Monday, May 24, 2010

Gauge Swatch

Gauge, with or without the word swatch attached, is one of ‘those’ terms. I’ve heard knitters say the words as though they were spelled with four letters, and seen them written as ‘g*&#e’ or ‘s@#$%h’ more times than one. Every single knitter has an opinion about swatching, and they’ll defend those opinions with the same fervor they bring to the questions of needle material or continental vs. English vs. combined knitting styles. I’ve called swatching a necessary evil myself in my earlier days as a knitter.

But experience is a great (if painful) teacher, and the longer I knit, the more I find that much-maligned gauge swatch an incredibly useful tool. So let’s take a look at what gauge actually is, and what purposes that swatch can serve. I may even change a mind or two along the way…

Put in the simplest terms, gauge is the number of rows and stitches in any given inch of knitted fabric. That’s perhaps too general, especially given the wide variance between the number of stitches even the same knitter will have in different stitch patterns. But that’s the definition. So what use is it? Well, you can’t knit something to a specific size if you don’t know those numbers for that yarn and needle and stitch pattern.

Now, what makes a useful gauge swatch for a given project? That’s where the definition begins to narrow and the swatch itself becomes a very useful knitting tool.

A useful gauge swatch will show the number of stitches per inch in a particular pattern stitch – the stitch you plan to use for this specific project. A useful gauge swatch will also be knitted in the same fashion as you plan to knit your project.

Huh? A knitter’s gauge over a given pattern stitch (even plain old stockinette) may vary as much as 1-3 stitches per inch, depending on whether they’re knitting flat or in the round. So if you plan to knit your project in the round, knit your swatch in the round; if you’re knitting flat, knit your swatch flat. In order to keep from having to do a 24-inch around gauge swatch on a circular needle, magic loop is a life-saver. It’s a simple technique – add it to your repertoire!

Another point to consider for a useful gauge swatch: use exactly the same needles you’ll use for the project itself. If you do your swatch on bamboo DPN needles and the project on metal circular needles, your gauge may change, even with the same yarn from the same skein.

It should go without saying that you’ll use the same yarn for your swatch that you plan to use for the project – but I’ll say it, anyway. One worsted wool yarn isn’t always identical to another; yardages per pound can vary from as little as 5 to as much as 300 or more! And differences between fibers can make for even greater variation in the numbers. 50 grams of cotton will generally have fewer yards than 50 grams of wool, even though both may be worsted weight.

One more consideration: knitted fabric changes after it’s washed and dried. This is true of any fiber or combination of fibers. Some fibers bloom, some stretch, some shrink, some remain exactly the same. But you won’t know which your particular combination of yarn and needles will do until you wash and dry the swatch!

A swatch can, again, be an extremely useful tool – if you knit it thoughtfully. Start out by casting on some multiple of the pattern stitch. Work in stockinette or garter stitch for a couple of inches – whichever your pattern is based upon. Now switch to the pattern stitch itself, and work at least 2-3 repeats. That way if there’s a problem with the patterning, you’ll find it and be able to work it out before you start into the project. You’ll also get familiar with the stitch pattern - and many knitters’ tension changes after they get used to forming a stitch, thus changing their gauge over that stitch. If your first repeat is at 6 stitches per inch in pattern, but the third repeat is at 5 stitches per inch, which number do you think you should use for figuring your project gauge?

Before you cast off, are there any other stitches or patterns used in this project? If so, work a repeat or two. If one element flows directly into another (ribbing to pattern stitch, for example), try that out on your swatch. Does it look good to you? If not, tweak it here instead of on the project. You’ll rip out a lot less.

Last but far from least, are there instructions in the project pattern that aren’t clear to you? Perhaps short-row directions are different from what you’re used to doing, or directional stitches are a different type, or bind-offs at the arms or neck seem odd. Try these techniques on the swatch. It’s much easier on both knitter and yarn to do these types of tweaking on a smaller scale. Do you know exactly how you’re going to pick up arm or neckline treatment stitches on this patterning? Try it out on the swatch!

Have you tried out everything you have any question about? All right, then do another few rows of stockinette or garter and then bind off as recommended in the pattern. This is a final place to play – if the bind off on the swatch doesn’t look good, decide now on how you’ll modify the project instructions to make it look better and try it out.

Now bind off and measure your swatch. How many rows per inch? How many stitches and rows per inch in stockinette or garter; how many in each pattern? How many in the ribbing stitch? Write these numbers down and save them!

Now wash that swatch. If the yarn ball says to machine wash and dry, do that. If you plan to hand wash and lay flat to dry, do those instead. Don’t short-cut this step – you’ll negate a great deal of the usefulness you built into your swatch if you do!

One final thing before you get out your ruler or tape measure and that sheet of paper again: if your chosen yarn is cotton, silk, alpaca, mohair, hemp, superwash wool or acrylic (or any blend thereof), hang that gauge swatch up for at least 12-24 hours before you measure. Fibers other than plain old untreated wool sometimes stretch vertically as well as horizontally – and some of them stretch quite a lot! Better to know this now instead of two or three hours into the first wearing of your crew-neck tunic, after it’s become a knee-length dress with a scooped neckline!

Now measure the rows and stitches again. Make sure you measure over the stockinette/garter sections, each different stitch pattern, and any other places your swatch appears to widen or narrow. Write these numbers down. Now divide the pre-wash numbers into the after-wash numbers to get the percentages of shrinkage or stretch.

Now this is useful information! You know before you start knitting that in order to fit your 45-inch hip measurement you’ll need to cast on 250 stitches instead of 225; there was slightly over 1% shrinkage in your washed swatch. You’ll also know that you want to do 24 rows of ribbing rather than 26, and only 36 rows instead of 42 between the underarm bindoff and shoulder shaping – your washed and hung sample grew about 1% in length.

How much time will knowing this information before you start knitting save you? Think about this. Without a gauge swatch that contains all the stitches used in the project, that was then washed, dried and hung, you might knit the entire sweater, bind off and finish everything, bury all ends, then wash, block and try on before discovering that – horrors! – you have to take it all apart and start over, or find a recipient to gift with your hard work.

How long does it take to knit a sweater? The general amount of time is measured in weeks or months of spare-time knitting, isn’t it? And if you’d only taken an hour or so at the beginning to actually explore the variables, you’d have something that fits properly now instead of an expensive (both in terms of time and materials) boondoggle.

So you decide for yourself. As far as I’m concerned, especially since I pretty much design my own sweaters and other knitwear these days, I’ll continue to swatch. It’s cheap (in terms of time and materials) insurance that my precious knitting time won’t be wasted. Of course, wasted time is in the eye of the knitter – what I consider a waste of time you may not! But just for the sake of argument, next time you start a new project, take the time to do what I’ve described above as a useful gauge swatch and see if you find it helpful. Then make your final decision!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Shetland Shawls and Me

My knitting plans for this year were fairly simple. Make a summer sweater or two, socks for the winter, a sweater vest for my DH, and spin for a shawl for myself. Life, as it so frequently does, had other ideas.

Occasionally, like most knitters, I get ambitious. Six years ago when we were expecting our first grandchild, I wanted something quite special to welcome that new life into the family. Not considering all the possible repercussions, I pulled about 5 ounces of merino/clun forest fleece from the stash and spun most of it very, very fine, plying for a gossamer-weight two-ply yarn.

I then proceeded to knit a simple Shetland shawl – technically, a hap– with a garter-stitch center section and a wide border of Feather and Fan. That shawl was, to put it mildly, well-received; used for that grandson’s christening and then lovingly packed away to be used for his bride and their children.

Now fast-forward to the late winter/early spring of 2010. My Navy NCO son and daughter-in-law have announced that they are expecting their first child in October. And my darling son has made it clear that he would like for me to make another shawl for this baby. This is how traditions get started in our family…but I still think making an heirloom piece is a wonderful thing to do for a new baby, and I’m off and running.

First I put out the word for more fleece from, if possible, that same sheep. Why that particular sheep? My sons knew him! Luckily, the shepherd (a good friend) had some of the fleece, in roving form, stuck back and was willing to part with it under these circumstances. So I picked it up at a hastily-arranged luncheon in late February and took it home to start spinning.

Since I love designing things, I began designing the shawl as I spun. Again, I spun a gossamer two-ply of about 55 wpi. Definitely a bit on the fine side! But this particular fleece fluffs up beautifully, and the washed yarn is closer to 45 wpi. About 1200 yards and 4.5 ounces later, I was ready to start knitting. The plan I conceived was for a Fir Cone central square surrounded by a Tree of Life border and a Crest o’ the Wave edging.

The central square was planned as a Fir Cone pattern knit on the diagonal. I thought that pattern reflected the mountains of Western Washington and their covering of evergreens quite well, and would give a reminder of the family’s whereabouts when this child was born.

I did, however, feel the need for a large swatch, so I spun a bit extra and cast three stitches onto size 2 needles, then followed the Fir Cone pattern as shown below, increasing each row by K1, yo and inserting patterns as needed to fill the space. When I reached 8 repeats, I removed the stitches from the needle to a cotton yarn, soaked and then blocked to get some idea of the number of repeats necessary to reach the 24-inch square I wanted.

If you plan to use these charts, be advised that there’s a knit row between each pattern row. Stitch conventions are pretty standard as far as yarn-overs and single- or double-decreases are concerned.

This was something of a challenge to knit, since the stacked double-decreases at the exact top of the stacked yarn-overs makes for a popcorn-looking texture on the needles. I wasn’t at all sure that I wouldn’t end up pulling the entire thing back out if those decreases didn’t block flat – that was one of the reasons for such a large sample. The other reason, of course, was to have a ‘working copy’ on which to try out the other elements of the pattern.

Reassured by the blocked sample that the shawl would indeed block flat, I cast on again for the actual shawl and started knitting. When I reached the 17 repeats necessary for the 24-inch square, I began the decreases in a mirror fashion to the increases; K2tog, yo, k2tog at the beginning of each row, using up pattern repeats as I went.

After again reaching 3 stitches, I k3tog and bound off that stitch. Next step was to wash and block the square, since I had decided that it would make picking up all those stitches (140 each side = 560 total stitches) much easier – and it did!

I had originally thought to use a single, small 20-stitch repeat Tree of Life pattern followed by a larger version spaced between the small repeats. But I changed my mind while picking up stitches and reworked the chart to do three offset rows of trees instead. I decided that the large trees were just too large for a small person. The chart is shown below, rotated 180-degrees simply because I’m feeling too lazy to switch it around.

I’m presently at row 16 of the chart, beginning the decrease portion of the first line of trees. Other than the slow-seeming purl rounds, it’s going well – and the slowness of those rounds is strictly illusion. I clocked a pattern row and a purl row, and there’s no difference in the actual time required to knit them.

The shawl is shaping up just as I’d hoped – it appears as if the fir cones have fallen from the trees. Again, this is a reflection of the Washington coastline. On a visit a couple of years back, my husband and I drove up the peninsula, marveling at the way the evergreen-covered mountains tumble into the bay.

The final touch will be to knit on the edging. I thought Crest ‘o the Wave would be appropriate, both for the family background (my dad was also an NCO in the Navy) and the ocean surrounding the peninsula where the children live. I’m planning to use Eunny Jung’s variation from her Print o’ the Wave Stole pattern (, since I prefer it to the ‘standard’ Shetland variation. I’m debating whether to use a garter-stitch ground or the stockinette she shows in her pattern, but since I’ve chosen garter for the rest of the shawl, I’ll probably go with that.

Photos of shawls in progress are pretty bleah, but here’s one for those who can visualize the finished product from the cleaning rag it appears to be now.

Returning to the subject of family traditions, there’s a second installment to this story. Turns out I need to complete another shawl, for another grandchild, before year’s end. While another grandchild is always fantastic news, I must admit that as a knitter I’m a bit overwhelmed. A lace shawl every year or two (or six) isn’t too bad – you’ve got plenty of time to spin, design and knit, and I enjoy the challenge of doing so intermittently. But knitting two shawls in less than a single year is enough to panic even me just a bit!

I’m currently trying to decide whether to start spinning the superfine Jamison & Smith Shetland top I bought (as a possible fiber for a shawl for myself next year) or simply work on the design for the present and leave the spinning until the current shawl is complete. There’s a part of me that is leery of starting another spinning project while I’m still working with this yarn; what if 1200 yards isn’t enough to complete the shawl? I’m doing my usual ‘just in case’ on that possibility – spinning 20-30 yards of the merino/clun forest every couple of days so that I can match the yarn I’ve used to date.

But since designing can be done while knitting (even knitting a different pattern!), I do have a preliminary design in mind for this second shawl. Different parents, different personal histories, so a very different shawl. I’m considering a center star surrounded by Celtic knots flowing into a framed rose pattern for the border. Knit in the round, but with increases placed (after the star is complete) so as to form a square, or perhaps an octagon. I’ll likely continue the rose motif into the edging, unless I find a pattern I like better. Stockinette ground rather than garter. Yes, a very different shawl.

I can hear someone asking if there aren’t enough lovely patterns out there for me to find one that will suit me instead of going through the design process. The short answer is “probably.” The longer explanation is that I want these shawls/baby blankets to be absolutely unique, as is each of these children. These are to be heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation. Each will be accompanied by an explanation of the patterns chosen, and tell the story of how, why and by whom it was made. Luckily, my children grew up with the mindset that certain handmade things are quite special and worthy of protection from the rough and tumble of daily use. So I can count on them to keep these shawls in such a way that they will be available for future generations.

There’s also the fact that I have great difficulty following someone else’s pattern. I want my own individual stamp on anything I make. Otherwise, why spend all that time and energy?

So if you don’t hear much from me for the remainder of this year, now you know why. As happens all too frequently in life, plans for this year have changed drastically– and I’m trying to keep up!