Gauge Conversion and How One Goes About Creating a Swatch

Knitting a swatch sample to test knitting gauge

I suppose every knitter has a moment in which she becomes committed to the practice of swatching.  Before that, swatching is all shoulds and obligation.  Or, perhaps tiny twinges of guilt for omitting the practice.  After the epiphany, however, swatching becomes not only imperative, but enjoyable.  A few inches of knitting to ensure the success of a project feels like a happy investment.

It will surprise no one to discover that I became a swatching convert after the hat-that-could-cover-the-continent fiasco.  And, truly, as knitting disasters go, it was fairly innocuous.  But, it shook me from my obstinate optimism and made me face knitting reality.  Simply because I like a pattern and I like a yarn, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they play well together.  It was a hard pill to swallow, but I have come to accept that I can't throw any pattern, needle size, and yarn at one another and make them behave as I want by sheer wishing.

Elizabeth Zimmermann’s bind off method on a knitting swatch

OK, ok, so I believe in swatching.  I acknowledge the vital role it plays in the knitting process.  I sedately forgo the thrill of heedlessly jumping in to a new project for the disciplined asceticism of swatching.  Good grief, I was so overcome by the importance of it that I swatched the yarn I used after I had already knit that ridiculous hat.  The depth of my conviction was not the issue. 

No, the trouble arises in the actual making of the swatch. Sure, I comprehend the basics—grab yarn and needles. Knit up a square and measure away.  It all sounds rather pedestrian until one actually puts needles to yarn.  That's where all the nuances and conundrums lie.

What does this little bit of fabric I've created actually tell me? 
What if the measurements I'm getting are a bit off of those called for in the pattern? 
What if my stitches are right but my row count is off? 
What if I like the feel of the fabric with one size of needles, but it creates a gauge that's different from the pattern? 

What, after all, is a neophyte but committed swatcher to do?

Of course, I'm in no position to answer these questions myself.  Not that I think you need much persuasion, but I will share an anecdote to underline the nascent quality of my knitting skills.  You see, I have spent a fair amount of time swatching for this first sweater of mine.  I knit up the first swatch with all the confidence of a hopeful novice.  I measured and found that I had more stitches in the four inches than recommended.  But, I was prepared for such a scenario.  I knew what to do.  Size up and swatch again.  But here is where the kink arises.  Because, when I went to change out the tips on my interchangeable circulars, I discovered that I had knit up my first swatch with two differently sized needles.  It would seem that that sort of thing tends to impact the outcome.

If not answers, then, I can offer resources.  In my quest to become a faithful (and fruitful) swatch knitter, I have found a few wonderful articles that illuminated the path a bit for me.  I offer them in hopes that they may help anyone else who may be meandering this path as well.  But, also, I need to have a place to keep them collected for the next swatch experiment (and the next and the next).

Measuring knitting gauge on a sample swatch  

Swatch Knitting Resources

This article at Brooklyn Tweed is a great overview.  It was what I used after I discovered the kerfuffle with the needle sizes.  Their suggestion to use purl bumps (or yarn overs) to denote needle size is genius.  I have little faith in my ability to remember what tools I used once I've cast off, so I put it into practice right away.

 I also found this article to be very thorough.  It covers the basics of how to create a swatch and also goes on to explain how to make sure your swatch "tells the truth".  It has great information on how stitch pattern, needle type and blocking impacts gauge.  It's a helpful resource to read through.

The instructions are minimal, but I wanted to mention this article as well because I loved Sarah's admonition to view knitting a swatch as "fun with yarn". I wanted to shout and sing when I read that line.  Yes!  If I bring a sense of play and curiosity to the swatching process, it becomes a different thing altogether.

I didn't actually find this article until after I had already cast on for this sweater.  And, even then, it was only after Kim mentioned it to me on Instagram.  I'm grateful that she did, because I can already tell it's going to be indispensable.  Although I didn't have it in time to make decisions about this sweater, it confirmed what I was feeling after working up my swatches.  I'm more interested in creating a fabric that I'm happy with than matching the gauge on the pattern.  This article gives me the tools to do that.  

Knitting a swatch sample to test knitting gauge

Swatching My First Sweater

So, how did this swatching adventure of mine transpire?  Three needle combinations in, I had a good feel for what my yarn was going to do and what type of fabric it was creating.  The trouble was that I really didn't love the fabric that was made when I was coming closest to the suggested gauge.  It was looser than I wanted.  My solution was to go with the needles that made a fabric I liked and roughly adjust in my size decision.  I had been vacillating between casting on for size small or medium, and went with a medium and smaller needles.  Now that I've read the Fringe Association post, I realize that I could have been far more nuanced in my decision making.  But, that's what learning is all about.  So, now I'm into my first ever sweater knit (the Shapely Boyfriend Cardigan) and excited to see how well my swatch told the truth.

Knitting a swatch sample to test knitting gauge