February 25, 2009

I knew that

Abby and I are friends, and we regularly discuss a number of knitterly/spinnerly things (sideways?) and since you yourself are likely a knitter and have a knitterly friend or two, it should not come as a surprise that Abby and I regularly discuss the following. (At great length.)

-That swatches lie.
-Why swatches lie.
-The complex reasons that swatches are, essentially liars and can be nothing but liars, most of the time.

-If you understand that swatches lie, why swatch?

-The reasons that she and I both still swatch (mostly) even though we know about and have freely acknowledged the lying.
-The reasons that one of both of us might, understanding the limited, but important value of swatches, not swatch anyway. (Sometimes.)
-The consequences of both swatching and not swatching and how we feel about getting burned by a swatch when we do swatch, having carefully considered the pro's and con's of the swatching process.
- The way that the word swatch starts to look misspelled after a very short period of time, causing one to look it up in the Oxford Concise, even though you know that "swatching" and "swatched" aren't really even words except to knitters, therefore confirming nothing.

Yesterday, in fact, Abby and I had a conversation about swatching that covered all of this ground and more. We spent a lot of time agreeing. We believe that for the purposes of gauge, swatches are, at best "a hint" about what might happen in your knitting. Knitting is complex, and knitted items even more so, and it remains a grave truth that a 10cm bit of knitting will not reveal all there is to know about a sweater knit out of the same yarn on the same needles. A sweater will be heavier, for example, and the weight of the thing has to be considered. Will a whole sweater's worth of yarn be stretched by that weight and change your gauge? You bet. Will a seam up the side stabilize it and change your gauge? You bet. How about a front knit flat and a sleeve knit in the round? Whammo.

The truth is that swatches don't really lie. Swatches tell the truth about how that much knitting done on those needles will tell you about that much knitting on those needles, and that's where it begins and ends. Once you introduce other variables (size, weight, seams, blocking, stretch, fibre) and scale them to the item, that's a lot of variables. A great example, we agree, is that a baby sweater knit out of alpaca might be reasonably true to the swatch, because that's not a lot of weight. An adult sweater knit out of the same alpaca on the same needles is going to be a very different thing... in fact, it might even be a dress- rather than a sweater, because dudes... that's a lot of alpaca. In short, Abby and I feel that swatches have a time and a place, but that knitting a swatch really isn't going to tell you everything you need to know... and we also agree that the only reliable swatch is a full size swatch, knit and seamed like the sweater... which would make it an actual sweater, which sort of reduces the point of a swatch, if you see my point.

Now Abby and I also agree that despite this, we both still swatch (mostly.) Swatches are like a first date. They can't tell you everything you need to know about the person, and there are still things you're going to find out about each other when you're in a relationship, but it will at least tell you if he chews with his mouth open, spits tobacco or has a terrible allergy to hops that means he can't even be in the room with beer... or therefore, you.

Swatching can tell you if you are way off on gauge, that the stitch pattern doesn't show up very well in that colour, or that the yarn halos or fuzzes up so much that there's no point in even doing a stitch pattern at all because hell, who could see it? If you wash and block your swatch the way you should (and we agree, you really, really should) then you might even find out that the yarn pills more than an aging ex-film star with too much ego and money, or that it bleeds colour faster than my face did when one of my daughters announced that she'd like a tongue piercing.

Swatching gives you really basic details about what might happen in your knitting, but it is not the end all, be all and the fact that it's not the size and shape of your knitting means that it can be misleading, and that "getting gauge" in a swatch should be regarded as nothing more or than "a good sign", and that feeling personally betrayed by a swatch when it turns out that it lied is really a waste of time, because that's the nature of swatches. They're as honest as ex-husbands with new girlfriends and hair transplants who owe you child support.... on a good day.

Still... we swatch, because the information swatches can give you, if you understand it's purpose, is valuable and can really help keep you from making really, really big mistakes. Abby and I agreed on that. We agreed that not swatching, particularly for big projects, is begging for a big skein of whoop-ass to be opened up on your knitting, and that if you don't swatch, you deserve everything you get when you find yourself in a bad knitting relationship that's sucking up your time, energy, good sense, yarn and will to go on. We agreed on all of this, and we may even have been rather righteous in our statements of the same. I personally may have crossed the line to pompous... and that's why I feel like I have to tell the truth.

Even though I had this conversation within the last 24 hours, even though I stated all of the above and stand by it and I have practically yelled it from a mountain, written it in several knitting books, taught it in classes, lectured on it publicly and yay, verily, have been a knitter for more than 35 years...

I didn't swatch because I thought I was too smart for it, and just had to rip out thousands of stitches on a new shawl and got my arse kicked all the way back to the starting line with nothing to show for it.

Damn. Can you hear Abby laughing all the way from Ohio?

Posted by Stephanie at February 25, 2009 2:08 PM