Here’s our first trip to the confessional. Let me spill a dirty little secret that, let’s face it, we’ve ALL done at some point or other as knitters. A step in the process that we tend to gloss over, ignore or downright throw a temper-tantrum over.
What is it, you ask?
GAUGE SWATCHING. That’s right, the dreaded “G” word that we love to hate.
Now, when I started out knitting, I basically ignored gauge swatching entirely… “It wastes yarn.” “It takes time away from REAL knitting.” “I’ll be fine, using the same recommended yarn and needle size.”
Oh, how wrong I was.
My first sweater attempt was a simple men’s sweater: rolled neck, set-in sleeves, and no special stitches — plain old stockinette. I didn’t gauge swatch. I just dove in and knitted. Finished that sweater in relatively little time too, as it was a bulky-weight yarn with size 15 needles. I followed those instructions to the letter.
That horror fitted like a Mary Quant mini-dress when it was finished. Granted, I’m a tall guy, but even at 6’3″ I couldn’t pull off wearing that thing without looking like a homeless drag queen. So why was the sweater big enough for two?
I didn’t bother to check my gauge.
You see, every knitter is unique. Every knitter is special. Your tension might be tight, or loose, compared to mine, or to the designer of the pattern you’re using. You might prefer using wooden needles over metal, or even plastic. You might even regularly “get gauge” every time you knit. Bully for you, but the reality is, you must knit a gauge swatch. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. Not once in a while, not “I feel like swatching.” ALWAYS.
Now, granted, there are times that gauge isn’t of paramount importance… scarves come to mind. Knit it as wide as you like and as long as you like, and it’s a party around your neck. But think of a scarf this way: It’s really just an extended-play gauge swatch. That’s right… that scarf you knit using some gorgeous Noro Silk Garden could function as a gauge swatch, provided you knit it wide enough to get an accurate stitch count, and long enough to get a good row count.
But “WHY” you ask, should I knit a gauge swatch for a simple scarf? That’s an easy one: Swatching allows you to see how your finished fabric will look. You’ll get a feel for the needles and the way they manipulate the fiber. You’ll understand how the fiber reacts to being knitted.
Here’s a little yarn comparison to think about. Let’s compare two yarns from the same company, at the same weight: Cascade 220 (100% Peruvian Highland Wool) and Cascade 220 Superwash (100% Peruvian Highland Wool).
Now, BOTH yarns are the same fiber, yes? Peruvian Highland Wool. Both are Worsted weight. Both have the same “recommended” needle size for gauge. So what’s the diff? Superwash wool has been chemically treated to make it ‘toss in the washing machine’ washable. That simple little step to make the wool machine-washable has changed the fundamental characteristic of the wool. I’ve found that the Cascade 220 Superwash is actually slightly THINNER than the regular Cascade 220; to somwhere along the lines of a LIGHT WORSTED instead of a full worsted. (And don’t get me wrong, I actually really like working with Cascade 220, Superwash or not. It’s a very forgiving fiber.)
Don’t believe me? Go to your LYS, get a hank of Cascade 220 and Cascade 220 Superwash and knit a swatch of each, using the same needles, preferably the same color yarn, and see if YOU can feel the difference as you’re knitting. Consider this a science experiment in your own home. Or as they may say on TV: DO try this at home!
Next time: I’ll explore making a gauge swatch to choose needle size for your project.
Until then, happy knitting!