KW Swatch Experiment

To Swatch, or Not to Swatch…

Yesterday, we posed a little question to the Twitter-verse:

A number of really great conversations started popping up between designers: 

It was an amazing and informative conversation. Designers talking about all the various ways they try to convince people to swatch, and all the different ways the think about how they word their patterns. Kate and I spent the day pouring over the comments and discussing the issue ourselves and realizing that the issue was that the people who identify as lifestyle knitters generally do swatch, or at least make an effort.

But, the people we really wanted to reach were the casual knitters. The people who know how to knit, (some of whom have been knitting for many, many years) but aren’t reading knitting blogs, and aren’t reading about knitting theory, and aren’t watching tutorials or going on knitting retreats. We needed to reach knitters that just wanted to walk into a shop, pick out a sweater, buy the yarn and needles the pattern specifies, and go home and knit the darn thing. 

And then Webs re-tweeted us and the knitter opinions poured in!

This got us to thinking. What if we did an experiment? We could write up a quick “pattern” for a 4″ square stockinette stitch swatch, with a nice little garter border. Tell people what needle size to use, of course, but not tell them the gauge. We could send a skein of each of our yarns out to volunteer knitters to knit the swatches and mail them back to us. (They would keep the rest of the skein, of course). If we had three or four different swatches from three or four different knitters, all using the needle size we recommended, how different would the swatches be? 

 Let’s do an experiment! If you want to participate, here’s what to do:

1. Send us an email (info AT kelbournewoolens DOT com) with your name and address.

2. We will send you a pattern and one skein of yarn.

3. Knit the swatch and mail it back to us within one week of receiving the yarn. The remaining yarn is yours to keep. 

4. Once we receive your swatch, you’ll receive a special gift from us for all your help!

5. We will distill all of the data, and compile an amazing blog post featuring your swatches!

We ask that you be realistic about your time and ability to mail the swatches back in a timely fashion. We recognize it is work we’re asking you to do, and we know that no one likes to swatch. 

Do you swatch? Do you block your swatches? Tell us about your experience with swatching (or not swatching!) in the comments, or join us on Twitter!

(Edited: 8.30: Thanks SO much for the overwhelming response of those interested in participating! We have filled all of the necessary spots for the number of swatches we are looking for. Stay tuned for the breakdown of our results!

23 thoughts on “To Swatch, or Not to Swatch…

  1. Danielle Baines says:

    I almost never get gauge with the suggested needles but I still don’t swatch every time. If it’s something that has to actually go on a body (sweater, sock, hat) then I swatch because that’s the only way to figure out which size to follow to get a garment that fits. However, I only swatch for a shawl/scarf/wrap if I only have the yardage listed in the pattern. If I have "just enough" I’ll swatch to get gauge so I don’t lose at yarn chicken. If I have lots of yarn then I just start knitting. After a few inches I stop and check out the fabric I’m making. If I like the fabric, then I keep going. If I don’t like the fabric, then I rip back and try again with a different needle.

    1. Okay, "yarn chicken" is the funniest thing I’ve read all day! I always tell people that with shawls and scarves, especially if you’re not using the recommended yarn, it’s more important to find a fabric you like the look and feel of, as long as you’re okay with the finished size being different (either larger or smaller). That said, this is how I ended up with a Swedish Box Lace Shawl the size of a full sized bedspread! I still wear it all the time though!

  2. Christina says:

    I never, ever used to swatch. And then I read Amy Herzog’s and Ysolda’s books and realized how important it is to swatch to obtain a good fabric for your yarn and your pattern.

  3. Kirsten says:

    If you get enough volunteer knitters, I’d love to see a subgroup of designers to show how gauge varies from designer to designer just as it does in the general knitting public. In classes I often hear knitters say things like "I am a loose knitter so I always go down two needle sizes". But if the designer is also a loose knitter this can lead to problems. Either way, I’d be happy to help. I’ll send an email.

    1. Yes! This is so true. I think a lot of knitters don’t realize there is no "standard" for needle recommendations. It’s all based on what the individual knitter making the design used, which can be misleading.

  4. Sue Kristiansen says:

    I have sent my email, I’m excited to help, and to try your yarn. I am a fairly new knitter, and didn’t understand the value of swatching at first. Laura Nelkin and Patty Lyons really helped me see the range of needles people use to get the same size item, and how much our individual tension varies. Since most of my knitting right now is garments, I would much rather swatch and find the right size before knitting an entire garment that doesn’t fit. I also like the idea of getting to know the yarn, and understanding how it changes with blocking. I do like the idea of a suggested needle range, as a starting point. Thanks for this fun idea!

    1. You are my dream knitter! Keep up the good work!

  5. We loved seeing the conversation unfold on Twitter! Can’t wait to see what results you come up with so we can share those too.

  6. D Louise says:

    For a garment I always swath, almost always block swatch. For a hat o other accessory I only swatch when it’s a complex pattern or a totally unfamiliar kind of yarn. I am always prepared to rip back a few try again . Accessory swarches I never block.

  7. Lynn Osborn says:

    I’m in. I am a very bad person and never swatch. I am always just too anxious to start the new project, and the big dilemma is what to do if the swatch turns out to be the wrong size? Alter the pattern – no way, keep experimenting – no way – I would rather be wrong. So stupid of me I realize. But I will try and change.

    1. Kate will be thrilled! Thanks, Lynn!

  8. Kevin Griffin says:

    I saw this and thought about it before responding….my concern is with newer knitters who may not have every needle size times 2 maybe 3 like I do and …..not knowing where to start with a needle as suggested on the pattern, may not be comfortable enough and or have the money to buy a size 2…go home swatch and discover they need a larger needle, go back to storebuy a size 3 only to discove they need an even larger needle….giving a needle size gives a jumping off point! I just sent an email, hope you are still loking for swatch knitters, have been knitting about 20 yrs….not working now so can do things like this.

    1. The LYS I used to work at always swatched every new yarn, so we always had an open skein of everything, as well as a needle library. People could swatch in-house before they committed to the yarn. Sometimes people would find that the yarn they had chosen wasn’t quite right for the pattern as well and would have the opportunity to try another yarn until they found just the right thing!

  9. Mariela says:

    Whether or not I swatch totally depends on my mood and falls all across the spectrum. But I do often swatch and block my swatch and measure the swatch at all different points and types of blocking/washing. And yet still there have been several times I’ve been frustrated that my finished gauge was different from my swatch anyway. My swatches have gotten bigger to account for this but now I feel like they have to be huge to have any chance of being similar to my gauge on an actual sweater. Also, I’m not the pickiest when it comes to fit so sometimes I just fudge it and know that I’ll wear most things even if they’re not perfect.

  10. Anne says:

    I do swatch, and am especially careful when I’m knitting sweaters because fit is important and I learned the hard way many years ago that only swatching and use of schematics and a little math will result in good results. I would hesitate to remove the needle suggestion entirely, and agree with those who have recommended a suggestion of range as a starting point with a note about the need to confirm with a swatch.

  11. Linda says:

    I just sent an email and look forward to your experiment results! I swatch and block for garments but usually not other projects. As an intermediate knitter, I’m working on my first improvised sweater recipe posted by Karen Templer and learning sweater math. Learning to love swatching as it’s a sandbox for experimenting and practicing buttonholes, bind offs, etc too.

  12. Cherith says:

    I also just sent an email in case you are including Canadians in that test……. Sometimes I swatch, sometimes I don’t (50%) and it depends if I know the yarn or the pattern (if its a garment) or the pattern designer. I like a suggested needle size as sometimes I will just start knitting and then change the needle size based on how I think the yarn is knitting up?? Its like a different kind of swatching I guess based on years of experience and if it looks right I will continue on. I have been knitting off and on for over 30 years with, knock on wood, no size failures to speak of! I read knitting blogs and tutorials veraciously and I am a serial knitter mostly knitting sweaters, hats, scarves, colorwork, size 4mm needles and up. I am very curious in these test results……so many factors.

  13. Kate says:

    I’ve just sent the email, too. Very excited about this!

    I’ve always swatched, but as a beginner knitter pre-Ravelry, I didn’t quite understand how it worked. If the pattern said x stitches is 4 inches, I’d cast on x stitches, measure the swatch unblocked still on the needles, then pull it out to re-use the yarn. This is probably why my first sweater turned out so small that I gave it to my best friend, who luckily is several sizes smaller than me. Determined not to repeat my mistake, my next sweater was three or four sizes too big.

    Now I only swatch for sweaters/skirts/etc. For shawls and scarves, I don’t bother. For hats and socks, I’ve knit enough to have an idea of how many stitches in appropriate, and I’ll try them on after finishing the ribbing (hats) or toes (socks – I’ll modify patterns to be toe-up so I use up all my yarn), and adjust accordingly.

  14. Jess G says:

    I first learned to knit through scarves and small accessories, as many do, so swatching was never really part of my process. Once I moved on to sweaters, I realized the importance of the swatch. I don’t love the process or the "wasting" of that small amount of yarn, but I always do it nonetheless. I now have a small pile of swatches displayed proudly on the shelf next to my yarn stash. I rarely use the same yarn twice, so I rarely refer to them, but I like knowing they’re there. I’d be honored to add your test swatch to the pile. (: Email is on the way!

    (On a side note, the autocorrect function on my iPhone keeps changing the word ‘swatch’ to the word ‘search’… fitting, no?)

  15. Jessica F says:

    It depends on the item, garments I usually swatch and block, if it’s a sweater in the round I swatch in the round, soak and block. I’ve honestly been terrified of sweaters (pullovers and the like) for the longest time because they need that special attention to a gauge swatch but I finally bit the bullet and learned a lot from my first pullover. Cardigans ironically don’t scare me despite them being pretty much the same thing – weird I know.

    Right now I’m really enjoying following Karen Templer’s Top-Down KAL. I’ve started and restarted a pullover for my youngest and for once I’m paying more attention to what the yarn likes versus what I’d like the yarn to be. I have a cotton mix and despite knowing it has no memory and that cotton wants to be drapey I never fully appreciated what that meant. Overall, it’s an eye opener to read that she rarely uses the needles suggested or the yarn the pattern calls for. A part of me just sighed at reading that because think of all the freedom that gives you! It might mean a few more swatching hours but would be so worth it to know you made exactly what you wanted. For me this makes sense but for a new knitter who just wants to make it already I completely understand how swatching just seems to get in the way, I too hate "wasting" the yarn :).

  16. Diane P says:

    I have started swatching more consistently for sweaters, and I will block them, too. My actual knitted garment gauge is sometimes off from my swatch gauge, but it gives me a pretty good idea of where I’m going to end up. I sent my name and address in as well.

  17. Thank you all for your overwhelming response to our swatching experiment! We have enough (more than enough!) knitters, and thank you to everyone who has volunteered. Stay tuned for the results!

  18. Tom says:

    Having taken a beginner knitting class in December 2015 (yea, I’m a newbie), at my LYS (Hillsboroug Yarn Shop, Hillsborough, NC), the owner has swatches in different size needles. I took a lesson from that and swatch in recommended needle size, one lower, and one higher and use the one that comes closest to the suggested pattern gauge.

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