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Okay, maybe not joy. Maybe... entertainment. Or education. Oh, quit bellyaching. Just because you hate it doesn't make it bad. If you liked swatching more, your knits would fit better. Seriously. It's not a swatch. IT'S A LITTLE YARNY CRYSTAL BALL THAT WILL TELL YOU ALL KINDS OF STUFF. If you let it. If you pay attention. If you quit hating it like overcooked liver and onions.

I have a theory. It's a heretical theory, but I think it's fairly solid. Here it is: IF YOU HATE SWATCHING, IT WILL NEVER WORK. Sound crazy? Think about it. You're knitting away on a little square you hate, all growling and intense and wound up. You produce this tight little wad of yarn which you measure (skipping the wash because it takes too long) and use as a final stitch count, snarling all the while. THEN you happily start on your 'real' knitting, all relaxed and happy and cruising along... is it any WONDER the gauge swatch lied? Did it really lie, or did you commit yarn abuse? (I bet the yarn has a different view on it than you do.)

It's strange to me, that most of the knitting world (at least the knitting world I've been exposed to) hates swatching with an intense and fiery passion. After all, you learn so much from it. How does your yarn handle? Is that cast-on going to work? Are you in the neighborhood of the gauge you need for a specific pattern? Is the color too bright? Do those two colors look like crap together? All this and more can be yours to know, if you just suck it up, sit down, and knit yourself a little square of fabric. You knit for fun to begin with, don't you? So what's the problem?

When I first started knitting, I hated to knit swatches too. Sometimes I skipped it entirely. Things seldom, if ever, fit, and once in a while I'd wind up with something so stiff it could stand up by itself. (Cables. Bulky yarn. Size seven needles. Not pretty.) Hours and days and weeks and months of knitting, unwearable, all because I wouldn't spend the time to knit a stinking swatch. Then I started designing my own patterns. Simple stuff, but with yarn I liked on needles I wanted to use, and I absolutely HAD to knit a swatch. I started playing around with them; at first, it was just shifting needle size for a more drapey, loose fabric. Then it was throwing in color. Even though my knitting was getting more complicated, it was starting to fit a lot better. I was able to predict final results, not only measurements, but whether the sweater would hang the way I wanted it to, if the colors would work, if a certain technique would do what I wanted. Why? Because I quit thinking of the swatch as a dreaded first step, and began thinking of it as a practice session.

Here we've got a test swatch for a wrap I'm going to knit. This is kind of an original design, in that I'm going to make up the pattern instead of reading it off of something, but 'design' is an awfully glorified term for knitting a rectangle. The bottom part of the swatch is a garter stitch edge, then a lace pattern with a five stitch garter edge. The top half is biased knitting with a column of faggoting through it. Let's look at what I learned.

  • The cast-on method works; it's stretchy but not too loose, and it's unobtrusive, which I wanted.
  • Five stitches of garter stitch on the sides are enough to keep them from curling around.
  • Size five needles were too small for the yarn; I switched to eights for the top half and it worked much better. Wraps need drape, which means loose knitting.
  • The variegation is too busy for the lace to be noticeable at all.
  • The yarn, a roving with a binder thread, splits a lot less than I'd expected and is easy to work with.
  • I don't like the biased idea.
  • The faggoting works, and would look cool with a colored ribbon wound through it.
  • The yarn is striping itself, but with a large width like a wrap, that should be avoided. I'd do two rows with one ball of yarn and then two rows with another, to make sure.
  • Five minutes with a ruler and some pins and I'll have the gauge figures I need to get the wrap the size I want it.
  • The cast off method works well, also. And matches the cast on, which is a nice bonus.
  • For what it's worth, I don't like the color, but it's not for me so it doesn't really matter. (Yes, colors shift between the ball and the swatch; variegated yarns in particular can look dramatically different in the ball.)

All that information, from a little square it took less than an hour to knit. What part am I supposed to hate, again?

Swatching is not a chore, and it's not an absolute, and it's not a simple step in a buy yarn-swatch-knit sweater process. It's a tool. You use it to experiment, find solutions, try out new ideas, or practice techniques you will use to knit the project you have planned. If it's a new stitch pattern, you need a few practice runs before you relax and your gauge gets consistent and your swatch has any accuracy for you. If it's a yarn that's hard to work with, it's the same general idea; you need time to get used to it, to figure out the quirks and how to cope with them, before your gauge will settle down to something useful. Let me repeat that: YOU NEED TO KNIT WITH THE YARN A WHILE BEFORE YOU RELAX ENOUGH FOR THE GAUGE TO BECOME ACCURATE. This is one of the major reasons why large gauge swatches are more accurate than small ones. You relax while knitting it. Think of how many V-shaped swatches you've seen, that started off tight and expanded as they went. That's the reason why. You need to get beyond the V shaped start, before the measurements will do you any good at all.

Sometimes when you swatch, what you learn is, you hate the yarn. That's okay, too. If you only bought one ball of it, for experimentation purposes, you can feel all smug that you didn't blow the bucks for a whole sweater's worth that you're now stuck with.

This was my attempt to imitate gold stenciling on velvet. It is done with cotton chenille (the blue-green) and rayon (the gold). I think it's got potential; the shiny and matte combination is kind of cool and I like it. But the chenille and the rayon knit up at vastly different gauges on the same needles, and for now I've decided the whole thing is more trouble than it's worth. Maybe some time in the future. I only got one ball of each yarn; all that education for almost no money or time. If I ever do decide to knit up this idea, I've still got enough yarn left for a lot more experimenting, to make it work. (I also learned that I really freaking hate chenille yarn.)

Want another example? Okay. I want to knit some lace scarves with Doucer et Soie (70% mohair, 30% silk, similar to Kid Silk Haze) and I need a swatch. However. I don't want to waste any of the yarn on a swatch, and I've heard from many sources that mohair is horrible to rip back and almost always looks like a wet rat after you do it. Since it's for a SCARF, I don't really need an exact gauge figure, just a ballpark guess. So I used a similar weight yarn to knit a couple pattern repeats and see what was what. Turns out two pattern repeats will produce a wide enough scarf, but it's so thin and bunchable that I'm going to use three, so that it will be wide enough to put over a head, should that be desired. (If I had guessed at it and cast on, I'd have gone with four or more repeats and had something like a lace bedspread.) Not exact, by any means, but still educational. The yellow test swatch is on the left, the blue final project is on the right. Two repeats on the yellow, three repeats on the blue.

There's a flip side to this whole swatch deal. In a nutshell, your swatch is the absolute and it's the pattern that you adapt to it. (This is the complete opposite of how you are taught to knit patterns.) Instead of using patterns as an unchanging, concrete formula, think of it as suggestions. It's how one person produced the sweater you want to copy. Often you can do a whole lot differently, and still get a sweater that looks like what you want. And why shouldn't you? It's your knitting, not the pattern writer's.

Here, I give you Dale of Norway's "Hafjell".

I love knitting Dale of Norway sweaters. (I'm insane. What, like you didn't know this?) Their gauges are very tight for the yarn, producing solid, stiff fabric. I assume this is to keep off the wind in those rough Norwegian winters, and I get that, but the farthest north I ever get is Ohio (southern edge of the Great Lakes). What to do? Knit a swatch. Not the one they tell you to. One that you like.

This was knit with needles a size or two larger than is recommended for the yarn (I know this because I labeled the swatch when I knit it a year ago), and produces a fabric I like the feel of. (Please note it's knit in the round, just like the sweater was. You've got to match your techniques.) The stitches per inch count is off for the pattern, but that's all right. You can tweak it with almost no math involved. Honest.

My gauge with that yarn and those needles is five and a half stitches to the inch (suggested is six; that extra half stitch really makes a difference). Now we look at the pattern. The extra small version has 270 stitches around the chest. 270 stitches at five and a half stitches per inch is 49 inches. That's about the size I want, so I knit it up using the numbers and directions for size extra small. It won't BE an extra small, because my gauge is different. But using the shaping and numbers for an extra small will produce the size I want at my gauge. PROPORTION NEVER CHANGES. SIZE DOES. If you knit this sweater with sock yarn on size 1 needles, it would be proportionately correct and probably fit a doll. The only drawback to this is, if you're working with a larger gauge, ALL the sweater sizes produced by the pattern will be larger. But you can also make something smaller by using a smaller gauge. There are infinite possibilities. The world is your oyster.

The end result is this:

Just like the pattern. Well. Except I set in the sleeves. And changed the neck. And the hem. But I followed the pattern. Honest.

I do this kind of thing all the time; in fact, I can't remember the last time I used the exact yarn and the exact gauge suggested for a pattern. There is another Norwegian design I want to knit for myself, with every stitch charted, in a complex pattern. Every size except medium has extra repeats, or not enough, and looks strange. So instead of knitting a size large at the gauge suggested and having a weird looking sweater, I'm going to use a thicker yarn at a larger gauge, and knit a size medium that will fit me. See how this works? It is not a natural law, that you have to match your gauge to the pattern. But you have to know what happens when you don't, and work with it.

I think that's the reason so many people hate gauge swatches and knitting them; they see a swatch as some absolute perfection of numbers that they'll never attain, and of course it's frustrating when you look at it that way (who the heck gets 23 1/4 stitches over four inches, or some of these other crazy gauges??). So quit looking at it that way. Gauge is nothing but a tool, to tell you what will happen if you knit with that yarn on those needles. If you like what your swatch is telling you, who cares if it's exactly what the pattern says you need? It's your project. Knit it your way.

There are, of course, a few ways to make swatch knitting a little less nerve-racking and annoying, even if you still hate them. My number one method is to knit swatches while working on other projects. I'm knitting a jacket right now, but for an occasional break, I'll work on a swatch for a project I'm planning on starting in a month or two. Plus I did a couple of the swatches for this article. (I suspect this helps the relaxation factor; knit after your hands are a little tired to keep from being tightened up on the swatch.) You can also buy random balls of yarn and knit up swatches from them, just to see what happens. If you like it, you can then find a pattern (or make up your own), buy more yarn, and take it from there. You have a far better idea what you're getting into, that way. Or, stick with one or two brands of yarn, never use anything else, and you'll learn quickly exactly how it behaves when you do all sorts of things with it (I have begun using Brown Sheep's Lamb's Pride Worsted for all felting projects. There are no more ugly surprises.)

I hope this takes a little of the stress out of swatch-knitting, and maybe even injects some interest into it. (I suppose enjoying it is still too much to ask.) Because once you relax about it, your knitting really is going to start fitting better. Lots of chocolate helps, too.

You do realize, from here, it's a teeny, tiny baby step to designing your own knitwear, right?


Hafjell photo from Pattern by Dale of Norway, available in booklet #138. My version is knit with Heilo yarn in colors 0020/cream, 5744/slate, and 5813/mist.

There are many intelligent discussions on gauge by Elizabeth Zimmermann, Debbie Newton, and Priscilla Gibson-Roberts, if you're looking for additional reading. Knitting in the Old Way by Gibson-Roberts and Deborah Robson, and Knitting Without Tears by Elizabeth Zimmermann are particularly helpful.

All photos except 'Hafjell' taken by the author.



Julie's fondest wish is to be marooned on a desert island with nothing but her stash, some knitting needles, and a pad of graph paper. Well, and maybe some chocolate.

Keep up with her incessant swatching and chocolate hoarding at Samurai Knitter.