To swatch or not to swatch?
Do you swatch? I asked on Instagram recently, about half the replies were yes to swatching, which dropped to about a quarter when I followed the question up with always?
So what is it and why should we do it?
A swatch is basically a sample of your project (applies to knitting, weaving, crochet, felting etc but we will focus on knitting today). It will tell you about the fabric your chosen yarn, tools and method will make, and gives you a chance to change things before you have made a whole project that ends up being not quite what you hoped for. It is also an essential tool for making garments fit the way you want them to.
How to (simple version):
Cast on some stitches.
Work for a while in the stitch specified by the pattern.
Try something different if needed (for example needle size or yarn).
Wash and dry your swatch the way you will wash your finished object.
Assess the fabric, for example, do you like the drape, what gauge have you achieved (stitches in an inch or row), does the yarn work with the stitch pattern?
Swatch again if you think something needs changing.
A little more detail:
What size should I make?
This will depend on your materials, but if it is too small it might not give the information you need. Ideally it should be at least 6" in each direction. The one in the photo is on the small side!!
What needles/yarn do I use?
Your pattern should give you some guidance on this. Look for the weight of the yarn (lace, 4-ply, DK etc) and choose something similar. Try the needles listed in the pattern as a starting point.
What stitch pattern do I work?
The pattern should tell you what stitch the gauge swatch is to be worked in and whether it should be blocked before measurement. You should knit in the same way as the final project, for example, in the round or flat as this can affect gauge (many people have a looser purl stitch than knit stitch).
How do I stop it curling, it is difficult to measure?
Four rows of knit at the start and end, and four knit stitches at the start and end of each row should fix this. Remember these do not count in the 6" measurement. Alternatively you can pin your swatch to measure it, but avoid stretching it out of shape.
How do I get an accurate measurement for number of stitches and rows?
Ideally measure in several places and take an average. This is why it is important that your swatch is not too small.
My gauge doesn't match the pattern, what should I change?
If you have too many stitches/rows per inch try a larger needle.
Not enough stitches/rows per inch try a smaller needle.
Depending on the pattern the row gauge might be less critical than the stitch gauge.
What am I looking for in the fabric?
Do you like the drape (how the fabric bends, flexes, hangs and moves) for what you are making? A loose open fabric might be great for a shawl but less so for a winter hat.
Does the yarn show the stitch pattern? A fuzzy yarn might hide cables and lace stitches.
Doesn't swatching waste time and yarn?
Less time than making a whole sweater that doesn't fit. The yarn can be pulled out of the swatch and knit with once you have the information you need.
Hate swatching? It seems you are not alone, so how can you dodge it if you really don't want to?
Take the risk. Your project might come out too large or small, or you might not like the fabric. You can always rip it out or give it to someone else.
Take the gauge from a previous project. If you are a very consistent knitter and have used the exact same yarn and needle combination before you might be able to do this.
Experience. If you knit a lot you might be able to judge if a particular yarn and needles will make the pattern in a way you will be happy with. For example, I know if I am making a sock a typical 4-ply sock yarn, on 2.5 mm needles will need about 56 stitches to fit me, a few more for cables, a few less for lace.
Start on a small part of the project. For example, start with the sweater sleeve and use it as your gauge swatch. If it is not right there is less to rip out.
But you might have heard swatches lie. Sometimes the information you get from your swatch doesn't exactly match the larger project, but you will get closer to your end goal with the swatch than without.