To swatch or not to swatch. Is that really in question? So you can Google swatching, and there will be a million (slight exaggeration) posts on the topic. It seems that everyone has their own idea about swatching, from how to do it to what to do with all your swatch squares when it’s over and everything in between. With so many resources on the topic, I wanted to take a more personal approach and talk about my own experience.
Now for those that are not entirely familiar with the concept of a swatch, it’s essentially a way to test out that the yarn and needle size you are using is going to get you the exact same gauge (tension) as the designer of the pattern you are knitting. Think of it as a little sample of knitting that you will use as the basis for all of your decision making. Will you need to go up or down a needle size? Will you need to use a different type of yarn? Will you take the time to figure out some math and modifications yourself because you are dead set on using the needle and yarn you already have on hand and don’t want to purchase more or go stash busting for other options? Your swatch will hold the answers to the questions you may have regarding the pattern you are about to begin and can save you a lot of time and energy from making a sweater that is meant to fit you but comes out able to house at least 6 adults if they all huddle together.
I can explicitly remember the first time I knitted up a swatch. It was for a knitting class focused on the Campside Pullover by Alicia Plummer, and before class had even begun, our instructor sent us explicit instructions to knit a swatch. In my early stages of being a knitter, I had heard of this term before, but I hadn’t even attempted making a garment back then, so swatching was the furthest thing from my mind. However, if I’m anything, it’s a damn good student, so I grabbed my yarn and my needles and casted on in the back of a car, so I could get an early start on my swatch and be finished before the class started. By the end of all the classes, I had completed my first ever sweater, and it actually fit. Looking back on that experience, it really helped to set me up for success because not only am I now an avid garment knitter, but I swatch like nobody’s business. Swatching has saved me from wasting time and energy on a project and lessened my chances of being disappointed in the end.
The reality of it is that we don’t all knit the same. Some of us are loose knitters, some are tighter, and some are neutral, and knitwear designers provide us with their gauge so we can match their tension as best as possible. If we’re unable to match their tension, then a swatch allows us to make confident decisions regarding how we’re going to tackle the project. There have been moments where I stubbornly don’t want to give up my yarn choice or use a different needle, so I’ll use my swatch gauge to help me figure out some math or the next best size for me to knit so I’ll have a garment that fits. As a newbie designer, I have a vast appreciation for the time and effort that goes into pattern creation and writing, so if a designer tells me this is the gauge I need to get the best outcome so the garment can fit MY body, you can be sure I’m swatching. They have done the work and put the most time into this garment, and they know best, so I’m definitely going to listen to the experts on this one.
As I forage into the world of pattern designing myself, swatching has become an even more important facet of my knitting life. If you’re thinking of joining this journey, I can’t stress how vital a role swatching plays in the process. Yes, my journey starts with inspiration and ideation, choosing stitch patterns and the extra fun of choosing a yarn that will complement said idea, but that’s essentially where my journey would end if I didn’t create a swatch to test everything out.
So let’s fast forward, I’ve got my design idea, and my swatch (I tend to knit a sizeable one) and everything is clicking and working together precisely as I had hoped. Now it’s time to move on to the knitting math to start turning measurements into stitch and row/round counts. Now, I don’t know about you, but I can’t do that without my swatch. So, armed with my handy measuring tape and a ruler (because I’m extra like that), I begin measuring to see how many stitches and rows/rounds I will have within a 4×4″ square. Then I measure repeatedly until I keep getting the same numbers to ensure my swatch isn’t lying to me and note them down. I tend to work with a lot of natural fibres like wool, and if you follow me on IG, you know I’m a huge fan of washing my finished knits, so it’s crucial for me to understand how my yarn is going to react after a soak in the wool bath. Once fully dry, I’m back at it again with my trusty measuring tools, and I measure again and again (you get the point), so I can see if there is a change in gauge once my yarn interacts with water. These final numbers will lay the foundation for my pattern building and are the ones I will refer to time and time again.
As I’ve said before on this blog, I am a huge fan of transparency, so I will state that I don’t always knit a swatch, but it is highly conditional. If it’s shawls or scarves, sometimes even hats, I’ll admit I don’t always swatch before getting started because the fit isn’t as important to me. However, if it’s a garment, you can be damn sure that I am swatching before I jump into it because garments are incredibly time-consuming and yarn consuming, and I want to be able to make the best decisions I can from the start.
After reading this, I hope you can find a newfound or continued appreciation for the process of swatches and their essential role in our craft. Swatching is definitely worth the time and effort and can set you up for significant success in your knitting, especially if you want to design your own garments. So if you’re ever in doubt, don’t even hesitate; please take my advice and swatch it out.