ever really got bitten in the butt by my lack of swatching, it might change my feelings, but in four years of knitting, I’m nearly forty sweaters in at this point, and I doubt it.

    So that’s it. Confessions of an unrepentant non-swatcher.

    • To me you’re like the people that can look at a garment that someone is wearing, or even in a photograph and then go home and sew it up. Although I’m a competent enough seamstress I could never in a million years create a garment by eye. Same with knitting, I swatch and I swatch resentful or not.

  15. Living on the wild side. I am frightened just reading about it.

    P.S. Did you see that “The Amazing Thing” was selected as finalist in humor on Goodreads? Totally deserved it.

  16. So do you knit the size you want in the pattern from your washed gauge? Even to me that sounds like a dumb question but if your swatch gauge changes after washing then aren’t you knitting along on a sweater that’s the wrong gauge until you wash it? I think my head just fell off 🙂

    • I vaguely (maybe) understand about washing a swatch, but how does it work out when you wash half a sweater on the needles and the gauge changes? I guess you have to rip it back and start again right? (Or find a friend who has a secret applied math fetish and keep knitting?)

  17. Silly question- if I knit a bit and wash it, but then dont like what Ive got, when I reknit it, does it still count as a ‘washed swatch’ or does washing it again affect it again? I’ve always felt like swatches take up my precious yarn, so I tend to rip them back, but wasnt sure whether I could do that with a washed swatch!?

    • Washing it again will help it to lay the way it will actually lay in the finished garment. Yarn that has been washed, dried, and ripped will still hold on to the memory of the shape it was in when it dried, most of the time.

  18. I am so with you on washing swatches. I have had enough experience with sweaters & vests that have grown too wide & too short after washing. I figure if I’m going to spend all that time knitting, & money on good yarn, I don’t want something that turns out looking like it was made for a chunky school kid instead of a chunky senior.

  19. I do not swatch, because they lie. I only swatched twice in my life, and both times the knitted piece came out much differently than the gauge swatch had claimed. I have no fear of having to rip something back to get it perfect.

  20. I am not a knitter(my hands fall asleep) but this sounds very much like the prewash/don’t prewash argument in the quilter community. By the way I am firmly on the don’t prewash side and if I did knit I am afraid I would be nonswatcher, too.

  21. Okay, but like… knitters like knitting, and swatching is knitting, and it does not take forever, and it is not time wasted… I seriously do not understand the antipathy for swatching. It’s easy, it’s helpful, it’s time well spent almost always. It’s a first date with the yarn. I don’t care if people don’t do it, as long as they then do not complain if they’re not happy with the results (which is not what you’re doing – I’m just saying.)

  22. Oh and also, the “swatches lie so I don’t swatch” argument does not hold water with me, because swatching does not = you can religiously stick with what your swatch tells you and ignore what your actual project tells you. Even when you swatch, you still need to measure your actual project gauge regularly and check the size of things as you go. Swatching does not 100% guarantee a perfect fit/project every time – but it’s a helpful first step to understanding the yarn you’re going to use.

  23. swatching? pshaw! Isn’t that what the sleeves are for? (I knit them first), Although the washing part was compelling…..methinks I might swatch for next sweater…but…nah.
    That’s how I roll (er I mean knit).

  24. Ah, come on. I swatch all the time, but usually not for fingering weight socks.

    I have a favorite term for swatching. I call it knitting foreplay.

    Do it! Enjoy it!

  25. Reason not to swatch: You’re knitting an afghan, blanket, rug, or scarf for which achieving gauge isn’t all that important.

    Reason to swatch: You’re knitting one of those things with a yarn you’ve never used before. You need to know how the fabric drapes once it has been washed.

    Reason not to swatch: The yarn you’ve never used before is completely made of (good quality) acrylic and/or nylon, both of which tend to wash beautifully without any shrinkage or stretching.

  26. How do you wash a garment on the needles without having the needles slip out and leave a huge wet wodge of live stitches waiting to unravel? Eve from Carlisle

  27. When I was an intern, I knit the sleeves of an Aran sweater without the increases up the sides. The sleeves went very quickly, but did not fit into the armholes very well. My clinical adviser admitted that she had a sweater that had to be ripped out when she was an intern. She had mailed it back to Cleveland so her Mom could rip it out. Then my adviser offered to rip out my sleeves and rewind the yarn. I accepted the offer. These many years later I wish I had just knit a separate gusset and sewed it in (reliving past problems and solving them.)

  28. I knit swatches for sweaters, mostly because I figure if I’m going to be spending all that time and yarn cash I want something I’ll wear and I don’t yet have the experience to guesstimate like I can with lace shawls and socks.
    Of course, I have one swatch on the needles and one that’s waiting for washing and only the vaguest sense of what either one will be (so each swatch is several different sizes of needle so I can decide what fabric I like best and then find a pattern to match since that seemed easier to me for some reason)

  29. Just wanted to say I tried your soup tonight and it was fantastic! Even better than I anticipated. The roasting really gave the veggies a great depth of flavor. Thanks for sharing!

    • I also made a variation on the soup and thought it was great! I roasted: a red pepper, an apple, some mushrooms, a stalk of celery, a parsnip, an onion, a sweet potato, a carrot, and a pasilla pepper (it’s the kind used for chiles rellenos, and isn’t spicy). Yummy!

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  31. Steph/knitters, I have a question:
    I do swatch, but I don’t do a 10cm square. I just do a few rows, enough to tell how many stitches to 10cm I get. I don’t bother seeing how many rows to 10cm I get. The reason I do this is that I figured that I can only do something about one of them: if the no. of stitches is right but the rows are wrong, if I change the needle size that will make the number of stitches wrong, which is worse. Is this crazy? Or (I’m realising this as I type) is knowing your row gauge important not because you change your needle size to accommodate a problem but so that you can change the number of rows you knit when making the garment?

  32. How do you keep trying on a sweater that will change it’s gauge once you washed it? Do you wash it again and again, every time before you try it on? Also, if you keep knitting at the original gauge after washing the garment, does it not have any unpleasant effect on the fabric at the place where you started knitting again?
    Even though I swatch, when I knit top down, the increases make my knitting tighter, and the swatch doesn’t seem to give me too much useful information, but I never dared to wash my half-done garment, because of the above concerns.

  33. There’s more than one way to swatch. Swatching is about assessing the yarn and the pattern together, and It can be done in a little square, or by casting on the sleeve, or by knitting and assessing as you go. If you have the skills (and the good sense!) to assess your work, that counts in my book. If you need to refer back to your swatch to reconsider what you were thinking, then you may need to make a little square. Or a big square.

  34. I have become the ‘swatch queen” in my own knitting projects. Now that I am knitting for others, I REALLY pay attention to the gauge/cast on/wash procedure. It MUST be right. I am glad Iearned to do this….finally) because it gives me confidence and peace. I have had a raglan sweater on my mind for 10 years now. I guess it’s about time to get it done.

  35. Sometimes I swatch and sometimes I don’t, but if I do I always wash and block the swatch, otherwise it really tells me nothing. Especially true of lace – I knit a lot of scarf/stole/shawl/blanket type items and while the size isn’t an issue I’m fussy about wanting the open parts open but not too much and the solid parts solid but not too dense so I sometimes end up trying 2 or 3 needles before I am happy. Never bother for socks, I’ve had one and only one pair end up small for me but fit my Mum so it was all good. I will rip a sock back if I get started and decide I don’t like the fabric I’m getting with a particular yarn/needle combination.

  36. Me, I swatch. I make too many mistakes to chance any avoidable ones. I was once advised to start with a sleeve, which I could probably bear to rip back (I hate ripping back. All that work undone!) and in saving all my swatches to make a memory blanket one day.

    But mostly, I swatch because when you run out of yarn with two rows to go, you can unravel your swatch and finish it. It’s like a secret back up that the knitting doesn’t know about!

  37. I am also knitting a top down sweater with no swatch and I for sure didn’t skip washing the fabric (twice) to make sure it was good. First time needed a redo, so the yoke got ripped to an appropriate place and restarted much better. Fingers crossed- this thing might actually work!/get finished!/not need to be redone again!
    Dare to dream.

  38. Even though I’ve been knitting for over 2 decades at this point, I still can never be arsed to swatch. I think I’ve made exactly one swatch ever. I should do it regularly, especially when I substitute a new yarn in a pattern (which I do a lot), and I know that I knit SUPER TIGHT compared to most knitters, and I ALWAYS end up with extra wool at the end, I just can never be bothered to do it.

    A large part of what I knit are stuffed toys though, so I mostly get away with it too. ..

  39. Mind blown! I have never heard of washing and blocking on the needles. The logistics of this process will require some thought on my part, but I like the idea.

    My question with the washed vs unwashed swatch is related to the pattern designer’s swatching habits. When a designer includes swatch gauge info in a pattern they rarely tell you if it is washed or not. In fact I think I have heard that most gauge measurement tend to be taken from an unwashed swatch. So when measuring for stitch and row guage I tend to use a unwashed swatch and then I use a washed swatch to decide if I am going to like the end product.

    Now I am going to qualify all this and tell you that I have only knit two sweaters. One was 100% alpaca and has grown so much over time that I don’t wear it anymore. I have since learned that 100% is not appropriate yarn for large projects. The second sweater is superwash merino which grows to be the size of my house when wet and shrinks back to the size of me after tumble dry (so weird).

    And when it finally comes down to it swatching is so confusing. I swatch but half the time I don’t know what the swatch is telling me.

  40. I’ve never really swatched, unless I was test-knitting. I’ve also never had a sweater get past the mid-way point before I got fed up and frogged it. I once test-knitted what was supposed to be a baby dress that turned into a tunic top as the child grew… I was assigned the 2-5 year old size. I got about 1/4 way through it (having gotten gauge on the swatch) and it fit my 9 year old. Now I feel guilty every time I start something without doing a gauge swatch, but not guilty enough to actually knit one LOL

  41. Quick questions from a novice knitter: When you knit a swatch do you cast off and wash it? Do you keep it on the needles ? Doesn’t swatching interfere with the amount of yarn needed for a project?

  42. I’ve been knitting for years without knitting a “tension square” (I’m in England!) but I could bear to wash a bit on the needles to check! Thanks Harlot – why did I never think of that?

  43. Sounds good to me! I’m not big on swatching and will often take the risk. However, I teach knitting classes and have a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do type of thing going — and always explain why I do or do not. I usually do a swatch for a sweater but not for other things. It is then that I just jump in, and if I have to start over because I don’t like the fabric, then I do.

  44. I have a confession. I’m a self-taught knitter. That’ key when you read the next part. I started knitting more than 30 years ago…..and have never knit a swatch. Truth. I didn’t learn from anyone, and therefore was never told to do one. I’ve had mostly wins and some pieces that I can now say were evidence that I should have done a swatch. I just always ignored that part of the pattern. Just read your book recently and had an “aha” moment – so everyone should do that? So, next project is now waiting for the swatch to happen. thanks!

  45. “Wash while it’s on the needles”…. I assume this washing is merely a leisurely bath in Eucalan or the like… not a full blown “washable woolen” wash in a m a c h i n e.
    And if you like the results, post wash, do you just keep knitting and hope that there won’t be any difference between the twice-washed/bathed and once-washed/bathed parts?

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  47. In times long gone now I knitted with only two brands of wool easy to buy, one came in a van and you could choosse wool and patterns, the other was a mailbranche, catalogue delivered, if you bought wool the whole catalogue of patterns came with it for free (Netherlands, wolfederatie and 3 Suisses). I never had to swatch, because my knitting counted like the mills swatches, exactly the same. With more brands available now and no according patterns to the branche wool, I have to swatch. Maybe I knit a little looser now, so those careless no-swatch years belong to the past, accept for socks. I know with needles 2.5 mm I can count on my experience and numbers, they always fit to make other knitters yealous, so good. It is the old school/familymembers Dutch recipe for socks and it fits me to a T. One just has to do some arithmatic dividing, that is all and even that can be avoided by knitting on 5 needles, which I do not like, just 4 dpn’s of a comfortable length, because otherwise my breasts, which, by the way, YH, are on the front too, are getting in the way, so I use length 35 cm instead of shorter, if need be, even 40 cm.s will do.Reina

  48. Loved this post…just as I love reading all your posts! My day is not complete if I don’t check your blog for a new entry.

    I hate to bring this up…sure hope I’m wrong…but I was closely perusing the (2nd) picture of your neck ribbing, & it looks like you may have missed a cable twist on one of the cables. I’m hoping it’s the light! I’ve done this before, more than once, and have learned to drop stitches, fix the twist & re-latch the stitches up to the current row. Or, if too far along, snip the yarn, fix the twist with an extra piece of yarn (works best with wool), then weave in the ends.

    But I’m hoping it’s the light…Kathy :o)

  49. I nearly always swatch, unless it’s something where gauge doesn’t matter. I’m a loose knitter, so going down a needle size nearly always gives me gauge. Not sure about the rows, since I just measure. I have had an ordeal with a raglan cardigan for DH, where the sloping parts were about 3″ too short, and had to be frogged, recalculated, and redone. But it’s a freebie pattern off a yarn website, and I’d changed the cable, so it might not be entirely a row gauge problem. In future, I’ll be sure to check the schematic, not just the stitch count, and measure more as I go.

    I’ve loved your books for years, but have just started reading the blog.

  50. Well, as often as I refer to your blog and books in the Hungarian knitting circles (facebook groups, knitting meetings and whatnot) this one I will probably “forget” about 🙂 I am a big, big advocate of swatching, if someone says a sweater (or anything else) does not fit my firts question: did you swatch? the second is did you washed your swatch? If teh answer is no to any my reply is “then it is your fault”. now with all that there are some special cases when I don’t swatch either, for most of my socks for example, or with yarn/needle/pattern combo I know way too well… can’t wait to see how the sweater will turn out.

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  53. I am in the early stages of knitting Reverb by Tanis Lavallee, but I know from my swatch that it is growing to grow like the dickens in length. I’m thinking about blocking on the needles when I get past my bust. Any tips for blocking on needles? I’ve never done it before. Do I need to do anything different or be super careful or anything?

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