6 Reasons to Swatch that Have Nothing to do with Gauge

Posted by Alison Manning on

Failure to plan is planning to fail – B. Franklin

A large project can easily cost hundreds of dollars and possibly as many hours so you want to make sure that the yarn you’ve chosen will work for the project you’re going to invest so much time in. Most people would agree with this in principle and yet most people skip this step. They say they’d rather just get on with the knitting but here’s the thing – you can learn so much about your yarn choice from a sample bit that it really is worth the effort.

OK. So what can you learn from a swatch?

1. Do you like the feel of the yarn?
Is it as soft as you thought it was? Could you knit an entire project with that yarn? Would you be able to wear it against your skin? Does it hurt your hands to work the yarn? Some fibres, especially plant-based fibres can require a  surprising amount of effort to work the stitches compared to animal fibres and can be very tiring. 
2. Does the colour work with the stitch pattern?

It’s well known that a funky variegated yarn is great fun to knit but if you combine that with a textured pattern, you won’t see the texture – all you’ll see is that funky colour. So have a look at your swatch (which you’re doing in the main texture of the project you’re making) and make sure you can actually see the texture you’re putting so much effort into. 

3. Does the texture of the yarn work with the stitch pattern?
This is closely related to the point above in that fuzzy or textured yarns (boucle, brushed etc.) tend to obscure texture. Will your texture or lace pattern show up well with the yarn you’ve chosen?

4. Do you like the fabric?
You need a reasonably large swatch to get a sense of this, so I like to work a piece at least 6 inches square. What I want to explore here is the drape of the fabric. Is it limp and see through with no shape at all. Or is it worked so tightly that it stands up by itself? Or somewhere in between? None of these situations are necessarily wrong, but are they the drape you want?

5. Will the yarn hold up to wear?
You can't usually get an answer to this right away but with a bit of time you can discover a great deal. Do you have a cluttered purse? If so, drop the swatch in your purse for a week and let it roll around with everything else you’ve got in there. How does it look after all that abrasion? Has it pilled beyond recognition or does it look pristine?

6. Does it launder well?
This is perhaps the best use of a swatch! I often make two squares, specifically for this purpose. One I keep as the original and the other I wash as I intend to wash the finished item. If you intend to put the finished item through the wash with jeans and towels, do that with your swatch. If you intend to carefully launder the finished item by hand, do that. What can you learn here? Well, for starters, if it went through with jeans and towels, is the yarn as superwash as the label says it is?  Did your swatch change size (remember to measure before washing)? It might have felted and shrunk but it might have stretched – a surprisingly common occurrence with superwash yarns. If it was a delicate handwash, did you see any colour bleed? This isn't necessarily the end of the world, and some colours may bleed without staining anything else. But knowledge is power and the more you know about your yarn, the better.

7. Finally, after you’ve washed your swatch it's time to measure it for gauge. By the time you get to here, you know a fair amount about your yarn, you know how it feels to knit and you know if it will work well for your project.

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  • Great article, Alison. You’ve convinced me that swatching is an investment in happy knitting. Too often I focus on gauge and skip the measure and wash step. Imagine my surprise when the superwash baby sweater grew to toddler size!

    Bonnie Simpson on

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