Lessons in Gauge

I hope everyone has had a lovely Christmas and time off. The season is probably feeling like a faint memory right now, seeing as it’s just turned February. Although we did get hail last night where I am…the whole street was covered in it.

I had the pleasure of teaching at Baa Ram Ewe last weekend – a brand new workshop I’ve recently developed all about sweaters and sweater fitting. (I always love new workshops – they’re all bright and shiny.) I had a great crew (totally forgot to take any pics – sorry) – and we had a day of fun, measurements, maths and…swatching.

Swatching, you say?

If there were one thing I’d like to impress on knitters everywhere it’s that, if you’re going to take the time and buy all the wool to make a jumper – which I definitely think you should do as there’s nothing like it – then, please knit a swatch…and then listen to what it’s telling you!

I don’t know about you, but I always have to learn the hard way. (Which I think actually makes me a better teacher – I really have been there, done that.)

Some lessons are harder to learn than others though…and this is how I became absolutely convinced about the magical properties of swatching.

The story begins with a jumper. It is a cold winter’s day, several years ago, before I had done colour-work or steeking, or really made very many sweaters at all. However, still being me, I liked a challenge and felt, well, that I could do whatever the pattern was asking me to. If I didn’t know, I would figure it out.

So, I picked this beautiful cardigan by Ruth Sorenson to knit as a Christmas present.

I knitted and knitted. And knitted. (4ply jumpers are nothing to sniff at.) And knitted some more. I knitted the corrugated ribbed peplum at the bottom; I knitted the steek stitches; I cast off the steek sts and cast on some more; I made some errors on the chart and some of my fair isle strands were perhaps not as strandy as they could have been, but I knitted on, determined to finish.

And I did. I steeked the jumper without mishap (surprisingly!) and added my i-cord edgings. There was a certain pleasure in grafting the last bit of i-cord edging to the very first bit cast on – a certain circular completeness to coming full circle to the beginning. And so neat – look, no seams!

All serene – I washed and blocked it, sewed on the buttons and posted it off to my mum. All seemed fine – no surprises, she loved it. Then, I visited and true confessions came out – She loved the jumper. There was no question. And it fit…

…like a glove. She could put it on, and then she couldn’t move. It was an exquisite straight-jacket!

I promised (almost straight away – I did have a moment’s pause) to knit her a replacement. In her size.

So, I took measurements and went home and look at the pattern. To all rights, the jumper I had knit should have fit her. What could have gone wrong? I checked that I’d used the actual jumper measurements, not the ‘To Fit’ sizing information, to pick a size. No error there. And then the light dawned…

I knit this jumper a long time ago. Before I really understood about swatching. And, while some people seem to get gauge every time with the recommended needles (you know who you are), I almost never do. And it’s worse with colourwork.

I had knitted the first jumper on the recommended needle size – 3.5mm needles. I swatched again with these needles – too many stitches by a long shot. So, I went up another size (3.75mm) – still too many stitches. And then swatched again, with 4mm needles this time – and bingo. I still think 4mm needles are too big for 4ply, but swatches don’t lie!

I have knit the jumper again – it is much nicer the second time (I have learned some things) – and posted it off and it fits perfectly, less like a glove and more like a jumper.

And, as a bonus, the original jumper has been gifted off to a friend who it fits perfectly. And all’s well that ends well.

Screenshot 2014-02-02 20.10.06

The moral of the story is – always swatch for large projects. If you can’t possibly swatch because you can’t resist your wool and must start right away – try starting with a sleeve. They’re like a swatch.

Repeat after me.

I. Will. Always. Knit. A. Swatch.

A few top tips for swatching:
  • Make your swatch big – about 6 inches square – so you can measure your stitches and rows properly. Your measurement will be more accurate over more stitches – so measure across the whole swatch (keeping away from your edges as they can distort), and then figure your measurement per 1cm x 10 to give you your sts per 10cm.
  • Wash your swatch how you will wash the finished product – this is your one and only chance to see how it will behave and if you like the fabric.
  • If you are getting too many stitches to 10 cm – you need to make your stitches bigger, so go UP a needle size.
  • If you are getting too few stitches to 10cm – you need to make your stitches smaller, so go DOWN a needle size.

And here is a very good blog post just about swatches…and more reasons why you want to swatch.

I’m by no means the first person to talk about swatches or sweater fitting, and I’ve had lots of help getting to where I am now. I would fully recommend this book and this book if you want to know more.

Here are some bonus shots of the steeking process as well, in case you find that interesting too. The picture of tiny balls of wool at the bottom left shows all the wool that was left at the end. I feel I got the most out of my wool – no leftovers!

Autumn Leaves1

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2 thoughts on “Lessons in Gauge

  1. I couldn’t believe my talented daughter would actually knit this sweater, I mean jumper, again. I don’t think I would have. She is patient, generous and determined, and she really loves me. My new sweater is fabulous. It fits perfectly and comfortably. I adore it, and get compliments whenever I wear it. It is beautiful and toasty warm…with warmth and love. My friend loves her version, too.

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