Beginning knitters are always tempted to skip swatch-making figuring that it wastes time and yarn. Believe me, you will really waste your time if you neglect to make a swatch and halfway through a sweater, for instance, you realize that your sweater is likely to fit Tom Thumb or, contrarily, that it should be sent to the elephant house at the zoo. If you want what you are knitting to fit you, or the person it is intended for, MAKE A SWATCH.
For the swatch to serve its purpose and allow you to predict accurately what size your garment will be, you need to make a swatch that is at least 4 inches square. Many knitters prefer a 6 inch swatch. Determine how many stitches to cast on by multiplying the number of stitches per inch indicated in the pattern instructions by 4 or more. Please note: In older patterns the instructions usually tell you how many stitches and rows per inch. Most modern patterns tell you the number of stitches and rows per 4 inches or 10 centimeters. If you are given the number of stitches per 4 inches, just cast on a few extra stitches so that you have a 4 inch area to measure on your swatch.
If you are designing your own pattern or if you are trying out a different yarn than your instructions call for, cast on using the number of stitches per inch indicated on the yarn band, again aiming for a swatch that is more than 4 inches. Use the size needles indicated on the pattern band unless you know that you knit very loosely -- in which case you will use smaller needles -- or very tightly -- in which case you will use larger needles. Knit until you have a square. Bind off.
For many yarns, you only need to steam block the swatch and then carefully, without stretching or compressing it, measure the stitches and rows per inch. However, for some yarns it pays to wash the swatch and let it dry flat. Wool yarns, especially those that have not been highly processed often change gauge and drape dramatically when they are washed. Ditto for some cotton yarns. These lightly processed yarns will bloom when washed, softening and spreading and thickening the stitches. Because you are only washing and drying a four to six inch swatch, this pre-laundering really does not take much time and will save you from proceeding with an inappropriate gauge or stitch.
Remember that the success of any piece of clothing is very dependent on the drape of the textile. That is why you need to be careful when substituting a new yarn for the one indicated in the pattern instructions. Examples of the importance of drape are:
One final word on swatches: Even if you are substituting yarns that indicate the same gauge on the band as the ones in the pattern you are using, they may result in different fabric when knitted. Just because a sweater looks great in Yarn A, which knits up at 5 stitches to the inch, does not mean it will look great in Yarn B that also knits up at 5 stitches per inch. This is because the fiber content and the way the yarn is spun have a direct impact on the density, drape, and stitch appearance of the knitted fabric. Therefore, ALWAYS KNIT A SWATCH.
For some nifty ideas on what you can do with your swatches see next week's
KnittingGuru Tip: Things You Can Make with Knitted Swatches. Please check back every
week for more helpful Knitting Tips from the Guru.